What They Said

"You are the most ridiculous woman I have ever known!" he said. And he meant it. He was sorry he'd said it, of course — it had hurt her, and that's something he never wanted to do. But that didn't make it any less true.

The blasted woman drove him crazy sometimes. After all they'd been through, for and with one another, could she still doubt how he felt? Wasn't it written all over his face whenever he looked at her, that silly grin he couldn't seem to suppress? Didn't every kiss, each embrace, spell it out in neon letters? How about the fact that he'd changed his whole life for her? Gone out on limbs he never would have considered for anyone else. And just last week he'd waded through a six-inch stack of paperwork, for bloody sake. If that wasn't commitment, he didn't know what was!

And the sex issue … did she really believe that was what was keeping him here, the "impossible challenge" of getting her into bed? He had half a mind to tell her that such conquests were easily made elsewhere, and frankly one was pretty much the same as the next. He did dare to hope that being with Laura would be something more, that the emotional bond between them would add the kind of richness to the experience that popular culture defined as ideal. But he was half afraid that nearly four years of thwarted and ever-building passion had created some rather unrealistic expectations. He was only a man, after all. A man who did want to make love to her, sometimes so much that he thought he'd go insane.

The point was, however, that whether their first time together was good, bad or indifferent, it wouldn't change the way he felt about her. It certainly wouldn't be the "slam, bam, thank you m'am and on I'll be on my merry way" that she apparently feared it would be if she "gave in."

Gave in? The concept made him slightly nauseous. He certainly didn't want her doing him any favors. When she gave herself to him – when they gave themselves to each other – he wanted it to be because it was what they both wanted. And he believed she did want it, almost as much as he did.

But first she had to hear those three little words.

Three Little Words. Fred Astaire, Red Skelton, MGM, 1955.

Damn it.

Maybe Laura was right. Maybe he did hide behind flip remarks, obscure movie trivia and sophomoric passes to keep from discussing their relationship. If it were only those words that kept their relationship from moving forward, why didn't he just say them?

It wasn't as if he didn't feel them … with a greater certitude and deeper conviction than he'd ever known before. He'd pictured the scene — his grand declaration — many times in his imagination. Sometimes he was cocky and matter-of-fact, like Clark Gable in "Gone With the Wind." Or faltering and emotional, like Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life." Or his personal favorite, driven with quiet, passionate intensity, like Cary Grant in "Notorious."

The thing was, though, that sharing his deepest heart wasn't a performance. And life wasn't a movie, where the magic moment was followed by the inevitable fade to black and its implied happily ever after.

What haunted him, silenced his tongue, was this: Suppose it wasn't happily ever after? What if he laid his heart bare to her … and it still wasn't enough?

And frankly, why should it be? How could it be? They both knew he wasn't who he pretended to be. Knew that behind the façade of the polished and sophisticated Remington Steele, he was just Harry. Or Douglas Quintane. Or Richard Blaine. Or any of a dozen other personas he'd tried on over the years to disguise the fact that he didn't know who he really was. But the fact was, underneath the Italian suits and silk pajamas, he wasn't the carefully crafted fantasy Laura wanted – needed - him to be.

He wished he had the impeccable breeding, the Cambridge education, the faultless integrity of Remington Steele. He'd give anything to be the model of perfection that Laura wanted. That she deserved.

Hell, if he were even half the man Steele was, he'd have taken Laura up on her suggestion that he just leave. If she truly was better off without him (and deep down, he feared she was), surely the noble thing — the Steele-like thing — would be to let her go.

But he was a coward. He knew what it was to be without Laura – had experienced it during his fruitless quest to discover his true identity in London and, briefly but even more devastatingly, when he thought she had been killed by Carl. He wasn't prepared to deal with that kind of pain again. No, he'd meant what he told her after he'd been set up to look as if he'd gambled away the agency: He wasn't going anywhere.

So where did that leave them? He couldn't tell her, say the words she wanted so desperately to hear. He couldn't, because he couldn't take the risk that it wouldn't change anything … or that it would change everything. In the end, maybe this stalemate, this purgatory they were living in, was better than stepping off the cliff. For now, anyway. Still, even if he couldn't say the words she wanted most to hear, he could give her some words … words more genuine and heartfelt than "well-dressed, frugal and kind to furry animals." He owed her that much, and so much more.

Sighing, the man who would be Steele took out a piece of paper and pen and began to write.

"What are you waiting for? Why don't you just leave?" she said. And she meant it. Not that she wanted him to leave. Or that she was better off without him — my God, what had possessed her to say that?

Fear, of course.

Almost all of her believed he really did care for her, perhaps almost as much as she felt for him. But there was still that small voice inside … the one that nudged her awake at 3:00 am or whispered in her ear when he was late to the office or didn't pick up the phone. The voice that said: He won't stay.

Because why would he?

Laura knew she was physically attractive — and over the past few years the man she called Steele had almost convinced her she was actually sexy and beautiful, freckles and all. She was smart, and capable, and independent. She could even be funny sometimes. But the world was full of women who were sexier, smarter, funnier … and he could have any one of them. Hell, he could have all of them. Why on earth would he choose someone like her?

She was only too aware of her personal deficits, and if she ever did forget, her mother would be happy to supply an itemized list. She was too competitive. Too opinionated. Too practical, too prickly, too much a perfectionist. Too guarded. Too vulnerable.

Too damaged.

And he was … everything. When she'd created Remington Steele, she'd accepted he was an impossible ideal. It was her fantasy, so why not? She'd known plenty of men, and she clearly understood that there wasn't — couldn't be — any man who could live up to her vision.

Until he did.

It wasn't the impossible good looks, the suave demeanor, the way he moved with such casual grace, the fact that he was the reason tuxedoes were invented. Those things were just a big ladleful of gravy. No, it was what she discovered underneath the dazzling surface that really astonished her. It was his heart, and his soul. It was his gentleness, his generosity, his hopeless romanticism, his childlike enthusiasm. It was the man's essential decency, almost unbelievable given his childhood of deprivation and abandonment, despite so many years of having to survive on his wits and wiles.

There was even something Robin Hoodesque, almost noble, about his shady history; he made his living by taking, as he said, only from those who could afford to lose. She didn't condone his illicit activities, but somehow she couldn't condemn him for them, either.

Most of all, it was how he affected her that was so extraordinary. He made her feel special, desirable. He made her laugh at herself when she got too serious, and he made her face her foibles when she was unreasonable, or uptight, or wrong.

And when she was sad, he made her soup.

She'd been honest with him from the start: He knew she was afraid to get in too deep, to lose herself in him like her mother had with her father. She was looking for more than a fast tango and a scrapbook full of memories. She told him the agency was her greatest accomplishment, and she wouldn't risk that for anything or anyone.

There were some things she hadn't told him, however. Like the fact that she was already in as deep as it was possible to be, almost from the day she'd met him. That far from submerging who she was for him, he made her feel more herself than she'd ever been. That she respected his abilities, valued his partnership and all that he contributed to the agency. That he was her best friend, and the time she spent with him in and out of the office made her … happy. That she didn't give a damn if his name was Harry or Reggie or Clarence or Remington — because she knew who he really was, inside, and that was enough for her. That she ached to be with him, in every sense of the word.

Most of all, she hadn't told him how scared she was that if she did let him fully into her heart, gave herself to him completely, and he left her … she couldn't bear it.

And that, after all, was why she'd said what she did. Because sometimes the strain was just too much – the waiting for that other shoe to drop, the inevitable moment when she looked up and he wasn't there. There were times when she could almost believe it would be better to get it over with, begin the process of living without him. Living? No. Existing. Grieving. Dying.

Better off without him … She couldn't imagine living without him, even if she had to. So she would cling to today, to the uneasy equilibrium that satisfied neither of them, but was better than the great unknown. And the first thing she had to do now was solve this damned case so she could get on with what was more important: repairing the damage that her anxiety-driven outburst had wrought.

She only prayed it wasn't too late.