Chapter 15 Charles & Deborah Kluge Charles & Deborah Kluge 2 0 2001-11-05T01:55:00Z 2001-11-05T01:55:00Z 7 2807 16003 133 32 19652 9.2720

Chapter 15

Lee stared blindly out the window of the cab as it turned onto his street.  In the distance, he saw his car parked along the curb in front of his apartment building.  It occurred to him that he should be glad to see it, but even the silver Corvette seemed to mock him.  He had left the Agency, flagged down the first cab he saw and directed the driver to Maplewood Drive.  But when he got there, Amanda was nowhere to be found.  Her car was gone and when he'd gone around to the back door and tapped on the kitchen window, there had been no response.  For a while, he'd hovered by the back door, not sure what to do.  Finally, after about half an hour, he gave up.  There was no way of knowing when she'd get back and the weather was still bitterly cold . . . too cold to stand outside.  He could have let himself in, but he realized that it would be pointless.  It was almost 3:00 p.m.  Jamie and Phillip would be home from school soon and he would have to leave anyway.  Feeling even more depressed and lonely, he'd left her yard, trudged along Maplewood Drive until he found a payphone, called another cab, and directed the driver to take him home. 

Home.  He stood on the curb staring at the building.  It was all he'd thought about for the last week, and now he was here.  Why didn't he feel better?  With a sigh, he picked up his suitcase and walked up the sidewalk wearily.  He returned the doorman's greeting half-heartedly and then went into the building.  Once he reached his door, he leaned against the wall and fumbled with his keys, suddenly so exhausted that his hands shook.  He finally got the door unlocked and shoved it open.  Warm, fragrant air washed over him, carrying the scent of roasted meat and fresh brewed coffee.   He stepped in the door, looking around in confusion.  What . . .

"Lee?"

She appeared in the kitchen doorway, her face flushed from the heat of the stove, and smiled hesitantly as though unsure of what he would say to find her there.

"Amanda?"  He blinked, half convinced he was hallucinating.

"Hi."  She moved a few steps into the living room and stopped.  "Billy told me you were expected home today.  I was just . . . well, knowing how you never have any food in the house . . . and I thought you'd probably be tired . . . and . . . well . . ."

"Oh God . . . Amanda . . ."

He didn't remember moving, but one minute he was standing in the doorway and the next he was across the room and clinging to her like a drowning man.  She knew, his mind kept repeating over and over.  Somehow, she knew . . .

"Lee?" she murmured in confused concern.  He could feel himself shaking, a low, continuous tremor that he thought was frightening her.  "Lee, what's wrong?"

"God, I've missed you," he choked out, burying his face against her neck.  For a long time, she just held him much as he'd seen her hold Phillip or Jamie when they were upset or hurt, running her hands up and down his back, caressing his hair, and making soft soothing noises.  Eventually, she caught his shoulders and pressed him away from her.  Under the gentle pressure, he finally eased his stranglehold enough that she could lean back and look at him.  He was struck again by that look of warmth and concern on her face.  This woman honestly cared what happened to him.

"Oh, Lee, look at you!  You're so cold and tired, you're shaking!  Come over here and sit down." She led him to the sofa and began tugging on his coat.  "Give that to me.  And your suit jacket, too.  Now you just sit down right there and rest."

He sank into the soft cushions and gratefully propped his feet up as he watched her drag his suitcase out of the way, close and lock the door to the apartment, and then take his coat and jacket and hang them up in the front closet.  When she was done, she returned to pull off his shoes and remove his tie as well.  The entire time she kept up a soft, scolding chatter.  He had no idea what she was saying.  At that moment, all that mattered was that she was here. His eyes followed her everywhere, and for the moment, he was content to sit and allow her presence to actually become reality to him. He'd gone hunting and couldn't find her . . . because she was here waiting for him.  It was almost more than he could comprehend.

Suddenly, she disappeared into the kitchen.

"Amanda!" he called, sitting up abruptly.  "Don't go . . ."

"Here," she said, reappearing with a large coffee mug in her hand.  "I'm not sure caffeine is what you need right now, but it's hot and that's probably more important."

There was something so familiar about reaching out to take the coffee cup from her hand that suddenly, he felt all of the tension and strain of the last week start seeping away.  Accepting the cup from her, he dropped his head back against the sofa and reached out for her hand, drawing her down to sit beside him. "It's so good to be home," he said, and finally knew it was true.  Not just home to D.C. or his apartment . . . but to the woman who was waiting . . . she was "home".  He opened his eyes and looked at her again.  "I missed you," he repeated.

"I missed you, too," she agreed, squeezing his fingers slightly.  "I'm really glad you're back."

The silence that stretched between them held no hint of tension.  There was simply a feeling of deep contentment to be able to sit quietly together.  Finally, he asked, "What smells so good?"

"Oh, it's nothing fancy . . . just a pot of beef stew.  I know what you keep in this house to eat, Stetson, and I figured you'd be too tired to go out or to fix yourself something.  I picked up the stuff this morning and came over here to fix it."

"I didn't see your car."

She smiled at him, looking a little embarrassed.  "Mother needed the car today, so I . . . well, I borrowed yours."

He smiled and twined her fingers with his, squeezing gently.  "That's fine.  You're welcome to use it any time you need to."

She seemed a little surprised at that but returned the pressure with another smile.  For a long moment, they sat there gazing at each other without saying a word.  Finally, her eyes fell and a becoming flush touched her cheeks.  "I'll get you something to eat and then I should go so you can go to bed."

His hand tightened on hers again.  "Please don't go . . . not yet."

"All right," she agreed giving him an unreadable look.  "I can stay for a while if you want me to."

"I do."

"You wait here and I'll bring your dinner." 

Reluctantly, he released her and watched as she disappeared into the other room.  After a moment, he called after her.  "I went looking for you."

"What?"

"I went looking for you today . . . when I got back in town."

She reappeared carrying a large bowl and a spoon.  "Here you go.  Would you like some warm bread?  It's in the oven and all ready.  You went looking for me?  Why?"

"Because I wanted to see you.  I checked in at the Agency and Billy said he'd given you a couple of days off."  He reached out with his free hand and caught her arm, pulling it so he could look at her bandaged hand.  "He said you'd been hurt . . ."

"It's nothing."

"That's what Billy said, but I wanted to see for myself.  I also wanted to let you know that I was back.  And . . ."  Suddenly, old habits of self-defense kicked in and he trailed off. 

She gave him a piercing look and then smiled at him again, a flush touching her cheeks.  "And I wasn't anywhere to be found," she finished for him.  "I'm sorry."

"I'm not.  I – It was much nicer to come home to find . . . well, not to come home to an empty apartment."

Gently, she freed her hand and said, "You aren't eating.  Go on.  I'll get your bread."

As she disappeared into the kitchen again, Lee rose and followed her as far as the dining room.  Setting his bowl and coffee mug on the table, he sank into the chair and began to eat.  The stew was wonderful, full of large chunks of meat and vegetables in a thick, flavorful sauce.  With the first bite, he realized that he was positively famished.  He felt her at his shoulder and looked up just as she set a small plate with two slices of homemade bread on the table.

"You want some more coffee?"

"No," he replied, continuing to eat.  "You're right.  I don't need any more.  This is wonderful."

"I'm glad you like it.  There's more in the kitchen if you're still hungry when you finish that."

"Why don't you get a cup of coffee and sit down with me?"

She smiled and shook her head.  "No, while you finish your dinner, I'm going to go tackle your suitcase.  That way you won't have to worry about it later."

"Amanda, you don't have to do that," he protested immediately.  "You're not hired help."

From the living room, he heard her derisive snort.  "You don't have any hired help, Stetson.  Or if you do, they should be fired.  This place was a mess."

Swallowing the last bite of stew hastily, he snatched up the remaining piece of bread and followed her voice through the living room and into his bedroom.  "You've been cleaning up after me again," he scolded, looking around.  "You don't have to do that."  But even as he said it, he knew in his heart that he loved the fact that she cared enough to take the trouble.

"I know.  But I'm always interested to see what kind of new and exotic creatures you have growing in this place.  The fuzzy purple stuff I found in the refrigerator was definitely unique."

He laughed.  "I don't even remember what it was."

"I can believe that."  She lifted the vest that was sitting on the top of the suitcase out with two fingers and held it away from her with a grimace.  "I take it this needs to go to the cleaners."

Even from his position several feet away, he caught the stench of cigarette smoke and stale perfume.  Lunging forward, he snatched it out of her fingers and threw it violently toward the garbage can.  "No!  Throw it away.  I don't want it any more."  She stared at him in astonishment, but before she could think of anything to say, he'd snatched up the suitcase, carried it into the kitchen and upended the entire contents into the trashcan.  He stood there for an instant, staring down at the jumble of clothing and other miscellaneous items and then violently tried to shove the suitcase in after them.

"Lee!  Lee, stop!  What are you doing?"  Her voice finally penetrated and he looked up at her.  She grabbed his arms, pulling him away from the garbage can.  "Lee, what is it?  What's wrong?"

"I don't . . . just . . . just throw it all away."  He swallowed convulsively, fighting nausea.  "I don't want it . . . any of it . . . any more."

"All right, if that's what you want.  Just calm down.  Come on . . . you're exhausted.  You need to get some sleep."  She tugged on his arm, drawing him out of the kitchen and toward the bedroom.  "I want you to go to bed."

He followed her reluctantly, the memories triggered by the cloying perfume fighting to overwhelm the reality of his apartment and the loving woman who was staring at him so intently.  "Amanda . . . "

"Where are your pajamas?"  She left him standing motionless in the middle of the room as she disappeared into his closet.  She reappeared a moment later and began going through his drawers.  Finally she pulled out a pair of silk boxer shorts and handed them to him, gesturing at the bathroom.  "I can't find them.  Will these do?"  When he didn't move or reply, she reached out and caught his face in her hands, caressing his eyebrow with her thumb gently.  Her eyes were clouded with worry as she asked, "What happened to you over there?"

He closed his eyes against the sight of her and laid his forehead against hers. "I'm sorry, Amanda," he murmured.  "I'm so sorry."  After a moment, he felt her arms go around him and draw him close.

"Shhhh.  You have nothing to be sorry for.  Whatever happened, it doesn't matter.  I want you to go to sleep.  Please.  Will you do that for me?"

He burrowed his face against the side of her neck and clung to her.  "Please don't leave me."

"Lee, please.  Bed."  She looked up at him imploringly.  "For me?"

"All right."

She picked up the boxers from the floor, handed them back to him, and led him to the bathroom.  "Here.  Put these on and then come back out to me."  Without another word, he disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door behind him.

Amanda stared at the closed door for a long moment, love and fear for him holding her motionless. What in heaven's name happened to him over there? she repeated to herself in despair.  She'd never seen him this shaken.  Finally, she turned back to the bed and began turning it down.  She was just finishing when she heard the bathroom door open again.  She turned to him, noting that his pajamas had obviously been in the bathroom since he was now dressed in them.

Her eyes fixed on his and she felt her breath catch.  He stood with his eyes closed and she could see him sway slightly, as though it was taking everything he had just to stay upright.  Whatever was haunting him carved deep grooves between his closed eyes, and his shoulders sagged as if he'd been beaten. Crossing to him, she caught his hand and tugged at it, drawing him toward the bed.  "Come on," she urged him softly.  "You're tired.  Get into bed."  With gentle insistence, she bullied him into lying down and tucked him in.  Then she sat down beside him and caught his chin, tilting his head until he looked up at her.  "I want you to sleep now," she told him firmly as she ran the back of her fingers over his cheek.  "But before you do, I want you to know something.  Whatever happened in Rome is over.  You're home safely and that's all that's important."

He searched her face for a long moment and then he turned his head away again.  "You deserve better than someone like me," he said in a low voice she could barely hear.

She froze, staring at him.  What did he mean by that?  Surely . . .  Taking a slow, even breath, she laid her hand against his cheek again and tried to turn his head toward her, but this time he fought her.  "Lee, look at me.  Lee . . ."  Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.  "What happened in Rome . . . whatever it was . . . doesn't matter.  Not to me."

He swallowed convulsively.  Then, as though trying to explain something very important, he said desperately, "I was afraid, Amanda."

"Afraid of what?" she questioned, stroking his hair gently.

He searched her face.  "Afraid of what's been happening to me . . . of everything I'm feeling . . . of . . . of . . ."

"Of what?" she encouraged him.  He closed his eyes again and she thought she saw a shimmer of tears.

"I loved Dorothy so much."

"Shhh . . ."

"For so long, I wished that I had died with her.  I – I didn't know how to go on without her."  His eyes opened again and the desperation was back along with a trace of fear.  With no warning, he reached out and grabbed her, pulling her down to lie across his chest.  Burying his face in her hair, he continued, "I know you hate it when I try to keep you out of things.  But, Amanda, I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you . . . "

"Lee . . ."

"I've spent months making excuses to myself about my feelings for you.  I know you're my friend . . . you're my best friend.  But last night in that club . . . with Scorpion needling me and talking about coming back to the States and you being fair game . . . I – I . . ."

Sitting up out of his arms, she laid her fingers against his lips.  "Hush.  You're too tired and you don't know what you're saying.  I want you to get some sleep.  We can talk about this later."

"No, Amanda!  I know . . . "

"Lee, listen to me."  Her eyes caught and held his.  She could see the fear growing.  "I know that whatever happened in Rome has shaken you.  I'd also bet you haven't had any rest since then.  The conversation I think you want to have is too important to do when you're exhausted and not thinking clearly.  I don't want you to look back and regret what was said.  Do you understand me?"

"Yes," he finally acknowledged.  "But, Amanda, I want you to know . . ."

Again, she stopped him with a hand on his lips.  "Not now," she insisted.  Then, unable to stand the fear in his eyes any longer, she leaned over and pressed her lips to his in a tender, lingering kiss.  "Don't worry.   I'll be here when you're ready."  As she moved to rise from the bed, he reached out and caught her by the nape of the neck, drawing her back to kiss her again.  The intensity of it left her gasping.

"Are you going to leave?" he asked when he finally released her.

"I have to.  The boys will be home from school by now.  I'll clean up the kitchen and then go."

He nodded silently, reluctantly accepting her need to return to her family.  Catching her injured hand in both of his, he gazed at it for a long moment, running his thumb along the edge of the bandage.  She could tell that he was thinking hard about something.  Finally, when he looked up at her again, she could see that he'd come to a decision of some kind.

"Amanda, I know you've said that you don't want to talk about this right now, and I understand your reasons.  I even agree with them.  But there is something I have to say.  If I don't, I'll never get any rest."

She sighed in resignation and nodded.  "All right."

"What happened to me in Rome . . . it had nothing to do with the job.  It was . . . I don't know . . . a – a personal epiphany, I guess.  The details don't matter.  I'm not proud of them, but at least they finally opened my eyes to the truth and for that I'm grateful."  He paused, searching her face carefully.  Then, with quiet deliberation, he said, "I love you, Amanda King."

"Lee . . ." she breathed softly and he watched as her eyes filled with tears.  Finally, she nodded unsteadily and replied, "I love you, too."

He nodded, seemingly content with that response.  "That's all I needed to say.  The rest can wait."  He reached up and allowed his fingertips to brush her lips lightly.  Turning into his feather-light caress, she kissed his fingers and then whispered, "Go to sleep.  I'll check back on you later."

Lee sighed and finally allowed his eyes drift shut.  After a moment, he said drowsily, "Billy says you tied up Operation Rimrunner."

"Uh huh.  Finished the final paperwork this morning."

"How'd you like working with Windsor?"

An impish smile tugged at the corner of her mouth and she replied, "It was a whole lot like working with you."  His eyes flew open and he looked at her with a hurt expression.  Her lips twitched, as she added,  "He tried to leave me in the car, too."

They stared at each other for a heartbeat and then they both began to laugh.  Drawing her hand to his lips, he kissed it tenderly.

"Like you ever do what you're told . . . "

The End

Poetry excerpt from She Walks in Beauty by George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron.

Disclaimer:  Scarecrow and Mrs. King and all characters, logos, and likenesses therein, are the property of Shoot the Moon Productions and Warner Brothers Entertainment Television. No copyright infringement is intended by their use in this story. All other material, copyright 2001 by Deborah A. Kluge.  All rights reserved.  Characters and stories are in no way affiliated with, approved of or endorsed by Shoot the Moon Productions or Warner Brothers Entertainment Television. This is created by a fan for other fans out of love and respect for the show, and is strictly a non-profit endeavor.