Summary: If Lee plays his cards right, he may discover there is more to Amanda than meets the eye.
Lee spied them huddled around the coffee maker and wondered what they were up to—three grown men whispering like a bunch of women at a coffee clutch could only spell disaster. Gesturing wildly, Fred Fielder appeared to be the ringleader in the bunch. The inept agent stood several inches taller than the others and dressed like a used car salesman. “Does he dress himself in the dark?” Lee mumbled to no one in particular.
‘Why do they keep looking over here?’ Discreetly, Lee made sure he had returned his zipper to its upright position and checked his tie for any unwanted stains. Confident in his appearance, he sat down at Amanda’s empty desk. He had stopped down to invite her to lunch, but found she had already left. Trying to be nonchalant, Lee glanced over at the chatty group. When had the Agency started churning out cookie cutter agents? Agents Doug Palmer and Rob Baker not only looked alike but also appeared to have the same tailor. Both feathered their slightly graying hair hoping, no doubt, to look younger than they were. They wore that overconfident, crooked smile that annoyed Lee to no end. Perhaps they were separated at birth, Lee mused.
It appeared Lee’s curiosity would be quenched within moments, as Fred Fielder strolled over toward him after being shoved in his direction. Fielder continued to glance over his shoulder at the seemingly uninterested men until he bumped into the corner of the desk.
Lee eyed the gangly looking man skeptically. “What do you need, Fielder?” He leaned back and kicked his feet up onto Amanda’s empty desk. “Hi, Lee! Listen, uh the guys and I . . .” He motioned with his thumb toward the two men pretending to be working in the opposite corner of the bullpen. “Well, we need a fifth in our monthly poker game and we were wondering–”
“Is that all? Sure, I’ll play. Tell me when and where?” Relief filled him. The way they had been acting, he had expected something far more menacing. Why had they been so afraid to invite him? Had his reputation for being tough in the field carried over into his personal personae?
“Well, as for the time, tonight at seven o’clock.” Fred turned to look at his friends on the other side of the room, and Lee swore he saw the man’s Adam’s apple bob up and down. “And as for the place . . . well, we’re hoping you could . . . see, Doug and Rob are both married and their wives won’t let us play there anymore. The rookie, Adler, is staying with his sister right now and she has young kids. And, my mom, well, she can’t handle the cigars and loud noise.” He rushed. Rubbing the back of his neck, Lee wondered if Fielder was taking lessons from Amanda in the art of rambling?
Here it was. He knew there had to be a catch. “So, you want to have it at my place?” Fred nodded and studied his scuffed brown shoes.
Lee’s first instinct was to tell him ‘no way.’ He nearly did, until he realized that this had been the first time in a long time he’d been included in the monthly game. Actually, he hadn’t played with them since his former partner was killed. He hadn’t felt much like socializing, and then Amanda entered his life. Maybe it would do him good to hang out with the guys for a night. Lately, he’d been spending a lot of time with Amanda, not that he hadn’t enjoyed it; she was after all, his partner and friend—and a beautiful woman. Fred cleared his throat, and Lee realized his mind had wandered.
“So, Lee? What do you say?”
“Yeah, that’s fine, Fred. Be there at seven.” He ran his hand through his hair in frustration. Was this going to be one of those times he regretted saying yes? He hoped not.
“Great! Thanks, Lee. See you then.”
Lee pulled his long legs off the desk and motioned for Fred to move aside so that he could go talk to Billy. As he’d passed him, Lee turned back. “Fielder. Bring food. I haven’t been to the grocery store this week.” Fred nodded and practically skipped over to his buddies. “Hell, I haven’t been this month.” He added quietly to himself.
“Did you check out the new ‘talent’ in the steno pool?” Lee glanced up from his cards to see Rob cupping his hands out in front of his chest and wriggling his eyebrows like a teenager.
Lee could only roll his eyes, as the three men sitting around his dining room table commented on the measurements of the new edition to the steno pool. When had talking about women like they were playthings become immature to him? More importantly, why hadn’t he noticed this new ‘talent’?
What was happening to him? He hadn’t dated anyone since . . . Leslie O’Connell. ‘What a mistake that had been.’ The first time he’d accidentally called her Amanda she’d let it slide; however, the second time she was not quite as forgiving. How could he blame her?
He realized then that he was interested in Amanda as more than a friend, but how much more? How much was he willing to give? How much was she willing to accept? Lee recognized the fact that he was viewed as a ‘confirmed bachelor,’ and even reveled in it at one point in his life, but Amanda was not the kind of woman for a ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ type relationship. She wanted more. She deserved more. He needed to give her more . . .
“Earth to Lee!” Rob waved his hand in front of Lee’s face.
“Huh? Oh, sorry. What did you say?” He hadn’t meant to zone out, but the conversation had left a lot to be desired.
“I said, it’s your turn.” The man to Lee’s left indicated the crumpled bills piled in the center of the table. “Daydreaming of Tracie, lover boy?”
“Tracie?” Lee questioned. Just how much of the conversation had he ignored?
“The new typist in Steno.” Fred sneered.
“Oh, right. Actually, I haven’t even seen her.” Lee answered, running his fingers along the tops of the cards. Scanning them, he picked up a few dollars and threw them into the pot. “I call.”
“Wait! She’s been at the Agency for a week now and the ‘great Scarecrow’ hasn’t even noticed her?” Rob asked incredulously.
“Either Scarecrow’s got a new lady or he’s slipping.” Doug added.
“Or maybe he’s finally tapping into his own natural resource.” Lee looked up from his cards to give Fred, who was sitting across from him, a questioning look.
“You know.” He nudged. “Your partner.”
“What? Amanda? We’re just partners, Fred. Besides, she’s not my type.” Lee took a swig of beer in an attempt to seem casual.
“Amanda King? Now there is some talent!” Blurted Doug.
Lee nearly choked on his beer. “Yeah, well you just remember, Palmer. You’re married.”
“Don’t remind me!” They all burst out laughing.
It was several hands later before Lee found himself able to focus on the game. He was up about twenty dollars, most of which was Fielder’s money. As Lee showed Rob his three tens that beat his pair of queens, the doorbell rang.
Walking to the door, Lee ignored the grumbles about Adler’s tardiness coming from the dining room. As he swung it open, he was surprised to see his partner framed in the doorway.
“Amanda? What are you doing here?” Lee looked over his shoulder, hoping she didn’t hear the raucous in the other room.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Lee. Mr. Melrose asked me to stop by and give you the McKenna Chemicals file on my way home. He said you were going straight to the State Department for your meeting tomorrow morning. I guess Francine just finished it up.” She smiled up at him, the light from the hallway cast a warm glow on her face, and he almost forgot they weren’t alone.
Suddenly, there was a crash in the kitchen, and they both startled at the noise. Lee glanced behind him to see if anything had been broken and when he turned back, he caught Amanda on her tiptoes trying to look over his shoulder.
“Oh, I didn’t know you had . . . company.” Her face turned several shades of pink.
“I don’t have . . . It’s only a few guys from the office. We’re playing cards.”
“Really?” she asked in disbelief.
“What’s wrong with that?” He rubbed at the kink forming in the back of his neck. Why did he suddenly feel the need to explain himself?
“Nothing’s wrong with it. I just assumed–”
“Get your ass in here, Adler. We’ve been waiting long eno—oh, Mrs. King. Excuse me. I thought you were Agent Adler.” Doug Palmer looked from Amanda to Lee before backing out of the entryway. “I think I’ll go get another beer.” Obviously embarrassed, the usually cocky agent slithered out of the room.
Just then the phone rang. “Um . . .” Lee glanced at the phone and then to Amanda before motioning her to follow him in. “Hello?”
“Hi, Mr. Stetson. This is Rick Adler.”
“Hey, man. Where are you? We’ve been waiting on you.”
“Yeah, sorry about that. I’ve been watching my niece and nephew for my sister. She just called me. She won’t be home for a few more hours. There was some emergency at work. I won’t be able to make it. I hope I didn’t screw you guys up too much.”
“No, don’t worry about it, Adler.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Stetson.”
“Was that Adler?” Doug yelled to Lee from the dining room.
“Uh, yeah. Seems he’s stuck babysitting for his sister. Guess we’re playing with four.”
Doug rushed into the living room in a huff, followed by Rob and Fred. “You can’t play a good poker game with only four people! Amanda, do you play?”
“Amanda, was just leaving, Palmer.” Lee snagged the folder out of her hand and guided her toward the door before it was too late.
“Oh, come on, Scarecrow! Maybe she wants to play.” Lee flashed Fred a piercing stare before nudging Amanda along. ‘Great, everyone’s come to give their opinion.’
“Yeah, give her a chance.” Doug jumped in again.
“Maybe the Scarecrow is afraid his little partner there will clean him out,” Rob teased.
Lee ran his hand through his hair. ‘Ask her. She won’t know how to play, let alone want to play. I’m sure she’s got to get home to her family.’ Putting his hand on Amanda’s arm, he asked. “Amanda, do you want to play?”
She smiled up at him. “Sure, if it will help you guys out.”
Lee turned around to the three men gathered at the other end of the entryway. “See, she doesn’t . . . what? You want to play?” ‘Great!’ What had he done? How was he supposed to be one of the guys with Amanda there? How would he concentrate on the cards? This was not going to be good.
“Great! Thanks, Amanda!” Rob cheered.
Doug was already slobbering over her like a puppy. “Let me take your coat.”
“Thank you, Agent Palmer.”
“Yeah, thanks. Thanks a lot!” Lee muttered to himself as he followed them into the dining room.
Lee pulled out a chair for Amanda, placing her next to Rob, and as far away from Doug as possible. If he had a chance to get through this night, it was not going to happen sitting next to her. What the scent of her perfume alone did to him was unfathomable.
“Okay, Amanda. You have money with you, right?”
“Sure. How much do I need?” She pulled out a few bills and looked at the men questioningly.
“That’s plenty.” Rob was smiling like a Cheshire cat. No doubt, already counting his winnings.
“Let’s shuffle up and deal, folks.” Fred called out as he gathered the cards and began haphazardly shuffling. “Five card draw, only thing wild is the dealer.” He snorted at his own joke. Everyone rolled their eyes and threw in the dollar ante.
Once Fred finished dealing, he pulled out a garishly designed red visor emblazoned with the words ‘Poker Stud’ and perched it proudly on his head. Oblivious to the stares, the fashion train-wreck that was Fred flipped a switch on his newly adorned hat. Amanda did a double take at the blinking lights running across the visor. Lee caught Amanda’s eye and they both shrugged.
“Fred, what are you wearing?” Lee could hear Amanda stifle a giggle as he spoke, but kept his eyes on the clown in front of him.
“It’s my lucky hat.”
“Well, do we have to have the blinking lights? It’s very distracting.” Lee looked around the table for support and received several nods.
“Oh, come on. It isn’t that bad. Give it a chance, you guys. It’ll grow on you.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he mumbled.
After a round of betting, Amanda, Lee, and Doug were the only ones left in the hand. “The betting is to you, Amanda,” Rob reminded.
“Oh, right.” She looked at her cards and then at Lee and Doug. “I’ll bet five dollars.”
Lee whistled. “Pretty steep, Mrs. King.”
“Was that too much? I thought it was good when all the cards were the same suit?” She asked wide-eyed and bit at her lower lip.
“You have a flush? I’m out.” Doug grunted as he tossed his cards in.
“I fold.” Lee couldn’t believe how lucky she was for a beginner. He’d heard of beginner’s luck, but this was ridiculous.
“Oh, so a flush is good?” She asked softly, pulling the cards close to her chest as if to guard them.
“Uh, yeah. It’s good, Amanda,” Lee stated sarcastically.
“Guess I’ll have to try to get one of those!” She laughed as she flipped her cards over, showing three different suits with only a king high.
“I’ll be damned. I do believe we’ve been bluffed, boys.” Lee could only shake his head in amazement. She was some kind of woman.
As the evening progressed, Lee was surprised to find he was continually going head-to-head with his partner. After her successful bluff early on in the game, he’d thrown out the idea of beginner’s luck. She knew exactly what she was doing and who she was doing it to.
The last few hands, she seemed to know when to fold and when to call--somehow she was reading him. He knew he didn’t have any tells; his training as an agent had made sure of that. So, how was it she knew exactly when he was bluffing and when he had a great hand?
“Lee,” Doug called.
“Action’s to you.” Doug indicated the small pot of money.
“Oh, uh. I’ll raise three dollars.”
Amanda sat staring at him. He wondered what it was she was looking for. Making sure to not even blink, lest he give something away, he stared at the center of the table. She was not going to get him this time. This time, she was going down.
Fred and Doug had already folded, which left only Rob and Amanda.
“I fold. I can’t play with crap like that! I’m going to use the ‘little boys room’ now.” Rob tossed his cards in when he stood, and mumbled all the way to the bathroom.
“I’ll call.” Came the quick reply from the beautiful brunette across from him.
I didn’t even flinch! How did she know I was bluffing? Lee threw down his busted straight and was left staring at her pair of twos. She called him with a lousy pair of twos? He looked at her and raised a brow. Amanda smiled back shyly and shrugged as if she had simply gotten lucky. Lucky, my ass!
“Ouch! On that note, I think I’ll grab another beer.” Fred rose from the table and sauntered into the kitchen.
“I think I’ll go call the pizza place and see what’s taking so long on our pies.” Doug reached the phone before Lee acknowledged his statement.
“Yeah, thanks, Doug.” Lee watched Amanda carefully. She collected her winnings and straightened up the bills. “Amanda?”
“Hmmm?” She kept her head down, concentrating on the task at hand.
“How do you know?” He demanded quietly, not wanting his fellow agents to hear him.
Her brown eyes met his. “How do I know what?”
“How do you know when I have something and when I’m bluffing? And don’t tell me its luck.” He eyed her skeptically as he gathered up the cards and began shuffling.
“I try to use my instincts. You and Billy are always telling me I’ve got great instincts in the field. I’m just using them differently tonight.” She smiled coyly at him.
“No, I don’t buy it.” He shook his head. “You see something. What is it?”
“Honest, Lee. I go with my gut.”
“Then how come your ‘gut’ isn’t so accurate with the other guys, huh?” He shuffled roughly, causing a few stray cards to fly out. He batted her hand away when she reached out to help him gather them. “I’ve got it.” He didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but it was frustrating that he couldn’t out bluff his own partner. A woman at that!
“I guess . . . maybe it’s because I know you so well. I mean, we work so closely, and you are my best friend.”
“Yeah. I suppose you’re right.” I’m her best friend? The very thought sent a warm sensation through his body. “I’m sorry I snapped at you. It’s just . . .”
“You can’t believe you’re getting beat by a woman? Or by me specifically?” There was a challenge in her eyes.
He felt his smile stretch from ear to ear. “A little of both, I think.” For his honesty, he was rewarded with her beautiful smile.
“Three of a kind. Read ‘em and weep!” Rob laid down his cards with a flourish.
“Nice one, Rob!” Lee threw his cards into the pot. His pair of kings was no match for Rob’s three jacks.
“All I have is two pair—” Amanda said meekly before she was interrupted by the ever cocky, Agent Palmer.
“Better luck next time, Amanda. Don’t be too upset with yourself. You’re playing really well for a beginner.”
“You didn’t let me finish, Rob. I have two pair . . . of aces.” She tossed the four aces into the pot and smiled devilishly at the shocked man as she scooped the money into her hands.
Amanda flashed Lee a big grin, obviously proud of herself. He shook his head in amazement, and watched as her smile was slowly replaced with a frown. Why? What had he done now? Had she thought he was upset? Before he could ponder that question any further, she picked up the cards and shuffled. He tried to catch her eye to let her know he was proud of her, but she was looking everywhere but at him. ‘Later.’ He promised and tried once again to concentrate on the game.
Unfortunately, his mind had other plans. He couldn’t get over this new side to Amanda. How did this seemingly innocent housewife from the quiet suburbs learn to play poker like this? He could see her being good at Bridge, or even Euchre, but straight up poker? It was one of things he loved about her--she always kept him guessing. ‘Loved?’ He quirked an eyebrow at the thought. ‘Really liked.’ He nodded. Yeah, he liked her so much he thought about her all day at work, and dreamt of her all night at home. ‘You’ve got it bad, Stetson.’ Lee forced the thoughts from his mind and focused on the cards.
Rob threw down his cards and slapped his palm on the table. “My friend, you better have some good fuc—”
“Rob, need I remind you there is a lady present?” Lee glowered at the older man and then nodded toward Amanda for emphasis.
“Sorry, Mrs. King.”
Amanda smiled reassuringly toward Rob and then glared at her partner. “Lee? Can I see you in the kitchen, please?” Silently, she stood and walked toward the small room.
“Now you’re in trouble!” Fred warned as the rest of the gang laughed.
“Shut up, Fred!” This night was never going to end! Lee reluctantly followed his partner into the adjacent room. He braced himself for the inevitable. The look she had given him at the table had spoken volumes.
He found her standing ramrod straight in front of the stove with her back to him.
“Amanda?” He reached out and touched her shoulder, hoping it might soothe her anger.
When she whirled around, the anger he’d expected to see wasn’t in her eyes. Sadness was in its place. “Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t want me to stay? I would have left after I dropped off the file.”
“What are you talking about? Why wouldn’t I want you here?” He shoved his hands in his pockets and rolled on his heels.
“Well, I’m not really sure. You’ve spent most of the evening making sure I felt very uncomfortable, like I was some inept child that couldn’t possibly know how to play poker with a bunch of men. I only stayed because they said you needed a fifth. I’ll grab my coat, and you can continue your “guys’ night.”
“No!” He grabbed her arm to stop her. “Wait. I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ve been horrible, and it won’t happen again. Please stay.” His eyes pleaded with hers. “Please?” She looked into his eyes and sighed. “Okay, if you’re sure.”
“I am. Honest.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and guided her back out to the game. “Where did you learn to play like that?”
“My granddad. Much to mother’s dismay.” She giggled conspiratorially and Lee couldn’t help but laugh right along with her.
“Come on. Let’s go kick some a—”
“LEE!” She playfully swatted him at his arm.
“Amanda, you didn’t really need to stay to help me clean up. I’m sure your family is expecting you home.” Lee called over his shoulder as he carried the empty bottles into the kitchen. Had he been successful in covering his nervousness of being alone with her?
“I don’t mind, Lee. Besides, the boys are with their father until Sunday, and mother is out on a date. She specifically told me not to wait up.” Lee watched as a hint of pink touched her cheeks as she entered the kitchen behind him. She’s so cute when she blushes.
When he grabbed the bowl of chips and salsa she was carrying, their hands touched and he quickly pulled them back as the current of electricity ran down his spine. How did she do that to him? Every time they touched lately it was as if he was on fire. This was his worst fear coming true--being so close to her with his emotions running wild. How could he keep up the ‘just business’ façade when they were so close, so alone? From the look on her face, she felt it too. Were they ready to move forward with their relationship?
They said in unison. But before either could continue, the phone rang. Lee brushed past Amanda and grabbed the receiver. As frustrating as the interruption had been, Lee was grateful it came when it had. What if things changed? What if they tried to have a relationship and failed? Where would that leave their friendship? He couldn’t bear not having her in his life—even if it meant hiding his true feelings for her.
“Hi, Lee. Sorry to bother you. Did I leave my hat over there? I got home and realized I didn’t have it. Not that it did me much good tonight. That partner of yours is one hell of a card player!”
“Yes, she certainly is.” Lee glanced into the kitchen where his card shark of a partner was washing dishes. She had piled her hair on top of her head and now stood blowing a few loose strands out of her face.
“So, is it there, Lee?”
“Huh? Oh, right. Let me look.” Lee scanned the room for the ‘lucky hat’ and finally found it under Fred’s chair. “Yeah, it’s here. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow.”
“Thanks, Lee. Have a good night.”
“Yeah, night.” He threw the visor on top of the table and straightened his shirt collar. It was now or never.
Lee re-entered the kitchen and eased in behind his target. With a whisper of a touch, he curled the offending lock of hair around her ear and smiled when he saw the tiny goose bumps on her bare neck. His heart dropped to his stomach at her sweet smile when she looked up. Not sure if he was capable of speech, he cleared his throat. “That was Fred looking for that stupid hat of his.”
“Oh my gosh! Where on earth did he get that awful thing anyway?” She laughed.
“I don’t think we want to know.” He grabbed the towel that draped her shoulder and began drying the dishes in the rack. Perhaps it was better to move to safer ground. “You know, you really impressed the guys knowing how to play poker so well.”
“The guys, huh?” she asked with a raised brow.
“Ok, I was too. You are an amazing woman, Amanda King. But don’t expect me to admit that too often. I have a reputation to uphold.” He winked at her.
“Oh, of course.”
“Speaking of reputations . . .” He eyed her suspiciously.
“What would your mother think if she knew you bullied four grown men out of their hard-earned money playing poker? Tsk Tsk, Mrs. King.” He couldn’t help it, it was so much fun to tease her.
“She had better never find out, or I’ll tell Francine that I cleared you all out!”
She pulled the towel out of his clutches and dried her hands before whispering in his ear. “Stetson, I only bluff in cards.”