Title: At the Closing of the Year
Disclaimer: 'Scarecrow and Mrs. King' is the property of Warner Brothers and Shoot-the-Moon Productions.
Credits: 'Always Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth', 'Remembrance of Things Past', 'A Class Act', 'Brunettes Are In', 'An Affair at Bromfield Hall', 'Flight to Freedom', 'Over the Limit', 'The Wrong Way Home'
'The Closing of the Year' written by Hans Zimmer, performed by 'Toys' cast featuring Wendy & Lisa
Author Note: As always, comments and critiques are welcome. 'The Closing of the Year' is from 'Toys' and definitely not old enough to be associated with the show. In many ways, the lyrics put me in the mindset to write this tale. "If I cannot bring you comfort, then at least I bring you hope. This is a time to be together, and the truth is somehow here within our love of people at the closing of the year."
To my thoughts, Princess Penelope Khan represents new hope as she is the first person to know and be welcome on both sides of Amanda's life. She was never mentioned again (to my memory), which strikes me as very sad. Hopefully, this tale rights that wrong. Thank you so much, LookOutWife, for being an amazing beta. You rock!
Happy New Year,
The first invitation was a surprise.
I would love to come to your party. There aren't very many people who I can actually talk to about my new life, and I'm so glad you are one. As for an escort, I'll be attending with the gentleman I've been seeing for the past few months, Dean McQuire. There's just one catch... Dean doesn't know about my double life.
I look forward to seeing you on New Year's Eve. Even though it's not been that long, we have so much to catch up on!
Penelope Khan nee Squire smiled at the familiar handwriting. She had a feeling Amanda was going to be a very good friend. The smile soon faded as she read the words. Amanda was still seeing the weatherman. He must be pretty impressive to compete with the brash Lee Stetson.
An explosion of sneezes, sharply punctuated by a deep harsh cough, broke the silence of the Arlington household. Amanda looked mournfully at her new amethyst gown before blowing her sore nose yet again. Bronchitis, according to the doctor, and she had the prescriptions to prove it. Since she couldn't talk without coughing, her regrets were going to be tendered via messenger.
I was so looking forward to seeing you and Rheza tomorrow night. However, my cold doesn't agree so I must decline. Maybe we can get together for lunch before you leave for home?
Unfortunately, lunch wasn't in the cards either. The news of Lee's death hit Amanda hard, and she just wasn't up to socializing. Penny had been very understanding, and had even offered her support for the funeral which Amanda softly declined. Lee had never liked a bunch of fuss.
The second was unknowingly hand-delivered by Lee Stetson. It was in the stack of mail which also contained her Station One acceptance letter.
So much has happened since my last letter, I can't even begin to tell you here. Nothing is going to get in the way of me coming this year – beyond National Security, of course. I can't wait to see you. I just finished the perfect dress for your party.
I'm sorry it's been so long since I've written; life's been crazy. Between almost being sold on the black market and creating a scandal in England, I don't even know quite where to begin. I hope this finds you well.
Amanda never would find out the flurry of activity her note prompted. Upon receipt, Rheza immediately contacted Lee to learn the story behind his wife's friend's near miss. After a long discussion about the barbarians, it was discovered the flesh-dealing ring had connections to Zakir.
Within days, the prince provided the vengeful agent with a name and location. As Stetson, like himself, was a man of action, it didn't take long at all to remove the trash from his pristine desert. The men met for a drink after Lee returned to commiserate about independent brunettes and parted firm friends.
The Corvette's backseat was littered with the evidence of their long wait. Steam curled lazily as Amanda sipped her coffee. Lee's favorite heartburn-inducing, grease-laden pizza sat congealing in the box while a smear of Amanda's delicious egg salad sandwich graced his cheek. A plastic bag of celery and carrot sticks sat on the console between them, which he deliberately ignored in favor of the decorated sugar cookies he'd promptly confiscated. She'd learned a long time ago not to depend on him for stake-out cuisine. Two empty thermoses had been returned to the basket, and the remains of the third had been carefully divided between two travel mugs. She shivered again which prompted the man beside her to stretch a long arm behind them for the thick fleecy blanket she'd finally convinced him to start keeping in the trunk for moments exactly like this.
"Tell me again why we're here."
"Amanda, I told you. Bruce Lowell has some information I need." Lee glanced over at the warm blanket before rubbing his freezing hands together.
"And is there a reason we can't just knock on the door and ask him? Ya know, like normal people?" She retorted, snuggling deeper into the cheery blue throw.
"I mean it, Lee. It's Christmas Eve. While that might not mean anything to you, it certainly does me. Even Billy said that you're friends, so why can't you just ask him?"
I can't believe I am doing this again. I am sorrier than I can ever explain. It seems in his infinite wisdom, my partner has put us on the roster to work New Year's Eve. While I will be attending a ball, it will be with the Soviet's, not you and Rheza.
I can't apologize enough. I hope you have time for lunch before you return to Zakir. I have a definite need for a girls only day.
"Rheza, I swear it's a conspiracy! If that man keeps her away next year, I'm going to push him into the Potomac!"
Invitation three was personally extended during lunch. Penny wasn't taking any chances this time. "It's a masquerade, and I'm not accepting 'no' as an answer. If I have to, I'll have my bodyguards tie Lee Stetson up and keep him in the basement!"
"Penny, if I can be there, I definitely will. A masquerade? I think I might have something -"
"You leave your costume to me. I'll send a car, too. You just worry about keeping yourself off the duty roster." Penny wagged a stern finger under her friend's nose.
"So, are your folks excited that you'll be home for Thanksgiving this year?" Amanda gracefully changed the subject. As if Lee Stetson ever listened to her!
The women chatted comfortably, their lunch sitting relatively ignored as they caught up on the events which letters just couldn't convey. A shy yet proud smile curved Princess Penelope Celana Charisse Khan's lips as she relayed the biggest news of all,"I'm pregnant."
"Oh my gosh! Penny, that's wonderful!" Amanda hurried around the table to hug her dearest friend.
"Thank you. Other than Rheza, you are the first to know. That's actually why it's so important you come to the ball this year. Once the little one comes, I don't know how often we'll be leaving Zakir. To be perfectly honest," the lovely woman made a face. "We argued for two weeks about leaving this year. We'll be telling my parents on Thursday."
Brown eyes sparkled playfully, "I'm honored, your Highness."
"Oh, you! Stop that nonsense right now!" Penny tossed her napkin at her friend.
"So, what exactly does one get for the next 'Sun Prince – or Princess – Whose Glory Shines on All the Land'? I don't recall seeing that section at Carter's."
"For starters, you agree to grace the embassy with your presence on New Year's Eve."
Amanda held her hands up in mock surrender. Diners at neighboring tables watched the women with interest. Even for Washington, it was unusual to see this many bodyguards, particularly robed ones. More than one person speculated as to whom the attractive brunettes might be.
"There you are! Amanda King, do you realize just how long I've been searching for you?" An irritated man in an expensive suit interrupted. He waved the encroaching bodyguards off with a flap of his hand, eyes trained on the woman he'd been playing hide & go seek with all day.
"Mr. Stetson, how nice of you to join us for lunch."
A dull flush tinged the man's cheeks when he realized with whom his missing partner was dining. "My apologies, your Highness. Please forgive the intrusion. If you wouldn't mind, I would like to borrow Mrs. King for just a few moments."
She arched an imperious brow at the object of her ire. "And if I do?"
Amanda watched the stand-off for a moment before breaking in. "Penny, if you'll excuse us for a moment."
She slid her chair back and dragged Lee off before he could start an international incident. "I have this afternoon off, Lee. It's been cleared for two weeks. Penny called Billy before she called me! You knew I had a lunch date, didn't you?"
Guilt flickered in hazel eyes, which had brown ones narrowing with irritation, "Just who did you expect to see, Mr. Stetson?"
He gave a weak smile which only fueled her suspicions. Now wasn't the time, but they'd be discussing this soon. Snapping her fingers just under his snooping nose, she returned to the dining area. She had no doubt he was following, but she wasn't about to give him a chance to use whichever recycled excuse he was certain to attempt. Settling back into her chair, the woman sent an apologetic smile to her companion before taking a bite of her neglected salad.
Amused speculation danced in Penny's eyes. "So, are we still going shopping?"
Lee invited himself to join the ladies before reaching over to snatch one of Amanda's bread sticks. "Shopping?"
"Yes, we thought we'd get a jump on some holiday shopping, before the stores are mobbed next week. Would you like to join us?" Penny watched as an attentive server brought Lee a glass of water. Her interest grew as her friend neatly divided the salad on her plate, putting a small portion on the bread plate. Obviously thinking nothing of her actions, Amanda passed the salad plate over with her dinner fork.
This was something they were apparently used to doing. The princess sipped on her tea as Amanda then passed the pepper while accepting a rogue mushroom, which never should've remained on his plate according to his expression, both without being asked. Penny covered her mouth to hide the smile when he stopped mid-reach for the coffee cup after Amanda's soft warning, "It has sugar in it."
Gleefully taking full credit in her mind, Penny wondered when the wedding would take place. And how long it would take Amanda to admit there was something going on. Things definitely were heating up in this quarter, that much was obvious.
Not much later, Lee fled the potential shopping trip, mumbling some excuse about having somewhere else to be. A true gentleman, he paid for lunch on his way out the door. Amanda shook her head, knowing it would show up on his expense report next week. Gathering their coats, the women exited as well, closely followed by their robed escorts.
Amanda shivered on the deck as she guided the Mata Hari II back into her slip. The warm weather had been a welcome surprise since she and Lee had spent the weekend on the water – not usually a place she'd have chosen to spend the weekend after Thanksgiving. The nights had been cold, though, which definitely wasn't unusual for the end of November. They'd started out sleeping on the benches just outside the galley, but the chill last night had driven them to share the tiny cabin aft.
There was actually more room on the benches; Jamie would've been hard pressed to stretch out comfortably on the minuscule bunk. They'd woken up tightly snuggled together, nearly mummified in the blankets. And deliciously warm. She'd been wrapped in his arms, cradled against his strong chest with his breath gently ruffling her hair. So wonderfully, deliciously warm.
Cheeks flaming, she pushed aside the memory of where his hands had been. Granted, he wasn't treating her like an annoying kid sister anymore; there was some very definite interest on his part... and it had been a while since she'd heard him mention anyone. Not since Leslie, actually. Maybe Penny was right after all. She could hold on to the hope just a little bit longer.
"Mother! I don't care that Joe has only been back in the country for two weeks. I am not asking him to escort me to Penny's party. He can spend some time bonding with his sons. Not to mention, I can't imagine why he would want to spend New Year's Eve with his ex-wife at a party where he won't know a single soul. Sure wouldn't sound like very much fun to me."
"Amanda, I just think you should -"
"Mother, for the last time. That ship has sailed. Please drop it." Then a thought occurred. "Please tell me you didn't mention..."
"Well, it did come up-" Dotty shifted her eyes to the left, refusing to look at her daughter.
"How could the topic of me attending a masquerade possibly have come up?"
"He wanted to know if we had plans. I think he was planning on asking you to the EAO party."
Amanda took her mother by the hand and led her to the couch. After they both sat, she started with a very serious expression on her face. "This isn't one of your books, Mother. Joe and I aren't going to fall back into each other's arms and declare bygones to be bygones. I've not been sitting here waiting for him to come to his senses. Yes, I do love him; I always will. I've changed and, no matter what fantasies you and the boys might be cooking up, I have no intentions of getting back together with my ex-husband."
"Amanda... darling... I just want you to be happy."
"Believe me when I say this, Mother. I am happy. I have a wonderful job-"
"That keeps you out 'til all hours!"
Amanda continued, deliberately talking over her mother. "I have two fabulous boys, a good home, and a mother I dearly love. Whatever else could I need?"
"Companionship. You haven't been out on a date in months. You're always so busy working and volunteering. Doesn't it get lonely? You haven't seriously seen anyone since Dean – other than your boss, Mr. Stimson." A dawning light gleamed in the older woman's eyes, "He's not married, is he?"
"Who? How could I know if Dean McQuire had gotten married?"
"Mr. Stimson, your boss. Really, Amanda, I do wish you'd pay attention."
"Mother, believe me, Mr. Stimson is as far from married as a man can get. And we're not seeing each other. It's just business." Loving exasperation filled Amanda's warm voice. "Now, are we settled? I'm not taking Joe King to Penny's masquerade, and that's final. He can find his own contacts. Penny is my friend, and I refuse to allow her to be used like that!"
"So, what are you wearing to this masquerade, anyway?"
"I don't know. Penny said she'd take care of it because work is so busy right now. Speaking of which, I have a location shoot this weekend. It'll be kinda hard to get in touch with me, so if you need me just call IFF. They'll know how to find me."
"With Mr. Stimson, I presume?"
While it wasn't the first gala she'd attended – she'd been to several glittering events over the past three years – there were only a handful of times she'd ever been personally invited. And most of those really didn't count as they were ultimately because of the Agency. It sure felt strange to be attending without Lee. She was fairly positive he knew about tonight's party, although she'd not mentioned anything to him.
The boys were with Joe. There had been excited whispers earlier today about staying up to watch the ball drop and devouring nothing but junk food. It was good that Joe was taking an active part in their lives now; she just hoped it lasted. He always had the best of intentions. Mother had already left, too. She was off to Atlantic City with her bridge club. For some reason, Amanda just couldn't picture her mother in a casino. Shrugging at the thought, she wrapped her damp body in an absorbent towel before padding back into her bedroom. For one night, she wasn't going to be someone's mother or daughter, but rather a woman.
Amanda eyed the dress hanging in her closet again. She was beginning to wish she'd taken Penny up on the offer to get ready at the embassy as she wasn't entirely certain she could get into it by herself. Small wonder society ladies had maids back in the day.
She turned her attentions to the other costume hanging on her bedroom door. It didn't have half the presence of the first, although it was elegant in its simplicity. As much as she'd love to deck herself in the trimmings and lace of the period gown, it just wasn't her. She didn't have the first idea how to even put on half the undergarments! No, sadly, Cinderella wasn't going to make it to the ball. Stroking regretful fingers over the satin and lace, she stepped back before closing the closet door. Even for a masquerade, there were just some things she couldn't do.
Thoughts of Lee wandered through her mind as she smoothed on creamy lotion. He was probably attending his own glittering affair. Her heart gave a slight twinge which she pushed aside. If he'd wanted to be with her tonight, he'd have asked. She wasn't wondering who he was going to be kissing at midnight!
The limousine was exactly on time, and traveled swiftly through the dark streets. Traffic grew heavier the closer they got to Embassy Row. Nestled securely in the back seat, Amanda sipped on the flute of champagne the driver had insisted she take. Penny had pulled out all the stops. Excitement bubbled through her like the effervescent wine in her hand. It was going to be a great night!
As the big car neared the embassy, she noticed a long line of traffic waiting to enter the manned gates. Rheza's security was taking no chances, even though there hadn't been a threat against Penny since Bo had tried to kill her. Her driver smoothly maneuvered past the gatehouse to pull up before the uniformed valet who promptly opened the door and offered his hand to the woman within.
Her mask in place, a goddess emerged, shedding her housewife cocoon for this night of glamor. Creamy white samite shimmered in the starlight, adding a trace of luster to her golden skin. A genuine smile curved soft lips when she looked at the couple waiting on the stairs. Yards of gossamer silk swirled in her wake while tinkling bells chimed softly with every step. Penny's delighted laughter pealed through the still night as she took in the approaching vision. She knew this had been the perfect dress, although the designer had been insistent on the Cinderella panniers.
Shortly before midnight, Amanda sipped a flute of Perrier on the balcony. It had taken some doing, but she'd finally eluded a very determined Zorro and escaped to the cool night air. She'd been dancing all night long and was taking a very well deserved break, not to mention resting her poor feet. The sandals encrusted in crystals may be gorgeous, but they were far from comfortable.
A gentle breeze fluttered the ribbon in her chestnut curls, carrying the scent of honeysuckle drenched in moonlight to the nose of the man standing in the doorway. He inhaled appreciatively, his hungry eyes intent on the goddess before him. She'd caught his attention earlier, but he'd not been able to get near the enchanting woman. Now that he had her alone, he was content for the moment to merely admire from a distance.
She sent out a siren's call, arousing his hunting instincts. She was Diana, remote as the moon set so far beyond his reach, but – like Orion – he was determined to try. He glanced at the mirror hanging beside the door, and adjusted the rich red sash at his waist before resting his left palm on the hilt of his sword. On his head was the tall flat-topped Hardee hat, embellished with cavalry insignia, previously worn by a Civil War officer in his family tree. Hugging his powerful frame, the rich navy coat showcased the breadth of his chest while the golden epaulets drew attention to broad shoulders.
He cleared his throat softly, still standing in the shadows. Interest gleamed in his dark eyes when the woman of mystery failed to be startled, but instead took another sip while looking out towards the moon. He knew she was aware he was there, for all that she refused to look in his direction. Rising to her feet, she stepped further out on the balcony to rest her glass on the wrought iron balustrade. The breeze billowed the gossamer veil draping from her arms as he stepped into the goddess' private sanctuary.
Gazing out at the courtyard, she reached up to toy with the milky moonstone suspended from the heavy serpentine band coiled around her collar bone. It was a familiar gesture he had seen hundreds of times before, in any variety of situations. She was nervous. A teasing half smile quirked his cheek. Good, because the saints knew she certainly had rattled him enough over the years! He walked out, pausing only to draw a heavy drape. The music could still be heard, but they wouldn't be easily spied upon now.
She shivered lightly in the winter chill. Ever the attentive gentleman, he drew her back against his chest and wrapped his strong arms around her waist. Her sigh was soft as she relaxed into his warmth. Unbidden, they began to gently sway as the moon cast her spell.
It wasn't long before he silently urged her to turn. Obedient, she looked up to meet his green eyes flecked with hints of gold. He brushed the back of his long fingers down the gentle curve of her cheek, stopping at the edge of the gilt mask she hid behind. Her hands crept up to rest on his shoulders, while his left settled at the small of her back in the place he'd laid claim. The heat of his palm was a brand, burning through the silk.
His fingers traced the line of her jaw, ghosted over the shell of her ear, and slid into her pinned curls. Moving slowly, careful not to rush or trap the miracle in his arms, he drew her closer into his warm embrace. Joined, she rested her cheek against his chest following his guiding steps. They danced, lost in the moment.
For once, he relaxed his guard. The protective warrior let down his walls, enraptured with the woman who was rapidly becoming his entire world. Unaware of the watching eyes behind them, he crooned softly, whispering the lyrics into her hair.
Penny and Rheza shared a smile before dropping the curtain back in place. It seemed they weren't the only ones seeking privacy for the midnight kiss.
With a gentle tug, he pulled the concealing mask away to bare her face to his searching eyes. Her own were lidded, captured in the web they both had unwittingly spun. His lips grazed the side of her cheek, traveling towards her own. Her breath caught as her fingers tangled in the soft hair at the base of his neck. Heart pounding, she could taste the brandy he'd drank earlier as he exhaled.
The sudden pop of a cork splintered the mood like glass. As if to punctuate the point, the forgotten flute tumbled from the balcony to shatter on the stones beneath when Lee jerked back to spin around, shoving Amanda behind him protectively. His hand instinctively reached for the Beretta he normally carried, which of course wasn't there. He cursed viciously, knowing the moment was lost forever, as the crowd in the ballroom chanted joyously, "Happy New Year!"
Amanda edged around him and fled for the warmth of the house.
Staring blindly at the moon, his hands clenched around the railing, the lone man made a fervent vow. "I will kiss you this year, Amanda King."