Laura Holt sat in her office, tapping a pencil on her desktop and trying to ignore the persistent growling in her stomach as she weighed the pros and cons of asking Mr. Steele to lunch. As an independent woman of the 1980s, Laura had no qualms about taking the initiative with a man … ordinarily. But she found that a lot of things she would ordinarily do didn't apply to her behavior around the man who went by the name Remington Steele.
She pursed her lips and frowned. The man was HER creation, after all. He depended as much on her to maintain the charade as she did on him to play his part. So how did he keep her feeling so far off balance, so out of control, so … ambivalent?
Truth be told, she wasn't sure how he would react to being asked out by her. Certainly he was no male chauvinist; he had never treated her with anything less than respect, and was cheerfully willing to admit that she was infinitely more competent at detective work — though she had to admit he'd come a long way in that regard. Still, there was something quaintly Old School about how he responded to her as a woman. His manners were deferential, almost courtly. Opening doors for her. Complimenting her appearance. Always picking up the tab (never the mind the fact that whatever money he spent on her was hers in the first place). Helping her on with her jacket. And always, always giving her credit where credit was due; from the first moment he'd assumed the identity of Remington Steele, he had gone out of his way to offer public acknowledgement to the "woman behind the man."
Yet despite an almost constant barrage of innuendo, he had often been slightly reticent, almost tentative, in making physical advances. Well, there was that time in Acapulco when he grabbed and kissed her fiercely, venting his frustration over her hot-and-cold behavior. Frankly, she couldn't really blame him for his impatience — and the hint of simmering passion revealed in that embrace was (she blushed to admit) incredibly arousing. But she had cut him off quickly, and he hadn't repeated such a forceful demonstration of his ardor. No, it was back to searing glances, slow dances, champagne toasts and tender words. Oh, and deep, lingering kisses that turned her knees to jello. Not that any of those things were bad …
Laura felt the familiar warmth that blossomed in her whenever she ruminated on those almost-intimate moments between them. She knew he relished her company as much as she did his; even apart from their strong physical attraction, both found great pleasure in stimulating conversation, working side by side on cases, even the frequent verbal sparring that got their blood pumping and juices flowing. Perhaps especially the verbal sparring. They would thoroughly enjoy lunch together, she was sure. But by making the overture, was she proving his frequent assertion that she wanted to control their relationship?
Another embarrassing noise emanated from her entrails and she threw down her pencil in disgust. "Oh, my God," she muttered out loud. "It's only lunch, not a marriage proposal!"
"Forming an unnatural attachment to your leftover take-out, Laura?"
Her head snapped up to see Steele leaning in her doorway, a playful grin on his impossibly handsome face.
"It just so happens, I've had several very satisfying relationships with sushi and cold Thai noodles. Don't knock it 'til you've tried it, Mr. Steele." She hoped her banter effectively concealed the flush she suddenly felt. Damn that smile!
"Different strokes, Miss Holt," he shrugged. "Shame you already have plans for a téte-a-téte with a Tupperware container, though. I was about to ask you out to lunch."
"I could be persuaded to change my plans," she answered quickly, rising from her chair and reaching under the desk for her purse. "To be honest, I don't things were going to work out anyway. Kind of a cold fish."
She was gratified by his chuckle as she joined him in the doorway, feeling his arm slip naturally around her waist.
"What are you in the mood for, Laura? The lunch counter at Morton's, or …" — he gently pulled her closer against him — "… that dark corner booth at Finelli's?" Staring down into her eyes, he let out a long, slow breath. "Or maybe we should just order in." He lowered his face toward hers and she parted her lips, anticipating the kiss …
"Boss! Miss Holt!" Laura and Steele lurched apart at the sound of Mildred's voice.
"What is it, Mildred?" Laura asked, perhaps a touch more irritably than she intended.
"Clients!" the receptionist whispered excitedly. "They just came in. They're in the waiting room!"
Laura frowned. "Well, tell them to make an appointment. We don't accept walk-ins like some cut-rate beauty salon."
"You don't understand. It's Maurice Whiteman! And Helen Mayfair!"
Steele's face brightened in recognition. "No! The King of Sambas and the Golden-Throated Songbird of the South Jersey Shore?"
"That's them!" Mildred chirped. "Isn't it thrilling?"
Laura hated it when she didn't know what people were talking about. Made her feel left out and a little dumb. Steele's constant film references usually had that effect — and now Mildred was starting it, too? "Would one of you care to explain who these people are?" she demanded.
"Whiteman and Mayfair, perhaps the most popular of the bandleader-girl singer duos of the Big Band era," Steele schooled her. "They provided tuneful ambience in the background of any number of 40s-era films." He glanced at Mildred's animated expression. "Of course, I'm not the connoisseur of that musical genre that I suspect Mildred is."
"Oh, I was crazy about the Whiteman Melodiers — that was Maurice Whiteman's orchestra," Mildred gushed. "He was SO dashing! And Helen Mayfair was just such an elegant, sophisticated woman. I wanted to be just like her when I was 18."
"Okay, now we've established who they are, set up an appointment for them," Laura said.
Mildred's face fell. "Oh, I couldn't do that, Miss Holt. I mean, they're celebrities. And Miss Mayfair — er, Mrs. Whiteman — looks so upset. Can't you just squeeze them in? Your next appointment isn't until 3:00."
"It would seem good business to solicit the good will of the glitterati, Miss Holt," Steele agreed. He gave Laura a look that she understood: He was inclined to humor their motherly receptionist. Laura sighed. Steele's generous nature and compassion were two of his best (and occasionally most vexing) qualities.
"All right," she conceded. "Send them into Mr. Steele's office." She fixed Mr. Steele with a sharp look as she dug her fist into her abdomen to quell another gurgle. "You still owe me lunch, buster."
"I'm counting the minutes, Miss Holt."
Given Mildred's glowing description, Laura was expecting something other than the portly older couple who appeared in the doorway to Steele's office moments later. Maurice Whiteman was squat and balding, his smooth pate gleaming under the fluorescent lights. His three-piece suit was slightly dated and worn at the cuffs, but clean and neatly pressed.
His wife was what used to be called "pleasingly plump." She wore a flowing polyester dress with a large floral pattern, and sensible pumps. Her hair, which must once have been gold, was shot through with silver and framed her surprisingly youthful face in fluffy waves. Helen Whiteman, neé Mayfair, had her arm linked through her husband's, her hand clutching his forearm. Her spouse cupped a beefy palm over her hand protectively as he led her into the office.
From her position behind Steele's imposing leather desk chair, Laura could see they were awed by their first sight of the agency's putative namesake. She was used to the reaction by now; after nearly three years of inhabiting the persona of Remington Steele, the man had magnified Laura's sketchy outline into a truly larger-than-life figure. Laura had to admit a grudging admiration for how he had crafted an extraordinary, yet somehow completely convincing, man-about-town — and lifted the agency's public profile and bottom-line in the process. But her appreciation was mixed with a persistent unease: If this still-mysterious, not-quite-a-stranger could don new identities as effortlessly as he wore Steele's Brooks Brothers suits, what other deceptions was he capable of? She felt guilty for the kernel of doubt that still gnawed at her insides … but there it was.
Steele had risen and strode with his inimitable grace to greet their prospective clients. He bowed to bestow on Mrs. Whiteman one of his trademark back-of-the-hand kisses that never failed to impress. "An honor and a privilege to meet you, dear lady," he purred. "And Mr. Whiteman!" he continued, extending a hand to shake the bandleader's. "May I say I am a great fan of yours, sir."
Whiteman looked surprised. "You've heard my orchestra, Mr. Steele?"
"Alas, not in person. But I have admired your unparalleled technique with the baton in any number of classic motion pictures."
The bandleader and his songbird beamed, and Laura marveled again at her partner's debonair charm. Mr. Steele could so easily have come across as smarmy except for one thing: He sincerely liked people and enjoyed making them feel special. God knows she wasn't immune to his charisma, Laura conceded. He made her feel special just by looking at her with those blue, blue eyes.
Steele gestured to the guest chairs as he resumed his place behind the sleek desk. He leaned his elbows on the desk, tented his hands under his chin and affected a pose of rapt attention. "Now, then. How can we be of service?"
The couple exchanged uneasy glances. Whiteman cleared his throat. "Erm, we're grateful to you for agreeing to meet with us in person, Mr. Steele. However, we're hoping to handle this issue as discreetly as possible." He leaned forward and continued in a conspiratorial whisper. "Would it be possible to discuss this in private?"
Steele looked slightly perplexed. He bent forward to match Whiteman's attitude and low tone. "I believe we are in private, Mr. Whiteman."
Whiteman cast a quick glance at Laura, who stood behind Steele, notepad in hand. "What I mean is, could we speak to you alone? Without your secretary present?"
Laura felt hot stabs of mortification flush her cheeks. Secretary! The very idea that she was just a dictation-taking, memo-typing, coffee-making flunky! Why, she had a mind to tell this old codger where to—
"You mean Laura?" Steele spoke up, a note of real astonishment in his voice. "I assure you, Miss Holt is no secretary. She's a brilliant investigator and my most valued associate …" — he fixed Whiteman with a serious look — "… and I never accept a case without her full involvement."
Whiteman looked unconvinced, but Helen placed a hand lightly on his arm. "I'm sure it's all right, Maury. She looks like a nice, trustworthy girl."
"Absolutely. Beyond reproach," Steele agreed hurriedly, not giving Laura a chance to respond to being described as a "girl."
The older man hesitated another few seconds, then shrugged. "If you say so, Cookie," he said with a glance at his wife.
"Cookie?" Laura questioned.
"That's Maury's pet name for me," Helen explained with a fond look at her husband. "Anyway, go ahead, Maury. Tell 'em why we're here."
"My ensemble, Maurice Whiteman and the Melodiers, has been the house orchestra at the Cabana Club for 42 years," the man began.
Steele arched a brow. "Forty-two years? That displays an admirable level of commitment, Mr. Whiteman." Laura couldn't help wondering if he was struck by the contrast to his own history, having in his own words, "avoided commitment at all costs for the better part of his life." Did he really appreciate this man's tenacity?
Whiteman grunted. "Necessity, more like. There aren't many places that still feature our kind of music. The Cabana's the last Big Band club on the West Coast." He scrunched his weathered face into an expression of distaste. "First it was the hippy coffee houses moving in. Then there was disco. Nowadays it's … hell, I don't even know what they call it." He waved a hand dismissively. "Just noise."
Steele nodded sympathetically. "Indeed. But I hope you haven't come here to ask us to find out where Americans' taste in popular music went so badly awry. I'm afraid that's a mystery that confounds even Remington Steele."
Whiteman looked gratified. "I'm glad we're on the same page, Steele. Anyway, six months ago Nicky Levinson — he's owned the Cabana since it opened in '39 — announced he was retiring. Going to close the club, just like that." Whiteman's voice betrayed his agitation. "Well, I couldn't let him do it, Mr. Steele! Cookie and I met in that club. The band is what let me keep my wife in nylons and chocolates all these years, and put our kids through college. Our whole life is bound up in the Cabana. Was I supposed to just let that die?"
"Of course not!" Steele declared, caught up in the man's story. "So what did you do?"
"I convinced Nick to sell the place to me. Took every penny of our life savings, but it was worth it, and I know it will pay off. There's a Big Band revival on the horizon, Mr. Steele. I can feel it. And if I can just keep the club afloat until it hits, we'll be back in the big time."
"If you're looking for investors …" Laura spoke up.
"Hell, no," Whiteman retorted. "Like I said, I bought the place outright. Cash on the barrelhead. I'm not looking for any handouts."
"I'm sure my associate didn't mean to imply any such thing," Steele intervened smoothly. "But I gather things haven't gone according to plan?"
"It was fine for the first six weeks or so. We weren't packing them in, but there was enough traffic to keep the lights on. Then stuff started to happen."
"Little things at first. A pipe burst in the office and flooded the place. That was a helluva mess. Plumber said it looked like the pipe had been pulled apart at the joint."
"It took two weeks to get it all cleaned up," Helen Whiteman interjected. "Maury was rehearsing the orchestra all day, running the club in the evening and staying late every night after closing, trying to help me get everything in the office dried out and put back together. He was exhausted." She favored her husband with a sweet smile. "I worry about my fella."
The pair exchanged a meaningful look, the kind of silent communication that long-time lovers share. Laura wondered if she and Mr. Steele would ever be that close.
"Aw, my Cookie frets too much," Whiteman blustered. "If it were just that, no problem. I can deal. But there was more."
"Things started disappearing. One night the music folders for the entire string section went missing half an hour before we were supposed to go on. Fortunately, the group is experienced enough to be able to wing it. Next we began finding equipment tampered with. Mike stands unscrewed, spotlight bulbs broken, that sort of thing. It happened often enough, and the incidents were unusual enough, to make it clear these weren't accidents."
"Tell them the rest, Maury," Helen prodded.
"After that, the threats started."
Laura's mild sympathy suddenly shifted to concern. "What kind of threats?"
"Anonymous notes shoved under the door: 'Shut down or else.' Graffiti spray-painted on the outside of the building. And I haven't been able to keep a vocalist for more than a month; they get one or two menacing phone calls in the middle of the night and it's sayonara. Then last week, somebody assaulted my Cookie in the green room."
"Good heavens!" Steele interjected. "I hope you weren't badly hurt, my dear."
Helen shook her head. "I was sorting through some boxes of old memorabilia, with my back to the door. All of a sudden I felt someone push me hard from behind. It knocked me down and, well, I'm not as agile as I used to be. By the time I got to my feet, whoever it was, was long gone. I'm just sorry I wasn't able to get a look at him."
"Did you go to the police?" Laura asked.
"Believe me, I would have if Cookie had let me. But she convinced me to come here instead," Maurice answered.
"We've been in show business all our lives, Mr. Steele," Mrs. Whiteman said. "Long enough to know that all publicity is NOT good publicity. The club is barely hanging on as it is. If word got out that things were falling apart …" she trailed off.
Whiteman reached over and patted his wife's hand. "She's right, of course. My wife is really the brains of this outfit." His expression darkened. "But nobody lays a finger on my Cookie," he said fiercely. "I want this guy caught and strung up."
"Absolutely right, Mr. Whiteman," Steele blustered. "The cad must be made to pay for insulting your lovely paramour." Laura could see his dander was up; one sure way to engage Mr. Steele's support was to appeal to his chivalrous side.
"Do you have any idea who the perpetrator might be, Mr. Whiteman?" Laura asked. "Any enemies?"
"Well, about the time I bought the place, a big shot developer named Wayne Martin contacted Nicky. Offered him big money for the property. Apparently he had some idea of turning it into a – what did he call it? - 'sports bar.' To Nick's credit, he valued loyalty over lucre. He agreed to sell me the Cabana at the price we'd originally negotiated. After I signed the papers, this Martin guy came around and put the screws on me to sell. I told him no dice."
Have you confronted him with your suspicions that he's behind these incidents?" Laura asked.
"Of course. Denied everything. Said he hadn't been near the place since I turned him down. But I don't believe him."
Steele nodded in agreement. "Sounds like a promising suspect."
"There was also some trouble the first week I took over," Whiteman continued. "Had to let one of the bartenders, Mickey Doolittle, go. Caught him dipping into the till."
"He didn't take his dismissal well?" Laura probed.
"He just walked out without a word. We haven't seen hide nor hair of him since, I'm happy to say."
"Still, another person of interest worth investigating." Steele was growing expansive, warming to his role as the Great Detective. It made him reckless. "I hope you're getting this all down, Laura."
"Naturally, sir," Laura answered dryly, holding up the notepad on which she had been furiously scribbling throughout the conversation. "Every tiny detail, as usual."
Steele swiveled in his chair and gave her a patronizing smile. "Excellent. Good old Laura. She really is a treasure," he commented over his shoulder to the Whitemans. Her icy glare brought him back to his senses. He turned back to the clients. "Miss Holt and I will be working in tandem to identify your tormentor and bring him to justice," he said hurriedly.
"Then you accept our case?" Helen asked.
"Of course! The Remington Steele Agency would do anything in the service of preserving a priceless jewel of this country's musical heritage," Steele assured her.
Laura kicked his ankle under the desk. "Mr. Steele, might I have a word?"
He winced and jumped to his feet, putting safe distance between himself and Laura's sharp-toed sling-backs. "In a moment, Miss Holt," he said, rounding the desk and extending a hand to help Mrs. Whiteman from her seat. "I'm sure the Whitemans need to get back to their club. We can discuss our strategy over lunch."
"We're so grateful for your help," Helen said as the pair exited the office.
"Not at all. We'll be in touch," Steele waved them out. He turned around reluctantly, anticipating Laura's steely gaze. "No need to thank me, Laura. I'm always happy to do my part to help the agency stay in the black."
"We've talked many, many times about you accepting cases without prior discussion," she said evenly.
"Yes, but of course in this instance I knew you'd agree," he said, moving close and putting his arms around her slim waist. "Who could deny such a sweet old couple, just trying to live their American dream … why, it would be almost unpatriotic."
"Well, it looks like we're committed now," she responded. "So what's your plan, Mr. Steele?"
"Ah. Ahem." He frowned. "That's really more your line, isn't it, Laura? I mean, I'm the Big Picture man, the … er … high-level strategist. And you work out the details."
"Ha! Remind me of that the next time you decide to go off on your own to play detective."
He gave her a cajoling look and swayed her gently in his arms. "But you know I always rely on your superior intelligence, your keen understanding of the criminal mind, your …" He floundered in the face of her skeptical look. "Your …. pluck!" he concluded triumphantly.
He shrugged and gave her a wry grin. "Sorry. That's all I've got."
Laura was torn between the desire to give him a good, stiff shove and the undeniably delicious sensation of being rocked in his arms. As he began to nuzzle her neck she decided there was really no point in arguing about … about … what was it they were arguing about again? She sighed and moved against him, slanting her head to give his lips access to the exquisitely sensitive hollow at the top of her collarbone.
"I suppose we can follow up with the developer and the bartender," she murmured, struggling to maintain her concentration as he dropped soft kisses along her jawline. "It would also … ah … be helpful … to have … access … mmm … to the club. Keep an eye on … ohhhh … what goes on."
Steele suddenly broke away and laughed out loud. "You're a tough nut to crack, Laura."
"Still business hours, Mr. Steele," she responded, a touch of regret in her voice. Flustered, she tugged her slightly rumpled pencil skirt and fitted jacket primly back into place.
"Let's break for lunch then," Steele answered. "I suddenly have a brilliant idea of how we can keep tabs on the inner workings of the Cabana Club."
"An inspiration, Miss Holt. And I'll tell you all about it over lunch." He waggled his eyebrows at her. "At Finelli's, I think."