Lee all but slammed the phone receiver back down on the hook. Where the hell was Amanda, anyway? Her mother was obviously taken in by her cover story. Huh. Imagine, Amanda doing research for a documentary on the life cycle of the dragonfly on the Nashaway River. He didn't think so.
Come to think of it, Billy had been pretty cagey with him when he debriefed on Tuesday. Then he kept Lee busier than a one-armed paper hanger for the next three days doing surveillance. Amanda hadn't returned any of his calls and Billy avoided or stonewalled any questions about her. Francine was nowhere to be found. He couldn't press it any more without people realizing that Amanda was more than a partner to him.
Lee missed her. He had spent three weeks navigating across the mountainous terrain of Guatemala, avoiding authorities and guerillas alike. Had he been able to take direct routes, he could have been home two and a half weeks ago. The information he carried was just too sensitive to risk it being confiscated by a crooked customs agent. Damn, he was exhausted. All he could think about on those stifling rickety buses and in the cramped shacks outside Antigua that he hid in, was that when he got home, he would curl up with Amanda in his arms and share a bottle of wine - perhaps watch an old movie. When he got home, was she anywhere to be found? No.
Where did Billy get off, anyway? This was his partner. Didn't he have a perfectly good right to know his partner's whereabouts? It wasn't like they would have allowed her to go on a difficult assignment while he was away. She was still far too green for that.
He swiped his keys off the table by the door and all but slammed the door behind him as he headed to the elevator. It was Friday, and he was not going to go into the weekend without knowing where Amanda was. He would be meeting with Billy Melrose, whether his superior wanted to see him or not.
"Well…kiddies…did we have a nice time at summer camp?" Dr. Smyth tapped his cheroot out into the silver ash tray on the table. The agents at the conference table suffered the patronizing tone with inaudible grinding of teeth. "Billy, you must give them a gold star on their papers. What prodigies they are…"
Lee could never understand how the man managed to speak without facial expression. It was like watching a malicious ventriloquist with delusions of grandeur. Lee had virtually cornered Billy in the bullpen and then been swept into one of these meeting farces where Dr. Smyth liked to hold court. He had been startled to see Amanda come in, escorted by Leatherneck of all people. Talk about an unlikely pairing! She looked radiant. She was always bright with energy and enthusiasm, but even he could feel that she was walking on air today.
He was more than vaguely hurt and surprised when she chose to sit next to Leatherneck and not him. Beyond nodding to him in recognition, she didn't speak to him and kept her eyes down or on Dr. Smyth. He couldn't catch her glance to save himself. His eyes narrowed as he saw Leatherneck lean in to whisper something to Amanda and saw her bite back a smile. When had they gotten so chummy, anyway?
He half-listened to Dr. Smyth pontificate about his latest thoughts on policies and procedures. The man had an endless supply of hot air. But he was surprised as he wound up to see him congratulating Amanda and passing her a certificate. What had he missed?
"Our very own happy homemaker has gone to the top of the class. Well done, Mrs. King. Now let us see if you can put all that training to use for more than the cub scouts, shall we?" With a supercilious smile, he headed for the door. "Oh Billy, Stetson. Walk with me. You can walk and recount recent events at the same time, right kiddos? I had the most interesting call from the Guatemalan ambassador and I'm sure you can shed some light on your undoubtedly fascinating travels in the past few weeks. Like burros, do you Stetson? Perhaps we can arrange to get you one for here in Washington…"
The acerbic monologue continued as they went down the hallway. Lee followed reluctantly with more than a trace of impatience. He would get this over with so that he could finally catch up with Amanda. He was proud, but just a little surprised. She passed Station One. He wouldn't have guessed she was ready. He couldn't wait to celebrate with her.
Leatherneck waited and watched as Amanda graciously accepted her congratulations from her colleagues. She should be proud. She hadn't just passed it. She had aced it. Francine had been her evaluator and pulled no punches. He should know, having been the Ringer. The look on Francine's face after Amanda finished the motor course was worth the price of admission. He liked Revlon well enough, but periodically he enjoyed seeing her eat humble pie.
The last of them filtered out of the conference room and they were alone. He perched comfortably on the edge of the table and smiled. "Feels good, huh?"
"Oh, you have no idea!" She smiled at him broadly. "Honestly, Leatherneck, I never thought I'd pass it!"
"Faith, Moonshine, you gotta have more faith in yourself!"
A smile lit her face. "Moonshine?"
"Yeah - well if they ever bring back Prohibition and we set up another still, I figure you're all set to do runs for us. You can do a Bootlegger's turn with the best of them now, 'Shine."
His bestowing a nickname on her placed the final touch on her feeling accepted at the Agency. Foolishly she felt tears spring to her eyes. "Thank you so much, for all your help" She approached him and lay her hand on his arm.
He winced involuntarily. "Oh my gosh, I keep forgetting. How bad are they?" She turned over his hand and rolled up the sleeves to see the angry red rash underneath running up his arms. "I know just the few spots I have are driving me crazy." She held up her own wrists which were laced with rash, as was her collarbone with traces on her neck. "What I put you through this weekend - really, I am so sorry. You know I have calamine lotion in my bag, I could…"
"Mrs. King…Amanda, it's OK, really."
"Are you sure?" The concern in her eyes was genuine.
"Yeah. I'm sure…I do have a question for you, though."
"Want to tell me what's going on with you and Ace, there?"
Amanda's eyes fell away. "Well, you know…" She shrugged noncommittally.
"Yeah. Remember what we talked about, though, life is too short…"
"I know, I know…" She looked uncomfortable. She hadn't imagined seeing Lee again first in front of all of her colleagues. She had wanted to call him to celebrate last night when she got home from Station One, but felt oddly constrained and put down the phone before making the call.
"How about you? Life is short, you know." Amanda put the question back on him.
"I don't know, do you think Linda would want…" Leatherneck almost appeared diffident.
"Yes! I do! And not just because she's grateful either." Amanda retorted.
They heard footsteps in the hall, a quick measured cadence that spoke of years in military boarding schools. Amanda was startled to feel Leatherneck's arms quickly snake around her before pulling her up and against him in a thorough kiss. She spread her fingers against his chest to push back, but found he allowed no resistance. 'Enough is enough,' she thought. First he's talking about seeing my friend, now he's kissing me! Men!
"Well, well, well…so the cat's away and the mice will play? Eh, kiddies? I'll just have to talk with Billy about reviewing the non-fraternization policy with his staff, now won't I?" He walked over to retrieve the silver cigarette case he had left on the conference room table. They broke apart, startled. Amanda felt the blush crawling up her cheeks.
"Sir, I…" she faltered.
"Oh, I think the less said the better in these situations, don't you m'dear? But let's keep our extracurricular activities outside the Agency, shall we? Good." He exited, but left the door to the conference room wide open.
She took a deep breath before facing him. "Leatherneck, I thought we had an understanding that…"
He was grinning, which was downright disconcerting under the circumstances. "Didn't you hear him, he's going right down to talk to Billy right now!" She whispered urgently.
"Oh yeah. A long lecture on non-fraternization is on our horizon." He replied, unalarmed.
"Leatherneck! Everyone will be talking about us!" She was indignant.
"Uh-huh." He rose easily into a standing position as he pulled her toward the hallway. "And can I point out Mrs. King, that if they are talking about you and me then they aren't thinking about you and Ace." He lifted his eyebrow and a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. "When you lie…keep it simple and as close as possible to the truth."
"Oh!" She colored lightly. "So I suppose I'm supposed to thank you for ruining my reputation?"
"Well, a man's got to do what a man's got to do." He laughed.
Amanda shook her head. First, she needed to reconnect with Lee and find out where he had been for the last three weeks. As for Leatherneck's solution? Well, it was an unconventional solution, but maybe - just maybe - it would work.
Lee waited impatiently for Dr. Smyth in Billy Melrose's office. The man's veiled insults to the staff were all variations on a theme and he had heard them all before. It really stuck in his craw how often Smyth patronized Billy, a man who was twice his worth in every respect that mattered.
He just wanted to get out of there and catch up with Amanda. He wondered why she had tackled Station One just now. He would have been glad to have helped her if he had known that was what she wanted.
Billy returned to his office with a fresh cup of coffee. Francine shadowed him. She closed the office door and turned to face Lee with a look of contained excitement. "Well, you certainly missed some developments while you were away!"
Lee turned to her with barely concealed impatience. "Developments?"
"Haven't you heard yet?" She was delighted to be the first to impart the news. "Our favorite little hausfrau and Leatherneck? Did you know they spent the weekend at a cabin in the mountains?" She said in a sly undertone. "And from the poison ivy they're both sporting, I guess it wasn't hay they were rolling in!"
Francine missed the tension in Lee's shoulders and the tic that began jumping in his cheek. "Do you know what I heard them talking about after Station One? They're going furniture shopping! Did you ever? I mean, isn't that the funniest thing you ever heard? I have to say…I didn't think she was that spontaneous, but I guess you never really know about the people you're closest to - do you?"
Billy took a quick look at Lee and decided to intervene. "Francine, that's quite enough speculation. We don't need to start or feed rumors and that's the last I expect to hear about this. Understood?"
His door flew open and Dr. Smyth stalked in stiffly. "Melrose, I think it's time you exercised a bit of discipline with your motley little crew. I just walked in on a little tryst up in the conference room. Time to dust off your non-fraternization lecture, wouldn't you say?"
"A tryst?" Lee bit out.
"Yes, the redoubtable Mrs. King and that ex-marine of yours, Billy, you'll need to keep an eye on them. I expect my agents to act like agents, not like matinee idols. Comprendo?"
Lee felt a sick twist of betrayal in his chest as the white heat of anger and jealousy ripped through him. He had been sucker punched. He ignored Smyth and Francine, turning to Billy and saying "I have an appointment with a source, Billy. I'm sure you all can carry on this conversation without me." He nodded curtly at the others and strode quickly out the door and out of the bullpen.
"Stetson. Stetson - where do you think you're going?" He heard Dr. Smyth calling stridently behind him. He just kept walking. Right now, he couldn't put enough distance between himself the Agency.
Amanda straightened her shoulders before pressing the doorbell to Lee's apartment. She took a deep, calming breath. She would not be a nag or a whiner. There must have been some very good reason he didn't call her for those weeks and then left the Agency today without speaking with her. Right.
Hah. She all but ground her teeth in annoyance as she waited for his response. "Don't you ignore me, Buster!" she muttered truculently.
Lee opened the door and looked taken aback to see Amanda there. His expression quickly shifted to a cool, taunting look she hadn't seen for over a year. Slightly disheveled, he lounged against the door frame, not allowing her entrance. "Well, surprise, surprise…Mrs. King has dropped by for a social call. It is a social call, isn't it? I hear you make a lot of them."
"I make a…" Her voice rose incredulously. "Where do you get off, Lee Stetson?" With anger as her momentum, she pushed forward into the apartment and a startled Lee stumbled back in her wake. She tossed her bag on a chair and whirled around to face him. It took a fair amount to make Amanda mad, but once she was on a roll, there would be hell to pay. "Three weeks, Lee. Three weeks. Not a phone call, not a telegram. Not a message for your partner in the in-box. Nothing. And why? I'm sure I don't know! Billy didn't demand it from you - he had no idea why you hadn't called. I finally got embarrassed to be asking! Then you come back and without word one to me you leave for the day?" She lifted her eyebrow in disgust.
He looked as if he were going to reply, but she kept on her roll. "And now - Now you're making sarcastic little digs at me. Just who do you think you are, Lee Stetson?"
"You mean - who do I think I was? Funnily enough, I thought I was someone who mattered to you, Amanda." He turned his back to her and walked over to the cabinet to pour himself a scotch. Her betrayal still clawed at his gut. Turning, he took a sip and cocked his head before continuing. His eyes glittered in anger. "But then I discovered how easily I could be replaced in just three weeks." He knocked back half his glass of scotch.
"Replaced? What are you talking about, Lee?" A look of honest confusion passed over Amanda's face.
"Oh come off it, Amanda!" A very nice act - Eva couldn't have done it better. "Look, I got to hear from Dr. Smyth about your little 'tryst' in the conference room." His lips pulled back in a sneer as he closed the distance between them. "And Francine was more than happy to share about your cabin in the woods…I'll give Leatherneck this, he's a fast worker. I doubt I could have gotten you in a cabin in just three weeks!"
Amanda turned white with shock and rage. "How dare you!" she hissed, raising her hand to slap him across the face.
He caught her wrist in its downward blow and snaked his arm around her waist pulling her hard against him. "Oh, I'd have dared a lot more if I knew you were so…conveniently available." He paused, his voice thickening with emotion. "I don't know how you do it, Amanda. You fool everyone… you even fooled me with that innocent look. I'm just glad I found out before it's too late - what you really are."
She couldn't believe the knife-like pain his well-aimed words could cause. How could he think that of her? Didn't he know her at all? "Let me go!" she said tightly.
"Oh, believe me Amanda, I have every intention of letting you go." Lee stated certainly. He had learned his lesson all too well. First with Eva, now Amanda - he just wasn't any good at picking lovers. He bent his head down to whisper just a hairs-breadth away from her lips, "Remember this the next time you kiss Leatherneck." His lips claimed hers and took no quarter. It wasn't as much a kiss as a desperate plunder of her soul by a man with nothing left to lose. Pain lanced through him as he realized this was the last time he would ever get to kiss her. His anger and hurt fueled the fire as he sought to make an indelible impression on her as she had on him. And yet, he was hoist with his own petard as the inevitable sweetness of a kiss with Amanda broke through his defenses. He heard his own muffled moan and felt her body trembling as he ravaged her mouth with his kiss. When he pulled back, they were both breathing hard.
Her eyes were averted and her voice flat as she said "If you're done, please let me go."
Only then did he realize that he still held her in a crushing embrace. Reluctantly, his arms fell to his sides. He felt a little sick inside at what he had become. Woodenly, Amanda crossed the room to gather her bag and made her way to the door.
Her stony reaction unnerved him. "What - no excuses? No defense? Amanda - you disappoint me." He lashed out.
"Not nearly as much as you've disappointed me, Scarecrow." Her voice rasped. She opened the door and gripped its frame. "I don't owe you any explanations," she said quietly over her shoulder. "And you seem to have drawn your own conclusions."
"What - not going to defend yourself, Amanda?" His voice was mocking.
"I shouldn't need to." She said quietly and pulled the door closed behind her with a dull thud.
It was done. She was gone. In the silence that followed, Lee heard the crack as his heart shattered within him.
"What the hell do you want, Leatherneck?" Lee bit out as he slapped open a manila file on his desk. It was all he could do not to wrap his hands around the other man's neck. He'd love to break his nose again one more time, just for the hell of it.
The other agent ignored Scarecrow's tone and slung his rangy form into the oak chair opposite Lee's desk. He rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and laced his fingers across his waist, looking every bit as relaxed as Lee was tense. He cocked his head to one side appraisingly before saying "Seems mighty quiet up here today."
"Amanda's out." Lee's tone invited no commentary. It was Tuesday; and he hadn't spoken with her since their altercation on Friday. She had called in sick the past two days, and frankly, he didn't know if she was ever coming back.
"Yeah, I know." Leatherneck said casually. "She took a couple of days off."
Of course he knew, thought Lee and he glowered at the other agent. "Is there a reason you're here, Leatherneck?"
"Yeah…I think you're being a horse's ass, Stetson." Leatherneck said matter-of-factly.
"I'm being…?" Lee's voice rose incredulously. "Where the hell do you get off?"
The other agent was unperturbed. "I'm not dating Amanda, Scarecrow."
"Oh?" Did he get tired of her that quickly, wondered Lee.
"Would have…if she had wanted me," Leatherneck said and shrugged. "But she seemed pretty stuck on you, God knows why. She didn't tell me it was you, but I figured it out." He shook his head. "Gave me the politest brush-off you ever saw and then set me up with her best friend." A smile tugged at his mouth, meeting Linda had been the best thing that had happened to him in the past two years.
Lee felt a wave of surprise and guilt wash over him. If what Leatherneck had said was true; he cringed at what he had said to Amanda. Yet he wasn't convinced.
"Dr. Smyth came around when you were away, Scarecrow." Leatherneck pulled a folded paper from his back pocket and passed Smyth's edict to him. "Said anyone who didn't pass Station One couldn't do field duty. He was pulling Amanda in immediately unless she passed it last week. I think he had a bee in his bonnet to cull her from the Agency. Suspect he wanted to do it just to piss Billy off, but I don't know."
Lee nodded warily. It sounded like Smyth to pull a stunt like that.
"Amanda didn't think she could pass the motor course and was panicked that she wouldn't be able to be your partner. So I said I'd coach her. That's all, Scarecrow."
"That's all? What about the cabin? How about that little love scene up in the conference room?" Lee shot back. "It doesn't add up."
"Her friend was in trouble up in the cabin and we helped her. I'll let Amanda to tell you that story - assuming she ever talks to you again. And as for that kiss…well, Amanda was real worried that people would figure out about you two, just like I did. So I know what a tale-bearer Smyth is and I made sure all he got was a red herring. If everyone in the bullpen is watching me with Amanda, they won't be watching you."
"You touch her again, Leatherneck, and I'll break more than just your nose." Lee's voice was low, but the threat was implicit.
Leatherneck stood and tipped his head toward the desk where Amanda usually worked. "You have bigger problems than figuring out how to rearrange my face, Scarecrow."
Lee nodded, chagrined. He had known Leatherneck long enough to hear the truth ring in his story.
"Hey…" Lee looked up to find unexpected compassion in the other agent's eyes. "We all screw up sometimes, Lee. Just don't wait too long to fix it." He walked to the door. Turning back, he offered "Linda told me that when Amanda's really mad, she goes to her garage and starts throwing things out."
"So your new friend Linda thinks Amanda is really mad?"
"Yeah…well - Linda said so far she's cleaned out enough to hold her own yard sale, but she's still going strong. Just in case you want to find her."
"I'll keep that in mind." Lee said noncommittally, waiting for the other agent to leave before he grabbed his car keys.
"Now this has just got to go - I don't care what Mother says, we are not going to put a terrarium back in the living room!" Amanda carefully backed out of the crawl space above the garage clutching what looked to be an enormous brandy snifter.
Unwittingly she backed right into her partners arms as he waited silently behind her. With a scream she bobbled the glass jar and sent it crashing to the garage floor below. Lee grabbed her around the waist as she teetered on the narrow walkway plank.
"What the Sam Hill do you think you are doing, Lee Stetson?" she hissed angrily, brushing off his offending hands and backing up along the walkway.
He didn't have a chance to answer. "Amanda? Amanda, dear, are you all right?" Her mother rushed into the garage below. Looking across the expanse of shattered glass, she said "Oh my goodness, what happened here?"
Amanda crouched down and leaned over the edge of the walkway even as Lee backed up into the shadows against the wall. "Sorry, Mother." Her voice cracked. "It was the terrarium you planted back in '74."
"Oh no, I was hoping we could fill it and put it back in the living room again. It was the dearest thing, just like a miniature rainforest."
"I know Mother, I'm sorry." Amanda bit back a sigh. She was clearing out any number of her mother's old hobbies from latch hook rugs to pierced paper lampshades. Dotty West was a packrat.
"Well, let me help you sweep it up." Dotty offered, pushing up the folding stairs and closing the hatch.
Amanda responded with alacrity, "No Mother, really. I was heading down anyway. I'll get it." She got up and passed by Lee, gesturing for him to be still and silent and then headed down the pull-down ladder.
"Amanda, is there something you want to talk about?" Dotty asked carefully. "I know you and you only go on these cleaning binges of yours when something is really upsetting you."
"No, of course not, Mother. I'm just fine." Amanda blushed, all too aware Lee could hear every word from where he was standing. "We were due for a yard sale, don't you think?"
"Well, maybe…but I don't think you needed to take two days off work just to get it ready. It's not an emergency, dear."
Amanda looked at her watch. "Aren't you due to be picked up soon by Harriet, Mother? She did say she'd be here by 3:00 on the dot."
"Is it that late, already? I really should be going, then." Dotty moved in haste back toward the house. "Try not to move anything heavy dear! I don't want you getting hurt."
'A bit late for that,' thought Amanda to herself, knowing Lee was upstairs still. She reached up and pulled the handle to release the folding stairs; then turned away to find a broom and dustpan and brush.
Lee silently descended and uttered a low whistle as he saw the shattered glass that littered the floor. Amanda ignored him and began to sweep the shards into a pile. Lee felt uncharacteristically diffident. He didn't think he had ever seen Amanda this resolutely angry. He pulled the trash can to the center of the room and crouched down to brush the shards into the dustpan. They worked in tandem silently until the garage floor was swept clean.
She still wouldn't look at him. Lee reached forward and pulled the broom gently from her, holding her hand in his. "Amanda, I'm sorry."
She pulled her hand away from him and tucked it in her jeans pocket. "Oh, I didn't want the terrarium anyway, I was just going to sell it at the yard sale." She gave a slight shrug and turned away.
"Amanda!" He let out a forceful breath and raked his hand through his hair irritably. "I'm not talking about the damn terrarium. I'm talking about us."
"Oh." Amanda faced him, but kept her distance.
"Amanda, I really am sorry…I shouldn't have said those things, and I don't even really know why I did." Lee began.
She interrupted him. "I'm not Eva, Lee." Her voice was sharp.
He nodded in reluctant understanding. She continued, "I'm not any of those girls you dated before." Her voice gathered strength in her anger. "And I will not let you judge me by the same yardstick, either. I didn't deserve that."
The pain in her voice cut him like a knife. "Amanda, I wasn't being rational. I know that…it's just that I missed you so much. When I came back, it seemed like in just three weeks you had created a whole new life for yourself. I'd known Leatherneck was crazy about you for months and I figured he just took the opportunity…"
"You knew what?" She interrupted him. "Do you think you could have told me? Do you have any idea how awkward that was? I was trying so hard not to let him know about us and then he figured it out anyway. And I never would have been spending so much time with him anyway, it's just that I needed to pass Station One or they weren't going to let us work together anymore! And then Linda got kidnapped. He didn't have to help find her, but he did. And when they held me hostage too, I wasn't sure we were going to get out of that cabin alive…" Her emotions ran high and she spoke more and more rapidly.
"Who held you hostage?" Lee asked with alarm stepping towards her.
Amanda continued without acknowledging his question. "And you were nowhere to be found, Lee. Not a word for almost a month. I know you were checking in with Billy, but I didn't even know when you'd return. I was so scared in that cabin. They were going to kill us, I know they were! And Leatherneck was great…he really was. But I'm used to working with you, I just wasn't sure I could depend on anyone else like that." She felt tears start to crowd her eyes and dashed them away with the back of her hand. "When the car lost its brakes and I couldn't stop it, I didn't even know if I would ever see you again. And then I saw you! Back in the office in front of everyone else, and you couldn't even be civil to me. Well, I don't know what you want, Scarecrow, I really don't, but I'm pretty sure it's not the same things that I want." She was shaky as she finished.
He held her gently with his hands cupping her elbow, tilting his head to make eye contact with her. "Amanda, honey, I only got half of what happened there…but I can fill in some of the blanks. I'm sorry, I blew it. I misunderstood and I should have trusted you enough to give you a chance to explain. Can we put this behind us and move on?" he entreated her.
"No." Her voice was final.
He was startled. Amanda had always been forbearing and forgiving to a fault. This wasn't like her. "Look, Amanda, we need to put this behind us to work together."
"I don't think so. I can work with you, Lee. And I'm not going to give up my job, no matter how you treat me! But it stops there." She spoke decisively.
He seemed uncertain as he let his hands fall away. "What do you mean?"
"I'll work with you, Lee. We make a great team on the job…but off the job, we don't. I don't think we should see each other any more…socially."
A direct hit. He could feel it in the solar plexus. "Look, Amanda, I think you're overreacting."
"Do you? I don't. I'm not like you, Lee. I don't enjoy this kind of drama. What I really want is a man who trusts me and is sure he wants me. We don't have that." Her voice was now steady and firm. She meant what she said. "I think you need to leave, Lee. I'll see you tomorrow at work." She turned to walk out of the garage, her posture stiff as a poker.
"Amanda! You can't mean that!…For crying out loud, can we please talk about this?" For the first time, he felt a tide of panic hit him. What had his careless words cost him?
His only response was the dull thud of the kitchen door as she closed him out. Numbly, he crossed through her garden and walked down the street to his car. He slid into the drivers seat, but couldn't start the car. He hit the inoffensive steering wheel forcefully with his fist in frustration.
One way or another, he vowed, he would find a way to open the door back into her heart. Lee realized with sudden clarity that they had come to a new turning point. Whatever her doubts, he was certain they belonged together. He couldn't afford to lose what he had waited for all of his life to find and he would have to find a way to win her back.
To be continued in You Take the High Road (when that one gets written next!)