Friday, December 15, 2028
“It’s hard to believe this is our last Christmas in the White House,” Dev said, handing Lauren a string of gaily-colored garland.
Lauren strategically wedged the garland between two heavy tree boughs, the fragrant needles brushing the backs of her hands.
“Eight years.” Dev sighed and stepped around Lauren. Twinkling tree lights reflected in her eyes as she rested her chin on the smaller woman’s shoulder and studied their handiwork. “Where did all the time go?”
“I wish I could tell you, honey.” Her attention focused on the decoration Aaron had made her five years before. A wistful smile curled her lips. “I feel the same way.” She tucked a loose strand of pale hair behind her ear as she took a few slow steps backwards.
Dev shuffled right along with her, their bodies pressed tightly together.
Lauren gave the tall balsam fir a final, critical once-over. “What do you think?”
Dev buried her nose in Lauren’s hair. “I think it smells terrific.”
Lauren chuckled, but couldn’t help leaning into the loving touch. She rested her arms on the warm ones circling her waist. “I meant the tree.”
“I don’t care how the tree smells,” Dev grumbled playfully, nipping at Lauren’s neck.
“Tch.” Lauren gave her lover a gentle poke in the side. “You know what I meant, Devil.”
“I do,” Dev agreed, pulling Lauren over to the sofa and down onto her lap. She reached out with a long arm and clicked off the table lamp, casting the room in blinking shadows. “It looks great.” She tilted her head back and drew in a deep breath of pungent, pine-scented air. Her nose twitched happily. “I love Christmas.”
Lauren smiled. “Me, too.”
“I can’t believe the kids wimped out on finishing the decorations though.” Dev's lower lip began to protrude. “They’ve never done that before.”
“Aww…. Devlyn.” Lauren took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “We all spent two hours decorating it last night. Tonight we’re just adding the finishing touches. The kids have been looking forward to going with Beth and David to their cabin for weeks now. You can’t blame them for not wanting to stay here and string lights.”
Dev’s lips thinned a little, but she didn’t say a word.
Lauren rested her forehead against Dev’s, taking a moment to absorb the warmth before she spoke. “Are you sorry we told them about David?” she whispered, her breath mingling with Devlyn’s.
“No.” Blue eyes fluttered closed and she felt the softest of kisses on their delicate lids. Her quick answer was greeted with utter silence, and she didn’t have to open her eyes to know that Lauren was waiting patiently for her to come clean. She opened her mouth again, but let it close without saying a word, this time, giving the question the thoughtful consideration it deserved. “Sometimes,” she admitted, wrapping her arms around Lauren and pulling her into a firm hug, and feeling Lauren sink into the warm embrace. “Change…” A deep breath. “It can be hard for me.”
Feeling more than a twinge of sympathy, Lauren nodded. She knew exactly how Dev felt. Their lives hadn’t changed dramatically since the family discussion early that autumn, though the conversation alone had reduced most of them to tears. Since then, all the children had shown an interest in getting to know the man who was already a much-beloved uncle to them, and his wife, just a little bit better. It was a heartfelt desire that neither Devlyn nor Lauren could begrudge their friends or their children. Still, family time was such a precious commodity, and the kids were now at ages where their friends commanded more of their free time and interest than their parents, that it was easy to let petty jealousies rear their ugly heads. But she and Devlyn were making a concerted effort to get past that. And, for the most part, it was working.
Dev released Lauren and resettled her on her lap, wiggling a little and quickly getting comfortable again. She glanced up into concerned gray eyes, uncertain until that very second if she was going to ask the question that had been weighing on her mind. “Telling them about David’s sperm donation was the right thing to do, wasn’t it?” Even now, after several months, there was still a hint of pleading in her voice. She wanted to be convinced, and Lauren smiled back gently, hoping to reassure her.
“It was, Devlyn.” Lauren cocked her head to the side. “And we talked about it for days, honey. Then we talked it over with David and Beth. We waited until Aaron was old enough to understand, and we told them all together. I honestly don’t think we could have done any better. They’re smart, curious kids, and there was only so much longer you could skirt their questions without lying.”
“I didn’t want to lie to them.”
Lauren looked at her kindly and brushed dark bangs from Dev’s forehead with a gentle hand. “And you didn’t. The decision you made not to tell them in the first place was out of love and so was this one.” Her heart ached a little as she recalled Christopher’s burning anger at not being told from the very beginning and how, for some reason, it had been directed at her as opposed to Dev. “Even if it wasn’t easy.”
Dev smiled a little. She felt a little better, if for no other reason than Lauren’s effort. “No. It wasn’t. I still don’t see what’s so fun about going to the cabin when they could be decorating the tree.” She motioned to the half-eaten plate of cookies and the empty boxes that had once held the decorations now strewn all around the living room floor. “Hell, the stockings are hung by the chimney with care in hopes that Saint Nicholas soon will be there! And when you weren’t looking, we were all going to shake our presents like we do every year and try to guess what’s inside.” She put on a bewildered expression. “What could be more fun than this?”
Lauren gave her a look. “David and Beth’s new snowmobiles.”
Dev’s eyes widened. “Oh, boy.” Unconsciously, she licked her lips. “They finally got the 240 horsepower Arctic Cats David’s been eyeing since last year?”
Lauren looked skyward and groaned. “Please don’t tell me that means the boys are going to be flying as fast as two hundred and forty horses. My heart can’t take it. They’re too little to be riding on anything that goes faster than a bicycle,” she mumbled, worry coloring her expression.
An indulgent smile touched Dev’s lips. “David and Beth are the safest riders and teachers the boys will ever find. C’mon, we talked about this.” She patted Lauren’s thigh and looked up at her from beneath dark lashes. “They’re going to have a blast! Especially with new machines.”
“Snowmobiles are dangerous,” Lauren protested, picking a little at Dev’s pajama pants. Her voice grew soft. “And the boys are just babies.”
Ah ha… “Don’t be silly,” she chided gently. “They’re not babies. And they’ll be fine.” Dev rubbed Lauren’s back reassuringly. “Just because the machines have the capability of going really fast doesn’t mean that David and Beth will let the boys drive them at top speed or even solo. They taught me in college, and Beth wouldn’t let me drive alone that entire first weekend. I only wish they’d invited us,” she added a little indignantly, her eyes narrowing. “I can’t believe they’re not sharing their new toys with me. Greedy. Selfish.”
“Uh huh. What happened to nothing being more fun this?” Lauren gestured expansively at the mess surrounding them.
“We’re talking 240 horses, Lauren.” Dev’s voice was patient and slow, as though she was speaking to a dull child. “240.”
“It’s all so clear now,” she said dryly. “What was I thinking?”
“Who knows?” Dev shrugged and kicked her feet out in front of her. “Sometimes you make no sense whatsoever.” She shook her head in wonder, oblivious to her lover’s raised eyebrow. “How could Ash have decided to stay here at the last minute? I swear sometimes I wonder if they switched babies at the hospital. I’ll bet that girl is in her room right now curled up on her bed reading one of those sci-fi novels when she could be blazing a trail through fresh powder.”
Lauren’s second eyebrow crawled up her forehead. “And just what’s wrong with that? I can’t think of a better way to while away a snowy Friday night.”
Dev pulled Lauren a little closer. “I can.”
Lauren blinked at the sexy timbre that had suddenly invaded Dev’s voice. “Okay,” she allowed, nibbling on her lower lip. “You got me there.” She sank her fingers into Dev’s salt and pepper-colored hair, which was still far heavier on the pepper and stopped just above broad shoulders. She began scratching Dev’s scalp, grinning happily when she coaxed a mew of pleasure from her spouse.
Dev’s eyes closed. “I love it when you do that,” she said huskily.
“I know.” Lauren leaned and brushed her lips against Devlyn’s, but stopped just short of deepening the kiss when she heard a softly muttered, "Ahem."
Dev and Lauren looked up to see Ashley, clad in soft flannel pajamas and her robe, standing in front of the tree. The teen had caught her mothers in similar positions so many times that catching them kissing on the couch didn’t faze her in the least. Though she did roll her eyes.
Ashley was nearly as tall as Dev, and a year on the swim team had begun to add muscle tone and definition to her slender, lanky frame. Her hair hung down the middle of her back, and its black glossiness set off her brown eyes, giving her an exotic look, especially when compared to her blue-eyed, All American-looking, blond brothers.
Lauren smiled. “Hi, sugar. All done reading for the night?”
Ashley nodded as she approached the women. “It was a good one. Wanna borrow it?” She held out the book, and her gaze flicked back and forth between Dev and Lauren.
Dev wrinkled her nose. Science fiction was never her favorite genre.
But Lauren nodded, pleased that paperbacks were making a comeback. There was just something about holding a book in your hand, the scent and feel of the paper, that could never be replaced by reading from a screen. “Wayne says the author is really good.”
“Oh. My. God.” Suddenly, she looked as though she might burst. “Wayne knows the author?”
Lauren laughed. “Uh huh.”
“He’s wonderful,” Ashley gushed, the normally quiet face growing animated along with her voice. “He’s got a fabulous sense of pathos! I thought the subplot was just the tiniest bit thin. But in Chapter…”
Lauren got up to look at the book, and Dev watched in silence as her wife and daughter tilted their heads together as Ashley pointed out a section of text. Her heart swelled a little at the sight of their obvious bond and the affection that flowed freely between them.
Their words floated over Dev, and she yawned, feeling relaxed and comfortable. Her mind turned towards the many nights she’d be able to spend with her family in the coming months. It was a slightly heady feeling that filled her with excitement and a hint of apprehension. She’d been in public service her entire adult life. Logically she knew what it meant to be a private citizen, or as private a citizen as an ex-president could be, but actually living it was going to be another story.
Dev was just reaching for a cookie that had somehow escaped her earlier chocolate chip frenzy when she heard the buzz of conversation abruptly stop.
“Wow, Ash,” Lauren said, looking a little stunned. “I’m…” She blinked a few times then turned to Dev. “What do you think?”
Dev popped the entire cookie into her mouth and closed her eyes. “Wha-ew-I-fhink-bout-wha?”
“Ashley’s wants to go on a date.”
Dev inhaled the cookie and began choking wildly, sending both Ashley and Lauren over to the sofa to pat her back and generally make sure she didn’t die. After she gave a series of gasps and hacks, the cookie finally dislodged itself, the experience leaving Devlyn panting for breath.
“God, are you okay?” Lauren cupped Dev’s now-sweating cheeks and searched her face.
Dev nodded. “I’m fine.” She coughed a few times. “I just- I- I. A date?” she finally squealed.
“C’mon, Mom,” Ashley groaned, taking a seat next to Dev. “Don’t act so surprised.”
Lauren took the empty seat on Dev’s other side and patted her wife’s thigh, her eyes never leaving Ashley.
Dev scrubbed her face, a million questions running through her mind. But in typical fashion, she quickly distilled them into their simplest form. “Okay, Ash. Who? When? Where? And how?”
Lauren blinked as Ashley adopted her mother’s way of thinking in a flash of an eye and responded in kind. “Alexander. Seven o’clock. Next Friday’s Senate Democrat Christmas Gala at the Hay-Adams Hotel. He’ll pick me up here.”
Dev hands moved from her face to the back of her neck. “Alexander? Why does that sound familiar?” Dev turned to Lauren. “Wasn’t there someone named Alexander on America’s Most Wanted, The New Wave last week?”
Lauren smothered a chuckle. “Yes, darlin’. But he was a 55-year-old embezzler from Utah. Ashley is talking about Ambassador Antoine Tremaine’s son.”
“Ooooh.” Dev visibly relaxed and gave her daughter a fond smile. “I remember that boy. We had dinner with his family once.” Her smile grew even larger when she remembered the boy’s placid nature and his endearingly geeky appearance. “He seemed harmles— err… I mean sweet. Has all those cute freckles like his mother.” She winked at Ashley. “Isn’t he kind of young for you, Moppet?”
“Devlyn,” Lauren interrupted, “We had dinner with them five years ago. By now the boy has to be…” she pinned Ashley with a serious look that warned her to tell the entire truth, “how old, Ash?”
Ashley winced, and her voice dropped to barely a whisper. Her gaze dropped to the rug. “Seventeen.”
Dev shot to her feet. “Seventeen!”
Ashley shot to her feet as well and stood toe to toe with her mother. “I have to start dating sometime. And he’s only two years older than I am!” She crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. “It’s just the mustache that makes him look older.”
Dev gaped. “He- he- he has a mustache?” She turned to Lauren with an incredulous look on her face. “A mustache?”
Lauren dropped her face into her hands. “Oh, boy,” she mumbled to herself.
“Why are we in the snow-filled Rose Garden in the middle of the night?” Lauren asked, pulling the lapels of her coat together at the neck. She was slowly walking, her arm entwined with Dev’s, her breath coming in small clouds that disappeared into the night sky as she spoke.
Dev shrugged and led them over to a small granite bench. She brushed it free of snow then spread out the throw blanket she’d snagged from their residence on the way out the door. “I thought it would be pretty tonight. And I wanted the time alone with you.” She sat down, feeling Lauren snuggle up close to her. “Is this okay?”
“Mmm…” Lauren nodded. “Sure. I mean, it is freezing. But I’m fine next to you.”
Dev smiled and wrapped her arm around Lauren, pulling her close and sighing when the blonde head rested itself against her shoulder. It didn’t take long for Devlyn to speak. “You think we should let Ashley go, don’t you?”
Lauren was quiet for a long time before she answered. She knew what she wanted and what Devlyn would prefer. But then there was Ashley. “I think that she’s a smart, funny, beautiful young lady who is going to have most of the boys,” the corner of her mouth quirked, “and some of the girls, buzzing around her for a long time to come.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
Lauren let out a slow breath. “Exactly.”
Dev whimpered a little. “She’s my baby, Lauren. She’s not ready to have people with mustaches trying to kiss her.”
Lauren chuckled softly. “You’re not ready to have people with mustaches try to kiss her.”
Dev snorted. “And you are? I saw the look on your face tonight.”
Lauren shifted uncomfortably, well aware of how she felt. “No. I guess I’m not what you’d call ‘ready.’ But whether we’re ready isn’t the point.” She took Dev’s hand, and tried to warm it in her own. “By the way, how come when I said the boys were too young to go snowmobiling, I was being silly. But when Ashley wants to go on a date, she’s your baby? Hmm?”
“I’m fairly confident the boys aren’t going to get pregnant while snowmobiling.”
“Devlyn Marlowe!” Lauren smacked Dev’s mid-section. “She’s not going to get pregnant on her first date. Ashley’s not like that. For God’s sake, we’re going to be at that party ourselves!”
Dev’s frowned. “I know,” she admitted, aware she was overreacting but helpless to stop herself. She turned beseeching eyes on Lauren. “I can’t believe I even said that. I sound like a lunatic. My parents were totally calm. Why aren’t I calm? What did your parents say when you first asked?”
“Mama was in her room asleep and so I only went to Daddy.” Lauren tried not to smile. “He looked up from his newspaper, said for me to be back by midnight, no drinking, and if I got pregnant he’d disown me. Then he went back to reading the sports section.”
“Oh, God,” Dev moaned, throwing her hands into the air. “I’m as bad as your father was."
Lauren’s gaze softened. “You’re not that bad.”
“She’s just a girl.” A look of total dismay swept across Dev’s face. “When she starts dating is when someone is going to break her heart. She’s so trusting and sweet, and there is going to be some asshole out there who is going make her feel bad about herself, and make her cry.” She let out a frustrated breath and lowered her voice. “How can I protect her from that if I let her go?”
Lauren nodded and tried for the millionth time to look past the haze caused by the city lights and see stars. “I’d give anything to protect all the kids forever. But we can’t, honey. We all get our hearts broken.”
Without her permission, tears filled Dev’s eyes. “I know. But I love her so much I can’t bear the thought.”
Lauren’s chest felt heavy, the thought of Ashley being hurt making her sick as well. “Neither can I. But, baby, I don’t think it’s something we can realistically stop.” Tenderly, she wiped the moisture away from the corner of Dev’s eyes. “It’s part of growing up.”
Dev swallowed a few times. “So you think we should let her go?”
“I think we should consider it,” Lauren corrected gently. “She is awfully young, and she hasn’t exactly had your normal childhood, Devlyn.” She lifted her hand to forestall the complaint that was poised on Dev’s lips. “I know we’ve tried. But the girl can’t go to Dairy Queen without the Secret Service coming along. She’s never babysat, or delivered a newspaper or a lot of the things that teach kids responsibility on the way to becoming an adult.”
Miserably, Dev nodded, reminded once again of what her choice of careers had cost her family.
“So if it were another boy from a family we didn’t know or the date was going to be someplace where we couldn’t keep an eye on her, then I wouldn’t even consider it. Not until she’s just a little bit older.” Lauren drew in a deep breath. “But—”
“But we can at least make sure she’s safe this time,” Dev acknowledged. A light bulb suddenly popped on in her head. “Is this the boy she was going on and on about a few weeks ago?”
Lauren couldn’t help but smile. She wistfully recalled the memory of her first crush and the nervous boy trying to give her a kiss in the corner of the school playground. “He’s the one. Apparently, he’s quishy.”
“That had better not be contagious.”
Gray eyes rolled. “It means ‘cute,’ Devlyn.”
“How do you know what it means?” Dev demanded. “You’re not cooler than I am!”
Lauren snorted. “Am too. But… umm…” she paused and picked a little at Dev’s coat, her fingers quickly finding the gap between buttons resting against the warm flannel. “I looked it up after I heard the kids saying it.”
Dev let out a disgusted breath. “Figures the boy would be quishy.” She tilted her head back, letting it rest against the high back of the stone bench. “Why would she want to start a relationship with someone here in Washington when we’re moving to Ohio next month?”
“I don’t think it’s a relationship, Devlyn. It’s just a Christmas party.”
The blonde peered up until their eyes met.
“What about the fact that he’s French? They invented doing things with their tongues.” She hissed the last word as though it were a curse and then used the muscle in question to lick all around Lauren’s mouth, causing the younger woman to burst into giggles.
The licking soon turned into soft but passionate kissing, and for a long while on that cold December night they lost track of the time as they necked in the Rose Garden.
Finally, Dev pulled away, her body tingling all over, every bit of the chill chased away by her ardor. “Is she ready?”
Lauren easily picked up the thread of their prior conversation. “Not for what we were just doing, no.” She ran her knuckles across Dev’s cheek, reveling in the feeling of soft, flushed skin. “But to dip her toe in the dating pool…”
“All right.” Dev sighed. “But only because we’re going to be there.”
Lauren nodded. “And only if she drives to and from the Hay-Adams with us.”
Dev smiled. “Good one.” Feeling better, she yawned. “I’ll have the FBI run the boy’s background and do a profile on him tomorrow.”
Chuckling, Lauren rose to her feet, tugging the President along with her. “I’m going to pretend you’re joking.”
“Of course I’m joking.”
Saturday, December 22, 2028
Dev sat behind her desk; her palms were flat against the shiny surface as she just looked at the room. The door to David’s office opened and he wandered through just as he was finishing a phone call. He expertly clipped the phone onto his belt and regarded his boss. “You’re not working?”
She shrugged and leaned back in her chair. “I was just thinking. And to be honest, there’s only a few weeks left and not a hell of a lot going on. Geoff’s transition team has been working like crazy.” She shook her head a little. “It feels weird to be in here without anybody running around like a chicken without his head. ”
“Yeah.” David thought about the subdued mood of the entire White House. “I guess they do usually.”
Dev ran her fingertips over the polished desktop again. “What do you suppose the chances are that I can keep this?”
“Slim to none.”
“I figured.” She got up and moved to the couches and gestured for David to join her. “Anything exciting I should know about?”
He nudged her with his shoulder and dropped down, and they both rested their feet on the coffee table. “Haven’t the last eight years been exciting enough?”
Dev didn’t have to answer. He already knew the answer to that. As much as her job put strains on other parts of her life, she wouldn’t have traded it for the world. The ability to make a positive difference in countless people’s lives, the raw power of it, the respect, the dazzling thrill of it all that pushed the hard, draining moments into the background and gave her an emotional high that was nearly unequaled, would be hard to give up. Luckily, she didn’t have a choice. “So you’re really going to stay here, huh?”
The tall man shrugged. “Beth’s going back to teaching full time and it would be hard for the new Emancipation Party Chairman to do his job from anywhere else.”
“Anywhere else but the center of the universe… or the pits of hell. After eight years, I still can’t decide which one Washington is.”
They both smiled.
“Besides,” David began again. “You’re going back into the real world and you won’t need me there.”
“Hey,” Dev turned sideways to face David, her forehead creasing. “You’re my best friend. I’ve always needed you. And I always will.” The lines on her face smoothed as she watched her words sink in. “We are a damn fine team, David.”
“The best,” he agreed, his jaw lifting a little with the admission. “But this is where I need to be to make things happen, and it’s time I stepped out from behind your ‘skirt-tails’ and made my own mark. For once, I want to speak for myself and have somebody know it’s me who’s talking.”
“You’re going to be great, but I’m going to miss my right hand.”
David gave her a quietly devoted look. “Not as much as I’m going to miss being it. But I think you can use your own hands on the lecture circuit. And besides, you got to keep Liza. And she’ll help keep things on track.”
“I can’t believe Jane talked her into taking maternity leave. I was seriously worried that if the baby wasn’t born when Liza scheduled it—”
“On Sunday morning between 3 and 5 a.m.—” David broke in with a smile.
“The least busy time, statistically speaking,” Dev laughed, “that the poor woman would have a nervous breakdown.”
“Knowing Liza, that’s probably exactly when the baby will come.”
Dev chuckled. “Very true.”
David slapped his knee. “I hope you know I’m going to be calling my old friend and asking her to go stumping for the party's brightest and best.”
Dev flashed him a brilliant smile. “I should hope so. But not for the first six months or so. I intend to go home, plant a garden, sit by the fire, and make love to my wife constantly.”
“All at the same time? Wouldn’t that be dirty and hot?”
Dev grinned. “If I’m lucky.”
“And you’re going to do this for six months straight?”
Dev actually blushed. “Well, I imagine I won’t make it the full six months. I’m not as young as I used to be.”
David gazed at her knowingly. “And the chances of you being content sitting around by some fire and gardening your time away are about as good as me becoming Miss America. You, Madam President, are not the sort of woman who will be happy with a life of leisure.”
“No,” she smiled a little. “I guess I’m not. But I am going to become reacquainted with my kids and parents. And try to make up for some of the many, many late nights I should have spent in bed with my wife but spent behind this desk instead.” She nudged him with her foot. “I owe it to them and to myself to at least try.”
David nodded. “Understood. So…” He decided on a change of subjects. “Have you and Lauren settled on one of the houses you were looking at?”
“I think so. We’re flying down to look at our final two choices in Powell over the New Year’s weekend. They’re both in good locations and close to Mom and Dad. My folks have been wanting to spend more time with the kids for years. And they aren’t getting any younger.”
“Speaking of someone young, do you know that Aaron asked me when he could get a tattoo?”
“What?” Dev screeched.
David shook his head and laughed. “Oh, yeah. Apparently, he mentioned it to Lauren, and she told him when hell freezes over, and over her dead body, and a bunch of other things that made him understand that she was not the person to ask to get around going to you.”
“Smart woman.” Dev nodded. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him that if it were my choice, which it’s not,” he emphasized that part, knowing that his role with the children was still a somewhat touchy spot between them, “that the answer would be never. But that once he’s over 18 it's up to him to decide.”
“Well, it’s true, Dev.”
A dark eyebrow lifted. “Then you’d better manage to get some legislation raising the age from 18 to 21 before Chris gets that old. Hell, 25 sounds like a little better age of consent, now that I think about it.”
David almost laughed until he realized she was being serious. “Dev,” he whined. “That’s a state, not federal, issue. You know how I hate state politics.” Dev just glared at him, so he tried another tack. “My hands are tied.”
She gave him a firm poke in the belly. “Well, Mr. Big Shot Party Chairman.” Another poke. “You’ve got six years before Aaron is 18 to untie them.”
He tried to hold it back, but David couldn’t help but let a slightly melancholy smile overtake his face. He swallowed thickly, and his voice dropped to a rarely used, soft tone. “You have no idea how much I’m going to miss you and your family, Devil.”
Dev’s eyes widened a little with alarm. “Jesus, David, you make it sound like we’re never going to see each other again.”
David let out a quick breath. “That will never happen,” he promised.
She bit the inside of her lip as she tried to keep her voice from cracking. “The hardest part about leaving the job is going to be leaving you here.” She paused and let every bit of the love and gratitude she felt for him show plainly on her face. “I- I wouldn’t be the woman I am today without you, David. I know that most of the country will never realize how much you’ve done and how tirelessly you’ve worked. But I know. And I won’t ever forget. Thank you.”
Their eyes met, and David realized he didn’t know what to say. He felt her words all the way to the bottom of his heart. Instead of answering, he just took Dev’s hand and cradled it in his larger one, then he threaded their fingers together and squeezed gently as they both turned and gazed out the window at the falling snow. The vision was a blurred one for both friends.
After a few minutes, Dev sniffed and wiped at her face. “Now that the mushy stuff is out of the way, call Beth, and get her over here, so you can both come have dinner with me and the family.”
“I’d love to, Madam President.”
Video calls had been exchanged with loved ones, the McMillians had come and gone, and Lauren had successfully sneaked over to her office while Devlyn and the children were enjoying their late morning Christmas naps. It was a lazy, cloudy day, and she had her glasses off and was gnawing on their stems as she took this rare quiet time to dictate some notes for Devlyn’s biography.
As usual, Gremlin lay atop her feet, warming them. He lounged there listlessly, the death of his mate the summer before taking most of the spring from his formerly feisty step. Occasionally, Lauren reached down to scratch his ears, her voice never wavering as she continued with her notes.
Overview. Last Chapter. General thoughts:
In less than a month, Geoff and Brenda Vincent will move into the White House, and the Marlowes, my family, will move out. Devlyn made a lot of sense when she asked where all the time had gone. I hardly know myself. I swear to God it was just yesterday that I walked into this place, in utter awe, my mouth hanging open like somebody who was in 10 feet over her head. <chuckling> Which I was. Nowadays, just every now and then, I stop and look around and remember where I am and what the people here are doing, and it’s easy to recall just when I had butterflies the size of bats jumping in my stomach.
When I look back at my first year in the White House, at how I was concerned that I couldn’t deliver an impartial portrait of this American president, I have to laugh. Impartiality? Lord, that flew out the window the moment I fell in love with her. The moment that her life story became mine, and vice versa. Still, Devlyn is the most honest person I’ve ever met. That honesty bleeds into everything she does and to know her deeds is to, at least for the most part, know her. The good and the bad. The mistakes and the triumphs. I’ve decided to include it all. The hard stuff, too, and the stuff that happened behind closed doors and away from the cameras. It won’t be juicy gossip the tabloids crave. Just the real Devlyn.
All of her.
The shooting. Not just that it happened, but what it took for her to recover physically and mentally and to put herself back out there again. In harm's way. Every. Single. Day.
The nights she couldn’t sleep while some operation was taking place halfway across the world, knowing that somebody’s son or daughter wasn’t going to be coming home. Nobody but Jane and I know about the teary phone calls she made to the families the next day. Out of the spotlight. Alone. *She* did that. Not some aide or soldier. The President.
The laughter from the White House gym as she, and the willing among the Secret Service Agents, grunted and sweated and formed relationships that went far beyond work. And how she lives with the knowledge that part of these people’s jobs is to take a bullet for her, if necessary.
The re-election scandal that nearly cost her a second term in office. God, I still can’t believe that she made sure that “suicide” wasn’t listed as the cause of death on Mama’s death certificate. I should have wondered why the press never picked up on exactly what happened. But so much was happening in my own life then that I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I guess I thought I just got incredibly lucky when it came to Mama’s death and the press. But it wasn’t luck, and three years after Devlyn did it, it exploded in her face. She risked her entire career for me and did it knowing and believing that it was wrong. It was one of the times she wasn’t the nation’s hero. Just mine.
The days spent bargaining away little pieces of something she believed in, in exchange for the greater good.
The endless speeches, negotiations, fundraisers, and legislation that she poured her heart into.
The pride on her face when she knew she’d done something that was truly special.
Scratch what I said about including it all. Starlight isn’t interested in a 20-volume set. But my editor and I can duke it out over what to include later. For now, I need to focus on the last chapter.
It won’t be the climax. Or even the wrap-up after the climax. Fiction is so much easier that way.
I don’t believe the last chapter of a biography of a living person should dwell too much on their past accomplishments. That implies that the deeds that got their picture on the book cover to begin with are the deeds that were the most meaningful. That things are somehow over because the words ‘The End’ are printed at the bottom of the page.
The story isn’t over! She is only 46 years old. She’s vibrant and healthy and still hell bent on saving the world, even if she pretends she’ll be happy in some house in Ohio with a white picket fence, a hammock, and a good book. She won’t be. And that’s all right. Because I wouldn’t be either. She’s not ready to ride off into the sunset, it’s just time for a different trail. One that will largely be “off camera.”
My goal is not to leave the reader wondering about anything, but to leave them knowing that, just because the book is over, the story isn’t. I truly believe there are a lot of great things still to come from Devlyn Marlowe. The part that still makes me a little giddy is that I’m going to be there to share them with her.
Lauren paused and took a sip of tea. Then she chewed on her glasses and picked up a stack of papers that sat next to her computer. She rifled through them until she found the sheet she wanted.
“I think if I tie Devlyn’s plans for the lecture circuit into some of Chapter Seven, I can show that—”
Her words were interrupted by a phone call, and Lauren disabled the voice system on her computer and smiled when she saw who was calling.
Lauren was just getting ready to end her video call from Wayne when there was a knock at her office door.
“C’mon in, Ashley,” Lauren called.
The dark-haired girl opened the door and poked her head inside what once was Lauren’s White House apartment. “Are you busy?” she asked, then she caught sight of Wayne’s three-dimensional image. “I can come back—”
“No, no.” Lauren waved her inside. “We were just finishing up.”
Ashley flashed a brilliant smile as she entered the room and made her way to Lauren, not bothering to close the door behind her. “Hi, Mr. Evenocheck!” She gave the man a little wave.
“Hello, sweetheart,” he greeted, his voice warm. Then he let loose with a wolf whistle. “You are every bit as gorgeous as both your mothers.” He sighed. “What I wouldn’t give to be one of the agents guarding your house and to be not so old that you’re absolutely right in calling me Mr. Evenocheck.”
Lauren laughed as Ashley blushed becomingly. Fondly, she wrapped an arm around the girl’s slim waist. “Don’t let him embarrass you, sugar.” Lauren’s eyes twinkled. “He enjoys scaring members of the opposite sex.”
“You wound me, Lauren,” Wayne said in a serious voice, but he winked for Ashley’s benefit.
“Oh.” Ashley suddenly remembered the book she’d recently finished. She sucked in an excited breath. “Mr. Evenocheck, Mama said you know—”
Wayne chuckled. “His autograph is in the mail, sweetheart. Just don’t drool on it.” He winked again. “Runs the ink.”
“Thanks!” Ashley gave an excited little hop.
“Oops.” Wayne looked down at his phone. “That’s my mother on my other line. This is her annual call to tell me how another Christmas has been ruined because I haven’t given her any grandchildren.” He cringed.
“Mr. Evenocheck has a mother?” Ashley murmured to Lauren, earning a muffled chuckle from the older woman.
“It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?” Lauren whispered back, tickling Ashley’s waist with playful fingers.
“I heard that,” Wayne complained, but he was smiling. “Merry Christmas to my favorite author and her family.” He met Lauren’s gaze. “We’ll talk again soon, yes?” He lifted his eyebrows in question.
Thoughtfully, Lauren nodded. “Soon.”
Wayne disconnected from his end and with a few security codes, Lauren did the same thing. “How was your nap?” she asked Ashley, taking the time to save her file and turn off her machine.
Lauren glanced at her in question.
Ashley’s mouth formed a tiny O. “Oh, right. My nap.” She yawned dramatically. “It was great.”
Lauren pursed her lips. Something was up.
“Hurry up, Ash!” came a voice from outside office. “You’re supposed to get her off the phone, not take all day.”
Lauren gave Ashley a puzzled look, then rose to her feet, gently moving Gremlin aside so she could stand without tipping over. “Aaron, is that you? You can come in.”
Then she heard it. The familiar pitter-patter of tiny feet. Four, tiny canine feet, to be precise.
Aaron pushed open the door to reveal a pug puppy, who was on a long, loosely held, bright red leash and collar. Over Aaron’s shoulder, Lauren could see a smiling Christopher and a sheepish-looking Devlyn peering back at her.
“What in the world?” Her eyes saucered as a tiny replica of Gremlin scampered in, his paws sliding on the hardwood floors. He ran headfirst into a chair leg and shook his head briskly. He was stunned, and he staggered backwards a few steps before landing squarely on his butt with a tiny thump.
Gremlin’s ears perked up and with a growl, and at a speed that Lauren hadn’t witnessed in several years, he bolted for the puppy, his feet slipping and sliding as he went.
“Gremlin!” Lauren cried, afraid of what he might do to the puppy.
But Gremlin came to a screeching stop just in front of the smaller dog, stopping just as his broad, flat nose bumped gently against the puppy’s smaller one.
For a tension-filled few seconds both dogs remained stock-still. Then the smaller dog’s entire body started to shake, along with his stumpy tail.
“Aww…” The kids cooed in unison, making their way to the floor with the dog.
Even Devlyn found herself melting a little as Grem tentatively poked out his tongue and greeted the puppy with a sopping, loud lick.
Lauren blinked as her dog warmed to his new task and began cleaning the puppy’s entire face as the puppy mewed and whimpered in delight. A smile edged its way onto her face, and she glanced up at Dev — who was doing her best to look innocent. “Is someone going to tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s a Christmas present,” Christopher explained, petting both dogs with a gentle touch that was so characteristic of the boy. “Gremlin’s been so sad.”
Aaron stood up and handed the leash to his brother. “He still misses Princess, I think. We thought he might need a friend,” he grinned, showing off deep dimples, “with breath as bad as his.”
“How—?” Lauren shook her head in wonder. “How did you get one that looks just like Gremlin? I’m not even sure he’s purebred. We met at the pound!”
“The puppy is Grem’s grandson,” Ashley told her, her eyes on the puppy. “Uncle David bred his pugly with a purebred pug, and he ended up with one that looks like Gremlin again. We kept it a surprise.”
Dev stepped around her children and the dogs and approached the younger woman. “Surprised?” she asked, bracing herself in case Lauren reacted badly. She cocked her head to the side and asked in her most sincere voice, “Can we keep him, Mama?” She batted her eyelashes. “Please?”
Lauren’s jaw sagged a little as she wondered whether she'd heard Devlyn right. “Devlyn Marlowe,” she paused to kiss her in greeting, “you have complained about my dog every single day since I came to the White House and now you want another pug?”
Dev’s cheeks tinted and she dropped her voice so that only Lauren could hear. “But Grem is lonely by himself.” She gave Lauren a wish-filled look that left her helpless to do anything but smile.
“You’re such an old softy,” she whispered back, feeling as though she might cry.
“Shh…” Dev looked around in case she was being overheard. “The kids will never listen to another word I say if they figure out what a soft touch I am.”
The children all began to giggle. “We all know and we still love you, Mom,” Christopher assured her, using the puppy’s paws to scratch Gremlin’s ears.
“Well?” Ashley looked up from her place on the floor with the boys. “Can we keep him?”
Lauren eyed her dog, who was actually smiling, his crooked teeth gleaming in the afternoon light. Then she looked at her children, who were all giving her the same pathetic, puppy-dog eyes that Devlyn had subjected her to earlier. She sighed. “Was there ever any doubt?”
“Yes!” the boys crowed, startling the puppy and sending it scurrying over to Devlyn.
The white dog with black markings cowered at the President’s feet and Devlyn reached out a tentative hand to comfort him, ready to snatch it away in case Gremlin’s prodigy decided to take after his Grandpa and go for her pinky finger. But to everyone’s surprise, the puppy simply licked Dev’s fingers, then nuzzled her hand.
Beaming, Dev picked up the puppy and gave him a sloppy kiss. “He loves me!” She turned to Gremlin, a smug look on her face. “See this?” She squeezed the puppy to her face. “He loves me. Me, me, me, me, me! What do you think about that?”
Gremlin turned his flat nose up at the President and, seeing no reason to break with tradition now, refused to acknowledge that he was even being spoken to.
Dev’s eyes narrowed at the chubby dog, and her lips curled into her best snarl.
Snorting at Dev and Gremlin’s familiar antics, Lauren reached out to pet the puppy to say hello. “Yeow!” The dog snapped at her, his teensy teeth bared in canine fury. She snatched her hand away, rubbing it even though the tiny teeth had missed her. “Hey,” she said softly, “I won’t hurt you.” She tried again, and this time the dog barked, refusing to let Lauren’s hand anywhere near not only him but his new mistress.
On Lauren’s third try, the puppy sank his teeth into the sleeve of her sweatshirt and refused to let go even when Lauren jerked her hand back. The frantic action yanked the skinny dog right out Devlyn’s arms and left him dangling from Lauren’s shirt as she shook her arm wildly and screamed for someone to get him off.
The children were nearly in hysterics by the time Devlyn successfully unhooked the puppy's teeth from Lauren’s favorite, orange, Tennessee Volunteers sweatshirt.
“He’s possessed!” Lauren wailed to Gremlin. “Can you believe that? Your own flesh and blood is a demon and he likes her,” she pointed an accusing finger at her mate, “and not me.” She held up her now raggedy sleeve for Gremlin to see. “Look what he did!”
Dev petted the puppy possessively, enjoying this more than she could put into words. “Thank you for naming him, honey. Hello, little Demon,” she murmured into his soft white fur.
The children hummed their agreement at the name, enjoying the play between their mothers and most especially the comical, sour look on Lauren’s face.
In consolation, Gremlin made the supreme effort of getting up and walking the few paces over to Lauren and plopping down on her feet. He was there for her to scratch, should she find it necessary.
Satisfied for the time being, Lauren shook her finger at Devlyn. “Keep Demon away from me. He’s tried to bite me twice and he’s just a baby!”
“But he’s so precious,” Dev cooed, kissing the dog again, mindless of his slobber.
“Uck.” Lauren made a face. “I won’t even do that with Gremlin. Your lips are not coming anywhere near me for days.”
“That’s okay,” Dev murmured, petting her new beloved. She sniffed haughtily, her nose high in the air. “It’s enough to know at long last that a pug has chosen me over you. It’s only sweeter that he’s a relative of Gremlin’s.”
“Devlyn,” Lauren groaned. “I am not keeping a dog that hates me.”
Dev arched an eyebrow. “We all want a new member of the family, and now I’ll have lots of extra time to spend with him.”
Lauren gave her a challenging look, and Devlyn gave her one right back.
“It’s either a dog or a baby, Lauren. You choose.”
“Hello and welcome to the family, Demon,” Lauren said instantly, trying once again to pet him, only to have to snatch her hand away to safety.
Dev sniggered. “That’s what I thought.”
“Here.” Lauren grabbed Christopher by the arm and hoisted him to his feet. He was already a little taller than she was, and she gave him a quick peck on the cheek before pushing him towards his mother. “Take Demon and Gremlin for a walk and let them get to know each other. I need a minute alone with your mom.”
“Oooo…” the kids taunted. “Mom’s in trou-blllle!”
Dev blinked, then her eyes widened. “I am?” She tried to sneak out with the kids, but Lauren grabbed her by the back of her shirt and hauled her back into the room, not stopping until they stood alongside the bed.
“Oh, no you don’t, Madam President. I said I wanted to talk to you.”
“So you did.” Dev sighed and flopped back down on the bed with her eyes closed. “I’m not really in trouble, am I?” She opened one very blue eye just in case.
The blonde laughed softly. “No. The puppy will eventually like me.” She joined Dev on the bed, stretching out and propping her head on her upturned hand. “Thank you for thinking of Gremlin,” she said, her voice soft and sincere. “He’s been so sad.”
Dev smiled, but just a little. “S’okay. We’ve sort of come to a truce over the years.” She shrugged one shoulder.
“I know. In fact, that was so sweet I’d kiss you now, but you still have puppy slobber on your face.”
Dev eagerly wiped her mouth off using her sleeve. “Better?” She presented her mouth to Lauren for inspection.
Lauren smiled warmly and patted Dev’s cheek. Then she leaned close to Dev’s mouth, stopping bare millimeters away to say, “No.”
The smile slid from Dev’s face, and Lauren laughed.
“Damn, you’re mean.” Dev frowned.
“Aww… C’mere, darlin’.” This time their lips met in earnest in a soft, slow kiss that they both sank into. “I.” Another kiss. “Love.” A third kiss. “You.”
“Wow,” Dev finally said, sharing the same breath as Lauren. “You’re in a good mood all of the sudden.”
Lauren nodded. “I’m… well.” She drew in a deep breath. “I don’t know what I am. Excited, I guess.” She pulled away just enough to gauge Dev’s reaction. “On the phone today, Wayne made me an offer.”
“I need to castrate that man.”
Gray eyes rolled. “Not that kind of an offer.” A beat. “At least not this time.” She grinned as Dev’s eyes turned to slits, but her expression quickly sobered. “He wants me to write another biography when I’m finished with yours.”
Suddenly serious, Dev sat up. “Really?”
“Wow.” Dev licked her lips. “I… Um… I thought you were going to take a year or two off and do another Adrian Nash novel.”
“That is what I planned.”
Dev blinked as she caught the look of hesitation in her lover’s eyes. “But that’s not what you’d rather do.” It wasn’t a question.
“I didn’t tell Wayne yes or no to anything,” Lauren said quickly, searching Dev’s face for her reaction. She felt her stomach flip-flop. “I would never do that without—”
“Whoa.” Dev reached out and stroked Lauren’s arm. “Slow down and tell me what he said.” She smiled encouragingly, and Lauren let out a relieved breath.
“Have you heard of Doctor Graham Lock?”
Dev’s eyebrows knitted. “He’s a scientist researching…” she searched her mind, “cell structure or cell replication… or… um… cancer, right?”
“Yes, to all those things.” Lauren licked her lips. “His latest results from his first round of human trials came back a few days ago. The results haven’t been released to the public or even to the scientific community, but Wayne was literally talking to the man when the results came back.” She held her breath as Devlyn put the pieces together.
“He did it?” The President sucked in a breath. “Holy Christ, he found a cure for cancer?”
Lauren nodded, well aware of how amazing this was to say. “He thinks so.”
Devlyn was about to jump off the bed and head to a phone when Lauren held her down by her shoulders. “Hang on there.”
“I need to call Dav—”
“No, you don’t,” Lauren said firmly, her eyes flashing with determination. “This is ‘off the record.’”
Dev’s mouth clicked closed. This was the first time in all these years that their positions had been reversed. And she wasn’t sure she liked it.
Lauren eased off of Dev’s shoulders and tenderly massaged the places where her hands had been. “The results of the trials will be made public in the morning. Today is Christmas. Isn’t that soon enough, Devlyn? Please.”
Dev sighed, but nodded. “I’m sorry. I just—”
Lauren’s eyes softened. “It’s okay. It’s amazing news. Wayne’s been after this scientist for months. The fact that he found out just a tiny bit sooner than the rest of the world was nothing but dumb luck. According to Wayne, the initial trial results are very promising. Even if Dr. Lock isn’t one hundred percent successful right now, Devlyn, he’s close. He really believes he’s going to find the cure for cancer and so do a lot of other people.”
“And Wayne wants you to write his story,” Dev breathed, seeing the lives they’d laid out for the indefinite future disintegrate before her eyes.
Lauren gazed at her warily, knowing this was a lot to think about. She hadn’t even had the opportunity to think about it. “Yes. Wayne is after an exclusive contract for an authorized biography with Dr. Lock. Something he could sell to Starlight after the preliminaries are in place.”
“It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” Dev said quietly, looking into Lauren’s eyes.
Lauren kissed her softly. “You were my opportunity of a lifetime. Nothing can change that. But this would be… I don’t know. It could be….”
Dev nodded, her mind racing. “Where?”
“Sydney, Australia.” At the sight of Dev’s widening eyes, she quickly added, “Or Ohio. I wouldn’t start until late next summer at the soonest. I need to finish your book, and I need a vacation. A long vacation. But, I don’t know, maybe… maybe I could travel back and forth to Sydney and do most research by computer.”
Dev frowned. “But it would be better to be there in person, wouldn’t it? That’s how you work, right?”
Lauren swallowed. “In the past, yes. But your lecturing and the kids’ school and—”
Dev pressed her fingers against Lauren’s lips to stop her. “How long?” Carefully, she pulled back her fingers.
“I’m not sure.” Lauren’s brain shifted into biographer mode. “Nothing too long. His next set of trials is slated for the fall. And then six months to a year is about normal for research and observation, maybe a bit longer,” she allowed, “because I’d have to learn a lot just to understand what the man is saying when he speaks. Then another six months or so to tie things together. But that could be done anywhere.”
“Mmm…” Dev nodded again, her face serious as she looked away from Lauren and gathered her thoughts, which were racing along at a mile a minute. It would be hard, yes. But plans could be changed. Things could be worked out. And in the end, there was really only one question that mattered. “Do you want it?” She glanced back at Lauren and met her gaze squarely. Her voice dropped to its deepest register. “Because I would want it.”
Lauren sucked in a breath and told the truth, “I don’t want it more than I want to be with you and the kids.”
Dev’s heart lurched, and she cupped Lauren’s cheek. “Honey, you’re stuck with us. That’s not even a consideration. The question is whether you want the job?”
Did she? She thought of what Wayne had said and let the tingle of anticipation burn all the way to her toes. Her gaze sharpened. “Yes.”
Dev smiled and crossed her legs at the ankles. “Then I guess we’re going to Australia.”
Lauren was at a loss, and her mouth worked for several seconds before she could speak. “Can- can we do that?” she stammered. “Just like that?”
Dev’s smile turned into an outright grin. “You’ve lived in my world for eight years.” Her voice held a strong note of devotion as the words flowed easily from her heart. “I know it hasn’t been easy. I think it’s my turn to follow you this time, Lauren.”
Tears welled in soft gray eyes, and Lauren’s chin began to tremble.
“You came to the White House with an ugly dog and a dozen boxes. When I tag along after you I’m going to bring our kids, security, a nanny, assuming Emma ever decides to come home from her yearly cruise, and most probably my parents, who have always wanted to see the Outback. Can you live with that mess?”
Lauren let out a ragged breath and felt herself fall in love all over again. And it was so sweet. “Hey,” she whispered. “That ‘mess’ is my family.” A tear escaped from one eye. Devlyn gently removed her glasses, then carefully kissed the tear away.
Lauren squeezed Dev to her with all her might. “I love you, Devlyn,” she whispered brokenly. “Thank you.”
It felt better than anything she’d done as president, and the thought almost surprised her.
“I love you, too.”
When Dev pulled away, Lauren could see the glint of excitement in her eyes, and she knew it was mirrored in her own.
The President grinned impishly. “I wonder what sort of trouble I can get into in Australia? In two terms of office I never made it out there. Though I’ve always wanted to go.” She jumped off the bed, dragging the smaller woman along with her and positioning Lauren squarely in front of her computer. She pushed the chair out of their way so they could both stand in front of the machine. “Fire this thing up and let’s look for beach bungalow rentals that will hold big families. And something with another building on the same property or next door for security.”
Dev rested her chin on Lauren’s head and handed the blonde back her glasses.
Lauren enabled the voice commands, and soon the sound of the women’s excited chatter about schools for the children, new options for Devlyn, their schedules, and the house they still intended to buy in Ohio filled the room. After a few heady moments, Lauren spun in Devlyn’s arms, and wrapped her own arms around Dev’s waist. She gazed up at her. “Are we really going to do this?”
The younger woman was radiating excitement and, to Devlyn, she’d never looked more beautiful. A dazzling smile lit Dev’s face, making it all the way to her eyes. “Can you think of anything better than starting a new adventure together?”
Lauren shook her head and rose onto her tiptoes to kiss the love of her life. “Not a single thing.”