Thursday, August 4, 2022
Dev reached into her desk and pulled out a small inhaler. Placing it in her nostril, she compressed it and drew in a deep breath at the same time. This was faster than migraine tablets and didn’t come with the bitter taste that made her gag.
She glanced back at the stack of papers in front of her, willing her eyes to refocus so she could get through them before calling it a day.
She’d been up since 4 a.m., so she could make a 7:30 a.m. meeting in Chicago, which had quickly turned into three meetings that droned on until mid-afternoon. Her schedule had been shot to hell, and Liza was nearly fit to be tied.
The entire flight home she’d been stuck in conference calls with various members of her cabinet. Somehow, she managed to make up most of the meetings she’d missed. But to her disgust, she’d been forced into taking desperate measures by personally contacting two recalcitrant Democratic senators from New Jersey in order to explain how a piece of environmental legislation they were expected to oppose was worth a second look. To top it off, on her way back to Washington, she’d stopped in Pittsburgh for a quick speech at the annual meeting of the Health Insurance Association of America.
The day had been a raging political success, with things falling into place in a way that exceeded most of her staff’s expectations, if not Devlyn’s. But she wondered if the price was destined to be her sanity or her health. She’d barely eaten all day, had drunk no less than three gallons of coffee, and had lost track of how many people she’d yelled at. Despite her migraine medication, her head was pounding so fiercely she felt nauseous. And her vision had been blurring on and off all day. The next person who said something stupid or rearranged her schedule to fit in just one more meeting was slated for a slow, painful death.
When the door to her office opened, she snapped the pencil she held in half. She looked up to see Liza, who was at least as frazzled as she was, and took a deep breath to calm her ragged nerves.
“Madam President.” Devlyn could see Liza's grip on her electronic calendar tighten and by the tone of her voice knew the other woman was walking on eggshells. “I wanted to let you know that I managed to reschedule the meetings we had to cancel this morning for tomorrow. I can also arrange to have all your morning correspondence sent to the residence if you like. You wouldn’t have to be in the office until at least 9:30 that way.”
“Have I been that bad today?”
Liza groaned inwardly. “It’s been a difficult day for all of us, ma’am. I let your schedule get out of hand.” She looked away and gently blew at a piece of curly brown hair that bobbed down into her eyes. Shame colored her voice. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
Dev was very aware that Liza hadn’t directly answered her question. Still, the message was loud and clear. “I approved all the changes in my calendar, Liza. It wasn’t your fault.”
“Yes, ma’am.” But she didn’t appear to be convinced.
Dev sighed and willed the pounding in her head to stop. “I would like to deal with my correspondence in the residence tomorrow. Thank you, Liza. Is there anything else?”
“Spit it out, ” Dev snapped, her exasperation clear. With effort, she lowered her voice. “Whatever it is it’s not your fault and I won’t kill you for it.” I hope.
“There is just one thing, ma’am.” Reluctantly, she handed Devlyn a folder containing a recent study of the world’s remaining oil reserves and the geopolitical ramifications of the United States' increased usage over the past two decades. “You don’t need to deal with that right away. But it’s earmarked as information you should be aware of for tomorrow’s 10:15 a.m. meeting, ma’am.”
“I see.” Devlyn reached for the folder that was at least a half-inch thick. “This is a summary, I assume?” She gave the heavy folder an openly distasteful glance.
“The original findings were over 10,000 pages, ma’am. I have those completely covering my desk at the moment. I can have those sent to your residence if you’d like to review them as well.”
Devlyn stood up and snorted softly. “No, thank you, Liza. I think I’m going back to have a late dinner with my family.” She peered at Liza’s watch, unable to distinguish the time. “If they haven’t eaten, that is.”
“Emma called an hour ago, ma’am. The children ate late lunches and Ms. Strayer left for the residence about two hours ago.”
Devlyn looked a little startled. It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since she’d last seen Lauren, could it?
“They’re waiting for you to have dinner, so long as you’re not past 8,” Liza went on. “It’s 7:50 now.”
Dev gave the younger woman a sympathetic glance. “I’ll see you tomorrow and I promise to be in a better mood.”
“Yes, ma’am. Good night.”
Wary eyes tracked Devlyn as the President reclaimed her navy blazer from a cedar coat rack and stuffed the file into a dark-brown leather briefcase. “Yes, Madam President?”
The slender woman nodded, and for the first time all day, a small smile touched her lips. She slipped out of the Oval Office, closing the door behind her.
Few people spoke to Dev and fewer people made eye contact with her as she padded down the hallways. Even the agents who flanked her every move maintained an unusually respectful distance behind her. You’ve been a real bitch today, Marlowe. Even the people with the guns are afraid of you.
She didn’t go right into the dining room. Instead, she dropped her blazer and briefcase off in her private office, dropped down into her office chair and quietly rested her head in her hands, thankful for the room’s dim light.
After a few moments, the already ajar door was slowly pushed open and Aaron came into the room. “Mom?”
Sighing she lifted her head and looked to him. “Yeah?”
He ran around the side of her desk. “Mama wants to know if you’ll be coming into dinner?”
Devlyn couldn’t help but smile at Lauren’s new title. She leaned forward and gave her son a gentle hug. “Yeah, buddy, I’ll be there in just a minute.”
The boy’s pale eyes shone with concern. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” She patted him on the shoulder. “Just tired. Go tell everyone I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He gave her a bright grin before bolting from the room. “We’re having chili!” he called to her on the way out.
Devlyn quickly changed into a pair of soft cotton slacks and a polo shirt. The children and Lauren were already seated by the time she made it to the table.
Lauren looked a little harried herself, having followed Devlyn around for most of the day. But for security reasons, she wasn’t permitted to be present during Devlyn’s last meetings.
“Hi, Mom,” the kids chorused as Dev took her place at the table.
“Hi, Mom,” Lauren repeated with a tired smile.
Dev chuckled weakly, then motioned the kids to dig in. She wasn’t surprised to see that Emma wasn’t joining them. They had recently instituted a standing rule that after 7:30 p.m., Emma’s time was her own, unless neither Dev nor Lauren had made it home yet.
"Are you working tonight, Devlyn?" Lauren tried to make the question sound casual by starting to pick at her food.
“I have some things do deal with after dinner, yes.” Dev didn’t even look up as she began putting food on her plate.
"But, Mom," Ashley moaned, suddenly looking very upset. "You promised we'd work on my Brownie project. I’ve been waiting all week and it’s due tomorrow.”
"Nuh uh, Ashley," Aaron broke in sharply. "It's not your turn to do something with her. It's mine. You were last week."
"Aaron, Ashley," Lauren warned quietly, seeing the darkening of Dev's features from across the table.
"Shut up, Aaron." Christopher nudged his brother’s foot from underneath the table. "You're going to get us all in trouble. You’re being too loud."
"Are too!" Ashley said tartly. "And besides, you're wrong."
"Am not! Mom said—"
“All right!” Dev slammed her hand down against the shiny wooden table, sending her fork clattering across it. “That’s enough!” Her face was beet-red, and she was breathing hard. “Just stop! I need five damn minutes of peace and quiet. Can you manage to give that to me, please?”
The children instantly went deadly silent, and all Devlyn could hear was the pounding of her own pulse in her ears.
After a moment, Lauren gently cleared her throat. "Will you kids excuse us?”
All three nodded quickly, and Dev’s eyes closed in self-disgust.
“I'd like to talk to your mother in private,” Lauren continued. “Carefully take your bowls and eat on the table in the game room, okay?"
Ashley bolted from the table in tears, leaving her dinner behind, while Christopher and Aaron slowly retrieved theirs, neither one daring to glance at their mother and risk incurring her wrath.
Even Gremlin and Princess scurried out from under the table, where they were hiding in hopes of a major food spill, and scampered down the hall. Though not without twin growls in Devlyn’s direction.
"Well," Lauren said, once she and Devlyn were alone. "That was different."
Dev was shaking, but instantly contrite. “I’m… Shit, I’m sorry.” She ran a trembling hand through her hair. “I don’t know what just happened, I umm… I’ll apologize to them. Today was just—” She didn’t finish, knowing that her bad day was no reason to yell at her children.
Moving from her seat to take the one Ashley had vacated, Lauren reached out and covered Devlyn's hand with her own. "S'okay, darlin’. We all have bad days. The kids will live. You can explain things to them later." She paused, debating whether or not now was the right time to bring this up. No, she mentally corrected herself. Now is the perfect time. This is when she needs to hear it. "You shouldn't work tonight, Devlyn. You haven’t had a day off all month. I know you’re making amazing progress in your Middle East negotiations and with the legislation you want to propose this fall, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’re tired and too edgy and you need to go to bed before 2 a.m." She held her breath and waited. This is where she explodes and tells me to mind my own damn business.
Looking very introspective, Dev remained quiet for a moment, feeling the tears born of exhaustion and frustration that wanted to come, but forcing them back before she spoke. Finally, she nodded. “I know I should do that, but I don’t have a choice. I have things that have to be done.” Her voice had taken a resolute quality that meant her mind was made up.
Lauren sighed. “You do have a choice. Devlyn—”
“I’ll try to be in bed before midnight.” Dev dared a glance at Lauren and was relieved to see nothing but concern shining in her partner’s eyes. “Could you do your chicken-shit spouse a favor and deal with the kids tonight? I’ll make it up to them at breakfast tomorrow. And see that Ashley gets her dinner and works on her project. I’ll call her troop leader if I have to.”
"Of course, honey, but—" Before she could finish her thought, Devlyn stood up, her dinner untouched, and stalked from the room, leaving Lauren alone at the table. She blinked, and then let out a long breath. Her stomach was in knots. "Well….” Another breath as she tossed her napkin on the table. “That went well."
The women were talking across their chessboard, a fire in the fireplace lighting their play and sending long, dancing shadows against the paneled walls. A good night’s sleep had restored Devlyn’s good mood and cured her headache. A few kisses and promises to spend some extra time with the children had gone a long way towards mending hurt feelings.
Lauren leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees. They hadn’t talked like this in a while, she realized. The conversation was easy and honest and reminded her very much of her first few months in the White House, when Devlyn had made such an effort to answer questions for the biography and special time had been set aside for them alone to discuss all manner of subjects. It was those private glimpses of the woman behind the office that had captured Lauren’s heart so completely. And when I fell in love.
“It’s your move.”
That low, familiar voice washed over her and Lauren looked up from the board and smiled. “I know. I was just thinking.” Gray eyes sparkled with happiness.
“Mmm… But not about the game.”
Lauren’s grin turned sheepish. “No.”
“I’m not really into it either.” Dev gently set down the pawn she’d been twirling between her fingers. “Let’s save you beating the snot out of me for another day.”
“How did it feel being sworn in?” Lauren asked suddenly, giving Devlyn some idea as to where her thoughts had been. “I can’t really imagine what it must have been like, standing there, the entire country watching while your political dreams became a reality.”
“On the record?”
“Hmm… Please.” Lauren leaned forward a little in anticipation.
“Professionally, it was nirvana.” Dev smiled and her eyes went unfocused as she thought and sipped her herbal tea. It was a concoction given to her by the Chinese ambassador, along with the assurance it would ease the stresses of even her job. “I knew from the age of 12 that I wanted to be President. The part that seems so odd, but normal to me, is that even then, I was certain I could do it. So I set out to make it happen. That day, on the steps of Congress,” she sighed wistfully, “It was the culmination of a lifetime of work.” She glanced over at Lauren. “It was the first moment when I could really feel what I had accomplished and how far I’d come, you know?”
Lauren just smiled. She didn’t know. Not really. But Devlyn’s enthusiasm was nothing if not infectious.
“Being sworn in was probably the greatest moment of my professional career. I felt like I was going to float away.” Then Dev’s expression grew more contemplative as her thoughts shifted to the present. “I’m at the top of my game, Lauren. I have the chance to do so much. To really make a difference.”
A chill ran down Lauren’s spine at the fiery tone in Devlyn’s voice.
“Politically, nothing else I do will ever be as important as what I’m doing right here, right now.”
Lauren’s smile grew. It was commonly accepted, even among her critics, that Devlyn’s accomplishments in her first year and half in office were immense, already ranking her among the most influential presidents of the last one hundred years. But that success exacted a hefty price that Devlyn and those around her paid every single day and, at times, Lauren was hard pressed not to resent the job completely.
“But,” Dev shifted a little in her chair, setting down her mug, “while that was the best day professionally, it still pales in comparison to some of my private ones. When the kids were born, for instance.” Her eyes took on a happy twinkle. “I have never felt so wonderful as I did the first time I held my children.” A thousand-watt smile lit her face. “Those tiny little people, depending on me to take care of them and make everything all right.”
Lauren took another sip of her tea, careful not to drink the steaming hot liquid too quickly. Her brows knitted as she carefully regarded Devlyn, whose expression had changed dramatically. "What is it?" Her voice was soft and low.
Dev licked her lips and fidgeted a little in her seat. "What's what?"
"That face." Lauren reached out and tenderly drew her finger across Devlyn’s lower lip. "You only do that thing with your lip when you’re upset." She carefully set her drink down on the table next to the chessboard. "What's the matter?"
"I'm not upset." Clearing her throat, Devlyn anxiously met her partner’s eyes. "Talking about the children just got me to thinking, that’s all.” Her fidgeting became more pronounced. “We’ve never really talked about having more kids.”
“True. I mean, there’s not really anything—” Then Lauren stopped as the seriousness of Devlyn’s expression hit home. She felt her heart rate pick up a little. "Wh—? I don’t… Oh," she said finally, as all the air in her lungs exited in a giant explosion. She couldn’t have been more surprised if Devlyn had just announced she’d decided to quit politics and join the circus. “Is that something you’d like to talk about now?”
“That’s not exactly the reaction I’d been hoping for.” Dev tried not to think about how much Lauren’s answer mattered to her. “Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry.” Lauren shook her head as if to clear it. “I just… Is that something you’d ever want? More children?"
Slowly, Dev nodded, as she studied Lauren’s reactions with growing fear. "Actually, I had hoped to have a couple more. But I'm not really sure how you feel about it."
“How could I not know this?” Feeling deeply adrift, Lauren began to gesture wildly with her hands and asked, "Why haven’t you ever mentioned this before?"
Devlyn scratched her jaw. “That's a good question that I don’t have a good answer for,” she admitted honestly. Her posture grew more rigid even as she tried to relax. “I guess it's because, deep down, I already know how you feel about it. I mean, the kids we have are a handful for someone who doesn't have a lot of parenting under their belt."
Lauren tried not to let that last part sting. She didn’t really see this as having much to do with whether the kids were a handful or not or how much parenting experience she had. "I love the kids. You know that. And I’m doing my best.”
"I know that.” Dev winced internally as she realized how Lauren had interpreted her words. “I didn’t mean I thought it was something you couldn’t handle."
“I can see that.”
“Lauren… I didn’t mean it that way. Really.” Feeling even worse, Dev tried to lighten the mood by chuckling weakly. "But let's face it, the kids do have their moments. I know they’re a lot to deal with. For anyone."
Lauren leaned back in her chair, blinking dazedly, as her mind raced. Part of her was angry and hurt that Devlyn’s desire to have a bigger family was something she hadn’t imagined. Another part of her was sickened by the thought that she could be the one to dash Dev’s hopes for the future. Her stomach lurched a little. "I... I hadn't really thought about having more children,” she finally said. “I just assumed that Ashley, Chris, and Aaron were all the kids you wanted."
"I had hoped for a big family." Gingerly, she leaned forward and stroked Lauren’s arm, not sure whether they were having an argument or not. "I promised my dad I would talk to you about this, Lauren, because he said that you deserved the opportunity to tell me how you felt so that we could work it out. Rather than my assuming I knew what you wanted. I think he was right."
Lauren pulled away. "I can't believe you were discussing this with your father when you hadn’t even spoken to me about it. God, I feel like you intentionally waited until after the wedding to spring this on me, Devlyn. We’ve been together for months, and you never said a single word.” Some frustration spilled over and her voice rose a notch. “Not even a hint!"
Dev’s lips thinned. "That's not it at all. My dad brought it up when we were in Scotland. I told him how I thought you felt and that I was just going to leave it alone. He's the one who said I should…” Without warning, Devlyn withdrew. “Lauren, honey, I know you don't want more children and that’s fine. Yes, I'm a little disappointed. But I'll live. What you want is just as important as what I want and we already have three great kids. I can be happy with three."
"Scotland was months ago. And long before the wedding.”
“I know.” Devlyn threw her hands in the air. “Why are you focusing on the when and not the what of what I’m saying? I’m talking about this with you now. The only reason I didn’t do it before was because I thought I already knew how you’d feel. Lately you’ve been so great with the kids and you seem really happy. But I know—”
“Don’t. Don’t say that.” Lauren’s temper began to get the better of her and this time she didn’t try to censor herself. “You don't know what I want because until now you haven't bothered to ask me! Where did this master plan for a huge family come from?" Her gaze suddenly cooled as her own jealousies and insecurities flared. "This was something you had planned with Samantha, wasn't it?"
Dev sat back and closed her eyes, feeling her own ire rise. If it were anyone other than Lauren bringing Sam into this conversation she would have taken his or her head off. "No, this is something I’ve always wanted. Me. Not Sam. Not my parents. Me.”
Lauren bit her lip hard to keep from interrupting. In her heart she knew it was foolish, but she couldn’t stand feeling like the “replacement wife” for Samantha.
Dev shifted into full persuasion mode. “I love children. I want a house full of them. I'm sorry that I didn't ask you before now, but considering that for the first six months of this year I've been in the air more than I've been home, I never thought the time was right for a conversation that I knew was going to be difficult."
Lauren looked at Devlyn as though she was seeing a stranger. "That's an excuse you wouldn't put up with from anyone else, Devlyn, including me. And you know it."
“Shit! I don’t understand why you’re getting angry with me.” Devlyn’s breathing was coming faster now. “I want to have a bigger family with you because I love kids and I love you! What in the hell is so wrong with that?”
“You’re not getting it. Devlyn, I’m not upset because you want more children. I feel like you’re keeping things from me and making decisions on my behalf without me even knowing it. I thought I knew you better than that. I should know you better than that,” she admitted softly.
"I shouldn’t have assumed I knew what you’d say. This is something I want us to talk about and decide on together. I apologize for not bringing it up sooner.”
What else do you want her to say? She’s apologized. Let it go. Lauren sighed. "Look, Devlyn, you've just thrown me. C’mon.” She stood up and retrieved her cooling mug of tea. “Let’s go sit on the sofa together.” She offered her hand to Devlyn, who took it with an audible sigh of relief, and the women made their way to a small, comfortable leather sofa that sat facing the fireplace. "I’ve never thought about having a big family, much less being a step parent to three." She lifted an eyebrow and forced a tiny smile. "And we really need to talk about what the word 'big' means, okay?"
Grateful for the effort, Devlyn tried for a smile of her own. “You already think we have big?”
Lauren nodded and sat down, feeling the sofa shift as Devlyn dropped down next to her. “Huge.”
Devlyn chuckled. “Oh, boy.”
“I accept your apology, okay?” Lauren looked a little heartsick. “But I need to say some things to you that I don’t think you’re going to want to hear.”
Devlyn’s heart started to hammer in her chest. “You don’t want—?”
“Please, honey.” Lauren pressed her fingers against Devlyn’s mouth. “Let me talk?”
Mutely, Dev nodded.
Satisfied, Lauren said, "I love your children more than I thought possible. And that makes me consider things that I never had the guts to really think of before.” She licked her lips nervously. “Judd and I talked about having a family. We decided not to.” Seeing that Devlyn wasn’t going to try to interrupt, Lauren removed her fingers from Dev’s mouth.
“There were lots of reasons we didn’t have children. But one of the big ones was that we were both so busy with our careers.”
She could hear Devlyn’s dry swallow, and so she spoke a little faster. “With the way we lived our lives, there was never enough time. I was never home. I never wanted to be home. Devlyn, we both had other commitments that we weren’t ready to give up." Lauren’s gaze strayed from Devlyn’s face for a split second as she gathered her courage. Then she glanced back. “I don’t see that our situation is any different right now.”
The words hit Devlyn like a ton of bricks, and she sucked in a painful breath.
“I’m sorry,” Lauren said, her voice catching. “I don’t know how I’ll feel in the future. But that’s how I feel right this second.”
Dev’s jaw worked for a moment before she spoke. And when she did, Lauren knew that she was profoundly hurt. "I'm too busy, I know.” She swallowed hard, feeling her throat closing. "But I'm not a bad mother," she defended quietly. "I'm not."
“Of course you’re not!” Lauren grasped Devlyn’s hand and held it against her own chest. “But, honey,” her eyes conveyed her regret, “you’re a wonderful mother who doesn't have enough time to give her children as it is. There are only so many hours in the day. It’s past mid-night now, because this was the only quiet time we could find. Emma is a wonderful help, but that’s just not enough.”
Devlyn gave a quick nod. She couldn’t dispute what was so plainly the truth. "I know.”
Lauren scrubbed her face. "Then... I… I'm confused. I know that nobody understands how busy you are more than you do.” Her forehead creased. “You just couldn’t think you could be pregnant while you were president, Devlyn?” Lauren began to panic a little, knowing that Devlyn was stubborn enough to try just that. “That would be impossible! You barely sleep and if Emma didn’t hound you like a demon with a spatula, you’d eat Oreos for half your meals and skip the other half. What baby could survive that? God, I’d worry about you both every single second!"
"There is the possibility of you actually having the child, you know." Dev couldn't help her wistful smile. The mental image of a very pregnant Lauren was one that lived happily in the corner of her mind. She knew her partner would be beautiful, as would the child. "You would be enchanting."
Lauren snorted softly. "Nice try, but I can't imagine going to bed with some stranger. Sure, he’d have to be handsome and all, but—" She smiled when Devlyn nearly shot off the sofa, glad for a teensy bit of humor during a painful conversation.
“I’m just kidding, Devil. Jeeze, stop scowling like that, it’s not like it would ever happen.” She dragged Devlyn back down onto the couch next to her and waited until she was settled in and her horrified look had dissolved before speaking. Then Lauren’s tone grew very serious. "Loving a child and physically having one are two very different things. And I can tell you with 100% certainty that I don't want to give birth, Devlyn.”
The older woman’s posture immediately deflated.
“I'm sorry, honey. That’s just not something I want for myself." Worriedly, she searched Devlyn's face, which for once was utterly unreadable. Feeling her chest start to constrict she fought to explain herself. "Mama’s depression is genetic. What if I passed that on? I couldn’t live with myself after that. And you know how I feel about doctors and needles, and the thought of some stranger's sperm being inserted into me with some probe or something." She shivered, her face turning a pasty white as she envisioned a doctor, his face covered with a mask, leaning over her to…. "I—"
Dev’s own face suddenly paled, and she shot up from the sofa, drawing a startled yelp from Lauren. She began to pace, and Lauren felt herself growing more and more frightened with every step.
“Why do I have a feeling this conversation is about to take a surprising turn?”
Devlyn cringed and stuffed her hands into her pockets. “Because it is?”
“Oh, Lord.” Lauren’s eyes widened.
Devlyn dropped down on her knees in front of Lauren and took her hands. “It’s not that bad, truly.” She chose her next words very carefully, already knowing that she was on thin ice. Despite her care, however, she braced herself for what she figured would be Round Two with her spouse. "I understand that you might not want to have children yourself, sweetheart.”
Lauren let out a shaky breath. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just don’t. A baby would take even more constant care than the kids do now. I wouldn’t want someone else to do it, and I wouldn’t be a good stay at home mom, Devlyn. That’s just not me.”
“You don’t have to be,” Devlyn replied, her voice equally low. “I guess I was just hoping.” She paused. “Errr… But while we’re discussing sperm donors I think there’s something else you should know. If we had more children, it wouldn’t have to be from an anonymous donor.”
Lauren’s brows knitted. How could Devlyn already have someone in mind when they hadn’t even talked about it yet? It sounded like she had this all mapped out. Hoping she was wrong, Lauren said, “I don’t know exactly what you mean.”
“I already have someone’s frozen sperm,” Dev corrected, trying to minimize the surprise this announcement was sure to cause. “The kids’ donor isn’t a stranger. It’s…” She steadied her nerves. “It’s David.” Not letting go of Lauren’s hands, she rocked back a little on her heels and waited for the explosion.
Lauren blinked very slowly as her brain fought to process what she'd just been told. She opened her mouth and then closed it, swallowing hard before hoarsely saying, "W... What? What?”
"I said David is the donor." Her voice was a little stronger now, but still tremulous. Dev took a deep breath and let it out slowly, her pulse pounding so loudly she was surprised Lauren couldn’t hear it.
Lauren looked away for a moment, her eyes unfocused. "David?”
Her jaw worked for a moment, and she was surprised to hear how calm she sounded when she heard herself say, “David, who is your best friend?”
Devlyn’s entire body went taut with anticipation. “Yes.”
“David, who I see nearly every single day of my life and who eats at our dinner table at least once a week?”
Lauren’s voice was eerily steady, almost serene. And Dev took that as a very, very bad sign. “Yes, honey, David McMillian. Tall, redhead, mustache, you know, my chief of staff.”
Lauren’s gaze suddenly snapped back and landed on Devlyn face with palpable force. “Well, holy shit, Devlyn. Ho-lee Shit!” She pulled her hands from Dev’s and sank her fingers deep into her own hair, gripping the sides of her head as though she was afraid it might blow off.
Dev looked almost relieved. That was the reaction she’d been expecting.
"All of them?" Lauren asked incredulously. “He fathered them all?” And no one bothered to tell me? What in the hell is going on?
Dev wasn’t exactly comfortable with the word “father” but something told her that splitting hairs at that very moment might end her up in the emergency room. So she just said, “Yes. All of them. He and Beth agreed to help Samantha and me when we wanted to start a family.” She moved back onto the sofa alongside Lauren. “He's my best friend, and we wanted the children to have the same father. We did it for lots of reasons, including medical ones. Based on how the kids turned out, I think we made the right choice. He was willing to keep quiet about his contribution, but still be a positive force in their lives."
“And you didn’t trust me to keep quiet about it?” Hurt colored her words. “Is that—?”
"No,” Dev interrupted harshly. “Of course not, Lauren.” Devlyn took Lauren’s hand again, determined not to let go. “I trust you with my life. My family. My heart. Everything. I hadn’t thought about David being the donor in years. We agreed never to talk about it, and we never have. Not once, Lauren, in all these years. It was actually sort of easy to imagine it never happened at all. But a few months ago, David came to me and asked me about some legalities having to do with the children’s custody should something happen to me.”
Lauren’s eyes widened in alarm. “But—”
“Shh….” Devlyn easily read Lauren’s fear. “I’m fine, honestly. It’s just that the assassination attempt and our engagement brought up some things that needed to be addressed.”
Lauren looked down at their joined hands and schooled herself in patience. “Then why didn’t you tell me?” She was finding it harder and harder not to lash out or burst into tears. “I don’t understand!”
“I know. Please let me explain,” Dev said in a rush. “Please.” There was a rare note of urgency and fear in Devlyn’s voice that captured every ounce of Lauren’s attention. Then something else flashed across Devlyn’s face, something even rarer than fear. Shame. “After I spoke with David, I knew I needed to tell you, but I put it off because I was worried that you’d be upset that I didn’t tell you earlier. And then I kept putting it off because the longer I waited, the more upset I figured you’d be.”
Still dumbfounded, Lauren felt queasy. Tears welled up, stinging her eyes, and she found that she couldn’t blink them back. "And you were afraid to tell me this, why? I love David."
"I was afraid that you would think I had been intentionally keeping it from you, which I hadn't.” Dev stomach began to churn. “But everyday I didn’t say something just made it worse. It was the wrong choice and I am so, so sorry.”
Lauren sat in silence for a long time, trying to absorb what she'd just been told. Part of her felt irrationally betrayed by Devlyn’s lack of disclosure. She was angry and hurt and suddenly afraid for her new marriage. "And—" Lauren had to stop and swallow. "And just what did you think I would do that made you afraid to talk to me? I know I have a temper, but... Christ, Devlyn," she hissed.
Devlyn squeezed her eyes shut. "I was afraid that you'd leave!" Tears slipped from between the closed lids, and Dev cursed softly, disgusted at herself for appearing weak and needy. "You did before, when Sarah kissed me and you were so angry you just left! I can’t lose you because I did something stupid. I just can’t!"
“I went to the park for a few hours to calm down. It’s not like I shaved my head, changed my name, and moved to Brazil!”
“You still left, Lauren,” Devlyn pointed out raggedly. “I tried to explain and you wouldn’t hear it. I was afraid this time would be worse. What if I couldn’t find you? I…” Blue eyes darted sideways and away from that penetrating gray gaze. “I’m not used to being afraid. I didn’t know what to do.”
For a moment, an internal battle raged. Lauren was well aware that her emotions were running so close to the surface that they would very likely get the better of her. She was equally close to saying something she’d probably regret later. She wiped at her face with an irritated hand and took a calming breath. "Devlyn, honey, look at me.” She cupped Devlyn’s chin and turned her face so that they were eye to eye. “I think the most important thing isn't that I left, but that I came back and that we worked it out."
Thickly, Lauren whispered, "I'm never leaving you. Never. I might need time and space to think about things.” She threaded their fingers together. “But that's only so I don't go crazy and murder you in your sleep for keeping things from me." She offered Dev a weak smile, but it was clear that she was only half joking.
A little of the fear in Dev’s eyes receded. "I meant what I said. I wasn’t intentionally keeping this from you. I think of the kids as mine. All mine,” her lips curled slightly, “and now ours, of course. At first, after Ashley was born, it was sort of like if I didn’t think about it, it would be true. By the time Samantha had the boys, their biological parentage wasn’t even something Samantha and I discussed anymore. I’ve grown used to not thinking about it, and the kids, all of them, they are mine, you know?”
They exchanged watery smiles and Lauren said, “I know.” She ducked her head and picked a little at the sofa’s fabric. “I’m sorry if I’ve made you afraid. I know I’ve wanted to run this year instead of face things sometimes. I’m trying to get past that.” She suddenly looked up, confidence radiating from shiny gray eyes. “I am getting past that.”
Devlyn felt her heart rate begin to slow. Things weren’t spinning out of control as they had in the past. “You’re doing great,” she said emotionally. “Really great, Lauren.”
"Then say that you believe that I won’t leave you and I’ll stick with you to work through things," Lauren ordered, her heart aching for her part in Devlyn’s fears. "You're stuck with me.” Her voice was hoarse and cracked as she spoke. “Say it."
Devlyn sniffed a few times, willing it to be completely true, even as she then drew in a deep breath and murmured, "I'm stuck with you."
Lauren drew their joined hands to her mouth and placed a tender kiss on the ring she’d given Dev at their wedding.
Devlyn allowed herself a few deep, calming breaths before she gave Lauren a lopsided, self-deprecating grin. "I really feel like shit for being such a coward. I didn't mean for it to get this out of hand. You’re the one thing I count on. The most important thing. I know it’s stupid, but I didn’t want to risk that."
The golden light from the fire reflected off Lauren’s damp cheeks and her eyes fluttered closed when Devlyn leaned forward and gently brushed away her remaining tears with slightly trembling lips. “I'm sorry, too. For doing anything that made you think you couldn't talk to me." Her throat began to close, and she started to get upset all over again. "I don't want things to be like that between us," she said miserably.
“Please, don’t cry. I hate it when you cry,” Dev admitted in a hushed voice. “It’s not your fault.”
“Nuh uh, Devlyn.” Lauren clutched Dev’s hand tightly and held it to her heart. “It’s both our faults.”
“Yes,” Lauren corrected, her voice as gentle as she could make it. “We’ve got some stuff to work on.” She lifted her eyebrows in appeal. “Okay?”
Dev’s answer was immediate. “Anything.” She licked her lips, feeling as though she’d just run a marathon. “Is… um… is there anything else you want to know? About David.”
Lauren drew in a shaky breath and let it out. “Everything, I guess. Does Beth know?”
Dev nodded. "Yes. We had to clear it with her first. There are only four people in this world who know. The kids don't know, even my parents don't know.” She shifted her position on the sofa, neatly fitting herself into one corner. Then, with quick pat on her lap, she invited Lauren to lay her head down. When Lauren didn’t accept immediately, Devlyn felt the beginning stings of rejection and was on the edge of withdrawing her offer when Lauren let out a breathy sigh and moved to place her head in Dev’s lap.
Lauren’s eyes fluttered closed as Devlyn drew long, slender fingers through her wavy hair. Things were already becoming more manageable in her mind. They would work through this; her heart wouldn’t accept anything less.
“What if the kids want to know when they're older?” Lauren asked. “That day is coming, Devlyn.” Her mind was unerringly drawn to the teary conversation she and Ashley had had in Hawaii.
“Mmm… we agreed to tell them if they ever asked, and I felt they could handle it."
"And David is okay with them not knowing? Forever?" Lauren found that a little hard to believe, especially considering how close David and Beth were to all the children.
"David doesn't want to interfere with our family, honey. He wants to be a part of it, and he and Beth are a big part of the kids’ lives. Maybe deep down inside he wishes they knew, but I don’t think he’d ever try to go against our agreement or my wishes on this. He's their Uncle David and they love him. He only wanted to know what would happen to the kids if I died. If that had happened, he and Beth would have raised them. That all changed when you came along. I’d want you to have them.”
Thoughtfully, Lauren nodded, “I’d want that too. Just don’t let something happen to yourself. I mean it.”
Devlyn smiled grimly. “I’m being careful.”
“Be more careful.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She bent down and kissed Lauren on the forehead.
"And when you said you wanted more children, you meant with David as the donor?"
Now Dev felt like squirming. "Not necessarily. We could look at other options, but I’m pretty sure there's still a few decent little swimmers on ice."
Lauren held up her hand. "Ugh. Never mind that last question, Devlyn. I don’t want to think of David’s swimmers. Besides, that’s getting way too far ahead of ourselves. I need some time to digest all this. I guess I'm not really sure what to think. My head is still spinning."
"I don’t blame you. And it’s my stomach that’s spinning." She gave Lauren an awkward hug. “I hate it when we fight.”
"Same here.” Lauren squeezed her back as tightly as she could, not knowing how much she had really needed that until right this second. Finally, they separated and she turned pleading eyes on Devlyn. "I'm going to need beer if I'm going to hear any more revelations tonight, sugar."
Devlyn touched the tip of Lauren’s nose with her finger. "You’re safe. There’s nothing else. I promise."
They were quiet for long moments, their attention lost to the fire’s flickering flames and their thoughts.
Breaking the silence Lauren finally muttered, “Ashley has his eyes.” The slight slurred quality of her voice told Devlyn that she was nearly asleep.
Dev nodded, not quite sure how she felt about that. Her eyes moved from Lauren’s shadow-dappled face then back to the flames, as her lover’s breathing grew deeper and evened out. “I know.”
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Dev smiled and shook hands with as many people as she could as she walked the rope line in Atlanta. She was covered in a light sheen of sweat, not only from the heat, but also from the thought that some unknown gunman might be in the crowd… waiting, wanting more than anything to steal the happiness she cherished.
Fucking shooting, her mind seethed. Nothing will ever be the same. I used to thrive on meeting my constituents and feeling their energy. It actually made me high. Now all I can think of is that this bulletproof vest itches and won’t help me if I take a bullet in the head.
“I understand, ma’am,” she told an elderly woman who was pumping her hand like there was no tomorrow. “Having an interstate built right through your living room would be a very bad thing. My friend Congressman Preston,” Dev motioned to the lucky candidate who was standing annoyingly close to her as she campaigned on his behalf, “will be happy to hear more of your story and see what we can do to help.” Dev gave him meaningful look. “Won’t you, Rick?”
The man tried not to wince. “It would be my pleasure, Madam President,” he boomed with all the enthusiasm he could muster.
Devlyn leaned a little closer to the woman’s ear so the words would be for her alone. “He really will find out what can be done. I promise.”
The woman beamed, her false teeth shining in the hot sun. “Thank you, Ms. President. I knew you’d understand. Why I told my granddaughter Thelma, she’s the one who is going to college…”
Prudently, Congressmen Preston intervened so that Devlyn continued to move down the line of people. She offered a wave to the people who couldn’t fight their way to the front of the crowd and hadn’t been waiting there since dawn and gotten a spot along the rope, making eye contact with as many as possible. A suited man bumped into her from the back and her neck hairs bristled in reaction. For some reason the close proximity of the Secret Service agents made her feel itchy and claustrophobic. Guess I’m not as used to their hovering as I thought. Since the assassination attempt, public appearances like this one had been rare and the security intense.
But gamely, she kept her smile permanently affixed and listened as best she could to comments that ranged from mindless praise to her choice of foreign policy, hairstyles, clothes, and children — not necessarily in that order — to outright hostility. When the end of the line finally came into view, she fought hard not to scream, “Thank God!”
She’d been on the road for the past four days, stumping for various Emancipation Party congressmen who were up for re-election in the fall. Lauren had accompanied Devlyn to all but the last four states in her 11-state whirlwind tour, but had decided to head back to Washington early in order to have some time to actually write up some of the things she’d observed. She’d taken the children back home with her, and even though it had been less than two days, Devlyn missed them terribly. They’d been playing some kind of sadistic game of phone tag, leaving non-urgent messages for each other.
The Senior-Agent-In-Charge discreetly touched Devlyn’s arm and inserted himself between Devlyn and the crowd. "Madam President, we need to go."
She nodded and, taking a deep breath, stepped around the large man and shook hands with the last people in line. Seconds later, she was inside a fast moving limousine.
The air inside the luxury car was cool and dry, and she nearly whimpered as she pressed her overheated skin against the soft leather. Most of her aides had taken a car before her in an attempt to use every single extra second to organize things before she arrived at her next destination. In the limo a silent agent sat in each corner of the seat across from her, each man alertly looking out at the dispersing crowd through the one way, bulletproof glass. Thankful for the quiet, her eyes closed without her permission.
Devlyn whimpered when she heard Liza's soft, hesitant voice. She hadn’t seen her in the car. "Yes?"
"I’m sorry to interrupt your rest, ma’am, but here are the notes for your next appearance. You’ll be speaking to the UDC. The speech is nearly the same as it was for Charleston City Hall, with the exception of the last page. The changes are highlighted.”
Dev's head came up and one eyebrow rose as she glanced across the wide seat. "Are any of them still alive?”
Liza blinked. "In Charleston, ma'am? Your speech wasn’t that bad."
"No, not in Charleston,” Dev said with a tiny snarl, but couldn’t help but laugh. “I was trying to make a joke about the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
“Nice try, ma’am.”
“Thank you so much, Liza,” Devlyn shot back dryly. “Why the UDC?" Devlyn opened the folder that slid in her direction and scanned the coversheet.
"Same as usual, ma’am.”
Dev scanned the information with a grunt. Big supporters, sizeable donation expected for her party, etc., etc….
“The UDC are very pleased with your performance in the White House, Madam President.”
"I'm happy for them. Speaking of which, do you have this week’s numbers?"
"Yes, ma'am." Liza removed yet another folder from the pile next to her. "Chief of Staff McMillian and Press Secretary Allen both commented that your numbers are up again this week. Having the First Lady with you for part of this tour was a boon to the numbers. The voters love her."
“They are wise people.” Dev took a bottle from the holder next to her and took a long drink of the chilled water, which helped to ease her scratchy throat.
Dev held the folder, but didn’t open it. Rubbing between her eyes she felt another headache coming on. "Please remind Michael Oaks and Press Secretary Allen that I want to have my blood drawn and be the first to register under the DNA Registration Act. Its effective date is coming up."
As she began to skim the contents of the second folder, Dev patted her jacket as she searched for a phone. Liza, as a staff member who carried a secure phone, handed hers over. The President nodded her thanks and dialed a number she had memorized.
“Hello, Ethan?” She sat up a little straighter as she addressed one of her aides who dealt exclusively with pending legislation. “What’s the status on those six votes for the Well Family Act?” After a moment, her face darkened. “If I never get another piece of legislation passed, Ethan, I want that one." After a long moment of silence she said, “Fine. Do it and let me know.” Looking pensive, she hung up the tiny phone and passed it back to her administrative assistant, watching as Liza dutifully followed protocol and wiped out the phone’s memory in front of her boss.
“You know what he told me, don’t you?” Dev gave Liza’s foot a playful shove. She had come to value Liza’s mind and the fact that the woman wasn’t afraid to offer an opinion when appropriate.
“I figured.” Dev decided then and there that, no matter how much she depended on Jane, as her secretary, she needed to keep her personal assistant on the payroll permanently, even after her tenure as president.
Dev’s thoughts drifted back to her phone conversation. Cutting deals was part of the job, and she’d just traded an increase in medical benefits for pregnant women, small children, and heads of household in exchange for dropping her proposal to increase the import tax on foreign grains. She’d suspected that was what it would take to get the votes she needed. But no matter how many political deals she cut she always felt as though she was robbing Peter to pay Paul.
She always lost a little, even when she won.
Devlyn stepped out of her hotel bathroom, a cloud of steam escaping as she padded into the suite’s bedroom while drying her hair with a fluffy white towel. The sun was setting over the city, and from the top floor of the hotel the view was spectacular. Glancing at the clock on the bedside table, she tried to remember what day it was. Then she smiled. Lauren and the kids wouldn't be at home for another hour. Tonight they were going to a production of “Beauty and the Beast” at the Kennedy Center. God, what she wouldn't give for a seat next to them.
Still dripping, she donned her robe, then felt something tickle her nose, then upper lip. She lifted her fingers and looked at them, smearing the warm red substance between her fingers. "Terrific." She retrieved a towel from the bathroom. After she cleaned her face, she sat down on the bed and pressed her nostrils shut with the cloth, allowing her eyes to close.
The phone ringing nearly caused her to jump off the bed. Her calls were being screened and since she’d made it clear not to disturb her unless the world was ending or her family was on the phone, she had a pretty good guess as to who was calling.
"Hello, sweetheart,” Devlyn said into the receiver. “I miss you and I love you."
Lauren could hear the smile in Dev’s voice, and it caused her to react in kind, her own voice unconsciously warming even further. "Same here, Devil. Why aren't you using the video phone?"
“Eh,” Dev shrugged, even though Lauren couldn’t see. “The scrambler is on the fritz and it’s not secure. We’re leaving for home tomorrow so I told them not to bother fixing it.”
"Mmm. Gotcha. Do you think you’ll make it home on schedule?"
"So far so good." Dev sniffed and removed the cloth that was pressed to her nose, only to feel a fresh trickle of blood slide down her face. “Shit.” She quickly wiped it away and pressed her nose closed again.
"Are you okay? You sound sort of funny."
Dev winced at the red stained towel. "I'm fine. Dry sinuses I think. I’ve got a little nose bleed." Her words were met with a long silence on the other end of the line.
After a moment of debate, over whether to bother to ask now or when Devlyn came home, Lauren sighed. "Please get that looked at. In fact, an entire check-up would be good. You know you’re due for your annual anyhow."
"A check-up for dry sinuses?" Devlyn shook her head and said, “There’s no way I have time for that.”
Devlyn rubbed her temple with one hand and told herself not to lose her temper. It wasn’t Lauren’s fault she was dragging at the end of this trip. “I have that physical coming up in a month or two where the entire world gets to know everything from my blood pressure and weight to my cholesterol count. A little nose bleed can wait until then.” Her voice softened. “It’s really nothing.”
"Don't make me call your mother." Lauren was only half teasing.
"You wouldn’t dare!" Dev squawked, sitting up straighter against the padded headboard.
“Wouldn’t I?” There was another long silence and Lauren could tell she wasn’t going to make any progress over the phone. There would be time to talk about this when Devlyn came home. “Would you like to talk to your monsters?"
"You know it." Dev smiled eagerly as she waited for Lauren, who called for Ashley first.
"Hi, Moppet, did you have a good time at the play tonight?"
"It was great! Emma and Jane came along too! They both said they could use a prince of their own. And Mama said she once went out on a date with a man with worse back hair than the Beast. They all laughed really loud at that. Can you come next time?”
A wistful expression chased its way across Devlyn’s face. “I hope so, baby. But you know how it goes. I’m awfully busy right now.”
“I know. It’s okay.”
But a little of Ashley’s enthusiasm had faded and Devlyn knew it. “It won’t be this way forever. I promise.”
"Okay.” Ashley sighed before adding, “I love you Mom.”
“I love you too.” Her heart ached for all these moments that she was missing with her children, and she swore to herself that she would quiz Lauren on every minute of the evening.
“Chris wants to talk to you."
Devlyn barely had time to say “okay” before she heard from her eldest son.
"Next time can we go to a play for boys?” He was on the verge of outright whining.
Devlyn burst out laughing.
“It was all singing and dancing and kissing. Yuck!”
“Didn't the villagers go after the Beast?"
"Yeah, but it was so short! Two minutes and it was over. I liked the Beast better when he had fangs and fur and—"
"All right, son, I get the picture. We'll see if we can find something you'll like better for next time. Maybe something with pirates or spacemen?"
"Or dinosaurs or bugs?” Christopher prodded.
“Well, I mean, we can try, son. But how many plays are there—”
“Thanks, Mom,” Chris chirped. “Here's Aaron."
Dev wondered briefly how much sugar Christopher had consumed that night.
“Hi, Aaron. How was the play?”
“It was totally awesome!”
Dev blinked. “Really?”
“Oh, yeah. A girl threw up again and again in front of the food stand. It was really, really gross. It happened when Agent Tucker was taking Chris to the bathroom and he missed it all! It was great!”
Dev opened and closed her mouth a few times as she tried to think of an appropriate response. “Uhhh… That sounds… errr…” Disgusting. Vile. Nasty. “Interesting.”
“Oh, it was. When you coming home?"
"In time to read us a story or play Candy Land? Ashley’s been teaching me how to cheat. Oops, I wasn’t supposed to tell. It was gonna be a surprise.”
“Oh, I’m surprised,” Dev told him flatly. She shook her head, hearing Christopher and Ashley telling off Aaron. Then there was a set of muffled squeals before Lauren came back on the line. "Having fun yet, Lauren?”
Lauren laughed. "You could say that. Tell me honestly, Devlyn, how are you? I saw you on television this afternoon. You looked beautiful and the press is loving you, but you sound so tired."
"I am tired, but I’ve cleared this weekend entirely. How about a couple of days at Camp David?"
"I think that's the best thing I’ve heard all day. I’d love to have some time alone with you.”
“Can we work on the next Adrian Nash novel? I’ve been coming up with lots of ideas. I have an entire notebook of them. It’s what I do to relax between speeches and overcooked chicken luncheons.”
Lauren winced in empathy. Since coming to Washington she’d endured a few million of those herself. “Sure. As long as we don’t kill her off we can pretty much go crazy.”
Dev clamped her hand over her mouth. It almost stifled her yawn.
“Devlyn, honey?” Lauren drawled. “I miss you and God knows I love talking to you, but go to bed.”
For once, Devlyn didn’t bother to argue. “Yeah,” she sighed sleepily and took the towel from her nose. The bleeding had stopped and she tossed the soiled cloth into the waste paper basket that sat next to the bed. “I am. I think I’ve finally reached my limit. I don’t care if it is early. Campaigning for myself is one thing. But doing it for everyone else is about ready to kill me.”
Lauren wasn’t sure whether that answer made her feel better or worse. Devlyn’s schedule had been so ridiculous that for the first time she’d talked to Liza and David without talking to Devlyn first, in an appeal for sanity. But they’d both thrown up their hands, saying that Devlyn, herself, had insisted on all the cities and the pace of this tour, determined to capitalize on her surge in popularity. “Tomorrow then. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Night.”
Lauren hung up the phone, but continued to stare at it for a long time, her eyes unfocused. You can’t be all things to all people, Devlyn. No matter how hard you try. Before she knew it, all three kids were back in the den, wearing their pajamas, their breath smelling of toothpaste. She gave them each a kiss and a hug, and they headed for their bedrooms for the night.
Lauren looked at her watch and debated heading back to her office. She stood, but paused when a photograph of Devlyn trying to catch her tenacious pug, Gremlin, who was running around the Rose Garden with one of Devlyn’s shoes in her mouth, caught her eye. A tiny smile quirked the corner of her mouth, and she brought the photo to her lips and gently kissed Devlyn’s head. “Sleep tight.” She sighed, worry marring her youthful features. “And for God’s sake, take care of yourself.”
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