Title: Anything for a Friend
Author: Rita (dittypiddler)
Disclaimer: Scarecrow and Mrs. King belong to Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. No infringement intended.
Summary: Lee and Amanda need a vacation. But who will take care of their hairy friend? Fourth installment in the "Scooter" series.
Timeframe: May 1992. Lee is now head of the Agency’s Anti-Terrorism Task Force, and Amanda is his assistant.
Thanks to Cheryl and NancyY for the beta.
Notes: My apologies to the residents of Tennessee. I’ve lived in the country for many years, and I’ve known quite a few characters like Mr. Dryer, although I may have exaggerated a bit. But it’s all in fun. :)
Anything for a Friend
A good agent should always expect the unexpected and be prepared for any contingency. Chapter eight, subsection four, paragraph two of the Agency training manual. Lee leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. The only "contingency" he’d prepared for involved a secluded beach house, white sand, gentle surf, and Amanda in a skimpy bikini. He hadn’t anticipated his mother-in-law rushing off to care for her sister after Lillian’s emergency appendectomy. But that couldn’t be helped.
He poured over the classified section of the Washington Post for the second time, then turned to his wife, perched on the corner of his desk. "Amanda, there’s absolutely nothing here." He plowed his fingers through his hair.
"Oh, come on. There’re several ads for boarding kennels. How about this one? It sounds nice." She pointed to a line in the newspaper. "It’s called ‘Waggin’ Tail Kennel,’ and the ad says they offer boarding, grooming, and pet sitting. Oh, and look, sweetheart, they even have climate control."
"It was one of the places I checked out after my meeting at the State Department. They keep them in four by five-foot enclosures, with a dog door that lets out onto a little concrete slab they laughingly call an exercise pen." Lee cringed. "Scooter would go nuts in a place like that for a whole week."
"Yeah, I guess you’re right. Besides, it’s much too expensive."
"Hang the expense." He rose and poured a cup of coffee. "I just don’t want him crammed into something with no more space than that. And there’s nothing any better in Rockville."
She frowned. "Well, Dr. Anderson boards dogs sometimes."
Lee choked on his coffee. "No way in hell! That’s even worse. He keeps them in those little wire cages."
"They’re called crates."
"Whatever. Scooter hasn’t been in one of those things since he was just a little guy. And he didn’t like it then. He likes to run and--"
"Well, yeah. He’s a free spirit. He likes to--"
"Get into mischief."
"A-man-da." Lee stiffened, gearing up to defend his pet. Then he noticed the twinkle in her eyes and relaxed.
She laughed and gently squeezed his arm. "Just kidding, sweetheart. I wouldn’t want to leave him at any of those places, either. We’d both worry about him and never be able to enjoy our vacation. I guess we’ll just have to postpone our trip until the boys come home."
"No, we can’t postpone. God knows when we’ll get another chance like this. I had to promise Duffy the moon if he’d trade vacation time with me. And I already arranged for Carter to cover the anti-terrorism meeting." He glared at the paper, then balled it up and chucked it into the trashcan at the end of the desk. Two points. "I just never dreamed we’d have to find accommodations for Scooter."
Her brow furrowed. "If only there was someone we could trust, who would be willing to stay at the house with him . . ."
Lee snapped his fingers. "That’s it! Honey, you’re a genius." He swept her into his arms and twirled her around his office. Setting his startled wife on her feet, he gave her a quick kiss on the lips. "I know the perfect patsy, er, person. I’ll be back soon." He yanked open the door and double-timed his steps past Amanda’s vacant desk and down the hallway to the elevator. Pushing coats aside, he jabbed the button for the Georgetown foyer. He needed to buy bait for his hook.
~ ~ ~ ~
"Francine, you’re looking exceptionally beautiful today. Is that a new dress?" Lee placed the box of De Verona chocolates on his friend’s desk, flashing his most appealing smile.
"What do you want, Lee?" she asked, without looking up from the files spread out in front of her.
"What makes you think I want something?" Francine would be hard to convince, but he had a few tricks up his sleeve. He just had to play his cards right.
When she raised her head, her blue eyes bored into him. "Oh, please. Do I have ‘idiot’ stamped on my forehead? A compliment and chocolates? You must want something really big." She pushed her chair back and flounced to the filing cabinets.
"Well, I do need a teensy favor. And since Billy took you off the duty roster next week after your fantastic work on the Martinez case . . . " Leaning his elbow on the cabinet, he gave her an admiring look and laid it on thick. "You know, it was sheer brilliance the way you figured out how that scum was smuggling drugs into the country. But you’re the best, so he couldn’t fool you."
"Oh, brother. It’s really getting deep in here. Much more of this crap and I’ll need a shovel." She tossed him a withering glance. "Give me a break. Don’t you have enough to keep you busy in ATTF? Go catch a terrorist or something. I have work to do."
Lee straightened his tie and rocked back on his heels. "How would you like to spend a nice, relaxing week with nothing to do but swim in a crystal-clear lake, drink Margaritas, and sunbathe, hmm?"
"I doubt you’re planning to send me to Acapulco." Francine shoved the folders into the cabinet and turned to him, suspicion written all over her face. "What’s the catch?"
He cleared his throat. "Ah, you know that Amanda and I are going on vacation. It’s the first time we’ve been able to get more than a weekend off together in months, and we . . . um . . . well, you see, we’re having trouble finding a place for Scooter, and we thought it would be perfect if someone could stay at the house with him--"
Her jaw dropped. "You want me to baby-sit your dog?"
"You know," he went on, not missing a beat. "A friend. Someone we can trust. Someone Scooter likes. Of course, he likes everybody, but we don’t want to leave him with a stranger--"
"No way, Scarecrow!" Francine slammed the file drawer shut. "The last time I had dinner with you and Amanda, my Gucci handbag had teeth marks on it." She hunched her shoulders and shuddered. "And he piddled on my new Anne Klein shoes!" Scowling, she marched back to her desk and thumped down in the chair.
Lee balanced his hip on the edge of the desk and leaned forward. "But, Francine, that was months ago. Scooter’s housebroken now, and he doesn’t chew on leather anymore." He squirmed under her penetrating stare and mentally added, ‘Not if you keep it on the highest shelf you can find.’
"Forget it. I’ve heard about some of the things that menace to fashion has done, remember?" She patted her perfectly coifed blonde hair. "Besides, I have more exciting plans for my down time, and they don’t include playing nursemaid to a dog."
Time to turn on the Stetson charm. "Francine, you know we can’t leave Scooter with just anybody. We need someone special. Someone like you." He made judicious use of his dimples, giving her his sexiest grin.
"Uh-uh. I’ve known you too long, Lee. You can’t flatter me."
Hell, she wasn’t budging. He needed a new game plan. "Think about all those double-chocolate brownies Amanda bakes for you." He licked his lips. "And all that delectable fudge you love."
"Which I appreciate. But I am a highly trained agent. And I don’t do dog-sitting."
Her haughty expression and clipped tone were clear evidence that the guilt trip hadn’t worked any better than flattery. Time to up the ante. Clearing his throat, he straightened and shrugged. "Hmm. That’s too bad. I didn’t want to mention this, but . . . last summer . . . Monte Carlo . . . you . . . Beaman . . . the topless beach . . ."
Her face crimson and her eyes shooting sparks, Francine sprang to her feet, almost toppling the chair. "You wouldn’t dare!"
Sighing, he massaged his jaw and shook his head sadly. "You never know what a desperate man might let slip--purely by accident, of course." He leaned closer and looked her in the eye. "And I’m a desperate man."
"Oh, my God." She slumped onto the chair and buried her face in her hands.
"Aw, come on, Francine. You’ll have a great time." He played his last card. "And Amanda and I will owe you. Big time."
She glared at him, a diabolical gleam in her eyes. "Damn right you will. And you’d better believe I’ll call in that marker, and I’ll think of a payback that will be epic making."
"Then you’ll do it?"
"Yes, I’ll do it. But you’re gonna pay, Stetson."
"Thanks, Francine. You’re a real pal." He kissed her cheek, hopped off the desk, and sauntered out of the Bullpen. No doubt she’d make him pay dearly. What kind of hideous torture would her devious mind devise? Well, he’d worry about that later. Right now he couldn’t wait to tell his wife the good news. He rubbed his hands together and strode back to his office.
With Scooter trailing behind him, Lee lugged the suitcases and garment bag down the stairs and set them next to the front door. He straightened and stretched his back. Amanda must have packed enough clothes for a month. His plans didn’t include her needing many--if any--clothes on this trip. A wet nose nudged his hand, and he looked into his hairy friend’s soulful brown eyes.
"Aw, come on, Scooter, don’t look at me like that, pal. You’re acting like we’re gonna abandon you by the roadside." He knelt on the floor and scratched behind the puppy’s floppy ears. "I had to move heaven and earth and several planets to find a romantic, out of the way place to take Amanda. But they don’t allow pets. If they did, we’d take you." He held up his hand. "Scout’s honor."
Scooter whimpered and placed his front paw on Lee’s arm, then snuggled against his chest and laid his furry head on Lee’s shoulder.
"Oh, man. You really know how to pile on the guilt, don’t you, fella?" He rumpled the dog’s silky coat and hugged him. "We really need the R and R, buddy. Don’t you want your mommy and daddy to have a good time? Huh?" He gave Scooter another squeeze.
"You know, sweetheart, I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to being referred to as Scooter’s mommy."
Lee ducked his head, the heat rising in his cheeks. "Honey, I was just, uh, I mean . . . he . . . well, he’s been so, you know . . . so mopey . . . I . . ." He shrugged and flashed a self-conscious grin.
"Oh, sweetheart, I know just how you feel." Amanda kissed the top of his head. "Scooter’s been following me around like a lost soul, too, and I’m having some serious guilt pangs." She petted the woeful-looking pup. "But I’m sure you’ll have lots of fun with Auntie Francine, boy. Though it beats me how your daddy managed to persuade her to stay with you."
After lifting Scooter off his lap, Lee pushed himself up from the floor and kissed her lightly. "I have my ways." He winked.
"Umm-hmm. So I’ve heard."
Scooter cocked his ears and whined. With an energetic bark, he scampered to the front door.
"That must be Auntie Francine now." She opened the door, and Francine breezed into the foyer. "Hello, Francine. We can’t thank you enough for doing this for us." Amanda gave her a hug, while Lee hefted her bag and set it next to the stairs.
"Oh, it’s my . . . um . . . my pleasure, dear. Anything for a friend. And I just know Lee will be happy to return the favor." She flashed his wife a bright smile, then tossed him a look that curdled his blood.
Lee shuffled his feet, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Ahh, of course, Francine. Any time you need something--anything at all--you just ask." His stomach twisted into a knot. Her favor would probably entail siphoning several pints of his blood and slicing ten pounds off his backside.
Scooter danced around Francine, then jumped up and planted his paws on her waist, demanding his share of attention.
"Oh!" Francine flinched away from the lapping tongue headed for her face and swayed back. "This is Scooter? My, he’s grown, hasn’t he?" She edged to Lee’s side. "You didn’t tell me he was this big," she hissed into his ear.
"He’s still a puppy, Francine. Just a big puppy," he whispered. After the look she flung at him, his hand wandered to his back. He half expected to find a knife sticking out of it.
"Well, I’ll show you where everything is." Amanda led the way down the hall to the kitchen.
While his wife instructed Francine on Scooter’s care and feeding, Lee plunked onto a chair and bowed his head, staring at the floor. His shoulders sagged. Oh, God. What had he done to his pet? Would Scooter survive a week with Francine? Remembering his hairy friend’s penchant for mischief, he chuckled. Oh, yeah. Scooter would persevere. The question was--would she?
Scooter trotted over and rested his muzzle on Lee’s leg, poking his nose under his hand. He fluffed the dog’s fur and whispered, "Don’t be too hard on her, huh, pal? Remember your daddy’s life may depend on your good behavior."
The puppy answered with a low woof and an impish gleam in his eyes that Lee knew from experience boded trouble. Poor Francine. He almost felt sorry for her.
~ ~ ~ ~
Francine sighed. If she had to listen to one more instruction . . . "Yes, Lee, you told me where all the emergency numbers are, including the vet’s. Don’t you two have a plane to catch?"
Lee looked up from his position on the floor, where that oversized fur-ball was slobbering all over him. Ewww. Well, Scooter had better not try that with her. Kisses from wealthy men were one thing. But from a dog? Not in this lifetime. And Amanda was just as bad, fawning over the animal.
Looking like somebody stole his bicycle, Lee finally rose and faced her. "Old man Dryer--"
"Mr. Dryer," Amanda chimed in, with her arms still around Scooter.
"Yes, honey. Mr. Dryer agreed to come over every day and take care of the horses. If you need anything, just call him. Did I give you his number?"
Francine mentally counted to ten. "Yes, Lee. You gave me everybody’s number, except the Swat Team, and hopefully, I won’t need them." She tapped her foot on the floor. "I’m sure we’ll be fine. Will you just go, before you miss your plane?"
"Yeah, I guess we’d better. Thanks again, Francine. I know you and Scooter will have a great time." He leaned toward her and whispered, "Remember Monte Carlo. I expect to find a happy dog when we get back."
She scowled at him. Good grief. How hard could it be to take care of the beast?
"Thank you so much, Francine. We really appreciate this." Amanda hugged her. "Goodbye."
"Bye, Amanda. You two just enjoy yourselves and don’t worry about a thing."
After one last slurpy goodbye to the dog, the couple left for fun in the sun, leaving her alone with Scooter. He scratched at the front door, then sat back on his haunches and whined. The animal looked rather desolate, and she felt a twinge of empathy. He must think his family had deserted him. Much the way she had felt when Jonathan . . . Now wait just a darn minute. She would hardly compare herself to a dog! Still . . . she could sympathize. She patted Scooter’s head. With that soft, golden fur, he really was beautiful. And he seemed well behaved. She could endure his company for one week.
"So tell me, Scooter, who does your hair?" He cocked his head and gazed at her expectantly. "I should introduce you to my neighbor’s poodle. You and Fifi would get along famously." She was talking to a dog. Francine Desmond--spy extraordinaire--was talking to a dog.
"Oh, brother. I must be losing it." Shaking her head, she climbed the stairs and headed to the guestroom to unpack.
Knotting a towel around her waist, Francine skipped down the stairs, with Scooter prancing behind her. So far, it had been a cinch. He’d sulked in front of the stone fireplace most of the time, chewing on some toy or other. And he’d slept in Lee and Amanda’s room--on their bed, for heaven’s sake! At least he hadn’t bothered her. Well, not too much. But after lunch today, the dog had perked up, and now he followed her around the way Ephraim used to.
Oh, well. She might as well work on her tan while she was here. Maybe take a dip in the lake. The weather was warmer than usual for May, and she should take advantage of it. Of course, this place wasn’t the south of France, but it would do for now. After snagging a lounge chair from the patio, she slung her beach bag over her shoulder and strolled down the tree-lined path leading to the lake, with Scooter zigzagging from the trail to the pines, then bouncing back to her side. She was beginning to feel like they were joined at the hip.
But if she didn’t keep an eye on the dog, Lee would have a cow. Not that she believed he’d use the Monte Carlo fiasco against her. He was too good a friend. However, he was not above teasing her unmercifully until she was old and gray. Wincing, she flipped her hair back. Gray? Perish the thought! Not as long as "Chez Pierre" was in business. She made a mental note to call for an appointment when she returned to civilization. Time for a touch-up and a new perm.
When she reached the lake, a light breeze ruffled her hair and stirred the surface of the sun-dappled water. Robins, bluebirds, and cardinals circled overhead and flitted through the branches of tall trees, their melodic chirrups blending with the sound of gently lapping water. As she filled her lungs with the fresh air, fragrant with the scent of pine and budding wild flowers, she could see why Lee and Amanda were so enamored of this place. It really was beautiful.
Well, it was a pleasant change from the hustle and bustle of the city, and she didn’t mind an occasional visit. But why on earth would anybody want to live on a farm? She hadn’t even passed a Starbucks during the drive from Rockville. How could any refined person survive without "Mocha Latte"? She rolled her eyes. Ugh. So primitive.
Francine unfolded the chair by the lakeshore and spread her towel over it. After making sure Scooter was occupied with splashing around at the water’s edge, she slid her bikini straps off her shoulders and rubbed sunscreen on her exposed skin. Then she massaged the lotion into her arms, midriff, and legs. Satisfied that she was protected from any unsightly sunburn, she donned her dark glasses, stretched out on the lounge chair, and leafed through the latest issue of "Vogue." The sun felt so warm. She wiggled her toes and yawned. Soon her eyes drifted shut.
Smiling at his wife’s bemused expression, Lee pulled his blue trunks over his hips. "Hon, shouldn’t you get dressed? Sun and surf await, you know." And he couldn’t wait to see her in the new swimsuit he’d bought her.
"Um, did you say dressed?" Amanda held up a scrape of red fabric attached to four narrow strings. "Sweetheart, I appreciate the gift, but this, uh, bathing suit is the size of a postage stamp."
"String bikinis are supposed to be." He smirked.
"Lee-ee." Placing her hands on her hips, she tilted her head and pinned him with a wifely look. "I can’t wear this in public!"
"And what makes you think I’d let you? I’d kill any man I caught ogling you." He winked and slipped his hands around her waist, nuzzling her ear. "But it’s a private beach, remember? There’s nobody else around." Raising his head, he pasted on his best pleading-little-boy expression. "Wear it for me, baby. Please?"
Just as he’d known she would, Amanda crumbled. "Well, okay. I’ll wear it--for you." She tapped his chin with her fingertip. "But you’d better be right, Stetson. I’d be mortified if anybody else saw me."
"A-man-da, trust me. There’re some things I’m not willing to share." He wiggled his eyebrows. "And you in a bikini is a vision for my eyes only."
"Aww, how sweet." Amanda giggled. "Married five years, and you’re still jealous."
"You betcha." He grinned, giving her a pat on the bottom. "Now strip, toots."
She swatted his arm. "You’re incorrigible!"
"Umm-hmm." When she began to unbutton her blouse, he sprawled on the bed and leaned on his elbow. "Mind if I watch?"
A smile played at her lips. "Don’t you usually watch, big fella?" After shucking her blouse, she unzipped her skirt and let it puddle on the floor.
While she shimmied out of her pale-peach underwear, his eyes drank in her beautiful body. The room temperature suddenly felt uncomfortably warm. He grabbed her around the waist and flipped her onto the bed. "I think sun and surf can wait a while longer." His lips closed over hers.
Francine’s eyelids fluttered open. After taking a moment to orient herself, she raised her arms above her head and stretched like a lazy cat. How long had she slept? She glanced at her left wrist. Darn it. She’d forgotten her watch. By the length of the shadows cast by the surrounding trees, she judged it to be early afternoon. She swung her feet to the ground, scanning the area for Scooter. He was nowhere in sight. Oh, for heaven’s sake.
Cupping her hands around her mouth, she shouted, "Scooter! Here, boy! Come on, time to go home." She cocked her head and listened for a response.
Where could that blasted creature have disappeared to? She threw up her hands and expelled an exasperated breath. If he thought he could play games with Francine Desmond . . . "Scooter! I’m in no mood for hide and seek. Come here, right now!"
A seed of panic sprouted and grew. What if he’d wandered to the road? Oh, my God. Her heart hammered in her chest. "Calm down, Francine. No use imagining the worst." She sucked in measured breaths, willing her pulse to stop racing. He was probably off in the woods, chasing a rabbit or squirrel, or whatever dogs chased in the country. She was a trained agent, capable of tracking down assassins, gunrunners, and drug smugglers. Surely, she could find a dog.
Oh, good grief. The explanation was simple. Scooter had just gotten bored doing whatever he’d been doing and gone home. Her shoulders slumped in relief. She sighed, shaking her head. Either she was still half-asleep, or the sun had fried her brain. She toed into her sandals and stuffed the towel and magazine into her beach bag. Slinging the bag over her shoulder, she picked up the chair and traipsed back up the path to the house. No doubt the animal was asleep on the patio, or under a tree. If not . . . well, then she’d panic.
~ ~ ~ ~
After checking behind every tree, under each shrub, and covering every inch of the yard, Francine entered the foyer and trudged up the stairs to her room. Scooter was nowhere to be found. This could not be happening. Now she had no choice but to search the rest of the grounds, and she certainly wasn’t going to trek through the woods in a bikini. She tugged on her Calvin Kleins and shrugged into a shirt. "God, I need a candy bar."
Why on earth had she agreed to baby-sit a dog?
‘Because you’re an idiot.’
She laced her trusty Nikes, wishing she’d brought hiking boots. But since the only hiking she enjoyed was around a golf course--preferably Hilton Head--she hadn’t expected to need boots. She shuddered. If she saw one snake . . .
Damn. She should’ve brought her gun.
"Never leave home without it."
She bounded down the stairs and out the front door. Offering a silent plea to heaven, she quickened her pace down the path toward the lake. She had to find that mangy mutt.
"Baby, that feels so good," Lee moaned. "Ahhh . . . more . . . mmmph . . . oh, yeah, that’s it . . ."
Amanda shifted her weight, her knees grazing the soft quilt that covered the white sand. "Sweetheart, don’t you think you’ve had enough of this stuff." She worked another gob of suntan lotion into her husband’s shoulders and arms, enjoying the feel of his strong muscles under her hands. "You’re getting kinda slippery." Not that she intended to stop her caresses. She welcomed any opportunity to touch Lee’s gorgeous body.
"Who cares? I’m just enjoying the massage." He raised his head and grinned at her over his shoulder.
"That’s pretty obvious." She leaned over and kissed him. "Do you think Francine and our furry friend are having as much fun as we are?" She scooted onto his thighs and rubbed the creamy liquid over the smooth, hard plains of his back, then trailed her hands down his sides, letting her fingers play along his ribs.
"Hey, no tickling." He squirmed slightly. "Well, she sounded remarkably cheerful the last time I called. So I guess they’re okay."
"You’re not worried, are you?" Amanda frowned. He sounded as doubtful as she felt. Knowing Scooter, Francine might be institutionalized by now.
"Nah, I’m sure they’re fine." He rolled over and pulled her down next to him. "Your turn."
She stretched out on her stomach and folded her arms under her head. He was right. No need to be concerned. Francine was probably lounging by the lake, while Scooter snoozed in the sun. With a contented sigh, she relaxed as Lee’s long, skillful fingers worked their magic.
Plucking twigs from her hair, Francine brushed the dirt from her jeans and dropped into the overstuffed easy chair. She’d searched every foot of the woods, the fields, and the stable. Then she’d tramped down the lane and walked along both sides of the main road for a hundred yards in each direction, looking in ditches and peering into culverts.
She fingered the scratches on her arms and winced. What kind of plant had she rolled into when she stumbled over the root in that forest Lee called an oak grove? She thought only roses had thorns. But that monstrosity was sure as hell no rose bush! With those tentacles, it belonged in a jungle. And her nails! She groaned. Not even Pierre’s best manicurist could repair the damage.
Closing her eyes, she leaned her head against the back of the chair and massaged her temples, longing to soak her aching body in a warm bath--a Jacuzzi would be even better. And she’d sell her soul for chocolate . . . truffles . . . bon-bons . . . eclairs . . .
The clock on the fireplace mantle chimed, jerking her from dreams of chocolate-covered strawberries and double-fudge sundaes.
Oh, dear Lord. She shuddered and buried her head in her hands. How was she going to tell Lee that she’d lost his dog?
He’d kill her.
No, first he’d torture her.
And then he’d kill her.
A shrill sound pierced her vision of slow death at Scarecrow’s hands and jolted her upright. ‘Oh, please, don’t let it be Lee.’ When he’d called this morning, she’d told him everything was hunky dorey. On the fourth ring, she dragged herself to the phone. Might as well face the music. She could always leave the country. Maybe assume a new identity and join the federal witness protection program. Gripping the edge of the table with one hand, she swallowed hard and lifted the receiver to her ear.
"H-h-hello?" she choked out.
"Howdy. This Miz Desmond?" The raspy male voice was definitely not Lee’s.
"Yes." Almost dizzy with relief, she rubbed a shaky hand across her forehead.
"Rufus Dryer here. I live a ways down the road from Mister and Missus Stetson. Been tryin’ to call ye for a while now."
"I . . . I was out, Mr. Dryer." This must be the man Lee had said would take care of the horses. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, ye wouldn’t happen to be missin’ a dawg, would ye?" His amused snicker sounded more like a cackle.
"Oh, my God!" she gasped. "Scooter! Have you seen him?"
"Yes’um. I was over to Lee’s place, feedin’ the horses. Seems Scooter decided to hitch a ride in the back of my pickup. He crawled under the tarp, and I didn’t find him till I got home. He’s here with me."
Francine swayed against the table, squeezing her eyes shut for a moment. "Oh, thank God. Mr. Dryer, if you’ll give me your address, I’ll come and get him right now." She grabbed a notepad and pen and scribbled down the directions. "Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ll be right there." She snatched her purse from the coffee table and bolted out the front door to her car. Lee wouldn’t kill her after all. No need to hide from him for the rest of her life. But as for Scooter’s future . . . Clenching her teeth, she rammed the car into gear and peeled down the lane to the highway.
~ ~ ~ ~
After parking her red Mercedes coupe in front of the white bungalow, Francine ran toward the house. When she reached the front porch, the door opened, and a character straight out of the nineteenth century emerged. She halted in her tracks, her eyes widening. A short, plump man in his late sixties to early seventies, wearing bib overalls, worn hobnailed boots, and a straw hat with the brim pulled low on his forehead, clumped toward her.
What was the name of that cartoon strip Ernie the Camera liked to read? "Li’l Abner"? This must be the Yokum family patriarch. She clapped her hand over her mouth, smothering a giggle with a cough.
He swept off his hat, revealing grizzled gray hair styled in--of all things--a crew cut. "Ye must be Miz Desmond. I’m Rufus Dryer." He extended a tanned, work-worn hand.
"I’m, um, very pleased to meet you." She placed her hand in his, surprised by the strength of his callused grip. "I can’t thank you enough for finding Scooter. But where is he? Is he all right? He’s not hurt?" She fired off the questions, her voice rising in timbre.
"Now jest calm yerself, little lady, he’s fine. He’s around back, playin’ with Ole Blue."
"Ole Blue?" Francine arched her brow. Now she knew she’d stepped into a hillbilly movie.
"Yes’um. Blue’s my dawg. Best derned coonhound in the ‘Smokies.’ Him and Scooter’s pals. Yep, Lee brings the young feller with him when he comes to order feed fer his horses. I got myself a little feed store over yonder." He waved his hand toward a metal building set back from the road. "I reckon Scooter was missin’ his folks and thought he might find ‘em here." The old man smacked his wrinkled forehead. "Lordy mercy. I’m plumb fergittin’ my manners. Can I offer ye some cider, Miz Desmond?"
"Um, no, thank you. I’m really not thirsty." Francine met his twinkling blue eyes and smiled. It was impossible not to like the old codger. "You’re not from around here, are you, Mr. Dryer?"
"No, ma’am. Tennessee born and bred. Me and my wife moved up here ‘bout five years ago after I retired. Couldn’t do much farmin’ anymore. Rheumatism, ye know." He flexed his left shoulder.
Francine winced inwardly. This was more information than she needed or wanted. She opened her mouth to ask him to produce the renegade pup, but the old man was on a roll.
"And Ethel--Ethel’s my wife--she hankered to be closer to the grandchildren, so we jest sold the farm and packed up the truck. Bought us a few acres." He swiped his plaid shirtsleeve across his brow and pointed to a field of lush grass behind the house. "Grow a little alfalfa to sell to the horse folks ‘round here. Lee’s my best customer." His ruddy features crinkled into a wide grin, showing what looked like a full set of teeth. "Nice boy. Got a real nice wife, too."
She finally interrupted. "Yes, Lee and Amanda are wonderful people. Mr. Dryer, could we--"
"Grandpa!" A teenage girl, with freckles sprinkled across her nose and the reddest hair Francine had ever seen, stuck her head out the door. "Oh, ‘scuse me." The girl wore a pair of cut-off denim shorts and a tank top.
Francine stifled another giggle. This must be "Daisy Mae."
"C’mere, girlie, and say howdy to Miz Desmond." The old geezer grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her forward. "This here’s my granddaughter."
The teen held out a slim hand. "Pleased to meet you."
"Hello, Miss--?" How many more members of the Yokum family would she meet before she could collect Scooter?
"Just call me Daisy," she answered, with a shy smile.
Francine sighed. "Mr. Dryer, I hate to rush you, but it’s getting late. So if I could just get Scooter . . ."
"Acourse, ma’am. Here I am jawin’, and ye must be frettin’ ‘bout the pup. I’ll jest go fetch him fer ye." He shuffled around the corner of the house.
Daisy stepped closer. "You must be a real good friend of the Stetsons. Whenever I visit Grandpa and Granny, I go over to their place with Grandpa ever chance I get. Just for a look at Mr. Stetson. He’s a real hottie."
"Hottie?" Francine raised her eyebrows.
"Oh, yeah. A real hotsy Hottentot hottie." With a dramatic sigh, Daisy placed her hands over her heart and rolled her green eyes heavenward.
Francine almost choked. Lee Stetson strikes again. Even teenage yokels fell for the man!
Mr. Dryer ambled into view, with Scooter frolicking behind him. "Well, here ye are, ma’am. As ye can see, he’s finer a frog hair split seventeen ways."
"He’s soaking wet!" she gasped. She was not going to put that dripping brute in her new car! ‘Oh, to hell with it. Just get out of Hooterville and go home.’ If she ever escaped from the boondocks, she’d take the car to a garage and have it detailed.
"Well, I haul manure in the back of my pickup fer fertilizer. I reckoned Scooter was a mite gamey, so I hosed him off fer ye." The old man frowned and scratched his head. "But he ain’t quite dry yet."
Francine swallowed a groan. She’d have the car detailed and fumigated.
"Never mind. He’s fine. I’ll, um, take care of him when we get home." When she opened the car door, Scooter hopped in and immediately shook himself, spraying droplets of water on the upholstery. Francine cringed. Lee was going to pay in blood for this. She scurried around the car and slid into the driver’s seat, wrinkling her nose at the smell of wet dog. Once she had this monster dry, he’d get a spritz of Amanda’s best perfume. Well, she certainly wasn’t using her own "De Tout Coeur"!
"No need to rush off. Me and Ethel’d be right pleased if ye’d stay and take supper with us."
"Some other time, Mr. Dryer, but thanks for the invitation. I really need to get this mut--get Scooter home and cleaned up. And thank you again. I’m very grateful." She started the car and stepped on the gas, leaving Hooterville and the Yokums in her dust.
"Oh, ho, ho! You’re gonna pay for that, babe. Dunk me, will you?" Lee dove under the billowing spray and surfaced behind his wife. Seizing her shoulders, he baptized her in the frothy surf.
She came up sputtering and wiggled out of his arms. "No, you don’t, Stetson!" She doused his head again and shoved him back into the waves, then kicked toward the shore. "Race ya!"
"You little devil!" Grinning, he gave her enough of a head start to make it interesting and swam after her, pulling through the tide with strong strokes. Catching her as she waded through the breakers, he swung her up in his arms and carried her ashore. When he set her down, she dodged around him and ran across the beach, whooping with laughter. He sprinted after her and captured her around the waist just as she reached the picnic basket. Tugging her down onto the sand, he tickled her unmercifully.
"Uncle! Uncle!" Helpless with giggles, Amanda squealed and squirmed under him.
"That’ll teach you to mess with the senior agent." After one last tickle, he rolled them both onto the quilt and settled her on top of him, brushing the sand from her hair. "Despite your wicked ways, Mrs. Stetson, it’s been a great vacation. Too bad it’s almost over."
She snuggled her head against his shoulder and sighed. "Yeah. But I’m getting kinda homesick, anyway."
"Me, too. Guess I’m not the world traveler I used to be. It’ll be good to get home." And he was a little worried about Francine. She’d sounded a bit frazzled when he called last night. They might find themselves minus a friend when they returned.
"Lee Stetson--homebody." She raised her head and smiled down at him. "You must be getting old, big fella."
"Oh, yeah?" Shifting to his side, he untied her bikini strings and yanked the flimsy material off her body. "I’ll show you who’s old." He tossed the swimsuit over his shoulder and pushed her onto her back.
"Lee!" Amanda grabbed for the edge of the quilt. "We’re gonna get caught yet! I just know the people in that helicopter saw us yesterday. We can’t do this out in the open anymore."
"Wanna bet?" He winked and grasped her hands, holding them over her head. "Besides, they weren’t close enough to see anything. Unless it was my rear end." When he’d heard the distinct whir of chopper blades, Lee had instinctively covered Amanda’s body with his own.
"Well, you do have some very nice dimples there." Twisting her hands free, she grinned and danced her fingers down his back. "There couldn’t have been any women on board, though. Or they would’ve landed and had their way with you."
"Very funny, toots. But my wife’s a pretty tough cookie, you know. She’d protect me from any sex-crazed females." He smiled against her mouth before claiming her lips.
"Ooooh, Your Highness, you’re such a devil." Francine giggled and burrowed deeper into the downy pillow. "Mmmm, Chuckie, that tickles." She squirmed, swiping at the moist tongue caressing her ear and cheek. Her fingers grazed something wet--and cold! She jerked straight up in bed, yanking the sleeping mask off her eyes. When her gaze fell on a furry head and lolling tongue, she scrambled to the far side of the bed, scrubbing her hands over her face.
"Ewww! Oh, you beast!" She rolled out of bed, grabbing a wad of Kleenex from the box on the bedside table. "How dare you!" She rubbed her face and ear with the tissues. What a hell of a way to wake up!
Scooter wagged his tail and hopped off the bed. Halfway to the door, he stopped and looked back at her, whining and wiggling.
"Oh, all right, I’m coming. I don’t know why you can’t just flush." Pulling on her robe, she followed the dog down the stairs and let him out the back door. After starting the coffeemaker, she headed back to her room to dress--and wash off the dog drool.
~ ~ ~ ~
Francine poked her head out the door, scanning the backyard for her "cross to bear." In the time it had taken her to shower, apply her make-up, and style her hair, Scooter could be halfway to Rockville. Well, she certainly couldn’t skimp on her appearance, could she? Not that there was anyone in this God-forsaken place to notice. She spotted him pawing at something near the grape arbor. Fine. As long as he wasn’t running off to who knows where, she’d just leave him alone.
Sipping her coffee, Francine wandered into the living room and riffled the magazine rack. She threw down one magazine after another in disgust. Didn’t Amanda read anything except "Ladies Home Journal"? Oh, yes. She read "Home and Garden." Bad enough she couldn’t watch TV--thanks to the Scooter-severed cable. Not that she was into soap operas and game shows anyway.
And after the other day--when Scooter jumped in the water with her and ripped off her bikini top--she could forget about sunbathing or swimming. Remembering the debacle, she felt the heat flood her cheeks. She hoped she’d never have to face Mr. Dryer again. Not after he’d seen her chasing that hairy thief around the lake. When she spied the old man standing behind the stable, with his mouth hanging open and his eyes practically bugging out of his head, she gave up the pursuit and fled back to the house. But not before catching the look on his face when the dog deposited her bikini top at his feet. She cringed and drained her coffee cup. Heavens, she’d never been so mortified in her life!
She sauntered over to the bookcase and grimaced at the paltry collection of reading material. After scouring the shelves of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and home repair manuals, she plucked out a book with the charming title "Love’s Fatal Attraction." A muscle-bound hunk gazed back at her from the cover. Dotty West must still be reading those tawdry romance novels. Well, it was better than staring at the walls. She curled up on the sofa and was soon engrossed in the steamy fiction.
~ ~ ~ ~
With a dreamy little sigh, Francine closed the book and laid it on the coffee table. She only knew one man who even came close to the sexy hero in the novel. And he was married to one of her dearest friends. Who would’ve imagined that an Arlington housewife could tame the intrepid Scarecrow? Flicking a speck of lint off her sleeve, she glanced at her watch and gasped.
Oh, my God. Scooter!
She vaulted from the sofa and streaked through the house and out the back door. Spying the dog at the far end of the yard, curled up under the spreading branches of a tree, she breathed a sigh of relief and then wrinkled her nose. Phew! What was that inky stuff seeping out of the ground? She tiptoed closer. "Aaaieeeeee!"
As she jumped back, her heel caught the edge of something hard, round, and slick. The object rolled under her foot, and she landed on her derriere with a slushy splat. Slipping and sliding in the loose soil and sodden grass, she struggled to her feet, while the goo crawled toward her.
Barking furiously, Scooter galloped across the yard to her side. When she took a good look at him, she screamed again. The dog tucked his tail between his legs and scrabbled under the patio table.
No way in hell could she handle this! It was almost time for her country bumpkin friend to feed the horses. She dashed down the driveway to the stable, praying that Mr. Dryer would be there.
Francine paced in front of the corral, twisting her hands together and checking her watch every two minutes. Damn it, where was he? At last, an ancient truck rattled up the lane and sputtered to a stop. Before the old man stepped onto the ground, she was at his side, clutching his arm and yanking him out of the truck.
"What in tarnation!" He hobbled behind her as she dragged him to the house. "Slow down, missy. I ain’t near as spry as I used to be."
Loosening her death grip on his arm, she whirled to face him. "Mr. Dryer, please, you have to help me!" Her voice rose to a high-pitched squeak. "Something awful has happened!" While the old codger huffed and puffed, Francine fidgeted from one foot to the other, waiting for him to catch his breath. She was just about ready to pull her hair out--regardless of its impeccable style--when he straightened and wiped his face with a red bandana.
His nose twitched, and his gaze shifted from her face to her clothes. He blinked and took a half-step back. "Well, I got to say ye look like ye been rode hard and put up wet. But before ye go gittin’ the vapors, jest calm down and tell me what’s got ye so het up. Ain’t nuttin happened to the pup, has thar?"
The pup? He was worried about the pup?
Her already splintered nerves finally shattered. She stamped her foot on the ground, laughing hysterically. "Sc-Sc-Scooter? Oh, he’s just great!" Francine threw up her hands. "Sure he is. Fine and dandy! Nothing wrong with THAT beast! Ohhhh, noooo." Garbled words babbled from her lips. "But after what that . . . that . . . that DEMON unleashed from the gates of HELL did . . . well, he won’t be fine for long," she ground out through gritted teeth.
She stomped in circles, wringing her hands. Veering to a stop in front of the old man, she grabbed his suspenders and shook him. "And . . . do . . . you . . . know . . . why?" With each word, her voice rose higher and louder, until it reached a shriek. "Because I’m going to KILL him with my bare hands. I know eighteen ways to kill! Did you know that, Mr. Dryer? Did you?" She shook him again and released his suspenders with a snap. "Hi-ee-yaaa!" Her hands slicing the air with karate chops, she goose-stepped back and forth, glaring at him.
He backed away, a horrified look on his weathered face. "Now, m-m-missy . . ." He faltered, then drew himself up to his full height and squared his shoulders. "Ye best calm yerself, before ye blow a gasket, and tell me what the trouble is, or I cain’t help ye." On her next pass, he snagged Francine by her arms and held her still, until she stopped shaking and her breathing steadied
"I . . . I’m sorry." She sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I didn’t mean to lose it like that. But th-there’s shit oozing all over the backyard!" Wrapping her arms around her torso, she shuddered, staring at her feet.
"Miz Desmond, I reckon we’d better see what kinda consarned muddle yer blabberin’ ‘bout." He took her arm and led her around the house.
When they came into view of the putrid gunk, snaking its way across the grass, the old man slapped his thigh and sniggered. "Well, I’ll be danged. Looks like Scooter’s dug up the sewage line again."
Francine did a double take. "What . . . what do you mean again? Nobody warned me that mutt was a canine SHOVEL!" she yelled, bobbing up and down on her toes. She covered her face with her hands and groaned. "This is just too much." She shook her fists in the air. "Too much!"
"Now, now, missy, jest git ahold of yerself. No need to go gittin’ yer bowels in a uproar."
Slack-jawed and wide-eyed, she gaped at him. What did he just say?
His ruddy cheeks flushed a shade redder. "Beg pardon, ma’am." He touched his index finger to the brim of his hat. "But this ain’t nuttin to git all flibbertigibbet ‘bout. Scooter’s dug up the pipe before. It’s jest thick rubber, so t’aint hard fer him to do. Ought to use steel, if ye ask me." His brow puckered. "As I recollect, last time it happened, Lee called that thar Roto-Rooter place, and them boys hustled right out and fixed ‘er up in no time atall. I reckon he’s got their number writ down in the telyphone book."
Francine spun on her heel and raced into the kitchen. Finding nothing next to the phone, except that damn blackboard, she pounded her fist on the countertop. Where would Amanda keep the telephone book? She clawed through the cabinet drawers, flinging utensils over her shoulder, and finally located the directory nesting on top of a cookbook. Flipping through the "yellow pages," she skimmed her fingertip down the listings under R. Yes! There it was--Roto-Rooter--written in large square letters. She snatched the phone off the wall and punched in the number.
~ ~ ~ ~
Francine staggered into the living room and collapsed on the couch. Her clothes were filthy; her hair was a disaster. And she didn’t care. Stretching out on the sofa cushions, she groaned and gingerly placed the icepack on her throbbing forehead. Oh, Lord. This had been one of the worst days of her life. No, it had been one of the worst weeks of her life. Compared to this nightmare, her capture by the KGB six years ago had been a walk in the park!
After what seemed like an eternity of roaring bulldozers and grinding trucks, the broken pipe had been replaced, and the mucky lagoon cleaned up. Though it would take days for the stench to dissipate. She’d almost tossed her cookies more than once during the ordeal. But now all of the plumber’s heavy equipment had lumbered down the lane. And it was over. Finally over.
Thank God in heaven Lee and Amanda would be home tomorrow. She would never survive another day in this purgatory with that devil in dog’s clothing. Mr. Dryer--bless him--had taken pity on her and bathed Scooter before he left. She sneered at the hound from hell, lying in front of the fireplace and snoring as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Why should he? That fiendish villain got his jollies from making her life miserable.
Oh, how she longed for her luxurious apartment . . . for her Jacuzzi . . . for dinner at the Blue Fox . . . Even the Agency would be a soothing balm to her tattered spirit. At least there it was safe. Clutching the icepack to her head, she hauled herself to her feet and plodded up the stairs to shower and then pack. When Lee and Amanda arrived, she planned to be waiting at the front door. The sooner she waved goodbye to this place and that wretched mutt, the better.
"Home, sweet home," Lee muttered. Running his hand through his hair, he scuffed the toe of his shoe against the mound of loosely packed dirt that covered the new sewage pipe. Scooter’s last excavation project hadn’t been this extensive. He scowled at the four-legged ditch-digger, cozied next to an oak tree with a rawhide bone clamped in his teeth. When Amanda saw the bill for this job . . . Well, he’d just make sure she never saw it. What she didn’t know wouldn’t give her a coronary.
Hoping the local landscaper had plenty of sod in stock, Lee shoved his hands in his pockets and joined his wife, slouched in a chair on the patio. As his shoes scraped the pebbly surface, he studied the inlaid tile on the patio floor. Maybe there was a better solution. "Honey, how would you like one of those decorative sidewalks laid over the drainage line?"
Amanda removed the clothespin from her nose. "The stone-patterned ones are pretty. Nice and solid, too. He couldn’t dig through stone, could he?" She grimaced, tossing Scooter a skeptical look.
"We’ll run a couple of those concrete edgings alongside it. Just to be safe." Though he wouldn’t put it past the hairy hooligan to dig through solid steel.
"Right now I’m more worried about Francine." She chewed on her lower lip. "Do you think she’ll ever speak to us again?"
"Oh, yeah. She’ll get over it. Eventually." He hoped. But he’d never mention Monte Carlo again. And it might be a good idea to give her some space for a few days . . . or weeks . . . perhaps months . . .
Amanda sighed. "After the way she tore out of here, I’m not so sure."
Neither was he. And though he was more than willing to pay Francine’s dry cleaning bill, he hadn’t quite understood her irate demand for a new Ralph Lauren bikini. Oh, man. It would take a mountain of chocolate and brownies to pacify their friend. Better throw in a couple of dozen roses, too.
"Just give her time. She’ll come around. Let’s go inside and get away from this smell." Clasping his wife’s hand, he pulled her to her feet and turned to call Scooter. The dog was no longer under the tree. "Now where the hell did he go?"
"Lee!" Amanda stiffened and pointed behind him.
He wheeled to find the canine wrecking machine scratching in the fresh dirt. "Damn it, Scooter, don’t even think about it!" When Lee clapped his hands together, Scooter paused in mid-dig and cocked his ears. "Get your hairy ass over here!"
"Sweetheart, maybe you should . . . " Amanda waved her hand toward the stretch of bare earth.
"Yeah. I’ll call the landscaper, first thing in the morning." It would be a long time before they took another vacation without their furry friend. Looking back at the yard, Lee winced and shoved his fingers through his hair. Hell, it would a long time before they could afford another vacation, period. With Scooter prancing beside him, he followed his wife into the house.