Wednesday, June 8, 2022
Lauren sat in silence for a long moment before moving to exit the rented sedan. The Secret Service agent unbuckled his seatbelt to join her.
“You need to wait here?”
“This is a private matter.” She reached over and patted his hand, doing her best to soothe his distress. “I know that David probably told you not to let me out of your sight, but I’m going to be fine. No one even knows I’m here.” And it was true. They’d flown out of Baltimore and slipped through Nashville International Airport without anyone taking so much as a second look.
Lauren was dressed in a pair of worn jeans, comfortable sneakers, and a gray, soft cotton short sleeved shirt that Devlyn always liked because she said it was the exact color of Lauren’s eyes. She’d recently had an extra few inches shorn from her wavy locks and the new cut accentuated her slender neck, and, to her surprise, finally made her look her age instead of a handful of years younger. A pair of Ray-Ban Sidestreet sunglasses sat on her nose, and a bright orange University of Tennessee baseball hat covered her head, tufts of thick blonde hair popping out from the back.
The agent looked nearly as casual, though he wore a vest to conceal his weapon.
They’d come directly from the airport to the Wyndham Nashville Airport Hotel, where Lauren had dropped off her overnight bag. She wanted this over.
“Actually, the President instructed me to give you all the privacy you required.”
Lauren blinked. “She did?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He gave her a gentle smile and a slight nod.
You get a kiss for that one, Devlyn.
“I’ll be here if you need me.”
Lauren smiled warmly. “Thank you. Wish me luck.”
She drew in a steadying breath and opened the car door, slowly walking up the narrow, cracked sidewalk that led to her childhood home. She was struck by the familiarity of the moment. How many times had she traveled this short path in the past? And were there ever times when her stomach was not churning with dread at being in this place?
Yes, her mind instantly supplied, you know the ones. She closed her eyes and relived those few precious moments, well-worn memories she held close to her heart. Her mother helping her stand on roller blades for the first time and both of them laughing as Lauren fell again and again, taking her mother with her each time she tumbled to the ground. The sweltering July day when her father stayed home an extra hour at lunchtime to run alongside a nervous rider as she peddled a rickety bicycle for all she was worth. Carving a Jack-O-Lantern on the front porch and being told by both her parents that hers was the prettiest one on the block.
Lauren shook herself from her memories and glanced around. The sun was just starting to set, painting shadows across a small lawn that wanted cutting. She climbed the three steps to the porch, hearing the familiar creak of the last stair as it groaned slightly under her weight. She lifted her hand to knock and swallowed hard, regretting that she’d insisted that Devlyn stay in Washington rather than coming to baby-sit her here. At the moment, however, she felt very alone. And it’s my own damn fault. Before she could change her mind, she rapped on the door.
It took a moment, but finally the door opened and Howard Strayer stood there, slack-jawed at finding his wayward daughter looking up at him with soft, worried eyes. There was a painfully long silence where each of them shifted uncomfortably, waiting for the other to speak.
Finally, Lauren cleared her throat and said, “Hello, Daddy.”
He was standing in the shadows, but even there Lauren could see how much older he looked than the last time they were together. The creases in his face were deeper and he looked thinner and weary. Howard gently cleared his throat, his gaze drifting to the curb. “That your new boyfriend?” With a square chin, he gestured towards the Secret Service agent waiting in the car. “Get tired of being famous so you picked an ordinary man instead?”
Lauren sighed. “I’m still with Devlyn, Daddy. That’s Jack, an agent assigned to try and keep me safe.”
Howard’s gray-eyed gaze flicked to Lauren and ignited with indignation. “Safe from me?”
Shit. “Of course not.”
He grunted and dismissed the agent from his thoughts. “Why are you here? I told you before, if you—”
“—If I left Tennessee to go back to Washington when my mama needed me that I wasn’t welcome here again,” Lauren interrupted, her voice steady, though her heart was pounding. “How could I forget?”
“Don’t you sass me, girl.” Howard’s expression darkened. “Your mama taught you better than that.”
They stood there staring at one another, searching for family, but seeing a stranger’s eyes instead. Howard finally looked away and sighed. “Do… um… do you want to come in?”
“Yes,” Lauren blurted. “Or… well, maybe we could go out back?” Nervously, she stuffed her hands into her pockets. “It’s cooler outside.”
It wasn’t a particularly warm day, but he drawled a low, “All right,” and headed around back with Lauren trailing behind him.
The back yard was small and surrounded by a white picket fence that was missing planks every so often. “Don’t come out here much,” he said, seeing Lauren’s gaze travel to the fence. “No kids playin’ back here anymore.”
Several lawn chairs were clustered around a small table that held an ashtray and an empty soda can. Howard sat down first. When Lauren remained standing, he lifted grizzled eyebrows. “What?” His voice was gruff but held a resigned note that surprised Lauren. It was as though all the fight had gone out of him.
She looked at the ashtray. “I thought you quit.”
“I thought you were normal.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Guess neither one of us knows the other as well as we thought we did.”
She wasn’t surprised by his attitude, but the remark hit her in an unexpectedly deep place. It stung, but she refused be baited. “That was cruel, Daddy.”
His jaw worked, and he pushed the table away and stood, ready to bolt. “I know,” he whispered. “Go back to Washington, D.C., Lauri. This place hasn’t been home for you for a long, long time.”
“No,” Lauren agreed, reaching out and laying her hand on his forearm. “It hasn’t. But you’re still my father.” She swallowed. “Please wait. I… um… I came here to talk, not to argue.”
Howard let out a slow breath and nodded. He sat back down and steepled thick fingers on the tabletop. “Do we have anything to talk about?”
A lump grew in Lauren’s throat, nearly cutting off her speech. “I really hope so, Daddy.” She sat down across the table from him, her mind scrambling to come up with something to say. She’d truly expected him to slam the door in her face, and now that she was actually here, talking to him, she found herself uncharacteristically tongue-tied.
After a long flustered moment, he broke the silence by a whispered, “How could you do it?”
Lauren winced. That wasn’t the beginning she’d been hoping for. “How could I do what? You’ll have to be more specific. Seems like I’m disappointing a lot of people these days. Whether I mean to or not.”
Howard leaned forward intently. “How could you leave when we needed you? And all to take up with… that… that woman?”
“Her name is Devlyn.”
“I know her Goddamned name!” A shaking hand coming up and sweeping back a shock of pale hair that was mixed liberally with gray.
She tried not to flinch, lifting one hand, only to let it drop again. “Jesus, Daddy, what do you want me to say? That I’m sorry I left Tennessee for Washington? Well, I’m not! Devlyn needed me and I couldn’t do anything to help Mama. I never could.” Her temper flared when he opened his mouth to speak. “And don’t dare you say differently!”
“No, no,” he murmured, still heartsick. “She was in the hospital.”
“So was Devlyn,” she shot back.
Howard slammed his hand down hard on the white, plastic table, causing it to wobble furiously. “That woman is not your family. Whatever you feel for her, it’s not the same thing as blood.”
“No,” she agreed slowly. “I guess it’s not. But even then I was closer to Devlyn than I ever was to Mama. She needed me. And, Daddy,” she paused and looked him directly in the eye, “she’s my family now.”
“Does that mean she’ll get the same respect we did?” he challenged. “We needed you, Lauren.”
Feeling slightly sick, Lauren dropped her gaze from his and spoke in a whisper. “I’m sorry I had to choose.”
Howard grunted his acknowledgement of her words, though not his acceptance. “And if you had to choose all over again?”
She looked up from her hands, her expression as fierce as he’d ever seen it. “I’d choose exactly the same way.”
He let out a low groan. His voice grew quiet and Lauren was shocked to see his eyes go misty. “What happened to make you want a woman that way?” he asked with all the bewilderment of a confused child. “Did someone touch you when you were a girl?” Desperately, he cast about for an explanation as Lauren stared at him, her mouth slightly open in shock. “Did—”
“No,” she hissed. She glanced skyward, waiting for some divine intervention she knew wouldn’t come. “God, it’s nothing like that, Daddy. Nothing happened to me except that I fell in love. It’s a wonderful thing, not a tragedy.”
He looked at her as though she was crazy, and Lauren felt her heart sink.
“—Was a nice guy who should have stayed my friend instead of becoming my husband.”
Howard crossed thick arms across his chest. “You were happy.”
Lauren shook her head. “I was happy with my job and my dog,” she corrected firmly. These misconceptions had gone on for far too long. “I was never happy with my marriage.” She bit her lip. “Daddy, how can I explain that we grew in opposite directions and didn’t even care? We wanted different things from each other. Things that neither one of us could give. It was a mistake from the beginning.”
“He’s a good man.”
“You’re not hearing me! Didn’t you ever wonder why I spent most of my marriage overseas?”
“That was none of my business,” he answered gruffly, reaching to his shirt pocket for a cigarette.
Lauren nodded a little. “The details of how I live my life aren’t your business. But my happiness is.”
“And,” he waved his hands in the air, “whatever sort of thing you have with her makes you happy?”
Without hesitation. “More than you could imagine.”
He lit his cigarette and turned his head to blow out a stream of pungent smoke, his brow furrowing deeply as he thought. “It’s wrong,” he said quietly.
“What about it is so wrong? We’re not hurting anyone.”
“Christ, I’m too tired to answer stupid questions, Lauren.” He stood. “Nothing has changed. Every night on the damned evening news I see pictures of you two together, and every night I’m reminded that you chose her and some life that makes no sense at all over your own mama. ”
“We’re getting married,” she said in a rush.
“I heard,” he commented dryly. “About a million times.”
She licked her lips. “I know you don’t approve. But maybe in time you’ll change your mind. And then we—”
“What you’re doing is not getting married,” he broke in harshly. “What your mother and I had was a marriage. Not some joke cooked up by liberals from San Francisco or some other screwed-up place full of perverts and druggies.”
The fine hairs on the back of Lauren’s neck bristled. “What you and Mama had? That is what I am supposed to aspire to? A life of denial and blame? No, thank you!”
Howard’s voice dropped to its lowest register. “You don’t know anything about what we had, little girl.” His entire body began to shake. “There was more to your mother than just her being sick.”
“And there’s more to my relationship with Devlyn than the fact that we’re both women. Please, Daddy. Please,” she whispered brokenly, her anger melting into pain. “We can at least try.”
“Try what?” His voice was flat.
She blinked several times; unsure of whether he was being sarcastic or serious. C’mon, Daddy. Please. “Things don’t have to be this hard. They don’t. We could try to be a real family,” she said, a hint of resignation in her voice. She could see that she wasn’t getting through to him. A wall had been put up between them, and every time she climbed to the top, he was there to knock her down.
For Lauren, it seemed, a true relationship with even one of her parents would always be just out of reach. “We could try to at least know, if not understand, each other, couldn’t we?” She honestly wasn’t sure anymore.
The corner of Howard’s mouth quirked upward, and the reluctant smile showed off deep creases around his eyes. “But don’t you see, darlin’? That’s the trouble. Now that your mama is gone, there isn’t anything to hold us together. You’ve never thought much of me, and to be honest, I’ve never had a single clue as to what was going on inside that pretty head of yours.” He shrugged one shoulder and swallowed hard before admitting, “We’re strangers who once lived in the same house and happen to have the same color eyes.”
Lauren recoiled at the softly spoken words, feeling as though she’d been struck in the chest with a heavy board.
“I don’t know you any more than you know me, and understanding you is way beyond what this man can handle,” he muttered numbly, trying not to think about what the words were doing to his daughter. As surely as he stood there in the setting sun, he knew what he was saying was hurtful. But in his heart of hearts, however, he truly believed that this was best for them both.
“Oh God, Daddy—”
“No,” he said firmly. “You’ve said your piece. Now let me say mine.”
Lauren’s mouth snapped shut, a reflex to her father’s command.
“I won’t pretend that I approve of the sort of madness you’re living now. I’ve tried, I swear, but it’s wrong and I can’t convince myself otherwise. You say you aren’t hurting anyone, but that’s not true.” His eyes hardened a little. “It hurts me to know I’ve done such a pitiful job of teaching you right from wrong that you don’t even understand why I’m upset now.” The tears shimmering in his eyes for several moments finally spilled over. “Stop beating a dead horse, Lauri.” He sighed loudly, tired to the bone. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed his cigarette to the ground and crushed it beneath his shoe.
Howard sniffed self-consciously, angry with himself for the display of emotion in front of this self-assured woman, who bore only a shadow of resemblance to the girl he’d raised. Or maybe this is who she was all along. And, somehow, he’d simply missed it. A watery smile pulled at his lips as he had a sudden flash of a headstrong little girl who demanded to be allowed to play baseball with the boys across the street, even after they’d chased her off more times than he could count. She’d pestered the boys for three summers before they gave in. “You were always too stubborn for your own good.”
To Lauren’s surprise he stepped forward and placed a tender kiss on her cheek. She felt the roughness of his stubbly cheek against hers and the warmth of strong hands grasping her forearms, before he took a step backwards and cocked his head to the side.
“For once in your life, listen to your daddy.” He pinned her with a sad, defeated look that lanced through her, causing her stomach to twist painfully. There was no anger in his gaze, only resolution. “Leave this,” he gestured with a hand stained from a lifetime of manual labor, “in the past where it belongs. You won’t find what you’re looking for here. Go home.”
Lauren’s tongue was still frozen in her mouth as she watched her father step away and amble towards the backdoor. She took a step to follow him, but slowed then stopped as his words echoed in her head. “You won’t find what you’re looking for here.” The screen door slammed shut behind him and Lauren’s eyes slid closed. God.
Dev sat at the desk in the hotel room, doing her best to concentrate on the pile of work in front of her. She was supposed to be studying the effects of global warming and fossil fuel emissions and all she could think of was Lauren. Her lover had insisted on going to Tennessee alone, saying that her relationship, or current lack of relationship, with her father was something she needed to deal with herself and that Devlyn needed to stay right where she was and concentrate on her job.
After Lauren had left Washington, however, Devlyn realized she’d made a grave error. Offering her partner emotional support when she really needed it was part of Devlyn’s job. In her mind, in fact, it was a big part of what being true partners meant. The reality of Dev’s world was sometimes a big, old, cranky bitch. All too often, there were instances when she simply couldn’t be every place she was needed. Today, however, after a lot of last minute planning and a little yelling, she was going to be the woman who was there for her partner when or if she needed her. So here she was, spending her evening in an airport hotel, pretending she was doing something other than worrying.
Dev had ordered the Secret Service to be as unobtrusive as humanly possible. A full detail of agents currently occupied the rooms on both sides and across the hall from Lauren’s. She’d sworn on her mother’s life that she wouldn’t set a foot outside of Lauren’s room, allowing her to have a single agent at each end of the hallway, rather than directly outside her door. Upon arriving in the hotel, extra security cameras had been added and bulletproof glass had been suctioned on the inside of the hotel windows, making the room as safe as possible, given the extreme time constraints. No one knew she was in Tennessee, and she refused to have what she was offering Lauren tainted by having security around at every turn. There had to be something in their lives that could be remotely normal.
Getting up from the desk, Devlyn wandered around the room, glancing at the clock on the nightstand. Impulsively, she reached up and banged on the wall. “C’mon, boys.”
The door to the adjoining room opened, and two agents entered, their eyes flicking from surface to surface, their hands already reaching for their guns.
“Whoa.” Devlyn held up her hands in a placating gesture. Okay, Dev, that was stupid. “I’m fine.”
Both men visibly relaxed. “Is there something you needed, Madam President?” one of the men asked.
Dev pursed her lips. “I need to do something that’s probably going to get me in trouble.”
“Ma’am?” The agent did his best not to scowl. “Are we going somewhere?”
“To a two-bedroom brick home on Hancock Street.” She began walking to the door, noting that the men’s feet appeared rooted to the floor. “Coming?” she called over her shoulder. “Or will I need to call a cab?” Dev heard what she was sure was a softly muttered curse before the men scrambled in front of her, and they headed out into hall.
The dark sedan cruised down the street slowly, finally stopping when Devlyn tapped lightly on the window.
Jack had received a briefing explaining the turn of events and he was at Devlyn’s door by the time the vehicle came to a complete stop.
In fading twilight, curious eyes surveyed Lauren’s childhood home. Devlyn felt a pang deep within her chest at the plain, somewhat gloomy sight. But for once her timing was perfect and Lauren appeared from behind the house.
The biographer had her head down, clearly not paying attention to her surroundings. Her head snapped up when she heard the slamming of a car door. “Oh, God.” Her breath left her in a quick rush when she caught sight of Devlyn. For a few seconds she stood motionless, watching Devlyn sheepishly stuff her hands into her pockets, then she bolted towards her.
Dev opened her arms, grunting a little at the impact of Lauren’s compact body. “Hey,” she whispered, “it’s okay.”
Several neighbors noticed what was happening in front of the house, which was now a famous landmark in Nashville, and they rudely clustered on their porches, openly gawking.
Instinctively, the agents clustered around their charges, turning their backs on the couple and leaving a few feet to afford the women as much privacy as possible.
Devlyn glanced up to see Howard Strayer standing in the shadows behind his screen door, glaring. She felt Lauren’s breathing hitch against her and tightened her hold on the younger woman, throwing him the iciest look she could muster. Rat-bastard coward.
Lauren let her arms drop and gave Devlyn’s stomach a quick pat before taking a small step backwards. She tilted her head up and looked at Devlyn with red, puffy eyes. “Hi,” she said hoarsely.
Dev swallowed as her heart clenched. “Hi.” Shit. I should have come here with you to begin with. You won’t talk me out of it next time, Lauren.
“I didn’t expect to see you here.”
Dev’s eyes went round and she winced inwardly, hoping that Lauren would forgive her meddling. “I’m… well, I thought maybe… err…”
Somewhere Lauren found a small, grateful smile. She reached for Devlyn again and buried her face against the warm skin of her neck. “I love you,” she whispered simply. “And thank you. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.” She felt silent chuckles shake the lanky frame pressed tightly to hers, and she greedily absorbed the warmth and comfort she found there, clinging to Devlyn as though she were a lifeline. “Guess you never expected to hear me say that, huh?” She swallowed thickly. “I was going to see if I could get an earlier ticket home. The thought of being alone here tonight was making me sick.”
Dev slowly stroked her back and placed tender kisses on the top of her head. “You’re not alone, honey.”
An agent discreetly gestured towards the vehicle, which was still running. It wasn’t safe to be standing out in the open like this.
Over the top of Lauren’s head, Devlyn nodded.
“I guess I don’t have to tell you how things went,” Lauren finally whispered after a few moments of comfortable silence. “He’s never going to forgive me. I swear, after so much pain in our lives I don’t understand how he can begrudge me honest happiness.”
Dev sighed. “He just doesn’t understand.”
Lauren nodded against Dev’s shoulder. “I… I know it’s stupid. It’s not like we were ever that close.” She sniffed a few times. “This shouldn’t feel worse than all those years where we hardly saw each other, but it does. It’s not much different. But…” She shook her head in frustration. “But he’s still my dad and I already missed my chance with Mama.”
“Maybe,” Dev paused, not wanting to offer useless platitudes. “Maybe things can be different someday.” She slowly stroked her partner’s back. “Time takes care of a lot of things, Lauren.”
“Mmm…” Lauren let out a shuddering breath. “Maybe.” She placed a kiss on Dev’s jaw and resolutely told herself to look forward from this point on. As much as it hurt, her father was, at least to a certain extent, right. There was nothing left for her here now. “What are you doing here?” she murmured against Dev’s neck.
Devlyn gave her a lopsided grin and let all the love she felt show in shimmering blue eyes. “I’m here because this is where I needed to be.” I can’t do anything to fix this, honey. But… yeah, maybe. Just maybe I know someone who can.
Devlyn walked into the bathroom of her Nashville hotel room, her cell phone in hand. The lights were low and her lover was snoring gently, an exhausted, unhappy expression marring her face even in sleep. “Please be there.”
“Hello,” a sleepy voice burred.
“Devlyn?” The words came quickly now. “Is something wrong? It’s the middle of the night.”
“No, well… sort of. But physically, at least, we’re all okay.”
“Why are you whispering then?”
Devlyn could hear the sound of creaking bedsprings in the ultra sensitive earpiece she was wearing. “I want to keep this private.”
A long, silent pause.
Dev sighed. “Thank you. I need a favor. I need someone to… well, it has to do with Howard Strayer.”
A pair of pale eyes narrowed. “Go on…”
Dev sipped from a glass of iced tea and from the front porch of her parents’ home watched the sunset paint the world in ruddy colors. She pushed off with her feet, just enough to keep the old porch swing swaying in a gentle motion. A hundred yards away she could see the large, sturdy tent which had been set up to house the brief ceremony and what she hoped would be a hearty, memorable reception.
In the distance the kids were laughing and carrying on with Janet and Frank. Dev sighed and wiggled her toes, realizing that this was about as relaxed as she could get. An unconscious smile swept across her face, stretching her cheek muscles, and for a single moment she was overcome with the feeling that her life simply couldn’t get any better than this — her smile broadened — until tomorrow. “Hard to believe that tomorrow’s the big day,” Dev mumbled with a touch of marvel. “Wow.”
Warm, firm hands began a massage of her shoulders.
“Are you nervous?” Lauren asked, leaning over and brushing her lips against Dev’s cheek.
Dev could hear the smile in Lauren’s voice, and she reached back and took her hand, guiding her around to sit next to her on the swing. “Not yet. It won’t hit me until tomorrow morning. Then I’ll be a pile of nerves.”
Lauren sat down next to Devlyn and snuggled close. The wood felt cool and slightly rough against the back of her pants as she wiggled into a comfortable position. They were both wearing jeans and soft cotton shirts, just warm enough to ward off the slight chill of the evening breeze. She took Dev’s glass and helped herself to a sip before handing it back. “Mmm.”
“How about you?” Dev winked.
“How about me what?”
Lauren cocked her head slightly to the side as she gave the question serious thought. “No.”
Dev blinked. “Really?”
Lauren nodded and laughed. “I’m really not. I can’t believe I’m saying that. But I think I’ll be more relieved than anything to get the actual ceremony behind us.” She smiled impishly. “Besides, then you’re stuck with me forever.”
“But we still should have eloped.”
Lauren fondly noted Dev’s mischievous smile and the gentle creases just making inroads around vivid eyes. “And had your mother hunting us down for the rest of our natural lives? No thanks.”
Dev laughed and put her arm around Lauren, remembering the first time she’d tried a similar move and Lauren had swatted at her, thinking the tentative touch was a bug. Dev pulled her close, deciding this level of comfort was much, much nicer. And much less terrifying. She sighed. “You and I have come a long way, Boris. Yeow!”
Lauren pinched Dev hard in the side for using her newest Secret Service code name. “Not nice,” she groused, her eyes narrowing. “Why do I have to be Boris?”
Because it fits. “Beats me,” Dev said innocently, glad Lauren wasn’t looking at her face.
Last year they’d been Mighty Mouse and Wonder Woman. This year, it was Boris and Natasha. Dev wondered if the agent in charge of code names was going to torture her for the rest of her tenure in the White House. She suspected so. The tall woman laughed again and pulled Lauren closer, kissing her temple.
“You may laugh now, darlin’, but if I don’t get a better code name next time, I’m holding you personally responsible.”
“Well, that’s fair,” Dev muttered sarcastically. But she was still smiling as she pushed her foot against the porch again, causing the swing to sway gently. “I love you.”
Lauren turned and kissed Dev’s throat. “Mmm… I love you, too,” she murmured dreamily. “But sweet talking me now won’t save you later if I end up with another horrible name.”
“What could be worse than Boris?”
Lauren snorted. “Don’t even say that. I didn’t think it could get worse than Mighty Mouse.”
“I saw a list once,” Dev paused as she deftly used her tongue to remove an ice cube from her tall glass. She began to chew. “It was of the names the Secret Service was considering for me. Trust me,” an elegant eyebrow lifted, “it can get worse.” She bit down on the cube and Lauren chuckled. “What?”
“You know what they say about crunching ice, don’t you?”
“No.” She sniggered and patted the denim-covered thigh next to hers. “Supposedly, it’s a sign of sexual frustration.”
Dev looked aghast. “Well, they’re wrong, whoever they are. I am not sexually frustrated.”
They hadn’t heard Janet come up the steps, and both women nearly jumped out of their skins when she spoke.
“I can only hope that’s true.” She leaned against the rail of the porch and crossed her arms over her chest. “When was the last time you two…” Janet wriggled her eyebrows, then looked pointedly from Dev to Lauren. “You know.”
“Mom!” Dev nearly knocked her glass over as she turned playfully to put her hands over Lauren’s ears. “Don’t go there.”
“Good.” Janet petted Lauren’s bright red cheek. “I didn’t really want to know anyway. But I am glad to hear that you’re such a satisfied woman, Devil. That way you won’t mind not spending the night together tonight.”
“Bullshit, I won’t!” Dev exploded.
“Yeah,” Lauren chimed in forcefully. “I mind.”
“All right, you two, don’t make me get the spoon.”
Frank Marlowe stepped up onto the porch with Aaron perched on his shoulders, Christopher and Ashley bringing up the rear. “No, now Devil, you listen to your mother.” Another few seconds and Gremlin and Princess were circling Lauren’s feet, looking for a good place to sit down.
Gremlin decided that Dev’s foot looked like a very good cushion. The chubby pug plopped down right there, earning a sub-vocal growl from Devlyn. Gremlin growled back.
Frank smiled. “You’ve always respected tradition, Devlyn. No use deviating from that plan now. Besides,” he winked, “it’s for luck.”
Dev rolled her eyes and let loose an exaggerated sigh.
Lauren chuckled and rubbed her lover’s back. “I don’t think she sleeps very well alone.”
“Very true.” Dev nodded as she glanced over at her mother, hoping that she would take pity on her. When her mother showed no signs of yielding, Dev’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t want me cranky from lack of sleep. I know where the button is.”
“What button?” Ashley asked innocently.
“Never you mind,” Janet answered quickly.
Frank chuckled at the poorly veiled look of outrage mixed with helplessness that colored his daughter’s face. “Sorry, Stinky. You’re out of luck tonight. Come on, the boys and I will walk you down to the cabin.”
Ashley charged up the steps and took Lauren’s hand. “Me and Grandma are going to take Lauren into the house.”
“Grandma and I,” Lauren and Janet corrected in unison, turning to each other and exchanging small, slightly embarrassed grins.
Bewildered, Ashley scrunched up her face. “No. I am.”
Lauren smiled at the girl. “I’ll explain later.”
Dev didn’t want to, but reluctantly she relented with a groan and stood up. “All right, I can see the whole family is in on this so I’ll just surrender now and save you all some time.” She held her hand out to Lauren. “Can I at least say goodnight to her?”
“Sure, go ahead,” Aaron said from his grandfather’s shoulders.
Lauren bit her lip to keep from laughing as she watched Devlyn stand there, waiting impatiently for everyone to leave so she could kiss her goodnight.
No one moved.
Dev glared at her parents. “Fine.” She leaned down and kissed Lauren soundly before turning on her heel. She started descending the porch steps, then changed her mind halfway and stopped on the bottom one. She turned and pinned Lauren with loving, fiery blue eyes. The younger woman fought hard not to swoon on the spot. “I love you. I can’t wait for tomorrow.”
“Me, too,” Lauren heard herself say as she stepped closer to Devlyn.
Dev smiled and leaned forward a little, bracing her hand on the railing as she stretched to steal one last kiss before heading down the walk. She spoke without turning around. “Does anyone want to sleep with me tonight?”
Lauren was so close to shouting “Hell yes!” that she had to clamp her hand over her mouth, much to Janet’s amusement.
The older woman couldn’t help but chuckle indulgently.
Frank winced as his eardrums shook from the sound of childish squeals as Aaron began climbing down his back.
“Me! Me too! I wanna come,” Aaron and Christopher screamed, beginning to scramble towards Devlyn.
Ashley looked torn, glancing between her mother and Lauren with slightly panicky eyes. The blonde woman smiled gently at the girl and mouthed a silent “thank you.” Then she gestured towards Dev with her chin and winked. “Go on. There’ll be lots of nights just for us, sugar.” Affectionately, she petted Ashley’s soft, dark hair. “I promise.”
Ashley beamed and bolted for the stairs. “Me, too, Mom!” she called out, quickly catching up to her brothers.
Frank wrapped his arm around Lauren’s shoulder as the porch’s remaining occupants watched Devlyn’s children rush to her, eager for her time and undivided attention, two things which were all too rare in the President’s life.
Gremlin sat down next to his mistress, content to let Princess scamper off after the children. It was hard to be truly lazy in the company of his sometimes-demanding mate.
“One last night of freedom for you then?” Frank said to Lauren, wondering if the young writer knew exactly what she was letting herself in for by marrying into the Marlowe clan.
The corner of Lauren’s mouth twitched as her gaze followed her loved ones. She sighed. “I’ve already had freedom, Frank. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be. That over there…” She paused and joined Janet in a quiet round of laughter as Devlyn tried to pick up both Aaron and Christopher at the same time and ended up flat on her bottom in the middle of the path. Then Ashley threw herself on the pile, and Dev looked up and flashed Lauren a beaming smile… just before she yanked up Christopher’s shirt and began mercilessly tickling his belly.
Lauren’s heart skipped a beat at the happy sight. “That’s the good stuff.”
Thursday, June 30, 2022
Dev paced back and forth, stopped, ran her fingers through her hair, and then paced some more. Moments before, she’d ordered all staff members, except for David, out of her parents’ home, and the children downstairs. They were making her crazy. Normally composed and confident, she was nervous as hell and couldn’t find it in herself to even try to hide it.
She hadn’t seen Lauren all morning, her stomach was in knots, the weather had turned nasty, and she was quite sure — mostly because she had been pointedly told so by Michael Oaks — that no amount of cover-up was going to hide the dark circles around her eyes.
Last night had been filled with restless dreams, none of which, to her frustration, she could remember. “Bet you slept like a log, Lauren,” she mumbled, admittedly jealous that her lover never appeared to mind their occasional nightly separations as much as she did. Devlyn had never liked sleeping alone, and she couldn’t count the number of nights she’d sneaked into her parents’ room and climbed in between them. A smile touched her lips at the comforting memory.
She hitched up her pantyhose, cursing the ever-sagging crotch, and plopped down in the chair by the window of her childhood bedroom, its soft, soothing blue tones doing little to calm her nerves. Devlyn realized, with a start, that after she started bringing Samantha home, she’d stopping coming into this room completely, having graduated to one containing a queen-sized bed.
But here she was, and it was just as she remembered it. An extra-long twin bed was tucked neatly in the corner. Maps of the world and pictures of far-off, exotic places she’d dreamed of visiting adorned the walls, and photos of her parents and cousins sat neatly on her windowsill. Her bookshelves were crammed with paperbacks and dotted with a few trophies she’d collected during her high school athletic career. It even smelled the same, like the strawberry candles she’d taken a liking to in her teenage years mixed with the faintest hint of Brasso, used to polish the eagle bust that sat proudly on her desk. She smiled faintly at the statue that her mother had lovingly maintained all these years.
Wistfully, Devlyn wondered why she hadn’t taken the childhood treasure when she moved away from home. She reached out and touched the cool metal, letting her fingers warm it as she thought. The answer came to her with surprising speed. It belonged here, just as she did. She nodded a little to herself. She liked the fact that she knew it was here waiting for her if she ever needed it.
Dev stuck her head between the curtains and interestedly watched the caterers doing their best to avoid the fat, pelting raindrops and Secret Service agents filing in and out of the large tent, which appeared to sway a little in the gusting wind. She gulped, vowing to kill Michael Oaks if that tent, which was his idea, came down with her family inside. Hell, maybe she’d kill him anyway, just for fun.
Indulging herself, she smiled wickedly at the thought.
Thunder boomed overhead and Devlyn tilted her head skyward. “Please don’t let a tornado pick up our wedding tent.” She was mostly joking, but when the thunder boomed again, even louder, her eyes widened. She began thinking of all the things that could go wrong, and her heart began to thump wildly. Hastily, she rattled off a long list of promises in exchange for smooth sailing on this day, including her eternal devotion to her family, the Constitution, and everything else she considered sacred, ending with a heartfelt, “And puhleeeez don’t let me throw up in front of everyone. Again. Amen.” Her father still teased her about her high school graduation commencement speech, despite the fact that she’d become an accomplished and charismatic public speaker over the years.
Growing too nervous to sit and do nothing while she waited for her dress to be brought in, she shrugged into a bathrobe that was a little too small and opened her bedroom door. Peering over the second floor railing, she spied David and her dad sitting in the breakfast nook by the big plate glass window, having coffee in their tuxedos.
“Oooo…” she cooed appreciatively, taking a big whiff of the heady aroma. “Any of that left for me?” Dev tightened the sash of her robe and bounded down the stairs. Her hair was plaited in a neat, glossy braid that trailed down her back and a light coating of makeup was neatly in place. She could always redo her lipstick after she drank her coffee.
“Careful there, young lady,” Frank chided gently, eyeing her intently as she bounded down the stairs, full of nervous energy despite her lack of restful sleep the night before. “The last time you did that you twisted an ankle.” A white eyebrow arched. “Besides, shouldn’t you be getting dressed?”
Several creases appeared on Dev’s forehead as she frowned. “My dress isn’t here yet. I assumed Mother was bringing it. She must still be with Lauren.” She grabbed David’s wrist and looked at his watch. “I’m starting to get a little nervous; the wedding is due to start in an hour.” She glanced around. “Where are the kids?” Then she heard the sound of arguing, squealing, and running coming from the next room and rolled her eyes. “Never mind.” She lasted all of two seconds before yelling, “Boarding school in Antarctica for the lot of you, if you don’t quiet down!”
The children giggled at the familiar but meaningless threat, but did quiet down.
David picked up the coffeepot and poured Dev a cup. “Your dress will be here soon, Dev. Sit here for a few minutes and relax.” He pushed the sugar and cream toward her. “I remember a time when you drank it black.”
She lifted the sugar bowl. “Lauren didn’t start drinking coffee until after she met me and this is the way she prefers it. I started using a little cream so now we can drink each other’s coffee without gagging.”
David smirked and made a quick motion with his wrist to simulate the snapping of a whip.
Dev’s eyes narrowed. “Is there a problem?”
“Ugh. That is just too sickly sweet,” David teased.
Ebony eyebrows lifted. “This from the man who doesn’t mind sharing his wife’s toothbrush.”
“David,” Frank gave him a squinting stare. “As a physician, I can safely say that that is truly disgusting.”
David’s jaw dropped. “One time! I used Beth’s toothbrush once after I lost mine on a camping trip and no one will let me forget it.”
Dev smiled at her chief of staff’s indignant look. It was easier to focus on him rather than her own rattled nerves. She asked, “How long did Beth make you sleep on the couch for that? Hmm?”
David opened his mouth to answer. “Well—”
“Enough chit chat,” Dev interrupted grumpily. “I am not getting married in my bathrobe.” She looked at David, suddenly feeling a little unsure. Maybe she should have paid more attention to the planning of this event. “Right?”
David blinked. “Of course not!”
“Then where’s my damn dress?”
Frank asked, “Haven’t you seen it?”
Dev shook her head in short, jerky movements that made her agitation clear. “They only took my measurements,” her gaze narrowed, “a dozen times. I’ve never seen it.” She turned panicky eyes to David. “What if the designer forgot it and is too afraid to admit it?”
With an exaggerated sigh, David pulled out his cell phone and dialed. He spoke quietly into the tiny device then flipped it closed, placing it on the table. “It’s on the way right now. Your mother is bringing it over after she takes care of some special guest.” The tall man shrugged.
Dev chuckled. “Since when is Aunt Myrtle special? The last wedding the woman went to, someone told her to bring birdseed to shower the happy couple with — the crazy old bird threw the entire bag at the bride and knocked her unconscious. The whole wedding party ended up in the emergency room, waiting for my cousin to come to.”
David just looked at Devlyn. “Is that a true story?” he asked incredulously.
Frank sighed. “I’m sorry to say it’s true. Aunt Myrtle is one of my more interesting relatives.”
“I guess that answers my question,” David muttered, taking another sip. “I’ll make sure security frisks her on the way in. Anyway, according to Agent Tucker your mother is due here in three minutes.”
Dev let out a tiny grunt. She didn’t want to be late for her own wedding.
“By the way,” David said, “the no-fly zone is in place.” A loud clap of thunder boomed. “Not that the tabloids would risk their helicopters in this weather anyway. Between that order and this weather, you’re going to have a nearly normal wedding.”
“Thank God.” Dev slumped down in her chair. She looked at David’s watch again, missing Liza and her ever-present alarms and electronic calendar. “Aren’t the three minutes up yet? I want to see the dress that’s costing me a small—”
“Ahem.” Frank’s gave his daughter a look.
Dev blushed. “Sorry, Dad.” She trained her eyes on her coffee cup. “That’s costing you a fortune.”
Frank gave her a small smile. “Devil, do you really think, with all the people working to make this day a success, the least of which is your mother, that anything is going to go wrong?”
Dev’s shoulders slumped. “I know, Dad, but I love Lauren so much. And I want this to be perfect for her. And you always expect something to go wrong on your wedding day. And—”
“Don’t say another word,” Frank warned, pressing his fingers against Dev’s lips. “Let’s not give the wedding gremlins any ideas, okay?”
“Good plan,” Dev mumbled against his fingers.
The door opened and Janet entered with a huge garment bag. She was wearing a cream-colored suit, and low appreciative murmurs — that she was too preoccupied to hear — bubbled forth from Frank and David. She licked her lips and drew in a deep breath before addressing Dev. “Now, honey…”
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Dev bolted from the chair. “That’s bad. You never start a conversation with those words unless it’s bad.” She turned wide eyes on David, who did nothing to comfort her.
“Very bad…” he agreed readily.
“What is it?” Frank asked impatiently, getting up from the table and loosening his bow tie as he moved towards Janet.
Janet closed her eyes and laid the garment bag on the table. Then she took a step back as though the bag was filled with explosives. Instinctively, everyone in the room mirrored her actions.
Gaping at the black bag, Devlyn began to sweat. “Oh, God. Oh, God,” she repeated numbly.
“You already said that.”
“Shut up, David, or you’ll be wearing whatever’s in that bag.”
Dev’s voice was as menacing as he’d ever heard it, and the redheaded man turned to gauge his boss’ sincerity. He gulped and looked back at the bag. “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.”
“Come on, now,” Frank said reasonably. “How bad can it be?”
Three sets of incredulous eyes swung his way.
“Really,” he persisted. “Surely you’ve seen it before this morning, Janet. You—”
“No,” Janet corrected quickly. “That damn designer got all sensitive when I wanted to see it. He pitched a fit and started to cry. To cry!”
“Real tears?” Frank asked, astonished.
“I swear to God,” Janet answered, wringing her hands. “There was so much else to do and Michael assured me that Devil had approved everything. But—”
“Enough!” Dev groaned. “Mom, I take it you peeked in the bag?”
Janet nodded miserably, her lower lip trembling, though Dev couldn’t tell if it was from laughter or tears. “May God have mercy on my miserable soul.”
“Where’s the liquor?” David asked loudly, on his way to the refrigerator to see what he could scrounge. “I need a drink.”
Dev’s arm shot out, and she grasped David by the lapel. “Oh, no you don’t. You’re going to open that bag and show me what I’ll be wearing on the biggest day of my life.”
“A smile?” David said, trying to salvage a bit of good humor.
“Only if I get to kill someone.”
“Open the bag, Frank,” David instructed, rapidly moving as far away from Devlyn as he could. Where was Beth when he needed her? She could tackle Dev if she had to, while he ran and hid behind the Secret Service.
“For Pete’s sake! What in the Sam Hill is wrong with you people? It’s only a dress.” Frank quickly unzipped the bag and, with some effort, pulled out the dress, not really taking the time to look at it as he tugged it free. “There.” He held it up, and his voice faltered. “See.”
Collective gasps went around the room.
“Holy shit!” Frank exclaimed, dropping the dress as though it was on fire.
Janet’s mind raced as she tried to think of something, anything, to make Devlyn feel better. “Well, it’s… um… pink and… err…”
“Poofy,” David supplied. “Really, amazingly, gravity-defyingly-poofy.”
“Sweet Mother of God!” Dev’s eyes were the size of saucers. She wasn’t sure whether to burst into tears or laughter. Maybe she’d just do both. “No!” she scrambled away from the dress as though it was a plague shroud. “Wait.” She suddenly stopped. “You don’t really think I’m going to wear this, do you?” She looked hopefully at her mother, who couldn’t meet her gaze.” I don’t believe this! “No way! No! I will not wear that to my wedding. I’ll look like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother… on crack!”
“But I like the big floppy flowers glued onto the sleeves,” David supplied, smiling wanly at Dev’s murderous glare. “They remind me of those things you put on the bathtub floor to keep from slipping. Only the ones in my house are better looking.”
“I won’t do it,” Dev announced, lifting her chin. “I won’t.” She waggled her finger at her mother. “And you can’t make me. I don’t care if you went through 29 hours of brutal labor. No. No. No.”
“Honey,” Janet soothed. “The wedding is due to start in 20 minutes. You could wear the pants you came over in, I suppose. Or just go ahead and wear the dress, it is the style… umm… somewhere, I’m sure.” But the doubtful note in her voice was clear. “Anyway, we just don’t have time to find anything else. You’re too tall to borrow anything of mine.”
“Maybe it’s not that I’m too tall,” Dev said pointedly. “Maybe it’s that you’re too short. Ouch!” She wasn’t quick enough to move away from her mother’s pinching fingers.
Devlyn began ticking off examples on her fingers. “Jeans. Sweat pants. My underpants. David’s underpants. Bare-assed, buck-naked. All of those options are better than that dress!”
“Devlyn,” David began, taking a deep breath and hoping his life insurance policy was up to date, “Toby Yagasuki is Japan’s most renowned designer and the emperor’s cousin. The emperor himself called to say how honored he was that you selected him for this momentous occasion and what an honor it was for his family as well as his nation. Next month we begin trade negotiations in Tokyo. If you don’t wear this dress — well, I hate to say it, but it could hinder everything we’re trying to do there.”
Just then Ashley, Christopher and Aaron burst into the room. The boys were in tiny black tuxedos, their fair hair slicked back and their chubby cheeks pink from playing more rowdily than usual while all the grownups were preoccupied. Ashley wore a pale yellow dress that set off her dark hair, which was styled just like her mother’s.
For a second, Devlyn forgot about the dress and smiled down at her children, her gaze full of maternal pride. “Don’t you all look great,” she said softly.
“Thanks, Mom,” Ashley chirped.
“Is this your dress?” Christopher questioned with wide eyes.
Spell broken, Dev made a face. “Yes.”
“Whoa,” Aaron crooned loudly. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s the greatest, Mom,” Ashley agreed heartily. “I can’t wait to see you in it. Lauren will be so happy.”
“You are going to wear it, right, Mom?” Christopher asked, touching the fabric with a tentative finger; he’d been told by several adults that the wedding was almost ready to begin. “It’s just like you promised. I knew you’d keep your promise!”
Dev covered her face with her hands and whimpered her defeat, sending a silent wish to Lauren that she, at least, was having better luck with her specially designed wedding day creation.
“I will not.” Lauren’s face was the very picture of disgust. She and Devlyn had traded locations earlier that morning and she was getting dressed in the cabin. “Beth, there is no way on God’s green earth that I am going to wear this monstrosity. None.”
“It doesn’t look as bad on as it did off.” Beth winced, knowing her lie was pitiful.
“Bullshit. I’d rather go naked. And don’t give me that Japan trade negotiation excuse again. That won’t work on me. I prefer to buy American anyway. And I saw Mr. Yagasuki skulking around earlier. He was wearing Armani. And his clothing,” she pointed at herself, “wasn’t bright, blinding, and a hideous purple!”
Beth bit back a smirk. Mostly. “It might have been Armani, but he was still wearing lime green slippers.”
“You and Dev said no white,” Beth reminded, perching against a tall oak dresser. She was dressed in a tasteful, silk, coffee-colored pantsuit and was, for the first time, glad she was a good 40 pounds heavier than Lauren, who was eyeing her outfit enviously.
With difficulty, Lauren lifted her purple-encased arms and rubbed her throbbing temples. “We didn’t want white because we’ve both been married before. Not because I wanted to look like a whore today.”
“You do not look like a whore.”
Lauren just stared.
Beth couldn’t help it; she burst out laughing. She loved the way Lauren’s gentle Southern twang made “bitch” sound like “bee-ach.” “Okay, enough lying. That is the most hideous thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Of course it is,” Lauren said reasonably. “Michael Oaks is out to get me, the bastard. I should have known he’d pull something like this. He won’t have the nerve to do it to Devlyn though.” Her voice turned wistful. “I’ll bet she looks stunning.”
Beth rolled her eyes. “Like always.”
“Yeah.” Lauren laughed throatily, feeling immensely appreciative of that fact. “Pretty much like always.”
“I don’t think Michael did this on purpose, Lauren.” Beth didn’t much like being in the position of defending the annoying man. But in this case it was only fair. “Did you see the Oscars this year? I saw a dress or two like this.”
Lauren threw her hands in the air. “On whores!”
Beth’s forehead wrinkled. “Jesus, Lauren. Duh. They weren’t really whores. They only played them in the movie.”
“Did you see the movie? Those were their costumes!”
A tiny snigger escaped Beth.
“God, I hate you.”
“And who could blame you?”
Lauren put a hand on her hip, gestured down her body and looked at Beth with a beseeching expression. “Would you wear this?”
The dress was strapless and very low cut, with nothing but feathers covering both her breasts. The body of the dress fit her like a second skin, lizard skin to be exact, and the hem, which reached the floor, was slit up to mid thigh and also covered in purple feathers.
Beth bit her lower lip. “Not on a dare.”
Lauren nodded. “Help me out of this then. I think I have a skirt in my bag back at the main house. It’s better than jeans. Devlyn will understand.”
Beth pushed off the dresser only to pause mid-step when there was a knock on the door.
Lauren’s gaze burned a hole through the door. “If that’s Michael Oaks or that designer from Hell, tell him to come right in.”
“Uh oh.” Beth scrambled to the door before Lauren tried to open it herself. “Who is it?” she asked warily, her eyes darting from the door to Lauren.
“It’s us!” the Marlowe children shouted happily. “And Grandma,” Ashley added.
“Let us in, Beth,” Christopher called through the wood. “We want to see Lauren’s pretty dress and flowers.”
The unbridled enthusiasm in his voice made Beth smile. There were times when both the boys, but most especially Christopher, reminded her very strongly of a boyish version of a certain handsome redhead with whom she fell in love in college.
“Yeah!” Aaron and Ashley joined in. They’d been briefed by their Secret Service agents, who had taken up positions just outside the cabin under large umbrellas, as to what to expect on this day. And the children were so excited they were nearly ready to pass out. They were going to get to walk down the aisle with Lauren, who would have no family of her own there to give her away.
Before Lauren could answer, Beth opened the door, and the Marlowe children and Janet filed in. They all stood before the blonde woman, staring.
Janet did her best not to explode into laughter, but she couldn’t stop the tears that streamed down her cheeks from the effort. Beth took one look at Janet, who was nearly convulsing in her efforts not to laugh, and lost it. Together the two women dissolved into a puddle of hysteria.
Lauren stood ramrod straight, plotting both their deaths.
“Oh, Lauren!” Ashley exclaimed, running up to her and almost, but not quite, touching the feathers. She was too afraid to touch the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. “You look like a movie star!”
“Yeah. A purple one!” Christopher said, his blue eyes shining with undisguised delight. “Wow! That dress is the best!”
“What about Mom’s?” Aaron said, giving his brother a shove. “It’s good too!”
“I know!” Chris scowled and only kept from socking Aaron because Janet stepped between them.
“It’s really fabulous,” Ashley told Lauren, her voice telegraphing genuine awe.
Lauren melted a little under the child’s sincerity. “You don’t think it looks a little… umm… wild?” she asked the little girl, mentally crossing her fingers.
Ashley shook her head. “Oh, yes, it’s incredible.” Soft brown eyes were wide with wonder. “You must really love Mom if you’re going to wear something so beautiful to get married in.”
Lauren closed her eyes and whimpered. Damn. Damn. Damn. “Not fair, Ashley,” she muttered under her breath. “Not fair at all!” Lauren’s shoulders slumped.
Beth wiped her face, hoping her tears of laughter hadn’t smeared her makeup. “I take it you’ll be wearing the ‘creation’ then?”
Lauren looked down at the three eager faces, looking so earnestly at her. She sighed. “Yes,” she moaned through clenched teeth. “I’ll wear it.” These children’s opinion means more than a bunch of strangers ever will. I only hope Devlyn forgives me. If she laughs…even once, no sex until… well, until I get horny. Damn, but that won’t be very long! What kind of punishment will that be? she privately lamented, cursing the fact that Devlyn had the most gorgeous thighs she’d ever laid eyes on.
“All right.” Janet lifted her chin and tried to stay composed. She marched over to Lauren and kissed her warmly on the cheek. “That was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. You are the perfect second mother to my grandchildren, Lauren Strayer. And I love you dearly.”
Tears leapt into Lauren’s eyes. “I love you, too, Mom.” Her voice cracked a little on the last word, and even Beth felt her eyes sting.
Janet nodded and swallowed. “Time to get you and my daughter married,” she whispered.
Lauren’s stomach fluttered wonderfully at the words.
“Are you ready?” Beth asked, picking up a small bouquet and handing it to Ashley, who cooed over the fragrant white roses.
“No,” Lauren blurted out, her eyes wide as she recalled what was about to happen. She was more than ready to be married to Devlyn. It was the actually getting married part that suddenly made her nervous.
Janet and Beth laughed again. “Then you’re all set.” Janet patted Lauren’s bare arm.
“Devlyn won’t say a word about the dress.” Her eyes twinkled. “I guarantee it. Besides, with this rocky start, what else could go wrong?”
Lauren clamped her hand over Janet’s mouth. “Don’t you dare even ask.”
Fifteen minutes later Lauren was all ready to head to the tent. She opened the bedroom door, surprised to see that the cabin was nearly empty. “Am I late?” she worriedly asked Beth as they traversed the stairs.
“Nope. You’re just on time.”
Janet appeared at the bottom of stairs, trying not to look directly at Lauren’s dress, lest she throw up. “There’s a family member who wants to say hello before the wedding. Do you mind terribly?”
“Must be Dev’s favorite, Aunt Myrtle. Myrtle James. She’s as crazy as the day is long, but as interesting as hell,” Beth whispered to Lauren. “And she loves Devlyn.”
Lauren nodded. “Sure,” she said to Janet. “So long as we have time, I’d love to meet someone close to Devlyn.” She glanced at her wrist before she remembered she wasn’t wearing any jewelry or a watch as per Mr. Yagasuki’s instructions. She rolled her eyes.
“You have time. I made sure of it.” Janet pointed towards the kitchen. “Right in there. We’ll be waiting when you’re finished.”
Beth joined Janet at the bottom of the stairs.
Lauren gave them a strange look, but headed for the kitchen. She was supposed to meet the old woman alone, looking like she’d just escaped from an Old West brothel? “Okaaay,” she said slowly, drawing out the word in her confusion.
The writer pushed open the swinging kitchen door, talking as she walked. “Hello, Mrs. James, I’m—”
Her feet froze and her jaw sagged.
“I should think I would know who you are.”
Lauren had to swallow a few times before she could speak. “Daddy?”
He stood up from the small wooden table and smoothed his jacket. “Don’t recognize me in a suit, I guess.” Self-consciously, he smoothed the lapel of his jacket. “Or with my new haircut.”
Lauren took a step forward, not hearing her heels hit the wooden floor over her pounding heart. “What…” She cleared her throat around the sudden lump that had developed there. “What are you doing here?”
“Well,” Howard Strayer looked directly into her eyes and felt his courage fail him. “Shit.”
Lauren blinked. “I… um… I think I need more information if I’m going to figure out that one, Daddy,” she teased very gently, trying to feel her way around what was happening.
Howard nodded and lifted his chin. “I had a visitor the day after you left Nashville. Seems the President’s mother wanted to give me a piece of her mind.”
“What?” Lauren gasped. “I didn’t tell her to do that. I mean—”
“I know that,” Howard said quietly. “I don’t think anyone ever told that mouthy woman a thing in her entire life.” He could see Lauren’s hackles rising, and he held up a hand in apology. “After I told her to go to hell and she told me the same thing, well, we ended up talking a little. I’m still not sure how it happened.”
“You talked?” Lauren still couldn’t believe it.
“All night,” he confirmed. He drew in a deep breath. “Seems I was a little confused about things.”
“You were?” She knew she wasn’t being very articulate. But she was afraid if she said the wrong thing, he’d turn around and walk out.
The man nodded, and stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets. “Very.”
Lauren shook her head, still stupefied. “You mean you’re all right with this now?” She gestured broadly with one hand. “With me and Devlyn and—?”
“No.” His deep voice was unequivocal. “I am certainly not all right with this. I don’t believe two women or men should be getting married, much less… well, they don’t need to be more than friends, is all. It’s just not the way things were meant to be.” He shifted a little, very aware that Lauren was hanging on his every word. The look was unfamiliar, and at that moment he realized how few times in his life he’d captured his daughter’s genuine interest. “My opinion there hasn’t changed one iota. Not that Janet Marlowe didn’t try her damnedest.”
Lauren’s brow furrowed and she felt a sinking sensation deep in the pit of her stomach. “Then why—?”
“Janet reminded me that I don’t need to approve of what you’re doing. Or even understand you.” He lifted a single fair eyebrow. “And I don’t… understand you, that is.” He shifted from one foot to the other. “Seems she wasn’t too keen on her daughter’s life taking the same direction you’re going now.”
Lauren blinked. She wasn’t?
“But she got over it.”
Lauren smiled a little. “She did.”
Howard’s gaze pinned his daughter. “I was reminded that the most important part about being your father is not trying to teach you to make the right decisions in life.” He shrugged one shoulder. “It’s loving you no matter what you decide.” Never a man for words, he felt a little silly making this speech and felt his cheeks heat. This had sounded much better in the car.
Lauren’s chest contracted.
“And,” he looked down, taking Lauren’s silence as a bad sign, “that much I can do, Lauri. So after a lot of talking and…” his lips twitched, “a lot of yelling. I was persuaded to come to this over-publicized wedding in Ohio. I… um… I hope you don’t mind.” He lifted watery eyes and stepped forward, not stopping until he stood directly in front of his daughter. “It’s what your mama would have wanted,” he whispered emotionally. “It just took me a while to remember that.”
“Oh, Daddy.” Lauren flew the last step into her father’s arms and buried her head against his chest. She was bombarded with the familiar scent of her father’s cologne and sank into the warmth of strong arms as her tears spilled down onto his collar. Her heart threatened to pound out of her chest, and she felt his heart doing the same thing. She silently thanked Janet for a wedding gift whose worth had no measure. “I love you.”
It took a second for Howard to return the embrace, but when he did, he put his whole heart into it. “I… I—” He had to clear his throat before he could continue. “I love you, too, honey.” The differences they had hadn’t disappeared and neither had the years of indifference that would always lie between them. His approval and even true acceptance might be a lifetime away, but on this day Howard Strayer reluctantly heeded the advice of a total stranger. He had allowed himself to be reminded that there wouldn’t always be “a tomorrow” to make things right and that if he had a chance to be there for his daughter, it was not his duty, but his privilege to take it.
After a moment, he grasped Lauren by the biceps and gently pushed away from her. He surveyed her clothes, and two grizzled eyebrows disappeared behind bangs still slightly damp from the rain. “Nice dress.”
Twin sets of gray eyes met, and Lauren and her father did something they hadn’t done together for more years than Lauren could count…
David and Devlyn stepped into the cabin. David took the light cloak from Dev’s shoulders and gave it a shake, sending a shower of rain drops in the opposite direction, speckling the floors and walls.
Devlyn looked at her mother and then towards the kitchen door. “Did it work?” she whispered.
Janet grinned smugly and nodded. “He’s got a seat in the back row. He wouldn’t agree to participate in the wedding or stay for the reception, but he’s here now and that’s a small miracle in and of itself.” She sighed and shook her head. “He’s a stubborn one, Devlyn. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“I know,” Dev said seriously. “But I’ve got time to work on him, and I wanted this for Lauren. She said it didn’t matter. But—”
“But you knew differently,” Janet finished knowingly, wiping an errant raindrop from her daughter’s cheek. “I think you were right.” She patted the cheek she’d just wiped. “Go on upstairs to your room. I’ve got a surprise for you up there, too.”
Dev blinked. “You do? Can’t it wait till after the wedding, Mom?” Why wasn’t anyone else in a hurry? Ever since she’d become President her life was always on fast forward, and now, somehow, everyone had decided to relax? What was wrong with these people? “I’m supposed to be walking down the aisle in 10 minutes!”
“No, it certainly can not wait.” Janet’s expression grew stern. “I went to a lot of trouble for this, Devlyn Odessa Marlowe. Don’t you dare—”
“Okay, okay!” Dev raised her hands in surrender and padded towards the steps. “God knows I wouldn’t want to upset you on my wedding day,” she mumbled sarcastically.
“Exactly,” Janet told her unrepentantly. “You’ll get your chance to be Supreme Ruler of the Universe with your brood, Devil. Don’t ruin mine. Now scoot. Lauren will be coming out of the kitchen any minute, and I don’t want you to see her.” She tried not to laugh. “You really don’t want to see her.”
“Stupid superstitions,” Dev groaned as she slowly walked up the stairs. Her dress was so wide she could barely make it around the corner when the staircase shifted directions. “Stupid, damn, God awful dress…Why couldn’t it be the pantsuit from hell? Then I wouldn’t need nylons.”
Janet and David, who were watching from the bottom of the steps, smiled wickedly. This was simply too much fun. Frank and the children came in the front door, escorted by a bevy of Secret Service agents with umbrellas just as Howard Strayer exited the kitchen. He caught a sight of the President as she ascended the stairs and his face wrinkled into a look of confusion and horror. “What is wrong with kids today?” he asked Janet.
“That’s a very good question, Howard. I wish I had the answer.” Janet turned to her right. “Say hello to my husband, Frank.” Frank stepped forward and the two men shook hands. Then Howard was led out the front door by the agent who would take him directly to his seat, neatly avoiding the two security checkpoints that the rest of the guests would be forced to wade through.
Lauren stepped out into the living room, wiping her wet cheeks. When David and Frank got a good look at her, they paled.
“Don’t say it,” Lauren warned. She smoothed down a particularly unruly feather that seemed to sprout directly from her left nipple. “Not a word. Not a single word!”
David began to shake. “I can’t stand it,” he moaned pathetically, trying not to laugh. The veins in his neck were bulging, and he looked as though he was about to come apart at the seams.
At the sight of her husband, Beth began to howl.
Lauren took a step towards her chief of staff, intent on killing her on the spot, but Frank gently intercepted her. “I have a surprise for you,” he whispered.
“Not another one,” Lauren said seriously, peering around his slender frame to glare at David and Beth. “I don’t think I’ll live through another one.”
Frank smiled. “Oh, but you’ll like this one.” He leaned down to whisper conspiratorially. “That big-haired designer, Mr. Yagasuki, is upstairs. He was hoping you could stop up and tell him what you thought of the dress before the wedding.”
Lauren’s eyes twinkled with evil glee.
“He said that?”
“Oh, yes.” Frank nodded. “I told him you’d be right up.”
Lauren licked her lips. The thought was so tantalizing she could nearly taste it. “But do I have time?” she hissed, praying that she did.
“How long should bloody murder take?” Frank asked seriously.
Lauren pursed her lips, a little surprised that it would be the mild-mannered Frank Marlowe who would facilitate her would-be-dastardly crime. But she was too swept away by her emotions to ponder that thought for long. “It’ll take two minutes, tops. I’ll be right down.” She began climbing the stairs, cursing under her breath when her tight dress wouldn’t let her go as quickly as she wanted.
The room’s occupants watched her go with varied levels of disbelief and good humor, not quite believing how well this day was turning out.
Lauren threw open the bedroom door. “All right, you. What the hell is this?” She gestured to her dress.
Dev jumped up off the bed. “Lauren?”
Each woman blinked stupidly at the other.
“Oh, holy shit!” Lauren sputtered. “Your dress is as bad as mine!” Her face twisted in a mixture of disbelief and revulsion. “How is that possible?”
“I don’t know,” Devlyn sighed, covering her eyes to block out the view before her. “You are always beautiful, Lauren. But you look ridiculous,” she said flatly. “Why are you dressed like a hussy?”
“How should I know!”
Reluctantly, Devlyn glanced again at her bride-to-be… and flinched.
“Right back at you, Madam President,” Lauren said tartly.
“Fucking designer and Michael Oaks,” Dev growled loudly, her hands clenching. “They die!”
Low and deep, Lauren chuckled. “Now there’s a plan to get behind.” She circled Devlyn, stepping forward to get a better look, then snorted a little. “How could you agree to wear that? You’re… you’re—!”
“I was going to say the President.”
“Oh.” Devlyn shook her head. “I am wearing this for my children…” Her voice had taken on a pious edge. “And I’m doing this for trade relations and for American autoworkers.” She paused, her brows drawing together. “If I run again and lose Michigan after this, I’ll go mad.”
“That can’t be a far trip from here.”
Dev ignored Lauren’s comment and ran her finger down the skin-tight material covering the blonde’s belly, causing her partner to slap her hands away. “And how did you get talked into this?”
“Same reason as you,” she admitted sheepishly. “Well, not the part about the auto workers; they’re on their own. But when the kids said how beautiful my dress was… Jesus, Devlyn,” she gave her eyes a dramatic roll, “I didn’t have the heart to disappoint them.”
“You’re wearing this for them?” Dev croaked. How can something so stupid make me feel like crying? “Wow. That’s amazing.” She reached out and gently took Lauren’s hand. She kissed it tenderly, before threading their fingers together and giving a gentle squeeze.
Lauren focused on Dev’s proximity, her nearness more than enough to wreak havoc on her senses. “It is?” she asked absently, her cheeks turning pink as she easily lost herself in the bright blue eyes regarding her so fondly.
A smile tugged at Devlyn’s lips. “You’re wonderful, you know that?”
“My, my, aren’t you full of compliments, today, Madam President.” Lauren sighed dreamily. “I’m starting to get the impression that you’re sweet on me.”
A charmed smile worked its way across Dev’s face. Truer words had never been spoken. “Imagine that.” She was nearly overcome with the urge to taste the tempting coral lips that were curled into a beautiful smile.
Lauren drank in the look of unbridled desire in Dev’s eyes and reacted without thought, rubbing the hand in hers with her thumb then lifting herself to her tipped toes to meet Devlyn in a searing kiss.
Dev moaned softly. “Do we have enough time?” she whispered against Lauren’s mouth. Then she cupped Lauren’s cheek and began dotting her face with tiny, feather-light kisses, forgetting her question completely
Lauren sucked in a deep breath and let it out slowly, her eyes fluttering closed at the sweet, startlingly erotic contact. “God, Devlyn,” she breathed thickly. “Who cares?”
“Think they’re naked yet?” Beth asked David, in a voice for his ears only.
He looked at his watch. “Yup. It’s been at least five minutes.” He glanced at Frank, who was talking quietly to his wife as the children showed off their outfits to Mr. Yagasuki, who had just entered the room. “Is it time?”
Janet and Frank nodded. The white-haired man scratched his short, snowy beard. “Any longer and we run the risk of encountering a very embarrassing situation.”
“And we wouldn’t want that,” Beth quipped, causing David to snigger. “Nothing embarrassing for the President and her First Lady.”
“It wouldn’t be proper,” David said solemnly.
The adults and the children shared a round of devilish smiles and sniggers.
Toby Yagasuki knocked on the bedroom door, then nervously tugged at his suit coat and smoothed back his glossy black hair with a slightly shaky hand.
“Go away,” Devlyn murmured between kisses, feeling Lauren’s fingers dig deeply into her hair. “The President is gone.”
He knocked again and this time it was Lauren who answered. “We are not coming out. Send the minister up in about… Mmm, Devlyn… Err… a half, mmm… no, an hour.”
The designer smiled. The women were just as he’d been told. Absolutely in love. The third time was a charm, and the small man straightened his back as he heard loud footsteps grow closer and closer to the door.
It was Devlyn who yanked the door open. Her hair was slightly mussed and her dress was seriously askew. “What?”
“May I come in, Madam President?”
Recognition flared and Devlyn took a step back to allow Mr. Yagasuki to enter. She wondered briefly if Lauren would kill him… before she got the chance. “Please,” Devlyn took several more steps backwards, “come in.” Then she moved aside so that Lauren could peek beyond her enormous dress and see their visitor. She heard a growl explode from behind her, and she almost felt sorry for the designer. Then she caught sight of her reflection in his rose-tinted glasses. Her pity evaporated.
“You!” Lauren accused, pointing an angry finger at the designer. “You’re… you’re…”
“In so much trouble,” Devlyn finished.
His blood pressure skyrocketed. “Wait, please. Before you do… something.” He was trying not to babble, knowing that his heavily accented English was nearly impossible to understand once he started down that path. But to his horror, he wasn’t having much luck. “I have something for… for you. And something to say,” he added hastily as he quickly stepped back out into the hallway. A few seconds later, he returned holding two heavy garment bags. “These are for you, Madam President and Ms. Strayer.” He bowed again.
Devlyn and Lauren looked at each other. “More dresses?” Devlyn asked.
“Made by you?” Lauren gazed warily at the man.
He nodded proudly.
“No, thank you. Been there, done that.”
Mr. Yagasuki’s mouth trembled with alarm. “No, no, please. I assure you, that these will be more to your liking.” He carefully draped the bags over the footboard of the bed, whose quilt was in disarray. He fought the urge to blush at the implication.
“If you have something to say for yourself, Yagasuki-San, you’d best do it now,” Dev warned. She crossed her arms over her chest.
His eyes widened, and he tamped down on an icy tendril of fear. “I was told Americans appreciate a well-executed practical joke.” He paused, watching with interest as Dev and Lauren nearly fainted. Then he smiled. He would live to see tomorrow. “I can see now that I was told the truth.” He bowed again. “It was my honor to work for you, Ms. Strayer, and your mother, Madam President. It is my sincere hope that you enjoy your real dresses.” He glanced towards the bags. “You have plenty of time to dress and… Well, you have plenty of time. The time the wedding is scheduled to begin is, in actuality, one and one-half hours from now.” He let out a shaky breath, relieved beyond measure that his part in this plan was finished. “If you will excuse me?”
Slack-jawed, Dev and Lauren just stared.
He didn’t move. “If you will excuse me?” he repeated a little louder, growing worried once again. He’d thought he’d made it through the dangerous part. Now he wasn’t so sure.
Dev was the first to come to her senses. “Yes. By all means, please feel free to go, Yagasuki-San,” she said quickly. She shook her head, still stupefied. “Thank you. I think.”
Yagasuki backed out the door, bowing as he went, still not daring to turn his back on these women. His blood was still a little chilled from the looks they had given him when he first came to the door. Besides, he’d been told not to turn his back on the blonde woman. He wasn’t taking any chances.
“Oh,” he said as he reached the open door. “I was to tell you something else.” His forehead creased and he scratched his chin, poking his fingers through a sparse tuft of longish black hair there. “But I am afraid I do not understand this part of your language.”
“Yes?” Dev asked.
“Your parents, Madam President, and the Chiefs of Staff all wish me to say…” he smiled widely — just as David McMillian had asked to do during this part — “Gotcha.” And with that, he bolted out the door.
Lauren and Devlyn could hear the gales of laughter from downstairs. The younger woman blinked slowly and turned to face her partner. “Your children were in on this, too? Those sweet little faces were lying to me?” Lauren’s eyes were round with wonder. “Oh, my God,” she said with exaggerated slowness. “What kind of family am I marrying into? I can’t handle them, and they’re not even teenagers! You’re all pure evil!”
Dev flopped backwards onto the bed, causing her dress to puff up and nearly cover her head. “Pah!” She slapped at the springy material, knocking it away from her head. “I don’t believe it.” She stared at the ceiling, shifting slightly when she felt the bed next to her move with Lauren’s weight. “They got us.”
“Oh, they didn’t just get us, Devlyn.” Lauren let out a low chuckle that was half surprise and half awe. “This was the mother of all practical jokes.” She grinned at her gullibility. “They got us good.”
Dev couldn’t help but smile, too. “You know, this is odd, but I’m not really nervous about getting married anymore.” She turned to face Lauren, fought with her dress for a moment, cursed, braced herself with her elbow and then rested her head on her hand, letting out a massive sigh. “In fact, I can’t wait marry to you,” she said decisively.
Lauren’s smile mirrored Devlyn’s. “I feel the same way, darlin’. You know that.” Her eyes took on a twinkling glow as they raked down her lover. “Would you like some help out of your dress, Madam President.” A slender eyebrow arched suggestively and Lauren snuggled a little closer. “We do have an entire hour and a half.”
Dev’s smile stretched farther across her face, deepening her laugh lines.
Lauren traced the tiny lines around her eyes and lips with tender fingertips, enjoying the quiet, strangely intimate moment.
The older woman turned her head and brushed her lips against Lauren’s hand, taking her time to place a lingering kiss on a very sensitive palm.
“I always wondered what it would be like to be with a lady of the evening,” Devlyn commented saucily, attaching her lips to Lauren’s throat.
“Hush up, Devlyn,” Lauren laughed. “Or I’ll suddenly grow allergic to those flowers on your arm and make you undress yourself.”
“Perish the thought!” Devlyn glanced down at Lauren’s breasts and began plucking feathers.
Lauren gasped as feathers were removed one by one, tickling her in very sensitive places.
“Oooo… Maybe this dress isn’t so bad after all,” Devlyn said with more than a hint of lechery in her voice.
“Oh, yeah,” Lauren groaned out, sinking deeper into the bed and a sensual haze from which she wanted no reprieve.
“You know,” Devlyn whispered between incendiary kisses, “it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding.”
It took a moment for Lauren to realize that Devlyn was actually talking to her. Devlyn did, she acknowledged fuzzily, have a tendency to ramble at the oddest moments. She sighed when persistent lips moved to her shoulder and began to nibble and her hips bucked forward of their own accord, seeking greater contact with the body astride her. “That may be true,” she gasped when Dev’s mouth trailed even lower. “But somehow I can’t imagine myself… Oh, god. As anything but really, really lucky right now.” She felt a short burst of warm air against her breast as Devlyn chuckled.
Lauren shifted from one foot to the other as she waited for her cue from Michael Oaks, who was impeccably dressed, lording it over the events like King Tut as he strutted back and forth in the rear of the tent. He’s gloating, Lauren thought. But rightly so. The inside of the tent looked amazing and, despite the joke that nearly gave her and Devlyn twin heart attacks, it appeared that things were about to go off without a hitch. She was flanked by the Marlowe children, who were dancing around and chatting with guests who were seated near them. They were so excited that Lauren was sure that one or more of them would need to be rushed to the bathroom at any moment. Suddenly, she had a horrible thought and took stock of her own bladder, pleased that she’d followed an old piece of parental advice and gone before she’d left the cabin.
Much to Lauren and Devlyn’s delight and relief, Mr. Yagasuki’s one-of-a-kind creations had gone in a direction that no one had expected. Lauren’s fingers drifted over the fine silver-colored embroidery that covered her fitted, pale green Celtic wedding gown that, everyone readily agreed, was to die for. Far from feeling like a costume, the simple but elegant dress had Lauren unconsciously correcting her posture and holding her chin a little bit higher.
Her shoulders were bare and her hair was swept up into a simple knot, showing off her slender neck and the plain silver chain that adorned it. The designer had allowed her to escape without a veil or even headpiece, instead insisting that a few simple flowers woven into her wavy hair would be perfect.
He had been right. Devlyn had stopped breathing altogether when she’d first seen Lauren completely dressed.
The tent was well lit with dozens of tall, ribbon-wrapped, honey-scented candles, their sweet scent mingling with hundreds of delicate white roses. It was also darker inside the tent than Lauren had expected, a testament to the storm that still shook the canvas sides of the tent with every great gust of wind.
She could see Devlyn across the tent, flanked by two very proud parents, her pale eyes flicking from person to person as she awaited her cue to begin down the aisle. Somehow, at that exact moment, Devlyn’s head slowly turned, and the women’s eyes met and held for a long moment.
The President’s gown wasn’t in the least bit “poofy.” It was similar in style to Lauren’s, but was the color of warm desert sand. It had a fitted bodice, crepe skirt, and draping chiffon sleeves that hung gently over her slim wrists. Her train was longer than the younger woman’s and the fine, amazingly detailed embroidery that covered the bodice was stitched in pale gold thread.
Lauren admired her lover. She was more than a little star struck with Devlyn, who appeared nothing short of regal, and she couldn’t help but laugh at herself for it. She actually lifted her hand to her mouth to make sure that it was closed and she wasn’t drooling. How, she wondered gratefully, had she ever gotten so lucky as to end up here… on the verge of getting everything she’d ever dreamed of… even though she hadn’t known it? Amazing.
Neither woman could keep from grinning wildly. Both their hearts were pounding, but more from anticipation than fear.
This was it.
Above the steady patter of rain on canvas came the gentle strains of a string quartet situated near the front of the tent, and suddenly she was walking down the aisle without feeling her feet touch the ground. Then she was standing next to Devlyn, who grasped her hand with a sure, firm grip. She let out a slightly shaky breath, feeling much better in the company of her tall friend.
Dev smiled appreciatively at Lauren and whispered, “Fancy meeting you here.”
Lauren squeezed Dev’s hand, her lips curling upward. “Don’t tell me you were expecting someone else?” she whispered back, as Devlyn’s parents took their seats in the front row and the children found their places next to David, Beth and the minister.
There were a few seconds of silence as the minister, a friendly looking young man who Devlyn suspected was barely old enough to drive, looked over his notes. Or maybe I’m just getting really, really old, she mused privately, making a mental note to ask her mother what Boy Scout pack the older woman had borrowed this boy from.
The band stopped playing.
A hundred pairs of eyes swung to the far right, rear side of the tent and landed on a short, chubby woman with a head of short, white hair.
Everyone on Devlyn’s side of the family closed their eyes and moaned silently, and Michael Oaks collapsed into a chair, looking as though he might burst into tears.
“Devlyn?” Lauren questioned from the side of her mouth, her voice barely audible.
“Lord, help us. It’s Aunt Myrtle,” she explained, tempted to sick an agent on the old woman.
Myrtle stood up, clutching her enormous handbag. After the Secret Service forced her to allow them to search it, she refused to put it down for fear it would be stolen. “What’s going on here?” the old woman asked, clearly confused.
“Hi, Aunt Myrtle, ” Aaron piped up cheerfully. “This is the wedding.”
“Shhh!!” Christopher and Ashley scolded simultaneously, their voices managing to carry all the way to the back of the tent. “No talking or we won’t get cake later!”
Aaron’s eyes widened and he clamped his mouth shut. Aunt Myrtle would have to figure things out for herself. Nobody was getting between him and a four-foot cake. Nobody.
“Why are these women dressed as if Robin Hood is going to burst into this tent and save them?” Myrtle looked down at the guest in the seat next to her, who happened to be Howard Strayer.
“Don’t ask me,” he said a little defensively. “Like I understand. I’m a plumber.”
Janet stood up and quickly scrambled towards Myrtle. “Carry on, carry on,” she said, waving at the minister. “Don’t mind us.”
“How can you carry on without a groom?” Myrtle asked reasonably.
“You aren’t the only one who’s wondering that,” Howard muttered under his breath.
“Myrtle,” Janet warned, thinking that Frank really should have disclosed a list of all his insane relatives before she’d agreed to marry him.
“What the hell kind of messed-up wedding is this?” Myrtle continued, not worried one bit that she had interrupted the entire ceremony. “Why is that other woman standing so close to Devlyn? Did the groom stand poor Devlyn up?” She scanned the audience for the dastardly coward, ready to hit him with her purse.
“Aunt Myrtle,” Devlyn suddenly said, trying to muster more patience than she knew she had. Myrtle never could figure out who Samantha was and why she kept appearing at Marlowe family functions. Then when she found out she had the name “Marlowe” she surmised that Janet and Frank had secretly adopted her, and no one could convince her otherwise. “There is no man, Myrtle. Remember how we’ve talked about this before?” She turned to Lauren and mouthed “Sorry.”
Lauren only smiled and shrugged. There was no need to explain crazy relatives to a Southerner. They were to be expected.
Myrtle made a sour face and addressed Devlyn as though she were an errant child. “I always told you that men couldn’t stand tall, mouthy women.” She waggled a gnarled finger at her great niece. “Now look what’s happened! You’ve been stood up at the altar.”
Lauren and Beth snorted loudly, unable to contain themselves any longer.
Dev tilted her head skyward and whimpered. Then she addressed God. “This is because I was secretly considering raising taxes, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you tell me to be quiet, Janet Marlowe,” Myrtle complained, her voice drowning out Devlyn’s conversation with the Divine. “Is this how you treat your guests? Why, not half an hour ago I was molested by that handsome young man in the black suit.” She motioned at a Secret Service agent. “He made me open my purse!”
Janet fought hard not to roll her eyes. “I know, Myrtle. I know,” she soothed.
“Do you suppose he’s single?” Myrtle asked, sincerely. “Devlyn’s gonna be an old maid soon, if you’re not careful. People will talk.”
Most of the guests were laughing now, and the minister was looking so flustered at the unexpected interruption that Devlyn wasn’t sure he would be able to speak when the time came. She leaned down and pressed her lips to Lauren’s ear. “You didn’t think this would be a normal wedding, did you?”
A laugh bubbled up from Lauren.
“Would you still love me if we skipped over the singing, poetry, and praying and got right to the vows and the kissing?” There was a hint of pleading in Devlyn’s voice.
The shorter woman lifted a sassy eyebrow, but smiled warmly, her eyes conveying her true feelings. “What do you think, Devlyn?” she whispered back.
Devlyn drew in a deep breath and turned slightly to address their guests. “Well, folks, it looks like despite the fact that I’ve been stood up at the altar…” she paused as everyone laughed, “my heart will mend.”
Any remaining tension in the room fell away when everyone realized that neither Devlyn nor Lauren were going to have Myrtle shot for the interruption. Then their wedding guests leaned forward a little in their seats as they sensed that the wedding was about to begin. All except Myrtle, that is, who had been drafted by the two agents and taken outside under two large umbrellas to hunt for Devlyn’s errant groom.
Devlyn wound her arm around Lauren’s and pulled her closer. “Okay, Reverend.” A genuine grin split her face. Despite everything, this was the shaping up to be the best day of her life. “Make me the happiest woman on earth. And this time,” her voice dropped a register, causing the young man to blink a few times and the audience to lean even further forward in their seats, “don’t stop until she’s mine in every sense of the word.” She turned and looked deeply into Lauren’s eyes, her own eyes filling with sparkling, unshed tears. “Forever.”
There was a soft chorus of “awwwwws” from their friends and family that caused Devlyn’s cheeks to flush pink, but there was no doubting the solid truth of her words.
The younger woman could only hoarsely repeat the sentiment, barely getting the words out around the lump that had grown in her throat.
Many years later, after a lifetime of conversation, Lauren Strayer would still recall Devlyn’s words from this day as the single most romantic thing she’d ever heard. And they were all hers.
It wasn’t a perfect wedding, but it was theirs… and they were keeping it.
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