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She sat alone. Her table was on the patio where she could
see the cars as they pulled into the restaurant parking
lot. She waited for him and wondered what to expect.
She didn't have to wait long. His black Jeep pulled into
the parking lot and found the first available space. His
eyes were searching the patio even as he approached, and he
found her easily. She smiled and returned his wave, then
watched him duck around the corner toward the entrance.
He looked good, she decided. A far cry from the he'd
been when she'd first ushered him into her office. That
man had shuffled along, shoulders slumped, head down, as if
waiting for the next blow to land. His voice had been flat
and subdued, his handshake weak; his whole being, from the
fifty pounds of excess weight around his waist to the
chronic sigh that punctuated his speech, proclaimed him a
man defeated. Now, even in the crowded restaurant, she
could see the spring in his step, the energy in his smile,
the shine in his eyes. And those eyes and that smile were
fixed firmly on her as he half-ran the last few steps to
the table. She rose to meet him in a friendly hug, part of
their tradition since that first meeting.
"It's so good to see you again, Amanda," he said, giving
her an extra squeeze. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting."
"You're ten minutes early, as always," she replied,
allowing him to hold the chair as she sat back down. His
smile was infectious; she found herself almost grinning at
He shrugged and looked at the waiter, who was trying to
hand him a menu. "I'm ready to order now, if you like.
"Why not?" She turned to the waiter and handed him her
menu. "I'll have the chicken and shrimp stir fry and a
bowl of won-ton soup."
"Triple Delight for me," he added. "And lots of iced tea."
The waiter retreated with a friendly nod. Amanda looked
over her companion again. She noted the well-tailored suit
he wore over his trim, lean body; the confident spread of
his shoulders; the quick movement of his eye as he took in
the entire scene around them. And she felt a small rush of
pride at having helped this to become this way.
"So tell me, Ben ... why are we having dinner tonight?"
"I want to show you something." He flashed that infectious
grin again, reached inside his suit jacket, and pulled out
a envelope. She took it from him, removed the
contents, and unfolded them. The first page bore a simple
title in bold, ornate type:
F I N A L D E C R E E O F D I V O R C E
She stopped reading and looked back into his eyes. "Are we
"We are celebrating," he confirmed.
Amanda skimmed the papers, her conscious mind gleaning the
basic structure of the deal, which had been signed 30 days
before. Meanwhile, in the back of her mind, the of
a heavy oak chest bound with chains and locks took shape.
"You got everything you wanted," she noted. "Full custody
of Jenny, the house, no alimony. This is wonderful."
He nodded, his eyes never leaving hers. "Pretty much," he
agreed. "As of today, I'm a free man."
Without thinking, she reached across the table and took his
hand. "I'm so happy for you," she gushed. "Have you
started dating yet?"
An odd look came over his face for a moment, and a tiny
jolt of energy passed between them. "Not yet," he said.
"There's someone I'd like to start seeing, but I've been
waiting for the right time."
Amanda nodded. She wondered if he could sense the racing
of her pulse, her rapid and shallow breathing. Silently,
she willed herself to relax, relax. "Wise," she commended
him, letting herself slip a little bit into therapist mode.
"Too many people rush right into another relationship."
He winked at her. "But I had you," he countered. "And you
taught me the value of delayed gratification."
Delayed gratification, she thought to herself, nodding.
The of my life, it seems.
She remembered again that first meeting. He'd come to her
out of desperation, just picking her name from the phone
book, hoping she could somehow hypnotize him out of the
depression that was draining his life. She spent most of
that first session listening while he told her about how
his wanted him to move out but refused to say why; how
the stress from his job was being compounded by feeling
unwanted in his own home; how, to get brief escapes from it
all, he had been eating and drinking too much and
exercising too little.
Amanda's first instinct had been to send him to a
psychiatrist, to get him evaluated for treatment with
antidepressants. But that wasn't why she'd become a
hypnotherapist; before going down that path, she had to try
every alternative. She listened carefully, looking for the
patterns at the root of it all, looking for a way she could
help. In the end, she took him into hypnosis and gave him
some broad, general suggestions he could use to cope with
stress in more constructive ways; taught him how to use
self-hypnosis to maintain his equilibrium, and to speed up
his thinking when he needed to.
The results surpassed her every expectation. Ben had come
out of that first trance with a broad, relaxed smile on his
face; his eyes took on a sparkle that hadn't been there an
hour before, and he seemed two inches taller when he stood
up to leave than he'd been when he arrived. Amanda saw the
first hints of the Ben could be, and she resolved to
use all of her skills to help that emerge.
There was only one problem: along the way, Amanda found
her clinical detachment waning. This new Ben -- the real
Ben, as she thought of him -- was warm, funny, and vibrant.
Her office felt empty when he left it, and she found
herself letting his sessions drag on as they talked about
any topic under the sun. Her objectivity was gone.
She had tried placing her feelings in her Thought Closet,
where she tucked her attitudes about smoking, illegal
drugs, and other irresponsible behavior. Every therapist
worth his or her salt has such a closet, she knew; a place
to store those attitudes so they won't interfere with
helping the person. But as soon as she tried it, she knew
it wouldn't work -- these feelings were too strong, too
unruly, too dangerous. That was when she first envisioned
the chest. Her mind constructed it, aided by self-
hypnosis, to be strong enough for the job. There she kept
those dangerous feelings locked away, except for those rare
occasions, mostly late at night, when she took them out to
look at them, to learn from them, to let herself feel them
for an hour or two before locking them carefully away
The image of the chest was strong in Amanda's mind as she
and Ben ate their dinner and made small talk. When had she
last seen him professionally? Six months ago? Eight
months? Closer to six, she decided. Was that long enough?
The chest shook, and the locks rattled in their hasps.
Hold on, Amanda, she cautioned herself. He may not be an
active client, but you're still his therapist. There are
"... to get your advice. Amanda?"
Amanda shook her head clear. "I'm sorry, Ben. I zoned out
for a few minutes there."
"Long day?" There was sympathy in his face, and concern.
She blushed a little bit. "Something like that. I'm back
"I was saying that I have a bit of an issue to work out,
and I'd like your advice."
She nodded and reached in her purse for her PDA. "We can
set up an appointment ..."
Ben was shaking his head. "It's not that kind of issue,"
he said, smiling. "It's more of a sit-down-in-the-living-
room-with-a-friend type of issue. Would you consider
coming back to my place after dinner for a while?"
She was intrigued. "Okay," she told him. "I'd like that."
They finished dinner. Ben paid and led her out to the
parking lot. She followed him in her car, even though she
knew the way; it gave her a chance to recollect herself,
while the chest shook and rattled in the back seat.
She pulled into an unreserved parking spot and allowed Ben
to lead her into the building. The last time she'd been
here, she recalled, was when she'd helped him move in. A
full day of laughing and joking as they unpacked boxes,
drinking beer and eating pizza, brushing against each other
in the hallways ... things had almost gotten out of hand
that day, she remembered. But that would have been a
disaster for both of them. Enter the chest, with its
sides and heavy chains and sturdy padlocks.
She noticed Ben looking at her. Reading her mind? "It's a
little better organized now than when you saw it last," he
said, slipping his key into the lock.
He ushered her inside. The living room was clearly ready
for company. It was freshly vacuumed and dusted, with
nothing out of place. There was a black leather sofa and
matching easy chair, a glass-topped coffee table and end
tables, and an open shelf unit featuring a wide-screen
television, a modest stereo, and a reasonable collection of
hardbound books. "Very nice," she approved, remembering
the second-hand futon and orange crates it had originally
been furnished with. Then her eye spotted something
dangling from the ceiling: a teardrop-shaped crystal
suspended on an almost-invisible black string. It hovered
above and just behind the easy chair. "Is that what I
think it is?" she asked, approaching the spot.
He chuckled self-consciously. "That chair is my
sanctuary," he explained. "Try it."
She set her purse down on the coffee table and sat in the
easy chair. He guided her hand to a button located just
under the right armrest; she pressed it and felt the chair
recline back, a footrest rising from under the front to
support her legs. Her body tilted back with the chair
until she found herself looking straight up at the teardrop
Ben reached up, took the crystal in his fingers, and gave
it a spin. "I love to sit here, recline back, and just
relax into my chair, watching the crystal as it spins.
Studying the way the facets catch the light as it spins
first one way, then slowing down, and spinning the other
way. Swaying back and forth, glistening and glinting ...
it's captivating, isn't it? And so relaxing ..." As he
spoke, his voice slowed down.
Amanda found herself staring at the swaying, spinning
crystal. As she heard his voice grow softer and slower,
she found herself wanting to relax and look more deeply
into it. The chair was lovely. Some leather furniture
felt tight and tough, as if the stuffing were trying to
burst out; this leather was soft and yielding, conforming
easily to her body. She felt herself sinking into it,
responding to Ben's voice, relaxing.
She chuckled softly and looked up at Ben, who was also
staring into the crystal. "Are you trying to induce me?"
Ben blinked heavily, shook his head, and looked back down.
"Oh! Sorry ... I just sort of got caught up in it. I've
put myself under so many times that way, it's sort of
"I could hear it in your voice," she replied. "And you
almost took me in with you." Stroking the soft, plush arms
of the chair, she closed her eyes for a moment and sighed.
"It was very tempting. But maybe we should get to what you
wanted to ask me about."
Ben nodded and plopped onto the sofa next to her. His
whole body turned to face Amanda, arms hanging over the
side while he spoke. "You asked if I'd started dating
again. I haven't -- I didn't want to risk giving Julia any
last-minute ammunition, and the one person I might have
been interested in wasn't available either."
Amanda brought the chair upright again. She was leaning
forward, almost copying his body posture only a bit more
relaxed, a bit more in control. "But now she is?"
His shoulders rose in a half-shrug, and he glanced up at
the ceiling before meeting her gaze again. "That's the
issue," he said. "I'm not sure. And I don't know how to
"I see. Has she ever shown any sign of being interested in
"Maybe," he said, his eyes looking off into the distance.
"There was a time or two when she seemed that way. But
then she sort of backed off. At the time I figured it was
just as well, since I was technically still to
Julia." His eyes found hers again. "I don't have to tell
you what that shyster of hers would have been able to do
with a gift like that."
"That's true," she agreed. Julia's predatory lawyer had
been the source of much of Ben's stress.
"So I set the whole thing aside," Ben continued. "Delayed
gratification, as you put it. And now I'm free -- but I
don't know what her status is, or what her feelings might
be, or how to approach her with any of this."
"I see," she said again. Meanwhile, inside her mind, she
struggled to control the emotional tempest within. The
chest was still securely locked, but Amanda found herself
acutely aware of its contents and the massive conflict of
interest before her. She chose her words carefully. "You
could call her up, ask her to dinner. Let her know you're
free, and see how she responds."
"I've done that."
"And?" Relax, she told herself. Stop gripping the chair
He shook his head slowly. "I can't tell. She's friendly,
just like always, but I can't see any sign of anything
"Do you think she's holding back?"
"Maybe," he replied. "But maybe I just want to think that.
It's hard to sort out what I really believe from what I
just hope ... you know what I mean?"
"I know," she assured him, working to keep the bitter truth
of that out of her voice. Her hypnotherapy training had
taught her a lot about voice control. Damned good thing,
too, she reflected, adding a couple of stout steel bands to
the image of the straining chest. That helped; she felt
her ability to detach asserting itself. "You could
continue as you have been," she suggested, "spending time
with her much as you can. In time she will get the message
that you have feelings for her and either respond to it or
He nodded, grimacing slightly. "Is there an 'or' coming?"
She hesitated; it hadn't been in her conscious mind, but
there was an obvious alternative. "Or," she added, meeting
his gaze again, "you might choose to sit her down, take her
by the hand, and tell her how you feel. Go for broke. She
might not give you the response you'd like, but at least
Amanda saw the resolve in Ben's face as she finished and
immediately cursed herself inwardly. What are you doing,
trying to sabotage things so you can take a shot at him
yourself? In that moment she despised herself, the chest
that taunted her from within, and the entire cruel
And then she felt a weight settle on the arm of her chair,
and looked up to see Ben staring down at her. His hands
took and cradled hers, and moisture glinted in his eyes as
he locked them onto hers.
"Amanda," he began, his voice gravelly with pent-up
emotion, "I love you. I've been in love with you for
months, probably since that first day in your office. In
the time we've known each other you've been my confidante,
my sage advisor, and my friend. I owe you more than I can
ever repay, and far more than you've ever asked for. You
taught me the value of patience, of waiting until the time
is right to seek what I want from life. Now I think the
time is right for me to ask: on top of everything else you
already are, will you be my lover?"
Her lips moved, but the words wouldn't come out. The image
of Ben's face hovering over her grew fuzzy as the tears
flowed, but another image came to the front, clear and
sharp as any solid object: a heavy oak chest, with locks
and chains and steel bands falling aside, and the lid
Her arms reached up to find him and pull him down for their