Tuesday, March 1, 2022
Lauren sat on a bench in Rock Creek Park, soaking in the sounds of the night: the wind rattling dry branches, the faint but sharp cracking of sticks, and the rustling of old leaves and rocks as a small animal or two scurried through the woods around her. The morning sun was still several hours away and soft moonlight bathed her in a muted, ethereal glow as she tucked her chilled hands into the soft pockets of her leather coat. Small patches of snow still dotted the brown grass, though the temperature was well into the 40s.
Removing one hand from its warm haven, she gave Gremlin — who was lying next to her on the bench with his head resting on her thigh, sound asleep — a scratch behind the ears. While she wasn’t exactly at peace, she was far more centered than when she’d briskly walked into the park the evening before. She hadn’t cried, plotted anyone’s murder, or contemplated the devastating thought of life without Devlyn in several hours. This was, she decided, something she needed very much. To be alone.
Not the “alone” she’d experienced since becoming engaged to the most famous woman on the planet. But really, actually alone. Unless you counted Gremlin, which she didn’t. No paparazzi. No milling aides or secretaries. No agents with guns, grim faces, and annoying protocol. Just her. Funny thing was, despite wanting it so badly, she still felt a little lonely. Lauren dropped her face into her hands. “What is wrong with me?”
She let out a deep breath as her mind replayed her hasty retreat from the White House. She had known that Devlyn would come looking for her and had purposely hid in the kitchen for a few moments before going back to her quarters and packing an overnight bag. Talking to Devlyn just then would have been dangerous. Too dangerous. Because, in all likelihood, it would have been for the last time. She was that angry and hurt and that stressed.
But the last few hours of solitude had given her a little of the perspective that she’d lacked earlier. Lauren was honest enough with herself to admit that she hadn’t been fair to Devlyn when she refused her the opportunity to explain. But her blood had been boiling, and like a wounded animal she longed to lash out, to savagely inflict pain in a misguided attempt at self-defense.
She was glad now that she’d been able to escape. Glad that she’d seen David on the way out of the White House and told him in no uncertain terms that if she was followed she wouldn’t be coming back. Ever. She hadn’t meant that, not even then, when her heart felt so raw she could hardly breathe. She didn’t really believe Devlyn would cheat on her. But her heart had lied to her before, hadn’t it? “Damn.”
Lauren sucked in a deep breath and tilted her head skyward, her cheeks long dry of the tears she’d shed earlier. The faint sound of crunching wood chips in the distance caused her to turn her head and peer intently through the darkness.
Instantly awake, Gremlin jumped down from the bench and began to growl into the night, baring his tiny crooked teeth in an impressive show of ferocity.
Lauren felt her pulse pick up a little as she belatedly realized that it wasn’t safe to be sitting in the middle of a very wooded, very secluded park at 3 a.m. Then she sprang to her feet, standing behind Gremlin as a single figure emerged from the shadows. Her fists clenched and unclenched as she glanced behind her, prepared to run if she needed to. Her heart began to pound and a rush of adrenaline sang through her blood. How stupid am I? she berated herself. I’m gonna get myself killed!
“Who is it?” Lauren asked, hearing her voice shake a little.
The figure moved closer. “Lauren?”
The blonde woman nearly collapsed in heap when the familiar voice washed over her. “Devlyn?” It can’t be.
Dev stepped closer, giving the still snarling Gremlin a disgusted glance. “You know who I am, dog. See?” Devlyn bent down in front of Gremlin so that he could see her face. Once he did, however, he continued to bark and growl even louder. “Stupid mutt,” Dev grumbled, moving a step backwards when Gremlin’s snaggle-toothed mouth began snapping open and closed. A tiny part of her, however, was glad the worthless canine was so fiercely protecting Lauren. She’ll let him do that, Devlyn thought enviously, but not me.
“Gremlin…” Lauren warned in a soft, but firm, voice. Her gaze never strayed from Devlyn.
The small beast quieted instantly, but kept a wary eye on his mistress’ lover.
Dev sniggered inwardly, enjoying the tiny victory while she could.
“How did you find me?” Lauren asked, not masking her surprise and making no move to sit down or cross the 10 feet or so that separated her from the other woman.
Gremlin trotted over to Lauren and plopped down on her feet, already bored.
Dev sighed, her eyes showing her longing to embrace Lauren but also the fear that she would be turned away if she tried. At least she’s still talking to me. That’s something. She swallowed, knowing she had to tell the truth, but dreading saying the words. “I spoke to all of the agents assigned to you.” She didn’t mention that she’d called half of them out of bed to come to the White House to be grilled by her when her initial searching couldn’t turn up Lauren. “And this was one of the places they told me you like to come sometimes.” She was suddenly struck by the thought that they’d never been here together.
“Mmm…” Dejected, Lauren nodded. She gave Gremlin a gentle nudge and he moved off her feet, allowing her to pad back to the bench and sit down heavily. “Why are you here, Devlyn?”
Her voice was so quiet it was almost swept away by the breeze.
Devlyn’s stomach churned. She felt as if she was in some bad movie where someone else scripted the predictable lines and she was being swept away by the drama of the scene, scared and out of control. I’m here because I love you. I’m here to explain. I’m here because I’m afraid that this life will be too much for you and you’ll leave me bleeding and broken and desperately alone.
“You know why I’m here,” she said, trying to keep her resentment and fear from her voice. “May I sit down?” She indicated the bench next to Lauren.
Lauren gave a quick nod, scooting over a little when Gremlin jumped up next to her and snuggled up to her thigh to stay warm.
“Is it safe?” Dev asked, not really caring what the answer was. She would have sat next to Lauren if a crocodile, instead of merely the ugliest dog on earth, had been resting his face in her lap. “You haven’t been holding my picture in front of him and training him to kill, have you?”
Lauren’s first instinct was to smile and she didn’t try to fight it, though the gesture was half-hearted at best. “No attack training. He won’t even fetch when I ask him, much less anything more strenuous.” An image of Dev and Sarah kissing flashed through her mind and she felt a little sick. She turned away from Dev, unwilling to look at her as she released a heavy breath.
Dev’s heart clenched when Lauren looked away, and she felt tears fill her eyes. She blinked them back and sat down with a weary groan. With a single hand she rubbed her tired, stinging eyes, wishing she could start the entire day over again. Then she tucked her hand back into the pocket of her long woolen coat. It was the coldest part of the night and an oppressive dampness was overtaking the air.
She had combed the park looking for Lauren for nearly three hours and had run across four sleeping homeless people, two of whom were children. She made a mental note to do something about them. The wheels of government turned too slow for her taste, but she could help two specific kids in the cold, if she put her mind to it. There had been a pair of young lovers on a blanket, who were… well, she didn’t stay around long to see exactly what they were doing, but their moans and the steam rising off their barely-blanket-covered bodies left little to the imagination. There was a harmless jogger and then finally came a man who was singing “Some Enchanted Evening” at the top of his lungs to his unfortunate paramour, who also happened to be an oak tree. God, she missed Ohio.
Lauren’s head snapped sideways as she realized something. She looked over the tops of her glasses, behind Dev and into the woods around them. Seeing nothing, she squinted as she gazed down the narrow path from which Devlyn had emerged. “You’re alone,” she whispered. “Or do I just not see them?”
Dev knew this wasn’t what they needed to talk about. But now that she was here she found herself in no hurry to tackle the tough stuff. That would be hard enough without diving right in. She shook her head, not needing to ask whom Lauren was referring to. “I told them to wait by the car.” Though she’d checked in with the Secret Service every few minutes and moved the car no less than six times so they would never be more than a moment or two away.
Lauren’s eyes widened. She looked at Dev again, realizing that, except for a few days at Janet and Frank’s farm in Ohio, she’d never been outdoors and alone with Dev. It seemed odd and disconcertingly intimate after the events of the day. “David must be having a fit.”
Dev studied her shoes. “Umm…”
Lauren cocked her head sideways, recognizing that tone. “What?”
“I don’t think he’s speaking to me right now,” Dev admitted a little sheepishly, cringing.
“Why? If he should be angry with anyone, it’s me. God, what I said to him.”
“He’s not mad at you.”
Lauren gave Dev a look.
“Okay, he is mad at you. At us both. He didn’t want me looking for you, and when I told him I was doing it anyway, well, things got out of hand.”
Lauren took off her glasses and stuffed them into her pocket — a light fog was settling over the park and they were steaming up. “And then?” she prodded.
“And then I fired him.”
“What!” Lauren’s voice was so loud it nearly woke Gremlin. Nearly. “It’s not safe for you to be out alone. It’s not the same for me, Devlyn. The shooting—”
“He’s not the boss of me,” Devlyn stated, hoping it didn’t sound as childish to Lauren’s ears as it did her own.
Lauren stretched out her feet and stared into the trees with unseeing eyes. “We’re quite a pair, aren’t we?”
“Are we?” Dev forced the words out. “A pair?”
The air between them crackled with tension.
Lauren took a shaky breath. “I’m not sure anymore, Devlyn.” She turned her head and the women locked eyes. It didn’t hurt this badly with Judd, her mind cried. Not even close. “We need to talk about Sarah.”
Dev ran a hand through her hair, praying she’d do a better job of explaining this now than she had earlier. She was well aware that this might be her only chance and, frankly, that thought pissed her off nearly as much as Lauren’s lack of faith in her. “We do.” She drew in a deep breath. “Nothing happened between Sarah and me.” There. The simple truth was always best.
The flashing of gray eyes was visible even in the moonlight.
Dev quickly held up her hand. “I know what you saw. But that was her kissing me, not the other way around.”
“She forced you?” The incredulous tinge to Lauren’s voice let Dev know how unlikely she considered that prospect.
Dev looked horrified. “Of course not!” She lowered her voice. “She’s not like that. She’s a good person.”
Lauren ground her teeth together. “You’re defending her, even now. There is no defense for that. You’re engaged to me!”
“Just because Samantha is gone, it doesn’t mean I don’t consider Sarah my sister.”
“Sister!” Lauren’s face turned a deep shade of red, and the anger that had been simmering since she left the White House exploded to the forefront. “And here I thought I was from the South. Christ on a crutch! What the hell kind of sister kisses you like that?”
“I don’t know,” Dev hissed, shifting around so she was fully facing Lauren. “It’s never happened before. And it will never happen again.”
“She kissed you?”
Dev lifted her jaw a little. “Yes.”
“That kiss didn’t look like too much of a hardship, Devlyn. I have eyes. She’s a beautiful woman and even if she started it, you weren’t trying to stop her.”
Devlyn opened her mouth, then closed it. She felt her ire rise along with one of Lauren’s eyebrows. “Don’t you do that. Don’t you dare keep acting like I have something to hide! I am not the one who cheated on you and yet I already feel like shit and am so scared I can’t see straight. I. Didn’t. Do. Anything. Wrong!”
“I saw it.” Lauren shook her head quickly, remembering all the times her genuine inquiries with Judd been met by lies. And how it was just easier to believe than to be bothered to dig for the truth. How she didn’t care enough to dig. She spent a long moment, letting the past rear its ugly head… and bite her. Then some of her rational mind kicked in. What she had with Dev was worlds away from what she’d known before. And this time, she decided, she did care enough to fight tooth and nail.
“You think I’m not scared and sick too?” Lauren informed her hotly. “I spent the first hour away from the White House hanging over a motel toilet. I want to believe you, but you’re making it so hard!” The words came out in a steady stream, like a dam that had finally burst. “You’re acting guilty. And she’s beautiful and looks exactly like your dead wife.” Lauren’s throat closed. “The one you still love,” she managed to get out, ashamed of her bitterness towards a dead woman.
Lauren shook her head. “Please don’t say it. I know Samantha is your past. But that woman in your office isn’t. I saw what I saw, Devlyn. Give me more so that I can convince my head of what my heart is screaming,” she begged, soft gray eyes glistening in the moonlight.
“Ugh!” With a slightly shaky hand, Dev rubbed her forehead briskly. “When she kissed me, I didn’t know what to do. We had been talking about Sam and she touched my face and I wasn’t expecting it, and…” She lifted one hand and then let it fall helplessly. “I’ve never been kissed by her before. I wasn’t even sure it wasn’t totally innocent until she tried to—”
“Inspect your tonsils with her tongue?” Lauren snapped, closing her eyes and turning as she angrily swiped at her tears.
“Something like that,” Dev grumbled, fighting back the desperate feeling that had been gnawing at her guts all afternoon. “As soon as I knew what was happening, I moved to stop it and you walked in.”
Lauren swallowed hard, replaying the events in her mind and trying to focus on what’d she actually seen and not the wild surge of jealousy and betrayal she’d felt upon seeing. “Is… Is this the first time that’s happened?”
“How can you even ask me that!”
“How can I not!”
The park went silent, save for their slightly rough breathing, the breeze in the trees, and Gremlin’s gravelly snores.
“Do you love me?” Devlyn finally asked, her heart in her throat.
Lauren let out a shuddering breath, her own heart suddenly pounding. Do I love her? her mind gasped. God.
Dev reached out and brushed away Lauren’s hot tears, leaving her hand there to cup a chilled cheek. She brushed her thumb over soft skin.
“You know I do,” Lauren finally whispered raggedly, eyes closed tight, “more than anything or anyone.”
“Then stop this before it goes any farther,” she pleaded, knowing this went beyond a simple misunderstanding of a kiss. But to get to those issues, they had to successfully traverse this minefield. Dev didn’t know what she would do if they couldn’t. “Believe in me.” She looked deeply in Lauren’s eyes, willing her to have faith in what they shared.
Lauren bit her lower lip. “Do you know what you’re asking?” she whispered, her voice tight with emotion. “To believe you more than my own eyes.” But she found herself wanting to do just that. With devastating certainty, her heart knew why she was frightened beyond reason. Blindly trusting Dev wasn't difficult. It was, in fact, too, too easy.
“Trust me.” Dev felt Lauren lean into her touch, hot tears rolling down the back of her hand. “You can always believe in me. I will never, ever, do to you what Judd did to you. You and the kids are my family, and I love you.” Devlyn blinked a few times, clearing her eyes of her own tears. “Please,” she whispered brokenly, desperation creeping back into her voice.
Lauren’s breathing hitched and Devlyn’s plea forced her to open her eyes and look at her. She couldn’t stop herself. That was all it took. She didn’t know how she ended up in the older woman’s arms, but there she was, Dev’s hands gently stroking her wavy pale hair, her body heat seeping into her cold skin, her heartbeat thundering wildly and visibly in the fair skin of her throat. “What am… what am I doing? I’m so sorry,” Lauren mumbled, her lips against Dev’s chilled cheek.
Dev tightened her hold on Lauren, a single tear blazing a path down her cheek. “Me too.” Thank you, God. She felt a little lightheaded and wasn’t sure if it was from relief or the death grip that Lauren had on her. Either way, she welcomed the sensation. “Me too,” she repeated, pressing her lips against Lauren’s cheek. “I’ll talk to Sarah. I’ll work it all out, you’ll see. She knows I love you, Lauren. Everyone knows I love you. I’m not sure what she was thinking.”
Lauren sniffed. “I love you, too. I’m sorry.” Dazedly, she blinked a few times. “I’m not thinking straight. I—”
“I know.” Devlyn felt Gremlin milling around at their feet. “I should have paid more attention to you, to Sarah, to Beth, who warned me that you were under too much pressure weeks ago.”
Lauren felt warm puffs of air against her hair as Dev spoke.
“She told me that Sarah’s had a crush on me for years.” A dark head shook in disbelief. “I never knew… I promise. Hell, I should have paid more attention to everybody.”
“You’re busy,” Lauren murmured quietly, nuzzling as close as humanly possible to Devlyn.
“Not too busy for that. I can’t be.”
Lauren pulled back, and both women wiped gently at each other’s faces. “Devlyn, I think I need a vacation to regroup,” she admitted tiredly. “Since we announced our engagement, I feel like things have been spinning out of control.”
Dev nodded thoughtfully. “With us?”
“No,” Lauren promised fiercely. “You and the kids and Beth and David, you’re what’s solid in my life. It’s everything else right now. The press. My mother’s death. My father’s rejection. The book. I haven’t written a thing in nearly a month. I need some time.”
Dev sighed inwardly. She was afraid of this. “We can postpone the wedding.” Please just don’t say cancel it.
Lauren smiled sadly, reading the worry on Dev’s face as easily as if it were her own. On impulse, she leaned in and kissed her soundly, feeling Dev’s surprised squawk more than hearing it. “Not on your life, Madam President,” she whispered against soft, moist lips as she leaned back just a hair. “Nobody is taking that from us. I want to marry you. I just need to get used to the demands that go along with being your… your…” She looked at Devlyn in question. “Wife?” She didn’t much like the term when Judd had used it to introduce her. It had never felt right.
Dev grinned. Sometimes she forgot that Lauren’s relationships had been exclusively with men. “If you like. Or some people say spouse or partner?”
Lauren smiled, that last one ringing unfamiliar but pleasant chords deep within her. “I like that. But I don’t mind the other either. So long as you’re my wife, too.”
Dev nodded enthusiastically. This was more like them. Talking things through. Working things out. Her stomach finally settled down and she felt mortally tired.
“I’m not willing to let other people take our happiness from us, Devlyn. I just need to get my head on straight to face the battles. I don’t know how you do it.” There was genuine awe in her voice.
“Would a couple of weeks in Tennessee help?”
Lauren blinked. “God, no!” There was nothing for her there. She hadn’t been home since her mother’s funeral the year before, hadn’t called her father and invited him to the wedding, though she’d stood staring at the phone more times than she could count. She couldn’t face him cruelly dismissing her again by hanging up before she’d even said why she was calling. Her mother’s suicide and her relationship with Devlyn had, she admitted sadly, killed what little relationship she had with her father. She wondered briefly if anything so terribly broken could be repaired and how a parent’s love for his child could be so conditional.
“All right.” Dev considered the possibilities, then gave voice to the most logical one. “My parents’ place? Mom was coming out here next week anyway. You could go there instead.”
Lauren’s eyes lit up at the thought. It was so peaceful there. “God, that would be wonderful. Do you think they’d mind.”
“Don’t be silly. They’ll be thrilled. They love you.” Devlyn grasped her hand and threaded their fingers together. She took a deep breath, knowing what she had to do and already shuffling through mental contingency plans. There had to be another way. “Okay. I’ll make arrangements to cancel my trip and—”
Startled and hurt, Dev scrambled for something to say. “I’ll still give you some time alone. I meant that,” she clarified quickly, not wanting to Lauren to think she was smothering her. “I just thought—”
“I’m going to be fine,” Lauren soothed, “and your trip is too important to miss.” She smiled encouragingly. “Go, Devlyn. Save the world and all that. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Dev pulled her into a rough embrace again, her eyes fluttering closed. Lauren did understand. “It’s not saving the world… but I do…” She exhaled slowly. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure.” Lauren reached up and tugged a lock of blowing hair behind Dev’s ear. She’d had enough of the difficult stuff for one evening. “Now, how long do we have before the army comes marching through this park?”
“Has it been 10 minutes yet?”
Lauren’s eyes went round. “Yes!”
“Then we’re fine because they gave me 20.”
Lauren let out an explosive breath. “Funny.”
“But,” Dev leaned forward a little, taking Lauren with her, “we should be going.”
They stood, each a little wobbly from the emotional strain of the day. The President wrapped a long arm around Lauren’s shoulders as they walked, Gremlin trailing lazily behind them.
“You need to apologize to David,” Lauren reminded Devlyn gently. And so do I.
Lauren glanced up at Dev as they walked, concern etched over her tired features. “Do you think you’ll get him back?”
Blonde brows pulled together. “You said you fired him. Do you think you can get him back? I can talk to Beth and we can—”
Devlyn waved her off. “David isn’t going anywhere, Lauren. He knows I can’t run the damn country without him. He’s going to make me beg and plead and apologize, of course. All of which I owe him. But after that, he’ll be back.” A wry smile touched her lips. “I fired him four times in the month after Samantha died and once when I didn’t make it to the hospital on time to see Chris be born.”
“Was that his fault?” Lauren asked, guiding them down a small set of wooden steps. “About Chris?”
“Nah. We were both working on a last minute piece of legislation and had turned off our pagers so we wouldn’t be disturbed. Chris came two weeks early and Samantha’s labor was so short… I should have…” She shook her head a little. “Well, I just wasn’t thinking is all. David and I made up though, we always do. He’s a gracious man and I’m good at groveling.” Dev smiled at Lauren’s muffled snort. “He’s quit a few times too over the years. So the situation has been reversed. We started in politics together about,” she let out a low whistle, “about a million years ago. I… I don’t know that I’d want to do this without him.”
“You’re lucky he’s your best friend.”
Dev stopped walking and gently grasped Lauren’s chin, lifting it a little to force eye contact. “He’s my right hand and I love him, but you’re my best friend,” she corrected, her eyes showing her devotion.
Lauren leaned her head against Dev’s shoulder. She sighed happily, her heart greedily absorbing the words. “You’re mine, too, Devlyn.” And I need to trust you all the way. Or this will never work. And, God, how I want it to work.
“Then I guess I am lucky.”
They walked for another moment or two until they came to a clearing that was dotted with picnic tables.
“‘Some enchanted evening!’” a man sang freely, his voice loud and proud. His clothes were in tatters but his sparse, black hair was slicked back neatly, befitting the importance of his courting. “‘When you find your true love.’”
“‘When you hear her call you, across a crowded room,’” Lauren crooned along, causing the man to turn and Devlyn to burst out laughing. “‘An' somehow you know, you know even then, that somewhere you'll see her again and again!’”
“Hey!” he protested indignantly, planting himself in front of the oak tree as if to shield his ladylove from the view of unwanted strangers. “There should be a law against interrupting a man’s love song.”
“You’re right,” Lauren called over her shoulder. “Let me see what I can do.” She glanced over at Dev and winked. “I know people.”
Dev looked at the itinerary that Liza had handed her before scooting out the door. She was seated in her office behind her massive antique desk, barefoot, her pumps hidden behind it. The President chewed her bottom lip as she read over the schedule of her trip to Scotland for the World Economic Summit. It would be held in Edinburgh this year. Still reading, she pushed to her feet and reluctantly wiggled into her shoes.
She poked her head out of her office and smiled at Liza, whose nose was buried in Dev’s calendar, and Jane, who was sorting through a stack of correspondence.
“Your next appointment is a video conference with Vice President Vincent in four minutes, Madam President.” Liza bit off, “and 30 seconds.” Dev had told her: when in doubt, round down. She disapproved of that plan. Then again, she wasn’t the President.
“Thank you, Liza. Where are my golf clubs?”
Liza’s eyebrows jumped as she scrambled for an answer. “Umm… I didn’t know you played golf, Madam President.”
“She doesn’t,” Jane mumbled. “What was your last game? Fifty-five over par for nine holes?” Dev scowled, but Jane continued undaunted. “You remember, the last game you played before you ordered me to donate your clubs to a charity auction.”
“Oh. Right.” Dev really did detest the sport and only played to placate her father, who was the most avid golfer on the planet. A wry smile curved her lips as she recalled the obscenely expensive golf “clinic” given by Tiger Woods that her father had enrolled her in during the summer of her senior year in college. Meeting Tiger had been a treat. But thousands of dollars later her golf game had still sucked. To this day, Tiger refused to acknowledge she’d been to one of his camps.
She sighed, knowing that her father would love a chance to play at St Andrews and that her attendance at the conference was more for show than substance. Her advisors would be doing the bulk of the work. “Liza, would you please find me a set of clubs? I’m taking my dad to Scotland with me and I’ll be humiliating myself on the golf course so we can spend some time together. If they stop taking my picture for more than five minutes, I’m sure we’ll find the time to play at some point.”
Liza breezed through several screens on her handheld computer. “You won’t have to find time, Madam President. You’re already scheduled for a round of golf with the First Minister MacBheath and his wife on Sunday.”
Wonderful. An audience. Dev scratched her forehead and sighed. “Who scheduled that?”
“Michael Oaks,” Jane said. “He insisted, saying all politicians golfed at least well enough to have their picture taken at the club house. I tried to tell him…” Her voice trailed off.
Dev groaned. There was no way for him to know she couldn’t golf… at all. But still, he should have listened to Jane, the arrogant shit. “Make those a magic set of clubs, Liza. Please.”
“One that can actually hit the ball,” Jane murmured, still not looking up from her work.
“I heard that!” Dev blurted. “I can hit the ball!”
“Of course you can,” Jane replied automatically, in her normal, placid voice. “I heard you did it once in 2003. Too bad no one took a photograph.”
Dev narrowed her eyes at the older woman.
“I’ll order those clubs, Madam President,” Liza said dutifully, trying hard not to laugh.
Dev took a step closer to her long-time secretary and friend. “Jane?”
“Yes, Tiger… err….” she gulped at the look on Dev’s face, “Madam President?”
Liza didn’t know what to think and her eyes widened a little as she glanced nervously between Jane and the President.
Stony-faced, Jane and Dev glared at each other for several long seconds before neither woman could hold the line and they both burst out laughing.
Liza exhaled in relief then blinked stupidly as she watched the barely veiled and undeniably rude gesture Dev made to Jane before returning to her office, but leaving the door open. “Buh….” Liza scrubbed her face. “Did she just…?”
“I can’t be sure, but I think she did!” Jane laughed. “I’m going to tell Janet on her,” she said in a raised voice, smiling triumphantly when she heard Dev’s gasped "Uh oh.”
Dev was just rising from her chair to head back to her quarters for the day when there was a gentle knock on the door that led from David’s office to her own. “Come in.”
The tall man lifted his hands to forestall Dev before she could even get out a greeting.
Dev felt her heart rate pick up a little. That was always a bad sign. Very bad.
“Don’t kill me,” he warned her seriously. “I had nothing to do with it.”
She licked her lips and braced herself. The kids were in bed, right? Yes, she remembered, Chris and Aaron had phoned her to say goodnight. Ashley was already asleep. But what about Lauren? Where is she? They’d spoken on the phone only an hour ago. She looked fine, but… What if it’s raining or snowing in Ohio? What if…? A knot formed in her stomach. “What?”
“I just heard through the grapevine that your mom has hired Toby Yagasuki to design your wedding dress.”
Dev closed her eyes and let out a ragged breath, a little amazed at how quickly she could get carried away.
“Hey.” David looked concerned. “Are you all right?” He reached out and grabbed Dev’s hand, noticing a chill.
Dev gave him a quick nod and moved quickly to safer ground. “Would the grapevine happen to be named Beth?”
David gave her hand a squeeze, then dropped it. “I refuse to divulge my sources. Operation: Wed Dev is highly sensitive. You don’t have the security clearance,” he teased.
“Why would I care about who Mom—? Oh, God!” Her jaw dropped. “Is Toby Yagasuki that little Japanese queen with big bouncy hair?”
David winced at the blunt, but apt, description.
“He does everything in mint and lime green; I saw him interviewed on television after the last Oscars.” A panicked look crossed her face. “No way!”
“Sorry, Dev. The grapevine never lies, unless it’s about who used the end of the toilet paper last and didn’t put on the new roll.” He loosened his tie as he took a seat in one of the armchairs in front of Dev’s desk, grunting in satisfaction at the comfortable furniture. “The ones in my office aren’t this comfortable.”
“Who cares about chairs? I’m the one who is going to look like a piece of Key Lime pie! Things can be ‘all about you’ when I’m finished with things being ‘all about me.’”
David made a dismissive gesture. “Suck it up and be a man about it.”
Playfully, Dev kicked at David’s shin. “I’m not a man!”
“I know.” He shrugged. “But I couldn’t think of anything else to say.”
Dev leaned against the front of her desk, a bewildered look on her face. First golf and now this? How many humiliations would come to pass in a single day?
David chuckled, not-so-secretly enjoying the nonplussed look on Dev’s face. “If the Secretary of Defense needs a new advisor on surgical strikes, I nominate your mother. She’s vicious.”
Dev whimpered. “It’s going to be a huge circus, isn’t it?”
“Ringling Brothers, and everyone else in the entertainment industry, have already made an offer to provide… entertainment, I guess.”
“My cousins will already be there. That’s my quota of freaks for the day.”
David laughed. “No, no. Not freaks. It was a legitimate offer and one that we’re considering.”
“What is it?” Dev’s voice was wary as she pushed off from the desk and plopped down in the chair next to David’s.
“Releasing 2,000 doves dressed in tiny tuxedos from a fake cake while the national anthem is blaring over the loudspeakers.”
Dev’s eyes bugged out. “What!” David sniggered evilly and Dev realized she was being played. God, I knew I was going to pay for firing him. “Don’t do that to me, damn it. My heart can’t take it. I believed you.”
“The part about the designer was true.”
“Beth says you should see your mom, Devil. She’s having a ball.”
Dev sighed. “I know. And because of that I’m going to bite my tongue and know someday that I’ll end up in daughter heaven. Samantha and I got married in front of a justice of the peace. I thought Mom was going to have a litter of kittens when we told her.”
David shook his head and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees as he stretched out his tired back. “I remember. Oh, Lord, do I remember. Do you know she called me and chewed me out for letting you do that.” He snorted. “Like I could have stopped you. I took hell for years over that.” He relaxed back in the comfortable chair and considered stealing it for his office. “What about Lauren?”
“A civil service. Apparently, she didn’t feel comfortable in front of a minister, and Judd is just cheap.”
“Mom is making up for missed opportunities now, isn’t she? You do realize that this would still be a circus, even if I wasn’t President.”
“Just keep telling yourself that this will be your last wedding and you’ll make it through.”
Dev’s jaw worked for a moment, her eyes dropping to the painfully clean carpet. “I want to. God, do I want to. But I can’t,” she admitted quietly. “I said that when I married Sam.”
David mentally kicked himself. “Oh, damn, Dev. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“It’s okay. You know,” she paused, wondering how much she wanted to say, even to David. “I’ve been thinking a lot about Sam lately.”
“It’s only natural.”
“Maybe it’s because I’m older,” Dev speculated out loud. “Or maybe it’s because I never thought there would be someone after Samantha died.” She shook her head slowly and then glanced up at her friend. “Is it wrong for me to feel like I love Lauren more than I loved Sam?”
“I don’t think so.” He smiled reassuringly. “I don’t think you love Lauren more. I just think you love her differently.” She’s more your equal, my friend. She challenges you in ways Samantha couldn’t.
“I do,” Dev agreed, wanting to believe it as much as David apparently did. It’s just different, she told herself. Not more or less. Oh, Sam.
“So,” Dev slapped her knees and forced the maudlin thoughts from her mind. She’d have enough time with them alone in bed tonight. “Do you think Beth and Lauren are having a good time with my mother? I think sending them both down there was a good idea.”
“It was and she is. When did you talk to Lauren last?”
“Hour ago. I heard from her just about the time the little traitors were going to bed.”
David laughed at Dev’s reference to the children who had chosen to accompany Lauren to Ohio rather than going to Scotland with her. They were on a weeklong break from their classes. “Be glad they love Lauren so much.”
A bright smile split Dev’s face. “I am.” She felt a happy warmth fill her belly. “You have no idea how good it makes me feel to see them with her. They adore her, and she’s so much better with them than she realizes.” Dev shook her head in amusement. “You should have heard her the other day trying to explain the birds and the bees to Aaron. It was priceless.”
David’s rusty-red eyebrows drew together; was he getting that big already? “Why was she doing that?”
“He asked,” Dev said simply. She got up, kicked her shoes against the wall and trudged over to a table holding a carafe of strong coffee. “We were having dinner and out of the blue Aaron asks how many babies Lauren and I will be having after we’re married.”
David’s eyes went a little round.
“Not if, but how many.”
“Oh, boy.” David joined Dev, filling his own cup of steaming brew. Then they both plopped down on the sofa and stretched their feet out in front of them. “And what did you say?” he finally asked, interestedly.
“I didn’t say anything, I was too busy laughing at the look on Lauren’s face. Lauren on the other hand, tried to explain to him that we didn’t know if we would.” Dev took a sip of her coffee, lost in her thoughts for a moment as she wondered if perhaps Lauren had wanted to say no, but didn’t, only because they hadn’t really talked about having more children themselves. “Then Aaron asked why we wouldn’t and it went downhill from there.”
David ran his finger over the rim of his cup, carefully considering his next question. He drew in a deep breath. “Dev?”
“Umm, I was wondering.” He shifted uncomfortably, fully aware that this was something they’d consciously avoided talking about over the years. But since the assassination attempt on Dev and her engagement, a day hadn’t passed where he hasn’t thought of it. “When you and Lauren get married, what happens to custody of the kids?”
“Huh?” Dev looked at him as though he was crazy.
“No.” He shook his head briskly, feeling incredibly awkward. “What I meant to say is, if something should happen to you… and I don’t think it’s going to, mind you. But on the horrible chance that it did, Beth and I were to get custody. Now…” He looked away, his teeth busily gnawing at his long mustache.
“I haven’t talked to Lauren about this yet. But she would be their mother just as I am.” Dev’s tone had cooled considerably. “I would want her to have custody, of course. And you and Beth would be in line in the unlikely event that something happened to both Lauren and me.”
David stared at the bright flag behind Dev’s desk. “I see.”
Dev’s eyes softened, and she set her cup on the coffee table. “David—”
“It’s okay.” He felt a little angry at himself for even asking. “I was just wondering.”
“You know that I think you and Beth would be wonderful parents. I know you love the kids and are prepared to take them if necessary. But—”
“I know.” He waved her off, not wanting to press it further. At least not today. But he couldn’t help but add, “I do have a special interest in the munchkins.” His gaze strayed to the photo of Lauren and the kids displayed proudly on Dev’s desk, and a tendril of envy threatened him.
Dev’s chest began to tighten. What was happening here? “Do you want to tell the kids, David?”
“No!” David’s eyes widened and he nearly shot up off the sofa, before he realized he was right on the verge of overreacting. “No,” he repeated again as he sat back. “We had an agreement, Devlyn. I intend to stick to it.” His grip on his cup tightened. “Unless it’s a matter of medical necessity, we won’t tell the kids I’m their… father, donor, whatever. Being Uncle David is quite sufficient. Beth and I just don’t want to lose them from our lives.”
Dev relaxed a little but still felt unsettled. She managed to give David a slightly scolding look. “You know better than that, David. I keep my promises, too. You’ll never be out of their lives. No matter what.”
“What does Lauren have to say about this?” He finally turned to face Devlyn.
Dev blinked stupidly. “I… well… I don’t know.”
“She doesn’t know about you being the father.”
“Shit, Dev!” David nearly spilled his coffee. “Are you insane?”
Dev wrinkled her face in dismay. “It hasn’t come up. And this was something we agreed to keep between ourselves.” She was starting to get annoyed. “God, until you mentioned it just now, I hadn’t even thought of it in years, David. Besides, we did this long before I even met Lauren. She loves the children and she thinks you and Beth walk on water. I’m sure she’ll find the entire arrangement perfectly logical,” Dev pronounced firmly, her voice exuding confidence.
“I’m sure she’ll think you didn’t trust her enough to tell her,” David corrected. “Samantha put up with that crap, let you decide what was important enough to share and what wasn’t, make all the big decisions. I doubt that Lauren will.”
“It wasn’t like that, and you know it, ” Dev snapped, her eyes flashing a warning to David. He was going too far. But now a tiny part of Dev was beginning to worry about Lauren’s reaction. “We’ll talk about it eventually, and the rest is a private matter between us.”
Wisely, David backed off. Neither one spoke for few moments as they intentionally allowed their tempers to cool. He tapped the rim of his mug as an old memory flashed behind his eyes. “Do you remember what Beth’s first question was?”
“You mean when Samantha and I told her we wanted you to be the donor?” She relaxed into her seat again.
David nodded. “That’s the one.”
Dev tilted her head back and looked at the sculpted ceiling. She would have to explain this to Lauren, too, no doubt. “She wanted to know if we were going to sleep together.”
Dev’s chief of staff smiled a bittersweet smile at the memory of that very intense, very emotion-filled late night talk. “And of course that was right on the heels of your so-called ‘rebellious period’ where you got a motorcycle just because.”
“I was never very good at being rebellious,” Dev conceded ruefully.
“No,” David smiled in remembrance, “you weren’t. Except for the way you feel about women, you’ve always played by the rules, Devil.”
“And those rules are changing.” The pride in her voice was unmistakable. In a single generation so much had changed about the public’s attitudes towards homosexuals. And she knew it was largely due to people like her, who lived their lives the way their hearts told them was right and somehow achieved their dreams in spite of people’s petty prejudices.
“When you drove up on that motorcycle, Beth thought you had lost your mind. Then you come to her asking for a sperm donation.”
“I’m surprised she didn’t try to have me committed. I was scared to death to ride the silly thing but too embarrassed to admit it to Samantha, so I did it anyway. I was young and stupid.” She spared a wistful smile for her younger self. “But I knew I wanted a family sometime. And those little suckers hold up pretty well in the freezer.” She gave him a nudge with his shoulder and he laughed quietly.
“I think she always felt a little odd about me having children with two other women.” He took another sip of coffee, deciding Dev didn’t need to know that he and Beth had been trying unsuccessfully to have their own for the past several years. Some things were too private even for the closest of friends. “Then she was there when Chris was born and those doubts seemed to disappear. I mean, she loves Ashley and has since the day she was born, but when she actually got to be the first person to hold him… I could have fathered a dozen children for you and she wouldn’t have cared.”
Dev fingered the slightly scratchy material of her navy, wool trousers. “I couldn’t be the first to hold him. I’m glad it was Beth. She was really there for me and Samantha that night.”
A knock on the door interrupted their trip down memory lane. “Come in.”
Liza took a step into the office, trying not to yawn. It was nearly 8 at night. “Michael Oaks to see you, Madam President.”
Dev and David traded unhappy looks. “Thank you, Liza. Please tell him to come in.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Liza began to back out.
She stopped dead in her tracks, her attention riveted on Dev. “Ma’am?”
For once, she didn’t argue. “Thank you, Madam President. Good night. And goodnight to you, Mr. McMillian.”
“Night,” David and Dev chorused.
Liza waved Michael Oaks in and he closed the door behind himself before issuing a polite greeting. Young, ambitious, and disgustingly good at his job, Social Secretary Michael Oaks was one of the least popular members of Devlyn’s staff.
“Madam President, David, good evening.” He hesitated for a moment as he forced himself to say her name. “Strayer was supposed to fax me a copy of the guest list for the wedding and she hasn’t done it yet.”
Dev bit her lips to keep from taking his head off over his attitude towards Lauren. To put it simply, her lover and Michael hated each other and not even the President could end the little, though continuous, war between them. He was, Dev decided, just annoyingly anal, persnickety, and pompous. All qualities that didn’t mix well with Lauren… or anyone else who would stand up to the arrogant man.
“Mike,” Devlyn called him Mike because it annoyed him the same way his distaste for Lauren annoyed her, “she’s only been in Ohio for two days. This trip is mostly a vacation. Give her a break, will you? Besides, my mother hasn’t even gotten the first draft of the list done yet, and I’ll bet 50 bucks she’s still adding people to it.”
Michael scratched the side of his neatly coifed Afro, a gesture both Dev and David recognized as one he made only when he was frustrated beyond words. They both suppressed grins.
He puffed out his slender chest. “Ma’am, I really need that report.”
Dev rolled her eyes. “First, it’s not a report. It’s a guest list for our wedding. And who will be there for the most important day of my life is important to me. So I’m not rushing anybody when it comes to it. Second,” she got up and walked slowly toward him, her posture and tone sending out a strong warning, “You will address the future First Lady as Ms. Strayer unless she gives you permission to do otherwise. Understand?”
“I don’t think Lauren would give it either, do you, Dev?” David asked blithely.
“No. I don’t think she would. You’ll get the list when you get it.”
Michael squared his shoulders and replanted his feet, intending to stand his ground, even if it was just a little. When was the President going to realize he really did know what was best in these matters? Leaving important details to her flamboyant mother and bitchy fiancée was a recipe for disaster. “Ma’am, you don’t understand—”
Before another word could escape his lips, David sprang off the couch. “Excuse me, Michael. What part of ‘you’ll get it when you get it’ didn’t you understand?”
Michael fought the urge to take a step backwards. “Sir?”
“The President’s statement was crystal clear.”
Michael sighed inwardly. He was a man who believed in picking his battles. And he’d just decided that he wasn’t going to pick this one. He knew his appointment more than three years ago to the then Governor of Ohio had been a political favor. But sometimes being a Republican in an Emancipation Party administration that was very Democrat friendly was more than he could bear. He felt like a noble among liberal peasants.
“I’m sorry, David,” Michael began. “But we don’t have much time to put this wedding together, and the more time that’s frivolously—”
David grabbed Michael by the arm of his perfectly pressed, gray suit and escorted him to the door. Dev had managed to rush around them both to open the door. She was afraid that David might send Michael right through it without bothering with that small detail. What had gotten into him tonight? “Out. Get out!” He let go of Michael’s arm and gave him a little shove when it appeared his feet were glued to the ground.
David pointed at Michael as he spoke to Jane. “If he tries to get back in here, have security shoot him. The President is busy for the rest of the night.”
Jane nodded and gave Michael a dirty look before making a shooing motion to send him on his way, watching as he gave his suit coat an indignant tug and stomped away.
That young man is trouble, Jane thought, as she rose and clicked off her desk lamp. The door to the President’s office slammed and she wondered what had riled the usually gentle David McMillian. “The Ides of March are upon us,” she said ominously as she retrieved her coat and began to walk down the darkened hallway.
Thursday, March 10, 2022
A single dark eyebrow jumped as Dev watched her father line up his putt. She looked to David with an evil expression that caused her friend to shake his head emphatically. Her grin grew wider and, in turn, David shook his head even more frantically. “No!” he mouthed silently.
Just as her father ended his abbreviated swing, she sighed loudly. The ball missed the cup by two inches, and Frank turned around to bestow a murderous glare on his only child. “Not nice, Devil.”
“I did nothing,” she protested, raising her hands in innocence.
“Right,” her father grumbled as he stepped back and allowed David to prepare his shot.
“Sheesh, don’t blame me if you’re not good at golf.” Dev plucked a bottle of water from the golf cart and took a healthy drink. “I was just standing here behaving myself.”
“Uh huh.” He sneered a little as she handed him the water. “You know, by my calculations, you’re about 30 over par.”
“Hush.” She looked aghast that he would bring up such a thing. “I don’t know why you drag me out for this. You know I’m not any good.”
“You can’t be good at everything, sweetheart.” He smiled as Dev scowled. “This keeps you honest.”
“Hell, I’m not good at a lot of things,” David chimed in as he plucked his ball from the cup. “Just ask Beth.”
Dev moved over to her ball, which was just on this side of the green, and for several seconds regarded the putt she knew she would never make.
Just as her club made contact with the ball, Frank asked loudly, “So when are you and Lauren planning children?”
The ball rolled well off the putting green, then down a steep slope. “Shit.” She glanced up at her father. “What? Have you been talking to Aaron?”
“Of course. He is my favorite grandson,” Frank reminded her reproachfully. “Along with Christopher, my other favorite grandson.”
Dev huffed as she retrieved her ball, sticking it into the pocket of her pants. “I am not shooting it again.” She marched over to the cart and took a seat.
Frank chuckled as he sank the putt he had missed. “Watch it, Dev. The press will get a picture of you pouting.”
“I don’t care,” she answered as she crossed her arms over her chest, grateful that the First Minister had begged off today and wasn’t around to witness her humiliation first hand. Of course it would be in all the papers in the morning. She groaned inwardly.
David and Frank both burst out laughing as they climbed in the cart and headed to the next hole, with a small caravan of press and Secret Service following just out of earshot.
Dev glanced sideways at her father, who was driving. “Why did you ask that?”
“Seemed like a logical question, Devil. I know you always wanted lots of kids. And I wasn’t aware that that had changed.”
Dev examined her putter with exaggerated interest. “Yeah, well, I’m not sure Lauren wants lots of kids. I think she thinks that the three we have are plenty.”
David shifted uncomfortably, wishing he wasn’t here for this particular conversation.
“You haven’t talked about it?” Frank asked, his tone more surprised than scolding.
“No.” She set down her putter and began picking at a clump of dirt attached to one of her cleats. “Why not, Devlyn?” comes next.
“Why not, Devlyn?”
She looked at him sharply, annoyance written clearly on her face. Then she glanced back at David, who pulled his golf cap down over his eyes.
“Dad, sometimes, when you love someone, you just go with what you’ve got.”
“Bullshit.” He looked at her sternly. “You never know until you ask. Your mother and I didn’t raise you to run away from things.”
“Dad…” she warned.
“No, now listen to me, Devil. You’re not going to be President forever; you’re going to go back to at least a semi-private life eventually. Why should you give up on the things that you’ve wanted your entire life because you’re marrying Lauren?”
“Because that’s how equitable partnerships go, Dad.”
“Don’t lecture me about partnerships, young lady. I’ve been married for over 42 years.”
“Yes, sir.” Devlyn was instantly contrite.
Frank sighed and patted Dev’s leg. “I don’t mean to push, honey. I just hate to see you abandon something that was important to you without even trying for it.”
Dev resisted rolling her eyes. “We have three kids. I’m sure that is plenty for Lauren.”
“Or are you just afraid of what her answer will be if you do ask?”
Dev groaned. “You’re like a dog with a bone.”
Frank let out a low growl, and David chuckled despite himself.
“God,” she dropped her face in her hands. “Has anyone ever told you you’re a pain?”
“Yes. Several times,” he answered as he slowed the cart and then turned towards her and pinned her with intense eyes. “I nearly lost you last year. All I could do was sit back and watch you recover from being shot. I watched you. I watched Lauren. And I could see it then, the way you two were falling for each other. The way she worried about you. Then I looked at my grandchildren.” He swallowed hard and took her hand. “Sam’s death was hard enough for all of us. Losing you would have…” He stopped and shook his head. “Just make sure you talk to Lauren. I want you and Lauren both to have everything you want in life, sweetheart.”
She nodded, trying to understand what he was saying. “We’ll talk, Dad. I promise. But no guarantees.”
“Of course not.” He lifted his chin a little, pushing back the morbid thoughts. “Deciding to stop with the wonderful grandbabies I have now is one thing. But let it be a decision you both make. Give Lauren enough credit to at least include her in it.” He pressed the gas pedal on the cart, and they began to buzz along again. The air smelled fresh and cool, tinged with the green scent of wet grass. “Besides, I think Lauren would make really cute babies.”
“Hey, what about me?” Dev blurted. “I make pretty good looking kids too, ya know.”
“Yeah,” David sat up straight now, finally willing to wade into the conversation. “But you’re getting a little long in the tooth there, Dev. It won’t be long before you go through ‘the change.’”
She snatched the cap her father was wearing, which only served to complete his hideous golfing outfit of blue-and-green plaid pants and a pink shirt, and beat David with it, knowing that cameras behind them were probably clicking madly, but not caring a bit. “You are so fired.”
David grabbed the hat and grinned. “So what’s new?” He gently placed the cap back on Frank’s head. “You’re going to have to do better than that before I get worried.”
The cart stopped and they climbed out. As they picked their drivers, Frank placed his hand on Dev’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “I know I sound like I’m butting in, a task I usually and very happily leave to your mother.”
“It’s okay, Dad, truly.” Devlyn knew her father had wanted more children but that her birth had been exceptionally difficult on her mother, who was warned that another childbirth would be life-threatening.
“Are you happy, Devil?” The answer was painfully obvious, but he felt like it was his fatherly duty to ask every once in a while anyway.
Dev beamed. “You have no idea.”
“Can your old man make one more observation?”
“Could I stop you?”
“Didn’t think so.”
“I do have an idea, because when I watch you with Lauren and I see the way you look at her,” he paused, blushing slightly. “It’s the same way I still look at your mother, even after all these years.”
“I’ve got it that bad, huh?” Dev’s eyes twinkled happily.
“You’ve got it in spades.”
Frank winked and gestured toward the green, where David was waiting patiently. “Shall we, Madam President?”
“Sure, I can handle another five holes of humiliation.” Dev leaned up and kissed her father’s cheek. He smelled of Old Spice, and she smiled as the scent so familiar from childhood tickled her nose.
As they walked she looked up to the press following them and waved; the faint sound of cameras clicking made her shake her head. “I’m glad my ability to be President isn’t impaired by my inability to play golf.” She leaned on the club, standing side-by-side with Frank, unintentionally creating a memorable photo op while David swung his club.
Friday, March 11, 2022
It was well after midnight and Lauren had had such a wonderful day of not doing much of anything at all that she was now wide awake and in search of a cup of coffee. After a year of living with a self-proclaimed coffee addict, she found herself craving the tasty brew nearly as much as Devlyn did.
She’d spent five days in the cabin on the Marlowes’ property all alone, enjoying the peace and solitude and trying to work her way back to a healthy state of mind. She didn’t work on Dev’s biography or even on the installment in her Adrienne Nash fiction series that she and Devlyn were supposed to do together, but never seemed to have enough time for. Instead, she wrote bad poetry that caused her to burst out laughing when she read it out loud, read trashy paperback romances, ate popcorn for breakfast, and daydreamed to her heart’s content. It was a much needed respite in a life that had somehow spun out of her control, and she was, at last, able to spend a good long while remembering the good things in her life and being thankful for them.
In her pajamas and a robe, Lauren padded slowly down the stairs of the main house that led into the Marlowe kitchen. The lights were off, but the soft moonlight streaming through the windows allowed her to see where she was going. The wooden floors were cold on her bare feet, and she spared a brief, wistful thought for the pair of toasty sweat socks that she knew she had stashed in the dresser upstairs. The house was large and well appointed by any standards, but held a warmth of character that the White House couldn’t match in her eyes. She was glad that Devlyn had grown up here, where love flowed like a river, filling things up. Things here were so bright and hopeful.
When she closed her eyes and thought of the small, working class house where she grew up in Nashville and where her father still lived, one word came to mind… dark. In every way. Her mother had suffered from migraines and debilitating bouts of depression, and the shades at the Strayer house were always drawn tightly together, blocking out the light. And everything else.
“Oh, Mama,” she sighed. “Please let it be that you finally found the peace you craved.” She closed her eyes, feeling the familiar ache in her stomach that accompanied thoughts of her mother. Anna Strayer’s suicide had been on her mind a lot lately as she fought with her own seeming inability to get a handle on the media and political frenzy that accompanied her engagement to Devlyn. After spending her entire adult life as a professional observer, she found being under such maddening, intense scrutiny more than she could bear at times.
Lauren fiddled with the coffee maker on the kitchen counter, letting out a small, satisfied grunt when she found that the aromatic grounds were already neatly in place, waiting to be brewed. She pushed the “on” button, her mind still on her mother. “Maybe I need to go to the doctor?”
“Are you not feeling well, dear?”
Lauren whirled around at the unexpected voice, inadvertently startling the speaker as much as herself.
“Oh,” Janet gasped, then smiled in apology. She was wearing a thin, red plaid robe and brown suede slippers. She also didn’t look like she’d been to bed yet. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Lauren let out a slow breath, her heart pounding so furiously that she was a little dizzy. “No,” she chuckled a little sheepishly. “It’s all right. I just wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“I heard footsteps.”
Lauren moved away from the counter, the motion bringing the scent of coffee to Janet. She smiled fondly. “You have been spending too much time with my daughter, I see.” She made a face. “I never could drink the stuff. Too bitter. I prefer tea with milk and sugar, I’m afraid.”
A shy smiled twitched at Lauren’s lips. “Even though she’s turned me into a hopeless addict, my time with Devlyn is well spent.”
Janet grinned broadly. Love was such a beautiful thing it made her want to cry. “I imagine it is.” She wove her arm through Lauren’s and led her to a small breakfast table. “Here.” From the deep front pocket of her robe she pulled out a pair of heavy gray socks. “I thought you might need these. The floors are cold at night.”
Lauren’s face lit up. “Oooo… yes, please. You always seem to know. Are you a witch or something?” Happily, she took the socks and sat down. Tugging them on, she sighed as her toes instantly warmed.
“Depends on who you ask, dear.” Janet sat down across from Lauren. Her blue eyes twinkled and unerringly reminded Lauren very much of a shorter, older, salt-and-peppered hair version of Devlyn. “I have my moments.”
Lauren reached across the small table and took her hand, absorbing the warmth and strength of Janet’s grasp. She briefly focused her attention on Janet’s hands, thinking that, despite the fact that Janet Marlowe was a very attractive woman, it was true what people said. The face might lie, but the hands always reveal a woman’s real age.
The older woman’s gaze softened. She remembered looking at her own mother and grandmother’s hands with just the same expression. God, where have the years gone? “How was the cabin?”
“Mmm…” Lauren looked up from their linked hands. “Good, I think,” she said a little hesitantly. “I’m… I’m not sure what Devlyn told you.”
Janet’s eyebrows lifted. “She told me that you needed a place to relax.”
Lauren swallowed, ashamed. “That’s all?”
Janet sighed. “That’s all, honey. Although I did have an interesting talk with Sarah Turner, who called me last week and told me that she wouldn’t be coming to the wedding.”
Janet’s expression turned slightly sour and Lauren wondered why. She didn’t have to wonder long. “That girl has always been a handful, and it hasn’t helped that Devlyn is such a babe in the woods.”
Lauren snorted. “Babe in the woods? The woman who I’ve personally seen stare down the most powerful men and women in the world and either win them over or scare the crap out of them, depending on what she was trying to do? That woman?”
“That would be the one.” Janet patted Lauren’s hand and stood, making her way back to the coffeepot. “Surely you know that you’re far more experienced in matters of the heart than Devlyn,” she chided gently. “Dev married her first love with nothing more than a few random dates under her belt for experience.” She pulled two mugs out of the cabinet and set a kettle of water to boil, spooning some sugar into her mug and reaching into the refrigerator for the milk. The bright refrigerator light illuminated her profile, causing the silver streaks in her hair to nearly glow.
“I was…” Lauren shrugged. “I was a little surprised when she told me she didn’t have much experience.” An understatement and she knew it. “But she was with Samantha for years.” And it’s not like I’ve ever had a successful relationship for nearly that long.
“Yes,” Janet allowed, “she was. But she learned how to handle Samantha in that time. And that’s about all. When it comes to other women, including you… well, as I said, she’s a babe in the woods. When it comes to politics, she’s as savvy as a fox. When it comes to love…”
“She believes that everyone else is as honest and straightforward as she is.”
Janet nodded. “Exactly. Which is why Sarah threw her for such a loop.”
Lauren glanced up, surprised.
“Sarah told me what happened,” Janet confirmed, pouring a splash of milk into her cup and then putting the milk back into the fridge.
“I… Janet.” Lauren tugged on her lower lip with her teeth for a moment, gathering her courage. “After seeing Sarah and Devlyn… It was hard for me to believe nothing was going on,” she admitted, chagrined. “I should have trusted her more.”
“Mmm…” Janet was noncommittal. “I don’t know. You’re being pretty hard on yourself. Only a fool doesn’t look before she leaps.”
“But I already leaped when I proposed to Devlyn. Isn’t it a little late to be looking now?”
“Isn’t it a little late for Devlyn to be being kissed by other women?” Janet answered reasonably, pulling a bag of lemon herbal tea from a box and placing it into her cup. She poured the steaming water over it, mingling the scent of citrus with the aroma of coffee.
“You both made it through this, Lauren.” She turned to face the blonde woman. “And in the end that’s what counts. Not the arguments or compromises that happened along the way.” She laughed softly, the melodic sound making her seem much younger. “I can’t tell you how many times Frank and I have wrestled through things over the years. But we’re still together and still in love.”
Lauren shifted in her chair and regarded Janet curiously as she filled both their mugs. “You and Dr. Marlowe,” she backtracked at Janet’s stern look, “you and Frank are very different people.” She imagined there were many times when the mild Frank and fiery Janet clashed.
“Like you and Devlyn,” Janet pointed out, retaking her seat at the table and passing over Lauren’s steaming mug.
Lauren smiled her thanks. They sat in silence for a few moments, enjoying each other’s company and the fragrant liquids that slid down their throats and warmed their bellies. A gust of wind rattled the kitchen window and both women turned towards the sound.
Janet gently cleared her throat, treading very carefully into unknown waters. “You mentioned a doctor before. Are you ill?”
Lauren wasn’t expecting that, thinking that she’d successfully dodged that bullet earlier. Before she could stop them, tears filled her eyes. “I don’t know,” she whispered.
“Oh, honey.” Janet leaned forward a little, searching Lauren’s down-turned face. “What is it?”
Lauren swallowed a few times before speaking. “I haven’t been handling stress very well lately.” There. Starting was always the hard part. “I’ve been getting frustrated or upset far more than I should and… and it’s made me think of Mama.”
Janet was still terribly at sea, but sensed this was something very important to the younger woman. “Devlyn explained that your mother passed away last year. I was truly sorry to hear that.”
Lauren nodded mutely.
“There are still times that I miss my mother.” Janet lifted her tea bag and watched it drain into her mug before dunking it again. “When something good or bad happens, I still find myself anxious to tell her, and it’s been nearly 10 years since she died.”
Pale brows furrowed deeply as Lauren thought. “That hasn’t happened to me once, I’m ashamed to say. We,” she sighed, “we didn’t have a very good relationship. We never did really.” How could she capture a lifetime of disappointment and hurt in a few words? A contemplative look crossed her face. “She loved me the best she knew how, but she was always so remote, just out of reach, I don’t feel like I ever knew her at all.”
Suddenly, Janet’s choice of words replayed themselves in her mind. Passed away… “Janet, didn’t Devlyn tell you what happened with my mother?”
“Well…” she paused as she thought back. “She said that your mother had been ill and had passed away. Other than that—”
“She hung herself,” Lauren said softly. There was a resigned, flat quality to her voice that caused a shiver to race down Janet’s spine.
“Oh, God.” For a moment Janet was shocked into silence as the unexpected words soaked in. “I’m so sorry. You and your poor father,” she uttered quietly. “How horrible.” Then her eyes widened briefly, but she firmly clamped down on herself, not wanting her reaction to cause Lauren to withdraw. Oh, no. “You haven’t been thinking of—”
“No,” Lauren interrupted instantly, still managing to read Janet’s alarm. “I would never do anything like that. I haven’t even considered it. I swear.”
Janet let out a shaky breath. “Thank goodness.” She slumped back in her chair. “You had me concerned there for a moment.” She set down her cup and took Lauren’s hand again. “Then what’s this about doctors and things reminding you of your mother?”
A pained look crossed Lauren’s face. “Mama couldn’t handle stress. Obviously. She never could, even when I was a child. If I caught a cold or twisted an ankle, she’d look at me with such a helpless expression that it would break my heart. Even when intellectually she knew what to do, emotionally she couldn’t handle it. She would just go into her bedroom, lock the door, and stay there.” Sometimes for days. Lauren drew in a breath, memories clouding normally bright eyes. “I would hear her crying and Daddy would insist that I leave her be, that she was dealing with things in her own way.”
Janet’s heart ached for Lauren, and she felt a wave of anger for the child who had to grow up under such impossible circumstances and the woman who would always carry the scars.
“But she wasn’t dealing with anything,” Lauren continued bravely. It was easier to talk to Janet than she thought it would be. On some level, easier than Devlyn, who sometimes couldn’t repress her own anger and outrage over Lauren’s long-dead past. In those situations Lauren found herself wanting to comfort Devlyn more than to continue their conversation. She hadn’t consciously planned it, Lauren admitted to herself, but she and Janet had some time alone together now and she needed to talk. Especially after the solitude of the cabin had allowed her to put some things into perspective.
“Mama was hiding from the world.” Lauren braced herself for the hardest part. “And lately… umm… I’ve been wanting to do the same thing.” She glanced at Janet’s face, worried, half-expecting to see pity or disgust, but finding only empathy and love. She let out the breath she’d been holding.
“I see,” Janet said slowly. She thought for a moment before saying anything else, but when she did speak, it was with a quiet certainty. “Did your maternal grandmother or father commit suicide as well?”
Lauren blinked. “I… uh… No.” She shook her head. “Grandma had a heart attack when I was four and Grandpa was killed in Vietnam.”
Janet absorbed that information. “Was your mother hounded day and night by reporters?”
Lauren’s eyes widened a touch. “Of course not.”
“And was her every move regulated, scheduled, and guarded with men and women with guns?”
Lauren shook her head, a tiny smile twitching at her lips. It was impossibly easy to love Janet. “No. But—”
“And in the span of less than a year did she go from being someone who could walk down the street in peace to someone whose face was plastered on half the magazines at the newsstand?”
Lauren’s eyes softened as she looked at Janet. Devlyn’s mother would champion her, just as the younger Marlowe would. “No.” She gave Janet a watery smile full of affection. “I guess she didn’t.”
“And I’m assuming she didn’t have three rambunctious children pop into her life all at once, needing from her every bit of the love and attention they could get from a second parent. Or…” Janet gave her a curious look, “and forgive me if I’m out of line here, but I do know that you were married to a man and then divorced. Is Devlyn the first woman you’ve had a relationship with?”
Mutely, Lauren nodded, squirming a little in her chair. “First and last, I hope.”
Janet smiled sagely. “And was this a revelation for you last year? Your interest in women?” she inquired gently.
“Not completely new, no.” Lauren fiddled with her mug, feeling her face heat and hoping this wasn’t going to lead to a discussion about sex. “But it wasn’t something I let myself think about much either. And certainly nothing I’d ever acted on.”
“Mmm… Hmm…” Janet tapped the tabletop with her index finger. “So on top of everything else, last year you acknowledged another facet of your sexual orientation for the first time when you fell in love my daughter?”
Lauren’s mouth worked for a few seconds, but no sound came out. She watched as Janet lifted her chin in silent triumph. “I guess I did. God, it’s a wonder I’m not in the booby hatch, isn’t it?” she muttered in awe. Had all that happened in only a year?
Janet chuckled. “Basically.” Then her expression grew more serious. “Please don’t think that I don’t believe your mother had real problems, dear. It’s clear that she must have been fighting horrible demons. But I don’t think, because there are times you need to regroup or you want to push the world away for a while, that you’re anything but normal and healthy.” Her voice strengthened. “You’ve earned the right to pull back and take a deep breath when you need to.” She stared directly into Lauren’s eyes. “Don’t deny yourself, honey, or think you’re crazy for needing it.” She patted Lauren’s hand before releasing it. “Had I been in your shoes, I would have snapped weeks ago. And outright killed that annoying man, Michael Oaks.”
A small laugh forced its way from Lauren’s throat. “No, you wouldn’t,” she told her with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” A feral look flickered over Janet’s face before being replaced by her usual, pleasantly neutral expression. She glanced at Lauren’s nearly empty mug. “A refill?”
Lauren shook her head and sighed, feeling a good portion of the unbearable weight that had been crushing her shoulders begin to ease.
Janet took a long swallow of tea.
“Janet,” she held her tongue until Devlyn’s mother had her eyes fastened on her before speaking, “I don’t want you to think that Devlyn or the children have been a hardship. They haven’t,” Lauren promised emphatically. “I love them all with all my heart. They aren’t what I ever thought I’d have in my life, and still, they’re the best things in it.”
“I know that, honey,” Janet answered kindly, understanding more than the younger woman would have ever suspected. Maybe it will help… “Have I ever told you how I met Frank?”
Lauren started a little at the change in subject. “No.” She cocked her head eagerly and a slow smile spread over her face. “But I’d love to hear.”
“I was working the late shift at an ice cream parlor when he walked in.”
“Ooo, my fantasy job,” Lauren said dreamily. “But only if I could quit after I got full.”
They both laughed softly.
“Trust me, it wasn’t that glamorous.” She gave her a conspiratorial wink. “Though I did gain seven pounds before I had the sense to quit. Anyway, I was set to run away from college the next day.”
Lauren’s forehead wrinkled. “With Frank?”
Janet flashed Lauren a wicked smile. “With Brian Webber.”
Ooo… Lauren’s interest was piqued. “Oh, my.”
Janet grinned nostalgically. “I haven’t said that name in years.” She sighed. “He was a wild and handsome boy, with long, untamed blonde hair and a guitar always strapped to his back. He had a peace symbol tattooed on his shoulder and wore nothing but those floppy leather sandals all year long. Even in the snow, the goof.”
Lauren stifled a giggle.
But Janet giggled a little herself, something Lauren had never seen her do before. She was charmed.
“He was a songwriter who was going to change the world with his music.” Janet lowered her voice a little, as though Brian might actually hear her. She wrinkled her nose. “Though he wasn’t that good.” Her voice returned to normal. “We met on campus at Ohio State after he’d given a free concert on the grass in front of the student union.”
“Were you in love with him?”
Janet considered the question thoughtfully, thinking that Brian deserved at least that much. “I was in ‘lust’ with him,” she finally confided. “But it wasn’t the same as what I came to feel for Frank. Brian fascinated me beyond reason, igniting my imagination. And God was he good in bed.” She fanned herself. “He made love to me as though the world was ending.” She winked at Lauren, who was now sporting a blush so pronounced that it was visible, even in the dim light. “Don’t worry, dear. I’ll spare you the gory details so your head doesn’t explode.”
“Thanks,” Lauren croaked, swallowing hard.
Janet waved a dismissive hand. “Nothing as pedestrian as marriage and children would do for us. We had a different, daring life planned. One that didn’t even remotely resemble the ordinary middle class family I’d been raised in or the upper middle-class existence I was supposed to aspire to. I wasn’t just going to break away from that tired old mold. I was going to explode from it.”
Enthralled, Lauren waited for her to continue as Janet gathered her thoughts. A far off look crossed the older woman’s face and then she smiled.
“I was just about to close the shop for the evening and was thinking about what I would pack and how I would explain to my poor parents what I was about to do, when a tall, slim, good-looking man strode into the shop. His pants — not jeans, as we all wore in those days, but cotton trousers — were neatly pressed and his shoes were so shiny I could see the reflection of the ice cream case in them when I peered down at them.”
“Frank?” The description, except for the dark hair, which had turned a snowy-white with the passage of time, was still a very apt one.
Janet nearly swooned as she said, “He had the most beautiful blue-green eyes I had ever seen, and when I looked up from what I was doing I actually gasped.”
Delighted, Lauren laughed. “And you fell instantly in love?”
“Hardly!” Janet contradicted, excitement lighting her eyes. “After I managed to peel myself away from those beautiful eyes, I asked him, rather rudely, I might add, what kind of ice cream he wanted. I was anxious to leave and meet Brian, you see.” Janet crossed her arms over her chest. “You’ll never guess what kind of ice cream he ordered.”
An enormous grin split Lauren’s face. “Sure I can. The same kind that Devlyn prefers. Vanilla.”
“Vanilla,” Janet confirmed, wrinkling her nose. “We had 101 flavors in that store and that’s what he ordered. I looked at his wholesome clothes and neat haircut and considered his dull choice of ice cream and actually smirked.”
“Uh oh is right,” Janet informed her blithely. “He spent the next 10 minutes explaining to me why vanilla was the perfect choice and one that would never be subject to fads or go out of style. It was, he told me in that that deep voice of his, a timeless classic.”
“And what did you say?”
Mischievously, Janet chuckled. “I said so was my granny’s girdle, but that didn’t mean I wanted one.”
Lauren shook her head, easily picturing the words coming from a young, polite, yet feisty Janet Peabody. If Janet had mellowed over time, what she must have been like in her youth.
“But I was lying,” the smaller woman said ruefully, “because by the time Frank had finished his dissertation on ice cream, darn it if I didn’t actually believe him. He helped me close up that night and offered to drive me back to my dorm so I wouldn’t have to take the bus. In the car, I told him about Brian and our plans and how I would write my parents and tell them after we’d gone.”
“Had Brian met your parents?” Lauren pulled her feet up into her chair and wrapped her arms around her knees, hugging them to her as she listened intently.
“Of course not,” Janet scoffed. “Simply the thought of doing so terrified him. I also knew they would hate him, so I didn’t press it, though it did make me more uncomfortable than I wanted to admit at the time. Frank sneered at that, saying that any man worth his salt would want to be a part of my family and would spend his entire life, if need be, convincing them that he loved their daughter and was right for her.” Janet got up and pulled a tin of cookies from the cabinet. She popped the lid and took out one, passing the tin to Lauren before easing back into her chair.
Lauren reached inside, plucked out a cookie, and took a bite; and all the while her eyes were riveted on Janet.
“Then I dared him to put his money where his mouth was.” Janet crunched the cookie, catching the crumbs in her cupped hand.
Lauren’s eyes went round. “You what?”
“I told him if he was so keen on meeting people’s parents that he could drive me to Cincinnati that night and meet mine.”
Lauren’s nose wrinkled as a genuine smile curved her lips. “And he did.”
“And he did.” Janet put the lid back on the cookie tin. Her expression turned wry. “Of course, my parents adored Frank and in no time, when I looked into those beautiful eyes of his, I felt the same way.”
Lauren sighed happily.
“I called Brian and told him I wasn’t going anywhere.” Janet looked at Lauren and smiled gently. “I was never going to marry or have a child, you see. So Frank and Devlyn… well, they aren’t what I ever thought I’d have in my life, and still, they’re the best things in it.”
Lauren’s own words echoed back at her, and she sucked in a surprised breath as the story came full circle.
“Sometimes the best things in life aren’t what you expect them to be, Lauren. But that doesn’t mean they can’t work out.” Janet stood and bent to place a delicate kiss on Lauren’s forehead. She rested her warm palm on Lauren’s cheek. “I know you’re under enormous pressure right now. But being part of this family means you’re never alone unless you want to be. We love you and are here whenever you need us.” She allowed her hand to drop from Lauren’s face after a loving pat. “Now, dear, I’m off to bed. I promised to take Ashley horseback riding in the morning.”
Janet took a few steps toward the stairs, hearing Lauren sniff a few times.
The older woman turned around and cocked her head towards Lauren. “Yes?”
“Can…” Lauren licked her lips as her stomach did a nervous flip. “Can I…” She swallowed. “Can I call you Mom? I mean, it can be after the wedding, if you want,” she finished in a rush, surprised to see tears shining in Janet’s eyes and a tremulous smile shaping her lips.
She crossed the room again and pulled Lauren’s head to her chest, giving her a strong hug that Lauren sank into with almost shameful relief. “I would love that, honey. And you can call me that right now. No ceremony will change how I feel about you.”
Lauren smiled against Janet’s robe. “Thanks, Mom,” she said softly. It felt strange and thrilling and she spared her own mother a melancholy thought, hoping that she would be happy that a long absent piece of her life had finally found its way home.
Janet sniffed and wiped at her eyes, then reached down and gave Lauren’s side a playful pinch.
Lauren squeaked, eyes round with mock outrage.
“It’s bedtime,” Janet directed in her most motherly voice.
Lauren nodded and wiped at her own eyes as she stood.
Janet took her hand as they made their way to the stairs.
Lauren suddenly felt exhausted, as though she’d climbed an enormous hill and was standing at the top, looking down the other side. “Thanks.”
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