It had been almost two months, still no Richard. Eating alone in the dining room had grown old in a hurry. Amber had taken to having her meals served in her bedroom.
She missed Richard so much. Wetap was nice, but lacked its special atmosphere without him. Richard was the real 'wonder' in wonderland.
It was easy to see the employees felt his absence also. Maria had been absolutely right, everyone at Wetap benefited from sharing in Richard's zest for life.
Although Maria treated her well and saw to her every need, Amber detected a slight coolness in Maria's manner. She didn't know if it was something new or just an attitude Maria had kept in check while in Richard's presence.
Confronting Maria one day, Amber pleaded, "Maria, when is Richard coming home?"
With a hard stare, Maria replied, "Amber he will be home when he comes home."
Amber implored, "Didn't he give anyone his itinerary?"
Maria shrugged her shoulders. "Sorry, Richard has never to my knowledge told anyone where he is going or when he will return. Wetap is set up to be fully self-sufficient, so he could be gone indefinitely."
Tears started flowing down Amber's cheeks just before she buried her face in her hands. "I need to talk to him, I miss him so much, Maria," with a slight sob Amber begged, "is there no way to contact him."
Maria, in spite of her hard feelings held out her arms as Amber literally fell into them, sobbing on Maria's shoulder. "Amber, what is it, what has you so upset? Do you need anything? Is there something wrong at school?"
Before Amber could speak, Maria guided her to a sofa and made her sit as she joined her. Holding Amber's hands in a comforting gesture, she insisted, "Now, tell me what's bothering you."
Still crying, Amber sniffed, "I just miss him so much, I'm so lonely without him. He's my best friend, Maria... he's my only friend. I just wish he would come home."
Maria raised her eyebrows in a 'should I tell or should I not' look. Taking a deep breath, she slowly let it out, "Amber." As Amber looked at her, she continued, "I don't think Richard is coming home."
Clearly in an 'I don't understand what you said' voice, Amber entreated, "What do you mean?"
Maria sighed with resignation, "Just what I said, I don't really think Richard wants to return to Wetap."
A confused Amber half screeched, "Why would he not come back? This is his home, he loves it here. His friends... who are his only family are here. I don't understand what you mean." She franticly inquired, "Oh God, nothing's happened to him has it? He's not injured or hurt is he?"
With slight bitterness in her voice Maria continued, "Amber, the only injury and hurt Richard suffered was the broken heart he left here with. Right now, I think Wetap only represents emotional pain to him."
Amber was completely confused, "Broken hearted, how could he be broken hearted? He wasn't dating anyone I know of."
Maria sat for a few moments studying Amber's face, looking for something that wasn't there. Astounded, Maria said, "You really don't have a clue, do you?"
An uncomprehending Amber flatly asked, "What Maria... what?"
"Amber, the woman Richard loved broke his heart. It's a story as old as time itself." Maria said with deep sorrow.
"But how?" Amber questioned. "Maria I never even knew he was dating or seeing anyone. How could she not love him, he's perfect. I can't imagine a woman not dying to have his love or wanting to spend her life with him. He's like the perfect female fantasy. He embodies everything a woman looks for in a man. She has to be the stupidest bitch alive, that's all I can say."
A totally shocked Maria sat staring at Amber. With a bewildered look on her face, Maria replied, "I fully agree."
Amber continued, "I really don't understand how he could have been dating. He was spending every available moment I know of with me, teaching, helping me expand my knowledge. When was he able to find time for anyone else? How could he keep it a secret from me? I thought for the last two years I was virtually his sole project, I thought he was totally devoted to meeeee...."
Amber froze, looked in Maria's eyes, and suddenly she knew. "Oh my God, noo... nooo, it can't be."
Maria nodded 'yes' as she watched fresh tears roll down Amber's face which was now loaded with unwanted understanding. 'Now I know what they mean when they say, "Ignorance is bliss," Maria thought to herself.
"Maria, it can't be, it just can't. I'm nobody; he picked me up off the streets. He can have any woman in the world. One with money, education, world travel, international savvy, sophistication, class, what do I have to offer? Nothing." Amber was trying to convince herself Maria had to be wrong, but she knew in her heart she wasn't.
Maria asked, "You spent two years with Richard, what did you learn about him and the people around him?"
Half sobbing, Amber confessed, "All the things I just mentioned mean nothing to him, he loves and appreciates people for themselves. He cares more about a person's character than anything else. Maria, how could I have been so blind, how could I have not seen it."
With a sympathetic smile, Maria replied, "I don't know, I saw it the first night he brought you home. Other than employees, Richard had never brought a female into this house before. We were all in shock when we laid eyes on you for the first time. Of all the women in the world to choose from, you were a 'sight.' But I knew the moment his eyes fell on you we were in trouble if the dirt, grease, and grime went further than skin deep. I had never seen his eyes hold so much love for an individual before."
"Love, you can't actually mean he was in love with me that first night?" Amber pondered a moment before continuing. "Oh Maria," Amber's voice quivered. "If that's true, no wonder I never noticed a change in the way he looked, acted, or treated me. I didn't have any thing to compare it to." Amber continued dejectedly, "The last thing I ever expected was for him to be able to love me."
Maria had to ask, "Would it have made any difference if you had known?"
"God yes, I truly never dreamed he could really love me, I would die for him. I would indenture myself for all eternity to have his love. Oh Maria, you have to help me find a way to contact him, we can't let him suffer without knowing. God what have I done?" Shaking from nervous hyperventilation, Amber was almost on the verge of collapsing.
"Take a deep breath and hold it," Maria directed her, "now another." After a few minutes, she got Amber calm enough to continue.
Maria had to ask, "What about you and Raoul?"
Amber looked shocked, "There was never anything between Raoul and me. It was just young foolish stupidity. Maria, you have to believe me, nothing ever happened. I'm not denying it would have if Richard hadn't interrupted us that night, but it was just my own curious libido at work. Every day I thank God that Richard walked in on us before anything happened."
Maria looked truly shocked, "What do you mean 'Richard walked in on you'?"
"Didn't Richard tell you? How did you know I had broken his heart if he didn't tell you?" Amber was puzzled.
"Well I hate to tell you, Richard is too much of a gentleman to ever repeat or tell such a thing. Raoul on the other hand, went bragging all over about how he had gotten into the pants of the boss's private stock." Maria informed her.
With her face beet red, Amber protested, "Maria, I swear, he never...we never did a thing except end up naked in bed together, that's when Richard walked in on us. Afterwards I threw Raoul out and went to talk to Richard. I almost did do it a few days later, but Richard stopped me again."
Maria looked absolutely bewildered, "Stopped you, how? He wasn't here."
Amber looked a little embarrassed as she told Maria about the mobile home key and how close she came again to ruining her life. Then she told Maria about how Richard's words came home to haunt her, making her face the stupidity of her actions.
Maria tried her best to stifle her laughter. She looked Amber straight in the eye and said, "I think something else occurred at that moment. You finally realized you were in love with Richard and couldn't bring yourself to cheat on that love."
Amber sought Maria's years of wisdom when she inquired, "Maria, what now? Maybe it would be best if I left Wetap, that way Richard could return home. It's not right that I am here and he feels forced away from the home he loves so much. Especially by a girl who I'm sure he no longer considers a lady. I know he believes the worst of me."
Maria looked at her and said with conviction, "Amber, you are a true lady, I'll vouch for that and I'd better not hear anyone say different, that goes for Richard too.
What you do now is wait for Richard to return. In the meantime you continue your schooling, your studies, and to expand your horizons. This will prove your love and appreciation to him by accomplishing all the things he would have you do if he was here.
You prepare yourself and pray for that day... the day you will hopefully get the opportunity to speak to him again. In addition you keep faith, things will work out for the best."
"Maria, I can do all that, but I can't continue to do it alone, I have to have someone to talk to." Amber desperately pleaded.
Maria chuckled, "Starting today you are eating in the dining room again, my family and I will be joining you there for every meal. You won't be alone Miss Amber, and we'll all be praying that Richard returns soon."
Amber's jaw muscles clinched, "Maria, I would love to go riding, but I'm ashamed to face Raoul, the truth is, I don't really want to see him. Especially after what you've told me he's been saying behind my back. I still can't believe he is that big of an asshole." Amber said through gritted teeth.
A smiling Maria said, "I see you haven't been out and about for awhile. Raoul was fired just a few days after Richard left."
A shocked and surprised Amber quipped, "Not that I will miss him, but I can't believe Richard fired Raoul over what happened, that just doesn't sound like Richard."
Maria laughed out loud, "You understand the man you love better than you know. Richard wouldn't have fired Raoul, but I would... and I did."
It was Amber's turn to laugh as she was able, for the first time, to understand the full extent of Maria's power and authority at Wetap. It extended a lot farther than just being 'head of the household staff.' Maria was evidently the acting 'head mistress' of the entire estate.
After their talk, Amber felt a little more relieved, but still guilt ridden. It was entirely her fault as far as she was concerned. She didn't feel right about staying at Wetap if it forced Richard away. There was an alternative, the mobile home, she could stay there and still continue her studies.
Unable to find the key after searching the desk thoroughly, a puzzled Amber finally gave up. There was no one to ask, Maria wouldn't understand or allow her to leave if she could stop her.
Resigning herself to the only viable option, Amber returned to her room. She would stay and do her best to make Richard as proud of her as possible under the circumstances.
After changing clothes, Amber went riding for the first time since Richard left. It would have been much more enjoyable had he been with her.
It was a miserable two years, only because Richard never returned. Amber was at the point of wondering if he ever would.
With Maria's friendship, Amber made it through Richard's self imposed exile. She finished her education and today was her graduation. Her final prayer was that Richard would be there to see it. He had to be, it was her last hope of ever seeing him again.
Her mind was made up, if he didn't show today; she would pack tonight, leave Wetap tomorrow, and give up any hope of ever having Richard's love again. Without Richard, she knew she wouldn't be living at Wetap, only existing.
The graduation was held outdoors with the students seated beside a podium which in turn was constructed in front of a set of bleachers. The graduation ceremony would have the students walk up onto the stage, receive their diplomas then take a seat in the bleachers, facing the audience.
Amber loved this setup. After she received her diploma, it would give her plenty of time to search the audience, looking for Richard. He just had to be there.
As the graduates received their diplomas individually, several had large groups, consisting of family and friends who were there to show their love and support. Many of these groups couldn't resist a loud rousing display of emotional pride for their loved one as their name was announced and they crossed the podium to receive their diploma. Amber thought that was fantastic. Even though she had no one, she was happy for the others.
When her name was announced, Amber started across the stage and almost froze when the loudest uproar of cheering, clapping and whistles resounded from the audience. Red faced, she shook the one hand of congratulations that was offered and took the diploma from the other before making a bee line to her assigned seat.
Amber immediately spotted Maria, along with most of the other employees, seated together in the fourth row. It was amazing; she never realized how many there were until they were all together. They took up the entire row, looking at her and smiling. Her heart melted as some gave her a thumbs up when she locked eyes with them.
Amber felt so proud, it was all due to Richard. None of this would have happened if his smile hadn't convinced her to join him that night in the restaurant.
'Oh my God' she thought, it's not possible. There in the fifth row was Joseph with several of the waiters she had come to know over the last few years from the restaurant.
When she spotted them, they all clapped and, even though seated, bowed to her. She couldn't stop the tears from falling.
How her life had changed since that first night. Richard had been correct as usual, Joseph was 'the greatest' maitre d' she ever had or would have the pleasure to meet.
Her eyes continued to sweep the audience, 'Oh please be there Richard, oh please, oh please,' her heart pleaded.
"THERE HE IS," she actually shouted before she was able to slap her hand over her mouth. She was literally bouncing up and down in her seat as she pointed at Richard. Barely able to control herself, she wanted to run, jump off the stage, and grab Richard before he could disappear from her life again.
She had spotted him sitting beside Daryl in the third row from the rear. Her heart melted as their eyes met after she had shouted. Richard smiled, not a big one, but an amused one over her apparent excitement.
Richard was slightly embarrassed when the heads in the fourth row and part of the fifth pivoted at the same time, searching for him. They knew immediately who Amber meant when she shouted, "There he is."
It had been so long for them; they truly loved and missed Richard. Several stood to look for him, including Maria.
Richard slumped a little in his chair; Daryl chuckled and waved. You could hear the murmur as those standing located Richard. At that point he sat up tall. Thanks to Daryl, no sense trying to hide any longer.
As the ceremony ended, he elbowed Daryl and said, "Let's go."
Richard was hemmed in by Daryl, who was hemmed in by a throng of people. It didn't seem to Richard as though Daryl was making much of an effort to move forward. He wondered, 'Is Daryl purposely stalling, using the crowd as an excuse not to let me make a hasty retreat?' He let out a deep sigh as they stood, waiting for a break in the crowd.
Amber could see Richard planned to leave. She had to talk to him, tell him everything; she had to stop him before he disappeared from her life again. "NO DAMN IT," she shouted in loud exasperation, "I've waited too long for this."
Everyone looked up, including Richard as Amber pushed and shoved her way down the bleachers and across the stage. It was a desperate young lady working her way rapidly around the clutch of people gathered on the stage as she headed for the stairs. Amber was too close to the edge when her high heel caused her ankle to give way and her momentum propelled her over the edge of the stage.
"AMBER," Richard shouted as the crowd gasped, watching her arms flailing in panic as she started her fall. Using his cane as an advance wedge, Richard franticly shoved through the crowd fighting his way to Amber.
His heart seemed to stop, he would die if she were hurt.
When Richard finally breached the gathering crowd, Amber was lying on the ground surrounded by a group of Wetap employees including Maria. They had been closer and rushed to check on her.
As Richard emerged from the crowd, they automatically made room for him at her side. Dropping to his knees, he could see her eyes were open, not showing any pain, just confusion.
As he reached for her hand, Amber bolted upright into a sitting position and grabbed hold of his jacket lapels. Her grip was so tight her knuckles turned white. As they stared lovingly into each other's eyes, he asked, "Are you alright."
"Now I am, oh...you mean the fall? Yes, several people threw out their arms trying to catch me; evidently it was enough to break my fall. I might have a slightly bruised hip, but that's all," she replied, still keeping a vice grip on his lapels.
"Well, I wanted to see you graduate and offer my congratulations, but now I must go, I have some appointments to keep," he said.
Through clinched teeth, she very firmly scolded, "NO... I mean it, NO! That's not going to happen."
A surprised Richard said, "But I have to keep these appointments."
"NO," she rasped, "you have to keep a long overdue appointment with me first. I've waited two years for this moment and I'm not letting go until we talk."
Richard glanced helplessly up at Maria. She smiled and shrugged her shoulders as she informed him, "This is her turf. She's boss here. Take it up with her," Maria chuckled.
As he resigned himself to the fact Amber wasn't going to let go until they talked, he helped her to her feet. Then he suggested, "How about we work our way to the limo where we can have some privacy?"
Richard took a step in the direction of the limo and Amber moved with him. He believed this might work in spite of the fact she wouldn't let go of his lapels.
Daryl led the way, parting the thinning crowd in front of them. Richard noticed they were getting several strange stares, but Amber wasn't taking her eyes off him nor her hands from his lapels. He wondered if he would ever be able to get the lapels to lay flat again.
Once they reached the limo, Daryl opened the door. As they stood outside, Richard said, "Unless you let go, getting into the limo is going to be very difficult."
Amber shook her head 'no,' then began backing into the limo making Richard bend and follow her in. From what everyone could see, it appeared as though she was pulling him in behind her.
Daryl chuckled out loud, thinking to himself, 'This ought to be very interesting. Wish I could be 'a fly on the wall' during this conversation.'
Instead, he did his job, standing guard with his hands clasped in front of him, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet outside the limo door. Daryl knew he and the other employees would get the gist of the conversation soon enough. After all, it could only go one of two ways.
Inside the limo Richard looked at Amber, "Okay, now we can talk." Being a male, he knew what was coming next; damn this is what he hated about talking to a female.