Lauren pulled shut the door to her White House quarters and adjusted the strap to her laptop as she juggled her briefcase.
“Lauren,” Ashley called from the other end of the hall, just as she began to dash towards her. “Wait.”
Lauren glanced at her watch and schooled herself in patience. She was already late for an interview with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who had known Devlyn since graduate school. “Hi, Ashley.”
The girl came to a sliding stop in front of Lauren. “You can’t go,” she said a little desperately, a panicky look chasing its way across her face.
Lauren’s eyebrows jumped. “I have an appointment. I—”
Ashley grabbed hold of Lauren’s arm and dug her heels into the thick carpet. “Please!”
“Ashley, I don’t understand. I—”
“Mom just called. Today’s parent/teacher conference day.”
“Uh huh.” She gazed at Ashley expectantly.
“And she’s stuck at some fund raising speech in Chicago.”
Lauren’s eyes widened a touch. “Still? She was supposed to be back hours ago.” Sometimes she just didn’t know where the time went.
“She said I could ask you if you’d go in her place.”
Lauren’s gaze was soft and questioning. “Ashley, Devlyn should really be the one to go to that sort of thing, shouldn’t she?”
Pale brows drew together. Ashley looked especially desperate. Something wasn’t right. “Are you sure, honey? I’m not—”
A deep sigh. “It’s not that I don’t think I should go.” Mostly. “It’s that I know your mom hates to miss this sort of thing. Can’t you reschedule?”
Ashley shook her head wildly. “Nuh uh. The teacher gets mad when that happens. She’s mean to kids whose parents make her wait and wait.”
Lauren’s eyes sparked. “Did she do that to you last semester?” She remembered Devlyn having to reschedule three times before she could attend the conference that took place just before Thanksgiving.
“Well, not exactly,” Ashley admitted reluctantly, digging her toe into the navy blue carpet. “But Cathy Simpson told me when her dad missed his appointment that—”
Lauren held up her hand and let out a deep breath, then she looked down into those pleading brown eyes and began to melt. Crap. Any other arguments simply died on her lips. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. “What time?”
A relieved grin lit Ashley’s face. “Fifteen minutes.”
“Ashley!” Lauren’s eyes widened in alarm, and she yanked open her bedroom door. “You could have given me a little time,” she complained, tossing her computer and brief case on her bed. She ran nervous hands through her hair. “What should I wear?”
Ashley blinked. “Huh?”
“Clothes, Ashley,” she said as she dialed Beth’s number. She quickly explained the situation and asked Beth to reschedule her appointment. She scowled when Beth chuckled and wished her luck. What was that all about? She tossed the phone alongside her briefcase and refocused on the 8-year-old. “Can I wear this or do I need to change?” Never mind that what she was wearing was good enough for her business meeting. This was something… well, parental and she wanted to be prepared.
Two sets of eyes fixed on Lauren’s tailored, russet-colored pants suit. Lauren held open her unbuttoned trench coat to give Ashley a better look.
Ashley shrugged. “You look fine to me.”
Lauren sighed. “What does your mom wear?”
“I dunno.” Ashley sat down on the bed. “What did your parents wear?”
Lauren thought about that for a moment. “I doubt they ever went to one.” That would have required Mama getting out of bed and Daddy coming home before 8. She felt an instant pang of guilt for the unkind thought and mentally chastised herself.
“Oh, I get it,” Ashley explained in a very grown up way. “They didn’t have teacher conferences in the olden days when you were a kid.”
Lauren gaped. “Olden days? I’m not that old.” She grabbed Ashley’s hand. “C’mon. I don’t want to be late. Your teacher gets me in a business suit.”
“It’s pretty,” Ashley assured her as Lauren dragged her down the hall.
Lauren stopped dead in her tracks and pulled the girl into an unexpected, enthusiastic hug. “Thanks.”
The writer continued to squeeze her. “Yeah?”
“Yo… you’re squishing me,” Ashley croaked, her words muffled against Lauren’s chest.
Lauren released her instantly. “Sorry.” She winced.
Ashley thought about how Lauren was acting. “Don’t be nervous. It’s just a conference.”
“You’re pretty smart, you know that?” Lauren patted her cheek.
Ashley beamed. “Thanks.”
Two minutes later they, along with Amy, the Secret Service Agent assigned to Ashley, were in a car being driven to Brightwood Elementary. President Marlowe believed that public schools were the backbone of the US education system and that they needed her support. So despite the logistical nightmare caused by security concerns, all her children attended public institutions. Dev also understood that private schools offered subjects and smaller class environments that public schools simply couldn’t. Towards that end, for an hour everyday after school, a tutor came to the White House, alternately instructing Ashley in art history and French.
It was a compromise that let Devlyn do what she thought was best for her children, while still allowing her to put her money where her mouth was when it came to support of public education.
Lauren turned away from the window. It was starting to rain. “So, are you ready?” She smiled at the little girl, who was wearing her trench coat over her jeans and sweatshirt.
“Ready for what?”
“The conference, of course.”
“This is a parent/teacher conference.” There was a long pause until Ashley finally gave Lauren a significant look. “I’m the kid. There is no ‘kid’ in parent/teacher.”
Lauren scowled. “I knew that.” Shit. Duh. “So why are you here then?”
“Because you dragged me along.” Ashley giggled. “I tried to tell you but you just kept saying we’re gonna be late. We’re gonna be late.”
Lauren smiled guiltily. “I did, didn’t I?” She reached over and tickled Ashley’s mid-section, causing the girl to gasp and squeal with delight. “You won’t rat me out to your mom, will you?”
Ashley finally fended off Lauren’s hands and raised a single dark eyebrow in a move so reminiscent of Devlyn that Lauren’s heart actually clenched. “Depends on whether you rat me out,” Ashley told her. “I think we can reach a compromise.”
Lauren’s eyebrows crawled up her forehead. “You do, do you?” She pinned Ashley with a look of her own. “What have you done, you little troublemaker?”
Ashley bit her lip, her bravado evaporating as quickly as it had appeared. “Nothing.”
The writer groaned as the sedan pulled up in front of the school. “Oh, boy.”
“I’ll wait here,” Ashley offered innocently, her face coloring as she thought of what Lauren was going to find out.
Lauren took Ashley’s hands and squeezed them gently. “It’s nothing that’s going to give me a heart attack, is it?” God, she’s only 8, how bad can it be? She glanced hopefully at Amy when Ashley wouldn’t meet her gaze.
Amy smiled encouragingly. “You’re going to be late,” she reminded.
Lauren sighed and exited the car, along with an agent from the front passenger seat. Together, they entered the school.
“When did they shrink everything, Brendan?” Lauren asked, increasing her pace and eyeing the numbered classrooms as she walked briskly down the hall.
The stout agent laughed. “I think you just grew, Ms. Strayer.”
Lauren wrinkled her nose. “At least it smells the same.”
Brendan’s alert eyes scanned the hallway. “I went to Catholic school,” he said absently.
“It didn’t smell like dust, kid sweat, and stinky feet?”
They both laughed.
“No,” he admitted, “it did. And sometimes incense.”
Lauren stopped outside room 36B and stepped aside as a young couple hurried out of the room. They looked stricken and were mumbling something about killing little Jimmy. The blonde swallowed hard, feeling a bit like she was about to face a firing squad herself. Hey, I didn’t do anything wrong. But a million guilty memories of all the horrible things she’d done in school assailed her. This must be one of those “I hope it happens to you someday” moments Daddy warned me about.
Brendan stuck his head into the room, seeing no one but Ashley’s teacher waiting impatiently at her desk. He also caught sight of another agent’s head through one of the small windows. A voice from a tiny transmitter in his ear gave the all clear signal. “I’ll wait out here if you like, ma’am.” He gave Lauren his best wishing look.
“Coward,” she mumbled, but Lauren drew in a deep breath and marched into the classroom. I’ve interviewed the Pope, for God’s sake. I can do this. She mentally whimpered. I think.
The walls were covered with construction paper collages, posters showing the alphabet in cursive, and brightly colored maps. Row after row of desks was neatly lined up facing a large, clean whiteboard. It was cheerful, though a little overcrowded.
The woman behind the desk, Mrs. Lynch, was nearly 60, with hair dyed a bright reddish color that reminded Lauren of a rusty bucket. Her desk was painfully organized, with the papers on it placed in perfect piles and the pencil can containing pencils all the same length. Ashley’s teacher was short and plump, and her face held a perpetually annoyed look.
“Weren’t you every elementary teacher I ever had?” Lauren asked under her breath, extending her hand and smiling brightly at the woman, who didn’t smile back. “I’m Lauren Strayer. I’m here to talk about Ashley Marlowe.”
Mrs. Lynch studied Lauren for a few seconds before saying, “Hello, Ms. Strayer.” She didn’t take Lauren’s hand.
The reception was so frosty Lauren fought the urge to shiver. Apparently, Mrs. Lynch found something lacking in her. Been there, done that. The more things change, the more they stay the same, Lauren thought wryly.
“Won’t you sit down?” The woman gestured to a chair in front of her desk, before reclaiming her own seat.
Lauren nodded and then nearly fell when she sank down into the midget chair. “Whoa!” Her head was now a full foot lower than Mrs. Lynch’s. “Ugh.” Lauren tried to move, but her rear end was crammed between the arm rails of the child’s seat. “Can you even see me down here?”
Mrs. Lynch was not amused. “I just received a phone call from President Marlowe, sending her regrets and saying that you would be attending in her place.”
Lauren shook her head. God love her, Devlyn was not only a workaholic, she was an anal-retentive one at that. Thank goodness. “The President takes her role in Ashley’s education very seriously, Mrs. Lynch. I hope you know that.”
“And what about you?”
“Me too. Of course,” Lauren said quickly, feeling as though she’d already made a tactical blunder. “I may not be Ashley’s mother, but I do care very much how she does in school.”
Mrs. Lynch smiled briefly, showing off canines that were just a little too pointy.
God, I’ll bet you scare the shit out of the kids. “I’ll do my best to convey everything you say to the President.”
This seemed to perk Mrs. Lynch up a bit. And for a few moments she diligently explained Ashley’s progress in her studies. She showed Lauren several of Ashley’s math papers and drawings from art class, giving Lauren a very good idea of where Ashley needed to work harder and where she was doing quite well.
Lauren quickly became absorbed in the discussion and began rethinking her initial and mostly negative impression of Mrs. Lynch. The woman clearly took Ashley's education very seriously. She forgot to worry about whether she was doing this right as she focused on the task at hand, her nervousness fading with each passing second.
Finally, when it seemed there was no more to talk about, Mrs. Lynch said, “I suppose Ashley explained to you and President Marlowe the shocking disciplinary incident that happened yesterday?”
Lauren’s stomach lurched. Shocking? “Of course,” she lied, after all, maybe Ashley had told Devlyn. “But I’d like to hear things from your perspective, Mrs. Lynch.”
“Of course you would.”
Lauren’s lips thinned.
“Ashley got caught passing notes. Again.” Mrs. Lynch opened her desk drawer and a rank smell wafted from it.
Lauren turned a little green around the gills. “God.”
Mrs. Lynch slammed the drawer shut in irritation, a piece of tattered paper in her hand. “It’s where I keep my tuna sandwiches. The refrigerator in the teacher's lounge broke last spring and there’s no money in the budget to repair it.” She raised her eyebrows at Lauren, who looked back at her blankly.
“That’s too bad,” Lauren finally offered, wondering what Mrs. Lynch expected her to do about it.
Disappointed, Mrs. Lynch thrust out her hand. “Here is the note.”
“Okay…” Lauren said slowly, eyeing the evidence of Ashley’s unknown, dastardly deed warily. “Is it really that bad?”
“Judge for yourself.” Mrs. Lynch sniffed haughtily and shook the many-times folded piece of paper.
Lauren took it and opened it with not a little trepidation. The scrawled letters were large and uneven, though she could see they’d been carefully penned.
Dear John. I desided you can kiss me like you asked. But only on the cheek. If you still want to circle yes or no.
The word yes was circled by a bold heart. Lauren smiled gently when she finished. Oh, Ashley. She re-folded the paper and put it in her pocket, ignoring Mrs. Lynch’s disapproving stare. This didn’t need to go in that permanent record teachers were always talking about. Surely Devlyn would want to keep it. “What seems to be the problem, Mrs. Lynch? This doesn’t seem so horrible. Did they sneak out of class and make out in the coat room or something?” Lauren knew from personal experience that that would get you six weeks' detention.
Mrs. Lynch’s back went ramrod straight. “Of course not!”
Lauren’s eyes narrowed, and she felt her pulse pick up as a horrible thought occurred to her. “Is there any reason to believe this is something other than two kids just being kids? John isn’t another teacher or a janitor or something?”
“Good heavens, no!” Mrs. Lynch looked like she was about to swallow her own tongue. “John is in Ashley’s class. He’s a good boy and excellent student, though Ashley does seem to distract him from his work. It’s not the content of the note that is the problem, Ms. Strayer. That, I assure you, is quite normal.”
Lauren thought she noticed a slight inflection on the word normal, but let it pass, deciding that calling Ashley’s teacher a bitch wouldn’t make the little girl’s school life any better. “Then what?”
“It’s what Ashley did after I read it to the class that was highly problematic.”
Lauren’s face hardened, and her gray eyes glinted with sudden anger. “After you did what?”
The look on Lauren’s face caused Mrs. Lynch to involuntarily flinch. “I know it seems harsh, but—”
“You read this in front of everyone?”
Mrs. Lynch lifted her chin defiantly. “It’s my policy to share notes. It discourages children from passing them.”
Lauren felt her temper rising fast. “So your policy is to embarrass children as a method of discipline? Do you make slow children wear dunce caps as well? Or do you just brand them with a big D?”
Mrs. Lynch’s face turned brick red. “I have been teaching in this God forsaken city for 40 years, Ms. Strayer. I have 39 students in my class. I have to keep—”
“What you have to do is teach these kids and treat them with respect,” Lauren snapped. “Mrs. Lynch,” she ground out, “I’m not a member of the local school board. You can take your complaints about your refrigerator and class sizes to them. I’m here for Ashley. She is who I’m concerned with.” Lauren forced herself to take a slow, deep breath. “What happened after you read the note?”
Mrs. Lynch licked her lips. “Well… She grew very upset while I was reading it and asked me to stop, which I couldn’t do. If I did it for her I’d have to do it for the other children. Just because she’s the President’s daughter doesn’t mean she gets special treatment.” She looked away briefly before unflinchingly meeting Lauren’s eyes. “Then she began to cry.”
Lauren’s hands shaped into twin fists. “And,” she prodded in voice far calmer than she felt.
“And then she called me an inappropriate name.”
“Was it bitch?”
Mrs. Lynch gasped. “No!”
Lauren gave her a false smile. “Go on.”
“It was,” Mrs. Lynch paused for effect, “‘battle axe.’”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “That’s the big trauma?”
“She said it in front of the entire class!” Mrs. Lynch defended hotly. “What sort of showing of respect is that? She should be setting an example.”
“You read her private note to the entire class,” Lauren shot back. “Maybe she’s learning to be respectful from you?” With a grunt, she pried her butt out of the tiny chair and leaned forward until she was nose to nose with the teacher. “I don’t know if it makes you happy to make little girls cry, but I do know this. Lady, you are a battle axe.” She pinned Mrs. Lynch with a fierce glare. “What Ashley did was wrong. What you did was worse.”
She leaned even closer. “Our conversation today had better not have a negative effect on the way you treat Ashley. She’s a good kid who doesn’t deserve your contempt.” Abruptly, Lauren picked up the folder that contained Ashley’s school papers. “Are we finished?”
Mrs. Lynch was too stunned to speak.
“Looks like we are.” Without another word, Lauren strode out of the room, giving the next two waiting parents a grim smile as she passed them. She could see Ashley and Amy waiting on a bench at the end of the hallway, and Brendan quietly fell in step behind her, communicating their location status to the other agents.
Lauren could see Ashley looked pale and frightened. She stopped in front of the little girl, who refused to meet her stare. “Ashley,” she said quietly.
Ashley glanced up, her soft brown eyes brimming with tears. “She read it to everyone.” Her voice cracked, and so did Lauren’s heart.
The blonde woman crouched down and silently opened her arms to Ashley.
The girl flew into them and began mumbling her apologies between her sobs.
“Shh… It’s okay.”
“Every… everybody la… laughed.”
“I know, sweetie. That wasn’t very nice.” Lauren kissed the top of Ashley’s head and hugged her as tightly as she dared. She let Ashley cry for several moments before she gently pushed her away and wiped wet cheeks with tender fingers. “You know you shouldn’t have been passing notes in school, right?” Intently, she studied Ashley’s face.
Ashley nodded, relieved that Lauren hadn’t mentioned the note’s content.
“And that no matter how utterly and completely fitting the name battle axe might be,” she smiled and Ashley let out a surprised burst of laughter, smiling back, “you’re not allowed to say things like that to anyone. Much less a teacher. Even if they deserve it.” Her voice turned serious. “Got me, darlin’?”
Ashley sniffed and the tension drained from her body, leaving her as limp as dish rag. “Got you. I apologized after I said it.”
Lauren gazed at her in understanding. “I figured you did.” She gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, then straightened and wrapped her arm around slender shoulders. Okay, so she hadn’t handled the teacher as well as she could have. But she still felt a little proud of herself. Ashley seemed to feel better, and the girl knew she’d done something wrong. So the afternoon wasn’t a complete bust. "Do you want me to talk to your mama about you going to a different class?"
"No!" The girl looked a little panicky. "I like my class."
Lauren wasn't surprised. Ashley didn't seem reluctant to attend classes, as she herself had been. "Is Mrs. Lynch a good teacher, Ashley?"
Ashley thought about that for a second before nodding. "Except when she reads notes out loud," she added sullenly.
An indulgent smile twitched at the corners of Lauren's lips. "That was pretty rotten." She signed. "Honey, your teacher does a hard job under tough conditions. Maybe she was just having a bad day. I know it seems impossible, but teachers are people too and everyone can have a bad day and make bad choices." She lifted an eyebrow. "Like passing notes in class instead of paying attention." In truth, that was more charitable towards Mrs. Lynch than Lauren wanted to be. But Ashley was a child inclined to forgive easily, and she didn't want to influence that with her own opinion.
Ashley winced. "I understand. I guess."
Lauren ruffled the girl's dark hair. "Good."
“Are you going to tell Mom?”
Lauren cringed as she thought back to her own harsh words. “I don’t want to.”
“Yes!” Ashley pumped her fist in the air.
The cringe intensified. “But I think I have to.”
Ashley's face fell, but she didn’t seem surprised.
They all started for the car and were greeted with a blast of cool air that smelled like wet grass. It was still raining and shallow puddles had formed on the sidewalk, snaking their way into the schoolyard. Two of the agents popped open umbrellas and held them over Lauren and Ashley.
“Don’t worry, honey,” Lauren said, “before I tell her anything I intend to bribe your mother.” Kisses. Backrubs. Oh, yeah, this could be good.
Ashley’s face wrinkled in confusion. “For me?”
Lauren snorted. “Nuh uh. For me. You’ve got that short, adorable kid thing going. I, on the other hand, need all the help I can get.”
The agents all rolled their eyes and sniggered.
“What?” Lauren complained, taking off her wet glasses and stuffing them in her blazer pocket. “I do.”
Dev tossed the pen down on her desk and stood up to stretch. Rolling her neck, she decided to take a walk through the plane and see what the press was up to. They were on their way back to Washington after spending two days touring Jefferson County, Kentucky, which had been hit by multiple tornadoes in the past week. The devastation was severe, and Dev had promised federal aid to help the people rebuild their homes and businesses.
Thinking of home and a hot bath, she wandered to the back of Air Force One and entered the area where the press always traveled. As soon as they realized she was in the room, several of the reporters stood to greet her. She smiled and waved them off. “Relax, everybody. I’m just stretching my legs.” Devlyn was dressed in black slacks and a casual sweater, having discarded her blazer after entering the plane. Taking a seat on a table in the front of the room, she let her hands rest in her lap.
“That was a good trip, ladies and gentlemen.”
A round of general murmurs of approval met her words, and she relaxed further into her seat, pleased that things had gone so smoothly.
“How are the wedding plans, Madam President?” The reporter from the Post continued to twirl the pen in his hand, but made no move to record Devlyn’s words. The atmosphere with the press on Air Force One was decidedly casual, with a certain level of mutual trust and respect between all the parties.
Devlyn laughed and bit her lip. “I’m not sure my mother is speaking to me at the moment. I haven’t been around much lately and I haven’t given her or my social secretary as much input as they would like. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it,” blue eyes twinkled, “most of my participation has been via telephone and email.”
A woman in the back lifted her camera high over her head, and Dev gave her a quick nod. Permission granted to take photos.
“Actually, Michael Oaks and my mom are working very hard to make sure things go off without a hitch. I’m a little worried though, because Secretary Oaks came into my office the other day and asked Lauren and me, ‘blue or white?’ That was it, nothing else, and he didn’t say what I was giving my opinion on.”
“You could have asked,” a press corps member reminded her wryly.
“I could have,” Dev agreed, saying nothing more.
“So what color did you select?”
“I said blue.”
“And Ms. Strayer?”
“She looked up from her laptop and grunted what I assumed to be her agreement. Sometimes she gets a little engrossed in her work. I can’t imagine how that could happen.”
This time Devlyn joined in the laughter. “I may have agreed to something totally hideous.” She adjusted at the table and got more comfortable. “Keep your fingers crossed for me.”
“Madam President, getting information about the wedding has been darn near impossible.”
“You don’t say?” Dev answered wryly.
“Is there anything you can tell us?”
“C’mon, Madam President,” another reporter joined in. “Throw a wild pack of dogs a bone.”
Dev thought for a moment, then nodded. “I can tell you that the wedding will be a small ceremony held in Ohio with our family and friends. A few members of the press will be invited to the reception, sans cameras….”
There was a chorus of groans.
“But the ceremony will be private.” Dev nearly laughed at the devastated looks on their faces. “Don’t worry, when Lauren and I get back from our honeymoon, we’ll host a formal reception at the White House. It should be a grand event, and cameras, and all of you, will be welcome.”
Dev's expression went serious. “As most of you know, Lauren is an extremely private woman, who is still adjusting to life in the public eye. But even if she were used to all the hounding, it wouldn’t matter. Our wedding is something just for us that we want to share with the people we love. I hope you can all respect that.”
“How do your children feel about this?”
An involuntary smile crossed Dev's face. “My children are ecstatic. They love Lauren, as does my entire family. As a matter of fact, Lauren has already attended her first parent/teacher conference, while I was stuck in Chicago.”
Devlyn remembered how nervous Lauren had been when she explained what happened at the parent/teacher conference. The blonde woman had waited until Dev was nearly asleep and had been buttered up to the max before spilling the beans. Dev hated having to punish Ashley, but the look on her daughter’s face when she told her that her next month’s allowance would be donated to the charity of her choice, assured Dev she was doing the right thing. Ashley would hold her tongue next time. Or, as Lauren pointed out, be really, really poor.
Devlyn still wasn't quite sure why Lauren used her last three weeks' poker winnings to buy a used refrigerator and have it sent to Ashley's school. She silently vowed to ask more about that later.
“Have you considered running for a second term?”
The question brought Dev out of her musings. “I’ve been considering it, but before I make a firm decision, there’s a lot I need to discuss with my family and my advisors.”
“Where are you going on your honeymoon?”
Dev was used to the ping-ponging of questions from topic to topic, and she easily rolled with the punches. “I have no idea. The honeymoon is Lauren’s wedding gift to me, and it’s a surprise.”
“Is it hard to keep a surprise from you?”
Devlyn rolled her eyes. “You’d think it would be, wouldn’t you? But I can assure you she and my chief of staff are managing quite nicely. As President, most of the surprises I get aren’t that pleasant, so this will be a very nice change of pace. I’m just holding my breath and hoping that we’ll get two weeks together that aren't interrupted by anything big.” She blinked as she thought about what she’d said. Then she reached over to the table and knocked on it twice. “You don’t need to print that last statement; let’s not tempt fate and give the nuts any ideas.”
“Will Ms. Strayer assume the typical duties associated with being First Lady?”
“That will be up to Lauren. I do know that she has hired Beth McMillian as her chief of staff. I think she and David McMillian will be the first husband and wife team in history acting as chiefs of staff. ”
“Madam President, just about everything associated with your presidency is a first.”
Dev smiled. “True enough.”
“Will Ms. Strayer be taking the name Marlowe?”
Devlyn was careful to keep her expression neutral when she answered this question. Samantha had eagerly taken her name. Dev knew she was being silly and that her ego was rearing its sometimes-inflated head, but the fact that Lauren wanted to keep her name had stung a little. It wasn’t until Lauren teasingly suggested that they could solve the problem by Devlyn and the children taking the name Strayer that Devlyn realized how silly she was being. “No, she’ll be keeping her name. As will I.”
“Isn’t it traditional for the wife—” The man stopped mid-sentence, clamping his jaw down hard as he felt his face heat
“The wife to take her husband’s name?” Devlyn finished gently, feeling sorry for the man and hoping that the other reporters would have mercy on him and not quote him. “I believe it is. Though it’s increasingly rare. However, since there will be no husband in this marriage, we’ll be making our traditions, don’t you think?”
The man nodded, grateful, Dev had taken his stupid comment in her stride.
“It’s a brave new world, people. Let’s not chicken out now.” She clapped her hands together. “Enough business. Who wants to play cards?”
Friday, May 20, 2022
Dev was looking forward to calling it a day and grabbing a shower before the party. It wasn’t being called a bachelor or bachelorette party, it was just “The President’s party” and Lauren’s was just hers. The children had indignantly demanded their own when they found out they weren't invited to the others. And their mother had eagerly complied. By necessity and protocol, her children were excluded from 99% of the social events at the White House. When an opportunity arose for them to have their own fun, she never begrudged it.
She couldn’t help but grin as she recalled Ashley saying, in a slightly miffed voice, “Fine, be that way, but don’t be surprised if I don’t invite you to my party.” When Dev inquired about what party that might be, she was told it would be held in the family room, involve Sorry, Junior Monopoly, cartoons, all the popcorn you could eat, and was “invitation only.” Dev wondered if the children's party might not turn out better than the one David was planning for her.
Dev pushed away from her desk and slowly padded back to the residence. Liza trailed after her, quickly informing her of the next day's appointments, and a bevy of Secret Service and various other aides clustered around her. By the time she turned the corridor for the Presidential apartment, the Secret Service agents had taken their posts at the ends of the hallway, and she was allowed to walk the rest of the way alone. She sighed happily, already plotting the quick removal of her pantyhose and the heart-stopping kiss she wanted to give Lauren.
When she opened the door to her apartment, the smell of warm, fresh-baked cookies tickled her nose. She all but groaned.
Emma walked past holding a treat-laden tray. Dev snagged one before Emma could move it away. "Mmm… I'm still too quick for you, Emma," Dev teased as she chewed with extra relish. The only thing better than eating a cookie was eating a cookie that you weren't supposed to be eating.
"Humph." Emma glanced down at the tray. "Those are for the children's party. We managed to round up most of the children of the people attending your and Lauren's party. Besides, aren't you turning 40 this year, Madam President?" Emma's eyes twinkled.
"Maybe," Dev answered warily.
"Then you should be slowing down enough for me to keep you away from the cookies soon enough."
Dev scowled at the good-natured barb, then winked at the matronly women, reaching out to give her a fierce one-armed hug. “Have I told you lately that I love you?”
“Devil,” Emma only used the Marlowe family nickname in the most private of times with the tall woman, "you know I hate that song."
Dev burst out laughing.
“But I love you, too, and these children." Emma beamed at her employer and long-time friend. "I’m so happy for all of you. Lauren is a wonderful girl.”
“Girl?" Dev gave Emma a look, and the older woman smiled unrepentantly. "She's not that much younger than I am!" Dev groaned. “Remind me not to tease you again, Emma."
Emma snorted, the action so enthusiastic her large bosom jiggled. "Like you ever listen."
Dev ignored that last comment, knowing it was completely true. "I did hit pay dirt with Lauren, didn't I?"
Emma nodded fondly, enjoying the gleam in Dev's eye that had been missing for so many years.
"How can one person get this lucky twice in a lifetime?" Dev marveled, looking skyward.
"Madam President," Emma said haughtily as she leaned again the sofa. "After all this time, haven’t you realized that you make your own luck?"
Dev grinned broadly, loving that thought.
“Besides, I always had faith you'd find someone. You weren't meant to be alone.”
Dev felt a lump developing in her throat, and she leaned over and kissed Emma's cheek as she wrestled her emotions under control. Then she stepped back. “So are you going to chaperone the kids' wild party?”
“Oh, yes, I'll be here until bedtime, then I'll take you and Lauren both up on your invitations and stop by each of your parties. But I'd better stay for the entire length of the children's party. I expect security will have to be called in when Ashley's Go Fish tournament gets out of hand because Aaron has an ace up his sleeve.”
Dev shook her head. “Don’t give them any ideas; I can barely keep up with them as it is." She let out a slow breath as she bent and slipped off her shoes. It brought her an inch closer to Emma's height. "Well, I’m off to take a shower and get dressed. Tell the kids I’ll try to sneak back to tuck them in, and they get an extra hour tonight.”
“Oh, goody,” the older woman said dryly, rolling her eyes as she re-arranged the cookies. “Have a good time until I get there. Just not too good. I don't want to miss anything. I don't get out much, you know.”
Dev prudently didn't remind Emma about the exploits she and her sister had regaled her with after their Christmas cruise. When those two women got together, they were something else. “I intend to. If you need me…”
“You’ll be the last to know. Later, Devil.”
“See you later, Emma.”
Emma waved at Devlyn as she made her way to the family room to set up her tray. Devlyn headed in the opposite direction. She blinked when she opened her bedroom door and heard the faint hum of her shower in the attached bathroom. "Her shower is still broken? I really should make sure somebody does something about that. Heh." Dark eyebrows waggled lecherously. "I wonder if she'd notice if it mysteriously broke again next week? And the week after that. And the week after that." Even though they saw each other and often slept in each other's beds, the separate quarters thing was wearing very thin for Devlyn. Only another month, she told herself with no little irritation.
She tossed her shoes into the corner, shucked her blazer, and began unbuttoning her green silk blouse. As it fell to the floor, she attacked her skirt, visions of Lauren’s flushed, soapy body surrounded by steam spurring on her actions. "Stupid clothes," she growled, tugging furiously at her skirt’s zipper.
Just as her skirt passed her hips, the water stopped. "No," Dev cried, closing her eyes. She opened the bathroom door, clad only in her bra and pantyhose. The steam poured out and it took a moment for her to spot her quarry.
“I’ll give you a thousand dollars to get back in the shower,” Dev begged, a puppy dog look on her face as Lauren wrapped a towel around her body.
Lauren laughed lightly. Her blonde, wavy hair was slicked back, her skin flushed a bright pink from the hot water. She wrapped a large blue body sheet around herself, tucking the end between her breasts.
“Sorry, can’t do it, darlin'. I have to meet your mom and Beth in about 20 minutes.”
“They’ll understand,” Dev promised. She took several steps forward and laid warm hands on the hot skin of Lauren's shoulders. “They remember what it’s like to be young and in love.”
“Oooo.” Lauren squealed as she squirmed away. “I’m going to tell your mom you called her old.”
“I never said that." Her hands reached out again. "You’re misquoting me. You should go to work for the Times; they’re always misquoting me.”
“They hate you,” Lauren said crossly as she picked up a wide-toothed comb from the bathroom sink and began tugging it through her hair.
“Here." Devlyn plucked the comb from her hands and gently set to work on Lauren's hair.
The smaller woman smiled, utterly charmed by the affectionate gesture.
"Tell me about it. They’ve done everything but print that I’m a card-carrying member of the Nazi party and out to destroy the American family with my evil lesbian ways. Ultra conservative doesn’t even begin to describe that rag.”
Lauren closed her eyes, enjoying the gentle attention. “Uh oh. They did another article, didn't they?”
“Oh, yeah.” Regretfully, she passed the comb back to Lauren after getting the worst of the tangles. She still needed a shower herself. But it would have been so much more fun with you, her mind grumpily supplied. “This time they attacked my DNA Registration Act.”
Lauren just bit her lip and toweled off her face.
Dev’s head tilted slightly to one side as she tried to catch a look at Lauren's face in the steam-covered mirror. “That sucks, honey. I’m sorry,” Dev mimicked in a slight Southern drawl.
“Okay.” Lauren nodded reluctantly. “That’s good. I could have said that.”
“So why didn’t you?”
Lauren set the comb down and turned around. Her voice was soft and warm, and she hoped it would take some of the sting from her words. “Devlyn, darlin’, do we have to get into another debate over this? You know how I feel about it. I love you and I’ve never made my opinion public, and I never will," she reminded her firmly. "But you know there are a few issues where we differ politically. And that's one of them.”
Dev made a face. “If I lose re-election by one vote you’re in trouble.”
Lauren just shook her head and walked out of the bathroom, leaving Devlyn to strip out of her bra and hose. She didn't miss the President's sigh of relief. She went over to the bed where she'd laid down her garment bag. “Are you going to?”
"Am I going to what?" Dev called from the bathroom.
This brought the President back into the bedroom. They'd talked generally about this. But they’d never given it the attention it needed.
“I don’t know." Dev's expression grew thoughtful. "There are days when I think yes, and then there are days when I wonder why in the hell I’m here in the first place.” And what living like this is doing to you.
Lauren shed her towel and walked purposely back to Dev, wrapping her in a warm, skin-on-skin embrace. Reflexively, her eyes closed at the delicious sensation. “Listen to me good, Devlyn Marlowe, because I’m only gonna say this once. So don't forget it." She pressed her lips to Dev's ear, feeling warm hands splay across her back, holding her tight. She sank deeper into the embrace. "It’s in your blood, Devlyn. This insanity that is the presidency. And more importantly, you're a good president." The hands on her back increased their pressure. "Even the people who don't agree with everything you do trust you. They are smart for doing so, Devlyn."
Lauren drew in a deep breath. “You need to do what's going to make you happy. And I'll support you no matter what that is.”
Dev smiled and pulled away, reaching up to cup Lauren’s cheek with one hand. “You have no idea how much that means to me.”
Lauren kissed Dev’s palm. “We'll talk about this more when we have time, all right?"
"Deal." Dev’s brow rose as Lauren moved back to the bed and unzipped her garment bag. “You wearing that to the party?” she squeaked loudly.
“I am." Lauren grinned. "It’s a tropical themed party, Devlyn."
Dev's mouth was still hanging open at the sight of Lauren's bright purple, flowered bikini top and the loosely fitted, wraparound skirt.
"You know, beach theme.”
“Oh, yeah. Can I come?”
Lauren chuckled. "You know you can't. Besides, I know for a fact David has been planning you a really nice party." Lauren wriggled into her top, much to Devlyn's dismay. "Do you know anything about it?"
“All I know is that we're watching a boxing match. It's not televised but David spoke to the promoters and we're getting a private satellite feed.”
Lauren grimaced. “Sounds bloody.”
Dev shrugged. She'd always enjoyed that particular sport, but knew her weak-stomached partner wouldn't make it past the first bloody uppercut. “Could be. It's supposed to be a good one. They're the two top-ranked heavyweights.”
Shimmying into panties and the skirt, Lauren examined herself in the mirror. After a month of hard dieting she'd taken off 12 pounds and was nearly back to her normal weight. “Well,” she kissed Dev on the cheek. “How do I look?”
"Fabulous. Let's stay in the room."
"Devlyn," Lauren scolded, but she eagerly absorbed the praise. "You won't miss me. You'll have fun watching two idiots pound each other silly."
"I always miss you," Devlyn said seriously.
Lauren just smiled. "Have fun."
Dev smiled back. "You too."
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Lauren let a thousand easy retorts ease their way from her mind before promising, “I won’t.” She stepped forward and laid warm palms on Devlyn’s cheeks, feeling the flesh beneath her hands ease into a genuine smile. On tipped toes, she brushed her lips against Devlyn’s.
Dev turned her head and kissed Lauren’s palm. “I love you.” Then she kissed her again, sinking into the moment.
Warm breath tickled Lauren’s face and she relished their closeness and the undercurrent of passion that crackled between them. “I love you, too.”
The sensual rhythm of tropical drums and the smell of roasting pork and fish floated down the hallway that led to the indoor White House pool, causing Lauren to sniff appreciatively and her hips to pick up the beat of the music as she walked. A relaxed smile eased across her face, and she tried not to think about how badly she needed this. An evening of fun and relaxation, where she could truly be herself and laugh and drink rum punch to her heart's content. There would be no worries about protocol or minding every word that she said. The only photographs would come from the small 35mm camera slung around her neck, and they would end up in her personal scrapbook instead of the tabloids. The only missing ingredient was Devlyn, who she fully intended on coaxing into her bed after their respective parties anyway.
She smiled as she walked across the thick carpeting in flip-flops she hadn't worn since college. Beth hadn't told her much about her party other than giving her specific instructions on what to wear and to come hungry. The latter, Lauren admitted wryly, would not be a problem after her crash dieting. She only hoped Beth had ordered enough food.
Gremlin and his mate, Princess, trotted alongside her, apparently finding the prospect of 15 children under the age of 10 too daunting to face, even with the prospect of eating up the mountains of food that would be dropped on the floor. "Cowards."
Her pug lifted his head at her and snarled, baring his tiny crooked teeth.
"Don't whine," Lauren chastised, giving her a pet a dismissive wave of the hand. "You know it's true."
She stopped in front of the doors that led to the pool and bit her lip to keep from laughing at the agents who were standing guard. It was Jack and Brendan. Both men were wearing their suit coats, but Jack had on a pair of bright orange swimming trunks and Brendan was wearing a red bandana over his head and sporting a tie covered in gaudy palm trees.
"Ms. Strayer," both men greeted, barely able to keep a straight face.
"Agent Kieser. Agent Wochowski," Lauren replied just as formally, her gray eyes twinkling with mischievous delight. She'd been itching to see a great many of the men and women who worked for the Executive Branch in a more relaxed setting. Tonight, she would get her wish.
Lauren rocked back on her heels. "Are you going to let me in?" She could hear laughter and music behind the door, which was actually vibrating a little from the raucous sounds behind it. Apparently, the party had started without her. She tried to peek inside; black construction paper had been taped over the glass windows in the doors.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. We'll have to take that camera." Brendan gestured towards Lauren's chest.
Lauren blinked at them. "What are you talking about?"
"We have our orders, Ms. Strayer."
"Orders?" Lauren very nearly stamped her foot. "Christ, this is my party. Shouldn't I be allowed to take photographs?"
Jack and Brendan looked at each other and then back at Lauren as they both shook their heads.
Lauren's eyes narrowed.
Wordlessly, Jack opened the door, and a blast of wonderful-smelling food and pulse-pounding music nearly blew Lauren off her feet. She peered inside, her eyes growing wider with every second. "Oh, my God." Three dancers were bumping and grinding away alongside the pool, while onlookers hooted and howled their approval. Is that Beth? For a second Lauren was rendered mute, then a dark blush stained her cheeks and she quickly handed her camera to the smirking agents.
Smiling, she walked in, and Jack shut the door behind her. "When is someone coming to relieve you so you can go to the party?" He lifted the camera.
An enormous grin split Brendan's cheeks. "Half hour. Same as you. Heh. It's gonna be great."
Click. The flash went off as Jack took the picture of his smiling fellow agent. Both men then faced forward, and their smiles disappeared as they projected their normal stoic demeanor, guarding some of the nation’s most interesting people.
After her shower, Dev killed another hour checking on the kids’ party and looking at some paperwork before she wandered into the multimedia room to find about two dozen of her friends and colleagues. A large table of food was set up; it looked like it had all her favorites. Pure, unadulterated junk. She had sympathetically been staying away from fattening foods while Lauren was dieting; she figured that David knew she was near the breaking point.
David placed a cold beer in her hand and patted her on the back. “Hiya, boss.” He waved a hand over the delectable spread that contained enough calories and grams of fat to end world hunger. “What’s your pleasure?”
“She’s having her own party by the pool.”
“I meant food.”
Dev lifted her chin. “I was speaking of dessert.”
“Dev…” he growled playfully, glancing around to see who might have heard.
“David,” she growled back with a grin, “cut me some slack and don’t mother me tonight. Let me relax. These people are my friends or else they wouldn’t be here.” She stepped closer to David. "Except for Michael Oaks. What the hell is he doing here?”
“I had to invite him, Devlyn,” he answered in a hushed voice. He chewed on his thick, red mustache unhappily. “It would have looked bad to the other staff members if I hadn’t.”
“I know.” Devlyn sighed. Then she had a thought. “Has he seen the food?”
David thought about that for a minute. “I don’t think so. He’s been over in the corner sulking because I wouldn’t let him plan this with me. He hasn’t been over here at all.”
“Hehehe. Good. This will give his Mr. Proper ass a heart attack.”
“Great idea!” David gestured towards the young social secretary. “Oh, Michael,” he called out. “Can you come here for a moment?”
Michael nodded and slowly got up from his seat. Everyone else was in casual clothes; he was still wearing a three-piece suit.
“I’ll bet he’s really hot.”
They shared childish smiles. “I’ll bet so, too,” David agreed.
Dev clasped David’s shoulder and left the breaking of the news about their dining selection to her friend. Her mind drifted to Lauren’s party for a moment when she glanced around the room and noticed that, while most of her friends were here, the number of male agents in attendance could be counted on a bird’s foot. This is what happens when there’s a clothes-optional pool party.
The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly and everyone was laughing as Dev regaled the group about how she had accidentally caught sight of a very naked David once during their years as college roommates.
From across the room, David gave a loud whistle to get everyone’s attention. “The fight is ready to start.”
“Sure it is!” someone called out.
“Very funny.” He pointed to the large image that had materialized in the front of the room. “It is.”
Dev happily marched up to the front of the theater and took her customary seat, placing her drink on a small table next to the chair. She chuckled when she saw that Attorney General Evelyn Sanchez had taken the seat right next to her. She liked Evelyn, and Dev was proud of the unexpectedly solid friendship and the level of trust that had grown between them since she’d appointed her.
“Why, Evelyn, I didn’t know you were a fight fan.”
“I’m not really. But I couldn’t very well turn down an invitation to your party, now could I?” She gave Devlyn a wry grin and stole one of the M&Ms out of the large bowl on Devlyn’s tray. “Besides, it’ll be fun to see people other than my staff beating each other up.”
Dev chuckled at the mention of last week’s incident, where two deputy chiefs had gotten so frustrated with each other they had a fight inside one of the men’s bathrooms in the Department of Justice.
“That wasn’t one of my stellar moments, Madam President.”
Even in the darkened room, Dev could see the flush covering Evelyn’s olive-toned skin. She leaned over and whispered, “I’ve had my share of those moments, too.”
The image of the two boxers and a referee took center stage, making it look as if the boxers were actually in the room. The announcer finished his spiel and a loud clang filled the theater, which was taut with anticipation. Dev turned and retrieved her beer.
“Holy Christ!” Evelyn exclaimed as she rose to her feet. “What a punch!”
Dev’s head whipped around, and her eyes bugged out when she saw one of the boxers lying on the mat. The crowd was roaring, and the referee began to count to 10. “Oh, my God,” Devlyn said slowly.
The bell rang.
She shot out of her seat and turned to David. “What the hell happened?” she cried in disbelief.
“It’s over,” he mumbled unhappily. “Didn’t you see?”
Dev’s hands flailed wildly. “It took two seconds!”
“It’s not my fault that—”
“Whoa!” Frank Marlowe shook his head in appreciation of the perfect punch. “They just showed it again.”
Dev spun back around, but the image was right where it was the last time she looked. With one boxer on the mat, unconscious, and the referee counting him out. “I missed it again!” She covered her face with her hands. “Nononononononono.”
“There it was again,” David said. “Wow. What an amazing hit!”
Dev’s hands flew from her face, but it was too late. She whirled around and pointed at the crowd of her friends, who were now laughing. “Is this some sort of a sick joke?”
They all pointed back at the screen, but when she turned around, she’d missed it a fourth time.
“ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” Dev wailed. The “Fight of the Century” had been a complete and total failure; no one had been expecting a K.O. in the first two seconds of the first round.
“It’s over?” Dev repeated in disbelief, her eyes round. “I was robbed.”
The room laughed again. The Secretary of the Army sipped his beer as a speculative looked overtook his rugged face. “That’s what Jackson is gonna say when he wakes up and wonders how Maccio cleaned his clock.”
Dev groaned. “Turn it off. I can’t take it anymore.” She moved over to David and put her arm around his shoulders. “Now what, mighty party planner?”
“Never fear, we’ve got digital replay. Hang on.”
“Forget it, David. The entire point is seeing it happen as it happens.”
David’s mind raced for something else to do. “This is where I unveil my brilliant contingency plan for just such an occurrence, right?”
Dev smiled, relieved. “Yes.”
Lauren leaned against the wall, an empty, still frosty, beer mug dangling loosely from her hand. She let out a deep, satisfied breath as her eyes slid closed and any remaining tension she felt eased its way out of her system. The rhythm of the music had long since seeped into her blood, and she felt a light buzz from the various margaritas, Mexican beers, and fruity island punches she'd sampled over the past several hours.
It felt sublime.
Lauren's lips twitched into a genuine smile at the sound of the deep, lilting voice.
"You didn't think you'd avoid me all night, didja?"
Lauren chuckled and opened her arms, feeling the solid warmth of Alex as he wrapped large arms around her and pulled her into a fierce hug. "I was thinking perhaps you were angry with me for appearing on that dreadful American television show?"
"Nah," Lauren answered good-naturedly, pulling back to examine her former lover with a fond eye. "I was just waiting for Beth and Janet Marlowe to finish dirty dancing with you."
Alex exploded into laughter. "Beth, that firecracker, headed off towards the bar, leaving me and Janet alone. I was havin' a high time of it, too, until a man with a white beard threatened to cut off me privates if I didn't back away from his wife."
Lauren muffled her surprised snort. She glanced across the room to see Frank and Janet Marlowe slow-dancing, their bodies pressed tightly together despite the quick beat of the tropical music. "That would be Devlyn's daddy, Frank Marlowe." Hmm… I thought he was going to the other party? Huh.
Alex scratched his jaw as he eyed the happy couple. "Well, even though Janet laughed at his bold words, the man seemed serious enough to me. I haven't stayed alive this long by not knowing when to quit. Besides, I'm afraid I'm not man enough for those two wild lasses."
Lauren backhanded him gently in the belly. "That's not true, and you know it."
Alex just shook his head. "Lordy, if I'd known you were such a wild bunch in Washington, I would have come years ago." He winked at her, then his expression went a little serious. "By the way, love looks grand on you, Lauren. I've never seen you smile so much.
Lauren beamed. "It feels as good at it looks."
"Ah," Alex sighed wistfully. "I'll just bet does."
She patted his forearm. "It'll happen to you someday, Alex. But until then—"
"I'll continue to share myself among the ladies of the world," he interrupted, grinning from ear to ear.
Lauren nodded at the handsome, undeniably charming man. "Just to be fair, of course."
They shared conspiratorial grins. Their love affair had been brief, torrid, and sweet and had ended when Lauren had to take an extended trip from Ireland to Italy while working on her last biography. Their short time together was something they each recalled fondly, but both were well aware, even then, that they were good friends and nothing more. It was that sure knowledge that made things easy for them now.
"I must admit, I was surprised to hear who your president was marrying." He gave her a pointed look. "If I'd known you liked the ladies, we could have double dated when you returned to Ireland. I've got a cousin who's studying to be a nurse, with eyes the color of emeralds and a shape that could bring a man… or woman… to her knees," he said dreamily. "It's God's own joke that we're related and she's forbidden fruit for me, but you'd love her."
Lauren felt a surge of affection for her friend, and she hugged him again. "That means a lot to me, Alex," she murmured against his broad, dark chest. She suddenly felt as though she was going to cry. Why couldn't her father's reaction to Devlyn have been half that accepting? But Lauren pushed those thoughts aside for the time being; tonight was a night for fun.
Alex opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted by a shrill scream.
"Get him away from me," Liza cried, doing her best to slog through the pool water. In one hand was a pork-loaded sandwich, in the other a tall drink with a cheerful umbrella poking out the top. Gremlin's will power had finally snapped. His tiny teeth bared, he was doing a frantic doggy paddle, swimming after her, intent on stealing her sandwich.
Alex lifted an eyebrow. "Gremlin! I've missed him so." He stripped out of his bright Hawaiian shirt, leaving himself clad only in a pair of skimpy black Speedos. "Time to be a hero." Without another word, he bolted for the pool and executed a perfect dive into the deep end as he headed to rescue Liza's sandwich.
The noise in the room was suddenly cut in half, as nearly every woman and even a few men stopped in mid-conversion to gape at the specimen that was Alex. Multiple sighs and whistles sounded as he smoothly swam over to Liza, who nearly dropped her sandwich when his muscular torso emerged from the water.
Beth stalked over to Lauren and demanded, "What is wrong with you?"
Lauren tore her eyes off Alex long enough to say, "Huh?"
"Look at him." Beth pointed. "How can you not like men? How?"
Lauren lifted a pale eyebrow and lowered her voice so that it was for Beth's ears only. "I do like men, Beth. The damn press are the ones who, for some reason, insist I have to pick men or women just on principle. Well, I've got news for them, I'm — not — doing — it." Her eyes drifted to Alex again, and she smirked. "He was every bit as good as he looks, too," she said, knowing full well it would torture her friend.
It did. Beth bit her lip and whimpered.
"I find both sexes attractive, but I'm in love with Devlyn and want to build a life with her. She's funny and gorgeous and sexy as hell and… and…" she put a hand on her hip, "why am I telling you all this?"
Beth laughed. "Because you've had too much to drink." She reached over and lifted Lauren's empty mug.
Lauren looked hard at the glass and grinned. "Oh, yeah."
"Let's go and get a refill."
Lauren's eyebrows drew together. She licked her lips. "I dunno, Beth,” she said skeptically. “I've—”
“Stop being such a party pooper. C’mon.” She grabbed Lauren’s hand and began tugging her towards the bar.”
“Beth,” Lauren laughed.
“Excuse us. Excuse us. Coming through.” Beth and Lauren sidestepped a wildly wriggling conga line led by Jane, Devlyn’s private secretary.
“Hey, wasn’t she at Devlyn’s party?” Lauren asked, craning her head backwards to see as Beth continued to lead her across the room. “Hi, Wayne!” Lauren waved at her agent from Starlight Publishing, who was wearing a floppy straw hat, T-shirt, shorts and black knee high socks with his sandals, and trying his hand at playing the bongos. “You sound great!” Lauren gave him a thumbs up.
“Thanks!” he called back, returning the gesture.
When they reached the bar, it took a moment for Beth to get the attention of one of the bartenders. “Can I get the bags behind the bar now, please?”
He nodded and pulled out a large paper sack. When he handed it over, Lauren detected the clanking of metal.
Beth stood on a chair and motioned for the band to stop playing. The room suddenly went silent, and all eyes turned to Beth.
“Strip!” someone shouted, and Lauren turned to find a smiling David fixing himself a plate at the buffet.
“Later,” Beth answered sassily, and the room erupted in cheers.
David heaped more food on his plate, figuring he’d need all the carbohydrates he could get for later.
What’s he doing here? Lauren wondered.
“Okay, everyone,” a wild grin split Beth’s face, “pick a partner — it’s time for the limbo contest!”
There were more cheers and several groans from a few of the less limber party-goers.
Beth held up the bag in her hand and shook it. It clanked loudly. “Limbo with a twist!”
Both of Lauren’s eyebrows shot skyward.
Dev walked down the hall, scowling as she looked up at a grandfather clock and realized how quickly her party had broken up after the pathetic fight. “Should have let Michael plan it,” she grumbled to herself. Her guests had disappeared one by one until even David snuck out while she wasn’t looking.
The reprieve, however, gave her a chance to check on the kids before deciding what she would do with the rest of her evening. She opened the door to Ashley's room and smiled at the moonlit lumps under her daughter's blankets. One belonged to the energetic child and the other belonged to the largest teddy bear that Devlyn had ever seen. Lauren had gifted Ashley with it after one of her business trips, and the little girl never slept without it.
She straightened the covers until she was sure that Ashley wouldn’t smother herself, then kissed her eldest on the forehead. "I love ya, Moppet."
For a few minutes she just watched the even rise and fall of the girl's chest. A peaceful wave gently washed over her, and she was instantly glad she took the time to do this, every night that she was home. Only Lauren knew the long, calming moments she would spend simply watching her children sleep. It was here that a sometimes crazy world could sometimes be seen with crystalline clarity. Satisfied that her daughter was romping through dreamland, she walked just down the hall to the room where the boys slept.
They had recently given up their race car beds for a set of bunk beds that they swore they needed more than anything else in the world. Dev and Lauren had put the beds together themselves after they’d accidentally been delivered in their original boxes. Several people in the maintenance department, of course, practically begged to be allowed to do it themselves, but this was a parental moment she found herself very much wanting to share with Lauren.
Dev was proud of the good job they’d done. Good being measured by the fact that the beds hadn’t collapsed under the rambunctious boys yet.
Christopher and Aaron were breathing heavily, and Dev picked up a baseball off the carpet and set it on their toy box before padding quietly to the bed. Aaron’s pajama-covered legs were sticking out from beneath the covers, and Dev lifted her son into place and readjusted his blankets, all without waking him. She had to uncover Christopher’s face and push aside a shock of messy, slightly sweaty blonde hair before placing a tender kiss on his forehead. “Love you both,” she whispered fondly. “Sweet dreams.”
Leaving the room, she lasted all of five seconds before heading back down the long hallway to Lauren’s apartment. She knocked on the door. When there was no answer she tried the knob and stuck her head in. “Lauren, honey?”
The room was still and dark, and Dev could tell Lauren hadn’t been back there since earlier this evening. She spun in a circle then dropped to her knees and lifted the comforter to look under the bed. No dogs. “How long can one party last?” she wondered out loud.
She decided it was time to find out.
Dev approached Lauren’s party with increasing wonder. The sound of music and laughter could be heard at the far end of the corridor leading to the hallway. She nodded her greeting at the two agents guarding the doorway. One was a woman clad only in a sleek, maroon swimsuit. The other agent was a tall slim man who had tropical flowers in his hair and smelled of tequila. “Hello,” Dev drawled as she took in their smiling, bleary-eyed appearance.
They both stood up a little taller, and the woman began to giggle despite herself. “Hello… ma… ma… ma… You,” the male agent said, proud that he’d thought of the word.
Dev blinked. “You two aren’t wearing your guns, are you?”
They both shook their heads wildly. “This is una… una… unaoffish unoffishel…”
“We’re off duty,” the woman finally finished for him, smacking him hard on the arm.
“Whew.” Dev wiped mock sweat from her forehead. “I wouldn’t want to get shot.”
“You can get a shot inside,” the woman said, and both agents burst out laughing. “Bacardi is my favorite.”
Dev just stared at them incredulously. What kind of party did it take to loosen up this crew? In the White House, no less. She had to know. “Is Lauren in there?”
Suddenly, from behind the closed door, Dev heard the deafening chant, "Lau-ren. Lau-ren. Lau-ren."
The agents nodded obediently. “I think the answer is yes.”
Dev lifted an eyebrow. “Ya think?” Dev gestured between them. “Step aside, please.”
The man began to move away, but the woman grabbed his arm. “Don’t you remember?” she ground out harshly, glaring at him.
“Oh, yeah!” he blurted, reclaiming his spot in front of the door. He lifted his chin. “Sorry. Nobody comes in.”
Dev’s jaw sagged. “What?”
The woman crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Nobody.”
“I’m not nobody. I’m the President!”
The woman’s eyes went wide, and for a moment Dev thought she was going to let her pass. Then the agent simply shrugged and said, “Sorry. You’re still somebody. And nobody gets in.”
Dev scratched her chin and considered her options. She could just let Lauren have her fun, or she could go in there and have some fun too. She was, she decided, in the mood for fun. And tormenting these agents was just the place to start. "Tell me, do you two know anything about protecting penguins?"
The agents looked at each other and then blankly back at the President. "Uh... No."
"Well, I'm sure if I don't get in there, I could arrange a transfer to someplace nice and cold where there are lots of penguins."
“I grew up in Minnesota,” the male agent wailed, a desperate look on his face. “I can’t go back to that kind of cold!”
“Hold on, hold on,” his companion soothed. “I’ll get Ms. McMillian.” She pointed a slender finger at Devlyn. “Watch her. I don’t trust her.”
Dev sneered as the younger woman disappeared behind the door.
“What’s that smell?” Dev nearly swooned when the door opened and closed, sending the scent of roasting meat floating out over her.
“Food,” the agent answered with a grin, as though he’d revealed a big secret.
“You’re never going to make it on Jeopardy, are you agent?”
Just then Beth came to the door and poked out her head. It was dripping wet, dark curls hanging haphazardly in her face. “You can’t come in,” she hissed, making a shooing motion. “Go away!”
“Dammit, Beth,” Dev complained bitterly. “Puhleez! I wanna see what’s inside.”
“I know you do.”
“A bitch at a rockin’ party, you mean.”
Dev frowned, and her long-time friend took pity on her.
“Okay, you can come in if you know the password and promise not to wreck the party.”
“Wreck the party?” Dev gasped. “I would nev—”
“Ahem.” She tapped her bare foot against the cool tile of the floor. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Dev sighed. “I don’t know the password.”
“Sorry then.” The door started to close.
“Yessss…” Beth poked her head back out of the room. “Can I help you?”
Dev shot daggers at her. “Please?”
“Nope. Try again.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “As if.”
Dev ground her teeth together while strongly considering busting her way in. But she thought about who she was dealing with and tried one last time. “My party sucked and I want to come to yours.”
Beth’s eyes lit up. “And?” she prompted with undisguised glee.
The muscles around Dev’s jaw tensed. “And I’m a big loser.”
“That’ll work,” Beth said casually, reaching out and grabbing Dev by the wrist. “Keep up the good work,” she told the agents as she and the President disappeared inside.
“I shouldn’t have made you say the same thing in college, should I, Beth?”
“Paybacks are a bitch,” the older woman sniggered.
The music was loud. The beat was throbbing and the scents coming off the buffet, intoxicating. Dev’s eyes flicked from wall to wall — bright, fragrant flowers and decorations filled the room, transforming it into an island paradise. “Wow. This is great.”
A loud chorus of cheers drew Dev’s attention to the pool. At least 50 people were clustered around it. Most were standing in pairs. “What’s happening? Swim races?”
“Not exactly.” She looked Devlyn directly in the eye. “Now remember, Devil, you have to be a good sport. This is all in fun.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m a good sport.” She hurried over to the pool and peered over her mother’s head at the same moment that Lauren burst up out of the water, followed immediately by Alex.
“The winners of our underwater limbo contest!” someone cried and the crowd applauded and hooted their admiration.
Lauren blinked the water from her eyes. “Devlyn?”
“That would be me.” She looked over at Alex, stunned.
“Remember, you’re a good sport, Dev,” Beth whispered in the dark-haired woman’s ear.
“Uhh…” A slightly panicky look chased its way across Lauren’s face just as a long wooden bar and the two partygoers who’d been holding it popped up from out of the water behind her. “Let me introduce you to my friend.”
Dev remembered the Irishman from the Gary Kramer Show. He hadn’t said anything bad about Lauren so she couldn’t exactly hate him. But did he have to have perfect abs? And was that swimsuit he had on even legal?
Dev thrust out her hand, trying not to think about the fact that this was someone who knew her fiancée intimately. But she’s mine now, sucker. And I’m never giving her back. And with that thought, her mood suddenly brightened. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise.” When the man thrust out his hand, Lauren had to turn her body. His right hand had been handcuffed to her right hand, causing them to face opposite directions. He grinned. “Alex Doolen.”
Dev ignored his hand and focused on Lauren. “You’re handcuffed together?” she said incredulously, noting that Lauren suddenly looked very uncomfortable.
Lauren smiled weakly, then hiccupped. “All the teams were.”
Frank and Janet raised the linked hands, as did several other couples.
“Don’t worry. There’s a life guard watching.” Lauren pointed to a passed out Secret Service agent who was snoring at the end of the pool.
“Dev, it’s not that bad. It’s, well…” Beth gestured towards the very attentive agent who was watching the pool and was very much on duty.
“Handcuffs?” Dev repeated, pinning Beth with an evil glare. “And whose idea were those?” Then she looked around the room and recognized that it was half-filled with the guests from her party. Comprehension hit her like a 2x4 and her face turned a bright red. “Traitors!”
The room went silent. Even the band stopped playing. Dev let them all stew for several long seconds. “David,” she finally yelled loudly. “Get over here.”
David appeared at her side instantly. He knew his friend had a seldom-seen jealous streak and didn’t want things to spiral out of control. “Alex is here legally on a visa, Devlyn,” he whispered urgently. “I will not deport him for you.”
Dev ignored his remark and kicked off her shoes as she grabbed his hand. She jumped into the pool wearing her jeans and cotton shirt, and taking the tall man with her, causing an enormous splash. When she emerged, she held her hand and that of a sputtering, very startled David out to Beth. “Cuff us and lower the bar.” She smirked at Lauren, who had a slow, relieved smile of comprehension spreading across her face. The blonde woman mouthed a silent “I love you,” and Dev fought hard not to melt on the spot. “I refuse to be beaten in my own house.”
The entire room relaxed, and the buzz of conversation began again as Beth scampered off to find another pair. She only hoped she had remembered the keys.
Dev leaned close to David and whispered in his ear. “Do you know how to limbo?”
“Why do you think I don’t have a partner?”
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