STEELE UNBOUND

BY: xffan_2000

SUMMARY: What if Laura didn't put the clues together and instead was at Unidac when Clarissa and Steele got married?

RATING: PG-13 (at the very most)

DISCLAIMER: This "Remington Steele" story is not-for-profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author and this site do not own the characters and are in no way affiliated with "Remington Steele," the actors, their agents, the producers, MTM Productions, the NBC Television Network or any station or network carrying the show in syndication, or anyone in the industry.

**********

Her hair in wild tangles, her suit ripped, her pantyhose ruined and only one high-heeled shoe in working order, Laura stalked off the elevator on the eleventh floor. The perplexed look she received from the man standing in the hallway just added insult to injury.

"Got a problem, buddy?" she snarled, stomping on to the office.

She shoved the glass door open and was greeted by an empty reception area.

"Mildred?" she called, moving through the room. "Mr. Steele?"

It figured. Nobody around when she needed them. And who the hell ran out and left the door to the agency unlocked?

Aggravated, Laura entered her office and flung open a file drawer. As she pulled a clean, white pair of tennis shoes from the drawer, the phone started to ring. Laura hurried to Mildred's desk and picked up the receiver, upside down. "Rem..." Realizing her mistake, she flipped the receiver over. "Remington Steele Investigations."

"Miss Holt?"

"Mildred?" Laura slid onto the desk and yanked off her broken shoe. "Where are you?" Irritated, she scowled at the ruined footwear and chucked it across the room.

"At the Unidac mailroom."

"What are you doing there?" Laura questioned, tying her spiffy-white tennies.

"Somebody called the cops on Alessandra. But it's okay. I put the body where it'll be lost for hours, if not days."

Curious, and finally actually paying attention to what Mildred was saying, Laura asked, "Where's that?"

She could hear the smile and smugness in Mildred's voice, "Priority Mail."

"Mildred, I want you and Alessandra to wait right there for me," Laura instructed.

"You got it."

Laura ended the call and started for the door. Wincing at her own stupidity, she nearly smacked herself in the forehead. Her car was still at the court house. She did an about-face and returned to the phone, dialing the number to the limo.

After a two rings, it was picked up.

"Remington Steele's car," the chauffeur answered.

"Fred!" Laura said, "I need a ride."

"Miss Holt?" Fred sounded oddly confused.

"Yes. I need a ride. Pull the car around."

"But, I am 'around,'" he responded. "I'm right out front."

"Good. I'll be right down."

"Right down? But aren't you...?" Fred lowered his voice, "Aren't you with Mr. Steele?"

"Unless Mr. Steele is hiding under his desk, no. Look, Fred, are you at the office or aren't you?"

"Uh...No."

"Fine. I'll call a cab." Without waiting for his response, she hung up. Now, she just had to locate a phone book.

*****

As the cab pulled up to Unidac, Laura saw Mildred standing by the curb, wringing her hands. Knowing something was wrong, Laura glanced at the cab fare. She threw three twenties at the driver with her left hand and grasped the door handle with her right.

The cabbie had barely slowed down when Laura jumped from the car. "What's happened?" she asked, hands on hips.

Mildred started to speak, but took one look at Laura's tattered appearance and went down a completely different path. "What happened to you, Miss Holt?" she gasped.

"Mildred!" Laura insisted.

The detective-in-training shook her head, realizing there was business at hand. "Alessandra's been shanghaied!" she announced, grabbing Laura's hand and dragging her toward the building. "After I ditched Burnett's body, I went back to the office, but Alessandra was gone."

Laura pulled them up short. "I think I know who's got her."

*****

Getting into Unidac, as usual, was incredibly easy. Getting around Unidac, on the other hand, was the real trick. Mildred produced a company map and pointed out the security office. Unfortunately, it was located at the extreme opposite of end of the building.

"Oh, great," Mildred complained. "And me in heels."

"Not to worry, Mildred," Laura said with a smile, "I've got a plan."

The two walked up the hallway a few yards and came to a stop by a Unidac golf cart.

"Why walk when you can ride?" Laura asked, taking the driver's seat.

Mildred eagerly climbed aboard.

They drove for a few moments, taking the corners wide and not getting so much as a second glance from the suited employees they passed.

"I think it's straight ahead," Mildred said, unfolding the map right in front of Laura's face.

"Mildred, get the map down!" Laura swiped at the paper, only to pull it away from her eyes in time to see the glass door to the security office fast filling her vision.

Though she did slap on the breaks, they still crashed through the door.

In the ensuing confusion, Mildred leapt to Alessandra's aid, getting her away from the security guards in the room. Laura promptly extracted a gun from Lyle Andrews' hand. The Unidac security guard-cum-embezzler turned and ran from the office.

Laura took off after him, but immediately pulled up short when more guards entered the room. The men looked at the gun in Laura's hand and frowned at her.

"We're from Blue Division," Mildred suddenly offered. She approached them, her IRS attitude shining through. "Project Zeta Beta Lambda, Red Flag, Green Clearance, Yellow Zone." She took the gun from Laura's hand, and waved it in the general direction of the two remaining embezzlers. "Arrest these people over here, will you?" She handed off the gun to the nearest guard and grabbed Laura. "Let's get Andrews!"

As they ran from the room Laura, with a wide smile, nodded her absolute approval at her co-worker.

"I used to *be* bureaucracy," Mildred beamed.

Laura and Mildred tracked Andrews outside, heading for a construction area. Running at top speed, Laura easily left Mildred panting behind her.

As she neared Andrews, Laura propelled herself forward, diving for his mid-section.

Andrews went down hard, face-first into a mud puddle. He struggled to free himself from Laura's hold, but she wouldn't let loose. Andrews then changed his tactic and grabbed Laura, pushing her into the dirty water. He held her face beneath the surface, his entire body weight behind the effort.

Laura's limbs flailed uselessly as she tried to get air. Just as the grip of panic started to take hold, Laura felt the pressure holding her down vanish.

Looking up, Laura peeled her sodden hair away from her eyes to see Andrews out cold next to her in the mud.

Mildred, holding a long two-by-four in her hand, stood over Andrews. "Teamwork!" she smiled, extending a hand to Laura.

*****

Steele could tell Fred was trying very hard not to stare into the rear-view mirror. It was hard for Steele to ignore the confusion and utter shock in Fred's eyes as his gaze darted quickly between the two passengers. The white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel, even though the car was parked, was equally hard to miss. It was a minor relief to know that Fred would keep his opinions to himself.

"Thank you, Clarissa," Steele said, peeling ten one-hundred dollar bills off the folded pile and handing them to the woman still dressed in the wedding gown. "I know you've risked a lot today."

Clarissa took the bills, folded them over twice and tucked them down her ample cleavage. "You're welcome, Remington." She smiled gently and kissed his cheek. "I'm really sorry things didn't work out the way you'd planned."

Steele hung his head and gave a self-depreciating chuckle. "No. No, they certainly didn't." He raised his eyes back to hers. "Keyes might still be a problem, but I don't think Miss Becker will bother you too much."

"I can handle that bald guy just fine," she smiled.

"Try not to get yourself arrested. He's just the type to do that to a person. Believe me, I know."

"Jail?" Clarissa shrugged. "Been there, done that. No big thing." She leaned in and kissed Steele on the lips briefly. "It was nice being an honest woman." She pulled the wedding band off her finger. "Even if it was just for show." Clarissa reached down and picked up Steele's hand. She carefully placed the ring in his palm then covered his fingers over it. Her eyes met his for a long moment. "Bye," she said simply.

Steele nodded and reached for the door handle. He stepped out of the limo and extended his hand to Clarissa. After she slid out, she touched her palm to his face. "See you around."

She gathered up a handful of her long gown and started back toward the church.

"Leaving so soon, sweetie?" Both Steele and Clarissa snapped their attention to Keyes, who was sauntering up the sidewalk. "He must be pretty quick if the honeymoon's over already."

Steele's jaw clenched.

"If you're done with her, Steele, mind if I have a go?"

Clarissa stepped between the two men before Steele could complete his lunge. "Now, dear..." She pressed her palm into Steele's chest, a warning in her eyes. She turned to Keyes. "For your information, Curly, I forgot my bag inside the church." She turned back to Steele and kissed him squarely on the lips. "I'll be right back, honey." She gave Keyes a hard look when she strolled past him to the church.

Steele and Keyes watched her as she slipped inside the building.

"How much are you paying her, Steele?" Keyes asked, turning to face him.

Forcing his anger down, Steele frowned at him. "Have you always been a worm, Keyes, or do you have to work at it?"

Norman sneered. "Ha-ha," he said flatly. "You are so very funny, Steele." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a fresh cigar. "I knew you wouldn't go down without a fight, but I can honestly say I never expected this out of you. This is quite amusing."

Steele scowled as Keyes lit the cigar and puffed a cloud of smoke between them.

"You do, of course, realize that you're stuck with that hooker for two years now," Norman said, poking his cigar toward the closed church doors. "And you also know that even though you've somehow managed to evade the INS and that dimwit Becker, you'll never get away from me. I'll be watching you and your tramp, Steele."

Keyes found himself flat on the sidewalk.

Clarissa exited the church, a large bag slug on her shoulder, and looked down at the man sprawled on the concrete. "Couldn't keep your mouth shut, could you?" she asked him, purposefully stepping on the stogie next to him.

Rubbing the left side of his jaw, Keyes looked down at his crushed cigar. "You two are really quite the pair, aren't you?" he chuckled, shoving himself from the ground. "Well, I'll be checking in on you people later this evening." He brushed some dirt from his pants. "You'd better be together for your," he made little quote symbols with his fingers, "'wedding night.' Or I'll be on the phone to Immigration so fast you won't know what hit you, Steele. If Becker won't watch you, I'll do it myself until I can find someone at INS who knows how to do the job." Keyes turned and started walking away from the two of them. "But right now, I have a little something extra to take care of." He threw a look back in their direction. "See you around, Steele!"

Clarissa resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at Keyes. Instead, she reached out to Steele's hand and took it in hers. "Now what, Remington?"

*****

"This will never untangle," Laura grumbled as she exited her bathroom. She plopped herself down on the sofa and tried to dig a comb through her freshly cleaned, but still-tied-up hair.

"You might have to get a professional to fix that, Miss Holt," Mildred commented, bringing over two cups of tea.

"This is hopeless," Laura sighed. "I think I'll just wear a hat." She put down the comb and picked up the hot cup. "Thanks, Mildred."

"No problem, honey."

"No, I mean for helping me today."

"Like I said. No problem." As she sipped her own cup of tea, a smile spread across her face. "It was a hoot bashing that guy's head."

They both chuckled. Andrews hadn't been seriously injured. Well, not too seriously, anyway. He was just stunned enough to be very willing when the police arrived.

Mildred checked her watch. "Where'd you say you were parked?"

"The court house."

"What were you doing there?"

Laura shrugged as she sipped her tea. "I followed Mr. Steele there to see what he was up to."

"And?"

Laura lowered her cup. "And nothing. As he was leaving with some sort of paper in his hand, I was picked up by Andrews. I have no idea what our Mr. Steele is up to."

"He left the court house with paperwork?"

Laura nodded and was about to comment when a knock on the heavy wooden door interrupted their conversation.

"That's probably him right now," Laura assured Mildred as she stood up to answer the door. "We can ask him in person."

She slid the door open to reveal an unusually amused Norman Keyes.

Laura didn't invite him in. "What now, Keyes?"

Norman took his cigar out of his mouth. "I'm surprised you weren't at the wedding, Mildred," Keyes said around Laura.

Mildred joined Laura at the door. "What are you talking about?"

"Actually," Keyes poked his cigar in Laura's direction, "I was more surprised you weren't there, Holt." He stuck his stogie back in the corner of his mouth and talked around it. "Of course, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing for him, wasn't it?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about, Keyes. Now, please leave." Laura began to slide the door shut.

Norman put his left hand up and stopped the door from closing. He seemed genuinely intrigued by Laura's response. "You *don't* know what I'm talking about, do you?" His lips pulled back to reveal several teeth. It sort of resembled a smile. "Your boss just got married today to keep from being deported, Holt."

Tuxedo. Blood test. County courthouse. It all slammed into place, nearly jarring Laura off her feet. Bloody hell. The clues had been staring her in the face all day and she hadn't bothered to look at them.

Keyes nodded his head, obviously very pleased with himself. "Married a hooker, too, of all things. He's stuck for two years now."

Mildred found her voice. "Hooker?"

"Some two-bit named Clarissa."

Laura felt a definite need to sit down. She'd seen Steele kissing Clarissa. How could she have missed it? How did she not put it together?

Keyes chuckled. "I really had hoped to see that fraud kicked out of the country, but this," he put his hands on his hips and laughed heartily, "this almost makes up for my disappointment." He nodded his approval. "Ever since you people jerked me around over that diamond theft, I've wanted to see every one of you hung. I think I just got my wish."

Offended, Mildred pushed past Laura and confronted him. "You've got a lot of nerve coming here and telling lies about the boss like that, baldy."

Keyes raised his palms to ward off her attack. "I only tell the truth, Mildred."

Mildred felt a hand slip onto her shoulder. "He's not lying, Mildred," Laura said flatly.

"What?" The secretary was shocked.

"Are you, Keyes?" Laura asked pointedly.

"Stood there and watched the whole thing," Keyes confirmed. "He's been married since three this afternoon." The grin he wore nearly split his face apart. "Just thought you'd like to know, ladies." With that, he turned and walked away, a spring in his step.

Mildred slid the door shut with a determined slam. "That bald creep," she muttered. When she turned she saw that Laura had retreated to the couch. "It can't be true, Miss Holt."

"It's true, Mildred," Laura said without any noticeable tremble in her voice. She picked up her comb and started working on her hair again.

"But..." Mildred was at a loss. "He wouldn't! Not without you. I mean..." Mildred wasn't sure she wanted to go there. But, it was the only obvious place to go. "No, that's exactly what I mean! You and him...you're together!"

With the betrayal burning its way through her gut and up into her heart, Laura forced neutrality. She stopped combing her hair and looked straight at Mildred. "Obviously we're not."

Mildred held her eyes, trying to see beyond the all-business expression Laura had fixed to her face. There was no crack in Laura's instant armor that Mildred could find at the moment. "Who's Clarissa?" she finally asked.

"Remember Bernard's Latin tutor?"

"But Keyes said she's a..." Mildred frowned and crossed her arms in front of herself. "What's my nephew doing with a hooker?" she demanded.

"He does her taxes," Laura said as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

As Mildred tried to digest that tidbit, Laura rose to her feet and grabbed her purse off the table. "Let's go."

Still stunned, Mildred decided it would be an excellent idea to leave. "Yeah. Let's get some answers from the boss!"

"We're picking up my car, Mildred. Then, I'm coming back home to try to untie my hair. You will also go home. And neither of us will bother Mr. Steele on his honeymoon."

Laura plopped a fedora on her head as she exited the loft. She didn't wait to see if Mildred would follow her.

*****

She exited Steele's bedroom to find the living room dark. The only light came from streetlights and the moon.

Clarissa slowly approached the open doors of the balcony. She watched Steele as he stood, his hands stuffed in his pants pockets, his eyes pointed down to the street. When his shoulders rose and fell in a defeated sigh, she could tell he wasn't seeing anything on the road below.

He'd placed his coat and tie over the back of the sofa, and Clarissa drug a red-polished fingernail over the expensive black fabric as she passed. When she looked at him, she felt a shiver of something she didn't normally feel in her line of work. She smiled at the sensation. She thought she'd met every type of man possible. But Steele...Steele was different.

She slipped behind him, her hands doing what came naturally. She slid them up his back and massaged his shoulders. She could feel the tension there, but said nothing of it.

"He's still down there," Steele informed her.

Clarissa leaned forward, looking past Steele and down to the street.

Leaning casually against the hood of his car, Keyes was staring up at them, his cigar glowing orange in the night as he drew a breath. At the sight of her, she could see his lips pull back and his teeth flash white. She couldn't hear him, but she knew he was chuckling, thinking he had them trapped.

Just to irritate him, Clarissa smiled broadly and waved down at him.

She felt Steele's amused exhale of air on her neck. Turning around, Clarissa's smile faded, her eyelids lowered slightly. He looked incredibly sexy to her at that moment. She wrapped both arms around his neck and pulled him down to her.

It was a gentle kiss. It wasn't forced like the first one they shared at the wedding, when Keyes barged in. And it wasn't as reluctant as the second one, the kiss that sealed their pact at the request of the minister. She pressed herself to him and nipped at his lower lip.

He still had his hands in his pockets.

When she pulled away, he smiled at her. It was clear, though, the happiness wasn't genuine.

She straightened her back and pulled away slightly. However, she didn't remove her arms from his neck.

"That ought to hold him for a few minutes," she covered, tilting her head slightly to indicate their personal voyeur.

"I should have anticipated Keyes would be a bigger problem," he told her. Plans had gone wrong for him in the past. Thefts had to be postponed, escapes barely made, sometimes the items were already gone when he arrived. But this plan...this one couldn't have gone more awry if he'd plotted it out to go wrong.

"He'll get bored. He'll go away," Clarissa assured him.

"I'm sorry I got you involved in this," he said, finally looking her in the eye.

Clarissa readjusted her arms, rubbing herself against him a little more than necessary in the process. "It's okay, Remington. Don't worry about it."

He scrutinized her for a long while. "What are you doing in this profession, Clarissa?" he finally had to ask.

"Waiting for a man like you?" she offered. Though she said it lightly, intending it to be a joke, they both felt the truth of it.

"I'm not such a prize," he said. He broke the eye contact. "Certainly not today."

"You, Remington, are a gentleman," she said assuredly. "You're kind, you help people in need, you're polite, and you treat me like a lady." She kissed him again. "Not like a lady of the evening."

He finally extracted his hands from his pockets and placed them on her hips. "You need a different career."

"I know." She leaned in again and met his lips. She untangled her arms from his neck and slid her hands down his arms. Twining her fingers with his, she broke the kiss and backed away. She tugged on his hands.

"Come with me, Remington," she whispered.

He didn't move.

"Clarissa..." he looked down at their clasped hands, the words not finding their way out of his brain.

"I like you, Remington, I really do," she told him. She knew how it must sound. "This isn't business," she promised him.

He looked into her eyes. "I know, Clarissa. And that's part of the reason why I can't."

Clarissa tilted her head slightly, a tiny crease appearing on her forehead. She observed him for a long moment. "You are indeed a gentleman, Remington." She shook off her curiosity and grinned at him. "Damn it anyway."

He smiled at her. "It's a curse," he said, the mirth obvious in his tone. He leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on her cheek. When he pulled back, he examined her and was pleased to note that he wasn't one bit aroused by what had just transpired. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

Clarissa nodded. "Yes. Yes, I would."

*****

He entered the office at 10:17 a.m.

At first sight of him, Mildred's eyebrows shot up in questioning shock. He didn't even have a chance to greet her before those same eyebrows sank lower. And lower. And lower.

Steele swallowed guiltily. Mildred knew. And if Mildred knew, Laura knew.

"Morning, Mildred," he tried, going for innocent and light.

"Yes, it is," she confirmed with scowl. She made a clear point of swiveling her chair to the right, turning her back to him.

Steele stood next to her desk for a moment, feeling the secretary's rebuff nipping at his heart. "Look, Mildred..." he began. The icy stare he received from her shut him up. Maybe he shouldn't have bothered getting out of bed today. "Laura in?"

Mildred gave up the death glare long enough to roll her eyes at his question. She pointed at the closed red door across from her desk. "It's your funeral," she told him bluntly.

Steele nodded, knowing it was the truth. He went to Laura's door, paused to gather his resolve, then twisted the knob.

He found Laura, as expected, sitting at her desk doing paperwork. She was scribbling furiously on a yellow notepad and only stopped long enough to raise her eyes his direction for a brief moment before continuing to write.

There was no invitation in, but she hadn't thrown anything at him, so he entered and closed the door behind himself with a quiet click.

Laura didn't look up when he stepped in front of her desk.

Steele leaned over slightly and said her name.

She completely ignored him, content to write whatever it was she was composing.

"Laura," he restated, "We...I...there's something I should tell you."

She refused to look up. "I'm working."

"I can see that. Can you stop for a moment?"

He could see her mull over the question. Finally, she took a deep, controlled breath, placed the pen flat across the notepad, clasped her hands together on top of the pad, fixed a neutral expression on her face and then looked at him. "What?"

He attempted to feign interest. "What are you working on?"

"Unidac case notes," she responded.

"Ah. How's that going?"

"It's wrapped up."

He was surprised by that. Things were going smoothly with the case, but he hadn't anticipated it would be done so soon. "Really?"

"Yes. Mildred and I finished it yesterday at about three o'clock." She placed emphasis on the time.

Steele flexed his jaw muscles. That's why she hadn't shown up. She was at Unidac. It was then he noticed her hair. "You cut your hair."

It wasn't a major change, but the stylist had no choice but to hack out a few of the most stubborn knots. It resulted in a very similar style, only with bangs.

"It was a business expense. Would you like to see the receipt, sir?" She glared at him.

Sir? Oh, damn. Steele suddenly understood. It was all business now. He knew yesterday, when Laura hadn't made an appearance at the church, he was in trouble. He should have anticipated her reaction. But she should have put it together.

It seemed to be the perfect ploy. He'd even congratulated himself on his cleverness in devising the plan. He knew if he left enough neon-sign-like clues, Laura would pick up on them and save him. He knew she wouldn't let him do something so foolhardy. He wouldn't have to put himself on the line and directly ask for her help. More importantly, he wouldn't have to face her possible rejection had he actually done things properly.

So now, instead of having spent a blissful night tangled with her, where he planned to declare his true feelings for her, they were having an icy stare-down in her office.

"Did you actually want something? Because I'm rather busy here," Laura said impatiently, drawing him back to her presence.

He blinked. He was quite certain that she knew exactly what he'd done yesterday, but he just lost the gumption to actually talk to her about it. "Uh, no," he finally answered. "No. Glad the Unidac case is completed." He tried to smile. "Keep up the good work," he added lamely.

Laura tried desperately to keep from throttling him. She drew her lip up in an almost-snarl. "Certainly, sir."

Steele nodded. "Good." He backed up a step. "Good." He continued to back up until his hand felt the doorknob behind him. "I'll just be in my office if you need me." He wrenched the knob and slipped through the door, but not before he heard her quietly mutter a response not meant for his ears.

"I seriously doubt I'll ever need you again."

*****

Laura pushed aside the notepad containing the finally-completed Unidac case notes. It was only 1 p.m., but her eyes were burning. She propped her elbows on the desk blotter and rested her head in her hands.

The respite from work allowed her mind to zoom directly back to the topic she wanted to avoid. She'd already tried to rationalize the circumstances, but couldn't.

If Keyes could be believed, Steele was in some kind of trouble with Immigration. And to alleviate the situation he'd gotten married.

It sounded just like one of his schemes. Skirt the law the easiest way possible.

But why did he even bother? Why not just leave the country?

That had been, after all, her greatest fear--that one day she'd wake up and he'd be gone.

Unfortunately, Laura managed to replace that fear by discovering something far worse than him leaving.

Him staying.

With another woman.

Right under her nose and behind her back.

Laura shook her head. God, she was blind...or stupid...or both...to not know, for over a year, that Steele was dating Clarissa. She frowned at that thought, because, really, could one actually "date" a hooker?

Steele had certainly been playing her for an idiot. And she'd willingly gone along with it. She should have paid more attention to her initial reaction when she saw Clarissa, half-dressed, coming out of Steele's bedroom last year; she should have ended it right then and there.

But no, She'd believed him that nothing had happened.

Right.

And in the time since, she mistakenly began to believe they were actually getting down-right domestic. He convinced her he actually enjoyed teaching her how *not* to burn dinner. She fell for it when he voluntarily joined her for a four-hour marathon of Atomic Man. He even swayed her into thinking he truly enjoyed spending time with Frances and Donald.

"Well," Laura said to herself, realizing just how misguided she was, "I'm certainly a moron."

She had to shake it off. There was no point in dwelling on personal issues when there was work to be done, she informed herself.

So, with a determination she didn't completely embrace, Laura straightened in her chair and reached for the top manila folder in her in-box.

The case had languished for nearly two days, taking a backseat to the Unidac matter.

Walter Rollinger, a well-to-do CEO, was missing a collection of gold coins and several of his antique handguns.

From his conversation with Laura, she knew his insurance company was investigating. Rollinger, however, insisted the Steele Agency take his case. He wasn't interested so much in getting his items returned; rather, he wanted the thief caught.

The thief, Rollinger told Laura, was his son.

Warren was barely seventeen, a loner, possibly addicted to heroin, and clinically depressed. Rollinger speculated that Warren had taken the items in order to get money for drugs.

The elder Rollinger explained that the insurance company was planning to have the thief arrested. He, however, didn't want that for his son. Rollinger just wanted his son back. Whether or not the coins and guns were returned didn't matter. He told Laura he felt guilty for his son's actions.

Warren's mother died two years prior, and the boy...who had never been one of the most stable of personalities...started to unravel. Rollinger admitted to not paying attention to his son at the time, because he was too busy with work and trying to cope with his wife's death.

Now all he wanted was his son back. He told Laura he would get Warren the best possible psychiatric attention money could buy. He just needed the Steele Agency to find his boy before the police did.

Laura slapped the file closed and stood up from her desk. She had found something to occupy her mind and her time. Crumpling the last of her torn-up emotions into a tiny intellectual ball, Laura exited her office.

"Mildred! I need the addresses of all the pawn shops anywhere in or around Beverly Hills."

Mildred seemed shocked to see the energy radiating from her boss. "What's up, Miss Holt?"

"Rollinger matter. We're looking for anybody who tried to sell gold coins or antique guns in the last week."

Mildred pulled out the yellow pages and started flipping through to "P."

Laura hovered over the desk, and when she thought Mildred was otherwise occupied, she stole a glance back toward Steele's office.

"He's gone," Mildred said without looking up.

Laura frowned. It figured. Probably went home for a nooner.

"Don't go there, Miss Holt."

Laura looked curiously at Mildred. "Excuse me?"

"What you were thinking," she clarified. "Stop. It'll only make it worse."

"I wasn't..."

Mildred raised her eyebrows.

Laura sighed. "You're right." She turned away from the desk and crossed her arms over her chest. "You're right."

*****

"Mr. Steele! Good to see you again." Craig Hollenbeck stretched out his hand across his large oak desk.

"Mr. Hollenbeck," Steele responded, shaking the man's hand, "thank you for seeing me on such short notice."

"Not a problem, Mr. Steele. I certainly owe you one after what your agency did for me."

Quite frankly, Steele had no idea what the agency did for Hollenbeck. The case was several years ago, back when he was just a figurehead and Laura and Murphy still did the "real" detective work. Right now, though, all that mattered to Steele was that Hollenbeck was an attorney and available to meet with him immediately.

"So, what seems to be your problem, Mr. Steele?" Hollenbeck asked, gesturing for Steele to take a seat.

"I..." Steele wasn't sure where to start. It was strongly engrained in his character to avoid revealing his deception. However, the whole point of meeting with Hollenbeck was to try to correct the situation.

Taking a deep breath to focus his thoughts, Steele decided it best to just dive right in. "I need a divorce."

Hollenbeck shrugged. "Easy enough. How long have you been married?"

"About twenty-two hours."

Hollenbeck stared at him for a moment. Then, he broke into a grin. "That's funny. Good ice-breaker, Mr. Steele."

"I'm serious."

"Twenty-two hours," Hollenbeck deadpanned. "And you want a divorce already?"

"I made a terrible mistake."

"Apparently."

"Mr. Hollenbeck," Steele said, sliding forward in his chair, "I'm an illegal alien." The term left a foul taste in his mouth. "I've been in the U.S. for several years without any problems. Recently however, Norman Keyes, who knew of my status, became angry with me and turned me in to Immigration. A couple days ago I was approached by Estelle Becker and told I had to leave the country voluntarily or be deported. The only thing I could think of on such short notice was to get married to an American citizen."

"Popular choice," the attorney offered.

"Yes, well...it's not working out."

"Why is that?"

Steele stared at the attorney for a very long time. "I married a hooker."

That got a raised eyebrow from Hollenbeck.

"I planned out an elaborate situation in which the actual intended bride was to put the clues together and arrive in time to take Clarissa's place."

That got two raised eyebrows from Hollenbeck.

"Laura didn't show up, and I ended up married to Clarissa. Which wouldn't have been such a bad thing, because the INS was very lenient and essentially let me off the hook. Keyes, however, is still hounding me."

At Hollenbeck's suspicious frown, Steele clarified. "He's threatened to rattle cages at the INS until my case is looked into again."

"I see." Hollenbeck leaned back in his chair and appeared to ponder the situation. "First I think we need to square things away with Immigration." He started pulling papers from a desk drawer. "Then, we'll work on that annulment."

*****

It was rather surprising just how many pawn shops there were in Beverly Hills. There was probably some social significance to it, and Laura decided she'd ponder the topic later, when thoughts of Steele and Clarissa started crawling back into her brain.

Man With the Gold 'n Guns was the shop nearest to the Rollinger residence. It seemed highly unlikely Warren would be so stupid as to go to the first pawn shop he saw to fence his items, but she had to start somewhere.

Laura pulled open the glass door, which was far heavier than normal, due to the weight of the iron bars, and entered the dimly lit shop. Various piles of junk cluttered every available space.

Shaking off a sudden chill of claustrophobia, Laura picked her way through the piles to the caged area at the back of the room. She rang the service bell and waited.

A few seconds later, a short man with greasy black hair poked his head out from behind a closed door at the back of the cage. "Whadda ya want?"

"I'm looking for a friend of mine. You wouldn't happen to have seen him?" Laura raised a color photo of Warren.

"You 'spect me to believe that, lady?"

"Have you seen him?" she restated.

"Ya know what? I got some business back here right now. You come back a little later and we'll..." the man waggled his greasy eyebrows, "...*talk* about it."

Laura's molars ground together. But if that was how he wanted to play it, so be it. She lowered her eyelids seductively and licked her lips. "How about we *talk* about it now?" she asked in a sultry tone.

"On the other hand..." The man stepped out of the back room and approached the counter. He as he got closer, Laura leaned in.

"Have you seen my friend?" she restated.

Grinning in a cockeyed manner, the shop owner reached through the cage bars, snatched the picture from her hand and looked at it. "So what if I have?"

"I'd be ever so appreciative if you'd tell me where he is." She smiled demurely and batted her eyes at him.

"Don't know where he is, doll," the man said, audibly slurping his drool. "But you never know, he might come back."

"But he was here? With some coins, maybe?" Laura leaned slightly closer to the cage.

The man was as close to the cage bars on his side of the counter as he could get. "Maybe," he answered, the leer in his tone and eyes starting to turn Laura's stomach.

"Could I see the things he sold to you?" she pressed ahead.

"Hey, pal, I don't have all day!" a voice from the back room called, causing the shop owner to jump nervously. He smiled anxiously at Laura, revealing a gold-capped front tooth.

"That wouldn't happen to be about the items I'm interested in, would it?" Laura asked, innocently drawing her fingertip across her half of the counter.

"Uh," the man ran his hand through his hair.

The door to the back room flew open and a bald man stepped out of the back room. "You want to take care of our business, Martinez?" Norman Keyes stopped his approach when he caught sight of Laura. "Well, well, well!" he chuckled. "Didn't expect to be seeing you again this soon, Holt."

Laura instantly dropped her seductive charade and replaced it with her standard disgusted-to-see-you-too look. "What are you doing here, Keyes?"

"Recovering stolen property, Holt. It's my job, remember? Oh, but wait...I bet that's *your* job, isn't it, Holt? Let me guess, the Walter Rollinger case?"

"What makes you think that?"

"I know Rollinger hired you. You're working my case, Holt. You know how I feel about people treading on my territory."

"You recovered Mr. Rollinger's items, Keyes. Terrific. But that's not what I'm here for," Laura told him, absolutely sick of dealing with the man, particularly after the foul news he delivered the previous evening.

"Really?" Keyes stepped over to Martinez and plucked the photo from his pudgy fingers. "What do we have here?" He looked at the boy on the print. "Wouldn't happen to be my thief, would it?"

Laura didn't respond.

"Got a name on this guy?" Keyes pressed. When Laura didn't answer, Keyes turned to Martinez. "She say who this is?"

"Uh, no."

"I'm betting his name doesn't match what's on your paperwork, though, does it, Martinez?" Keyes added.

The shop owner shrugged.

"And what name would that be?" Laura asked, making soft eye contact with Martinez.

He smiled a bit, showing his gold tooth again. "Bobby Walker."

"You made a copy of his driver's license, didn't you?" Laura inquired, kicking the flirting back into high gear.

"Oh, yeah," Martinez replied, and he dashed away to the back room and was back before Keyes could get in a proper scowl at Laura.

He passed a copy of the driver's license through the bars.

"Thank you so much," Laura purred, folding the piece of paper. She smiled warmly at Martinez and stepped away slowly. "I'll see you again," she assured him.

Martinez's eyes lit up.

"Bye, Keyes," Laura said around Martinez and looked at him smugly. "Too bad you're busy recovering stolen property or you could go with me."

She turned and exited the pawn shop, leaving an irritated Keyes and a love-struck Martinez behind.

*****

Warren Rollinger was not only a reckless youth, he was an incredibly stupid youth, Laura decided.

The copy of the driver's license Martinez supplied lead Laura right to Bobby Walker's house...conveniently located two houses away from Warren's home.

Laura was greeted at the door by a rather prissy-looking lady with penciled-in eyebrows.

"Is Bobby Walker available?" she asked.

The woman looked Laura over from head to toe and curled a repulsed lip at her. "Who are you?"

"Laura Holt," she said, snagging her ID out of her purse and flashing it at the woman. "Remington Steele Investigations."

The woman blanched slightly, but quickly plastered a phony smile on her face.

"Are you related to Bobby Walker?" Laura asked, when the woman neglected to respond in any manner other than staring.

"He's my son," she answered, her eyes blinking slightly too fast.

"Well, Mrs. Walker," Laura began flatly, "I need to speak with your son regarding a theft."

Mrs. Walker's smile faded into a look of distaste. "I have no idea what you're talking about. My son would *not* be involved in such things. If anybody is to be blamed, it would be his no-good friend Warren. I suggest you start with that boy instead of pestering my family. Good day, Miss Holt." Mrs. Walker pushed to close the door.

Laura wasn't having a good day. And dealing with a hoity-toity rich woman protecting her son wasn't high on her list of fun activities. She slapped her palm on the closing door and shoved.

Mrs. Walker's drawn-on eyebrows shot upward at Laura's audacity.

"Mrs. Walker," Laura began in a cool and deadly tone, "let me assure you that if I don't speak with Bobby right now, I will see to it that he's arrested immediately, because it was *his* identification that was used to fence the stolen items. So, you can either cooperate with me or you can deal with the police."

Mrs. Walker swallowed and stepped back. She motioned for Laura to enter the house.

Almost on cue, Bobby wandered through the entryway, and gave his mother and Laura a bleary look.

"Bobby," his mother began, "honey, you didn't...steal...anything, did you?"

Bobby's eyes widened and some of the fog lifted. "Oh, man," he groaned.

"You didn't!" Mrs. Walker gasped.

"No, ma, not me. I swear!" Bobby's gestures were a little too free.

"It was Warren?" Laura suggested.

Bobby paused and stared at Laura, his mouth hanging open. He squinted, as if trying to figure out if he knew her. "How'd you know that?"

"How did Warren get your ID to use at the pawn shop?"

Bobby seemed very confused that his question was answered with an additional question.

"Is Warren here?"

"No, man, he went..." Bobby's brain apparently caught up with the situation, causing his mouth to slam shut. He glanced at his mother. "...out."

"Look, Bobby," Laura said, stepping closer to the boy...though she desperately wanted to step away, since the pungent smell of pot was overwhelming. "I'm trying to help Warren. There's a man about ten minutes behind me who will take great delight in tossing both you and your friend in jail. And you won't be charged as a juvenile if Keyes has anything to say about it. You're both looking at hard time for theft and..." Laura paused and stared right into Bobby's eyes, letting him know that even though his mother ignored his drug habit, the police wouldn't, "...a few extra charges. So, now, where is Warren?"

It was obvious Bobby didn't fully grasp what Laura was telling him. However, 'not charged as a juvenile' and 'a few extra charges' seemed to grab his attention. He bounced nervously then glanced at his mother.

"He went to see Blade," Bobby finally admitted.

"And where would Blade be?"

Bobby hung his head. "At West Hollywood Park."

*****

The case was turning out to be all too easy. But Laura was thankful for the mindless task. It would provide instant gratification, with the added feature of focusing her attention away from the cavern in the center of her chest.

It was early evening and the sun was still up when she pulled into the parking lot at West Hollywood Park. The place wasn't overly busy, but there were plenty of people taking advantage of the cool evening. It didn't seem like an appropriate place for a junkie to meet with his dealer.

Laura did a quick pass around the playground equipment and near the restrooms, checked near the pool and the tennis courts but found nothing.

"Dead end, Holt?"

She swung around to find Keyes leaning against a tree.

"Can't you find your own leads?" she said, turning and continuing to search the area.

"Sure," he said, following her, "you."

"You don't even know who you're looking for, do you?"

"Warren Rollinger, son of Walter Rollinger," Keyes answered.

"If you know that, why are you following me? Shouldn't you have found Warren days ago? He's not exactly the brightest thief in the world."

"No, he's not. But I've been busy with other things, like trying to make sure that fraud you call Remington Steele got kicked out of the country."

Laura's blood turned to ice and she stopped walking.

"What's the matter, Holt? Sore subject?"

"How about you just drop it?" She glared at him.

"You're right," he granted, "there's no point in rubbing salt into your wounds."

"Look Keyes, I don't know where you get off..."

"Well, I certainly know where you don't get off," he chuckled.

Laura nearly slapped him. Instead, she clenched her fists. "That was highly unprofessional," she gritted.

"Yes, it was," Keyes agreed, unapologetically.

Without a word, Laura turned away from Keyes and walked away. To her relief, he didn't follow.

On her way back to the parking lot, she caught sight of a tall man with plenty of gold chains around his neck exiting a thicket of bushes behind the large cement park sign.

"Blade," she muttered. It had to be Blade. Drug dealers always wore too much gold.

Changing course, Laura headed for the bushes.

As she approached, she could see a person crouched in the shrubs. A few feet closer and she could tell it was a male, hunched into a ball and rocking slowly back and forth on the balls of his feet. Laura watched as the man finished administering himself a shot of heroin into his left forearm.

"Warren?" Laura said quietly.

The man dropped the syringe to the ground and flung his head around to face the voice.

Laura could see that although he had the body of a full-grown man, Warren was very much a young boy. Laura had assumed the school photo Walter had provided was a couple years old. But, in fact, Warren did look very child-like.

"Warren, you need to go home now," she told him gently. "I'm here to take you home."

She extended her hand out to him.

"M--mom?" the young man asked, tears in his eyes.

"No, Warren, my name is Laura. I'm here to help you."

"W--wh--why?"

"Because your father wants you safely home, Warren. He loves you."

"No, he doesn't," he sobbed. "He hates me."

Against her better judgment, Laura found herself feeling sorry for the boy. "That's not true. He loves you and wants you to go home to him. He wants to make things right between the two of you."

"Not likely," a voice said from behind them.

Laura and Warren both turned to see Keyes standing in the shadows.

"Shut up, Keyes!" Laura hissed. "Don't listen to him, Warren."

"You'd better listen to me, Warren. You're in some serious trouble, pal."

Warren stumbled backwards and staggered to his feet. "No." He looked at Laura with wild eyes. "You said..." He pressed his palms to his temples and let out an anguished cry.

"Warren! It's okay. Everything is going to be okay," Laura desperately tried to assure him. "Don't listen to this man."

Warren backed up further and reached into his coat pocket. Apparently he hadn't pawned all of his father's antique guns, because an old revolver, obviously loaded, was pointed first at Keyes then at Laura. "You lied!"

"Come on, Warren," Laura coaxed. "You don't want to do this." She held her left hand up to him. "Give me the gun, Warren."

Keyes stood frozen in place. He glanced at Laura who was inching closer to Warren.

"Give me the gun," she repeated. "I can help you, Warren, but not if you use the gun."

Sweat trickled down the young man's temple and his eyes were wet with tears of frustration. He swatted at his face with his free hand. "I don't wanna kill you."

"I know that, Warren. You're not a dangerous man, you're just scared," Laura assured him. "I can help you." She inched forward again.

"I don't wanna go to jail," he said through the now-falling tears.

"Warren, give me the gun," Laura repeated more firmly. She moved within an arm's length of him.

He looked her in the eye.

Laura forced as much sympathy as she could into her expression. "It'll be okay," she assured him.

For a long, tense moment, Warren stood sniffling. Then, slowly, he started to lower the gun.

Keyes' shoulders instantly relaxed as Laura reached out to take the gun from Warren's hand.

When the siren sounded in the distance, everyone was startled.

Warren stumbled backward, pulling his gun from Laura's reach. "NO!" he yelled.

A gunshot rang out.

Warren turned and ran.

There was a split second where Laura couldn't figure out why she was suddenly falling over. It was then the hot, immense pain skewered through her.

"Shit!" Keyes spun around to see Warren stumbling his way across the park. "Stop him!" Keyes yelled to a nearby group of football players, who were half-ducking and looking around to see where the gunshot came from. "Stop that man!" he commanded again, but he didn't bother to see if Warren was tackled or not.

Laura was on the ground in a fetal position, gasping for breath. Keyes dropped to his knees beside her.

"Holt? Oh, God, Holt!" He pulled Laura over, searching for where she was hit.

Laura whimpered in pain at the movement.

Keyes scanned Laura's chest and abdomen, but found nothing. His eyes followed Laura's arms down to where both of her hands were clasped tightly over her left thigh. Her pants and fingers were covered in blood.

The relief Keyes felt at that moment nearly caused him to swoon. "Thank God," he sighed.

"Keyes..." Laura said through clenched teeth. "Keyes, where'd Warren..."

"Forget him," he said, trying to prop her up with his knees as he pried at Laura's fingers. "Let me see."

Laura wouldn't let go. "Follow him," she gasped.

"You need a doctor!"

"Damn it, Keyes, he's getting away!" Laura attempted to pull out of Keyes' grasp.

Keyes stole a glance over his shoulder. Five guys were pinning Warren down. "It's taken care of!" He clutched Laura's shoulders tightly, forcing her back to the ground. "For God sake, woman, you've been shot! Lay down already!" he said angrily.

"I'm fine!" The fact her pallor was chalky white wasn't lost on Keyes.

"I'm going to call an ambulance." Keyes said, getting to his feet. "Don't you move from that spot," he ordered.

Laura scowled at him, ignoring the racking chills and the sticky warmth that was seeping between her fingers.

*****

Normally, Mildred wouldn't have stayed so late. But with Laura out working on the Rollinger case and Steele doing whatever the hell he was doing, she decided it would be a good opportunity to clean out a few files.

When the phone rang, she let the machine get it.

"Damn it!" the voice said. There was a pause. "Why do you people all have unlisted numbers?" There was another pause. "This is Norman Keyes."

Mildred rolled her eyes and went back to her files.

"I'm at Cedars-Sinai Hospital," he said. "Holt was shot."

Mildred knocked over a pile of folders as she dove for the phone.

*****

The phone rang twice.

"Hello?" a female answered.

Mildred stalled. She was sure she'd dialed the right number. "Is this Remington Steele's residence?"

"Yes," Clarissa answered. "Who is this?"

Mildred felt her face flush hot. "Is Mr. Steele there?" she demanded.

"He's rather tied up at the moment. Can I take a message?"

"Yeah," Mildred retorted smartly, "You can tell him Miss Holt's been shot."

"Oh, my God," Clarissa gasped.

At Clarissa's exclamation, Remington and Craig Hollenbeck looked up from the paperwork they had spread across the dining room table. They saw Clarissa standing in the living room, the phone no longer at her ear, her hand over her mouth and a look of disbelief clouding her features.

Steele excused himself and took the phone from Clarissa.

"Steele here," he stated, expecting to hear just about anybody but Mildred on the other end.

"Cedars-Sinai. Now." Mildred hung up.

"Mildred? What the hell? Hello? Mildred...damn it!"

He slammed down the receiver and turned to Clarissa. "What'd she tell you?"

"Your associate has been shot."

*****

Steele slammed his way into the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He went directly to the nurse's station.

"Laura Holt. She was brought in with a gunshot wound. Where is she?"

The nurse looked up at him, took note of desperation in his expression and turned to her computer.

"What was the name?"

"Holt!" he yelled. "Laura Holt!"

She typed in the letters and waited. Steele tapped his fingers on the countertop, his head turning from side to side trying to find Mildred in the waiting area.

"She's in surgery," the nurse responded. She pointed to the right. "Take the elevator at the end of the hall..."

Steele took off running.

"...to the third floor," she finished to no one.

A few moments later Clarissa walked in. "Did a very upset man just run through here?" she asked the nurse.

The woman pointed to the right. "Elevator. Third floor."

"Thank you."

+++++

Steele came to a halt at the nurse's station on the third floor.

"Laura Holt," he panted.

The woman looked at him. "Is she scheduled for surgery, sir?"

"Yes! Yes, damn it! She was shot!"

"Sir, please calm down."

"I am calm!" He leaned forward. "Where is Laura?"

"Sir..." the woman warned.

"Boss!"

Steele spun around. "Mildred! Mildred, where's Laura?"

"Boss, come on," Mildred took his hand and lead him to the lounge. She could feel his hand shaking.

"Where's Laura, Mildred? How is she?"

Mildred parked them on the nearest sofa. "She's going to be okay, Boss. She's in surgery now. I don't know how long she'll be in there. The doctor hasn't come out yet."

Steele lowered his head. "What happened?"

"Keyes said that..."

Steele's head snapped up, anger flaring in his blue eyes. "Keyes?" He looked around the lounge and for the first time saw the bald man standing in front of the vending machine. "Bloody hell!"

Steele flew across the room, shoving Keyes face-first into the glass front of the candy machine. Before Keyes had time to react, Steele pulled him back, spun him around to face him, grabbed his lapels and shoved him backwards again.

"What did you do to Laura!" Steele demanded.

Keyes, momentarily dazed, found his strength again and shoved at Steele's chest. "Back off, Steele!"

"Boss!" Mildred grabbed Steele's shoulders and pried him away. "Stop it, Boss!" She pulled him back a few steps. "Come on. Sit down. He helped Miss Holt. He's the one that brought her here."

Steele clenched his jaw and scowled at Keyes. "Who did this?"

"Warren Rollinger," Keyes answered tersely, adjusting his rumpled lapels.

The name meant nothing to Steele. But it didn't matter. He'd find out and then see to it that this Warren Rollinger paid painfully for harming Laura. "Where is he now?" Steele growled.

"Jail," Keyes said flatly.

"Remington!" Clarissa rushed over to him and put her hands on his shoulders. "How is she? Is she okay?"

Mildred glanced up at the woman but managed to bite back the comment that sprang to her tongue.

Clarissa took note of Keyes and his blood-stained suit, Mildred's red-rimmed eyes and Steele's tense shoulders.

It didn't look good at all.

*****

It was just after 10 p.m.

The motley crew of Steele, Clarissa, Mildred and Keyes sat far apart in the otherwise empty waiting area.

Clarissa rose from her corner chair and approached the coffee machine. Unfortunately, the machine was located next to Mildred, who absently flipped through a large-print copy of Reader's Digest.

The unapproving look Mildred shot her direction wasn't lost. Coffee in hand, Clarissa stood next to Mildred.

"So," Mildred commented icily without looking up from her magazine, "you're the new Mrs. Steele."

Clarissa sighed and sat down on the sofa, entirely too close for Mildred's liking. She stared across the room at Steele, who had his head in his hands. Keyes told them Laura was shot in the leg, which relieved the immediate fear for Laura's life. But as the minutes ticked by without word from the doctor, the tension surrounding Steele rose.

Clarissa then turned to face the older woman.

"Can I be honest with you, Ms. Krebs?" she asked quietly.

Mildred tilted her head suspiciously. "This ought to be good."

"Remington's a really nice guy and I love him." Clarissa noted the murderous look that crossed Mildred's features. "But not that kind of love, I assure you."

Mildred's face relaxed slightly.

"He's a good friend. I just wanted to help him out. I didn't really intend to marry him."

Mildred shrugged. "Accidents will happen," she said sarcastically.

"Miss Holt was supposed to get to the church and stop the wedding. She was supposed to take my place," Clarissa explained.

Mildred tilted her head slightly. There was a moment of disbelief, but it was short-lived. "As bizarre as that sounds," Mildred commented, "it makes perfect sense." She glanced over to Steele and shook her head in dismay. "A little honesty wouldn't have killed him."

++++

Steele knew someone was standing in front of him. It wasn't until he raised his glance slightly and caught sight of the blood-stained pants that he knew it was Keyes.

"What do you want?" he sighed, tired of all the games between the two of them.

"She's going to be all right, you know," Keyes said in a surprisingly comforting way.

Steele looked up, confused by the sympathy he found in Keyes' eyes.

"I've been waiting to nail you for stepping on my turf for two years now, Steele. And I had you but good." He put his hands on his hips and stared down at Steele. "I must admit, I was quite enjoying putting you through the wringer. All three of you. But tonight..." Keyes paused and chuckled a bit, "...tonight I learned something.

"Laura Holt is nothing if not dedicated to her job. Do you know that woman was bleeding and going into shock, but still tried to get up and go after Rollinger?"

Steele was both proud and nauseated at the thought.

"I admire such dedication in a person," Keyes continued. "I admire Holt. And I feel guilty for saying the things I've said to her the past couple days. She didn't deserve it." Keyes became quite serious and almost protective. "And she certainly doesn't deserve the bullshit you're laying on her."

Steele raised his eyebrows, questioning.

"I'm getting off your case. Anything you and Holt and your..." he glanced toward Clarissa, "...whatever...do next is entirely your business. Just keep your nose clean from now on and try not to cross my path."

Cautiously, Steele rose to his feet. He tried to read Keyes for deception, but found none. Slowly, he extended a hand out.

The two men guardedly shook hands on the deal.

*****

Laura had been in and out of consciousness several times. None of her encounters with people really registered until she opened her eyes and saw Clarissa standing beside the bed.

Groaning, she slid her eyes shut again.

"How are you feeling?" Clarissa asked.

"Lousy, thanks."

"Remington said the guy was caught."

"Terrific." She didn't particularly care.

"Remington was just here, he stepped out to find your doctor."

"Whatever." If she had the strength, she would have rolled over.

"I know you're angry with him, Laura."

She cracked her eyes a bit to look at the woman standing beside her.

"You have every right to be. I certainly would be, if I were you."

"Thanks for your concern, but I don't feel like discussing my association with Mr. Steele with you." She attempted to turn herself away from Clarissa. "Now, if you don't mind, I'm in quite a bit of pain and I'd like to quit talking before I say something I shouldn't."

"There's nothing you shouldn't say. He hurt you. Plain and simple."

"Look," Laura shifted to face her. "I'm doing you a favor here. You should just leave."

"He loves you, you know."

Laura looked unblinkingly at Clarissa. "I think I've had too much morphine."

"He does."

"Well, he's got one fantastically ineffective way of showing it."

At the sound of a clearing throat, both women looked to the door to see Steele standing there, a huge bouquet of roses in hand.

"Remington," Clarissa acknowledged. "We were just talking about you."

"Yes," Laura agreed stonily, "We were."

Clarissa headed for the door. "I think you wanted to have a little talk with our patient here." As she passed Steele, he grabbed her hand to stop her.

"Thank you." He kissed her cheek. "For all your help." His eyes darted to Laura.

"No problem." She tipped her head back toward the bed. "You've got some serious explaining to do." She leaned in to kiss his cheek. "Do it right this time, okay?"

He watched as she departed. When she was out of sight, Steele swallowed hard. He forced a smile and turned toward Laura. "Hi," he said simply.

Laura didn't answer. She merely crossed her arms over her chest, being mindful of the IV stuck in her wrist, and waited.

He extended the roses toward her. "These are for you."

She didn't respond.

He averted his gaze slightly, licked his lips and took a deep breath. "Laura..." He approached her bed. "You scared the hell out of me. When Mildred called..." He shook his head, trying to rid the memory from his mind. He decided it best to change the subject. "Your doctor said you should be up in a day or so. Some physical therapy and you'll be as good as new." He raised his eyebrows tentatively and attempted a wolfish grin. "Maybe I can help with the 'physical' part."

"I think your wife would object to that, Mr. Steele," she reminded him.

Steele let out an exasperated grunt and tossed down the flowers. "Damn it, Laura!"

"Damn it, Laura, what?" she threw back.

"Will you stop it?"

"You, Mr. Steele, are a married man. And I would appreciate it if you would stop trying to act like you're not."

His temper flared. "And you, Detective Holt, were supposed to put the ample number of clues together and get to the church on time."

"You could have just sent an invitation," she stated.

"No! You were supposed to..." He abruptly halted his words. This was the end of the line. It was time to expose the con. His shoulders sagged just a bit. "You were supposed to be in the wedding."

"Like Clarissa needed me as a bride's maid," she bit back.

"You were supposed to be the bride!" he finally admitted.

Laura, knowing that she had powerful narcotics flowing through her veins, now knew for certain the drugs had addled her mind. He wasn't serious, was he? The flaring of his nostrils told her that he was serious, though.

"You know," she began, the defeat obvious in her tone, "for some cock-eyed reason I expected less of you."

Confused, Steele frowned. "Less? Less what?"

"Less trickery. Less deceit. Less..." her voice hitched slightly, "...less of everything that makes me doubt your feelings for me."

Steele looked into her eyes. They were overly shiny. He didn't know if it was from the pain-killers or if she was ready to cry. "Would you have married me?" he asked in all seriousness.

She looked into his blue eyes. "How can you expect me to answer, after what you did?"

*****

Steele passed the nurse's station and flashed a dazzling smile at the usual crowd. He didn't notice the perplexed looks the women gave him as he strode down the hall.

They weren't at all surprised to see him back at the desk a few seconds later.

"Where is she?" he asked without preamble to the nearest nurse.

"She was released."

"Released? When?"

"A couple hours ago," the nurse replied. "Her friend came and picked her up."

Steele frowned. "Friend? Which one?"

"I think she called him Frank...or Fred...or something with an 'F.'"

The bouquet of roses was slammed on the countertop as Steele cursed under his breath. He didn't look back to the nurse until he'd controlled his anger.

"Do you mind if I borrow your phone for a moment?" he inquired politely.

The nurse shrugged and placed the unit on the desktop.

Steele smiled icily and picked up the receiver. He quickly punched a few numbers and then waited.

"Remington Steele's car," Fred answered.

"Steele here," he told his driver.

"Yes, sir?"

"Why didn't you call me when you picked up Miss Holt this morning, Fred?"

"Excuse me, sir? Picked up Miss Holt from where? Isn't she still in the hospital?"

Steele sighed as he realized the situation. "I'm sorry, Fred. My mistake."

"No problem, sir."

Steele hung up the phone and frowned at no one. Suddenly, he lifted his head and smiled at the nurse. "Thanks for your assistance," he told her before turning and walking back toward the elevator. He left the slightly-damaged bouquet at the nurse's station.

*****

Laura heard the pounding on the door. How could she not? Everyone in the entire building could hear it.

She knew exactly who it was. But, quite frankly, she wasn't in the mood to get back up and hobble into a confrontation. The taxi ride home cost over fifty bucks, it had taken her nearly a half an hour to maneuver her bag and herself up the three flights of stairs, and she'd just gotten sat down with her leg situated comfortably on a pile of pillows. Moving was not a top priority.

"What do you want?" she yelled, finally growing tired of his noise.

"Open the door, Laura," Steele hollered back.

"I'm out on sick leave today, sir. Can't this wait until morning?"

"Laura, open the goddamn door!"

She shook her head. She'd managed to avoid a direct confrontation thus far, but now Steele literally brought it to her door. There was really no point in refusing to open the door, as she knew he wouldn't leave until he saw her face to face. She sighed in resignation. Might as well get on with it.

She struggled to the edge of the cushions then slid off the sofa onto her right foot. She grabbed her crutches and shoved them under her arms.

Steele began his pounding again.

"Oh, for God's sake, I'm coming! Give it a rest!"

The thundering stopped.

Reaching the door, Laura lowered her forehead against the wood and closed her eyes.

"Laura?"

She shook her head, swallowed hard and raised her head back up. The armor back in place, she unlocked the door and shoved it to the side.

"Yes?" she asked flatly, not moving from her spot to invite him in.

"Why didn't you call me?"

"Call you for what?"

"The nurse said you were released this morning."

"Do you have a point?" she countered.

"My point, Laura," he started angrily, "is if you weren't being so pig-headed you wouldn't have had to struggle up those stairs on crutches."

She tried not to snort at his statement. As if he cared. "I managed just fine, thank you." She shifted her weight a bit to keep the crutches from digging into her armpits. "I don't need you to carry my bag."

"I would have carried you," he informed her.

She gave him an icy glare. "That's hardly a professional thing to do, sir."

"Stop being so bloody hostile, Laura, I'm tired of it," Steele growled.

"I'm not being hostile in any way, sir, I'm being very professional. Which is more than I can say about you. Now, why are you here, at my home, if you don't have something pertaining to the operation of the agency to discuss?"

"Could you stop being Detective Holt for awhile and be Laura?"

"And what purpose would that serve?"

"I want to talk to *you*."

"*I* have nothing to say. Good day, Mr. Steele. I'll be in at eight tomorrow morning if you need me."

She began to shut the door, but Steele angrily forced it back open. He advanced into the loft, causing Laura to hop backward.

"Damn it, Laura! When are you going to drop this nonsense, eh?"

"And what nonsense would that be?" she asked innocently, readjusting her crutches after his intrusion.

"This," he waved his hand in the air, trying to grasp the proper term, "professionalism!" he finally landed on.

"And just exactly how am I supposed to act around my 'boss' if not professional?"

"I'm not your boss, as you so often like to point out."

Laura's eyelids closed to mere slits. "I'm very well aware of that fact," she told him in a deadly tone. She adjusted her stance, taking as much weight off her leg as she could.

Steele stared at her and clinched his jaw.

Laura stared back, watching his chest rise and fall with each agitated breath he took.

Neither said anything as they allowed the seconds to expand into minutes.

Finally, Laura then took a breath.

Steele straightened slightly, preparing himself for her words.

"I find myself in an curious situation," she began in a defeated tone.

Steele tilted his head slightly, obviously confused.

"The way I see it, I have only one option." She glanced at him, but couldn't maintain the eye contact. "I must keep a professional, working relationship with you for the sake of the agency. *You* are Remington Steele. *You* are who people believe they're hiring. So, until such time that you decide playing detective isn't fun anymore, I am required to deal with you on a daily basis."

There was a pause before Steele offered his question. "And if I left today?"

Laura snapped her eyes back to his, her stomach suddenly plummeting down between her feet. She tried to read if he meant it or not. She cautiously admitted, "I'll deal with that problem when I encounter it."

"It would be a problem?"

"Professionally, yes."

"I see." Steele crossed his arms over his chest. "So what about your personal feelings on the matter?"

Laura felt anew the burning sensation that had taken up residence in her gut the past few days. She stared at Steele, trying desperately to keep her bottom lip from trembling.

"I think," she ventured, pleased her voice didn't crack, "I don't want to talk about it."

"I think we need to talk about it," he told her.

"You won't like anything I have to say. So what's the point?"

"The point would be to get it in the open. Have it out. Latent Hostility?" he offered with a tiny smile. "Didn't you learn anything from the Freidlich Sensitivity Spa?"

"I learned we're very good at yelling at one another."

"Yes, well...I do believe some yelling is in order here, don't you?"

Laura shifted her crutches and took a step backward. There was nothing subtle about her movement. She was withdrawing, and Steele could literally see her do it.

"Damn it, Laura!" He advanced on her. "Let it out! Tell me what an ass I've been! Tell me how you feel!"

"It doesn't matter how I *feel*!" She squeezed her eyes shut and turned her face to the ground. Even with the crutches holding her upright, her shoulders sagged. "It doesn't matter," she whispered to the floor.

"It matters to me," Steele said.

Her eyes were glassy when she looked up at him. "How can you say that?" she asked, truly bewildered. "You threw out everything we had together. Everything!" She swallowed hard against the emotion welling up inside her. "At the very least...if nothing else...I thought we were friends."

She stared at him, hoping to God no tears would escape.

Steele tore his eyes from hers. He drew in a breath then let it out in a ragged sigh.

It was then she realized all she had believed in was truly lost. The scrap of hope she had clung to...the belief that maybe, *just maybe* there was more to them than just a pair of coworkers...dissolved. There genuinely wasn't anything between them besides the agency. If even that.

"Why?" she whispered.

It didn't really matter which "why" he answered, because she knew none of them had answers she wanted to hear. She prepared herself for either a coy remark or a biting rebuff to her pathetic inquiry.

"Because I'm afraid," he said.

Laura was quite literally stunned silent. In no way had she expected that response. She raised her eyes back to his, confusion etched across her features.

"When I was informed by Immigration that I was being deported, I felt a fear unlike any I'd ever felt before," he admitted.

"Sure, I've been afraid that the police would catch me, that a person would return home to find me with my hand in the safe, that my accomplices would leave me behind. I felt that fear here." He splayed his hand on his stomach. "But this...this was totally different. I felt this here." He raised his hand a few inches higher, to the center of his chest. "And it scared the hell out of me.

"I've had dozens of different lives. None of those lives...not one...lasted more than a few months. I gave some up, but most were taken from me in one way or another. And I *didn't care*. I would just start over with no problems or regrets.

"But I can't do that now. I have a life here, Laura. One I've worked very hard to build. And I don't want to let that go." He chuckled at the irony. "Do you realize just how strange that reaction is for me?"

Laura nodded slightly, amazed at his words.

"But that fear wasn't just about leaving Remington Steele," he continued, "it was about leaving you."

Laura's expression slid slightly from amazement to doubt.

"I'll admit," Steele confessed, "I wasn't in the most stable frame of mind when I left the Immigration meeting. I didn't have a lot of time. All I knew was that I absolutely couldn't leave. The only thing I could think of was to marry an American. But to come to you, well..." He winced, "...well, you know how you've reacted to my plans in the past."

Laura did have to admit she had never been onboard with any of his schemes. In fact, there were times where she would go out of her way to try to dismantle them from the inside.

"So, there I was," he continued, "completely stuck and scared. Laura, I made Fred drive up the coast for nearly two hours until I could stop my hands from shaking.

"But I never did figure out what to tell you. What were my options, really? To tell you that INS was on my tail and that I was being kicked out of the country? There was a very strong possibility you'd say 'good riddance.'"

Laura was quite certain she wouldn't have said that to him. Given the stream of sincerity coming from Steele, she refrained from telling him that a simple call to a lawyer might have alleviated his problem without all the trickery.

"I thought about buying a dozen roses and a ring, getting down on bended knee and proposing. But given the circumstances, I was quite certain you'd not have any part of it."

Laura wasn't so sure about that.

"Laura, I even thought about spiriting you away to Las Vegas, getting you drunk, marrying you and hoping you wouldn't remember."

Laura couldn't help but smirk at that plan. *He* was the one who forgot things when he was drunk. Not her.

"So, when Fred drove us past UC Santa Barbara, I had a thought. I could get you to come to me. I contacted Clarissa and we devised a plan. There would be plenty of clues and plenty of opportunity. You could save me from myself." Obviously proud of the plot and his cleverness, he smiled. The smile quickly faded, though. "But you didn't show up. As usual, business got in the way of things."

"Alessandra was being held at gun-point," she reminded him.

"I know that. Now. The point, Laura, is that I should have been honest with you right from the start. I should have gone straight from Estelle Becker to you."

Laura silently agreed.

"But I was utterly terrified that you would reject me out of hand. And I didn't...I *don't* want that."

Again, they stood looking at one another.

Laura had absolutely no idea how to respond. In four years together, she'd never gotten so much truth from him. She didn't dare coax for more, nor did she want to say something that could possibly ruin all he'd admitted.

Yet, he stared at her with expectant eyes.

She raised her eyebrows, silently questioning him.

Steele chewed on his lower lip. There was clearly more on his mind, but she didn't know what to say to encourage additional honesty.

Silence won out as the weight of Steele's words started to actually sink into her mind and take root.

He was afraid. Not of INS, not of the US Government, not of deportation. He was afraid to lose her. All his scheming, as underhanded as it seemed on the surface, suddenly made sense. He'd done essentially the same thing a year ago to get her alone in San Francisco. She'd found that instance of deception terribly romantic.

She was very nearly ready to tell him as much when she saw him square his shoulders and look directly at her.

"I know you want me to say that I love you..." he began.

Laura's breath caught in her throat. The three magic words had fallen from his lips. Unfortunately, she could tell there was a devastating "but" to follow. She tilted her head ever so slightly, waiting for it.

Steele finally supplied it. "...but I can't."

To her credit, Laura didn't flinch as the burning sensation in her gut twisted its way right up through her heart. She nodded and pursed her lips together, giving it her best understanding look.

"To say 'I love you' is pointless," Steele continued.

Laura nodded some more and forced herself into an "of course I totally agree with you" expression. And here she thought things had been going well.

"Do you know how many women have said that to me?"

She didn't particularly care. If he left right now, she could possibly avoid any embarrassing tears.

"A lot," he answered for himself. "And do you know how many actually meant it? Not one of them. No one has *ever* told me they loved me and meant it."

He paused just long enough for her to realize the change in direction.

"So how could I possibly I say those words to anyone? Sure, it will get me what I want at a given moment. But ultimately it's just a hollow and meaningless phrase.

"Laura, what I feel for you is beyond anything those words could convey. Without you, there wouldn't be a me. The person would be God knows where doing God knows what, but I wouldn't be who I am today. I wouldn't be Remington Steele. And that is who I want to be from now on."

If she thought she couldn't speak before, she was truly rendered mute now. Through all the years, all the times she complained that he wouldn't speak the words...now...now she understood why he wouldn't. Why he was so determined to show her, rather than say it.

She felt a sudden crushing guilt for pushing him so hard for so long. And for what? Did the words really mean that much?

She'd had love throughout her entire life. Even when it wasn't spoken of, she knew it existed.

Because of what people had *done*.

She was ashamed to admit it, but it took a man who had never known love to show her what it was about, to fling open the shutters of her world and illuminate the truth of the situation. Four years of her demanding words from him, and in one instant she realized the truth.

It was him that needed the words.

"I hired a lawyer," Steele said, drawing her attention back. "We've annulled the marriage. Hollenbeck is filing some paperwork with Immigration, trying to convince them that I have 'unique skills and am an asset to the country.' There's no guarantee, but it is a *legitimate* option."

He stepped up to her and placed his hand on her cheek. "I never meant to hurt you, Laura," he said sadly. "I'm so very sorry I did."

Steele turned away and started for the door. Only a few steps later, he paused and glanced back. "Clarissa and I, we...that is..." He cleared his throat. "I've never had any intimate relations with Clarissa."

He continued toward the door.

Laura rotated, facing his retreating form. "I would have married you," she stated, rather astonished at the assuredness of her voice.

Steele stopped, but didn't turn back to her.

She approached him slowly, the crutches clunking against the wooden floor. Awkwardly, she reached for him, her fingers grazing the back of his suit coat.

Steele bowed his head. She could hear the catch in his breath.

Instantly overwhelmed by the need to hold him, Laura discarded her crutches against the piano. She touched his arm and limped forward.

Steele turned just as she fell into him. She hadn't realized just how much she relied on the artificial support.

Steele quickly grabbed her arms and prevented her from crashing to the floor. "Careful now."

She looked up at him. "Thanks."

For the first time in she couldn't remember how long, they smiled at each other.

Steele's expression softened and he moved his hands, wrapping his arms around her waist and pulling her tightly to him.

"Really?" he asked quietly.

Laura reached up and took his face in her hands. She looked directly into his blue eyes, forcing him to see her seriousness.

"I love you," she said deliberately. She then smiled at him and added, "Remington Steele."

His eyes slipped closed. When they opened, they were shiny. "Oh, Laura," he drew a shaky breath.

"I mean it," she promised him.

He nodded, blinking back the threatening tears. "I know."

And for some inexplicable reason, Laura was certain he did believe her.

Steele inhaled raggedly. "Laura, I lo..."

Her mouth covered his, consuming his words. When she pulled back, she smiled at him through her own tears. "I know."

*****

EPILOGUE

Her leg was throbbing. No matter which way she moved it she was unable to get relief. Too much standing, too much walking, too long spent trying to climb stairs.

She needed a pain pill desperately. But getting one would require more movement, and she was currently quite uninterested in moving.

She turned her head to the right and smiled. No, she definitely didn't want to move yet.

Sharing her pillow and snuggled tightly against her side was a slumbering Steele, his arm was wrapped around her just below her breasts, her right leg tucked between his thighs.

She grinned. Too much "physical therapy." She kissed the only thing she could reach...the tip of his nose.

"Need your medication?" he asked, his eyes still closed.

"I thought you were asleep."

"Not a chance." He tightened his arm around her.

"I think I do," she reluctantly admitted.

Steele opened his eyes. "Be right back," he said, extracting his naked form from the bed.

He returned moments later with a glass of water and a single tablet.

Laura pushed herself up to a semi-seated position.

Steele sat on the edge of the bed next to her as she popped back the pill and washed it down. He didn't appear the least bit self-conscious about his lack of attire.

When she drained the glass, he removed it from her hand and placed it on the nightstand. "Better?" he asked.

Laura traced her finger down his arm. "I will be," she answered, giving his hand a slight tug.

Steele bent over and met her waiting lips.

Laura raised the covers from her body, inviting him to join her beneath them.

Gingerly, and not breaking their kiss, Steele climbed over her and settled between her open thighs, being particularly careful to avoid further injury to her leg.

+++++

The clock radio came to life at an ungodly early hour, as a snippet of an old song played on the tinny AM station.

"That one's a classic, hey, Austin?" the DJ asked.

"Yeah, Tyler, back when I wore bell-bottoms!" his partner laughed. A twangy, 70s guitar riff played.

"The fourteenth caller with the name of the artist who sings that song wins two tickets to the sneak-preview of the new movie 'Aliens' starring Sigourney Weaver," Tyler announced.

Almost instantly, Austin started speaking. "Hello? You're the fourteenth caller! Do you know the artist of our Name That Singer Challenge?"

"Morris Albert?" the caller offered.

"We have a winner!" Austin said as a cheering crowd sound effect went off. "What's your name?"

"Susan," the caller answered giddily.

"Well, Susan, you and a friend are going to the movies! Tell me, why is 14-K-R-O-T your favorite station?"

"Because it's Fourteen Carat Gold!"

The "Cha-Ching" sound effect segued into the full version of the winning song.

"Feelings...Nothing more than feelings..."

Steele's palm slapped down on the radio, and the noise stopped.

"They haven't gotten any better," he commented of the two DJs.

"They're great," Laura protested. She adjusted her head on his chest and smiled to herself. "So are you," she added quietly and honestly.

Steele pressed his lips against the top of her head, kissing her there.

Absently, she played with the hairs on his chest.

"Laura?"

"Humm?"

"Marry me."

A moment passed.

"Okay."

END