"The cities grow, the rivers flow
Where you are, I'll never know
But I'm still here.
If you were right and I was wrong
Why are you the one who's gone,
And I'm still here
I'm still here"
~ I'm Still Here, by Vertical Horizon
I'm Steele Here
The same question continued to echo through Laura Holt's mind like a broken surveillance tape. Why would he leave? Yes, their disagreement had been more intense than usual. Yes, she'd said many things, awful things. Things she regretted to the bottom of her soul. But he'd never fled, never abandoned her. Until now.
With leaden feet and a stone-heavy heart, she closed the door on the apartment and walked to the elevator. While she waited for its arrival, images of the day she'd first rented the flat flashed in her mind.
"Grand, but not ostentatious," the rental agent said. "Clean lines and gorgeous views. A cozy heart with world-class charm." She knew nothing could possibly be that good.
How wrong she'd been. Laura tumbled head over toes for the place the first time she laid eyes on it. Paid the security deposit and three months rent in advance on the spot, despite the newly-formed agency's meager budget. It was the perfect cover for their illustrious figurehead—the then-fictional Remington Steele—and a gilded façade for the ultimate ruse of her life.
Yes, Laura fell in love that day, in more ways than one.
Months later, when the mysterious man who would become Mr. Steele first appeared in her life—moving into the Rossmore address, and into her life—a tiny, secret part of her was thrilled. Thrilled to be wanted again, to be the object of such a powerful male's attentions and affections.
Unfortunately, the small flutter of connection was also the piece of herself she guarded against with unbridled ferocity. Her independence and respect were hard fought, hard won. She'd be damned if anyone or anything pilfered her achievements. Still, late at night, in the quiet darkness of semi-slumber, it was the memory of Mr. Steele's heated aqua-blue gaze that set her heart a-thumping; the quirk of his lips and the brush of his hand that brought her to life and satisfied her bone-deep yearning.
No, dammit! Laura climbed aboard the elevator and jammed the button several times. The doors slid closed and she slumped against the wall. Men made women messy. She'd vowed never to follow her mother's fall down love's slippery slope, into the oblivion of desperation. She sure as hell wasn't going to start now.
Only the day before, Laura had given a polite but firm refusal to William Westfield's offer of a passionate getaway. At last, her heart was strong, her resolve solid. Time to make or break with her Mr. Steele.
She'd arrived at her warehouse loft to shower and change and grab her mail before heading to the Rossmore flat. Spied the non-descript plain envelope tucked amongst her bills. At the sight of Remington's elegant penmanship gracing the exterior, her heart tripped like a drunken sailor. When the agency's license spilled out with no accompanying note, time stopped all together. Something was wrong, very wrong.
Screw the shower. Laura grabbed her keys and hightailed the Rabbit straight to Remington's place, only to find it deserted.
Gone. He was gone. She'd returned now to verify and found the place still as empty as the night before, still just as sad.
"Miss Holt?" Fred's quiet, discreet tone interrupted her despondent reverie. She blinked up at him then flashed a paltry smile. Dove through the open car door he held before the dam busted and she blubbered like a fool.
Once ensconced in the shadowed interior of the limo, she told Fred to take her to the agency then dialed the car phone. She needed to see Dr. Griswold about the situation.
When the receptionist answered, Laura scheduled a therapy appointment for later in the afternoon. Molly, a former client turned friend, also happened to be one of the best psychologists in Los Angeles.
If the raging headache throbbing in her temples was any indication, Laura was going to require all the assistance she could get wading through the abominable mess of a warzone her staid, orderly life had become.
At four-thirty sharp, Laura arrived at Dr. Griswold's office.
She'd invented some plausible excuse about a toothache and tossed a quick goodbye to Mildred before ducking out. After spending an exhausting day avoiding her inquisitive assistant's questions regarding Mr. Steele's whereabouts, her frazzled nerves were shot. She needed this appointment.
No one knew she'd been seeing Molly for anything other than the occasional girl's night out for the last six months. Laura planned to continue the deception.
With a black fedora pulled low over her tawny hair and whiskey eyes and a bland gray trench coat covering her petite frame from neck to shin, she was unrecognizable.
The receptionist announced her over the speakerphone then waved her through to the inner sanctum.
Molly waited on the other side of the door with a hug and a smile.
Laura removed her hat and coat before flopping down on the overstuffed sofa along one wall. She raked a hand through her ruffled curls and toed off her pumps. "Well, Molly, he's done it. Mr. Steele's finally done it."
The therapist perched at the edge of the desk and leaned forward, her green eyes bright and shining with anticipatory glee. "Done what? Popped the proverbial question?"
"Left." Laura glanced away and crossed her arms. Why did the word hurt so much? She snorted and looked down. Fought the rising tide of sorrow bashing against her heart. Her hands dropped to her lap and she fiddled with a non-existent raveling on her immaculate lilac skirt. "I always knew he would. One day. Same as all the others."
"You're sure he's gone, Laura? Maybe he got called away on a case and didn't have a chance to check in yet?" Molly moved into the seat beside her and patted Laura on the knee. "It happens sometimes, right? Especially in your line of work."
Yes, my line of work. Laura blinked back unwelcome tears. The agency had always been her safe place, her haven. Now the only thing she could think about when she entered the Century City suite was Remington, with his graceful movements and sharp wit; his ability to make her heart race and her anger soar, all with the same waggle of his cultured brow.
She slumped into the cushions, letting her head fall back and turned toward Molly. Her friend's shoulder-length auburn hair was secured off her model-perfect face in a chic, sloppy chignon. Several strands escaped to curl around the collar of her white doctor's lab coat. Laura had always envied Molly's ability to let loose. She herself had never been able to subdue her own personal control demons long enough to try. At least not while sober.
Was her tight-reigned heart the reason for Remington's disappearance? She rubbed her tired eyes and reached for her purse. Answers weren't forthcoming on the subject. No sense rehashing the impossible to deny. Mr. Steele was gone and he wasn't coming back. Laura dug in her bag and pulled out a folded envelope. "Found this in my mail yesterday. Nothing says goodbye like the return of your agency's license."
She tossed the packet on Molly's lap and pushed off the couch. Soon she paced the office as if it belonged to her. The way she did when solving an intricate case. The way she and Remington had done more times than she could count.
Dammit! She needed this to stop.
"Molly, I need your professional help. I need to end this obsession with being abandoned, dependent. I refuse to become my mother." Laura sat down again, perched on the edge of the coffee table, facing her friend. She gripped Molly's hand. "Help me tackle these issues head-on. I'm determined to beat this thing. I can't jeopardize my life's work."
Her voice cracked. Laura released Molly and cleared her throat, her index finger rubbing the area between her brows. She stared hard at the floor, took a deep breath. She was not above begging at this point. "Please."
The therapist remained quiet, waiting until Laura met her narrowed gaze. "This will take devotion, Laura, along with painful digging into the dark recesses of emotion. You'll have to be honest—with me and with yourself—about the truth of your feelings. Are you willing to go there?"
Laura opened her mouth to answer, then halted. She closed her eyes. Fast-forward pictures raced through her mind. Snapshots of the tomb her mother's house became after her father departed. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. Nothing lived without him. Only the solemn, gray wasteland of post-relationship desolation.
Flash forward again. The images skewed in a rapid-fire kaleidoscope. Morphed into a pair of hungry, heated, aqua-blue eyes and a sunny, seductive smile. Soft, impressionist images of a shared picnic in the park, nights by the fire, and carefree days in Acapulco.
The haunted past and the promising present all wrapped into one. Hell and heaven.
She swallowed hard and met Molly's direct gaze with her own unwavering stare. "Yes. I'm ready."
Later in the evening, Laura snuggled into her favorite robe and slippers and pulled out her trusty notebook. The one reserved for her private thoughts. She flipped to the next blank page and went over Molly's instructions in her head. Pick a song, a meaningful piece. Write down the lyrics and ponder them. Why do they resonate with you? List all of the reasons that spring to mind.
At first Laura had scoffed at the idea. Really? Paying one-hundred-fifty-dollars an hour for a sappy tune? She loved Molly and trusted her expertise, but come on. In the end, after Molly extolled the virtues of the assignment and its amazing ability to reveal hidden monsters, Laura relented. Fine. I'll do my homework and report back the following day.
After searching her music collection for a couple of hours, Laura made her final selection. Her choice turned out not to be a anything she owned. No, this song was new. She'd heard the melody on the way home from Molly's office. The lyrics haunted, seemed to mirror her exact feelings. Laura Holt considered herself to be steady and practical. Still, a touch of serendipity now and again was never bad.
A quick trip to the neighborhood Tower Records and she'd emerged with her new purchase in hand.
Now, she popped the album into her stereo system. Soon the notes washed over her and she closed her eyes, enjoying the melody for a moment before jotting down the lyrics. A page and a half later, prophetic words filled the pad.
Following a gulp of cabernet and a scratch behind Nero's ears, she dug into her new assignment with gusto. In true Laura fashion, she divided the song into neat verses and listed her thoughts after each line.
I found the pieces in my hand
They were always there
It just took some time for me to understand
You gave me words I just can't say
So if nothing else
I'll just hold on while you drift away
Cause everything you wanted me to hide
Is everything that makes me feel alive
I found the pieces in my hand. They were always there it just took some time for me to understand…
The day the license arrived in the mail. Damn, the memory still hurt. Hurt because he was really, truly gone. Hurt because he cared enough to make sure the agency survived, to make sure she survived and kept going despite his loss. Hurt because she drove him away with her searing, hateful words. Is a piece of paper all that's keeping us together? We should take some time and think about this—us—for a while.
Her memories stretched further. A teenaged Laura huddled over the family checkbook at the dinner table, balancing the accounts her mother had no interest in dealing with anymore. Someone needed to pay the bills, keep some semblance of life functioning. Her father might be gone, but at least his generous bank account remained. Bastard.
You gave me words I just can't say. So if nothing else, I'll just hold on while you drift away…
Remington had given her the words. Had told her of his love several nights ago at his apartment, without any coercion or reserve. After yet another heated tryst she'd pruned too soon, before allowing it to blossom and grow. The need in his husky voice, the desperation and want in his passionate gaze made leaving him the hardest thing she'd ever done, but staunch resistance was her forte. Laura abandoned him at the door with a chaste peck on the cheek and an imaginary bag of unfulfilled dreams. Ouch.
The lid of the pen she was gnawing split beneath under her vicious bite and pinched her tongue. She ripped the cap off and tossed it on the nearby end table before continuing her ruminations.
Overcast day. Eight-year-old Laura begging her beleaguered father for one more spin on the carnival merry-go-round. Her father's searching gaze as he bent to press a quarter in her palm. Promise me you won't tell your mother.
From atop her white and gold pony, Laura saw her father embrace another woman beyond the cluster of the crowd, kiss her neck and spin her around in a crazy, cockeyed circle. The ride twirled and her innocence shattered. Liar.
Laura batted away an errant tear and finished off her first glass of wine. Got up and retrieved the bottle from the kitchen then topped off another glassful and continued. Molly's assessment was proving correct. This assignment was more complex than she expected, harder than she imagined.
'Cause everything you wanted me to hide, is everything that makes me feel alive…
She was never quiet sure where she stood with Mr. Steele, his illusion versus her reality.
For a detail stickler, not knowing was pure torture. Her heart longed for a close, intimate connection. For him to know all of her deep, dark secrets and discover he loved her anyway. To do the same for him. How many times in the past had he opened the possibilities, only to have his options slammed shut because of her inability to relax, to be still and surrender?
She bit back a tiny, stifled sob and poked herself hard in the forehead with the butt end of her ballpoint. Dammit! The situation was Wilson squared. Hell, the current mess was every relationship she ever had with a man in spades. Why can't I let go?
Laura released her death grip on the pen and rubbed her eyes. Deep in the recesses of her subconscious, the answer clawed skyward.
Late afternoon. Ten-year-old Laura playing cops and robbers with her friends outside. This time she got to be the thief and it was great fun outwitting those pesky officers. She always beat them.
Crouched against the side of the house, Laura scanned the nearby yard before making her escape. Darting through the bushes toward the front stoop. She swatted at the gnats buzzing around her face and tuned into the conversation trickling out of the open window above, snippets of her mother's overwrought phone tirade. Please come back. I miss you so much. I'll do anything you want. Give you anything you ask. I'm begging you. Please come home. I'll die without you.
Stomach clenched and breath hitched, Laura moved out from under the window and stood on the sidewalk, open and vulnerable. Her mother's keening sobs carried on the warm, mid-summer breeze like the last painful wheeze of dying prey.
"Caught you!" A kid yelled from behind her, making her jump. The pretend police apprehended their criminal and hauled Laura to make-believe jail. We're locking you away for a long time, Laura Holt.
The first verse was finished, along with two glasses of wine. She eyed the half-empty bottle and ignored the light buzz flooding her system, charging ahead with the second stanza.
Seeing the ashes in my heart
I smile the widest
While I cry inside and my insides blow apart
I tried to wear another face
Just to make you proud
Just to make you put me in my place
But everything you wanted from me
Is everything that I could never be
Seeing the ashes in my heart. I smile the widest while I cry inside and my insides blow apart…
Wow. Laura swallowed hard against the rising lump in her throat and looked away from the page to glance at the clock above the stove. Ten pm.
Only a few weeks earlier, she'd been cuddled close in Remington's embrace, watching a Grant-Hepburn movie marathon on cable. They'd fed each other fondue and chocolate while huddled amongst the pillows then made up their own wicked game.
Decadent, wine-filled kisses and heated caresses were the requirement whenever the lead actors said 'love'. She didn't realize how often the word came up in the dialogue. Remington's sly grin after her acceptance of the dare indicated he'd done his homework and taken an exact count before the game ever began. After the passionate evening in Remington's arms, Laura felt closer to him than anyone else in her life.
Always patient, he never pushed her to give more than she was ready to surrender. Understanding, even forgiving—after a cool down period, of course—when she lashed out at him, hurt him with wounds both emotional and physical. Sometimes the injury was on purpose, as with an occasional toe-crushing stomp to shut him up. Other times they were accidental, with a careless answer or a flippant, defensive reply to his innocent questions.
Those second slights were too numerous to count, of late. Still, with his cover-ready smile plastered in place, he persevered. Now, it's my turn to carry on. Alone. Again.
More wine. Deeper memories. The school gym, festooned with paper streamers and balloons. Eleven-year-old Laura in the scratchy, ruffled pink party gown her mother insisted she wear. Her patent-leather shoes pinched her toes and the bobby pins in her hair itched like the dickens. She fidgeted in the center of the floor, searching the crowd for her special date.
The father-daughter dance was a big deal on the school calendar and he'd promised to arrive by seven. She glanced at the clock. Seven forty-five. Maybe he had to work late. Mother complained he always worked overtime these days. It had been so long since she'd gotten alone time with daddy. She rose up on tiptoes, despite the uncomfortable shoes, and craned her neck. The side door opened and a tall man in a bowler hat entered. Not daddy, darn it.
Laura lowered her heels to the floor and glowered at the nearby couples dancing. Girls teetered atop their father's feet, giggling while they hobbled in time to the latest Motown tunes. Where was he?
She huffed and walked to the sidelines. Soon Laura received a nudge in the side and a crude wink from Stacy Plodnick, class bully. What's a matter, Holt? Your old man a no show? Figures. Who'd want to dance with a loser like you anyway?
Heat flooded Laura's cheeks and her hands shook with suppressed, embarrassed fury. She shoved the bulky girl hard and darted from the gym, racing past the hall monitors and out into the black, cool night. Tears in her eyes, she slumped on the steps and stared at the twinkling stars above.
Maybe Stacy's right. Maybe I am a loser, a pathetic idiot whose own father wants nothing to do with her. The metallic cha-chink of the door echoed as it creaked opened behind her, breaking into her thoughts. The concerned tone of a chaperone drifted her way on a chilly breeze. Are you okay, Miss Holt?
Laura constructed her best carefree grin and turned it on full watt. Yes, I'm fine, thank you. I'm perfect.
I tried to wear another face. Just to make you proud, just to make you put me in my place. But everything you wanted me from me, is everything that I could never be…
She topped off her glass and flipped to a new page in the notebook, losing count of how many glasses she'd downed and how many pages she'd already filled.
How many times had she tried to change herself—tried to force herself into the mold of the person her bosses, her mother, her lover wanted her to be—all in a desperate attempt at pleasing them, to gain their respect and admiration? It never worked, not in the long run. Her personality was strong, defiant. She couldn't sit idly by while the things she believed, things she knew to be true and right, were trampled.
No, Laura was a fighter. Always had been, always would be. For a long time, she carried the belief if the perfect person came along, he'd love her for her true self and not what she pretended to be.
Detective work required effective covers and Laura mastered deception, had learned from the best at Havenhurst. At least she thought so until encountering her Mr. Steele, a somewhat rusty and dinged knight-in-shining-armor.
The man could switch personas at the drop of a hat, exuding wit and playboy swagger one minute then becoming a lost vagabond the next. Laura always found the quicksilver transformations one of his most fascinating qualities—and one of the most terrifying. Who was Remington Steele?
A question they'd both asked many times before. She believed him now, when he denied knowing his real name or his true identity. He seemed so forlorn, so sad about the lack of clues. Only a tattered pocket-watch remained to unlock his secrets.
All she wanted to do at the moment was hold him tight and tell him everything would be okay.
Except their embraces never stayed platonic, not for long. The way he caressed her nape and cupped her cheek when they kissed. The way he held her firm and dominated the exchange, yet allowed her room to move, to cuddle closer, to explore and initiate. His actions spoke volumes about his care for her and the extent of his sexual prowess. Yes, lovemaking with Remington would be pure delight.
She glanced at the coffee table, spotted the agency license lying atop it as a testament to his love and his departure. Now, it was too late to plume the depths of his passion because she'd driven him away. Her bottom lip quivered before she could bite down on it. Tears welled again.
Why can't you be more like your sister? Her mother's harsh whine echoed through the quiet hallway of her childhood home. Frances never gave her any headaches. Sixteen-year-old Laura pushed past her mother and into the barren kitchen. No one ever went to the grocery anymore. They were lucky to have peanut butter and bread in the house.
All this was mother's fault. The woman never rose from bed these days, stayed huddled beneath her covers with the curtains drawn. Dinnertime? A free-for-all. Home cooked meals were nothing but a long-lost fantasy.
The only time her mother ventured forth was to remind Laura of her failings as a daughter and the disappointment of her achievements. When Frances made the cheerleading squad, the situation only worsened. Laura excelled in math, English, history. Everything her mother said would never land her a husband.
Laura loved her mom, honest she did, but the woman drove her batty. There was more to life than men, husbands, and babies. Laura intended to partake of all her opportunities. She wanted a career, excitement, and a world away from the co-dependent prison of her present nightmare. She vowed to never end up like mother. Never to let a man have such total control over her that she ceased to exist without him.
Nero batted the notebook, demanding immediate attention. Laura blinked several times and stroked his silky black fur, returning to present reality.
Her gaze snagged on a black-and-white photo. A candid shot of she and Remington together, his arm around her from behind, pressing her back to his front. His lips nuzzled close to her ear and eager, happy smiles graced their faces. Mildred had taken the shot for them last month after they'd celebrated the agency's anniversary. Her tears now blurred the photo into an indefinable Rorschach blot.
It's gonna be alright
I will get better
It's gonna be okay
I will remember
Laura padded to the bathroom and returned with a box of tissues. She pulled several out and blew her nose, the rough, flimsy paper no comparison to Remington's ever-ready linen handkerchiefs. When did I become so attuned to the small details of his presence, the minutia of his care? He always seemed to be there at her moment of need, ready with a kind word, a tight squeeze or a tender stroke.
With the wine warming her blood and her heart wrenched open, Laura now freely admitted how much she missed him. She picked up a nearby toss pillow and hugged it tight. Traces of his scent—expensive cologne and crisp starch and something indefinably Remington—wafted around her. Her sobs intensified. God, I want him home. To apologize for all the stupid, horrible things I've said and hold him close, love him.
She hiccupped and dabbed her wet cheeks. Do I love him?
Her gaze focused on the picture again. Yes. I do. Hell, truth told she'd loved him since the first day he'd walked into her office pretending to be some South African special agent named Ben Pearson. Laura issued an unladylike snort. Figures. I would realize it only after he's gone and I'm alone.
Nero jumped down and wound around her legs, purring loud.
No, not alone. A twenty-nine-year-old crazy cat lady. Fantastic.
Mother's words rebounded through her now pounding head. When are you going to get married? Pip, pip dear. You're not getting any younger, you know.
Laura sighed and picked up her notebook again. One more verse, one more chance.
I held the pieces of my soul
I was shattered and I wanted you to come and make me whole
I saw you yesterday
But you didn't notice
And you just walked away
I held the pieces of my soul. I was shattered and I wanted you to come and make me whole…
The last time she'd seen Remington flashed into her mind. She'd sighted him through their connecting office door, looking resplendent and impeccable in his tailored suit and crisp shirt. Many a female client had swooned over his looks through the years, one going so far as to call him God's most beautiful creature. Laura had giggled at the time, embarrassed on his behalf.
Yet he took the admiration in stride, downplayed the glowing praise. Seemed to yearn for appreciation beyond his dazzling appearance. The majority of men would be rolling in the attention such gorgeous looks generated, reveling in the gifts bestowed. Her Mr. Steele was different. He'd told her on more than one occasion how much he relished the times he could dig into a case. Pull off the perfect double-cross. The man did seem to love his disguises and false airs.
Her chest ached as she remembered their many incognito stints over the years.
Remington was her true partner in crime. She hadn't imagined his kisses growing a bit more daring, his ardor heightened by the risk of danger. Desire stoked by the frisson of adrenaline, of being caught around the next corner. She'd come to love the excitement herself—because of him. Crave the seduction of the dark side. Yes, she and Remington suited each other well in many areas.
I saw you yesterday, but you didn't notice. And you just walked away…
Laura was sure he hadn't realized her perusal of him in the office. Positive he wasn't witness to the way her breath quickened or her cheeks heated when the trail of her thoughts turned more erotic. Something had cracked within her. Fissured open and refused to heal. She wanted him and not only on a sexual level. No, she wanted all of him. The unknown specter from his past and the wonderful, caring, trustworthy man he'd proven to be.
Her sight cleared, drifted to another picture on the wall beside the first. This one was an impromptu family portrait, the setting a happy, serene spring day.
Mother, Frances and Donald, and their children took center stage. Laura stood separate, off to the side and barely in frame. Remington had snapped the photo a short time after the agency had helped Donald through his dental conference snafu.
Laura stared at the image. Her face looked tense, her expression distant and eyes stormy. Her mother had blamed her dark mood on her lack of a spouse. Only Laura knew the real reason.
Him. Father. She'd spotted the man easily enough, her well-honed instincts pinpointing the shadow of his figure hovering near the edge of the small park. The odd spook watching them picnic and play Frisbee. He gave no indication of being caught in his perusal, too wrapped up in his secret surveillance.
After staging the impromptu photo tableau, Remington took a seat beside her at the picnic table and slid an arm around her shoulders, his long fingers massaging the tense muscles at her nape. His gaze tracked her focus to a point beyond a copse of pines across the field. He'd dropped a discreet kiss on her ear before whispering, "Laura, what's wrong?"
Her gaze flicked to his. This secret she couldn't share. Not yet. When she looked back again, her father had disappeared, gone as quick as he arrived. She hadn't seen him again.
How many years had she waited to find him? How many wasted years of wondering why he left and awaiting his return? Understanding dawned. Daddy wasn't coming back. Ever. Nothing she said or did would change the reality.
An invisible weight lifted inside her, the burden of unresolved childhood guilt slipping away. Abandonment was his issue now, not hers. Not anymore.
Laura set down her notebook and picked up the agency license. What would be required to get her Mr. Steele back?
Love? Yes. Devotion? Certainly. Sex? God she hoped so. The wait had been too long and they'd suffered too much not to consummate this relationship.
She glanced at the wall clock again. The time now read well past midnight. She picked up her scattered tissues, the empty wine bottle and her glass and deposited them in the kitchen. Laura stopped to place a kiss on the cheek of the eight-by-ten glossy Remington before padding to bed with a smile on her face.
Long after she shut off the lights, she lay staring at the ceiling, her mind racing.
Fred would know his last location. She'd discover the rest.
Yes, she had every intention of bringing her Mr. Steele home.
A line from one of their favorite movies played in her head, making her giggle in anticipation. Laura set her alarm for seven am and cuddled her pillow.
After all, Mr. Steele. Tomorrow is another day.