The Other Woman
Laura carefully balanced a bulging grocery bag on one hip as she fumbled for Steele's door buzzer. After nearly six weeks of forced immobility due to his double casts (despite his early bravado, getting to the office or anywhere else had proven a painful hassle, quickly abandoned), Miss Holt figured her slightly stir-crazy partner deserved a little pampering.
She would never win any prizes as a cook (leave it to Steele to have that talent sewn up along with all his other gifts), but she'd perfected her "go to" romantic dinner in college: salad, pasta primavera, crusty French bread and a bottle of pinot grigio. An ultra-rich chocolate torte from Morton's Bakery would cap off the meal – she'd allow herself a bit of decadence tonight.
There was no response to her first "buzz," so she leaned on the button again. After another half minute of silence, she was about to dig out her key and let herself in when she finally heard Steele's voice calling from inside.
"Who is it?" He sounded a bit frazzled.
"It's me. Laura. Are you okay?"
"Ah, Miss Holt. I'm fine. Just a bit tired. Was I expecting you this evening?"
Laura frowned. "No … I just thought … but if you're busy," she floundered. She was beginning to feel rather foolish. "Sorry to bother you. I'll ... um ... call you later."
She heard shuffling and muttering, then the whirr of the electric wheelchair they'd rented after Nurse Bruce finished his stint three weeks ago; Steele had become quite adept by that time at piloting his wheelchair and using a couple of canes to pull himself briefly upright when the situation demanded. Laura still worried about him falling, but his manly pride would tolerate what he termed "mollycoddling" for just so long.
The electric whirr got closer and changed in tone and frequency as Steele maneuvered the chair into position beside the door. The doorknob turned and the door opened to reveal the man himself – looking slightly disheveled and rumpled. Laura knew he deeply hated his hospital-issued flannel pajama bottoms, held together down both sides by strips of Velcro to accommodate his casts. Now he grimaced as he struggled to pull the ends of his expensive silk robe over his legs and bare chest. "What a delightful surprise!" he said, a little breathlessly, as she stepped into the apartment. Noting the bundle in her arms, he inquired, "What's all this, then?"
"With your discriminating palate, I figured you'd be tired of frozen TV dinners," Laura said, still not quite sure if she was actually welcome. "I thought I'd cook dinner."
He looked up at her with a skeptical expression. "Really? Perhaps we'd better check the batteries in the smoke detectors first."
She gave him a playful little smack on the chest. "Hey! I'm not entirely hopeless in the kitchen. But if you'd prefer another Swanson's turkey dinner …"
"The kitchen is all yours, Miss Holt."
Moments later, the water for the pasta was on to boil and Laura was chopping lettuce as Steele listened to her bring him up to date on what the agency had been working on in his absence. Laura was slightly surprised, and enormously pleased, by his keen interest. It was clear he was chomping at the bit to get back to work. She was no less eager; even with Mildred's constant chatter, the office felt empty and lonely without him there.
Reaching for the cheese grater, she glanced over the countertop to admire the v-shaped slice of his hairy chest visible through the opening in his robe. It occurred to her, however, that his boudoir attire might not be entirely appropriate for dinnerwear. "You probably want to put something else on," she remarked, stirring cheese into her cream sauce.
"Worried about the effect my devastating physique will have on your self-control?"
"A little," she admitted with a smile. "But mostly worried about the effect of spilling hot cheese sauce on your devastating physique. I'd be embarrassed to have to bring you to the Emergency Room again."
"I haven't dribbled on myself since I was a toddler, Laura," he protested. "However, this ensemble is a bit informal for dinner … and drafty. I'll just go change my shirt and be back in time for the aperitif." He toyed with the little joystick that controlled his wheelchair.
"Stay put," Laura said. "I'll grab you a sweatshirt." She started for the bedroom.
"Er, no need, Laura!" Steele exclaimed, scrambling to maneuver the chair to intercept her. "Keep working on that delightful dinner. I'll get it myself."
"Don't be silly. I know where you keep your shirts and it's a lot easier and faster for me to get it." She stepped around the wheelchair, only to have him do a fast spin and overtake her again.
"Truly, Laura, I'd rather you not go into the bedroom. It's a terrible mess. Bed not made, dirty shorts on the floor …" His voice had an edge of panic.
Laura looked at him quizzically. "What's the matter with you?" She looked over his shoulder at the closed bedroom door. "Why don't you want me to-" She stopped, a sudden realization breaking over her face. "Oh, my God," she said flatly. "You've got a woman in there."
"What? No! Well, perhaps in a manner of speaking, but-"
Laura put up her hands to silence him and turned on her heel. "I'm sorry to have intruded," she snapped, hurrying back toward the kitchen while tugging at the apron she'd put on over her dress. "I hope you and whats-her-name enjoy the pasta!"
"Laura, wait a minute!" Steele called after her. He shifted his chair into gear and headed for the door to block her exit. "I can explain."
"Get out of my way." She reached to push the chair away from the door, but he twisted the joystick to pitch the chair back and forth, eluding her grasp.
"You're not going anywhere until I have a chance to defend myself."
She stopped lunging for his chair, stepped back and put a hand over her face. "Please. Let me just get out of here with some small shred of dignity intact."
To her astonishment and fury, he actually chuckled. "Really, Laura, you can't actually believe I was in the middle of a tryst when you arrived."
"The evidence is circumstantial, but compelling."
"You may not have noticed, but I have two broken legs!"
"You are a resourceful man, Mr. Steele."
"I am an innocent man, Miss Holt. If you'd just calm down-"
She turned away from him, not wanting him to see how she was trembling. "I assure you, I am perfectly calm. Just a little embarrassed. And disappointed. I mean, I know I told you I could accept your being with other women. But I thought you might at least wait until you were off the disabled list to get back into the game."
"Laura." His voice was gentle. "Come with me into the bedroom."
She whirled on him. "Are you kidding? I'm sorry, but I guess I'm just not 'adult' enough to shake hands and be friends with whoever you've got in there — and I'm sure as HELL not interested in any other kind of … interaction … with her."
"That's a shame. She's an extraordinary woman."
It was all Laura could do to keep from slapping the smirk off his face. "Fine! You're determined to play out this sordid little scene to the end, aren't you?" She stomped toward the bedroom, threw open the door, marched in.
Stopped dead in her tracks.
Laura found herself confronted with the smiling face of a woman – one who looked very familiar. A spattered tarp was on the floor, on which stood a small table with a palette and brushes, and an easel with a large canvas. The painting, about three-quarters complete, was an extraordinarily lifelike representation of …
Laura walked over to the easel, marveling at the intricacy and detail of the brushwork. The portrait depicted her in a strapless red gown. Hair swept up into an elaborate mass of curls, head tilted slightly, her eyes sparkled as she smiled warmly at something she saw before her.
She heard the familiar whirring, turned to see Steele roll up beside her.
"What is this?" she asked, her voice slightly tremulous.
"Well, that's discouraging," he answered. "I thought it was at least recognizable."
"It's ... unbelievable."
"Not finished yet. That's why I didn't want you to see it. That, and I wasn't sure how you'd react."
Laura let her eyes drift over the work, noting the shading, the subtle play of light over her features. She wasn't really this beautiful … was she? Was this really how he saw her?
"How could I be other than flattered? I'm … honored. Overwhelmed, in fact. What's it for?"
"What do you mean, what's it for?" Steele said, his tone slightly defensive. "It's not for anything. Well, I suppose it's for … me."
Suddenly the vague feeling of deja vu Laura had experienced upon seeing the painting resolved itself. "This is me, the night of the gala where the royal lavulite was displayed!" Her eyes widened. "When you kissed my hand, just before you left."
She shook her head in astonishment. "That's just … amazing. You remembered that moment so clearly?"
Steele smiled slightly. "In my line of work – my former line of work-" he corrected himself, "you don't have the luxury of carrying around snapshots and scrapbooks. I learned to memorize every detail of moments that are special."
"You thought that moment was special?"
"Very special." A slightly wry smile, now. "Life-changing."
"This is what you've been doing over the past six weeks."
"I found myself with a bit of time on my hands, yes. Thought I might as well preserve such a historic event for posterity. In fact, I was working on it when you arrived. Had a hell of a time getting out of my smock and into this robe to answer the door."
They were quiet for a moment, Laura admiring the painting and Steele admiring her.
"So …" she finally said quietly. "You know I didn't really mean it when I said I'd be okay with you seeing other women, right?"
"Yes, I know."
"And you understand that if you ever did, I'd actually want to know about it."
"Of course. So I could hunt her down and kill her." She looked down at him with narrowed eyes. "And you."
He grinned. "I'll keep that in mind."
Laura crouched beside him, placed a hand on the back of his neck and turned his face to her. She kissed him … tenderly, deeply and with increasing passion.
"I wish I could get out of this damned chair," he murmured against her lips.
"Not me. I've got you right where I want you," she answered, sighing as she claimed his lips again.
Suddenly there was a piercing buzz from the vicinity of the kitchen: the warning shriek of the smoke detector going off.
"Oh, my God!" Laura exclaimed, leaping to her feet. "My cheese sauce!" She galloped off toward the kitchen.
"Not to worry, Laura," Steele called after her. "As it happens, I've become rather familiar with a great pizza place offering 30-minute delivery." He smiled broadly as he pushed the joystick that started his wheelchair in her direction.