Wednesday, April 6, 2022
It was late, the lights were dimmed, and Devlyn and Lauren were reclining comfortably on Dev’s bed. A light spring rain pelted the White House, its uneven pitter-patter joining the muted clicking of Lauren’s typing. The writer was diligently working on her laptop, the light from the screen reflecting off the small lenses of her silver, wire-framed glasses, while Devlyn was re-reading one of Lauren’s Adrian Nash books, trying to unwind from an impossibly long day of meetings.
“You know,” Dev said, closing the book with a satisfied sigh, “this is my favorite of yours.”
Lauren smiled but kept typing. She was clad in a pair of lightweight silk pajamas and slippers and was very comfortable. The fire in the fireplace was nothing more than a uneven pile of glowing orange embers, but the room still held the faint scent of hickory, which Lauren found oddly relaxing. “You say that about whichever book you’re reading.”
Dev’s forehead creased, and she looked at the book as though seeing it for the first time. “I do?”
“Oh.” Dev set the book on the nightstand, fluffed her pillow, and began to fiddle with the bedspread.
Lauren looked up from the screen, her fingers pausing over the keys. She tried not to sound exasperated. “Why don’t you try some television?”
“Do I have a television in here?” Curious, Dev glanced around her room.
“You’d think you’d know what’s in your own bedroom, you workaholic.” The light from the computer reflected off white teeth as she smiled.
“You’re in my bedroom.” Dev pinched her, causing her to laugh and squirm. “And you should talk.” Her laughter was even louder than Lauren’s as the younger woman nearly wiggled off the bed. “Who’s working at nearly midnight?”
Lauren didn’t bother answering the rhetorical question. She smiled fondly at Dev and gave long dark hair an affectionate tug before extending her arm and pointing. “The TV is in that case, honey. Give me a few minutes and I’ll be finished.” A slow, sexy smile crept across her face and her voice dropped an octave. “And then we can do something else to occupy you until you’re ready to sleep.”
Dev felt the words all the way to her toes. She grinned wildly, not noticing that Lauren had begun to type again. “Now you’re talking.” Eagerly, Dev began to work the buttons on her pajamas, nearly tearing one of the more stubborn ones off in her haste. “Stupid, pain in the—”
Lauren glanced sideways and her fingers froze on the keyboard, her mouth suddenly going dry. Her eyes traced the gentle swell of Devlyn’s naked breast. Sweet Jesus. She swallowed hard, very aware of her body’s instant, pulsing response. She groaned, but reluctantly, she reached out and stilled Dev’s hands.
Dev looked up with an innocent, slightly harried expression that nearly caused Lauren to burst out laughing. “What? I’m going as fast I can.”
Unexpectedly, Lauren leaned over and kissed Devlyn on the mouth with brief but sincere passion.
Dev moaned at the feeling of warm, silken lips against hers. “Mmm… Hey, why are you stopping?”
Lauren eyed Dev dreamily. Good question. She barely resisted the urge to toss her computer on the floor and attack Dev’s pajama top herself. With her teeth. “I need a few more minutes to finish, honey.” Quite without her permission, one of her hands wandered over to Dev and began to softly stroke the silky skin of her collarbone. “It has to go to Wayne in the morning. I promised him.” She sighed wistfully. “And if you get naked in this bed with me, I am done for the night.” Gray eyes twinkled. “At least with work.”
Dev’s expression turned smug. “Well,” she tried to look modest, but didn’t quite manage it, “in that case…”
“You’ll watch TV for a little while.” It was more a statement than a question. Not waiting for an answer, she gave the voice command for the television and the cabinet across the room opened to expose an older model 52-inch screen. “Just 15 more minutes, okay?” She patted Dev’s leg.
“Where’s the remote? I hate the voice command.”
“Top drawer of the nightstand,” Lauren informed her absently, her eyes already back on the computer screen, a tiny crease in her forehead letting Dev know she was trying to concentrate on something.
Dev retrieved the remote and climbed back into bed. At a speed faster than Lauren knew the television would work, she began changing the channels, pausing occasionally when something caught her eye. She listened to an infomercial for a moment, then pursed her mouth and touched her upper lip with a fingertip.
“Do I have unwanted facial hair that I was unaware I even had?” Dev asked seriously.
Lauren turned to Dev and pulled her glasses off. She stared at her as though she were an alien. Then she heard the announcer selling a miracle cream. “Yes. Lots.”
Dev scowled. “Ha. Ha.” She changed the channel.
“Welcome to this very special live version of the Gary Kramer show. And I’m your host, Garreeeeeee Kramer! Tonight’s topic: Is She or Isn’t She?”
Dev snickered. “God, I can’t believe this show is still on. You’d think he would have run out of nutcases and hillbillies to pay to come on the show.”
The studio audience went wild, hooting and hollering and chanting Gary’s name over and over
“Gary Kramer is a freak,” Lauren muttered. “And his trashy talk show guests are bigger freaks.” She began searching her computer directory for a particular file.
A curtain went up showing the darkened outline of men on bar stools. Their backs were to the camera.
“I’d like to introduce Billy Ward, former student at Nashville’s John Overton High School.”
“Hey,” Lauren’s eyes lifted, “I went to John Overton.” Pale brows furrowed. “And I knew Billy. Damn, don’t tell me he’s dating his sister or something. He was a sweet guy.”
A light came on over the first man’s head. He was in his early 30s with sandy-brown hair and soulful brown eyes. The audience cheered, and he gave them a nervous wave.
“Billy, let’s get right to tonight’s sizzling hot topic. You know the question on all of America’s minds. Lauren Strayer, lesbian? Is she or isn’t she?”
Once again the audience burst into applause, some shouting yes and some shouting no, a few going as far as to boo, giving her wild thumbs down.
Lauren’s jaw dropped. “Oh, my God!”
The phone rang and Devlyn snatched it up as the lights above Lauren’s former lovers, including ex-husband Judd, lit up the sound stage. “If this is anyone other than David, go away.”
“Are you watching—?” David heard a loud crash, and string of obscenities that would have made the Seventh Fleet collectively blush. “Never mind.”
Lauren flew out of bed, sending her computer clattering to the floor. She marched up to the television and poked her finger right into Man No. 3’s chest. “I never slept with you, you sorry son of a bitch!” she roared. “I wouldn’t even kiss you!”
Dev heard Beth shout from somewhere behind David, “Tell Lauren that if she slept with No. 3, I quit.”
Dev winced at the lurid shade of purple coloring Lauren’s face. “You guys had better get over here. And David?”
“For you or Lauren.”
Twenty minutes later David, Beth and Dev were all on the President’s bed, watching the broadcast. Billy had just finished pronouncing — in a deep Southern accent and with a good dose of indignation — that if Lauren Strayer was a homo, then so was he.
Lauren paced the room like a caged beast, her hands a blur of agitated movement. The words: prom night, Budweiser, pickup truck, and cherry were still viciously whizzing around in her head. She wasn’t close to her family. But she couldn’t help but think, Jesus H. Christ, Daddy is going to see this!
“Sweetheart, if you don't calm down something important is going to burst. It's not," Dev glanced helplessly at Beth and David, “that bad.”
“It is, Devlyn,” Lauren vowed in all seriousness. “It’s that bad.”
Beth eyed Billy speculatively. "That first guy is cute for a high school boyfriend. And he really seems to like you. At least he doesn’t look like he was on the chess team or anything.”
“Hey!” David glared at his wife. “I was on the chess team.”
Beth smiled placidly at David. “Yes, dear, you were.” She turned back to Lauren. “Where'd you park the pickup when you did it?”
Lauren sneered at her chief of staff, who was enjoying this way too much. "None of your God da—"
"Beth, behave," Dev growled as she got off the bed and caught up to Lauren. She put a calming hand on her arm. "Relax." She wrinkled her nose. "Budweiser?"
Gray eyes narrowed. “My house didn’t have a wine cellar.”
“Next up is Carter Simpson, University of Tennessee graduate and part owner of Rocky’s Tools in Memphis. How can you shed some light on the subject, Carter?”
Carter was beefy and tall and looked uncomfortable in his navy blue sport coat and tie. “Huh? I thought you paid me to come talk about sex.” He scratched his square jaw, and several women in the audience began to swoon. When he smiled, deep dimples dotted his ruddy cheeks.
Beth burst out laughing. "He's beautiful, Lauren. Too bad, the lights are on but nobody's home."
Dev looked at him with a discerning eye. "He's not so great," she said unconvincingly. “Did you really sleep with him?” Part of Dev hoped that all these men were fakes. Even Judd. That wasn’t realistic, of course. But if she was going to delude herself, why not go all the way?
“Ugh,” Lauren groaned and nodded miserably. She rubbed her face. Could this get any worse?
Dev glanced back at Carter and rolled her eyes. “So what if he’s good looking? It’s not like he’s… oh, I don’t know... the President!”
David and Beth laughed. Sometimes Dev was so touchy.
“He was really sweet, Devlyn,” Lauren scolded. “We just didn’t have anything in common except for—”
“Fantastic, tongue-wagging, sweat-sliding, hips grinding, sweet-mother-of-God-if-I-died now-I’d-die-happy, all-American sex!” Carter finished proudly. He looked a little overheated and had to wrestle loose the tie that circled his thick neck.
All the other men looked at Carter with wide eyes just as they cut to a commercial break.
Lauren shrugged one shoulder and admitted weakly, “I came out of my shell in college with Carter.”
"Wow," David mumbled from the bed as he reached over for a glass of water on the nightstand. After drinking it down, he pressed the glass to his forehead. "Sometimes the First Amendment just sucks. Can I sleep with you, Lauren?” he blurted, unable to resist.
Beth choked on her drink, then smacked David in the back of the head. Of course that didn’t stop her from asking, “Me too?” Which earned her a playful slap from her husband in return. “Ouch,” Beth laughed, rubbing her head.
“If I can’t, you can’t,” David insisted, leaning in and kissing his wife soundly. “Besides, I couldn’t stand the competition.”
“Me neither,” Beth agreed happily, kissing him back.
"All right, that's enough," Dev bit back a laugh, then masked the command with a smile, though it was clear she was serious. "Don’t make me separate you two troublemakers.”
“Killjoy,” David mumbled. “First we don’t get to see Lauren’s tattoo, now this.”
“Yeah,” Beth echoed solemnly. “What he said.”
Dev focused on Lauren, who was staring at the television images, still in shock. “Lauren, are you okay?"
Lauren stuck out her tongue at Beth and David, then addressed Devlyn. “No, I’m not okay,” she whined, praying Carter wouldn’t remember that time they did it under the bleachers at half time. “Can’t we assassinate them or something?”
“Your old boyfriends?” Dev looked surprised, then slightly pleased by the notion.
“No,” Lauren corrected with an arch look thrown in the general direction of Dev’s bed, “David and Beth.”
Dev sighed and opened her arms, an invitation for Lauren to take refuge. "’Fraid not. But don’t think I haven’t considered it."
Lauren was too agitated to stop moving, and a flash of hurt flickered across Dev’s face when her lover didn’t come over to the bed. The sight stopped Lauren’s pacing cold, and she walked over to the bed and took Dev’s hand and gently kissed her knuckles.
The commercial ended and Carter began talking again. At the words “tied up” Dev’s bedroom went absolutely silent.
Lauren whimpered. This actually rivaled her mother walking into her bedroom when she was 14 at the exact same moment that she’d finally gotten up the nerve to try masturbation for the first time. Only now the room was more crowded. Kill me now, God. Please.
Tied up. Well, well, well. Dev looked from the TV to Lauren and back again three times before squeaking, “Really?”
“Even then he worked at a hardware store part-time,” Lauren said, as if that explained everything.
Beth was now laughing so hard she was in danger of falling off the bed. “I’m gonna wet my pants,” she howled. “I know it.”
“At least we know what to get them for Christmas,” David said seriously. He looked at Beth and they both said, “duct tape,” at the same time before dissolving into twin fits of laughter.
Carter proclaimed Lauren as hetero as… Well, he couldn’t come up with an actual analogy. But he swore the sex was great and that while they were under the bleachers her eyes hadn’t roamed over to the cheerleaders even once.
Dev started to say something and then her mouth clicked shut and she took a seat in a chair. "Tied up?" She looked at David and Beth, who were finally starting to calm down. "I tell ya, Lauren, you may be too wild for my white bread tastes." She gave Lauren a very serious look. "Are we talking tape or rope or chains?"
Lauren was well aware that she was being tweaked. She tilted her chin upward with an indignant grunt and crossed her arms over her chest, petulantly refusing to answer.
"There's still more men to go," Beth reminded Dev helpfully. "Let's wait and see."
It was now Man No. 3's turn.
As soon as the camera panned sideways, Lauren crowed, "I did not sleep with him!” Beseeching eyes begged her friends to believe her. “He was a freshman when I was a senior for God’s sake. He helped me on a chemistry final and I went on one,” she held up her index finger, “single, pity date with him. That's it!"
"Did you pass the exam?" David snorted from the bed where he was reclining as though he owned the joint, his back against the headboard.
"Yes," Lauren snapped, as she mentally eviscerated the man on television. "You're in deep trouble, nerd boy," she shouted to the image. "I know people with guns and bombs, who aren’t afraid to use them."
Nerd boy, better known to some as Wendell Fleshman, spent most of his 15 minutes of fame bragging about his and Lauren’s torrid love affair.
Beth asked Lauren, "Did you ever get poked with that pocket protector while you were doing it? That could have been messy. Of course, he probably carried sanitary wipes around in his back pocket."
“Doesn’t everyone?” David said, winking at Beth.
Lauren ground her teeth together.
Gary Kramer thrust his microphone in Wendell’s face, "Did you ever once see a sign that Lauren was attracted to women?" He leaned closer to Wendell. "Anything. Anything at all that was a hint of what was to come? The public has a right to know."
Wendell thought for a moment and then nodded his head. "Yes. Yes, I did."
David, Beth, and Dev all leaned forward in anticipation.
Even Lauren took a step closer to the TV.
"One night after studying, we went out for a Coke."
Three sets of eyes swung towards Lauren.
The blonde woman nodded reluctantly. "It wasn't a date, though,” she corrected carefully. “My apartment didn't have air-conditioning and it was a million degrees outside. We were boiling and needed a break.”
Wendell let out a contemplative breath. "When we got to the convenience store, there was another girl there; she was in our chemistry class, too."
"Shirley," Wendell announced, with Lauren whispering the name right along with him as the past came rushing back to her.
"Shirley was 25 cents short for the Coke she wanted to buy and Lauren ran up to the counter and offered Shirley a quarter." Wendell paused, well aware that the studio audience was hanging on his every word. "And then they both smiled at each other.” He shrugged and adjusted his heavy-framed glasses. “And I knew."
"Knew what?" the host prompted breathlessly.
The camera zoomed in on Wendell. "Knew there was something there."
“That’s it?” Gary asked, doing his best to hide his disappointment. His show hadn’t paid all this money to hear about lingering smiles.
The audience groaned, let down by the pedestrian encounter. But Lauren blinked stupidly. "I can't believe it," she said quietly. "He's right."
Beth blinked at her friend. "He is?"
Lauren nodded. "I wasn't thinking about kissing her or anything romantic. The thought never entered… well, it never entered my conscious mind at least. But she was really interesting and pretty and had the greatest laugh. And I remember thinking that wouldn't it be wonderful if we ran into each other again sometime before school let out."
This time the pang of jealousy nailed Devlyn right in her heart. "And did you?" she finally got out, surprised that this would affect her so. She wasn’t a jealous person, but perhaps when it came to Lauren, all bets were off. "Run into each other?"
Lauren smiled wistfully, completely unaware of the look on her own face. "Nope. I graduated a month later. And I was already dating Judd by that time. Unlike Wendell, however, Judd sucked at chemistry."
The President sighed and murmured, "He sucked at a lot of things."
Judd looked as though he wanted to blend into the background. Billy, Carter, and Wendell all looked relaxed and happy. He couldn’t understand how they could be enjoying this.
Billy made a comment about Lauren’s talent for a particular sexual act, much to the dismay of the other men, and Dev’s face turned to stone. "I feel an audit coming on for you, big mouth. Hope you know a good tax lawyer."
Gary Kramer got his note cards mixed up and decided to wing it as he spoke to Judd. "Ah, the illustrious Mr. Strayer."
Everyone in the President's bedroom winced, including Lauren. Judd had always hated that with a passion.
"That's Radison," Judd ground out, his hands shaping into white-knuckled fists.
"Sorry," Gary continued blithely. "You, more than anyone, would know the answer to our question. After all, you were married to the woman. Is Lauren truly a lesbian? Or is she simply using President Marlowe for the power and prestige?"
“Yeah, this is really prestigious,” Lauren said, her face twisting into a sour expression. “Especially at this very moment.”
"Maybe she likes men and women. Why don't you just ask Lauren?" Judd suggested reasonably, his self-disgust leaking into his words. With every passing second he looked more and more like he wanted to bolt from the studio.
The President of the United States’ eyes burned holes into her television.
Judd threw a loathing-filled glance at Wendell. “For the record, there is no way she slept with you, Wendell. So just give it up.”
“Thank you!” Lauren shouted, throwing her hands in the air. “Finally.”
Gary tried to get a few more details out of Judd and grew angry when the architect refused to give up anything juicy. “Did Lauren like to be on top or on the bottom?” he tried to toss in casually and catch Judd off guard.
The audience went wild, hooting and screaming.
Judd just glared.
“Don’t you do it, Judd,” Lauren warned as she bit the inside of her cheek. “Not a word.”
“Top or bottom?” Gary persisted. “Top or bottom?” He motioned the camera closer. “Top or bottom?” Closer still the camera came and Judd began to sweat. “Top or bottom?”
“Top!” Judd screamed, unable to take the pressure for another second. “There. Are you happy?”
“You spineless shit.” Lauren sighed.
Carter’s thick eyebrows pulled together. “Not with me.”
“I would have thought she’d be afraid that a Paul-fucking-Bunyon-ape like you would crush her,” Judd shouted, any semblance of calm flying out the window.
Carter jumped out of his seat and several large staff hands had to restrain him.
Gary smiled happily. “After this break, we have a final, surprise guest and a vote from our panelists.”
“All good things must eventually come to an end.” Beth sat up and padded across the room to Lauren, who was looking out the window. “It really isn’t so bad, Lauren,” she whispered.
“And if it were your sex life up for public discussion?”
“I wouldn’t be handling it as well as you are,” Beth said cheerfully. “But it’s not me. Thank God.”
Lauren ran a nervous hand through wavy blonde hair. “It’s almost over,” she said as much to herself as Beth. “I can take it.”
“Of course you can.” Beth glanced over her shoulder and then back at Lauren, lowering her voice further. “Who is the special guest? Any idea?”
Lauren nodded. “Oh, yeah. They’ve done a pretty good job at hunting down people. So I’m expecting they didn’t miss Man No. 5 from my past.”
“Oooo, is this man worth all the mystery?”
Lauren shrugged, hearing the music for the Gary Kramer Show begin again. “You tell me. C’mon.” They moved over to the bed and sat next to their respective mates. Lauren, burrowed into Dev’s embrace, letting out a deep breath. It’s almost over, she told herself.
“Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen.” Over the host’s shoulder Judd, with a stark white bandage taped over his nose, was clearly visible. “Before our last guest, we’ve asked the men on stage to rate their sexual experiences with the future First Lady on a scale from 1 to 5.”
“Jesus Christ!” Lauren exploded. “That’s not fair!”
Billy held up a card that proudly proclaimed a 4.
Carter flipped up his card and showed an 11. Again, everyone gaped at him, causing him to exclaim, “What?” a little defensively.
David looked back over at Lauren. “Are you sure I can’t—”
“David…” Dev warned in a low voice.
Wendell held up a 3, and Billy hit Wendell over the head with his card.
Lauren rolled her eyes.
Judd turned his card over very slowly, looking as though he wanted to die. His read a 3.
“Don’t worry about him, Lauren.” Beth snorted. “You weren’t getting any higher if he wanted to go home to his current wife tonight.”
“Smart man,” David pronounced knowingly.
The audience cheered and Gary Kramer eased back into the scene. “And now for our final guest. A man from the lovely country of Ireland.”
Lauren shook her head. How in the world did they find you, Alex?
A devastatingly handsome man in tight jeans, boots, and a faded denim shirt swaggered on stage. “This is a live television program, right?” he asked in a thick brogue.
“Good. Because I just have two things to say. First off, Lauren, love, I hope you’re sending me a weddin’ invitation.” He blew a kiss into the camera and Lauren’s face broke into a huge smile. “Second… Ireland forever!” And with that, Alex began ranting about the English and hostile occupations and a host of other things until he was bodily dragged off stage.
The show ended in chaos and Lauren took the remote from Dev’s lifeless hand. She turned off the television, casting the room into the muted light from a single lamp.
Dev licked her lips before speaking. “You never told me that one of your lovers was a black man.”
“I didn’t think it was important,” Lauren said honestly, though she knew her father would go into cardiac arrest if he heard. “Is it?”
David and Dev shared a look. “David—?”
David lifted a hand. “I’ll talk to press secretary Allen in the morning so we can head off any hillbilly fallout.”
Tuesday, April 19, 2022
Dev slept peacefully, her arms wrapped tightly around Lauren, who had her face buried in her pillow and was snoring gently. When the alarm sounded, Dev was up like a shot with Lauren close behind.
Lauren’s heart instantly leaped into her throat. She hated that damn thing; it only signaled horrible things.
Dev slipped quickly into the sweats that had been tossed at the side of the bed and hastily pulled her sleep-wrinkled T-shirt out of the waistband, cinching the drawstrings.
Lauren, still partly in a daze, stumbled a little as she moved for her robe. She grabbed it and brought it back with her to bed so she could slip it over her pajamas if need be.
Dev retrieved a pair of socks from the dresser, plopped down on the floor and put them on while giving a voice command. “Videophone, cue on my location.” The lens of the videophone dutifully shifted to where Dev was sitting, putting the bed containing Lauren well out of sight. “Marlowe, access code delta six, omega three, six, five, seven, gamma….” She rattled off a long list of numbers and letters before ordering the alarm to cease.
Lauren watched as a video feed, which was still a lifeless blue square, appeared above the small desk in the corner of the room. She reached for the nightstand and, out of habit, sleepily slipped on her glasses, amazed that Dev could remember all those priority codes when it seemed the world was about to crash down around them.
Dev stood and moved to the chair, the camera following her as the feed from the Situation Room flared to life. “What’s going on?”
“Madam President,” a young Air Force officer, who looked exceptionally pale, addressed her, “Freedom Six is down.”
Freedom Six…Freedom Six… Mini-spy sub, her brain reminded her. Full of hardware. Dev’s eyes widened as the news sank in. “Fuck!” Dev exploded as she pulled a large black box from a hidden compartment in her desk. She lifted the box and allowed its sensor to scan her retina for identification purposes. The lock opened with a quiet snap. “How long?”
“Five minutes, ma’am. Advisors are on their way here now and—”
“So am I.” She pulled two files from the case and reset the lock before tucking it away. “I’ll be there in three.” She considered several calls she needed to make. “Scratch that. Make it 15. End call.”
The link went dead, and Dev ran a hand through her disheveled hair as she padded quickly for the door. She paused, backtracked, and gave Lauren a kiss on the cheek. “Go back to bed.” She cupped her chin with a gentle hand. “You have to sit this one out. It’s highly classified.”
Lauren opened her mouth, then closed it. She knew she shouldn’t be asking, but, with a gulp, she did it anyway. “Are we okay here? Should we get ready to—?”
“No.” Dev cringed inwardly. Stupid. She sighed and let her hand drop from Lauren’s warm skin. “I should have said that before so you wouldn’t be frightened.” Her gaze softened. “You and the children are fine, I promise.”
Lauren let out a relieved breath.
“I’ll be back when I can,” the taller woman whispered softly, smoothing the comforter over Lauren’s thighs.
Lauren nodded, watching in wonder as Devlyn transformed herself from President of the United States to lover and back again, all in the blink of an eye.
Dev dashed out the door. Lauren waited until it closed, before sitting down at the desk and opening her computer. She suddenly had the urge to work on Devlyn’s biography.
Dev entered the Situation Room, alert eyes scanning an interior filled with men and women pulling up various maps and information and speaking in hushed, grave tones. “Where are they?” she asked, bringing all eyes to her and a host of military personnel scrambling to their feet, their chairs scraping loudly against the floor.
“Attennnntion!” someone called out, briskly.
“At ease,” she responded automatically. “Where?”
The Secretary of the Navy crossed the room, his puffy eyes still holding traces of sleep at their corners. “They are currently in the Gulf of Oman, off the coast of Iran, Madam President.”
“And exactly how in the hell did they end up there? Their—?”
Before Dev could finish, the door opened. More staff members entered, including the Joint Chiefs, all five of them looking ragged. They obviously didn’t respond any better than Dev to being yanked out of bed at 2 in the morning. Behind them came the directors of the CIA, Homeland Defense, and the National Security Agency, with David bringing up the rear.
“In my office, ladies and gentleman,” Dev ordered and watched as they all filed in ahead of her. She took David by the arm and whispered in his ear. “We’ve got big problems here, David. Freedom Six is apparently trapped in the Gulf of Oman.”
“Oh, my God.” David’s shoulders sagged. There was a long pause. “Do you want me to call him?”
Dev’s stomach was in knots as she considered his question. “Let’s wait and see exactly what we’re dealing with first.”
David discreetly patted her arm, very aware of the deep lines of tension on her face. “I’ll be ready if you need me.”
“I know you will, David.” She reached out and squeezed his hand, then let go, her posture straightening and her voice taking on its normal volume and timbre. “Is everyone else on their way in?”
David tapped a small computer in his hand. “Two still haven’t checked in. Their E.T.A. is six and five minutes respectively.”
Dev nodded grimly and gestured for David to go into the office ahead of her, then followed, the thick wooden door closing and locking behind them.
The light in the room was dim as, 20 minutes later, the Secretary of the Navy was pointing to a location on a holomap. “This is where Freedom Six is trapped, Madam President. For reasons still unknown, their navigation system malfunctioned as they were leaving the Arabian Sea sometime last night. By the time the system went back on line, they found themselves in the Gulf of Oman.”
“Once they were able, why didn’t they get the hell out of there?” She threw her hands in the air. “They’ve got half a billion dollars of spy equipment on board.”
“They tried, Madam President, but the Gulf of Oman is prone to eddies. They got caught in one and have run aground.”
Dev rubbed her forehead and leaned against a table. “So they’re stuck like a tractor in the mud?”
The man ground his teeth together, not liking the comparison of one of the Navy’s finest, multi-million dollar vessels with a John Deere. “Unfortunately, ma’am, yes. They’re stuck.”
“Christ.” Dev glanced around at a room of somber faces. “So tell me, is there any way to get them out of there?”
“Not without serious risk to any vessel we send in. As you’re well aware, we currently have hostile relations with nearly every country in that region. If we send in a rescue team, we risk making ourselves known to our enemies.”
Dev pushed off the desk and moved toe to toe with the older man. He was tall, slim, distinguished-looking, with a head of short silver hair and a small, neatly trimmed mustache. He reminded her vaguely of her father. “I’ll need a full briefing on those risks, Secretary Krenshaw.”
He glanced at her in question.
“I want as many specifics as we’ve got time for. Educate me.”
Unconsciously, he squared his shoulders. “Yes, Madam President.”
Dev began to pace, thinking out loud. “Freedom Six has six crew members aboard, correct?”
Several men and women were nodding, but it was the director of the CIA who spoke. “Yes, ma’am. Four members of the Navy and two of our own people.” Her expression grew even more sober. “Including the Vice President’s nephew.”
“I know,” Dev acknowledged quietly.
“M... M... Madam President?” A short, muscular airman handed Devlyn a piece of paper. His face was bright red and Devlyn realized that he was new to his assignment and this was the first time he’d spoken to her.
“Relax,” she said under her breath, allowing a very small smile to cross her face. Normally, she would have taken a moment to speak with the man and introduce herself as a person and not just a title. At the moment, however, she only had time to say, “Good job.”
Such a tiny thing made such a big difference. The airman’s color improved before her eyes. “Thank you, ma’am.” Beaming, he stepped away, disappearing into the crowd of milling people that filled the room as Dev read the note.
And her stomach dropped.
“Shit!” Groaning loud enough to garner everyone’s attention, Devlyn crushed the paper in her hand, her knuckles white.
David was instantly at her side. “Madam President?”
“Freedom Six has been detected.” She handed the wadded up paper to David, her chest feeling tight.
David smoothed the paper against his thigh and passed it along silently, as the appropriate personnel glanced at its contents. There was a flickering of light as new maps and charts materialized in the air around the room’s walls, circling them in neon.
A low murmur washed over the room, and the tension increased ten-fold.
“Ma’am?” The Secretary of the Navy laid a gentle hand on her arm. “We can’t risk that technology being captured.”
Dev turned her eyes to David. “Call Geoff and get him over here.”
David drew in a ragged breath. “Right away.” His voice broke.
While she waited for the Vice President to arrive, Devlyn went into her office and shut the door, closing out the sounds of computer keystrokes and the low rumble of voices. She clicked on the light over her desk, which cast her face in an eerie glow. She pored over the reports, several of them having just been received from Freedom Six’s own crew over secure communication channels. She read them as many times as it took, until she felt she had as firm a grasp as time allowed on the dilemma at hand.
The boat was trapped on a rocky ledge and was without sufficient power to move, the propulsion system damaged beyond immediate repair.
Situation serious. Unable to extract. No casualties. Advise immediately.
God, give me strength. She scribbled a quick note and opened her office door. A communications officer was waiting there. “Send that and let me know as soon as you have a response.
“Understood, ma’am.” The young woman looked at the note. Understand situation. All options being considered. Hold tight. D. Marlowe. “Right away, Madam President.”
David moved around the young woman and gazed at Dev compassionately. “Geoff’s here.”
Dev swallowed hard. “Bring him to the Oval Office to wait. I’ll be right in.”
David’s eyes cast downward. It was times like these that he was very glad he maintained a behind-the-scenes role, forsaking the visible power for something more suited to his personality. And at least one level higher on the rungs of Hell. “Yes, ma’am.”
Dev called the Secretary of the Navy into her Situation Room office and shut the door behind her. When she emerged two minutes later, she looked pale.
She strode through the Situation Room and out into the hallway on her way to the Oval Office, hating every single step she was taking. And dreading what was to come. No option, her mind whispered. It has to be done. She stood outside the door for a long second. Then she sighed and entered.
Geoff was standing, looking out the window over the Ellipse and out to Constitution Avenue. He had one hand resting on the back of Dev’s chair. When he heard the door close, he turned to her. “It must be serious for you to have called me over here in the middle of the night.” He was dressed casually, and Devlyn could see a garment bag containing a suit draped over one of the sofas.
“It is serious, Geoff.” She gestured to the couch. “Come on, have a seat.”
Geoff deserved the direct approach, not that there was time for much else. She drew in a deep breath, her ribs expanding fully. “Freedom Six is trapped in the Gulf of Oman. There is no way to do a rescue. Hostile vessels are in the area and closing in on Freedom Six as we speak.”
The blood drained from his face. “Oh, my God. My nephew is an equipment ensign on Freedom Six.”
Dev’s hands shaped into fists, but her voice remained calm. “I know, Geoff. That’s why I called you.” She hesitated and looked deeply into her old friend’s eyes, wondering briefly if she might throw up. “We have to destroy that boat. We can’t risk it being captured. If the equipment on board were captured, it would change the balance of power in the Middle East.”
Geoff blinked at her, staring in disbelief. “He’s only 25 years old.”
Dev closed her eyes. “I know. I hate this, Geoff. I can’t tell you how much I hate this. But we don’t have a choice.”
“Don’t,” he stood and looked down at her. “There has to be another way. Have we even tried a rescue?”
Dev shook her head. “Our nearest vessel is over two hours away. The next closest is one of Britain’s and that’s three hours out. We don’t have that kind of time.”
“Damn it, Dev!” He scrubbed his face wildly. “What about intercepting the enemy vessel to keep it from reaching Freedom Six?”
“Geoff,” she said gently. “In 15 minutes that submarine will be in enemy hands. We can’t intercept. There’s no time and it would be an unprovoked attack. Freedom Six isn’t in International Waters, Geoff.”
Geoff fell back onto the sofa next to Dev. “Christ.” He looked to her with watery eyes. “An escape pod or hatch or something for the crew?”
Dev gave a quick shake of her head.
“There’s no other way?”
Her expression softened. “I swear there’s not.”
He nodded, resigned to the facts as tears began rolling down his cheeks.
Dev moved off the sofa and knelt in front of him. He was close to breaking apart. “Geoff, they’ve been maintaining radio silence, but I think they deserve the right to hear this from me directly, so I’m going to order a link established. We’ll do our best to scramble it. Would you like a chance to talk to your nephew?”
“Yeah.” He pulled himself from his chair and rubbed his eyes, suddenly looking far older than his years. “Let’s go.”
Back in the Situation Room, everyone watched as they entered and took seats at the head of the table. Dev hit the button on the communications console at her fingers. “Open a visual link with Freedom Six.”
There were murmurs among the collected staff, but within seconds the link flared to life and the captain nodded to the President. “Madam President.” He looked haggard, his skin a ghostly gray in the sub’s emergency lights.
“Captain, I am afraid I don’t have good news.”
He nodded, swallowing hard. “We have been preparing for that, ma’am.”
Dev gritted her teeth, forcing back the tears she could feel coming. “We have no choice,” she whispered harshly, hearing several discreet sniffs from somewhere behind her.
The captain looked away, remaining silent for several long seconds. When he turned back to her, his cheeks were wet. “We would like to send a transmission for you to give to our families.”
“I’ll deliver them personally,” Dev swore fervently, her emotions threatening to surface. “The bravery of you and your crew in the face of the impossible is astounding, Captain.”
The captain sighed heavily. “We’ve transmitted as much data as possible to help in determining what went wrong.”
Dev nodded. “Is Ensign McQuire present? The Vice President would like to speak with him.”
The image shifted to a young man who could have been Geoff’s son. “Mr. Vice President,” he greeted weakly, doing his best to smile bravely, though his chin was noticeably quivering.
“Jack,” the man’s voice cracked, and Devlyn stood and rubbed his back gently, not giving a damn what it looked like. “I wanted… wanted to tell you, I love you.”
For a moment it didn’t look like the ensign was going to hold it together long enough to respond. Finally, he whispered, “I love you too, Uncle Geoff. Please ta… take care of Mom for me.”
“You know I will, son.” A pained pause. “If there was any other way—”
“I know,” he answered bleakly.
An aide stepped close to her and let her know that all information had been received from the boat and they were prepared to take the next, inevitable step.
“Ensign McQuire, Jack, I need to speak to the captain.” I’m sorry.
Dev firmed her jaw. “Captain, I can do this remotely from here, or you and I can enter the codes together.”
“This boat and her crew are my responsibility. I’ll set the codes from my end.”
David handed a black envelope to Dev, and she cracked the seal. A trickle of sweat rolled down her back, causing an involuntary shiver to wash over her. As she slid the key card and the destruct codes from it, the captain was doing the same thing aboard the submarine. “I’m ready when you are, ma’am.” She could hear the Lord’s Prayer being recited somewhere behind the captain, and several people in the Situation Room joined in the barest of whispered voices.
Dev glanced sideways at Geoff with watery eyes. “Do you want to leave?”
He shook his head curtly. “No. I’m staying.”
“All right,” she whispered, laying everything out in front of her and reading the card. Through force of will alone, she managed to keep her hand from shaking as she picked up the key card and swiped it through the console in front of her. “Enter six, three, seven, three, five, seven, six.”
The image of the captain could be seen punching in the numbers as directed. “Destruct protocol in place,” he told her dutifully.
Dev stared at the man in something close to awe. “I don’t know what to say to you or your crew.”
He sniffed once. “There’s nothing to say, Madam President.”
“Thank you, Captain.” Dev’s jaw silently worked for a few seconds. It felt as though 10 men were standing on her chest. “God bless.”
A computer-generated voice began a count down. “Destruct sequence initiated.”
“In five,” Dev’s voice cracked as she laid her hand on the button that she herself was required to push. She quickly made a fist, trying to wipe the sweat from her fingers. “Four, three, two...” As she said "One" she pressed the red button and the link went dead.
Dev closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing. She felt a little light headed, but appeared the very picture of calm, contemplative leadership.
The entire room was silent for more than two minutes, each person’s breathing sounding unusually loud in the quiet room. Finally the Secretary of the Navy handed her a piece of paper. “The boat is destroyed, ma’am.”
It was two hours before dawn by the time Devlyn made her way back to her quarters. She’d cleared her calendar for the following morning and left word with David that she wanted to visit the houses of each of the now-deceased servicemen as soon as possible and that the press was not to be informed about the trips.
She slowly pushed open her bedroom door, glad to see Lauren had decided to stay. The younger woman was lying in an uncomfortable position, her glasses still on, her small computer perched on her chest as she slumbered.
Dev used her feet to push off her shoes, then sat down heavily in a red wingback chair near the bed, staring at Lauren with dull eyes as she watched her partner’s chest rise and fall with each peaceful breath. She tried to focus on the woman in front of her, but the night’s events were still too raw to be pushed from the forefront of her mind, no matter how much she tried.
“Destruct sequence initiated.” Stop it! “Please ta… take care of Mom for me.” Her eyes began to burn. “In five, four, three…” STOP IT! She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees and brought her palms to her eyes, feeling her breathing hitch. I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry.
“Devlyn,” came the sleep-husky voice. Lauren struggled to sit up in bed, temporarily confused at waking up alone but in the President’s room. She pushed her small laptop onto the floor. “Darlin’?”
Dev glanced up at Lauren in agony.
Lauren scrambled out of bed and dropped to her knees in front of other woman, gently brushing her knuckles against Dev’s cheek as she worriedly searched her face. “What’s wrong?” The bolt of worry that lanced through her was nearly enough to make her dizzy. She’d never seen Dev look quite so undone.
The softly spoken words so full of concern did it. The tears that had been brutally pushed back all night rushed forward with a vengeance. Dev’s breathing hitched again and then she began to cry.
“C’mere.” Shoving down her own panic, Lauren stood and led Dev back to the bed by one hand. She quickly adjusted a pillow and then climbed in, silently asking her lover to join her with a pat on the bed next to her.
Dev eagerly complied, lying down with her head on Lauren’s chest and feeling strong arms wrap themselves around her in silent support. “I’m… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Shh…” Lauren admonished gently, her heart aching for her friend. “You don’t have to apologize for this.” She kissed the top of Dev’s head.
It took a long time for the tears to slow, then stop, as the exhaustion that always follows a good cry began to take over. Lauren whispered words of reassurance and comfort the entire time, one hand gently tracing Dev’s back in a calming motion. Finally, the sky began to take on the faintest hint of pale purple and she knew, without looking at the clock, that it would be dawn in a few moments. “Do you want to talk about it?” Lauren asked in a low voice, punctuating her question with a soft kiss near Dev’s ear.
Did she? Dev was surprised to find that she did. And so, leaving out many of the classified details, Devlyn told Lauren the entire story. Ending with a ragged, “Geoff’s… Oh, Jesus, Geoff’s nephew was… was on board. I’m sorry. I’m…” the words trailed off into a mournful sigh.
Lauren’s eyes shimmered with tears, and it took a moment to speak around the lump that had grown in her throat. “Was he there? Geoff, I mean.” She felt Devlyn nod against her, moving her T-shirt, which was now damp with tears. “Oh, God,” she whispered, tightening her hold on Dev. “I can’t believe you had to do that. How horrible.”
Dev shifted a little, her body stiff from lying in the same position for so long. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” she said flatly. “I wasn’t blown to bits.”
“Stop that,” Lauren responded gently but firmly. “Of course I hurt for you, Devlyn,” she murmured emotionally. “I hurt for you most of all.” God, she didn’t just order it done. She did it herself. Lauren shivered inwardly, horrified. Half of her was angry that Dev couldn’t have delegated this soul-numbing task to a soldier whose job it was to kill. But the other half of Lauren was fully aware of how selfish that was. And that Devlyn would never expect someone to do something that was her responsibility. Problem was, sometimes it seemed like the entire world was her responsibility.
Dev’s eyes began to burn again, and she sucked in a quick breath, fearing she was going to start crying all over again. “I- I’m not supposed to be doing this,” she said helplessly, suddenly seeming very lost.
With the hand on her back, Lauren could feel Dev’s heart rate pick up.
“I’m supposed to be strong.”
“You don’t have to be strong all the time, Devlyn,” Lauren said with a sad smile. “Not like this, here with me.” She sighed “After what’s happened, I’d be worried if you were doing anything else, honey. This is exactly right.” She kissed Dev’s head again. “Exactly.”
Lauren’s voice sounded so sure that Devlyn had no choice but to believe. She couldn’t help herself. In a moment of crystalline clarity, Dev knew that this was something she’d needed for a long time. Some burdens couldn’t be carried alone. Some secrets, she realized, needed to be shared if she was going to keep her sanity.
The blonde woman felt Devlyn begin to relax and her breathing slow and grow steady. “I love you,” Dev burred, her voice the barest of whispers.
That’s it, darlin’. Relax. Sleep. “I love you, too.” She stayed sitting up in bed, awake, thinking, with Dev pressed tightly against her chest sleeping, as the sun rose over the White House and another day began.
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