I'm not thrilled with the direction of the Laura/Steele relationship in later seasons, so this is totally AU. It's set shortly after the "Stronger Than Steele" episode in season 3. I've read barely any RS fanfic, so any similarity between this story and others is purely coincidental. I don't own any of it and I'm not making money off of it.
Thank God for Saturdays, Mildred thought as she glanced at her kitchen clock and poured herself a second cup of coffee. No phones to answer, no errands to run, no filing to do…It was her weekly ritual, pretending she hated the bustle of the office and longed for her solitary weekend mornings. But she was never too disappointed to get a call from Steele or Laura asking her off-hours help with a case, for which they always rewarded her with generous overtime pay. For the moment, though, she had a newspaper to read and a house to clean. She had just turned to the business section when the doorbell rang.
"Morning, Mildred," said the postman as she answered the door.
"Hi there, Frank. Making the rounds early today?"
"Just for you," he said with a smile. "I wanted to clear some space in my truck." He gestured to the large box sitting on a dolley by his side.
"What in the world is this?"
"I don't know, but it's got your name on it. Where do you want me to put it?"
Busy examining the address label, Mildred didn't answer him. Finally she straightened up and indicated the foyer. "Right here is fine." She stood shaking her head as Frank offloaded the box. "I know I went a little nuts when that new Avon catalog came in, but this…"
"Here you go," Frank said, handing her a pen and a delivery receipt.
Mildred frowned. "Why do I have to sign for something I didn't order?"
"'Fraid that's above my pay grade," Frank said, giving her a slightly exasperated look.
"Sorry. Didn't mean to hold you up." She signed the paper and returned it and the pen to Frank. "Thanks."
"Sure thing. You have a good weekend."
She watched him walk back to his truck, dolley in tow, and looked at the box again. Only one way to find out, she thought, going to look for a knife. She was about to cut the tape across the top when a thought occurred to her. What if – she laid the knife on the floor and bent to put her ear directly over the box, listening for several seconds until she was sure nothing was ticking inside. Then she picked up the knife and carefully slit the tape. Pulling back the box flaps, she saw a typed note resting on top of something covered in brown wrapping paper. Mildred, it read, call me the minute you get this. Thanks – RS.
What's he gotten us into now? she thought as she reached for the phone and dialed his number.
"Morning, boss. I'm sorry to bother you on a Saturday, but – "
"Not at all," he interrupted. "Did the box come?"
"Uh, yeah, it did," she replied, glancing down at it. "Just now."
"Genius! I'll be over in a few, all right?"
"Aren't you going to tell me what's going on?"
"Yes, yes, I'll explain it all when I get there. See you – "
"Can you at least tell me if it's legal?" she interrupted.
"Perfectly so, Mildred, no worries. I'll see you soon."
"See you – " she started to say. But he had already hung up.
A half hour later, Mildred watched over Steele's shoulder as he tore away the wrapping paper in the box and pulled out one of the items underneath.
"Atomic Man?" she asked, looking from the videotape back to him. He nodded, a grin spreading over his face. "I thought you hated that show."
"You thought correctly," he said as he laid the video aside and began looking through the others still in the box.
"Then why did you – " But the look on his face as he glanced up at her was enough to answer the question. "Well, I'll be damned," she said, laughing. "You do have a soft side."
"That's one trade secret I'll thank you to guard with your life," he muttered as he continued his inventory. A few minutes later, he surveyed the three stacks of videotapes arranged neatly on the floor around him. "Good. They're all here."
"You mean you bought her the entire series?"
"All three seasons," he said with a satisfied nod.
"Aw, she's gonna love it, boss. When are you going to – "
"His ring, the one that flashes…where is it? It was supposed to be in here – " and he was rummaging through the box again, tossing extra paper aside. "Aha! Gotcha."
"You got his actual prop ring? Those convention geeks would kill for that. How'd you do it?"
"I asked Maxwell to check round at the studio to see if they had any of these tapes they'd be willing to sell. He offered me his personal collection for free, with his ring thrown in, as a token of appreciation for Miss Holt. I had a time of it getting him to take a fair price."
"Nice going, boss. But why not just let me in on it? And why not have the box sent to your place?"
"Well, let's see…a suspicious box in my apartment in tandem with my refusal to answer questions about such a box or to let her look inside it – yes, that sounds like the perfect way to build trust in our budding relationship, doesn't it?"
Mildred laughed. "I see your point."
"And as for you – I myself can barely hold up under Miss Holt's questioning, so I have no faith in your ability to withstand it."
"Hey – "
"I had to give you as little lead time as possible. If I could've managed it, I wouldn't have told you at all."
"Well, she couldn't question what you didn't know about, could she?"
"No, I guess not."
"So be a love, will you, and keep this stuff here – and my confidence along with it – until I come back for it?"
"You got it, boss."
"You're a doll, Mildred," he said, leaning over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek. "See you Monday."
Watching him go, Mildred wondered yet again how Laura had managed to resist him for so long. Good thing I don't have kids, she thought. He could probably talk me into selling him my firstborn.
"It's only a few hours, Laura. Once a year, at that."
"No." I'm so damn tired of saying that word, Laura thought. Keeping her eyes on the file she was reviewing, she heard him cross the room and stand behind her chair. Here it comes, she thought as his fingers brushed the hair away from her neck. A moment later the familiar weakness flooded her at the feeling of his lips on her skin. "It's your birthday," he said. "Come with me. Just this once."
She tilted her head back, allowing herself a moment to enjoy him, and sighed. "I always work a full day on my birthday, Mr. Steele – a fact long in evidence."
"Until this judge gets a good reason for that fact, he refuses to take notice," he said, trailing kisses along her jawline.
"Ah, but I appeal to a higher court," she said with a smile just before his mouth found hers. But instead of kissing her, he pulled back to look at her, frowning.
"Of course. Justice Holt's opinion reigns supreme, as it were – and as it ever shall be."
His sarcasm stung, but she willed herself not to respond in kind. She'd hoped they could at least get through her birthday without a fight.
"It's not always a matter of me being stubborn, you know." His look said clearly that he didn't believe her. "I just…don't like to make a big deal about my birthday."
"I just don't." She turned back to her file, expecting him to argue with her some more. But he didn't. As the silence lengthened, she glanced up to see the expression that always disarmed her – an open, sympathetic, almost loving look that made her believe she could trust him with everything. It was the single most powerful weapon in his arsenal, but she would never tell him that.
"It's…" she drew a deep breath, her fingers curling the edges of the folder in her hands. "Birthdays were a big deal when I was growing up. Now they're not."
He was quiet for a moment before he spoke. "Since the age of about…sixteen, I'd guess?" She nodded, thankful she didn't have to explain.
He reached over and took her hand in his. "Dinner, then?"
"Dinner sounds great."
"I'll pick you up at six?"
"No. I, uh…" she looked around the office. "I've still got a lot to do here. I'll meet you there at seven."
"Seven it is," he said, brushing a kiss across her fingers and turning to leave.
By 5:00, there was nothing left to hold Laura at the office. If she headed home now, she'd have time to make the original dinner appointment, but that would leave her with too much birthday to get through. She shuffled through Mildred's work area, looking for some unfinished filing. But Mildred being Mildred, there wasn't any. Maybe I can clean something? she thought. Inventory the supplies? Mildred usually took care of those things too, but Laura was becoming increasingly desperate to run out the clock.
She was in the middle of organizing her desk drawers – it was only a ten-minute job, but it was better than nothing – when she heard the voice from the outer office.
"Hello? Is anyone here?"
She shut her drawers and stepped out to greet the visitor, wishing she'd remembered to lock the office doors. "I'm sorry, we closed at five. Were you looking for Mr. Steele?"
The man turned at the sound of her voice, casting his eyes over her in a quick appraising glance. "No. For you, actually." He was older – in his mid-fifties, Laura judged – and well-dressed, from his mirror-shined wingtip shoes to the black fedora on his head.
There was only one man in the world who could wear a fedora the way this one did – cocked just enough to the side to set off the large, warm brown eyes that were so much like her own, making him look both distinguished and approachable. Without thinking, she began reaching out to touch the fedora's brim as she'd done so many times in her childhood, then thought better of it and pulled her hand back. It should have been easy to name him, but she couldn't make herself say the word.
Seeing the dawning recognition on her face, he offered her the bouquet of flowers in his hand. "Happy birthday."
Gerbera daisies. Her favorite. In a great clash of color, the way she always preferred them, red with fuschia and orange with yellow. So he remembered.
She shook her head as the flowers slowly blurred out of her vision. Blinking away the tears, she set the bouquet on Mildred's desk and raised her head to look at him. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to…see how you were."
He sighed. "I've missed you."
She leaned against Mildred's desk, arms folded. "I take it that's a recent development."
"Does Mother know you're in town?"
"No. I didn't think I should tell her."
"You're quite right. Too bad you didn't extend the same courtesy to me."
He bowed his head, and she almost regretted her sharp words. "I was hoping – "
"For what, exactly?" she interrupted. He started to speak and then stopped, spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"Still not sure? That's funny – God knows you've had time to think about it." She looked him over to measure the effect of her words, considering whether to give in to a ruthless desire to press her advantage. "Then again," she continued, "if it took you twenty years to decide you didn't want us, I can see where thirteen might seem like a rush to judgment."
"Laura, please." Along with the plea, his voice carried a surprising note of the authority she remembered from long ago, when she used to smart off to her mother. She was silent as he continued.
"I thought it might be nice to talk, that's all. I'd like to take you out to dinner, if you're free."
"I see." He pulled out a business card and pen from his coat pocket and began writing on the back of the card. Then he handed it to her. "That's the phone number of the hotel where I'm staying."
"Just visiting, huh?"
"I'm here for a week on business."
"In that case, I'm glad I was so conveniently located. Wouldn't want to cause you any trouble, now would I?"
"Laura – "
"Thanks for the flowers." She walked over to the glass doors and held one open for him.
He followed her to the doorway, stopping to meet her gaze. "I hope I'll hear from you."
"I know the feeling." He flinched, and she triumphed at another direct hit.
"Good night, Laura."
She nodded, not trusting herself to reply, and locked the doors behind him. She made sure he was out of sight before she leaned against them, closing her eyes and forcing herself to calm her breathing. Then she looked at the crumpled card in her hand. Charles F. Holt, it said, President, Holt & Lockhart Development Co., New York, NY. Wasn't enough just to leave the state, she mused. He had to escape clear to the other side of the country. Probably wanted to make damn sure there was no chance of running into us. She walked over to Mildred's desk and picked up the flowers, running her fingers lightly over the petals. Then she held the bouquet over the trash can, hesitating for only a moment before she dropped it in.
Back to work, she thought. Where was I? She went back into her office and tried to finish the desk, but she found it impossible to concentrate. She could usually organize chaos the way she solved a math problem – visualizing all the steps in advance, rejecting the ones that wouldn't work, and ordering her actions accordingly. But now, no matter how she shifted the pens and paper clips and Post-Its around, she couldn't make sense of any of it. Frustrated, she swept the items out of the drawer and slammed it shut. Deciding she'd deal with the mess the next day, she grabbed her purse and closed the door. The clock behind Mildred's desk told her she was already running late, and she was on the point of locking up the office when she caught sight of one of the daisies in the trash can. She went to retrieve the bouquet, staring at the colors as a memory came back to her.
She was fifteen and had just won first place in a county math competition, defeating several older boys. It was a particularly personal triumph for her because it brought sweet revenge on the doubters – including her mother – who said a girl couldn't beat the boys in math. He was there, slipping in toward the end after arriving late from a business trip, daisies in hand. He'd hugged her and told her how proud he was of her. "Laura," he'd said, "you can be anything you want. You can choose your path, provided you're willing to work for it." Then he took her out for a special dinner, just the two of them. It was the last time he'd given her flowers – until tonight.
It'd be a shame to let them go to waste, she thought. We could use a little more color out here. So she found a vase in the supply room, set the daisies in water, and placed them on Mildred's desk. Then she left, checking to make sure her father's card was tucked safely in her purse.
More to come – please let me know what you think!