This story follows immediately on the events in my fanfic Operation Esther. For those who have not read the story, the key part of the story line for this mini-sequel is that Francine has finally found a man she believes she can love and be loved by, Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Ian Marlowe. Ian is stationed in California but has been in D.C. on an extended joint mission with the Agency team.
The story opens as Amanda and Francine are holding vigil at Walter Reed Medical Center, waiting for a colleague who is Ianís best friend to awaken from a medically induced coma.
Walter Reed Medical Center * February 12, 1989
"Amanda, can I ask you a question?" Francine Desmond leaned forward in the uncomfortable hospital waiting room chair toward her long-time friendly foe.
Amanda King Stetson considered the beautiful blonde across the table from her warily. "Sure," she said after a moment, reasonably sure that the question would be a good one under the circumstances.
"Ian has to go back to California on Sunday, but Iíll have Valentineís Day with him on Friday. Do you have a good romantic dinner menu that I can use that night?"
"Oh, of course."
Francine relaxed a little. She waited for the hospital PA system to quiet before she asked her follow up question. "UmmmÖ Is it easy? I mean, you know me and cooking."
Amanda resisted the urge to shout "Pilgrimís Peach Puff!"; instead, she thought for a moment, then nodded. "Itís easy enough. In fact, Lee and I are celebrating our anniversary that night instead of tomorrow so weíll have some privacy. You can come to the house and do all the prep work with me, then take it back to your place and put the final touches on it."
"Really?" Sometimes, Amandaís generosity took the slightly younger woman by surprise.
"Absolutely. I saw that you took the day off." A sly smile graced Amandaís angelic face.
"So did you," Francine returned with a smile. "Romance is wonderful, isnít it?"
The King-Stetson Home * February 14, 1989
"Be good for your dad, guys," Amanda said, kissing each of her sons in turn as they stood at the door waiting for the school bus.
"Mom," Philip whined, typical teen that he was.
Jamie, much changed since his ordeal as a hostage in Lebanon, just shrugged. "Sure, Mom."
After the bus pulled away from the house, Dotty West came up behind her daughter and put her arms around Amanda. "Jamie is doing just fine, honey. Heíll be okay."
"Oh, I know, Mother," Amanda replied, wiping the tears from her eyes. "But heíll never be the same."
"Nor have you been since Adi Birol held you captive. But youíve survived, and weíre stronger as a family because of all weíve been through."
"Do you really think so?"
Dotty smiled in her inimitable way. "I wouldnít say it if I didnít think so."
"I love you," Amanda replied, kissing her mother the same way she had kissed her sons a moment before. "Whereís Marlena?" Marlena Marley, the three-year old daughter of Lee and Amandaís wounded colleague, had been the familyís guest while her mother recuperated at Walter Reed. Marlena and Jamie had been held hostage together and had a tight bond that seemed to be serving them well during the healing process.
"Believe it or not, sheís still asleep. I think seeing her mom alive and awake last night was really good for her."
"Iím sure. Are you all set to go to the Melroseís?"
Dotty scowled for an instant; she still didnít particularly like Billy Melrose, but she had become fast friends with his wife, Jeannie. The initial invitation for her and Marlena to spend the night with the couple had grated on Dottyís sense of independence, but Marlenaís quick yelp of delight had changed her mind. "As weíll ever be. Donít worry, weíll be gone before eleven when you and Francine are meeting to cook up a storm." The image that popped into her head made no sense; she burst into peals of laughter that left Amanda puzzled as Dotty staggered up the stairs toward her bedroom.
Lee Stetson, knee-weakeningly handsome in a dark blue sports shirt and khaki pants, looked up from the morning paper when Amanda came into the kitchen a moment later. Even if his wife didnít understand why her mother was laughing, he did. "Itís the image of Francine in an apron standing over a stove," he said to the confusion on the heart-shaped face, then laughed himself.
Unable to fight the impulse, Amanda laughed, too.
Francine locked her little red convertible and stepped up under the overhang in front of the butcher shop window. Amanda, not surprisingly, was a little late, probably taking extra care on the slippery roads as the icy rain from a winter storm system fell from a slate gray sky. When at last she spotted the big Jeep Cherokee that Amanda drove regularly pulling into the parking lot, Francine heaved a sigh of relief and waved to her friend.
"Sorry Iím late," Amanda hollered as she came gingerly toward the store.
"Better late than never in this weather," Francine replied, holding out her arm to help Amanda come the last few steps. "At least we donít have to worry about anything spoiling with it being so cold."
"True. And cold is a good thing on Valentineís Day Ė assuming you have dry wood to make a fire."
Francine nodded. "Ian brought some in over the weekend from the shed. So, whatís the menu?" She held the butcher shop door open for the other woman.
Once inside, Amanda replied. "Vegetable soup, broccoli-mushroom salad with bacon vinaigrette, lemon peppered flank steak, oven roasted rosemary potatoes, baby carrots with snow peas, and peach cobbler with vanilla ice cream."
"Iím hungry already. But how are we going to make all of that today?"
"Trust me, Francine," Amanda replied, stepping up to the counter. "We need two one-pound flank steaks, please, wrapped and weighed separately, George."
"Sure thing, Mrs. Ki Ė Stetson," the young man behind the counter answered. A moment later, he showed her the likely candidates; Amanda nodded and the man finished his tasks with a pleasant banter about the weather and the recent events in Israel. "I sure am glad your Jamie is okay, Mrs. Stetson," he added as he handed the two packages across the counter.
"Thanks, George." Amanda and Francine stepped back into the cold winter rain. "Francine, why donít you leave your car here and come with me? It will be safer in the ice."
Amanda was right, so Francine settled in beside the slim brunette to go off to the next stop.
"So, you and Ian really have hit it off," Amanda observed.
Francine nodded. "I never understood until about three weeks ago just what having a soul mate could be like. Itís as though weíve known each other our entire lives but still have surprises to share."
"Thatís as good a description as Iíve ever heard." The two women continued to chat as Amanda navigated the slippery streets toward the produce market and the grocery store.
At the produce market, they picked up boiling onions, celery, carrots, green beans, broccoli, shallots, mushrooms, hothouse tomatoes, red potatoes, chives, fresh rosemary, basil, bay leaf, and thyme, baby carrots, snow peas, lemons, and peaches. Amandaís favorite grocery store was next door; there, the women bought bouillon, balsamic vinegar, bacon, cheddar, Parmesan, peppercorns, salt, flour, butter, sugar, vanilla ice cream, cinnamon, and nutmeg for Francine. Amanda needed only bacon, ice cream, and butter to complete the list of ingredients; her well-stocked larder would provide the rest.
The two returned to the butcher shop to get Francineís car, then made their way to Amandaís home to start the preparations for their romantic Valentineís Day dinners.
"Nice flowers, Lee," Ian Marlowe said when he saw the huge bouquet of roses and other flowers gracing Amandaís empty desk in the Q Bureau. "If it werenít Valentineís Day, Iíd ask you what you did to get into so much trouble."
Lee Stetson laughed lightly and waved the uniformed Marine into the chair across the desk. "Did you get the ro Ė " The look on Ianís face stopped the sentence in mid-thought and Lee changed the subject. "Are you definitely going back Sunday?"
"Unfortunately," the colonel said with a heavy sigh. "I have a class starting Monday."
"What do you teach?"
"Mandarin and Cantonese, believe it or not."
Lee shook his head. "Youíll have no trouble keeping up with Francine. Computers, chemistry, and Chinese. Quite a combination."
Ian shrugged. "Itís a living. The fun part was the Marine Recon training, even though I never got to finish because of a broken leg."
Already impressed by the man across from him, Lee found himself admiring Francineís beau just a bit more after the latest revelations.
The King-Stetson Home
"Okay, Francine, first we want to make the soup. Weíre going to chop the boiling onions in half and slice the celery and carrots." Amanda handed the blonde a good chefís knife. "You do know how to use that on food, right?"
Francine scowled but kept her voice light as she retorted. "No, just on enemy agents. Believe it or not, I do chop a mean vegetable. How big?"
"Half inch dice will be okay." Knives going in syncopated harmony, the women talked of their lives, the daily stresses of the world of espionage, the blessings of being loved and in love with men whose honor and character were above reproach. "So," Amanda began as the last of the celery stalks divided under her expert guidance, "you really think Ian is the one?"
Francine nodded. "I do. I just canít quite bring myself to say ĎI love youí yet. Thereís something so final about that, somehow."
Amanda put a stick of butter into each of two stockpots and lit the burners underneath. "In what sense?"
"Like itís letting go of everything that came before, and entering a whole new realm of unknowns." She followed Amandaís lead and started to stir the melting butter in one of the pots. "I donít feel ready to do that, but I want to."
"Has Ian said anything to you?"
"The night in the hotel in Israel. I said it back, but not where he could hear me."
Amanda picked up her cutting board and slid the vegetables off into the stockpot, motioning for Francine to do the same. "You know, sometimes you just have to wait until it feels right to say something, even when you feel it already. Youíll know, Francine. There will be no doubt when youíre ready to say it to him."
"Thatís a relief. I thought I was just being overly cautious."
The two stirred the sizzling mixture of onions, carrots, and celery in companionable silence for a while before Amanda continued with the soup recipe. "Weíll unwrap two bouillon cubes and put them into the pots to start dissolving in the butter, then weíll add three tablespoons of tomato paste and stir thoroughly." A moment later, two cups of a good burgundy went into each pot, then they turned to making the herb bag.
"Why a bag and not just right into the soup?" Francine asked as she laid the fresh herbs on a square of cheesecloth.
"So we donít have to strain the herbs out later." Amanda showed her student how to tie the bag closed before they each placed one in a pot. "Now we add a half gallon of water to the pot, put a lid on it, and let it simmer for a couple of hours."
"Thatís easy enough. What about the green beans?"
"Weíll add those, some mushrooms, and salt and pepper near the end of the cooking time. Letís make the cobbler next." Amanda pulled out two lemons and the sack of peaches. "We need to squeeze these lemons and peel and slice the peaches."
"Itís for Ian," Amanda reminded her with gentle humor.
"Then letís go to it!"
Francine proved to have an excellent hand for squeezing, peeling, and slicing, although Amanda knew that the womanís desire to prepare a beautiful, romantic meal for the man she loved motivated her to be more attentive than she might otherwise be. It amused her to see Francine finally cooking without threatening national security.
With the peaches prepared, the next task was to set them cooking. "Lee doesnít like a tremendously sweet fruit dessert, so I use less sugar than many recipes call for. Weíll use ĺ cup of sugar, two teaspoons of cinnamon, and a half teaspoon of nutmeg to 6 cups of peaches in lemon juice and a half cup of water." Amanda put everything into a saucepan, watching Francine do the same. As with the soup, the pans went onto a hot burner as the women stood shoulder to shoulder, stirring the mixtures.
"Amanda, who taught you to cook?"
"My mother. We used to spend hours in the kitchen cooking for my dad, even after I married Joe."
"Youíre very lucky. I was never very close to my mother, and we certainly never spent time in the kitchen together." Francineís soft voice took a bitter tone. "We always had cooks Ė and the kitchen was very definitely beneath us."
"I hope you donít raise your children that way," Amanda replied, wondering what reaction she would get.
Francine looked back at her, wide-eyed. "Children. Thatís a real possibility now." She shook her head. "I had given up on the idea of having a family."
The Agency Cafeteria
Ian Marlowe stood with Lee Stetson, surveying the lunch offerings on display in the institutional cafeteria. "Well, one thing I will say. The food at Monterey is much better than this."
"I agree," Lee replied, replacing the orange tray he held on the stack and motioning for the uniformed Marine to follow him. "I know a great place for lunch, and we can get that wine we both need for tonight, too."
"Fabulous." Ian, too, put down his tray and the two men, both drop-dead gorgeous and heart-meltingly kind, left the confines of the government dining room for more appealing surroundings.
Lee led him to Nedlingerís, where the two men surveyed the menu with much more interest than they had the cafeteria food a few minutes before.
"I recommend the club sandwich," Lee pointed out, "with extra crisp fries."
"Sold." Ian sighed. "If only we didnít have to go back to work. A beer sounds good about now."
"Or a martini," Lee agreed.
The two men gave their orders to the waiter, then sat back in the kind of silence that men who have become close friends do so well.
Ian broke the silence, a serious look on his angular, highly mobile face. "Lee, let me ask you something about Francine."
"Iíll do what I can," Lee answered, sipping at his water.
"Do you think sheís really capable of loving someone with her whole heart?"
The question caught Lee unprepared. "HmmmÖ thatís a very good question," he stalled. "I have to say honestly that until three weeks ago, I didnít think so. Now, though, Iíve seen a huge change in her."
"Well," her long-time friend began, "for one thing, sheís been uncommonly nice of late. I think Iíve only heard one truly vicious thing a day from her since she met you. And then there has been her willingness to sit with Joanna at the hospital, something I would never have expected from Francine, given that she hates hospitals even more than I do."
"So do you think the ice is melting?"
"Perhaps," Lee allowed, "but if you hurt her, even accidentally, sheíll put her emotions in the deep freeze forever."
Ian nodded as the waiter brought their sandwiches. "Thatís a heavy responsibility. I shall do my very best not to hurt her."
"I know. Thatís why weíre having lunch."
Ian flashed a bright smile that only strengthened the bond between the men. "Iím very glad that Francine has you to look out for her while Iím not around."
The King-Stetson Home
"Amanda, are you sure that this crust is okay? It looks paler than yours." Francine held the bowl of dough out to her instructor, who set the container down next to her own.
"I think your egg yolk was just a bit smaller than mine." Amanda turned the round of dough over with the spoon, gauging the pliability of the mixture with an expert touch. "Itís fine. Weíll roll two thirds of it out for the bottom crust."
Francine acted as though she had never seen a rolling pin before. When Amanda called her on it, she admitted a dark secret. "The last time I used a rolling pin was at Mrs. Welchís house. Iíd have been better off using it on her rather than on the Pilgrimís Peach Puff."
Amanda couldnít help herself. She laughed. Not just a giggle, but a full-fledged, contagious laugh that should have sent Francine into a rage. As though to prove that she had really changed for the better in the past three weeks, however, Francine soon joined the hysteria and within moments, both women were wiping tears from their eyes.
"I can see it now," Amanda managed between deep chuckles, "I arrive at the plantation to find you standing over Mrs. Welch with the rolling pin between her eyes and Lee safely rescued."
"You wouldnít have been partnered with him if Iíd been doing my job." Francine noticed Amandaís face begin to lose its animation. "And that would have been a very sad thing," she hastened to add, "because you never would have knocked sense enough into Lee for him to realize that he is your soul mate and belongs at your side."
Amanda nodded, her laughter starting to come under control again. She handed a rolling pin to her friend and taught her how to roll out the crust to fit the deep-dish cobbler pan. When they were finished, she handed Francine a fork.
"Itís not cooked yet," Francine quipped, and went on before Amanda could scold her, "I know, we have to prick the crust so that it wonít Ė PUFF Ė up when we bake it."
It was a good thing, they decided as they put the pans into the oven a few minutes later, that neither Lee nor Ian would see the bottom crust of the cobbler. The fork marks were erratic, to say the least, made as the two convulsed in laughter yet again.
"All this cooking has made me hungry. Iíd be happy to go pick something up for us, Amanda, if youíd like me to."
Amanda shook her head. "Not necessary. Mother and Marlena cooked yesterday while the boys were at school and Lee and I were at work. Thereís homemade pizza and mulled cider that we just need to heat up as soon as the crusts are done in the oven and the peaches are done."
"Amanda, Iíd really like to do something to thank you for all this."
"Then follow your heart, let love open it up, and give it to Ian to hold for life."
Not expecting that answer, Francine blinked as she thought about Amandaís words. "I can do that," she whispered. "I really can do that."
Georgetown Wine and Fine Liquors
"Do you know what weíre having for dinner, Lee?" Ian asked as the two men perused the wine selection at Leeís favorite vintner.
"All Amanda would tell me is beef, with a fruit dessert. The way my wife cooks, it could be anything."
"Sounds like itís time for a really nice Bordeaux as the main course accompaniment with a sparkling wine, maybe Asti Spumante, with dessert."
Lee nodded, impressed yet again with Ian. "I think youíre right. Letís check with Tony."
Tony, a long time friend and member of "the family," Leeís personal information network, led them to some fine, moderately priced wines, recommending a Burgundy as well to fill out the selection. "Itís Valentineís Day," he said. "And with Amandaís cooking, three bottles of wine for two people is perfectly okay."
"Meaning what?" Ian asked, confused.
"That one never eats just one helping of anything Amanda makes," Lee replied, patting his waistline. "Thereís a reason I run five miles a day and play basketball with the boys as often as I can."
"Thatís fine and dandy, but from what Iíve heard about Francineís cooking, she might be able to ruin even Amandaís meals."
Lee clapped the Marine on the shoulder and shook his head. "Not a chance. Amanda has it all planned out."
The men returned to the Agency, each happily out $100 for three exquisite bottles of wine.
The King-Stetson Home
"Amanda, this dressing is wonderful!" Francine exclaimed as she put the tasting spoon down. "I never would have thought to steep bacon in balsamic vinegar and then use both in a salad."
"Itís an interesting dish. I was skeptical when I first read the recipe, but now itís one of my favorites."
"Itís beautiful, too." The bright green of the fresh broccoli, the rich red of the vine-ripened tomatoes, and the yellow and white of the cheeses made a pretty picture in the mixing bowls. "This will look wonderful on my black stoneware dishes."
"Absolutely. So will the soup."
Francine lifted the lid of her stockpot and inhaled deeply. "This is making me hungry again," she said.
Amanda handed her a ladle. "Fish the herb packet out so we can add the green beans and mushrooms. Weíll let them cook, then turn the stove off so we wonít have to carry boiling hot soup to your place."
"Good idea." The two women finished adding the ingredients to the soup, then sat down for a cup of tea before they tackled the next task.
"The potatoes need to be quartered and set in cold salted water so they donít rust," Amanda instructed. "Then weíll melt butter in a roasting pan, add pepper, salt, fresh rosemary, and a bit of fresh thyme to the butter, toss the potatoes in, and cook them almost through. All youíll have to do is finish cooking them at your house, which youíll be able to do while the steak is broiling." Her eyebrow dipped in sudden puzzlement. "You do have a gas stove, right?"
"If you mean one that has a flame rather than a coil burner, yes." The look on Amandaís face made Francine laugh. "Donít worry, I really do know the difference."
"So, what kind of flowers do you have for Francine, Ian?" Billy Melrose inquired as he and the Marine made their way from the Bull Pen toward Dr. Austin Smythís office.
"Donít talk to me about flowers," the younger man replied. "I paid twice as much for two dozen long stem roses as I did for the wine for dinner tonight, and I canít even pick them up until Iím on my way over to her place because the florist didnít order enough for his morning deliveries."
Billy nodded in sympathy, knowing that this was Ianís first real Valentineís Day. "A word of advice?" He waited for Ian to gesture acknowledgement, then continued. "No matter where you are in the world, make fast friends with the florist that the best funeral home in town uses unless otherwise instructed." At Ianís blank look, he explained further. "Chances are very high that the best funeral home uses the best florist. And when youíre married, you need quick access to flowers on a regular basis."
"Married." The word stopped the Marine in his tracks. "You know, for the first time in my life, I think I might actually get married someday."
"Wild feeling, isnít it?"
"Incredible. Just donít tell Uncle Austin. I donít want Francine to get any extra attention, positive or negative."
Nodding, Billy smiled. "Iím sure heís figured it out already, but I wonít confirm or deny anything."
"Thanks, Billy. Youíre the best."
The King-Stetson Home
Francine stepped out of her shoes and stretched up on her toes while Amanda rinsed the first of the washed dishes. "I canít believe how much exercise Iíve gotten in this kitchen," she said, taking the small mixing bowl from her colleague and friend with a dishtowel covered hand. "I feel like Iíve stretched and lifted and walked and pushed and pulled enough for two workout sessions."
"You have," Amanda confirmed. "Which means you can sit back and enjoy everything tonight without an ounce of guilt."
"And Iíll bet you have another workout coming, too," Francine teased, a knowing grin crossing her face.
Amanda blushed a bit, but didnít deny the accusation. "Are you and Ian sticking to your commitment not toÖ"
"Yes, amazingly enough. Iíve never been in a relationship like this before. Itís weird, but I am finding a depth to my feelings that I think I had always denied and buried under the physical aspects of relationships." She took another dish from the drainer and dried it as she mused. "And I donít think Iíve ever been more attracted to a man before. Itís almost like not doing anything more than kissing and holding hands has heightened my awareness of his masculinity and sex appeal, you know?"
Nodding, Amanda smiled. "I completely understand, Francine. Thatís how I felt when Lee and I finally started dating. Believe me, it makes the wedding night very special."
"What about Pine Top?" Francine could still be evil, even if only once a day.
"We talked. A lot. In front of a warm fire with lots of cider and soft music." Her tone brooked no further questioning on that subject.
In a few minutes, the last of the dishes were dry and put away, save for two small bowls, the juicer, and two paring knives. Amanda set those items on the counter, then got four lemons and the two flank steaks out of the refrigerator. "Time to squeeze the lemons, Francine."
Francine, using a trick she learned earlier in the day, set a lemon in the brand new microwave and set the timer for 20 seconds. She took it out, rolled it on the counter, then cut it in half and juiced each half, yielding 2/3 cup of fresh lemon juice total. Amanda watched as she repeated the process three more times.
"Youíre hired. Want to run the lemonade stand at the Pony League fields this year?"
"No way. Let me cut my teeth in Little League in a few years. Whatís next?"
Amanda showed her how to crack peppercorns with a mortar and pestle, then guided her through tenderizing the steak and rubbing it with a mixture of cracked pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, and salt. "Now weíre going to put it in a big Ziploc with the lemon juice, put the whole bag in a dish, and let it marinate for about two hours Ė long enough to get all but the last three things on my list accomplished. Cooking the steak is the first of the last three things."
"So easy! I canít believe this."
The two women worked their way through the cobbler assembly, then Amanda handed Francine the instructions for finishing the meal on her own and went through it step-by-step. "Check them off as you go so you donít skip anything. You have candles?"
"Yes, I checked that last night, just like you told me to. Joanna told me this morning when I talked to her that Ian really likes orange blossoms, so I splurged on a scented candle for the centerpiece before I met you."
"Brilliant. You know what youíre going to wear?"
"My royal blue cashmere sweater and white trousers."
"Great choice, Francine. Youíll look stunning."
"Do you think so?"
Amanda appraised her friend from head to toe. "That shade of blue is your color. If he isnít already yours for life, Ian Marlowe will be after tonight."
Francine blushed furiously, something she had been doing a lot of late.
"Come on, letís get you packed up," the other woman said through her giggles.
Francine Desmondís Home
Ian stood on the doorstep, the fresh roses shaking slightly as his nervousness showed through, although the bag with the wines was heavy enough that it hung still at his side. He wore a yellow golf shirt and relaxed navy trousers under his overcoat, and knew that the lack of his uniform contributed in part to the anxiety that played at his psyche.
The vision who answered the door swept all his apprehension away, along with his breath. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Ian thought that being in love was really pretty neat, but for the moment he was content to feel rather than think. Francine stepped into his arms as soon as he closed the door with a backward tap of his foot. The wine bag settled to the floor and the roses landed on the side table precisely where he aimed them as his arms encircled the woman he loved.
Their kiss tasted of the scents in the air Ė orange blossoms, rosemary, pepper Ė not unpleasant at all and a wonderful way to begin an enchanted evening.
The King-Stetson Home
Lee and Amanda snuggled together on the couch in the den, enjoying the after dinner quiet of contented love. "That," Lee said between soft kisses, "was the bestÖ mealÖ I have everÖ had."
"Thank you," she replied, deepening their next kiss. Soon, they made their way upstairs, where a single candle cast the shadows of their passion on the walls.
Francine Desmondís Home
Francine awoke the next morning, surprised and overjoyed to be in Ianís arms. For the first time in her life, she truly understood what it meant to be loved and respected the way every person deserves, and she was content to know that someday she and Ian would be as happy together in their marriage as Billy and Jeannie were, and as Lee and Amanda were. And she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that her wedding night with Ian would be spectacular.