After Laura, the neighbor and her daughter had gone outside, Mrs Wood smiled at Steele. "Now, what's left of this coffee has gone cold; why don't you make another pot, if you wouldn't mind?" She laughed, "My legs make it a little hard for me to move around too much these days."
"Of course," said Steele, rising. He went to the machine, filled it with water and coffee from the can and set it brewing. As he stood by the kitchen counter, Laura's grandmother began speaking.
"So Remington, you're something of a mystery, aren't you? Why don't you tell me about yourself?"
Steele, always uncomfortable talking about himself, smiled engagingly. "Kitty, there's not much to tell, really. All rather mundane, I'm afraid."
"Oh, I doubt that, my boy. Laura's told me a little, and of course, so has Abby; but I'd like to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak. What about your family – how did they take the news of your marriage?"
He steeled himself to talk about his past, something that he normally hated to do. "Ah…I'm afraid I, er, don't have any family, Kitty. An orphan, you see. I would be intrigued to know what Laura said about me, though. She never really mentioned talking to you."
"An orphan? How sad! And Laura's told me you're English – you do have that beautiful accent! I've heard it's a wonderful country, although I've never been there. I'm afraid to say I've never been outside America."
Steele, seeing that his diversionary tactic had not worked, surmised that the family matriarch would be quite tenacious when she wanted to be. He picked up the freshly filled coffee pot and sat down once again at the table, pouring cups for both of them before answering.
"Yes…I grew up in London, although I was actually born in Ireland. And I've lived in a lot of places since; you could say that I'm a mongrel."
"It must have been terribly hard growing up an orphan? Did you ever know your parents?"
"Erm…unfortunately – no, Kitty. I never knew my mother or father growing up; I was bounced around from aunts to cousins and then back again, and lived here and there, as one does."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
"No, no, please don't feel too sorry for me. It was a long time ago. One moves on with life – onto the next chapter of the book; no use picking over the past, eh?"
"It isn't always so easy, Remington; sometimes the past can haunt a person."
"You're thinking of Laura and her father?"
"Yes, but of Abigail and Frances too. I'm afraid these…traumatic events – well, they can sometimes have hard consequences for years afterwards."
"It depends on the person, of course," said Steele, somewhat pensively.
"And how did you become a detective, of all things? I mean to say, it's such a very unusual profession – thrilling, but unusual."
"Oh, I kind of got into it sideways."
"I can't say I've ever encountered a real detective before – other than Laura – and she works for you and owes it all to you, doesn't she? I've always thought of detectives as existing in the pages of a book, or in the movies; yet here you are, a real life Philip Marlowe!"
"Ha, ha," chuckled Steele. "It's, uhm, not really like the books, Kitty. Most of it is legwork – plowing through information, looking for clues, that kind of thing. Being a detective can be dull sometimes – just like anything else – but there are occasional moments where the excitement can make up for the dull days."
"I've no doubt you're just being honest, but one likes to think their romantic notions have a grain of truth in them. Life would be so dull without a little romance in it sometimes, wouldn't it? Laura's told me some of it – she said you had a brilliant intuition, which is what had made you such a success as a detective."
"I can see she's told you rather more about me than she told me about you. It's a shame we've never met before, Kitty, I must say."
"As I am sure you know, Remington, she can be a little…guarded. Over the last year or two, Laura said she didn't want me to meet you just yet; at that time she was…a little unsure about your future together. I hope you don't mind my saying that? When a person is just entering into a love affair, well – caution is rather natural, isn't it?"
"Of course, of course. And Laura really said she thought I had brilliant intuition?"
Kitty chuckled, "You sound surprised."
"Not surprised, as such…But, Laura isn't the most effusive person when it comes to voicing her feelings."
"I think she and I have always had a special bond – perhaps because she was the baby of the family. She's always confided in me, even when she has sometimes found it hard to communicate with Abby."
This revelation was the sort of information that in the past Steele would have filed away in his memory, a weapon to use at some future date. He was oddly aware that he didn't feel that urge today, here with Laura's grandmother. "Really, it's Laura who's the brilliant one," he continued. "She has a very logical mind, and is very much in charge of things at the agency."
"How generous of you Remington. So many husbands – so many men – would never give their wives such credit. But I can see that you've already learned the secret of a good marriage: it's when a man and a woman both agree to love and honor each other – and the wife is in charge!" Kitty laughed heartily at her own joke, as Steele chuckled along with her. "You know, ever since I learned about Laura's new job – and about you – I've always looked out for news about you both. You're rather well known, in fact; I've got all your clippings."
"Really? You have clippings about me?" asked Steele, his natural vanity aroused.
"Oh yes. Would you like to see them?"
"I'd be delighted, Kitty; if you don't mind?"
"Of course not." Mrs Wood rose and left the room, waving away Remington's attempt to offer assistance. She returned a couple of minutes later bearing a large blue photograph album. "This is my recent family album, Remington. Please have a look."
Steele opened the book and flicked through it. He saw it contained various family heirlooms: a pressed flower; a lock of dark hair; a copy of Frances and Donald's wedding invitation; the announcement of the birth of their first child, Daniel. There were also many photographs of the family – an old one of the Wood-Holt women pictured together at the Grand Canyon; what looked like Laura's high school graduation photograph, showing her impossibly young looking and with center-parted hair; more recent photographs of the Piper family and of the three Piper children. And later in the book, Steele saw newspaper clippings of various headlines referring to himself or to the agency; occasionally, when Laura was in a photograph, the caption had been emphasized with a highlighter pen. He noticed there were no photographs of Laura's father at all, however.
"It's rather fascinating, Kitty," he said. "Thank you for sharing it with me. I can see you really dote on Laura."
"I think you're right. I taught Laura to play the piano, you know. Of course, I love Frances dearly – both my granddaughters are so precious to me. But sometimes in families the youngest child's voice is only heard at the periphery of things. Abigail and Frances are more confident; Laura was always rather quieter – studious, with a bit of a temper if roused, but, oh so kind and thoughtful. In a way, becoming a detective seems very appropriate – helping people with their problems."
"I knew you gave her her piano. She loves music so – she often turns on a classical station on the radio, and she loves listening to Saint Paul Sunday. But she never told me that you taught her to play."
"Ah, well, in my day, you see, playing music was an important accomplishment for a girl. I'm sorry to say that playing the piano acceptably is one of my few talents in life. I rather envy today's young women, like Frances and Laura, and the choices they have – a career, or a family, or even both."
"Do I sense some regrets, Kitty? Please, tell me it's none of my business if I am prying; perhaps that was too personal a question?"
"Not at all…Do I have some regrets about the past, about chances missed? I would say – perhaps I used to. But when you get to my age, Remington, you stop having regrets – if for no other reason than you cannot remember them anymore." Kitty chuckled at her own joke. "But, make no mistake, the most important thing ultimately – the most rewarding thing I did – was to be a wife and mother and grandmother, and I have no regrets about that. Every time I look at Abby or Frances or Laura, I'm reminded of what's really important in life: family."
"Hmm…I am sure you're right, Kitty. I'm not much of an expert on family life. For a long time…well, I suppose I rather avoided those things – at least avoided thinking about them too much. It's only since I met Laura that they came into perspective for me." Steele laughed self-deprecatingly, surprised at how much he was opening up to this older woman that he had never met before. "Am I making any sense, or just talking nonsense?"
"You are making sense. Remember, you're not the first, Remington, and you won't be the last person to be reticent about love. Laura, as well…she's told me so before this. I think it was the effect of her father leaving, of course. I'm so glad she met you – she needed someone. And now that I've met you, I can see that you're that someone."
Steele found himself unaccountably moved by the words, knowing that they came from Laura's most beloved relative. He swallowed involuntarily, then took a swig of coffee to distract his attention for a moment.
"It's very kind of you to say so, Kitty," he continued. "Laura and I…well, our relationship took rather a long time to get off the ground. It was not only her fault, of course – far from it, I bear a lot of the responsibility as well. But Laura – well, she always seemed a bit of a…worrywart, eh? I always thought she kept her feelings bottled up inside herself, perhaps because she was emotionally fragile."
Kitty looked at him sympathetically, then reached out and touched his hand for a moment. "Not fragile, Remington; cautious, perhaps, even vulnerable – but never fragile.
"The Wood women – the Holt women, if you like – have often had to cope without a man. You know about Abigail's divorce, of course; but I became a widow at a relatively young age as well. But I believe we're strong, Remington! And that includes Laura.
"Let Laura be your helpmeet. If you show her you need her, that you love her, my boy, you'll both be infinitely the stronger for it. Kipling once said that there are two types of women – those that give strength to a man and those that take it away; if you let her, Laura will be a source of infinite strength to you, believe me."