Disclaimer: The characters of Scarecrow and Mrs. King belong to Shoot the Moon Productions and Warner Brothers. I am not making a profit from this story.
Summary: Alternate Universe. Lee Stetson is getting married.
Timeframe: Late third season.
Author’s Notes: Many thanks and much appreciation to every one of my fantastic betas. You each, in your own unique ways, assist and inspire me to dig deeper, try harder, and be a better writer.
Please note: Flashbacks are indicated by *****.
Lee Stetson stood nervously in his tuxedo at the front of the chapel. His hands, clenched tightly at his sides, periodically beat against his legs.
Any moment now, his bride would walk down the aisle toward him, and he would become a married man.
A married man . . .
Only a short time ago, he never would have believed that one day he would find himself in this position, about to vow his love - his life - to one woman. In fact, he would have laughed in the face of anyone who would have dared to make such a ridiculous prediction.
Music, provided by a pianist and violinist, started to play softly. The doors at the back of the chapel slowly swung open. Lee's heartbeat quickened substantially at the vision before him.
She was exquisitely beautiful. He had to restrain himself from approaching her and taking her into his arms; he couldn’t wait until she was by his side.
Her dark hair was loosely pinned up, curls escaping and tumbling around her face and graceful neck. The knee-length dress she wore was formfitting and sleek; her slender calves were enticingly encased in silken nylons.
The mere sight of her floating angelically toward him filled him with exhilaration and heady anticipation. Somewhere, in the far reaches of his mind, a voice was shouting a warning that something was not quite right, but he ignored it and focused on the woman coming down the aisle.
Moving his eyes back to her face, he saw that as she approached him, she was looking at him strangely, her brows drawn together in consternation.
He couldn’t keep the grin off of his face. He turned toward her as she drew closer, feeling ridiculously euphoric. Never before had he seen her look so exquisite.
She drew her eyebrows more tightly together and gave a slight shake of her head, then took her place at the front of the chapel. He kept his eyes on her, but she refused to look at him again.
Unbidden, a memory flashed into his already overwhelmed mind.
Lee stood at Leslie’s side at the Russian Embassy. Restlessly bored, he cast his eyes around the room as she chatted with various individuals. He paid scant attention to Leslie's friends, merely smiling politely at the woman she had just introduced.
“Nice to meet you, too,” he replied automatically to the stranger's niceties.
He had almost backed out of this stuffy affair to spend a quiet evening with Amanda. But at the last minute, he'd hesitated to invite her. Leslie would have been so disappointed if he’d cancelled, and Amanda was just his partner, anyway.
He considered Amanda a good friend - his best friend, really - and found himself enjoying her company more and more. But at the same time, he was afraid of sending the wrong signals. Worse was the fact that he was receiving mixed signals from her. It was better to make it crystal clear that he was not interested in a romantic relationship with her.
With practiced ease, he guided Leslie onto the dance floor, his hand at the small of her back. “How much longer do we have to stick around here?” he whispered into her ear.
“Not much,” she promised.
She had worn the black dress he’d bought for her, and he felt a sudden pang of guilt. He should never have asked Amanda where she’d gotten her gown, let alone told her that he wanted one for a ‘friend.’
Besides that, when he saw Leslie in the dress, the effect just fell flat. He'd expected it to affect him the way it had when he'd seen Amanda in it. Even now, his heart sped up at the memory.
Shaking from his mind the unwanted accompanying memory of Amanda's obvious hurt and anger when he'd asked about it, he held Leslie close, swaying to the music provided by the orchestra. As they danced around the crowded floor, Lee began to feel as if he’d forgotten something of crucial importance. It wasn’t the first time this irritating sensation had presented itself.
In fact, it seemed to be surfacing more and more lately. He’d had the feeling before; often he’d wondered if he’d left an appliance on or locked his keys in his car. But this was much more important and profound, not to mention completely elusive.
Unbidden, thoughts of Amanda entered his mind. Probably, he reasoned, because he’d attended so many similar functions with her. Or because he'd been thinking of her in that clingy black dress . . . He wondered what she was doing tonight. If he didn’t get home too late, maybe he’d swing by . . .
“What’s wrong?” Leslie inquired, startling him.
Lee shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know,” he replied, shaking his head in frustration. “I feel like I’m forgetting to tell you something.” It wasn't true, but it would provide her with an explanation for his inattentiveness.
“Hmm . . . Maybe that you think I’m the most ravishing woman you’ve ever seen?” she teased lightly.
Lee grinned. “Maybe,” he agreed. “It’s certainly true enough.”
She felt ridiculous in the sheath of pale lavender. The dress made a loud swishing noise as she walked, and the color clashed with her skin, making her look like she'd applied a bottle of cheap instant tan.
Why had she ever agreed to this? That was the question she’d been asking herself for weeks now. She decided, in hindsight, that she had been suffering from temporary insanity.
Despite her resolve not to look at Lee, her eyes betrayed her and, of their own volition, were drawn to him. The way he was gazing at her made her flush hotly in embarrassment. He seemed to be looking at her the way she had imagined that he would look at his bride - adoringly.
As she made her way up the aisle, he began grinning foolishly. At another time, not that long ago, she would have welcomed such a reaction, but not on the day he was marrying another woman. She frowned in an attempt to make him wipe the ridiculous smile off of his face. What would people think?
She walked past him, noting that he still had his eyes glued upon her. Taking her place off to the side, she felt an inexplicable sense of foreboding.
Wondering again how and why she had let herself become involved in this mess, she cast her mind back to weeks before.
As Amanda hurried up the stairs carrying a load of laundry, she heard someone knock at the front door. Placing the basket on the floor, she hurried back down the stairs and opened the door.
Seeing Leslie standing on her doorstep, Amanda frowned in confusion. What in the world could she possibly want? "L-Leslie?" she stammered.
Leslie smiled warmly, appearing not to notice Amanda's surprise. "Hi, Amanda," she said brightly. "May I come in?"
"Of course." Amanda moved aside to allow the woman into her home. She couldn't stop staring at Leslie, wondering why she’d come. "How did you know where I live?" she asked.
"Oh! I found your address and number in one of Lee's black books. I'm so sorry to barge in; I should have called," she apologized. "But then, I thought just dropping by might actually be less . . . awkward."
"Less awkward?" Amanda asked in confusion. "I don't understand."
"You haven't heard?" Leslie asked, a shadow crossing her features. "I would have thought that you’d have been the first person Lee would've told."
"Told me what?" Amanda questioned suspiciously.
"That we're getting married!" she gushed, holding up her hand to show Amanda her engagement ring.
Amanda stared at the diamond in stunned disbelief. She forced herself to speak. "Oh . . . Oh," she finally choked out, her throat feeling dry and cracked. "Con . . . congratulations."
"Thanks," Leslie replied. In her own excitement she didn't notice Amanda's reticence. “He's so excited about getting married."
"Would you like some tea?" Amanda asked mechanically, finding it impossible to believe that Lee Stetson was 'excited about getting married'. She hoped with all her heart that Leslie would decline her invitation.
"I'd love some," Leslie agreed readily.
Moments later, both women were in the kitchen. Leslie rambled on about wedding preparations while Amanda studiously waited for the water in the kettle to boil.
"Anyway," Leslie went on, "I don't have many girlfriends, aside from my best friend, Dina. My brother is going to be a groomsman, and well, since you're kind of like a sister to Lee, I was wondering if you’d be my bridesmaid?"
Amanda laughed, sounding a bit demented to her own ears. A bridesmaid. Leslie wanted her to be a bridesmaid. "Well, thanks for the thought, Leslie, but I really don't think . . ."
"Oh!" Leslie interjected. "Please reconsider, Amanda. It just wouldn't be the same if you weren't in the wedding."
Amanda stared at the other woman as if she’d lost her mind. "Have you already mentioned this idea to Lee?"
"Well, he said I should ask anyone I want," she confirmed.
Amanda placed a hand on her stomach to calm the rising wave of nausea. "I see . . ." she trailed off, desperately searching her mind for an appropriate refusal. “But . . . did you tell him you were going to ask me?”
“Actually, I was hoping you’d tell me that he had already asked you,” Leslie explained. “I just assumed that he would. He asked Mr. Melrose to be his best man, so . . .” she trailed off, looking slightly uncomfortable.
“Leslie, I can’t . . .” she began.
"Please?" Leslie begged. "There's no one else, and I’m sure that Lee will want you to be in the wedding party."
Leslie's words echoed in Amanda's ears. How could she be a bridesmaid in Lee’s wedding party? How could she stand witness as he pledged his love to someone else?
She felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland, about to sit down and celebrate her very merry un-birthday. Suddenly, the entire situation seemed surreal.
Struggling to pull herself together in the suddenly spinning room, she glanced at the woman standing before her, anxiously awaiting an answer.
"Amanda . . . Are you feeling okay?" Leslie asked in concern. "You look so pale."
"I . . ." Amanda blinked several times. "I haven't eaten lunch," she explained, feeling that the excuse sounded lame.
"Well, I won't keep you, then. But please, you have to be in the wedding. I really think that Lee will be crushed if you aren’t."
Feeling trapped, Amanda couldn't think of any good reason to refuse. What was she supposed to say? ‘No, I’m sorry Leslie. I won’t be in the wedding, unless I can be the bride?’ The whole thing was absurd!
As if emerging from a cloud of thick and disorienting fog, she shook her head in resignation and simply replied, "Okay."
Leslie clasped her hands together. "Oh, thank you!" she exclaimed. "Lee's going to be so happy . . ."
When Leslie had gone, Amanda leaned wearily against the front door. 'What have I gotten myself into?' she wondered. The enormity of the commitment she'd made came crashing down, and she wished, with all of her heart, that she had refused.
Lee noticed that all of the guests had turned their anticipatory attention to the foyer of the chapel as the maid of honor appeared. Dina smiled at the onlookers as she headed down the aisle.
What had just happened? He must have been daydreaming. Leslie hadn’t even made her appearance, yet.
Shaking his head and feeling as if he'd been in a daze, he glanced once more at Amanda and then directed his attention to the doors through which his bride would emerge.
Leslie, his bride . . .
After a moment of anticipatory silence, the music began anew. The doors opened once again, and Leslie appeared.
She was wearing the dress. The dress he'd been looking at in the window. The dress so similar to the one Amanda had worn as his 'bride' in San Angelo. Leslie was smiling lovingly at him as she slowly glided down the aisle in time to the music.
She had obviously selected the gown in a misguided assumption that he had been taken with it. He could vividly remember the day they had seen that gown in the shop window . . .
The wedding date had been set for six weeks after the engagement, at Lee's insistence. Once he'd made up his mind, he had found himself in an uncharacteristic hurry to follow through, feeling that once it was a reality, he'd stop feeling this sensation that something was wrong.
He accompanied Leslie while she browsed through wedding shops. She told him that she wanted him along to get a feel for what styles he preferred, and that she would go back alone later to select one.
As they were about to enter a shop named Bridal Sweet, Lee stopped in front of the display window. Leslie stepped back outside and stood beside him, noticing his transfixion with one particular dress.
'It's almost the exact same dress Amanda wore at our fake wedding in San Angelo during that cruise,' he mused. He clearly remembered their brief exchange of vows, could feel the delicate lace of her veil on his fingertips as he lifted it from her face. His lips tingled as he recalled how it felt to kiss her.
Her lips had been soft and pliant. He had meant it to be a short perfunctory kiss, but had found himself really kissing her, moving his lips against hers as if they were lovers. Then, after ending the contact, he had been unable to keep from leaning in for more.
“Lee? Lee.” Leslie’s voice broke urgently into his reverie. With effort, he finally broke away from the pleasant yet disturbing memory. Why was he thinking about Amanda like that?
"Sorry," he apologized sheepishly.
"Do you like this dress?" she asked him. A faint smile played upon her lips.
"No, not particularly," Lee lied, feeling himself break out in a cold sweat. He didn’t want Leslie wearing that dress, but he wasn’t sure why. They entered the store, and Leslie began looking through racks of dresses. Distracted, Lee kept glancing furtively at the gown in the window display.
Lee focused on Billy, standing by his side as best man, Leslie’s brother behind him. Then he switched his gaze to Francine. Both were eyeing him with obvious concern. He felt his collar choking him, and reached up to loosen it.
Leslie had stopped by his side and was staring at him oddly. After a brief silence, the minister cleared his throat and began to speak.
"Dearly beloved," he began. "We are gathered here today to join this man and this woman in holy matrimony . . ."
Lee felt sick. There was definitely something wrong here. The feeling of having forgotten something very important had returned with a vengeance.
"Wait," Lee interrupted, holding out an unsteady hand.
A collective murmur was heard as guests looked at one another in question, scanning the crowd as if they would find the answer by doing so.
"Excuse me?" the astonished minister asked, clearing his throat nervously.
"I - I'm sorry," Lee whispered, looking from Leslie to Amanda. He wasn't sure quite who he was apologizing to, or why.
Leslie stared at him, wide-eyed and pale. "What?" she mouthed at him.
Amanda was frowning at him, but he looked away from her, trying desperately to make sense of the muddled thoughts in his mind. When he looked at Amanda, he couldn’t concentrate at all. The sight of her threw him even deeper into an ocean of bewilderment.
If only he could grasp at the elusive and persistent nagging at the back of his mind, he’d be able to straighten out this whole mess. He just needed time to clear his head, to think. Why did it seem to be connected to his partner?
His mind worked furiously, replaying the events of the past weeks.
"Darling, I have wonderful news," Leslie called from the kitchen as Lee entered his apartment.
Lee smiled. "What's that?" he asked.
"Amanda agreed to be in the wedding," she beamed.
“What?” he asked flatly, not believing his ears.
Leslie was triumphant. There was a bright gleam in her eyes. "I’m so happy!"
He automatically took her into his arms, trying to process her words, and not sure why he suddenly had that strange sensation, yet again. Everything was working out perfectly, so why did he feel that there was something wrong?
“She - She did? I mean . . . I didn’t know you were going to ask her. I didn’t . . . Did she say anything?” Lee asked, feeling bad that he hadn’t share the news with Amanda and wondering why it felt all wrong that his best friend was going to be in his wedding.
"I think she was a little surprised and hurt that you hadn't told her the good news yourself," she informed him in a slightly scolding tone, confirming his musings.
Lee swallowed hard. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to tell Amanda the news personally. He still couldn’t find a valid reason why. "Oh," he responded, feeling the blood drain out of his face. "She was?"
“Wouldn’t you be upset if she didn’t tell you she was getting married?” Leslie parried.
“Yeah, I probably would,” he confessed, wondering why that analogy made him feel so uncomfortable.
"Mr. Stetson?" the minister prodded him.
Lee was completely transfixed, his gaze shifting from Leslie to Amanda and back. There was something he was supposed to do . . . or not do . . .
The guests on Leslie's side were now speaking quite loudly among themselves, some of them shaking their heads in disgust. Lee’s friends eyed him warily, wondering if the idea of marriage was just too much for him to handle.
Lee noticed that, suddenly, the room felt extremely warm and stuffy. He again reached a finger into his collar in an attempt to alleviate himself of the constricting garment. Forcing himself to take deep breaths, he couldn’t believe how stifling the air was inside the chapel.
He found that he was staring at Amanda again, and wondered who had drugged him and how they had done it. There was no other explanation for this sinking feeling. Frowning, he blinked several times in a fruitless attempt to clear his confusion.
Disoriented, he looked back at the minister. "I'm sorry," he whispered contritely. After a moment, he cleared his throat and whispered, "Please . . . continue."
The onlookers heaved a collective sigh of relief, after which they fell silent, waiting to see what would happen next in this amazing drama.
"Thank you." The minister bowed slightly and attempted to resume. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to join this man, Lee Stetson, and this woman, Leslie O’Connor, in holy matrimony . . .”
As the minister droned on, Lee tried to clear his mind. Not paying attention to the ceremony, he strained his memory. It had something to do with . . . Wait, what was being said?
“If anyone knows of any reason why these two should not be . . .”
Lee flinched. "Umm," he interrupted yet again, his panic rising. Beads of perspiration had begun to materialize on his brow, and he ran a hand through his dampening hair.
Everyone was staring at him in impatience, and he began to feel impatient with himself. All he knew was that this was not right; he was making a mistake, forgetting about something that would have a severe impact on his life.
What could he possibly have forgotten? He’d locked the apartment, and the keys were in his pocket. He’d finished his reports and turned them in to Billy . . .
"Lee," Leslie whispered fiercely, on the verge of tears. "What is wrong with you?"
"I don't know," he replied helplessly, rubbing his clammy hands on his tuxedo pants. Though he spoke to Leslie, his eyes were riveted upon his partner. “I don’t know,” he repeated, in answer to the question in Amanda's hypnotic brown eyes. He now felt sure that the answer to his questions lay with her.
Despite the fact that everyone was waiting, he let his thoughts take him away again as he tried to figure out what was going on. His memory called up his first conversation with Amanda about the wedding . . .
Lee had a report due at five, but couldn’t focus on it. Instead of working on the file in front of him, he covertly watched his partner.
She was quiet, contemplative. He noticed that she paused several times while she worked, staring out the window, her mind clearly elsewhere.
“So . . . You’re going to be in the wedding, huh?” he finally asked, looking up at Amanda from his desk as she headed for the vault. He felt ridiculous to open the conversation in that way, as if they'd discussed it before.
She paused in mid-stride and seemed to study him intently. “Yeah,” she replied simply.
He nodded, his eyes sweeping around the office. “Well, that’s great. We both appreciate it,” he told her. Why did he suddenly feel sick? Must be the greasy hamburger he'd grabbed on the go.
Amanda gave him a weak smile. “I’m . . . glad,” she replied awkwardly.
“It’s going to be a simple ceremony,” he went on, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. Agitated, he swiped at his collar.
“Uh-huh,” she responded, making a move to head into the vault.
She turned and raised her eyebrows inquisitively. “Yeah?”
“You don’t . . . ah, have to do it, if you don’t want to,” he told her, his mouth dry. He still didn’t know quite how he felt about Amanda being in his wedding.
Well, not necessarily in the wedding, but as a . . . but then, in what other capacity would she be there?
“I told Leslie ‘yes’,” she replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “So I’ll do it.”
He nodded and watched as she entered the vault. She hadn’t said she was looking forward to it, or that she wanted to do it, or even that she was happy for him.
Looking down at his desk, he resumed trying to remember what in the world he was forgetting. Most likely it was something big - something that would cause him a huge headache.
Amanda was dumbfounded at what was happening before her eyes. As she watched, Lee was looking from her to Leslie, back and forth, confusion etched on his features. She wondered if he had perhaps taken medication that was now affecting his ability to function normally. Could he, perhaps, have been drugged?
She had imagined this ceremony so many times. He was supposed to be enraptured of his bride, confident, and sure of his words and actions. This man, standing a few feet away, did not resemble the Lee Stetson she knew, not in the least.
She’d never seen him so indecisive or panicked. He was sweating and pulling at his collar as if it were two sizes too small. His hands clenched and unclenched and beat against his legs in agitation. She looked at his face to find him staring at her once more.
Again, she frowned at him, her eyes willing him to do something. Her instinct was to reach out to him, but she stifled it; it was no longer her place. She had begun to wonder if it ever had been.
She saw him nod, and she gave a sigh of relief. Maybe he would be okay after all. He’d been a bachelor for a long time, and marriage was an awfully big step.
Marriage . . . she couldn't believe he was actually marrying Leslie. Even more unbelievable to her was that she had been so foolish as to think she could handle being a bridesmaid in her partner's wedding.
Desperate to think of something other than Lee's pleading hazel eyes, she cast her mind back to a disturbing conversation she’d had with him . . .
Lee came into the vault, whistling as he opened a drawer to search for a file.
“You’re in a good mood today,” Amanda observed.
He smiled at her indulgently. “Yes, Amanda, I am,” he agreed. “In three weeks, I’ll be a married man.”
Who was this, some kind of Lee clone? Amanda studied him closely. He was totally unlike himself, and she marveled that Leslie O’Connor had been able to affect this kind of change in him. Somehow, she had always hoped that she would be the one to . . . but no use thinking about that, now.
“Yeah,” she agreed dryly. “You will.”
“What, Amanda?” he questioned, folding his arms in front of his chest. “You don’t think it’s a good idea?”
“I didn’t say that,” she responded. "Don't put words into my mouth."
He smirked. “You didn’t say it, but you implied it. You might as well tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Not that it’s any of my business . . .” she began.
“And it’s not,” Lee confirmed smugly.
“. . . But it just seems really sudden,” she continued, ignoring his interruption. “I mean, you’ve only known her a couple of months.”
He sighed. “And what’s wrong with that?”
“Well, with your track record, I would’ve thought that you would’ve wanted to get to know her a little better before taking such a big step. You seem to . . . bore easily.”
Lee’s mouth gaped. “I won’t get bored with Leslie,” he protested. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I know everything there is to know about her.”
“Well, that’s good, then,” she replied doubtfully.
Lee shook his finger at her. “Don’t patronize me, Amanda King,” he protested. “You know very well there's no problem here. I know Leslie better than any other woman I've ever known.”
Astounded, Amanda gaped at him. Surely Lee knew her far better than he did Leslie! After a stunned moment, she held up a hand in defeat. “Fine, whatever. I’m happy for you, Lee,” she assured him, attempting to wrap up the conversation.
Lee, however, was just getting warmed up. “I know that she’s smart, kind, and resourceful. I’ve never seen anyone as clever as she is - she thinks on her feet. She’s fun and exciting to be around and she’s unpredictable. She’s beautiful - I couldn’t have found someone more perfect.”
Amanda flinched but recovered quickly and raised her eyebrows, cutting in. “Okay, you’ve made your point, Lee. I’m really glad if you’re sure that Leslie’s ‘the one’. I didn’t mean to get you so upset.”
Lee nodded, somewhat pacified. Amanda picked up a stack of reports to take downstairs. As she headed for the elevator, she wondered just when Lee had had an opportunity to see that Leslie was resourceful, clever, and able to think on her feet.
Shrugging, she pushed the thought out of her mind. What did it matter, anyway?
Feeling trapped, Lee looked around at the familiar and concerned faces. His eyes darted back to Amanda again.
Amanda . . .
His partner and his friend, she meant more to him than he'd ever realized. An image of his first sight of her at the train station flooded his memory and he smiled. His heart thudded in his chest; thrum-thrum, thrum-thrum.
Amanda . . .
Slowly, his mind and heart were inundated with emotions, thoughts and memories, all pointing to what he had been 'forgetting'. How could he have made such a horrendous mistake? All this time, he’d been agonizing, and now, in one enlightening flash, he saw, with unquestionable clarity, what he’d been missing.
Amanda . . .
What the hell was he doing? All he knew was that he had to escape the confines of the chapel; the walls seemed to be closing in around him.
"I'm so sorry," he heard himself whisper, reaching out to touch Leslie’s arm. "I -- I -- I can't."
Leslie pulled away from his touch, looking at him as if he'd slapped her. Taking a step back, she shook her head in denial.
Lee glanced at Amanda and felt himself start to shake. "Amanda . . ." he began, taking a step toward her. She, too, backed away, her eyes widening in confused alarm. "I'm sorry," he whispered.
The murmurs from the onlookers rose in pitch as Lee strode quickly to the back of the chapel and out the door. Getting into his car, he started the ignition as another memory assaulted his mind.
Lee walked up the stairs to the Q Bureau. In less than one week, he would be getting married. It was a strange, unreal feeling. There was something he needed to do -- maybe something for the wedding? He’d made reservations for the honeymoon, been fitted for a tuxedo, had the Corvette serviced . . .
“Hi,” Lee said as he entered the office. The feeling was even stronger, almost overpowering, now. Maybe being in the office would help him recall whatever it was he was supposed to do. Association of thought, and all that.
“Hi,” she replied softly.
Worried, he looked at her closely. “Amanda, are you okay? You seem a little . . . distracted, lately.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” she replied, shrugging off his concern. “Just tired, I guess.”
Frowning, he pressed for more information. “You’re not . . . you know, upset with me, are you?”
“Upset with you? I’m not upset with you. Why would I be upset with you?” she asked in quick succession. Her face revealed nothing. Her manner was carefully offhand. Yet, he knew, for certain, that something was wrong.
He stepped toward her as she retreated. “You are upset. What’d I do?”
She bit her lower lip, looking nervous. “Lee, you didn’t . . . You didn’t do anything to upset me,” she finished, closing her eyes.
“Amanda,” he prodded.
“Lee, please,” she stopped him from further probing. “Don’t worry about me, all right?”
“I’ll always worry about you, Amanda,” he replied quietly, suppressing the desire to reach out and touch her arm.
She shook her head. “Don’t worry about me,” she repeated firmly.
“Why not?” he asked, wanting to fix whatever he’d done to make her so pensive and reticent.
Amanda heaved a sigh. “Because I’m not your responsibility, Lee,” she answered.
Before he could reply, she left the Q Bureau and hurried down the stairs, leaving him alone and baffled.
There it was again, that pesky feeling that there was something terribly amiss. He made his living solving perplexing mysteries, but for the life of him, he couldn't solve this one.
Lee drove for miles and finally found himself at the train station. This was where he’d first seen Amanda. Grabbing her firmly and spinning her around, he’d pleaded for her to walk with him.
Memories flooded his mind as he walked down the crowded platform. He spotted a man wearing a red baseball cap and chuckled softly to himself. She had made quite an impression on him, right from the start.
Amanda had proved herself to be a natural, and he had developed a grudging respect for her. She'd put up with his temper, without compromising her own dignity. He had taken her tolerance for granted.
There was a lot about Amanda that he had taken for granted. She'd never complained, although she had demanded on occasion that he give her due credit. She'd made her way in the Agency on her own merit.
And now, to realize that he felt so much more for her than friendship and respect as his partner was a startling revelation. How in the world would he explain all of this to her?
He felt as if he hadn’t even been himself the past few months. Why had he avoided his feelings for Amanda? He’d done so very thoroughly, staying in a relationship with another woman and pretending that Amanda was no more than a friend and partner to him.
She had acted so strangely when she’d found out he was dating Leslie. He’d never seen her so jealous before. He should have recognized her behavior as similar to what he had always exhibited when she showed interest in other men, although he would never have attributed his behavior to jealousy.
Heading back to his car, he shoved his hands into his pockets and fervently wished that he’d done things differently. He should have been able to figure it out. Looking back now, it was so easy to see the signs, even when he’d first started dating Leslie.
Lee raced up the steps to the embassy, checking his watch. He was twenty minutes late meeting Amanda. She smiled softly as he entered the ballroom and approached her.
"Hello,” she said.
He smiled back, taking in her appearance. “Hi,” he replied, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
She was angelic. He was going to enjoy dancing with her this evening. Briefly, he thought of Leslie, but pushed his guilty conscience aside. This was business, and he was working with his partner.
“I was wondering when you’d get here,” she told him. “Thought maybe you’d had some car trouble.”
He shook his head. “No, I was just running late.”
She glanced around the room and whispered to him as she covertly pointed out their contact, as well as a few other key people.
As Amanda occupied herself filling him in on the details about various individuals, Lee took advantage of the opportunity to admire her beauty. He forced himself to concentrate on her words, a difficult task when he was so focused on the scent of her hair and the glow of her skin.
“Lee, are you okay?” she asked, her brow wrinkling. “You seem a little preoccupied tonight.”
He averted his gaze from her inquisitive face. “Oh, well, I’m a little tired. I had a late night.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, save it.”
“What?” he asked, clueless as to the reason for her sarcastic response.
“I don’t care to hear about your exploits with Leslie.” She pretended to stifle a yawn.
Intent on teasing her, he asked, “Jealous?”
She eyed him coolly, arching an eyebrow. “Not in the least.”
Before he could recant his taunt, a debonair gentleman approached Amanda and offered her his hand.
Bowing, he remarked, "I've come to claim my dance."
"Oh . . ." Amanda replied, taking his hand automatically. "I did promise you, didn't I?"
To Lee's irritation, Amanda seemed to be attracted to the stranger. Before he could protest, the man had whisked her onto the dance floor.
Amanda took off the lavender dress in a daze, reliving the day's bizarre events. She still couldn't believe what had happened, and wondered if Lee was all right.
The desire to call his apartment and see if he was there was hard to resist, but she knew she had to leave him alone.
Her mother had been full of questions, demanding to know all about the wedding, but to her immense disappointment, Amanda had brushed her off with vague answers, climbing the stairs to the privacy of her bedroom.
She brushed out her hair and changed into a pair of jeans and a light sweater. Unable to face her mother, she sat down on her bed, cross-legged, holding her head in her hands.
It was impossible to erase the memory of Lee’s confused face, looking back and forth between Leslie and her. She'd felt like he was pleading with her to guide him, but what, exactly had he expected her to do?
After he’d told Leslie, ‘I can’t,’ he had looked directly at Amanda, his eyes wide and bewildered.
Stranger still was that he had apologized to her as well as the bride he was literally leaving at the altar. It had been a thoroughly bizarre occasion.
Sooner or later, she knew he would come to see her. The thought filled her with a strange mix of trepidation, anxiety, and anticipation. She almost wished she wouldn’t have to face him.
What would he say? What would she say in return? She couldn’t begin to imagine the conversation.
Perhaps, though, she was entirely wrong. Maybe he would just act as if nothing had happened, never mention it at all. After all, it was none of her business.
She felt curiously incurious, as if in knowing why everything had fallen apart, she would somehow share in his culpability. A well-worn memory presented itself, and Amanda allowed herself relive it.
Lee came up behind her and tapped her shoulder as the music ended. Amanda thanked her dance partner and turned to Lee.
She deliberately acted distracted, keeping her eyes on the multitude of couples swaying to the orchestra’s melody. “Hmm?”
“Look,” he began, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“About what?” she asked airily.
Haltingly, he explained, “About what I said earlier, you know . . . saying that you were, um . . . jealous. That was . . . really out of line.”
She nodded slowly and then narrowed her eyes. “Yes, it was,” she agreed.
“I didn’t really mean . . .” he paused, clearing his throat. “I didn’t mean what I said. I was only joking.”
She was silent for a long time, tempted to tell him that, yes, she was jealous. Instead, she forced herself to smile and say, “It doesn't matter, because I'm not jealous.”
“I know,” he acknowledged.
“Good.” She nodded as if to close the subject. There was no reason to burden him with her feelings when he seemed happily in love with another woman.
At the beginning of his relationship, Amanda had unhesitatingly told him that Leslie wasn’t the right woman for him, but there was no way she was going to repeat that at this point.
“Then, you’ll dance with me?” he asked hopefully, reaching for her hand.
“Oh, I don’t know, Lee . . .” she answered hastily. She tried to think of a valid reason for declining, but he had already taken her hand and was leading her toward the polished floor.
A shiver ran up her spine as he took her into his arms. “Okay,” she agreed belatedly.
He laughed softly into her ear, inducing another slight shiver. “Cold?” he asked.
She wasn’t cold, but that was as good an explanation as any. “Yes.”
He paused a moment, removed his jacket, gently placed it around her shoulders, then pulled her back into his embrace. “How’s that?” he inquired.
His coat held the scent of his cologne, and she closed her eyes, momentarily lost in the sensations being in his arms created. “Much better, thanks,” she murmured.
Her earlier irritation with him had vanished; she couldn’t even remember why she’d been angry.
The day after the non-wedding, Lee returned home from running an errand. As he inserted his key into the door, it swung open. He was about to draw his gun, when he heard Leslie call to him from inside.
"What are you doing here?" she asked from the living room.
Stepping inside, he saw her. It appeared that she had not slept well the night before, understandably. She folded her arms across her chest and waited for his reply.
"I, uh, live here," he replied awkwardly.
"I know that," she retorted. "Look, I'll be out of here as soon as I grab the rest of my things. I was hoping to be out of here before you came home," she added.
"Take your time," he said quietly.
Her tone clipped, she replied, "I'm almost finished."
"I think we should talk," he suggested. It was amazing that he could look at her and feel nothing except regret that he had misled her. No love, no sorrow, not even a spark of emotion.
"There's nothing to talk about. You made your feelings crystal clear at the chapel, Lee," she huffed.
“Please,” he began, "I want to explain."
"Oh, well, this should be good," she told him testily, sitting down.
He walked over and sat in the chair next to her. When he attempted to take her hand, she jerked it away and clasped it with her other one.
"Go ahead," she prompted impatiently.
"Leslie, I'm sorry for what happened. I never meant to hurt you. I honestly don't know what to say about what happened . . . I've been trying to figure it out."
He paused, searching for words that weren't there. How could he explain something to her that he himself didn't fully comprehend?
“And?” she drew the word out, waiting for him to continue.
“I was in denial about my feelings,” he began, running a hand roughly through his hair. “I really thought I was in love with you, but . . . at the wedding, I realized that . . .”
“That you weren’t,” she finished for him, her voice laced with mock comprehension.
He nodded, searching her eyes. “Please, you’ve got to believe me when I say I never wanted to hurt you.”
She shifted. “I really don’t know what to believe, Lee.”
“I know,” came his despondent reply.
“So what did you find out? After all of your thinking?” she inquired.
“I, um . . .” he paused, trying to find the right words.
“Does this have anything to do with Amanda?” Her suspicion was evident.
He was quiet for a moment, silently debating how much to admit. “Everything,” he whispered.
Leslie’s eyes widened with sudden understanding. “Oh.” Her voice was so faint that he had a hard time hearing it.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” he assured her. Seeing her disbelief, he continued. “I didn’t know I had these . . . feelings for her.”
Leslie broke in curtly. “Oh, come on.”
“Please, hear me out,” he requested. “I honestly didn’t realize it until the wedding. I don’t know why.”
“You even called me ‘Amanda’ once,” she said, disgusted at the memory.
“I . . .” he broke off, his misery evident.
Leslie stood. “I have to leave now.”
He made no effort to stop her. As she hurriedly gathered the last of the few belongings she had left there, he sat with his head in his hands. He had quite possibly ruined three lives.
There had been so many moments where he’d seriously wondered just what his feelings for Amanda were, and what her feelings were for him. Shouldn’t that have given him a clue?
Lee placed his coat around Amanda’s shoulders, wondering how she could feel cold in such a warm room.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“Much better, thanks,” she responded.
He wrapped his arms around her and felt her stiffen slightly, but then relax. Momentarily, he wondered why she was so nervous, but realized that assignments like this one always put her a little on edge.
His hand involuntarily caressed her back and he heard her sigh. Gently, she pulled away, putting more space between them.
“Everything okay?” he asked, missing the closeness.
She gave him an enigmatic smile. “Sure.”
He studied her face, searching for what she was hiding. "Well, then, why did you move away?" he asked.
"I just . . ." she paused and licked her lips. She frowned, moving further away from him. "It's just that if you were my . . ." she paused, blushing. "I mean, if I had a boyfriend, I wouldn't want him dancing so closely with another woman."
Lee nodded. She was right, after all. Suddenly, his arms felt empty and he missed Leslie . . . right? Though he’d just had Amanda in his arms, he now felt unfulfilled. Surely that meant he wanted to get back to his fiancée, didn’t it?
Glancing at his watch, he hoped the evening would pass quickly so that he could get home to Leslie. She was waiting for him, and he couldn’t wait to hold her.
Monday morning, despite the fact that he wasn’t scheduled to work, Lee went into the Agency as usual. Avoiding the curious gazes of his co-workers, he hurried up to the Q Bureau. Hopefully, he’d have a chance to talk to Amanda without the usual interruptions.
Opening the door, he found her at his desk. Startled, she looked up quickly as he entered.
“Oh . . .” she uttered the single word, drawing it out in apprehension. “I, uh, I didn’t expect you in today. Let me get out of your way.”
He held up both hands. “No, it’s okay, Amanda. You can stay.”
“Okay,” she said nervously, tapping a pencil on the desk blotter.
“I, uh, was kind of hoping to talk to you, anyway,” he told her.
She looked away from him for a moment, then back again. Giving him a funny lop-sided smile, she nodded. “Sure, Lee. What’s up?”
Her feigned ignorance touched him deeply. She was acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Not for the first time, he thought about how similar she and Leslie were. Both had always let him decide when he was ready to talk, instead of plying him with questions and demands.
Clasping his hands behind his back, he took a deep breath. "Well, it's kind of complicated, Amanda." He hesitated.
"Okay," she said slowly.
"First, I wanted to talk about what happened at the wedding . . ."
She hastily cut him off, holding up a hand. "Ahh -- Lee, really -- that's none of my business. You don't have to tell me a thing about all that, really. I understand . . ."
"No," he interrupted her rambling flow of words. "You don't understand, but I need for you to."
Shifting uncomfortably, she chewed on the side of her lip. With a sigh, she said, "All right. Sorry."
"It's okay," he assured her, then resumed. "You see . . ."
The sound of high heels clicking along the hallway caused yet another delay, as Francine breezed into the room.
“Well, if it isn’t the reconfirmed bachelor, escaped from the clutches of matrimony,” she joked, ignoring Lee’s irritated look.
“What do you want, Francine?” he asked through gritted teeth, watching helplessly as Amanda got up and left the office.
“Billy saw you. He knows it was supposed to be your day off, but since you’re here, he wants to see you. After all, you’re not exactly on your honeymoon,” she quipped.
“Fine,” Lee replied, exasperated. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
After Francine closed the door behind her, Lee sat unmoving at his desk, wondering how he could have been so misguided. He had honestly believed that he was in love with Leslie, hadn’t he?
“Look, Amanda,” Lee said. He’d decided that he couldn’t wait any longer to see Leslie. “Since we're finished here, I’m, uh, gonna go ahead and go on home. I’ve got a bit of a headache.”
“Yeah, okay,” Amanda replied as she slipped his jacket off her shoulders and handed it to him. “Thanks,” she told him.
“Any time,” he replied, pulling the coat on. He could smell her perfume emanating from it and inhaled deeply. It was such an intoxicating scent. He’d purchased a bottle of it for Leslie, but it wasn’t the same. “Amanda . . .”
She turned to him. “Yeah?”
He slid his hands into his pockets. “We’re . . . okay, aren’t we?”
She furrowed her brow innocently, but he could see uncertainty behind her brown eyes. “Why wouldn't we be okay, Lee? What makes you ask that?”
Smiling inwardly at her avoidance technique, he shrugged. “I was just wondering, that’s all. It seems . . . like things are different, somehow.”
“Well,” she said slowly, “things are different, Lee.”
Intrigued, he wondered if he was going to get to the bottom of this. “How?”
She laughed without humor. “Oh, boy . . .” she trailed off, shaking her head ruefully. “If you don’t know, then maybe you’re not ready to be a husband.”
Speechless and confused, he watched her walk away from him without a backward glance.
Driving home, Lee contemplated how lucky he was that Leslie was nowhere near as complicated as Amanda. His partner was very difficult to understand at times.
Arriving back at his apartment, Lee found Leslie asleep on the couch, the credits to a mystery movie rolling on the television screen.
Leaning down, he kissed her cheek, moving her brunette locks back from her face. “Hey, beautiful,” he whispered.
“You’re home,” she replied sleepily.
“I missed you,” he told her.
She smiled, reaching up to put her arms around his neck. “I missed you, too,” she purred.
Lee didn’t have a chance to speak to Amanda for the rest of the day. Once he’d wrapped things up with Billy and managed to avoid the older man’s concerned questions, he had gone to meet a contact. When he finally made it back to the office, Mrs. Marston informed him that Amanda had gone home for the day.
Deciding to try and see her, he left the Agency and drove to her neighborhood. It was after the dinner hour and he knew he was taking a chance that she might not be alone.
As he passed a neighbor’s driveway, he spotted Phillip and Jamie playing basketball with three other boys.
Pulling into a parking place down from Amanda's, he looked up just in time to see her mother leaving on a date. His smile of satisfaction turned into a frown of consternation when he remembered the reason he needed to see her.
Going around to the back window, he spotted her in the kitchen, cleaning up dinner dishes. As he watched her, he hoped he’d be able to make her understand. Losing her was something he was neither willing nor able to deal with. He knew he would have to think carefully before speaking.
Tapping lightly on the glass, he watched as she jumped and spun around, dropping her dishcloth on the counter. She walked over and unlatched the door, stepping back so that he could enter.
“Hi.” She stood rigidly aside.
“Hi,” he replied. “After all this time, you're still not used to me tapping on your window?” he teased.
She had returned to her position by the sink and retrieved her towel. As she picked up a plate to wipe, she remarked dryly. “It’s been a while since you came by, Lee.”
The truth of her words sunk in. “You’re right. I’m sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize,” she replied. “What’s the assignment?”
He stared at her, not understanding. “Huh?”
“The assignment,” she repeated, enunciating slowly. “What is it?”
“There’s no assignment,” he told her. “I just came by so we could finish our conversation.”
“Conversation?” She concentrated on drying a casserole dish.
He suppressed an agitated groan. “Yes, Amanda. Our conversation.”
“Oh. Well, Mother’s on a date and the boys are at a neighbor’s for about another hour,” she offered.
“I saw the kids, and I got here as your mother was leaving,” he replied.
She nodded. “Would you like some tea? I’ll put some water on to boil.” She reached and turned on the burner.
“That’ll be fine. Can we go into the other room?” he asked.
“Okay,” she agreed.
They went into the family room and sat down at opposite ends of the couch. Amanda looked at him nervously. “You know, Lee,” she said quietly. “You don’t owe me any explanations. I don’t need to know what happened, in fact, I’d rather not. It’s your life; it has nothing to do with me.”
He felt pained at her words. “Amanda, you act like we’re not even friends. Have I done that much damage?” he asked, sitting forward.
“I don’t understand what you’re asking me, Lee,” she replied, a slight tremor in her voice. “All I’m saying is that you don’t owe anyone any explanations, except maybe Leslie.”
He sighed; she wasn’t making this easy on him. “Amanda, I do owe you an explanation. We can’t have this hanging between us, we’re too good of friends for that.”
“I don’t see how it could hang between us. I would never bring it up again, Lee,” she insisted.
He couldn’t help but wonder why she was so reluctant to hear what he had to say. She was acting wary and nervous. “Well,” he began, “It would bother me . . .”
From the kitchen came the sound of the kettle rocking on the burner. “Water's hot!" she exclaimed, jumping up as if she had been waiting for it and hurrying into the kitchen.
Lee sighed heavily. Leaning forward again, he rested his head in his hands. This was going to be more difficult than he'd imagined. How would he even begin? Not to mention that fact that she didn't seem to want to hear what he had to say.
While he waited, he couldn’t help but realize how extremely nervous he felt. He hadn’t been this nervous with Leslie on the night he proposed to her; in fact, he’d never been this nervous with Leslie at all . . . was that another telltale sign that something had been wrong? He remember how he’d been so hell-bent on moving the relationship forward . . .
Lee reached out and took Leslie’s hands in his. They had just finished dinner and were sipping wine and enjoying the romantic atmosphere of restaurant.
Leslie’s hair was pinned up, loose tendrils escaping the clasp and curling softly about her neck. He loved it when she wore her hair this way. It reminded him of someone . . . but whom?
He smiled at her, and let go of one of her hands to reach into his pocket.
“What’re you doing?” she asked, reaching for his errant hand.
“Leslie.” He spoke her name softly.
Looking into his eyes, she smiled. “Yes?”
“Would you do me the honor of being my wife?” he asked. Shouldn’t he feel nervous? Shouldn’t he be wary of making such a request? He hadn’t even given it much thought; he had just gone and selected a ring in the first store he’d come to.
“Lee!” she exclaimed in obvious surprise. “Yes . . . Yes!”
“Why do you act so surprised?” he questioned, laughing at her shocked face.
“Because I am surprised . . .” She shook her head. “I had no idea you were even thinking of proposing, but I’m so happy that you did!”
No, he supposed, he hadn’t really thought about proposing. He had just done it. Even now, he didn’t feel like it was real. What he did feel was that he was forgetting something; obviously proposing to his girlfriend had not been what it was . . .
How bizarre it all was, Lee thought. He had really thought he was doing the right thing. Now, he could see his complete lack of forethought, the total absence of making sure that marriage to Leslie was what he’d wanted.
After what seemed like an eternity, Amanda returned with a tray laden with two mugs and every possible tea accessory.
"There's uh, orange pekoe, chamomile and raspberry," she chattered, pointing to the various assembled tea bags. "If you want, I think I have some mint tea somewhere." She started to get up, as if welcoming the opportunity to forestall their conversation.
"Amanda, this is fine." He lightly placed a hand on her forearm. "Just . . . sit down."
They quietly prepared their tea for a moment. Lee kept stealing glances at Amanda, trying to read her face, but she didn't look at him once. Finally, there was nothing else she could do but sit back and wait for him to continue.
"Well." He cleared his throat. "The thing is, I don't know how things got so out of hand. I've come to realize that I made a mistake in dating Leslie."
She stared at him for a long moment, then raised one eyebrow in surprise. She didn't answer right away, instead taking a sip of her tea. "Took you a while to figure it out, didn't it?" she finally asked him quietly, setting her cup on the table.
"Yeah, I guess it did," he admitted, feeling foolish.
"You guess?" she repeated, quietly incredulous. "Lee, you proposed to her. You asked her to spend the rest of her life with you, or supposedly - not that it always ends up that way."
Knowing how seriously Amanda viewed marriage, he could only nod regretfully. "I know." He took a deep breath. "I know, and there's nothing I can do to change what happened. But the thing is," he paused and drew another deep breath, his hand making its way through his hair, "I was confused."
"You were confused." It wasn't a question, but a statement. She said it slowly, as if mulling the idea over as she spoke.
"Yes," he affirmed, nodding. Searching for a way to explain his behavior, he asked, "Amanda, have you ever been afraid to lose someone?"
"Of course," she admitted. "I worry about that with everyone I care for, every day. It's a part of life."
"Yeah," he nodded. "It is. It's taken me some time, but I'm learning that. I was afraid of losing . . . someone close to me, and I handled things badly."
He paused and watched her features, trying to gauge whether she had any idea of what he was getting at. She appeared to be at a loss, patiently waiting for him to continue.
When he didn’t, she spoke. "Well, do you think she'll . . . take you back?" she asked, seemingly with some difficulty, as if she were forcing herself to say the words. Her voice was strained and hollow.
"What?" Lee asked, not understanding.
She took a deep breath and thought for a moment. "I mean, if you really love her, and explain to her what happened, I think she will," Amanda said, swallowing hard. After a slight pause, she continued. "Just tell her how you feel, and admit that you made a mistake . . ."
Lee interrupted her, finally recognizing her train of thought. "Amanda, no. That's not what I mean."
She frowned and shook her head. "Then . . . I don't think I understand."
He swallowed hard, summoning his courage. "Amanda, I . . . I mean . . . you."
"Me?" she repeated, staring at him blankly.
He nodded. "Yes, you," he said, holding his breath.
A look of comprehension dawned on her face. "Oh . . . But, Lee," she responded, rushing on, "You haven't lost me. You're not going to lose me, okay? You don't have to worry about that, because we’re always gonna be friends."
He had been shaking his head the entire time she spoke. She'd misunderstood, yet again - whether deliberately or guilelessly, he wasn’t sure.
Lee stood up from the couch and knelt before her. "Amanda," he interjected.
Her eyes widened at his action; he could almost see the pulse in her neck racing. "W--what?" she asked nervously.
He took her hands in his and felt her stiffen. "Just listen, okay?"
Her eyes widened even more at the contact and she nodded slowly.
"Amanda . . . You became important in my life long before I would admit it, even to myself. But you’re my partner and my best friend. I would never want to lose what we have. I . . . I want more than what we have . . . a lot more."
He paused, watching her closely. Looking into her eyes, he could tell that she finally knew where he was heading. She must have seen signs as to how he felt about her, even if he was in denial. No wonder she’d been so surprised about his relationship with Leslie.
She didn’t say anything, but she frowned as if trying to understand. He watched her closely as he said, "Amanda . . . I have . . . extremely strong feelings for you."
Amanda started shaking her head in denial, trying to pull her hand from his. "No,” she said vehemently.
"Yes, Amanda, it's true," he insisted. “I didn’t realize it until the day of the wedding, but it’s true.”
"No . . ." she whispered. "Please, Lee . . . don't do this. Not now."
He frowned, knowing he had handled it badly. Was there a good way? he wondered. "I have to. I need you to know . . ." he pleaded.
She yanked her hands free and stood, moving away from him. She began pacing back and forth. He sat down on the chair she had just vacated and watched her with growing uneasiness. He flinched as she suddenly spun around to face him, her eyes blazing with indignation.
“All this time . . .” She broke off, her frustration manifesting itself in her inability to find words. “All this time, Lee . . . I watched you, listened to you go on about Leslie. And I couldn’t tell you how I felt. And now you tell me this?”
“Amanda, I . . . I know. I mean, I didn’t know then, but . . . Why didn’t you tell me?” he finished weakly, reeling from her admission.
"No! You proposed to her, Lee. You . . . you made love to her . . . and the whole time . . .?" she trailed off, as if unable to accept the meaning of her own words as she realized what she was saying. She resumed her frantic pacing.
"It wasn't like that," he insisted desperately. He had to blink several times to ward off the sting behind his eyelids. Standing, he wisely kept his distance from her. “Amanda . . .”
"I wanted . . . I wanted to be more than your friend," she told him, facing him again. "But you didn't want that. So I accepted the way things were. You were my best friend, and I wanted you to be happy. So it was okay . . ."
She paused again, wiping away the tears that had gathered under her eyes. "It was okay, because we were still friends. But Leslie . . . was different. I thought you really loved her. It was hard to accept, but I still tried to be happy for you, even though she was so normal, so . . . so much . . . like . . ." She stopped talking and turned away from him.
"Amanda, I'm so sorry," he told her, his voice unsteady. "Please forgive me."
She had wrapped her arms around herself protectively, and he could see that she was trembling. "I don't understand," she said softly.
"What?" he asked with a sense of dread.
"Why I wasn't . . . Why you chose her, if . . ."
"If what?" he questioned, knowing what she meant.
"Never mind," she whispered dully, all the fiery indignation drained away. Her words were barely audible. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” As he followed her, she headed for the kitchen, opening the back door and turning to face him, looking profoundly sad.
A chill ran down his spine at the finality of her statement. "Amanda, please . . . we can fix this," he told her desperately.
He felt sick, waiting for her to respond. The silence in the room was overbearing, except for the suddenly loud ticking of the kitchen clock.
"I - I don't know," she replied woodenly. “This . . . changes everything.”
Lee took a step toward her. "Don't say that," he implored her.
"I think you should leave," she said, opening the door wider.
"Please, Amanda." He felt the color drain from his face. This was exactly what he’d feared.
"Lee, I really need to be alone, and besides, Phillip and Jamie will be home any minute.”
Stricken, he nodded. "Can we talk tomorrow?"
She stared at him sorrowfully. He could see a battle raging behind her deep brown eyes as she thought about his request.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, she sighed. "Maybe. I'll let you know."
There was nothing else to do but agree. With a heavy heart, he walked out her back door and heard her lock it firmly behind him.
Amanda locked the door and slumped against it. Unable to get control of her emotions, she felt almost as if she were detached, watching scenes from a depressing romance movie. Unrequited love, stunning confessions, angst - the stuff of the books her mother read.
Hearing the boys returning home, she composed herself and opened the door.
“Hi, Fellas,” she greeted them, trying to sound cheerful.
“Hi, Mom,” they replied.
“Mom,” Phillip said, looking at her. “Have you been crying? Your eyes look kinda puffy.”
Jamie looked at her curiously, and chimed in. “Yeah. Are you okay, Mom?”
“I’m okay, guys,” she told them. “I was just . . . talking with an old friend, is all.”
“And she made you cry?” Phillip frowned.
Amanda smiled. “Not on purpose, sweetheart,” she replied, not correcting him as to the friend’s gender.
“Okay, then,” he said, satisfied that all was well.
“Why don’t you boys go up and take your showers, and then you can finish your homework,” she suggested, glancing at the clock. Was it really so early?
She thoroughly washed and rinsed the mugs and spoons and replaced them in the cupboard and drawer, and stashed the tray away. Then she made sure that the stove burner was off.
Flipping off each light except one near the front door for her mother, she carefully made her way to the hall and climbed the stairs to her bedroom. She could hear the shower running and music coming from the boys' bedroom. Suddenly weary, she just wanted to sleep.
In her bedroom, she peeled off her sweats and T-shirt and slipped a comfortable nightgown over her head. Numbly, she sat down on the edge of the bed. Lee's words kept replaying in her mind, but she still couldn't bring herself to accept them. What did he want from her? What did she want from him? When had everything changed so drastically?
Amanda stood in her kitchen the night before Lee and Leslie’s wedding. She gazed out the window, knowing it would be a rare event, from now on, for Lee to appear at her back door.
She tried to picture his life as a married man, and found it nearly impossible. But it wasn’t impossible; after tomorrow, he would be going home to Leslie every night.
With a sinking feeling, she tried to imagine what it would be like to walk down the aisle toward him. She had dared to hope that one day she would do so, but not as a member of the wedding party.
Why had she ever agreed to be in the wedding? There was no way she could back out now. She would have to go through with it and keep her true feelings under tight control.
She could see Lee, standing there in his tuxedo, waiting for his bride. He smiled radiantly, practically glowing with happiness, grinning like a lovesick fool. There was something terribly wrong with that picture.
When Lee arrived at the Agency the next morning, he picked up his badge from Mrs. Marston and asked if Amanda had yet arrived.
"Yes, she's working, but it's noon," she informed him, glancing meaningfully at her desk clock. "She went out for lunch."
"How long ago?" Lee asked.
"Oh," she checked her watch. "Ten minutes."
Placing his hands on the desk, he questioned, "Where'd she go?"
She regarded him for a moment. "Do I ever ask you where *you're* going for lunch?" she asked dryly.
He removed the badge he had pinned on only a moment before and left the foyer, heading to his car. He found Amanda five minutes later, at one of her favorite places. The deli was crowded inside, so she'd selected a small table on the patio.
As he approached, he noticed that she had a half-sandwich and a bottle of water sitting on the table in front of her. Neither the sandwich nor the water had been touched. She seemed to be lost in thought.
"Um," he cleared his throat. "Do you mind if I join you?"
She looked up, startled to see him. "Hi," she said quietly.
"Mrs. Marston told me you'd left for lunch. I, uh . . . thought I might find you here."
"Oh," she replied, squinting up at him in the bright midday sunlight. "Did you need something?"
"No." He took a seat, regardless of the fact that he hadn't received her permission. "I wanted to say I'm sorry. I handled last night very badly."
“Don’t.” She tore a tiny piece of bread from her sandwich and nibbled at it for a moment.
Lee reached over and wrapped his hand around her wrist. “But we need to talk about this,” he insisted.
She eyed him dispassionately. “We talked enough last night.”
His heart sank. "Amanda . . ."
"Lee, please," she shook her head, pushing the sandwich away from her as if it were suddenly repulsive. “I can’t talk about this right now.”
“Then, when?” he asked, determined to make her understand.
“I don’t know,” she replied, gently withdrawing her arm from his grasp. “I need some time. What you told me . . . I wasn’t expecting it, Lee. I don't know what to do, how to feel . . .”
Lee ran a hand through his hair. He'd never felt so helpless before. “I know, but if I could just talk to you . . .”
Shaking her head, she broke in. "There's nothing to talk about."
"Please," he persisted. "Amanda, there's a lot to talk about. I don't know why I did what I did. I don't understand it myself. All I know is that I . . . I don't want to lose you."
She looked away from him. "I'm sorry, Lee," she told him, shaking her head.
Fear clutched at his chest and he barely heard his own words. "For what?"
"I'm sorry . . . I mean, it’s a shame that things have turned out this way," she replied, her voice low.
"What do you mean?" he asked her desperately.
She regarded him sadly. "I'm not sure right now," she whispered, choking back tears. Standing, she walked swiftly toward her car, leaving him alone.
Amanda tried for a third time to open her car door. Focusing on the key in her hand, she realized that she was trembling. Walking away from Lee was the most difficult thing she had ever done.
Finally unlocking the car door, she pulled it open and slid in, closing it firmly. She placed the key in the ignition, but didn't start the car right away. Her resolve began to waver, and she gave herself a moment to calm down.
He seemed so sincere, so upset over her reaction. Perhaps she was being too sensitive. Glancing in the rearview mirror, she could see him standing there, watching her, his hands clenched at his sides.
Her mind knew he had been through a lot, that it was hard for him to allow anyone to get too close. Her heart, on the other hand, was suffocating from the knowledge that he had chosen Leslie, if even temporarily, over her.
It was tempting to put her hurt feelings aside, based solely on what he had told her. She closed her eyes and swallowed over the lump forming in her throat. Was she closing the door on what she'd wanted for so long? 'No,' she argued with herself. 'Lee closed that door when he chose Leslie.'
As she drove back to work, she came to the realization that she couldn't bear to be Lee's partner anymore. Maybe the best thing for both of them would be if she were to leave the Agency altogether.
The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like the only solution. She couldn't bear to see him every day, knowing what had happened.
Arriving back at her desk in the Bullpen, she quickly typed a letter, stating that her resignation was effective immediately. After addressing the envelope to Billy, she sat, staring at it, unable to move.
After ten minutes, she stood and walked over to the Section Chief's office, knocking softly on the door.
"Come in, Amanda." Billy motioned her into the room.
She entered and handed him the letter, saying, "I'm sorry, but I've come to say good-bye."
He stared at her in disbelief. "What? Why?"
"I can't say, Sir," she told him. "It's personal."
He regarded her solemnly for a long moment. "I understand. And if you change your mind, you'll always have a job here."
"Thank you, Sir," she answered.
"She what?" Lee demanded, pacing Billy's office.
"She left. She resigned, as of today," Billy repeated, handing Lee the letter Amanda had turned in only a short while before.
Lee took it and read the brief, businesslike statement, feeling the blood drain out of his face. He'd lost her after all . . .
"I'm sorry," Billy remarked quietly. " She wouldn't tell me why she was leaving, just that it was something she had to do."
"Yeah . . ." Lee replied vaguely, his thinking unclear. Without another word, he handed the letter back to Billy and walked out of the office, grateful that the other man hadn't questioned him.
Heading up to the Q Bureau, he sat down and stared at his desk calendar. He absently traced his finger along the letters of a note she'd left him a while back, reminding him of an appointment they'd had.
How had he screwed things up so thoroughly? He couldn't blame her for how she was feeling, and desperately wished he could just erase the events of the last few months.
There had to be some reason for his behavior. What kind of man denied his feelings for a woman to the point where he couldn't even recognize those feelings, to the point where he dated and proposed to another woman in her place?
Worse yet was the fact that now that he had realized his feelings for her, they had hit him full-force. He wanted . . . needed . . . her so badly, but feared that she would never speak to him again.
From her reaction and words, it was clear that she had felt more than friendship for him, and he mentally kicked himself for throwing his chance away. She hadn't let him know her feelings, most likely because he had so carefully kept an emotional distance from her.
He still remembered her telling him that they would always be friends. He doubted she would honor even that assertion now. Glancing at the clock, he knew that he would get nothing done, and grabbed his keys to head home.
Somehow, he had to find out what had gone wrong. Changing his course, he headed to Amanda's neighborhood. Phillip and Jamie would be in school, and, with a little luck, Dotty might be away, too.
Amanda sighed and tried to focus on the employment ads in the newspaper. She was beginning to feel as if she'd been too hasty in leaving the Agency. It would have been better to bide her time and avoid Lee while looking for other work on her days off.
Yet, here she was, perusing ads for receptionists, assistants, and secretaries, among other possibilities. None of them appealed to her, and she found herself wishing she could go back in time and relive the last few months.
What would Lee have done if she had confessed her growing feelings for him when he had told her about Leslie? Maybe he would have come to his senses and realized he was making a mistake. Immediately she dismissed the thought. She didn't do it, so why think about what might have been?
Her feelings for Lee ran so deep that she was almost willing to go to him and tell him that nothing mattered anymore, but she couldn't do that. She wondered if he knew yet that she had left the Agency. She knew she'd find out soon enough. If she knew Lee Stetson, he would be knocking on her back door at any moment, trying to convince her to . . .
Lee took a deep breath and knocked on the windowpane. He could see Amanda sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper and a glass of water. She met his eyes and stood, moving over to the door.
Opening it, she stood aside for him to enter. "I'm sorry I didn't wait around to say goodbye," she offered nervously.
Lee stepped inside. "I don't want you to go," he told her simply.
"We don't always get what we want, Lee," she remarked gently, her eyes sad.
"Amanda . . ." he paused, running his hand through his hair for the hundredth time that day. "Please . . . I know we can work this out. Don't leave like this. You can work with someone else for a while, if you want."
She shook her head, closing her eyes. "No, I can't. I can't do that and see you every day, and remember . . ."
"Let me try to make you understand . . . please?" He begged. He never begged, yet here he was, pleading with Amanda to give him another chance.
Her eyes still closed, she sighed. "Okay," she agreed reluctantly.
"Can we go somewhere?" he requested.
Her eyes met his, and he could see her battling with herself. His only hope was that he meant a fraction to her of what she meant to him. Somewhere, in the depths of her brown eyes, he saw the answer before she spoke it.
He breathed a sigh of relief, but his heart was racing in his ribcage. "Thank you," he replied.
She nodded and asked, "Where do you want to go?"
He offered a suggestion. "My place?"
She considered this for a moment. She would rather be on more neutral territory, but there weren't many places where they could truly be alone. Finally, she agreed. "Just for a little while. I'll follow you, so I can drive myself home."
Lee nodded, grateful that she hadn't just demanded that he leave her alone. "Anything you say."
Amanda sat in the corner of Lee's couch, hugging one of the cushions to her body. Lee sat down on the other end of the couch and cleared his throat nervously.
"Lee," she began before he could. "Before you say anything, I have to tell you something, first."
He blinked, wondering what she would say, and nodded, waiting.
"I don't want you to think that I had any expectations . . . you know, before you started dating Leslie." As she spoke, she fingered the edges of the pillow, only meeting Lee's eyes periodically.
"Amanda, I know . . ."
She held up a hand. "Just let me say this." At his nod, she continued. "I thought of you as my best friend, and I knew that you would never be interested in me in a . . . romantic way. So I ignored my feelings. I even convinced myself that I never had any feelings for you. But, Lee . . . Leslie. She . . . we . . ."
"I know; she was a lot like you," he filled in, cringing. A
manda acknowledged this, bowing her head. "Yeah. And well, it bothered me for a while. I even thought that maybe, in a way . . ." She trailed off, evidently deciding against following that line of thought. "What I really want to say is that when you told me . . . what you told me, the other day, well, it really surprised me."
"I know, and I'm sorry . . ."
"Lee," she cut off his apologies, placing her hand on his knee, but then withdrawing it quickly.
"Do you know what a shock it was for me to hear from you that you have feelings for me, but that you didn't know it? Especially when I had convinced myself that whatever I thought I had seen in your eyes was a result of my imagination?" She stopped, taking a deep breath. "Why did you even tell me?" she asked miserably.
Lee flinched, both at her tone and the look on her face. "I told you because I needed you to know, to understand . . . I don't know how it happened, or why . . ."
"Well, maybe you should try to find out," she suggested, her voice catching in her throat.
"What?" he asked, not understanding what she was suggesting.
"I think you should try to find out why you did what you did, Lee," she repeated, speaking slowly.
Lee took a moment to think about her words. "You . . . you mean you think I need to . . . see someone?" he asked uncertainly.
She nodded, eyeing him warily. "Yes. For your own good."
"Amanda, you know how I feel about shrinks . . ." he began.
"They're not all like Dr. Pfaff, Lee," Amanda persevered. "A good psychiatrist can help you figure things out and understand yourself better."
He frowned, wanting to argue. Still, hadn't he had the same thought, albeit fleetingly? Frowning, he tried again. "Amanda, I think I can work this out for myself."
She sighed. "If that's the case, then you should have been able to figure it out before you got so serious with Leslie," she challenged.
He was silent, contemplating her assertion. Resisting the urge to continue his argument, he regarded her carefully. Sitting there, she looked very determined.
"I think it would be the best thing you could do at this point, Lee," she went on, her voice coaxing.
He decided, unwisely, to issue his own challenge. "And if I refuse?"
She arched an eyebrow. "Well, it's your prerogative, of course." She stood and picked up her purse. "Goodbye, Lee."
"Wait," he pleaded. "Don't leave."
"I really need to get home," she replied coolly. "I think we've talked about all we can, Lee."
"Will you reconsider . . . your resignation?" he asked hesitantly.
Her eyes softened and she slowly shook her head, amazed at how he could melt her resolve so easily. Still, she didn't let him that he'd started to get to her. "I don't know. Even if I do change my mind, I don't think I'll be working with you anymore."
He was more pained by the gentle tone of her words than he would have been had she yelled at him. "Please, Amanda . . ."
She stepped over to him and placed a kiss on his cheek, then stepped back. "I hope you figure yourself out, Lee. I meant what I said, by the way . . . I'll always be your friend."
"But, Amanda . . ." He felt like she was saying goodbye once and for all, and was, suddenly, more afraid than ever of losing her. "What if I agree . . . to see someone? I would do it for you."
"You can't do it for me," she told him. "You have to do it for yourself . . . or not at all."
He closed his eyes, not certain he could comply. When he opened them, she was quietly letting herself out of his apartment, and, he was afraid, out of his life.
Amanda sat in her car for five minutes before she was able to drive home. Fairly sure that Lee hadn’t followed her, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back.
She should have known that Lee would never agree to see a psychiatrist. After thinking about it, he would probably be angry with her for even suggesting it. But he needed more help than she could possibly provide by being a good listener. She couldn't help him understand why he had closed off his feelings for her. Her own hurt and confusion were enough for her to deal with.
Sighing, she felt secure that she'd made the right decision to leave the Agency after all. Lee Stetson would never change. He didn't need anyone, especially not her. Hadn't he shown that by replacing her with someone else?
Two weeks went by, passing with painstaking slowness. Lee hadn’t attempted to contact Amanda in any way, not even allowing himself to drive by her house.
He found himself alternately missing her and willing to do anything to get her back into his life, and indignant that she had recommended that he needed psychiatric help.
He also found himself feeling increasingly despondent and lonely, yet, at the same time, avoiding all contact with anyone outside the Agency. He ignored messages on his answering machine from old girlfriends.
Billy had even called one evening, but Lee didn’t pick up the phone, and didn’t acknowledge the next day that Billy had called.
Every time he looked into the mirror, he looked worse and worse. Memories and dreams of Amanda filled his days and nights.
Driving home from work on a Wednesday afternoon, he took an alternate route and found himself parked in front of a large modern building. Frowning, he looked closer and saw that it was a medical facility.
“What the . . .” he murmured. Had he really driven here, subconsciously knowing that he needed help?
Confused and annoyed with himself, he was about to drive away when he caught sight of Amanda leaving the lobby and heading toward the parking lot. He sank down in his seat, glad that he was parked in front of the building, instead of in its lot.
After Amanda had gone, Lee became curious and went into the facility. An older woman sat at an information desk and smiled at him.
“Hello. May I help you?” she asked courteously.
“Uh, maybe,” Lee replied uncertainly, stepping up to the desk. “I was wondering where I could make an appointment with a . . . psychiatrist.”
Dr. Sara Jones smiled warmly at Lee. "Hello, Mr. Stetson. May I call you Lee?"
"Sure," Lee agreed nervously, looking around the modestly appointed office.
"Have a seat," she offered, gesturing to the couch.
He sat down on the comfortable couch. "Thanks," he murmured. After a few minutes of preliminary questions, she got to the heart of the matter.
"So - tell me more about Amanda," she said.
Lee took a deep breath and wondered how he'd gotten himself into this situation. When he started talking, he found that he was unable to stop. He told her everything that had been going on, right up to his confession to Amanda and her reaction.
"I know . . ." he struggled to find the words to explain his feelings. "I know now that I was afraid of losing Amanda. What I don't understand is how I could carry out a relationship with another woman to the point where I proposed to her, without being . . . in love with her."
She nodded thoughtfully. "You mentioned that you lost your parents and other people that you cared about."
"Yeah," he agreed. "I, uh . . . yeah."
"And you obviously care very deeply for Amanda," she stated.
Running a hand through his hair, Lee admitted, "More than I ever thought possible."
"I think that, on some level, you did know how much she meant to you, but you were afraid that you would lose her if you let her get too close. But you still wanted a relationship of sorts, an outlet for your feelings for Amanda. That's where Leslie came in."
“I don’t think that . . .” he began, then stopped, frowning.
“See?” she prodded. “You’re not sure. But it’s obvious that you had feelings for Amanda before you started dating Leslie. So if you weren’t putting into your relationship with Leslie what you felt for Amanda, how do you explain your actions?”
He stared at her, absorbing what she'd just said. "I think you may be right."
"You also told me that you kept feeling as if you'd forgotten something," she continued, warming to her subject. "Even though on one level, your subconscious was denying your feelings, on another it was trying to reveal them."
"She's hurt . . ." he began, wondering how to explain all this to Amanda.
Dr. Jones nodded. "Of course. But I think she'll understand, once you tell her . . ."
"I don't know," he replied, downhearted. "How could I do something like that? What if I'd gone through with the wedding?"
"But you didn't," she said firmly. "She'll forgive you, if she really cares about you."
"If she doesn't, I don't know what I'll do."
Over the course of the next two weeks, Lee had two additional appointments with Dr. Jones. At the end of their third session, she recommended that he bring Amanda with him the next time he came.
"I don't know if she'll agree . . ." he told her. "I haven't seen her since right after she quit."
"Have you tried?" she asked gently.
Lee sighed. "No."
Looking up to meet the doctor's eyes, Lee answered, "Because I'm afraid she won't agree to see me. What if she's moved on, and doesn't want to give me another chance? Last time I saw her, she told me she didn't want to see me again."
"Lee, from what you've told me about Amanda, I gather she cares about you a great deal. Don't you think you owe it to her to find out if she's willing to give you another chance? Why assume the worst?"
"Because the worst could happen," he replied. Then, under his breath, he added, "And it usually does."
"But wouldn't that be better than going through the rest of your life wondering, 'what if?'" she pressed.
"I guess so," he admitted.
Nodding, she smiled. "At least give it a try."
Amanda stood in the kitchen, listening to her mother talk about her date the previous evening. Picking up a glass to wash, she was startled by the appearance of Lee's face in her kitchen window.
Her heart leapt and she dropped the glass, which shattered in the sink. Despite everything, she felt delightful anticipation welling up, and she nervously bit her lip.
"Amanda, darling," Dotty exclaimed. "Are you okay?"
"No, Mother," she replied. "I think I need to get some fresh air. You go on upstairs for your bath, and I'll finish up here in a few minutes."
"Well, okay," her mother complied. "It is a bit stuffy in here."
Amanda waited until her mother had headed upstairs, and then stepped out into the backyard, looking around and hoping she hadn't been seeing things.
Lee appeared, smiling sheepishly. She was stunned by his appearance, . "Hi," he said.
"Hi," she replied. "Long time, no see."
"Yeah. How've you been?" he asked.
She shrugged, wondering what he'd say if she told him the truth: she missed him, more than she could have ever imagined, and she hated her new job.
"Oh, just fine," she lied. "And you?"
"I miss you," he told her, taking a step toward her.
Taken aback, she took a deep breath. "I, uh . . . I miss you, too."
"I came by to, uh . . ." he paused.
"Yes?" she prompted, hoping her mother would stay upstairs. Having Lee here in her backyard, she could almost pretend the past several months had never happened.
"I wanted to tell you that I've been . . . seeing a psychiatrist," he told her.
She was completely surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah," he confirmed. "I've, uh . . . learned a lot about myself."
"Well, that's really good, Lee. I'm happy for you," she told him honestly. Inside, she was dying to wrap her arms around him and forgive him completely, but she was unable to move.
"Thanks," he replied self-consciously. "Amanda."
"I really miss you," he repeated.
She looked down at the ground. Not knowing how to respond, she waited.
"I was wondering if . . ." he sighed. "Could you maybe come with me? To my next appointment with Dr. Jones?"
Amanda's brown eyes widened in surprise. "Dr. Sara Jones?"
“Yeah, how’d you know?” he asked.
Swallowing hard, she smiled slightly. “Lee . . . I’ve been seeing Dr. Jones, too.”
Lee grinned, then turned serious again. "So will you go with me?" he interpreted.
"Yes," she agreed, wondering, not for the first time, what she'd gotten herself into.
"Hello, Lee," Dr. Jones said as Lee entered her office, Amanda close behind.
“Oh, boy,” the psychiatrist said with a little laugh. “I’m sorry; I had no idea, really.”
“We just figured it out ourselves,” Amanda replied nervously. “I . . . I gave you my mother’s name.”
“Ah.” Dr. Jones nodded, understanding. “Well, have a seat, you two.”
After a few moments of small talk, Sara leaned forward in her chair, addressing Amanda.
"So, Amanda," she began. "Tell me how you feel right now."
"A little uncomfortable," Amanda replied.
Lee noticed that she was fidgeting with her heart pendant, a sure sign of nervousness. He tried to catch her eye to give her a reassuring smile, but she didn't look over at him.
"And why is that?" Dr. Jones asked.
"Well . . . I feel sort of awkward about all of this," Amanda responded with a small shrug.
"Why's that?" she prodded.
Amanda stole a quick, apprehensive look at Lee. "Because though I’ve been seeing you on my own, this is kind of like . . . counseling for a couple, right? But," she gestured at Lee and then herself, "we're not a couple."
Lee felt himself flinch and tried to recover before the psychiatrist noticed, but he failed. He cast an anxious glance in her direction and she smiled reassuringly.
"Okay." Dr. Jones nodded. "Fair enough. But am I safe in stating that you have very strong feelings for each other?"
Lee nodded mutely, watching the color heighten in Amanda's cheeks. She had stopped fidgeting with her necklace, and instead, was playing with her pinky ring, twisting it around and around her finger as if it would perform some magic phenomenon, like a genie's lamp.
"Amanda?" the doctor prodded.
"I . . . I don't know if I can do this," Amanda confessed, looking as if she might sprint from her chair at any moment.
"Don’t think of this as couples counseling. Think of what you’re doing as helping Lee."
Lee watched his best friend, his heart feeling as if it were being crushed in a vise. `Please, Amanda, don't leave,' he silently pleaded.
Amanda looked at him, their eyes locking. She must have read something in his face because she straightened her posture, as if summoning her resolve, and nodded firmly. "Okay. I'm fine. I can do this," she affirmed, obviously more to herself than to Lee or the psychiatrist.
"Good," Dr. Jones said approvingly. "Now, tell us why you're feeling uncomfortable."
Amanda drew a deep breath and clasped her hands in her lap. Lifting her chin, she glanced up at the ceiling, and then, at the psychiatrist.
"As I’ve mentioned, Lee and I worked together pretty closely for a long time. We've got very little in common, and even though we became friends after a period of adjustment, we never explored a more . . . intimate . . . relationship. I've dated other men, and Lee has dated other women." She paused, glancing up at Lee.
He offered her a small smile and waited for her to continue, knowing she had to say what was on her mind and hoping it wasn't that she never wanted to see him again.
"Anyway, for a while, I thought . . . I mean, it seemed like . . . like Lee was . . . interested in being more than friends. He was kind of flirty and attentive, and I found myself . . . developing feelings for him. He . . . he held my hand all the time, and we just seemed to be progressing towards . . . But then he started dating this woman - Leslie - and it was really confusing, because I had thought . . ."
She broke off, shaking her head. Lee could tell that she was feeling frustrated and reluctant to go on.
"What had you thought?" Dr. Jones asked.
"Like I said, I had thought that he wanted a relationship with me." Her voice was very low and quiet. Both Lee and the doctor had to strain to hear her.
Amanda sat back further in the chair and resumed spinning her ring. For a long while, she didn't speak, but Dr. Jones didn't pressure her in any way.
"We were working on an assignment," she began again, sounding oddly disconnected. "And we went to his apartment. I hadn't met his girlfriend before, but she was there. She introduced herself to me and asked me to stay for dinner, but Lee . . . he took the plate away just as she set it down. I could tell he didn't want me there, not that I would have stayed, anyway. But she . . . she wasn't like any of the others he had dated. She was so . . . normal."
She stopped again, and showed no signs of continuing.
"Lee," Dr. Jones spoke.
Lee jumped slightly and broke his concerned gaze away from Amanda. "Yes?"
"Why don't you tell Amanda some of what you told me on our earlier visits?" she suggested.
"Okay," Lee agreed, clearing his throat.
As Lee spoke, talking about losing his parents, Dorothy, and then his partner, Amanda felt herself slowly coming out of her strange detachment.
She noticed that he was talking directly to her most of the time, and struggled to keep eye contact with him. He was making such an effort; she had to show him that she was listening and trying to understand.
"The thing is, um, I had learned from an early age to condition my thoughts and reactions to fit my needs, Amanda." Characteristically, he raked his fingers through his hair. "My uncle wasn't an affectionate man, so I figured that I didn't need affection. When . . . when Dorothy died, I convinced myself that I didn't . . . that I didn’t need to be close to any woman. Then I lost my partner, and I felt like I had lost everyone I truly cared about. I believed that it was . . . that it was my fault, because that way, I could control it, not let it happen again. If I didn't get close to anyone, I wouldn't lose them." He sighed heavily, looking extremely vulnerable. Going on, he said, "I didn't want to lose you, Amanda, but I already felt close to you. I guess I just didn't want to get any closer. I . . . I just couldn't bear the thought of losing you."
Dr. Jones smiled. "Lee, you've made remarkable progress in understanding yourself," she told him sincerely.
"Thanks." He smiled self-consciously.
“And you, Amanda?” the doctor asked.
“I think I understand,” Amanda replied slowly. “I just . . . I just need some time.”
"I think this is a good place to stop for today. I'd like you both to think about what you've learned about each other, and let's get together again on Friday."
“Umm,” Amanda faltered. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary - at least for me.”
Crestfallen, Lee reached out and touched her arm. “Amanda . . .”
“I’m sorry, Lee,” she said. “I just need . . . time.”
Another couple of weeks went by, and Lee thought he would go insane waiting for Amanda to give him a sign.
Finally, one day she showed up and went into Billy’s office. She’d been in there for over twenty minutes when Lee had to leave with Francine on an assignment.
Frustrated, he had almost interrupted them, but Francine had warned him against ‘making a fool out of himself.’ Resigned, he had gone with her, feeling hopeful for the first time in a long time.
Later that evening, Lee resisted the strong temptation to drive over to Amanda’s house, instead heading straight home from the Agency.
To his surprise, Amanda was there, waiting for him. He approached her as she sat in her car.
“Hi,” she said nervously.
“Hey,” he replied with a forced casualness.
“Look,” Amanda began. “I know you’re probably upset that I haven’t come to you before now . . .”
“No,” he interrupted her. “Not upset, just . . . a little anxious.”
“Anxious?” she questioned.
“Yeah. Look, do you want to come up?” he invited.
“Thanks,” she accepted.
Offering his hand, he helped her out of the car, and together they headed for his apartment.
Once there, he looked at her hopefully. “So . . . I saw you today, but I had to leave with Francine. Did you . . . Are you . . . Was there a problem, or something?” He held his breath.
Amanda took a deep breath. “Ah, no . . . Actually, I left my other job and I was talking to Mr. Melrose about coming back. I know we won’t be able to work together, but . . .”
“What?” Lee cut her off. “Why not? Why would Billy say that?”
“He didn’t,” she assured him. “I thought maybe you wouldn’t want . . . You know.” She paused, looking embarrassed.
“Why wouldn’t I want to work with you again, Amanda?” Lee asked, running a hand through his hair. He was tired of all the games they’d been playing, and had to remind himself that he was responsible for the awkward situation they were in now.
She raised her eyebrows. “Oh . . . I don’t know. I just thought that . . . after what I said . . . not wanting to meet with Dr. Jones again. I thought you might be upset, that it would be difficult . . .” she broke off.
“It might,” he admitted. “But there’s nothing I want more.”
A smile broke out on her face. “Okay, then.”
Lee grinned, suddenly feeling happy. “Okay,” he agreed. “And, Amanda . . .”
“I still want . . . you know. I don’t want you to feel rushed, but I’d like another chance,” he told her, again running a hand through his hair. “I’d like to eventually return to what we had, before . . .”
Amanda swallowed hard, then confessed, “So would I.”
Lee couldn’t believe his ears. “You . . . you would?”
She nodded. “Yeah,” she confirmed, then added before he could reply, “Listen, I really should get going. See you at work tomorrow?”
“You bet . . . Partner.”
Three months later…
The ballroom was awhirl with women in bright gowns and men in tuxedos. Music filtered throughout the room and soft light glowed, creating an enchantingly romantic atmosphere.
Lee had been offered two tickets for the ball, and tentatively he’d invited Amanda to join him. She’d been delighted, with no apparent reservations to a non-working night out with him.
"So . . ." Amanda sidled up to Lee, placing her hand lightly on his arm. "Are you gonna ask me to dance at all tonight?"
He felt a thrill at her touch, noting her nervous tone. He turned toward her. "Dance with me," he replied seriously.
"I thought you'd never ask," she whispered. He took his hand in his and led her to the dance floor.
There was a marked change about her tonight. Even before the whole Leslie ordeal, Amanda had never looked at him like she was looking at him now. He cautiously wrapped his arms around her, careful not to pull her too close.
"Is that the best you can do?" she asked innocently and cast her eyes downward as she stepped further into his embrace.
Lee cleared his throat, trying to disguise the effect her proximity was having upon him. "Umm, I guess I c-could . . . try to do a little better," he stammered, placing his hand lower on her back.
"Good," she whispered into his ear, molding herself against him.
Instinctively, Lee wrapped his arms tighter around her, his heart hammering in his chest. "Is this okay?" he asked, reveling in the feeling of her body snuggled up against his.
"Just fine," she remarked. “Perfect.”
Her voice was low and throaty, sending chills of pleasure down Lee's spine. He could feel her breasts pressed intimately against his chest.
“I . . . you . . ." he paused. "I’ve wanted this, Amanda. I just didn't want to rush anything. I wanted to make sure you wanted . . . So I was waiting . . ." He broke off nervously.
She pulled back and looked him in the eyes for a long moment. "I didn't expect you to wait another three years," she remarked, lightly teasing.
"Oh," he agreed, unable to say anything more coherent.
"Yeah," she repeated, nodding. She laid her head down on his chest, and his heart beat faster.
They danced, holding each other close. Amanda traced little circles across Lee's back, and he pulled her even closer, releasing a shuddering sigh.
As the song ended, neither moved, but stayed where they were, until the band began to play again.
Moving his hand higher on her back, Lee encountered her silky flesh and felt her shiver under his touch. Trembling, she looked up at him with trusting eyes. Slowly, Lee bent his head and tentatively covered her lips with his. A thousand sensations coursed through him at the long-awaited contact.
Feeling her melt into him, he intensified the kiss and heard a soft whimper from deep in her throat. He had to restrain himself from groaning in response. He’d been fantasizing for so long about kissing her that the reality was overwhelming and highly erotic.
Suddenly remembering where they were, he ended the kiss and looked at her, feeling dazed. She furrowed her brow, a question clearly written across her delicate face.
“What . . .” she began.
“Shh,” he admonished. “Just a minute.”
Taking her hand in his, he led her off the dance floor, oblivious to all of the knowing stares being directed their way.
Leading her outside onto the balcony, he again encircled her with his arms as she smiled.
“Good thinking,” she told him, still breathless.
He responded with a small smile, looking at her in wonder. After all he’d done, all he’d put her through, here she was, by his side like she’d always been.
He swallowed and then took a deep breath in an effort to steady his nerves. She closed her eyes, her dark lashes emphasizing her milky skin.
The moment their lips met, he felt Amanda wrap her arms around his neck and press herself firmly against him. Feeling his body shudder, he moaned deeply.
When he felt her tongue advance into his mouth, he thought he would drown in the passion she was evoking within him. His hands made their way down to her lower back in an attempt to hold her even closer.
Breaking away from her lips, Lee heard her soft gasp. As he moved his lips along her jaw, she leaned her head back, affording him full access to her neck.
“Lee . . .” she whispered his name, her breath catching in her throat.
He withdrew his lips from her neck to murmur, “Amanda,” and then let his mouth travel up the column of her throat to take her earlobe between his lips, glad she’d forgotten to put on earrings.
“Oh!” she exclaimed.
Reluctantly, he pulled back slightly, to gaze into her eyes. The emotions she was stirring within him were almost overwhelming.
“I, uh . . .” he faltered. “I guess . . . We have a lot to talk about.”
She nodded, her deep brown eyes never looking away from his. “Yeah. But later.”
Smiling, he continued. “Do you want to go back in and dance some more?” he asked, feeling it would be dangerous to remain secluded any longer.
“I’d love to,” she agreed.
He reached down and took her hand into his, squeezing it slightly as he lowered his eyes to look at their entwined fingers. Nodding at the rightness of it, he met her inquisitive glance.
“What?” she asked, laughing softly.
Lee brought their hands up slightly. “This,” he explained. “It’s just . . . right, Amanda.”
“I know,” she replied smugly. “I’ve always known.”
Raising their hands higher, he placed a kiss on the back of hers. “You might not believe me, but somehow . . . so have I.”