Monday, October 3, 2022
Lauren awoke slowly, pale eyes fluttering against the stripe of early morning sunlight that was managing to sneak through the curtains while the rest of the room was still bathed in the blue, ethereal light of pre-dawn. If the sun was up at all, it was later that Lauren usually woke up. Something was different this morning. And it took her still-hazy brain a long moment to solidly register what that was. No headache for the first time in four days. Thank you, God. In sleepy satisfaction, she grunted and burrowed deeper into a soft feather pillow, allowing her eyes to slide closed.
“You can’t fool me.” Dev snuggled close to Lauren’s back and wrapped an arm tightly around her partner, needing to feel the solid presence of her lover’s compact body to reassure herself that she was safe, and here, and whole. “I know you’re awake.”
Lauren moved away from the warm breath tickling her neck and moaned into her pillow. “Shh,” she murmured softly. “Lauren is still asleep and it’s not morning yet. No matter what the sun says. Go back to sleep.” Wait a minute. Devlyn? Lauren turned her head just a little so that she could take in a breath of cool air. “Aren’t you supposed to be running circles around your agents and the White House track this morning? Don’t tell me you’re missing torture time.”
The hoarse quality of Lauren’s morning voice made Dev smile. “It’s not torture. And I would have been finished running by now anyway. I just didn’t feel like running this morning. I already told Jack to take the agents running without me.” Devlyn swept a strand of Lauren’s hair out of her way and brushed her lips across the warm skin she found there. “You don’t have to get up. You get to laze around in bed all you want. President’s orders,” she said in a no-nonsense voice.
Careful to stay within Devlyn’s embrace, Lauren rolled over and gently kissed a pair of waiting lips as her mind slowly processed what Devlyn was saying. “Morning,” she whispered.
A fond smile curled Dev’s lips and made it all the way to her eyes. “Morning.”
When they parted, Lauren gave Dev a curious look. “When did you call Jack?” I didn’t hear a thing.
A guilty expression swept across Dev’s face. “Umm… I’ve been up for a while,” she admitted reluctantly.
“How long is a while?”
Dev looked away. “I dunno. I just couldn’t sleep. No big deal.”
Lauren bit her tongue. She’s not getting a single night’s peace with those damn nightmares. Those muscle relaxants put me out like a light last night. I didn’t hear a thing. “Rough night, darlin’?”
Dev visibly flinched. “I’m fine. You can go back to sleep.”
Lauren gaze gentled as she saw the panic lurking behind Dev’s eyes. She gave the warm body next to hers a gentle poke. “As much as I’d love to lounge around in bed all day, the doctor said after a couple of days of rest I could go back to work so long as I take it easy, remember?”
“Oh.” Dev looked a little disappointed as she smoothed back a tuft of wild blonde hair. She tried to sound nonchalant, but the words sounded stilted, even to her own ears. “I was thinking of spending the day here at home with you. I… um… I called Jane and had her clear my schedule.” The word “again” was left unspoken, but hung between them as vibrantly as the sunlight now splashing across the bed.
Lauren did her best not to frown. Devlyn hadn’t strayed from her side for more than two minutes at a time since the accident. At first she was more than happy to have any excuse for Devlyn to have a little down time. Now, however, she was starting to believe that Dev watching over her like a hawk had done nothing more than trade one stress for another. “Okay,” she said slowly, not wanting to hurt Devlyn’s feelings but resolving not to let this issue go another day without discussing it.
Dev brushed her knuckles against the downy-fine hairs on Lauren’s cheek. “How’s your head?”
Lauren’s medical test had revealed a concussion, albeit a mild one. “Mmm.” She stretched a little, tugging the sheet up over her pajama-clad hips. “Sore like the rest of me.” A yawn. “Better though. How about you?”
The smile slid from Dev’s face. “I’m fine, Lauren.” Her voice cooled a little. “Just like I said.”
“I can see that.” Lauren noted the faint but clear lines of exhaustion that still ringed her partner’s eyes. She girded her mental loins. “I won’t ignore what’s staring me in the face forever, honey. We need to talk,” she said, but admitted privately that she didn’t have a clue where to start. “Do you want to tell me about the dreams?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she felt Devlyn stiffen in response.
Without warning, Devlyn threw off her covers and jumped out of bed, her feet slapping loudly against the floor. She stalked towards the bathroom, her anger clear from the set of her shoulders. “Nothing to tell,” she said flatly, not bothering to turn around. “I can’t remember them. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”
Lauren opened her mouth to say something just as the bathroom door shut. “Dammit,” she grumbled, tossing off the remainder of her own blankets. “Not this time, Devlyn,” she said loud enough so that she was sure her partner could hear her, even over the running water.
But before Lauren could make it to the bathroom, there was a gentle knock on her door. She stopped and stared back to the nightstand, trying to make out the fuzzy numbers on the clock across the room. She cursed again, spying her glasses on the table next to the clock, and rubbed her eyes with irritated fingers.
“It’s me,” a quiet voice said from behind the door.
“And us,” came two more chorusing voices, both a little louder than their sister’s.
Lauren opened the door and looked down at the children. “What are you guys doing up?” she asked softly. The kids were still in their pajamas, though Aaron, for some unknown reason, was only wearing his bottoms, and they were all sporting various stages of bed head. Lauren’s hand went to her own head, knowing she looked the same, but doubting it was as cute on her. “You don’t have to get up today. Your teachers are at a convention. Remember?” She yawned and stepped aside when all three kids plowed past her and crawled into her and Devlyn’s still-warm bed.
“We know,” Ashley said happily. “But we wanted to get an early start on today.” Despite trying not to, she mirrored Lauren’s yawn.
“You do know what today is?” Aaron asked, giggling as he pulled his mother’s pillow from Christopher’s hands and wrapped himself around it. “Hmm?” Expectantly, twinkling blue eyes fastened on Lauren.
“Gee, I don’t know,” she drew out the words playfully, waiting until all three children were moaning and whining before she gave in. “Ahh… yes,” she finally said. “I seem to remember…” She tapped her chin with one finger. “…Something.”
“Mama!” Ashley cried, very aware she was being teased, but unable to withstand it for another second.
Lauren grinned broadly, as much at the endearment that still sounded new and exciting as the teasing. “I remember, evil ones. We’re off to the shopping center.” The rare trip to such a public place with the children had been planned for weeks, and Lauren hadn’t seen them as excited about anything since Disney World.
Ashley licked her lips nervously, her eyes trained on the stark white bandage that still covered Lauren’s forehead. Her voice took on a fearful edge. “Can you still go?”
Christopher, who was propped up with Lauren’s pillow and was lying with his head on the foot of the bed, sat up a little as he anxiously awaited Lauren’s answer.
Most of her mind still on Devlyn, Lauren walked over to the bed and sloppily crawled over Ashley to plop down between her and Aaron. “I don’t see why not. But um… I’m still a little sore, so we might have to take a rest at… oh, McDonalds or someplace after a couple of hours.” Another excursion that was rare in the extreme for the children and had required more planning than Lauren had dreamed possible for such a mundane task. “Sound good?” She prepared herself for the explosion she knew would come.
“Yeah!” they all cheered and Lauren closed her eyes and covered her ears in a vain attempt to keep their joint cry from rattling her brains.
The bathroom door opened and Devlyn reentered the room, her face glowing and pink from being freshly scrubbed, her toothbrush still dangling loosely from one hand. “What’s all the noise about?” She looked at the clock, then arched an eyebrow at her offspring. “And why aren’t you getting ready for school?”
“No school today, Mom,” Chris said.
“Today’s the day I get my ears pierced,” Ashley informed her. The girl was bubbling with excitement.
“And Toys-R-Us and McDonald’s,” Aaron added, laughing as Lauren reached down and tickled his exposed belly.
“Ahh… Right. The teachers’ convention.” Dev trained her eyes on her daughter. “Are you still sure about the ear thing, Ash? It’s gonna hurt.”
Warily, Ashley glanced at Lauren, who nodded her agreement. “You know how I feel about needles, kiddo. I was too chicken to get mine done until college.” She shot Devlyn a warning look when she heard the taller woman snicker. Ashley had been spared the version of the story that included Lauren having the procedure done in her friend’s bathroom after consuming more than her share of liquid courage and passing out in the tub after the first prick.
Ashley swallowed hard, and both women could see the wheels in her mind turning. But the girl’s voice didn’t waver when she spoke. “I’m sure I’m ready, Mom. I’ll be brave.”
Dev nodded. “All right then.” In truth she thought Ashley should wait a few years, but the little girl had been working them both over hard to get her way on this and her persistence had actually paid off. Ashley had even successfully talked the biographer into calling her teacher to confirm that all the other girls were doing it. The argument was still weak at best, but during a late night conversation between just the two of them, Lauren had mentioned that she thought Ashley was already struggling to fit in and that keeping her from doing the typical things other girls her age were doing only served to make her stand out even more.
It was the first time that Lauren had ventured into parental decision-making and she had been so hesitant and unsure of herself that it made Dev’s heart clench just remembering. It had been a big step for the younger woman, and so, hesitantly, Devlyn had allowed herself to be persuaded. Now, as she watched her daughter’s dark eyes dancing with happiness, she couldn’t help but feel better about her choice. “I think I’ll come with you guys today,” she announced, surprising everyone in the room.
Ashley and her brothers exchanged confused, then worried glances.
“It’s not Sunday,” Ashley reminded her mom.
Dev scowled. “I know. But I’m going to stay home today in case Lauren needs me.”
“That’s okay,” Aaron said quickly. “You don’t need to go, Mom.”
“Yeah,” Ashley agreed, both she and Christopher nodding. “You have to work.”
Stunned, Devlyn could only stare at her children, blinking slowly. “What’s going on?”
Lauren could hardly believe her ears.
“Well, we know how busy you are, Mom,” Ashley tried again.
“You don’t want me to come?” Dev finally asked, feeling stupid that the answer suddenly mattered more than she could say.
Sensing impending disaster, Lauren sat up. “Devlyn—”
Dev held up a forestalling hand. “I want them to answer.” She turned intent eyes on her children, who instantly began to squirm under her stare. “Well?”
“You have to work,” Christopher answered bravely. “That’s okay. We want Lauren to take us. We can count on her.”
“Chris!” Lauren turned disbelieving eyes on the middle child.
“Don’t worry, Mom, we won’t be gone forever. We’ll make it up to you,” Ashley soothed, the familiar words reaching out and slapping Devlyn harder than any blow she could imagine.
Dev’s jaw worked for a few painfully silent seconds.
Lauren could see Dev’s white-knuckled grip on her toothbrush and swallowed hard. “I don’t think they meant it the way it sounded, Devlyn.”
“I think they meant it just like it sounded,” Dev finally murmured, reaching up and rubbing the bridge of her nose with one hand. Then, without a word, she turned on her heels and marched back into the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.
The children shared uncomfortable looks as Lauren ran an agitated hand through her hair.
“What was that?” Lauren demanded, knowing how badly Devlyn’s feelings had just been hurt. “You beg her to spend time with you every single day and then when she offers you tell her no thanks?”
“We do want to spend time with Mom,” Ashley explained reasonably, her face and voice so earnest that Lauren believed her at once. “But we want to go to the mall today. We’ve been waiting for weeks.” She began gesturing with her hands, fearing that their trip would now be cancelled because they’d done something wrong. “We don’t want to wait anymore.”
“Yeah,” Christopher said. “And if Mom says she’ll come with us then we’ll never go today.”
“She’s busy,” Aaron said simply, moving out of his brother’s reach as the older boy tried to steal the pillow back. He didn’t understand why Lauren looked so upset. “Mom has to work,” he repeated as though it was totally obvious.
Lauren covered her eyes with one hand and let out an explosive sigh. Shit.
“Is Mom mad?”
“No, honey,” Lauren advised her. “But I think you guys hurt her feelings pretty badly.”
Chris gulped, his blue eyes round. “We did?”
Lauren nodded. “I’m afraid so, sugar. It’s not often she offers to do something with you. And I don’t think it felt very good when you all shot her down.”
Ashley sucked her bottom lip into her mouth as her guilt-filled gaze drifted towards the bathroom door. “Will you tell her she can come if she wants?” She frowned unable to muster much enthusiasm for this last part. “It’s okay if she has to cancel.”
Christopher nodded quickly. “Yeah, it’s okay. Will you fix it? We don’t want Mom to feel bad.”
Aaron, feeding off his brother’s worried tone of voice, whimpered. “We didn’t mean to be bad, but I don’t want her to cancel!”
“Shhh... It’s okay,” she assured them kindly. “You guys weren’t bad.” She tried to kick her brain into mom mode, which was a little difficult considering she couldn’t blame them for their reaction. “But… um… just try to think of other people’s feelings before you speak, okay?” She looked at them expectantly, hoping that bit of advice sounded reasonable.
Her words were met with three instant, eager nods.
Lauren smiled, a little proud of herself. “Okay then.” She gently patted Christopher’s leg, his flannel pants feeling soft against her palm. “We can tell your mom—”
There was another knock at the bedroom door and Jane’s voice that interrupted them. “Does anyone want breakfast?”
“Me!” the kids answered, scrambling off the bed and heading for the door, more than happy to have an excuse to hide out in the other room. When they opened it and darted out, their nanny, Emma, who was clad in her bathrobe and pink fuzzy slippers, reluctantly poked her head into the bedroom. “I’m sorry they disturbed you.” She grimaced a little. “Last night, I told them to wait until you were awake before barging in on you and Dev.”
Lauren wrapped her arms around her up-drawn knees, and then made a dismissive gesture. “That’s okay. We were already awake.” She heard the shower and bathroom flare to life. “The kids are just excited.”
Emma laughed, the movement causing her large bosoms to jiggle merrily. “That’s an understatement. Will you and Dev be joining the children for breakfast?”
Lauren tore her eyes away from the bathroom door. “Hmm?”
The older woman’s heavy eyebrows drew together with just a touch of worry. Lauren seemed a little out of sorts. And after the trials of the past few days, that was saying something. “Breakfast?”
Lauren shook her head. “No, thank you, Emma.”
Emma nodded and began to withdraw.
“Wait, Emma.” Lauren got out of bed and went to the door. “Could we get a pot of coffee?” She chewed her bottom lip for a moment. “And could you keep the kids out of here until it’s time for us to go? Our agents should be here by 9.” She paused. “I… umm… I need some time alone with Devlyn first.”
“Of course.” Normally, Emma would tease the newlyweds over a request like that, but something told her that wouldn’t be a good idea this morning.
“No phone calls or interruptions unless it’s an emergency, Emma.”
The matronly woman didn’t know what was going on, but doing what came naturally rarely failed her. She walked over to the bed and leaned over to pull Lauren into a gentle hug, feeling the other woman relax into the calming embrace and then, after a few seconds, return it fully. “Whatever it is you’re going to do, good luck.”
Lauren closed her eyes, soaking in the rare moment of maternal or, more precisely, grandmotherly comfort. Anna Strayer, Lauren’s mother, rarely had had an appetite. And the infrequent hugs she and her daughter shared unerringly made Lauren think of what it must be like to wrap your arms around a walking skeleton. Despite being short in stature, Emma had a bulky, dependable presence that was so much easier to sink into. It surrounded Lauren, making her feel safe and boosting her confidence. “Thanks, Emma. This is something I can’t afford to screw up.”
Still towel-drying her dark hair, Devlyn emerged from the bathroom wearing a thick white robe with the Presidential Seal emblazoned across her right breast.
Lauren was dressed in a well-worn pair of jeans and a soft, red denim shirt. Her socked feet dangled off the end of the tall bed, as she sat waiting and fiddling nervously with the glasses in her hand.
Dev took in Lauren’s outfit. “That’s cute,” she commented neutrally as she headed towards her dresser.
Lauren smiled, but she was too worried for the gesture to reach her eyes. “Thanks.”
Dev let the robe fall to the floor and tugged out a pair of socks, panties and gray sweat pants. She turned slightly as she began to dress and Lauren’s eyes swept over her nude body, lingering on the scars that marred the pale skin of Devlyn’s hip and shoulder.
The blonde drew in a deep breath and padded the few steps to the dresser and her wife. She moved behind Dev and laid her cheek between broad shoulders, and she reached out and traced the scar with sensitive fingertips, only to have her hand pushed away as Dev pulled up her underwear, then sweats. “It took a long time, but they’re all healed,” Lauren began, hoping that pushing Devlyn wasn’t the wrong move all together.
Devlyn’s body stiffened, but after a few seconds she reached down and squeezed Lauren’s hand. She already knew where this conversation was going, and she steeled herself. “We’re going to have the talk I kept putting off while you were in the hospital, aren’t we?” Dev pulled away a little to pick up her robe and drape it over a nearby chair.
Lauren nodded. “I think we should.” She reached out, silently asking for Devlyn’s hand.
Troubled blue eyes glanced at her for reassurance.
“Please,” Lauren said, knowing that Devlyn wouldn’t refuse her.
Dev’s eyes darted down to her own naked chest. “I need—?”
“No, you don’t, honey.”
“I know you feel vulnerable right now. But it’ll be okay.”
Dev’s eyes widened a little as the remark hit home.
Lauren stepped closer, her hand still outstretched, her head cocked invitingly. “Maybe vulnerable is good. I need every advantage when it comes to you.”
Dev reluctantly took Lauren’s hand and felt an instant squeeze as her reward. “I already feel like I’m walking around without my skin. Trust me, you don’t need any more advantage.”
“Do you really think you need to be perfect with me? You’ve seen me at my lowest and my worst and you love me anyway.”
“Damn straight I do.”
Lauren smiled fondly. “Why should it be any different for you?”
“I umm…” Dev looked away, the image of how she’d handled the stresses of late at odds with the image she had of herself. “I just thought you might be getting a little sick of seeing me so….God, I don’t know.” She rolled her eyes at herself. “Weak. Indecisive.”
The younger woman’s forehead puckered. “I know I didn’t have a good marriage with Judd, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what one is. If I had wanted to go it alone, I wouldn’t have proposed in the first place. We’re a team and when one member gets a little tired, the other just works a little harder to pick up the slack, right?”
Charmed, regardless of the sick, niggling feeling in the pit of her stomach, Devlyn managed a smile. “Yeah,” she said softly.
“So c’mere.” Lauren gave Dev’s hand a gentle tug and their arms wrapped around each other in a heartfelt hug.
Devlyn buried her face in Lauren’s hair. “Why do I get the feeling I’m going to be hearing the word workaholic?”
Lauren tightened her hold on her partner. “We’re going to talk about everything, okay?”
Dev’s throat tightened. “That’s good, because I got a call from the doctor after you went to bed early last night.”
Dev shook her head. “No, mine. He called to discuss the results of my check-up last week… since… well, since I didn’t want to leave you to go into his office or have the appointment here.”
Lauren’s heart rate picked up and she looked Dev directly in the eye. “Is there something wrong?” She was surprised to hear how calm her voice felt, considering her insides were now churning.
Lauren’s pupils dilated as the sliver of fear that had been jabbing her dug in with greater force.
“My mammogram, EKG, blood work,” her face twisted in revulsion, “and colonoscopy were all fine.”
“But?” Lauren held her breath, feeling a little lightheaded as the blood drained from her face.
“Are you all right?” Dev’s concern was evident by her tone of voice. She gently untangled Lauren’s glasses from the younger woman’s iron grip and tossed them on the bed. “You’re going to break them.”
“Just tell me.”
Dev’s eyebrows jumped. “All right. I have high blood pressure.” She sighed, part irritated but a bigger part uneasy. “The numbers have spiked since last year.”
“Nothing else?” Lauren asked tightly
Dev’s hands came to rest on her hips. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Thank God. I- I thought you were going to tell me you had a brain tumor or something equally horrible.” She let out a shaky breath, the relief coursing through her veins enough to make her weak in the knees.
Dev shook her head a little as if to clear it. “Buh—” She lifted one hand, then let it drop. “A brain tumor?”
“The headaches, nose bleeds, and irritability were signs of something, Devlyn.” She felt a little foolish as she admitted, “I um… I looked those symptoms up on the Internet.”
“And came up with the worst possible scenario?” Devlyn scowled. “I’m rubbing off on you far too much. Those are all symptoms of high blood pressure, too.” She quirked a half grin, unable to mask the fact that she was a little unnerved by the diagnosis. “But to be honest, my irritability is because I’m not feeling like my old self and I’m still pissed off there is truly only 24 hours in a day. I still think I was robbed.”
Reaching out to stroke Devlyn’s arm, Lauren regarded her seriously. “What can we do to make this better?”
“My doctor wants me to start on some medication.” Dev’s scowl deepened, the thought of having to swallow a bunch of pills irking her to the core.
“Will the medicine cure it?”
She glanced away and rocked back on her heels, wishing her sweats had pockets where she could stuff her hands. “It should help… some.”
“Some?” Pale brows disappeared beneath tousled bangs. “What else?”
Dev lifted an eyebrow of her own and sighed. “I think you and my doctor conspired against me. He wants me to eat better, sleep more, and reduce the amount of stress in my life. By a lot. Which is the same thing I’ve been told at every checkup since I was 19, by the way.”
Lauren said a mental “thank you” to Dev’s doctor. “He’s clearly a very, very sensible man. In fact, I think I love him.”
Dev crossed her arms over her chest. “Too bad you’re taken.”
“Not bad.” Lauren shook her head and leaned forward, letting her forehead drop lightly against the freshly-scrubbed skin of Dev’s upper chest and smelling the clean fragrance of peppermint-scented soap. “I like that I’m taken.”
Dev wrapped her arms loosely around her partner. “Me, too.”
“Your body is talking to you, honey. I think you should listen.”
Devlyn pressed her lips to the top of Lauren’s head, then moved to the bed and flopped down dejectedly, throwing one arm over her face. She sighed, surprised to find that she felt like crying. “I don’t know what to do.” She swallowed hard and admitted to herself for the first time just how many things she’d allowed to wander out of her grasp and how she had no earthly idea how to rein them all back in. “I fucked up.” It was a faintly hoarse admission.
Lauren closed her eyes, glad to hear the words, but sad at the toll it had taken to get to here. She climbed into bed, shoving aside her glasses and lying close to Dev, her head propped up by her hand. “Devlyn,” her voiced dropped to an intimate, easy tone that always captured Devlyn’s attention. “You haven’t done anything you can’t fix.” She cupped a warm cheek, her fingers sneaking under Dev’s arm to wipe away the few tears that had managed to escape. “Nothing’s too late.”
“What about the kids?” Unconsciously, Dev’s hands began to clench and unclench. “Jesus, I can hear Ashley in 30 years from now telling her own kids that she ‘can’t be with them, but that she’ll make it up to them later’!” She looked up at Lauren with a lost expression. “When did things get so out of control? When did I lose control!” She closed her eyes in self-disgust.
“You haven’t lost control.” Lauren wiped away a few more tears, this time with her lips. “You’re a spectacular president, a better friend and partner than I could have hoped for, and though I know you don’t believe it this minute, you’re a good mother.” She exhaled. “But you can’t control everything. You can’t do everything yourself. You just can’t. Something has got to give. And that something has been your health and your well-being, and that is affecting all of us.”
Dev opened her eyes and glared at Lauren. “How can you say I’m a wonderful mother? I put my career and country above my own children! They’re going to hate me for it, and I can’t even find it in myself to blame them for it.”
“You made your decisions, Devlyn, and what’s done is done.”
Dev’s body jerked a little at the blunt truth.
Gray eyes softened. “But, darlin’, it’s how you live with that decision and the choices you make from now on that will make all the difference. The kids are not going to hate you.”
“Even if I hate myself for not being there when they need me?” she rasped, feeling ill.
Lauren swallowed hard as her eyes misted over. “Even then.” Tenderly, she drew her knuckles across Dev’s cheek, wanting nothing more than to be able to kiss away the pain in her lover’s eyes. “I know what it’s like to question a parent’s love. To want support for your hopes and dreams and to be greeted with anger or ambivalence instead.”
Devlyn’s heart contracted painfully. “Oh, Lauren—”
“I can say that you’re a good mother because you love and support your children and despite your ridiculous schedule, they do know that. They believe that, and they won’t ever forget it.” She licked her lips a little and drew in a big breath as she gathered her courage. “But I’m not going to bullshit you. In their eyes, you working to make the world a better place for them will never make up for the time you’re losing with them now. Even with your love, Devlyn, the kids are going to resent the hell out of you, and they’re going to feel the loss of you not being a part of their everyday lives. Sometimes they need to be at the top of your list, no matter what else is on it.”
Dev’s cheeks flushed red, and her voice shook a little as she spoke. “Don’t you think I know that? Don’t you think I know that that’s at least part of what keeps me awake at night?” She ground her teeth together, wanting to scream because Lauren didn’t see her reality. “Everyone is counting on me. People who have nothing and no one to help them are counting on me. One more meeting, one hour less sleep, skip lunch today, and I’m just this much closer. And I don’t know what to do when I don’t have any more to give!”
Lauren groaned, fighting the urge to grab Devlyn by the shoulders and shake her and make her understand. “Don’t you see? You don’t need to give more. You need to give less before you run yourself into the ground. Rearrange your time priorities so that the children, and you yourself, get a bigger share of the time you do have.”
Devlyn sat up and leaned against the headboard. “I don’t know how to do that.”
“Then we’ll figure out how together. You don’t have to do it alone. You have an entire staff to help you. And family and friends who love you. You driving yourself non-stop might not be hurting your work right now, but it is hurting you.” She paused and then admitted the truth. “And that hurts the people who love you.”
A wave of guilt crashed over Dev and a heavy feeling settled in her chest. “Damn,” she hissed. “I never meant for that to happen.”
Lauren’s eyes begged Devlyn to listen to reason, and she drew in a shaky breath as she hugged her pillow tighter. “You can’t keep going on the way you have been. I don’t care about the President and her political successes. I don’t care about global warming and the space program and the price of butter in Portugal and what you can do about it! I care about you and you’ve set an impossible pace that’s tearing you apart.” She threw her hands in the air, her frustration boiling over. “High blood pressure is serious! Does it really have to kill you and destroy our family before you believe what your doctor and I are saying? Is that what you want?”
A stunned, drawn-out silence hung between them.
Dev blinked slowly, feeling her heart jerk in her chest and having no response to Lauren’s vehemently spoken, truthful words.
“Shit,” Lauren uttered quietly, scrubbing her face with her hands and feeling the tears prick her eyes. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know you don’t want that.” She glanced down at her. “But I’m scared,” she admitted miserably, sitting up and pulling her pillow to her chest and hugging it in mute comfort. “I feel like I’m watching a train wreck and I don’t know how to stop it.”
Dev’s chin quivered. “I’m afraid, too.”
Their eyes met and held, a surge of stark emotion passing between them.
“Last week… It’s like everything came crashing down on me. I’m scared that I’ll let down an entire world full of little girls and women who are looking to me to pave the way for them. I’m scared I won’t be strong enough to carry the banner for gays and working mothers and members of my party and a million other causes and people.”
Dev gave Lauren a beseeching look, truly hoping her partner might know the answer. “Who am I supposed to turn away?”
“I can’t answer that,” Lauren admitted honestly, feeling the impossible weight of what Devlyn had committed herself to. “I just know it has to be someone.”
“Over and over, I’ve managed to make that ‘someone’ you and the kids, haven’t I? I’m scared I won’t know my own children and they won’t know me and I’ll get so self-involved that I won’t care. I’m scared that the Secret Service won’t be able to stop the next lunatic with a gun and that everything I’ve left undone will be left that way forever. I’m afraid I’ll fail and disappoint the people who’ve helped me and supported me along the way. They don’t deserve that.” Dev swallowed thickly, and her voice grew even softer. “But most of all, I’m so scared that something will happen to you and I’ll lose you.”
Lauren was certain her heart would break in two. “Oh, God, Devlyn, you can’t tie yourself in knots over something that is pure chance.”
“How can I not?” she demanded.
“I know what happened to Samantha broke your heart. But because something can happen doesn’t mean that it will,” Lauren reasoned, trying not to be utterly overwhelmed.
“And it doesn’t mean that it won’t.” Her eyes went a little unfocused as she let herself think about what had been making her physically ill for the past four days. “Only I won’t get through it this time.” She opened her mouth to speak but had to swallow before the words would come. “I don’t think I could deal with it if something happened to you,” she whispered desperately. “I don’t think I could get up in the morning and breathe and pretend like I was alive when I wouldn’t be. I don’t think I’d want to even try. I—”
Lauren couldn’t stand it another second. She tossed aside her pillow and wrapped as much of herself around her partner as she could. The body against hers jerked as Devlyn fought off her impending sobs. “It’s okay to cry,” Lauren said into Devlyn’s hair, needing the physical contact as much as her partner.
“I… I don’t want to cr- cry.” Dev’s chest heaved with effort, but even then, her words were mixed with the tears she detested. “I want things to be back the way they were be- before I felt like the entire world had climbed on my shoulders and I was too tired and afraid to throw them off.”
Lauren held onto her, gulping back her own tears long enough to get out the words she needed to say. “I want you to listen to me for a minute, okay?”
Devlyn nodded, her throat closed tight.
“I love you more than I can say. And I’ll always be here for us to talk.” She gave Dev another squeeze, wanting to reassure her with every ounce of her being. “And if crying makes you feel better then I’ll hold you all day if I have to, okay?”
Dev nodded again, the words nearly undoing her.
“But I’m in over my head and I know it. You need more than I have to give to get through this. And there are professionals whose job it is to get people past things like this.”
Devlyn drew in a breath and Lauren silenced her by plowing forward. “Just wait. A doctor could help put this relentless stress you’re under into perspective and teach you to manage it. He could help you work past your fears and get you over this impossible notion that you have to be all things to all people.”
“I… I know I can’t do everything,” Dev protested feebly, closing her eyes at what she knew was a loser of an argument.
Lauren shook her head. “You might know it, but you don’t really believe it. Not in your heart, which is the part that needs convincing.” Trembling lips grazed the side of her face and the blonde leaned into the touch, melting. “Please, baby, I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t believe it was important. I know how hard this week has been for you. Let someone who knows what they’re doing help.”
Devlyn forced herself to look past her first reaction, which was that she and Lauren could work anything out themselves if they tried hard enough. That she didn’t need to invite some stranger to poke around in her head to do that. “I’m not sure that I can talk about this with anyone but you,” Dev admitted, not wanting to disappoint Lauren, but needing to be honest. She bit her lower lip and added, “Or maybe David.”
Lauren had been expecting that, and she nodded, understanding completely, “I know it’ll be hard. You’re going to have to find someone you can learn to trust. But I have a list of names, and that’s at least a place to start.”
Devlyn’s posture instantly went rigid, and Lauren backed away enough to look into wary blue eyes. She eased her fingers through dark, damp locks as she spoke. “Relax. I didn’t put an ad in the paper for someone who could keep a secret and shrink the President’s head.”
A reluctant smile tugged at Dev’s mouth. She was already feeling better. A plan was forming. It was tentative and raw, but comforting nonetheless. First and foremost, Devlyn was a woman of action. She could make a plan work.
Lauren tried not to look guilty. “I had a little help from some people who love you very much and whose first concern is your welfare and not the country’s. We put this list together before the accident. That was just the last straw.”
Dev’s eyes went round as realization struck. “You spoke to my parents?” Her voice rose to a squeak at the end.
Lauren rolled her eyes. “They’re concerned for you. I had to swear not to put off this conversation just to keep them off the next plane to Washington.”
Dev’s cheeks tinted and she rolled over to lie flat on her back. “I called them and told them about your accident while you were getting your CAT scan.” She let out a low whistle. “I was…”
Lauren smiled gently. “In pieces. Just like I was after....” She couldn’t bring herself to even say it, but she reached down and patted the scar on Dev’s hip, letting Dev know just what she meant. “After seeing you in the hospital.”
Dev sighed. “I know.”
“So you’ll do it?”
The hopeful note in Lauren’s voice was more than Devlyn could ignore. “I love you and I’ll do anything I have to keep us happy and whole. I know it hasn’t seemed like that lately, but I swear with everything I am that it’s true.”
Lauren nearly burst into happy tears. “I know it’s true. I never doubted that.”
“Never,” Lauren confirmed. “Thank you.”
Dev cupped Lauren’s cheeks. “Okay, talking to a doctor is the first part of the plan. Part two—”
Lauren smiled fondly at her lover’s analytical mind.
“I’ll make sure that I’m in bed every night by 1—”
Dev blinked. “All right, by mid—”
Lauren cleared her throat again, this time a little louder.
Lauren was silent this time and Dev looked at the smaller woman as though she was crazy. “I had a later curfew in high school!”
Lauren cocked her head to the side in question. “Did you have high blood pressure in high school?”
“Touché.” But Devlyn was smiling now, albeit a watery one. “And I’ll talk to my staff about my schedule and try my best to make Sunday a family day again.”
“Yes!” Lauren’s face lit up like the Fourth of July. With even one day a week off she was certain her driven partner could get the down time she needed for her mental and physical health. She would make sure of it.
Dev conveyed her apology in the form of a soft kiss. “I swear I never meant to stop having Sundays be for us. It just happened without my realizing it.”
Lauren kissed Dev back, this time soundly. “Thank you,” she said against soft lips. “This means more to me than you know.”
“Good. Then you’ll do something for me in return?”
“Anything,” Lauren vowed.
“Call your father and invite him to Thanksgiving. ”
Lauren’s jaw dropped. “But…Ugh.” She made a face. “You suck.”
Dev smiled unrepentantly. “Only when asked nicely. And only when the body parts are attached to you.”
Lauren whimpered, knowing she was well and truly caught.
“I was in the room when you called your dad last month.”
Lauren nodded slowly. “Yes, you were. And I’m sure you saw a conversation that was strained, stilted, uncomfortable and mostly superficial.”
Inexplicably, Lauren offered a chagrinned smile. “That’s real progress. We’re finally back to normal!”
Dev’s voice dropped an octave and she pursed her lips. “Lauren.”
Lauren narrowed her eyes, but readily admitted defeat. So what if she hadn’t spent a Thanksgiving with her father since before she was in college? The bigger issue was that he would be painfully uncomfortable, like a fish out water, at the White House. She wondered privately if the sometimes-abrasive man could keep from being arrested by the Secret Service while here. Still, a promise was a promise. “I’ll call him on Sunday.”
This time Dev’s smile was more relaxed. They hadn’t discussed it yet, but she desperately wanted to go to Ohio for the holiday. Not only could she use the time to regroup among the people who loved her most, but she had a feeling that both Lauren and Howard Strayer would be more comfortable there anyway. “Great.”
“Will you kill me if I ask you to do one more thing?” Lauren gave Dev a beseeching look. “It’s something good, I promise.”
Dev’s eyes widened. “One more thing? Do you want me to stand and give a press conference that starts with the words, ‘My name is Devlyn Marlowe and I’m a workaholic?’ Because I will. I’ve been worn into submission.” She was mostly teasing, but Lauren caught a kernel of truth in her words.
“No.” Lauren chuckled lightly. “I want you to come to the mall today with me and your children.”
Dev’s face fell.
Lauren sighed. “It’s not what you think, Devlyn.”
“What I think is that they don’t want me to come. They told me themselves!”
Lauren gave her a sympathetic look. “No, honey, they don’t want you to say you’ll come and then cancel and cause them to postpone their trip. That’s all. They’d give their little collective black souls for you to come. In fact, they wanted me to ask you to come, even if it meant you might back out and delay the trip.”
She looked at Lauren from behind dark lashes. “They really want me to come?”
“Jesus, Devlyn,” she gave the older woman a firm poke. “Of course!”
Dev shrugged one shoulder, looking incredibly sheepish. “It sounded like fun and… well… I didn’t want you to go without me.”
“So come and give everyone what they want.” Lauren patted Dev’s arm, then pushed herself off the bed, on her way to the bathroom. Her appetite was back, her head didn’t hurt, and she had a feeling today was going to turn out to be a great day. “You can’t stay with me every second. But we can nag each other about that tomorrow, okay? For today we can both stand a little, no a lot, of togetherness.” Her gaze softened. “I know I could.”
A surprise burst of laughter escaped Dev. “Okay.” Blue eyes sparked with added mischief. “Have you ever thought of getting something else pierced? You could do it with Ashley today.”
Lauren gave her a droll look over her shoulder as she padded toward the shower. One look in the mirror on her way to brush her teeth had made it clear that her hair wouldn’t be tamed with anything less. “Never.”
“I think navel rings are sexy as hell,” Dev tried again, nearly jumping out of bed to follow Lauren and feeling more positive and hopeful than she had in weeks.
“Then you should definitely get one,” Lauren shot back, feeling her face stretch into a genuine smile.
Dev pouted. “But it would look sexy on you.”
Lauren laughed softly and disappeared into the bathroom, but left the door open so her voice would carry. “I guess that’s possible, darlin’, but the answer is still no.”
Devlyn’s pout shifted into a questioning look as she stopped outside the bathroom and stripped off her sweats and underwear. She still wanted to be close to Lauren. When she was naked again, she said, “Hey, Lauren?”
A naked arm appeared from behind the door and a single finger curled to beckon Devlyn inside.
Sunday, October 16, 2022
Pillows and light blankets littered the family room floor at the President’s private residence. The same could be said for most of the First Family. Dev was lazing on the floor, with Ashley curled up against her. The little girl was sound asleep. Aaron had his head pillowed on Dev’s belly, and she was just beginning to feel the cool moisture of the drool that trailed from his mouth to her T-shirt. Christopher was sprawled asleep on the sofa behind them, next to Lauren, who was taking this moment of rare household peace and quiet to give her fat pug a good scratching behind his ears. Though she had to continually shush Gremlin as he growled out his pleasure, his back legs twitching rhythmically with every good scratch.
With a contented smile, Lauren watched as Devlyn shut off the movie that they’d decided would be perfect for a family birthday celebration. Michael Oaks and Press Secretary Allen had pushed hard for a well-publicized and elaborate 40th birthday bash, but after the events of the past few weeks, simple and quiet was more the order of the day. And for that, Lauren was truly grateful.
She pushed the pug over to his own cushion and slid from the couch to crawl next to her partner. As the credits rolled on the movie, she ran the tip of her finger over the ridge of Dev's ear. "You think we should haul the kids to bed? They’re toast."
Dev glanced at the bodies covering her own. "Yeah, I think they're done."
"It was that pizza and the swimming. That gets them every time. I think Beth had to wake David to get him out of one of the lounge chairs.”
“It was nice, though, right?" She gave Lauren a questioning look and was gratified to see her instant nod.
“It was great. So much better than a fancy party.”
“Mmm…” She smiled. "It was my best birthday ever.” Her smile grew. “Thanks.”
Charmed by the rare look of comfortable, nearly blissful happiness on her partner’s face, Lauren couldn’t help but smile back. “I had fun, too.” With a slight groan, she hefted Aaron. “Jesus, Devlyn. He’s getting big.” She fought to get to her feet, realizing that the days of being able to move the children around like sacks of flour were fast disappearing.
Dev sighed. “I know. I can’t believe Ashley is 9 today.”
“Nine going on 21,” Lauren murmured affectionately.
“Bite your tongue,” Dev shot back.
Lauren began walking towards Aaron’s room, the boy’s arms and legs swaying limply as she carried him to bed.
Carefully, Dev rolled to one side and disentangled herself from Ashley, giving her a little shake. “Hey, Moppet. It’s bedtime.” Dev moved over to the sofa and picked up Chris, smiling when he immediately snuggled into her arms and laid his head against her shoulder, his glasses going slightly askew.
On wobbly legs and with one eye still closed, Ashley stood up and grabbed onto the back of her mother’s T-shirt as Devlyn guided her back towards the children’s rooms.
"I'll never understand how you sleep through this," Lauren whispered to an oblivious Aaron, as she pulled a blanket up over him and tucked it around his chest.
Once the children were safely in their beds, Dev began making her way back to the family room, turning off lights as she went and settling heavily on the sofa. She paid close attention to Gremlin’s location, in case the pooch decided that her defenses were low at this time of evening and she was ripe for a sneak attack. But the dog, along with his Pomeranian mate, was curled up in front of the fireplace, snoring louder than Dev would have believed possible.
Lauren returned and settled on the couch, laughing softly when Dev patted her own lap invitingly. Like she would say no to that. She spun sideways and reclined, letting loose a happy sigh when long fingers sank into her hair and began rubbing her scalp. “Ugh. Feel free to continue doing that for the next five years or so.”
Dev chuckled, keeping up her ministrations with one hand as she grabbed the television remote with the other. She’d learned long ago that using the TV’s voice control features was asking for trouble with a house full of kids. When she turned to the cartoon channel, Lauren looked up at her in surprise.
Seeing the confusion, Dev said, "I know I usually watch about 20 different news channels, but my doctor recommends I don’t watch anything that remotely resembles the news after 10 p.m. That way local and world events won’t be the last thing on my mind at night before I go to bed."
"Sounds like a good idea to me." Lauren smiled gently and turned her head to kiss Devlyn’s belly. She hadn’t missed the small changes her partner had instituted since starting therapy and she wasn’t about to make a fuss over this. But Dev was trying, and she couldn’t help but feel good about that. Though Lauren wasn’t really a believer in unshakeable faith, what she felt for Devlyn, her belief in best friend, came darn close. "Bugs Bunny is good."
"A classic," Dev agreed. "I like my new doctor,” she continued unprompted, surprising Lauren again.
Lauren’s eyes closed as she relaxed under Dev's touch. "I'm glad."
"At first I thought three times a week was a little much, but I’m finding more than enough to talk about, so I guess it wasn’t too much after all.” She glanced up as Bugs Bunny began trying to escape Elmer Fudd’s hunting rifle. “You wouldn’t believe what I heard myself say the other day.”
"That the only people I really need to be a hero for are you and the kids."
Lauren opened her eyes, blinking slowly. “Do you really believe that, Natasha?”
Dev blushed. “Not yet, Boris. But with a little help, I think I can.”
"I know you can, darlin’,” Lauren drawled softly, unable to remember a moment where she was prouder of her spouse.
Dev’s eyes took on a sudden seductive gleam. “You know,” she paused to give Lauren a sexy grin. “I’ve been very good all year and I think I deserve a reward.”
“That’s Christmas, Devlyn. Not your birthday.”
“Oh.” She frowned momentarily, but wouldn’t be deterred. “Well, how about if I say that you’ve been good and deserve a reward?”
Lauren chuckled wickedly. "I am good." She sat up and placed a lingering kiss on Dev's throat, her words tickling sensitive skin. "And if you'd like to accompany me to our bedroom, I'll show you just how good."
A smile stretched Dev’s lips as she sang a happy tune. "Happy birthday to me. Happy birthday to meeeeeeeee."
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