Friday, September 9, 2022
Lauren looked at her dinner dress in the full-length mirror and smoothed the blue silk where it continued to roll at her midsection. “Damn thing.”
Dev exited the bathroom, placing eye drops in each eye, blinking and dabbing at the corners with a tissue. “What’s wrong?”
“This dress won’t lie right.”
“Mmm… You’ve lost a little weight lately.” Dev crossed the room and placed her hands on Lauren’s hips from behind, smiling a little as she gave the material a little tug to the right, settling it into place. She glanced up at the mirror to find Lauren smiling, too. “There.” She kissed her partner on the cheek. “You don’t have to be nervous, you know.”
“Yes, I do. This is my first formal State function as your wife. I know I’ve been to others, but this feels different.”
Devlyn shrugged one shoulder. “There’s nothing to it. Just smile, be charming, and try not to say something incredibly stupid that will come back to haunt you for years and years and years….”
Lauren’s mouth dropped open. “Gee, I feel so much better.” Devlyn rested her chin on Lauren’s shoulder and met the other woman’s gaze in the mirror. “And to think I almost went to dinner tonight without hearing that sage advice first,” she deadpanned.
Devlyn gave her a puppy dog look, which was promptly ignored.
“Besides, that’s easy for you to say. You’ve done this a hundred times.” Lauren turned her head and kissed Dev’s cheek before stepping forward to dig a pair of earrings from her jewelry box. After selecting a beautiful pair of diamond studs that Janet and Frank had given her for Christmas, she held them up and waited until Devlyn nodded her approval at her choice.
“Actually, I’ve only done it 40 times,” Dev said, applying a light coat of lipstick. She tossed the tube onto the vanity when she was finished. “Ms. Strayer, don’t you pretend you were working at Wal-Mart before you accepted your position as my biographer. Your job with Starlight Publishing had you attending plenty of nerve-racking events. I happen to know you’ve had an audience with the Pope!” Under her breath, Dev said, “Something I haven’t done, if you must know.”
The corner of Lauren’s mouth curled upward as she worked on her second earring. “I was more excited than nervous then. First, no one was paying any attention to me. I was there with Cardinal O’Roarke, observing him for his biography, not participating. Second, I’m not Catholic. And third, the Pope is older than dirt! I could be standing buck-naked in front of him and I doubt he’d even notice.”
Dev leaned forward and placed her lips right against Lauren’s ear. “Honey,” she breathed in a husky voice, “That would be dead, not old.”
Lauren wrinkled her nose at the lame humor, but couldn’t help but laugh. “Do you have to make jokes when I’m nervous?”
“Does it take your mind off being nervous?”
“Mostly,” Lauren admitted reluctantly. More than anything she didn’t want to do something that would put more pressure on her already over-stressed spouse. “A watch, do you think?” She held up her naked wrist.
Dev’s grin was smug. “Then my work here is finished. And no watch. You have to stay for the whole thing, no matter what time it is.”
“Ugh.” Lauren rolled her eyes and moved from her jewelry box to Devlyn’s. “What did you say you wanted earlier?”
“The square-cut emerald necklace.”
“Mmm.” After digging for a few seconds, Lauren came up with the booty. She held it under the vanity light, which had been turned to its lowest setting, bathing the room in warm light, which wasn’t conducive to putting on makeup, but was easy on the eyes. “Wow.”
Dutifully, Dev presented Lauren with her back. She bent slightly at the knees and lifted her hair off her neck, feeling the cool weight of the stone come to rest between her breasts and the warmth of Lauren’s body as the blonde leaned close, partially to work the clasp, but mostly just because she enjoyed the intimate contact.
Lauren finally gave Devlyn’s rear end a little pat. “All done.”
Dev turned around and lifted her eyebrow in question. If there were any pug hairs on her suit, Gremlin was done. “Well, how do I look?”
Lauren let out a low appreciative whistle as she circled Devlyn like a new car buyer about to kick the tires. The whistle ended with a little moan that actually made Devlyn blush. “Gorgeous.”
Devlyn shivered from the sexy timbre that had suddenly invaded Lauren’s voice. “Let’s stay home and make out.”
The look of frank desire on Lauren’s face was more than enough to kick her libido into high gear, and Devlyn couldn’t help but think that sometimes her endless responsibilities plainly sucked. “Don’t tempt me. You know how I love it when you wear your hair swept up like that.” To prove her point, she grabbed Lauren’s wrist and pulled the smaller woman against her with a firm tug. When their bodies collided, she attached her lips to the silky-skinned, lithe neck before her and began to gently suck. “Mmm…”
Lauren gasped, then felt her knees begin to melt.
Dev sucked harder.
“No hickeys!” Lauren squealed, half-heartedly. One red mark on her neck, and she’d have her excuse to stay in tonight, and she was fairly certain that with a few kisses and well-placed caresses her lovely partner could be persuaded to join her.
Regretfully, and after a tender kiss to skin only lightly tinted with Devlyn’s lipstick, the President lifted her head. She sighed dramatically, making it very clear that she was more interested in feasting on Lauren’s throat than a bland State dinner. “You were sent here by the Republican Party to ruin me, weren’t you?” She lifted an accusing eyebrow.
Lauren arched one right back. “How did you know?”
Haughtily, Dev sniffed. “I’m not a woman to be trifled with. I’m—”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re the President. Somehow I hadn’t forgotten since the last time you told me.” The banter was familiar and easy, and Lauren felt a good part of her unease begin to disappear.
Devlyn smiled and went to the bed to retrieve both of their small black purses. She was never sure why she brought one, knowing that she would hand it to an aide for safe keeping as soon as she arrived at the dinner. And that she’d never be able to locate that particular aide again, until it was time to go. It was always the same.
“If you need me,” Dev held up her hands to give Lauren a good look at her, “Look for the suit.” It was a narrowly fitted, perfectly cut, bright malachite-colored pantsuit that would certainly stand out in a crowd.
Just like its beautiful owner, Lauren thought fondly. “I’ll keep that in mind and aim for Armani.”
“May I escort you to dinner?” Devlyn bowed gallantly, causing Lauren to chuckle.
She was about to say “of course” when she stopped. Lauren really didn’t want to go this very second. She wanted to play and she wanted something else, and both of those things, she decided, were worth pushing herself a tiny bit beyond her normal comfort zone. Besides, it was something she suspected her spouse would enjoy even more than she would. She gave Devlyn a sexy smile, and instead of answering Dev’s question, she posed one of her own.
“Do you know how badly my fingers are itching to get to the beautiful body beneath that suit you’re wearing?” Her hand drifted down her own abdomen, her fingers suggestively dancing across cool silk.
Devlyn’s mouth went as dry as the desert in less than a millisecond, and Lauren fought hard not to laugh out loud at the stunned but totally interested expression. “Ummm—” Dev swallowed and tried again, her eyes riveted to Lauren’s hand. “Ummm—”
Luckily, Lauren wasn’t really looking for a verbal response. “Devlyn?”
Electric-blue eyes snapped up to meet Lauren’s, their pupils already dilated.
“Do you know how much I love and want you, Devlyn?” She let out a breathy sigh, and her hand reached up to cup her own breast. “It makes me crazy sometimes.”
Dev’s hands went limp and, with twin thumps, the purses hit the floor.
A low groan bubbled up from Lauren’s chest and she slowly licked her lips, giving her own breast a firm squeeze. “I can’t think of anything more divine than slowly undressing you, then kissing,” another squeeze, “and licking,” this time she pinched her nipple and wasn’t sure whether it was her or Devlyn that whimpered, “and wrapping my lips around—”
Lauren’s words were cut off by the impact of a flying body. Their mouths crushed together in a fiery display of passion and raw want as loud, lusty moans filled the room. Long moments later, as a hot tongue caressed her throbbing jugular, Devlyn fuzzily, but finally, figured out the allure of being fashionably late.
Lauren took her place at the top of the executive grand staircase, which led into the State Dining Room, and was greeted by two hundred pairs of expectant eyes. She smiled weakly at the crowd below, saying a mental “thank you” when Devlyn moved away from her security team to join her.
The President blinked a few times, moistening dry eyes.
“How late are we?” Lauren managed to ask, without moving her lips.
Dev smiled down at the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs and his wife. The man raised his glass in silent tribute to Devlyn, and for a second the President just knew she had to be wearing a big old, lovesick, “I just had fabulous sex with my equally fabulous wife” smile on her face. She lifted her chin a little higher, deciding that that was about the best reason to smile she could think of. “I don’t care how late we are,” she murmured back. While it wasn’t quite the truth — Devlyn was, and always would be, compulsive about her responsibilities — just this once she was willing to cut herself a little slack. “Extra time and a few stolen kisses with you is worth giving all the apologies in the world for, Lauren. It was time well spent.”
Dev turned her head and smiled at Lauren with so much heartfelt happiness and love that, for a moment, Lauren’s vision was blurred with unshed tears.
“Ready?” Dev whispered.
“Perfect.” But Devlyn stood her ground, allowing the dozens of photographs of them to be taken, all as she surveyed the landscape of the room.
Lauren marveled at Devlyn’s calm, powerful presence. The eyes that had been trained on her only a few seconds before were all now firmly resting on one very presidential spot. Guts were sucked in, shoulders thrown back, and conversations hushed all around the room the instant Devlyn took her place by Lauren’s side. It was more than protocol or manners; Devlyn was the kind of leader whose presence alone commanded everyone’s undivided attention.
The guests’ expressions ranged from envy to awe when they took in the sight of Devlyn and Lauren standing together. Lauren felt a surge of pride for her partner, and a smile bloomed on her lips, despite her own niggling apprehension.
The music that had been playing stopped, and arm in arm they started walking, the Marine Honor Guard leading the way. She felt Dev’s hold on her hand tighten as they descended the stairs.
“Ladies and gentleman, and honored guests,” a deep, disembodied voice announced. “The President of the United States and Ms. Lauren Strayer.”
While many women kept their maiden name after they married, never had Lauren felt so conspicuous about doing so. Several nasty looks from some of the older guests below told her they would have much rather heard “Mrs. Marlowe” announced. She wondered briefly if they would have had collective aneurysms had Devlyn taken the name Strayer upon their marriage. Heh.
The reception line loomed large and long before them and Lauren plastered on what she hoped would be a permanent smile. Devlyn’s, she noted, was wholly genuine, almost to the point of beaming. No wonder she continuously works herself to the point of exhaustion. She loves this.
It took nearly 20 minutes to traverse the reception line, and when they reached the end Lauren couldn’t help but let out a long, relieved breath. She heard her spouse’s chuckles from a few feet away. “Tell me you’re not glad,” she said discreetly, her voice playful.
“Oh, I’m glad.” Devlyn steered her towards the large, formally set banquet table, knowing that they would need to stop and mingle for at least a half an hour along the way. “I just hide it better.”
Dev caught sight of David and Beth across the room and watched as David approached her with a grin on his face while Beth appeared far less pleased.
“Hello, Madam President, Ms. Strayer,” David greeted formally, looking dapper in his tuxedo, his thick, red hair slicked straight back.
Dev could tell by the expectant look on her chief of staff’s face that he had something to discuss with her, and she sucked in an excited breath in anticipation.
David clasped his hands behind his back and rocked back on his heels as he turned his head to address Beth and Lauren. “Will you ladies excuse us, please?”
“Yes,” Beth said tartly. “Go. I don’t want to look at either one of you.”
David’s shoulders slumped just a tiny bit, and his gaze softened as he looked at his wife. “Beth—?”
“Go on,” she interrupted, but managed to give her husband a resigned bump with her hip. “Go so Lauren and I can say terrible things about you both while you’re gone.”
“Am I not going to like what you’re going to say?” Dev wondered out loud. That was not what the piratical gleam in David’s eyes had told her. She cocked her head in question.
“You’re going to love it,” David gushed, his enthusiasm instantly restored despite his wife’s sour face. The tall man led Devlyn over to a quiet corner where they stood, heads tilted towards one another in conspiracy as they talked.
“What are they in trouble for?” Lauren asked, accepting a drink from a server. “Thank you.”
Gesturing with her chin, Beth indicated the area next to an enormous vase of flowers that sat on a white marble stand. It was a relatively quiet area and would allow them a moment of modest privacy without Lauren appearing anti-social. Beth leaned forward to smell the flowers as she spoke. “You didn’t have plans for your Sunday, did you?”
Lauren’s eyes slammed shut.
“You’re cursing in your head, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” Lauren groaned. “What now?” She found herself wanting to wail and barely resisted the impulse. “She needs a day off!”
“Take it easy.” Beth moved a little closer to her friend and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know she does. And you probably do, too. But I can guarantee that Devlyn won’t be relaxing by the pool this weekend.”
Lauren pulled an orchid from the bouquet and examined its delicate petals with unseeing eyes. “I know when to say I’ve had enough. She doesn’t.” Her jaw tensed as she replaced the flower, its delicate heady scent going completely unnoticed. “I seem to recall her taking off at least most of every Sunday. Now even getting her to do that is like pulling teeth. She’s burning the candle at both ends.”
“You’re telling me? David’s only a little better, and that’s only because I outright threatened to divorce him if he didn’t spend a little time at home. God help us if he actually lived where he worked, too.” Beth turned to see Devlyn, who was smiling broadly and patting David on the back. “But emergencies do come up.”
“There’s always an emergency.” Lauren’s face darkened. “And I won’t do that to her, Beth. I’m not above playing dirty, but she’s already worried that she’ll do something that will make me leave her. I won’t threaten her with that and add to her stress.”
If Beth was surprised, she didn’t show it. “I’m glad.” She finished the last of her champagne and looked around for a place to deposit her glass. She decided to keep it in her hand when she realized she’d have to move to set it down. “Devlyn needs to be reassured that you’re not going to disappear on her, Lauren.” Her eyebrows knitted when her mind was involuntary drawn back to a very dark time in their lives. “I don’t think she’d live through it if you did.”
“That’s not something Devlyn has to worry about,” Lauren informed her. The resolute quality of her voice left no room for doubt. “But her health, family, and well-being are.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you.” Beth ran a hand through her dark curls. “But I don’t know what to say about this weekend. David just got word that Sheik Haroun Yousif has finally agreed to come to the negotiating table. And he wants to do it tomorrow, with Dev and Secretary of State Jared Ortiz as mediators. Nothing is going to stop her from being there.”
“Jesus. He said he’d never negotiate!” Lauren finished the contents of her glass in one long swallow, irrationally angry with a man she’d never met.
“I know. But it looks like if it’s going to happen at all, it’s this Sunday at Camp David.”
Lauren studied the bottom of her glass for a moment. “I can’t ask her not to take part in that. It’s what she and so many others have been working on for months.” She glanced up at Beth with a lost expression on her face. “But it’s always something important, isn’t it? She can never give enough.”
Beth sighed. “She’s a strong leader who hasn’t accepted her own limitations because she doesn’t believe she’s reached them.”
“She’s not just a leader, Beth. She’s a friend and a mother and a million other things that don’t stop demanding her time just because some land-grabbing bastard has finally decided he’d like to spend the weekend at Camp David.”
“Lauren!” Beth glanced around again, but Lauren’s voice was so low that she’d barely heard her herself. “You’d better hope nobody around here can read lips.”
“She can’t keep this pace up.”
“Then you’d better prepare for a fight.”
Lauren nodded grimly. “I can’t bear the thought of her hurting herself.”
Beth’s smile was as gentle and reassuring as she could make it. “Neither can I. I’ll help all that I can.”
Lauren gave her friend a quick hug. “I know you will. And I think I’m going to need all the help I can get.” She pulled away and surveyed the milling crowd that was, in small groups, starting to work its way near the dinner table. “Time to make nice with the guests?”
“If we want to eat before midnight.”
“What I wouldn’t give for an icy cold beer and fat cheeseburger.”
Beth’s eyes rolled back in ecstasy at the mere thought. “With pickles, onion rings, and gobs and gobs of drippy ketchup.”
Both women moaned, then laughed. Their conversation wouldn’t be forgotten. But for now, there was other business at hand.
Lauren set her sights on the Federal Reserve Board Chairman. Looking terribly uncomfortable, he was standing all alone and stuffing his mouth with meatballs and other hors d’oeuvres. She gave her dress a discreet tug and prepared herself for what she assumed would be the most boring conversation of her entire life. With a quick nod to herself, she was ready. “Let’s go.”
Dinner, which Lauren had to admit had been nothing short of delicious, had come and gone, and now was the time for coffee and socializing and working the beautifully decorated room, before the band would strike up a waltz and couples would take to the dance floor.
Devlyn had just bent her head to whisper something in Lauren’s ear when she saw Kenyan President Johibhi and his wife, smiling and heading their way. Devlyn guided her over to yet another spot in the room and Lauren smiled when she realized they were moving towards the President and his wife.
“President Johibhi.” Dev took the man’s hand. “I trust you’re enjoying your stay?”
“Ah, Madam President, very much so.” His voice had a pleasant lilt and cadence that made Lauren smile. When she offered her hand in greeting, the slender man promptly brought it his lips and kissed it. “It is my pleasure to finally meet you, Ms. Strayer."
“I’m very pleased to meet you as well.” Lauren said.
The man gave her a radiant smile in return. “May I present my wife Ngini?” he announced, stepping slightly away from the brightly dressed woman so that both the President and Lauren could greet her.
“How are your daughters Akinyi, Wairimu, Muthoni, Sikudhani, and Eucabeth? I trust they are all enjoying their time at the University of Nairobi?” Devlyn asked.
Lauren, for the umpteenth time that night, tried not to let her jaw hit the floor as Ngini, Devlyn and President Johibhi chatted happily about college life and the girls’ majors. I’ve married Rain Woman. How in the hell does she remember all this? She forgot Aaron’s name last week when he went streaking through the living room after his bath!
When their conversation was through and while they were on their way back to the dance floor, Lauren whispered, “You quoted everything from three different countries' gross national product to the name of Prime Minister Foster’s cat! You’re amazing, but you’re not that amazing. What’s up?”
They stopped on the dance floor and faced each other. Devlyn took Lauren’s hand, grateful for the opportunity to pull her close. When the music began, they moved around the room with the practiced ease of two women who knew each other’s bodies well… and had had lots and lots of lessons. “Ask me later,” Devlyn murmured. “But… um, do you really think I’m amazing?”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “You know I do. You just want me to say it again.” They laughed, and Lauren closed her eyes and let herself be carried away by the mesmerizing strains of a familiar waltz.
Dev crashed into their bed face first. The long night was finally over, and her voice was nearly gone from talking with so many people. Sleeping on this very spot, clothes and all, was a very good idea, she decided. “Tell everyone I died,” she groaned when she heard the door close.
“Don’t joke about that, Devlyn. It’s not even close to funny.”
Dev rolled over and gazed up at Lauren, who was standing at the foot of the bed with her arms crossed over her chest. “Sorry, I’m just tired.” Dev looked away. “Are you mad at me about this weekend?”
Lauren sighed as she sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m not mad, Devlyn. But I won’t lie and say I’m not disappointed.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Unzip me?”
Devlyn sat up and set to work on Lauren’s dress. “I’ll make it up to you and the kids.”
“And who's going to make it up to you?” the smaller woman asked quietly.
Dev’s hands paused as she took in the suddenly rigid posture of Lauren’s back. She didn’t say a word, fully aware that she didn’t have a good answer for that. When she finished with Lauren’s zipper, she lay back down and changed the subject.
“Hey, would you be horribly upset if I got this cut?” She tugged on her own, dark locks.
Lauren allowed the subject change without protest, deciding she wouldn’t make any progress at 3:30 a.m. and admitting to herself that Devlyn wouldn’t put up with “handling.” She needed a plan of action. “Why would you want to do that?” She pulled Devlyn’s shoes off and then slipped out of her own dress, letting it pool at her feet.
“I dunno. I’ve always heard that when a woman reaches a certain age she’s too old for long hair.”
Lauren stepped out of her dress and tossed it over a nearby chair, deciding there was no use in hanging up what the White House laundry would dry clean the next day anyway. “Mmm… And do you agree with that?”
“I guess so. I mean, I’m not sure. Maybe.” She scooted over as Lauren climbed onto the bed wearing only a skimpy black slip. “Oooo… that’s nice.” Devlyn drew her fingertip across the smooth material as Lauren snuggled up to her.
“It’s your hair, darlin’,” Lauren said on a yawn, her breath warming Dev’s neck. She turned and nuzzled the strands in question and drew in a happy breath. “You don’t need my permission to cut it. But if you’re asking my opinion, I happen to think it’s beautiful the way it is.”
“And if I get it cut?”
“I’m sure it will still look beautiful.” She kissed Devlyn’s cheek and laid her head on a warm shoulder. “There’ll just be less of it.” Her fingers sneaked over and began undoing Dev’s buttons. “You’re not going to sleep in this, right?” She gave the green material a little tug.
Dev yawned. “Depends on how fast your fingers are.”
Dev’s eyes slid closed and she grimaced; they felt dry and itchy.
“How did you know everyone’s hometown and spouse’s name and a million other things tonight? God, you didn’t slip once.”
“Ahhh, yes,” Dev grinned, “my secret.” She crooked her finger. “C’mon here.”
Pale brows jumped. “If I were anymore ‘here’ we’d be sharing the same skin.”
“That does sound sort of nice, though, doesn’t it?” Dev turned her head and brushed her lips against the tip of Lauren’s nose.
Dev laughed. “I hate to ruin your impression of my performance tonight. But if you insist.” She opened her eyes and looked into Lauren’s from very close range, not even blinking.
There was a few seconds of silence before Lauren said, “Are you trying to say that you hypnotized them and me? If you are, then I’m truly impressed.”
Dev rolled her eyes. “No, silly. Look at my eyes.”
Lauren smiled. “If I do then I’m going to be forced to start kissing you.” Then her expression changed as she took a slightly harder look. The light could be better for doing an up-close examination but she was almost sure… “Are you wearing contact lenses?” While they were no longer used to correct vision, they were still common for those who wanted to change their natural eye color. “Your baby blues are not fake!” She gave Dev a horrified look. “I know it!”
“Nope, they’re very real. But these contacts are special. They each contain a micro processor.”
“What?” Lauren gasped, prying Dev’s eyes open with inquisitive fingers and staring at them from very close range. “You’re kidding. I don’t see a thing.”
Dev chuckled softly, doing her best not to let the organs in question cross. “Well, that is the point. These babies are still experimental and will have many… err… classified uses.” When Lauren backed off, she blinked a few times as she tried to refocus on the pretty face so close to her own. “But one of their many uses I got to test out tonight. When I look someone in the eye, a retinal identification scan is performed and a mini-biography that includes relevant political and personal information appears next to their head in red letters. That only I can see, of course.”
For a moment Lauren was speechless. Then, “Oh my God. Those were in a James Bond movie from a couple of years ago. I didn’t know they were real!”
“They weren’t.” Dev grinned. “Then.”
“I want a pair!”
“Too bad they cost about 3 million bucks a piece, eh?” With a pitiful groan, Devlyn climbed out of bed and headed towards the bathroom to remove the contacts, glad that Lauren’s question had reminded her that she was wearing them.
“Christmas is coming in a mere four months!” Lauren called after Dev as she wiggled her way under the covers.
Dev poked her head out of the bathroom and stuck her tongue out at her mate. “Sorry, honey, but unless Santa joins the CIA, these babies will not be in your stocking.”
Thursday, September 29, 2022
Lauren sat back in the seat and pinched the bridge of her nose, rubbing the spots that became slightly irritated by her glasses if she wore them for too long. She considered what Devlyn had been telling her for months, that the minor surgery that would correct her vision would be worth it in the long run. But as always, Lauren couldn’t bear the thought. Glasses were fine. The problem was, she’d been wearing hers non-stop since 6 that morning, when she generally used them only to read or write.
She’d just finished an excellent meeting with a long time associate of Devlyn’s. The man used to be the head of Ohio’s Department of Agriculture. Today, however, he was happily employed as a lobbyist for corn and corn products. The easygoing man had shared story after story about a very young and earnest former Governor of Ohio, whom Lauren happened to love very much. The material would be wonderful for Devlyn’s biography, and so far, Lauren counted this day as a raging success.
From the back seat of a silver-colored sedan, Lauren watched the scenery slowly pass. The driver and front passenger were both Secret Service Agents. Sitting alongside Lauren was her new administrative assistant, Carol Becker, a fresh-faced Stanford graduate whose salary was paid 50 percent by the White House and 50 percent by Starlight Publishing.
Lauren turned and smiled at Carol. It had taken nearly two weeks for the woman to start using her first name as Lauren had requested many, many times. “Can we switch to some White House business, ma’am.”
Lauren rolled her eyes at the word “ma’am,” vowing to work on that later. “Sure, Ms. Becker,” she said dramatically, laughing a little when Carol’s eyebrows jumped perceptibly. Heh. “But only if we must.”
Carol looked at her watch and nodded. “We must.” She indicated a large file folder on the floor. “Mrs. McMillian indicated that you would be releasing your guidelines on academic achievement next week. But she wanted to make sure you saw these papers first.”
Lauren’s eyes turned to slits. “She did, huh?” Dammit, Beth. You know already know how I feel about this.
Carol looked a little unsure of herself. “Ummm… yes.”
“I see.” Lauren took off her glasses and tossed them on the soft leather seat next to her. “You can tell Beth that I don’t need to see those papers, because, as I indicated before, I won’t be releasing anything to the public. Especially when I don’t know anything about the subject matter.”
“If you read what was in the folder, you would know something about it,” Carol offered reasonably, biting her lip at her own playful impertinence.
Lauren snorted. “No wonder Beth likes you so much.” She let out a soft sigh, then Carol watched in surprise as the blonde’s expression turned serious in a flash of an eye. “Rest assured, Carol, I won’t be releasing any recommendations. I speak only for myself, or,” she corrected herself, “occasionally for Devlyn, but not the Emancipation Party. A few minutes of reading and sharing a bed with the President doesn’t give me the sort of background necessary to make serious recommendations to strangers. I don’t care what prior First Ladies have done.” Lauren pointed to the folders near Carol’s feet with an irritated finger. “Those contain the Emancipation Party’s recommendations. Not mine.” She cocked her head to the side, her eyes sparking just a little. “Are we clear?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Carol swallowed. “We’re clear.”
Lauren consciously softened her gaze. “Don’t worry.” Her voice took on added warmth. “I’ll talk to Beth so that you won’t be caught in the middle of things, okay?”
Carol visibly relaxed, her shoulders slumping with pure relief. “Thanks.” She smiled and pulled her cell phone out of her jacket pocket when it rang. “Excuse me, ma’am.”
Lauren nodded and closed her eyes to block out the late afternoon glare of the sun. She leaned her head against the air-conditioning-cooled window and after only a moment, felt that familiar, slightly dislocated sensation of being almost asleep.
Without warning, there was a deafening explosion. Before she could even open her eyes, a searing hot pain tore through Lauren’s head. Her body was violently thrown sideways, held to the seat only by the car’s restraint system. A second later she was jolted forward with such force it knocked the wind from her lungs. She vaguely registered the sound of squealing tires and a piercing scream before her world went mercifully black.
Dev laughed along with the rest of the room as the Secretary of the Interior related a story about his vacation. It was a welcome moment that eased the tension in the day’s cabinet meeting. Even among this handpicked group, the meetings were usually anxiety-filled for reasons that Dev could never quite grasp.
She glanced at David’s watch and realized they were just about to adjourn, when an aide rushed into the room with a slightly desperate look on his face. He looked torn between going to David or Dev. David ended the aide’s mental debate by motioning the husky man in his direction. He leaned over and whispered something in David’s ear.
Dev watched as the blood drained from her friend’s face and felt the bottom of her stomach drop out in response.
David whispered something back to the aide, but Devlyn could only barely make out Geoff’s name.
Very slowly, David cleared his throat and rose to his feet. “If you’ll excuse us, ladies and gentlemen. There’s something that requires the President’s immediate attention. Thank you for your cooperation, this meeting is adjourned.” He circled the table as cabinet members filed out of the room and gently took Dev by the arm, whispering to her, “Come with me and stay calm.”
Dev’s chest tightened to a painful degree. “David?”
“Not here, Dev.” He led her out of the room, turning in the opposite direction from which the still-milling cabinet members were walking. The crowd parted, and a distraught looking Jane met David in the hall and murmured something about television to him. She couldn’t look at Devlyn, lest she burst into tears.
“What is going on?” Dev practically shouted, half-angry, half-terrified, feeling her heart begin to race when David told Jane to clear the rest of the day.
David pulled Dev into an empty conference room. He ignored Devlyn’s question long enough to give the voice commands for the television and winced as a horrible picture, shot from a local traffic helicopter, flared to life in the corner of the room. He muted the sound but left on the closed-captioning as he quickly explained to Devlyn what she was seeing.
His voice shook slightly as he spoke. “That’s Lauren’s sedan, Dev. Our satellite has got the location, too, and agents are on the way.”
What had happened was fairly clear from viewing the accident scene. Another sedan, a white Toyota, had entered an intersection and had hit the side of the car Lauren was traveling in, crushing the driver and rear passenger's side doors. The police escort that was following Lauren had run into them both.
Dev didn’t say a word. Not even when the camera zoomed in and showed a lurid smear of crimson staining the driver's side rear window. It was clear the press didn’t know who was in the car by the casual, almost understated way they were reporting the accident. The news crew had literally stumbled across the accident only seconds after it happened while on their way to filming rush hour traffic. The three cars, one of them a police car, were now sitting idle on a relatively quiet back street and there was no ambulance on the scene yet. The man from the Toyota exited his car quickly and stumbled to the curb, where he sat down with his head in his hands.
David could tell by the whiteness of her skin and the panic in her eyes that she had heard what he’d told her, even though she remained completely silent, her eyes riveted to the television.
“David…” she finally managed to choke out.
He was there to catch her when her legs buckled, and he guided her to a chair.
She gulped down a few huge lungfuls of air and gripped the armrests of her chair with devastating force, her knuckles turning as white as her face. She forced words out between ragged breaths. “What do… what do we know?”
“Not much. The call came in maybe 60 seconds ago. The patrol car following called it in directly to the White House. The officer didn't say much — less than you can see from the TV, in fact.”
David and Devlyn watched as two policemen and several Secret Service agents swarmed over the two cars, guns drawn. One agent instantly approached the Toyota driver and appeared to order the shaking man to lie down, face first, which the driver did. The other agents ran over to Lauren’s car.
A low moan escaped Devlyn’s chest. “I need to get there.”
“Dev, an ambulance is on the way. ETA two more minutes, tops. She’d be gone by the time we got there.”
Devlyn closed her eyes, her entire body shaking. “Where is she?” she asked in a remarkably calm voice, her mind’s eye still focusing on the television image. This can’t be happening again, her mind screamed. It can’t!
“On the corner of 6th and A Street North East. That’s about three miles from here.”
Dev shot to her feet and bolted for the door.
Lauren opened her eyes to the sound of sirens in the distance. Dazed, she blinked a few times, realizing that she was lying sideways, nearly on top of Carol, who was moaning.
“What—?” She shook her head, wondering what was wrong with her vision and what was stinging her eyes. She instantly regretted the motion and cried out softly, her head throbbing.
“Lauren?” Carol’s shaky voice asked.
“I think so,” Lauren whispered, her hands moving to unhook the car’s safety restraint system. Her fingers fumbled for a few seconds until she was able to release herself.
“Is everyone all right back there?” one of the agents asked, his attention quickly turning to his fellow agent, who was slumped forward in the driver’s seat, apparently unconscious.
“Yes,” Carol whimpered.
“Ms. Strayer? Talk to me, ma’am.”
“Oh, God,” Carol gasped. “She’s bleeding.”
Lauren wiped at her eyes, the metallic scent of warm blood filling her nostrils. Suddenly the sedan began to close in on her and she began to panic. Her entire body ached and things kept going in and out of focus. She felt as though she was swimming through thick pea soup.
“Stay in the car, ma’am,” the agent ordered, as he drew his gun with one hand and, with the other, tried to rouse the driver. Alert eyes scanned the interior and exterior of the car.
“I can’t,” Lauren hissed, her heart beating so fast she was sure it would burst in her chest. She tasted blood and her stomach roiled as she reached for the far door. “I—”
But Carol had had enough as well; she pushed past Lauren’s hand and opened the door. She scrambled out and fell onto the asphalt with Lauren right behind her.
The street felt hot against Lauren’s palms, but she didn’t feel the gravel digging into her skin. Bracing herself with her hands against her knees, she stood and started to realize what had happened. When she was upright and swaying precariously, she reached for her face and eyes again, this time looking at her fingers, which came away stained liberally with the sticky blood that was flowing from a gash on her forehead.
She saw stars and her knees gave way just as several Secret Service agents came running and screamed at her to get down.
“Devlyn!” David ran after her, having trouble keeping up with her even though she was wearing a skirt and low heels. “Wait, Dev!” he tried again.
She ran up to Jane’s desk and jerked the phone from her secretary’s hand. “Give me your car keys!”
Compassion shone in Jane’s eyes. “Dev, honey—”
Dev’s face contorted in rage. Never had she been so furious that she had no personal means of transportation. “God dammit, I said give them to me!”
With wide eyes, Liza cleared the area around Jane’s desk, ushering away anyone who could hear or see Devlyn in this all-out panic.
Panting, David put himself between Dev and Jane. “You can’t go to her.”
“Bullshit. I can’t!” Dev barely kept herself from striking him.
“He’s right, Dev.”
The President turned to see Vice President Vincent shouldering his way past a very harried Liza. “We don’t know if this was a true accident or an attempt to get you out of the White House with less than normal security.”
Dev’s hands shaped quivering fists. “I don’t care.”
Geoff’s tone softened. “I know you don’t.” He put a comforting hand on her shaking shoulder. “But I have to.”
“Geoff,” she whispered, tears blinding her. “I have to get to her. I—”
David’s phone rang and everyone held their breath as he answered it. With a curt reply, he snapped the phone shut. “Lauren and the agent who was driving are on their way to George Washington University Hospital. There’s no in-depth medical assessment yet, but we do know that she’s unconscious, her vitals are stable, and they’re treating her for a head wound.”
Dev nodded weakly and commanded her legs to move. All she could think of was going to the hospital after Samantha’s crash; the look of hopelessness on the doctors’ faces; their words of apology and pity that barely registered as the unthinkable actually happened. She closed her eyes and willed herself not to fall apart at the seams.
“Let’s go,” she ordered, making it crystal clear that no one on earth could stop her.
Word had leaked out about the facility’s famous patient. Devlyn, David, and bevy of Secret Service agents bypassed the writhing hoard of reporters camped around the hospital and filling its hallways to the brim by using a staff-only entrance used by physicians in the private, underground parking lot.
The hallway was poorly lit with lurid fluorescent lights and the walls were slightly dingy, despite this being a state-of-the-art facility. They were forced to ascend the narrow staircase two at a time, and Devlyn could hear the Senior-Agent-In-Charge cursing under his breath in front of her. No one had told them about this, and it clearly wasn’t to her security’s liking.
She drew in a deep breath as she bounded up the steps, literally pushing on the backs of the men in front of her so that they would move faster. Dev winced when she caught a whiff of the bleach and the standard medicinal odor found in all hospitals. The air was muggy, giving the impression that a large swimming pool was nearby. She stopped and grasped the metal railing tightly, feeling light headed. She tightened her grip. “Shit.”
“Dev?” David said worriedly, stopping one of the many phone conversations he’d been having since they left the White House.
She just shook her head. “I’m fine.” She started up the stairs again. “You know where we’re going?”
David nodded. “A right turn at the top of the stairs. Jesus, if I’d known we were going to go up seven flights…”
But Devlyn wasn’t listening anymore. She just gritted her teeth and continued to climb, telling herself not to think of anything at all. One step. Two steps. Another. Turn the corner. Breathe.
Finally, a door in front of Devlyn opened, and she moved forward into better light and a fresher smell. Two doctors in crisp white lab coats were there to meet her.
“Madam President, my name is Doctor Emilio Castel. Let me assure you that your wife is receiving the best care possible. I am Ms. Strayer’s primary care physician. We have cleared her rooms of physicians and staff so that you may have a moment alone with her.” He indicated the woman on his right with a tilt of his head. “This is Doctor Yajra Chandra, our most senior plastic surgeon. She will be working on Ms. Strayer’s face.”
Dev swallowed hard, not sure whether to be horrified that Lauren needed a plastic surgeon or grateful enough to fall on her knees and thank God that she was alive, no matter what her condition. Just to be sure she asked, “She’s alive then?” Saying the words aloud made her physically sick, and she could taste the bile rising in her stomach.
“Oh, yes, Madam President,” Dr. Castel answered respectfully, a little surprised Devlyn didn’t already know that. Then again, Lauren had only just been brought in. He glanced down at the chart in his hand and prepared to recite the most important patient status update of his career. “She—”
“Where is she?”
The man’s eyes went round, and his dark eyebrow rose at the sharp, desperate sound to the President’s voice. “I—”
“Where?” Dev shouted, not caring who heard her. Then, out of the corner of her eye and behind Dr. Castel, she caught sight of a room being guarded by three men in suits, all sporting crew cuts. She took off running, stiff-arming the doctor out of her way and sending the people around her into chaos.
The men guarding the door straightened at the sight of the President and barely had time to step aside as Devlyn whirled past them like a mini-tornado, opening the hospital door so violently that it slammed shut behind her.
David, who was only two seconds behind her, remained outside the room. He ordered everyone to stay clear except in the event of an emergency and began quietly conferring with Lauren’s doctors.
Startled, Lauren looked up to find Devlyn bursting in. She hadn’t expected Devlyn to be here this soon or looking this distraught. She was in bed, but still wearing her slacks under her mint green hospital gown, having only been brought to this room a few seconds ago.
Devlyn ran up to the foot of the bed and stopped dead in her tracks to stare at her partner, her breaths coming in quick bursts. A white bandage stood out starkly against the summer-tanned skin of Lauren's forehead, and she was sporting the beginnings of a nasty black eye. Blood still stained the side of her face and chunks of her hair were sticky with it.
Sheepishly, Lauren smiled at her, embarrassed at the tremendous fuss the hospital was making. She’d skipped the emergency room all together, going right to a private room where an entire team of doctors had been waiting. They had ordered about a million tests that were due to start at any moment. And all she wanted to do was go home and wash the remnants of blood from her hair, neck, and face and collapse into bed. “You look worse than I do,” she said, not unkindly.
“Are—?” Dev rubbed her eyes, making very sure that what she was seeing was real. She’s breathing. She’s talking. Devlyn reached out and grabbed hold of a nylon-covered foot, squeezing gently, feeling chilled but living skin beneath her fingers. “Are you all right?”
Lauren frowned. Devlyn looked as though she might pass out. “I’m okay, honey, really.” Her gaze softened with sympathy. Thinking of Devlyn in the hospital last year still filled her with a helpless, panicky feeling that made her throat close and her eyes sting. “You wouldn’t believe the headache I have. They’ll know if for sure if I have a concussion after some more tests.” She reached out for Devlyn’s hand. “Darlin’?”
“What else?” Dev asked, her voice grim and tight. She remained at the foot of the bed, her entire body tensed as though readying herself for a punch to the gut.
Lauren blinked and lowered her hand, stung and confused by Devlyn’s implied rejection. “Okay. They said I still need a few stitches and something called a live-skin cell patch for scarring, and a CAT scan to rule out anything else.” She sighed, wishing they’d been able to give her something for her throbbing head. “Other than that—” She paused as her partner’s skin went from ashen to pale green. “Devlyn, honey?”
Dev bent at the waist and let out a low groan as the stress and heart-wrenching worry caught up with her all at once. Her knees turned to water and hit the floor with a loud thump.
“Devlyn!” Lauren’s eyes went round as saucers and she scrambled to the end of the bed, reaching for Devlyn but not quite making it in time. She jumped out of bed, fighting the temporary vertigo the action caused and ignoring the sharp sting as her IV was torn from her hand. Lauren was at Devlyn’s side just in time to steady the taller woman’s shoulders as she turned her head and vomited all over the hospital floor.
Lauren hugged Devlyn from behind and murmured words of support and comfort as the President heaved out her stomach’s contents. “It’s okay, baby. I’m so sorry to have worried you like this.”
“It— it’s not your fault,” Devlyn said fiercely, between retchings.
“Madam President?” David’s disembodied voice sounded through the door.
“We’re fine, David,” Lauren called back, closing her eyes against the pain she caused herself by raising her voice. The words were still echoing in her head. “We just need a minute.”
Dev began to dry heave.
“You’re sure?” David questioned with renewed urgency.
“I’m sure,” Lauren answered. “No one comes in until I say so, David.”
The relief in his voice was palpable. “Yes, ma’am.” David nodded to himself, pathetically grateful that Lauren wasn’t seriously hurt, but also that she was able to reassure and comfort Devlyn now. It was, he knew, his friend’s nightmare come to life, and finding out that Lauren was relatively unharmed now couldn’t erase the damage that had already been done.
When Devlyn was finished, Lauren pressed her lips against the back of Devlyn’s head and whispered a tender “I love you.” She tried to get up and go for a towel, but Devlyn reached blindly for her, holding in her place.
Dev turned in Lauren’s arms, hugging her with all her might. She began to cry. “Thank God, you’re okay. Thank you, thank you,” she repeated over and over, bringing tears to Lauren’s eyes. Dev cried for a long time as they sat there together on the cold hospital floor until she felt as though she’d purged a good portion of the misery from her system.
Lauren yelped a little when Devlyn gave her another good squeeze.
“God.” Devlyn instantly pulled back and cupped Lauren’s cheeks. She explored her face with her fingertips, and worried eyes took in every square inch of her Lauren that they could. “I’m hurting you. You should be in bed!” She didn’t think it was possible, but when she saw Lauren’s hand, which was bleeding from the violent removal of her IV, she felt even worse.
“I’m not badly hurt, honey,” Lauren explained, carefully scratching around the bandage on her forehead. “Are you okay?”
Dev didn’t even try to lie. She shook her head “no” and grabbed a tissue from a stand near the foot of Lauren’s bed. With careful hands, she wiped away the slender trail of blood that had trailed down Lauren’s ring finger and painted her wedding ring.
“Don’t worry,” Lauren said kindly, tugging gently on a strand of silky, dark hair. “You will be.”
Wordlessly, Devlyn scrubbed a little harder, trying to remove the blood.
Finally Lauren had to pull her hand away. “Honey,” she drawled quietly, “it’s okay. I can clean it at home.”
Dev tucked her hands under her armpits, unsure of what she should do with them. Then her gaze strayed to the stinky pool on the floor next to her. “Damn, I’m sorry about your room.”
Lauren wrinkled her nose. “At least it wasn’t on me this time, right?”
Dev smiled weakly, recalling a very embarrassing incident involving food poisoning and Lauren being in the wrong place at the wrong moment. “True. Are you really okay?”
“I could be brave and lie.”
“I didn’t,” Devlyn reminded her, reaching back and pulling the blanket off Lauren’s bed to cover the vomit.
“I know.” Lauren sighed and closed her eyes. She didn’t want Devlyn to worry, but she wasn’t sure how much longer she could stay standing. “Everything hurts. I feel like warmed-over shit.”
“Ugh.” Dev wiped her mouth with the edge of the blanket. “Don’t make me barf again.”
They both laughed weakly, but more from relief than humor.
“You know how I feel about doctors, Devlyn.” Her eyes flicked around the room and the horrors of childhood filled with melancholy visits to the hospital to watch over her dangerously depressed mother rushed to the forefront of her mind. “I don’t want to be here.” For the first time today, she sounded very much like a scared little girl.
“I know. C’mon.” Devlyn helped her back into bed, taking time to tuck the sheet around her partner’s legs. She pulled a chair over to the bedside and stared down at Lauren with loving eyes, struggling to remember anything she’d ever heard about head injuries. She traced the edges of Lauren’s bandage with a touch so light, Lauren wasn’t sure she felt it at all. “Were you unconscious?”
Lauren sank deeper into the bed and closed her eyes as she thought. She realized very quickly she didn’t have much idea of what had happened at all. “Outside the car, I think I fainted at the sight of my own blood. I can’t tell for sure what happened inside the car. I… I was confused. I got my bell rung, Devlyn.”
“Mmm…” Devlyn’s brow creased. “You need to have more tests.” Dev took her hand and gently stroked Lauren’s palm.
“I just need you.”
“You have me and you get more tests. It’s like winning the lottery only with breasts and needles.”
Lauren opened one eye and rotated it in her partner’s direction. “Are you sure you didn’t get hit on the head?”
“I’m not sure of anything. I—” Dev’s face crumpled and she began to cry again, sobs racking her entire body. “I w— would have rather it happened to me tha— than you. I love y—you.”
“Oh, Devlyn…” Lauren didn’t know what to say. It had all happened so fast that she hadn’t really had more than a moment or two think about how Dev would react to her accident. Yes, intellectually she understood this would be hard for the older woman. But nothing could have prepared for the low keening sound that filled the room and tore through her heart like hot blades. Or for the outpouring of raw, unreasoning fear painted across her lover’s face in scalding tears. “I’m okay. I promise,” she said, feeling as helpless as she ever had.
Dev shook her head violently, and she wiped clumsily at her wet cheeks. “No. No. No! You don’t know that yet.”
“Yes, I do, darlin’. I can tell.”
“Yes, Devlyn. Believe it.”
Dev shook her head again, crying even harder. “I can’t!” Miserably, she hugged herself in mute despair, giving up any pretense of restraint or control. She couldn’t bring herself to even try to hold it together.
Lauren’s heart was breaking, but all she could think to do was to tell Dev that she loved her and reassure her that things truly would be all right. There were several stops and starts before Devlyn’s tears tapered off.
“Better?” Lauren asked, knowing that a good cry could sometimes go a long way.
“I’m not sure,” Dev answered, still seeming very emotionally adrift.
“How are Carol and the agents?” Both men were relatively new to the White House beat, and she hadn’t had a chance to get to know either one of them.
Devlyn didn’t answer for a moment as she tried to remember what David had relayed from the short phone update on the even shorter car ride from the White House to the hospital. She hadn’t paid much attention past hearing that Lauren was stable and being examined. “I think I- I don’t know about the driver, he’s being attended to now. Carol and the other agent were unharmed.”
Lauren let out a relieved sigh. “Thank goodness.”
Lauren jumped at the unexpected outburst.
“I haven’t given them a second’s thought.” Dev swallowed thickly. “What in the hell is wrong with me?”
Lauren proceeded very carefully, but her voice didn’t waver. “This is about more than the accident, darlin’.” She held Dev’s hand tightly.
“I…” Dev felt like she could cry forever and she had trouble speaking, but she tried her best. “Maybe. I shouldn’t be falling apart. I shouldn’t be but…” She sucked in a quick breath, afraid she might start to cry again.
“Shh… Okay, okay,” Lauren soothed. “We’ll deal with it all. Just one thing at a time, okay?”
Dev sniffed a few times. “I’m sorry—”
“Please, stop saying that.” Lauren cupped Dev’s chin.
“You need to get your stitches.” Angrily, Dev wiped at her own eyes again. “Not me being a baby. I’m sorry. The only reason the doctors aren’t swarming all over you is because I’m in here and they’re afraid to come in.”
“They’re not swarming all over me because I have a tiny cut and a bump on the head and nothing more. And I told them not to come in, remember?”
“You need your doctors,” Devlyn insisted stubbornly. She was still shaking.
To Lauren’s eyes, Devlyn had never looked more lost. She suspected that the unrelenting pressure and stress that Devlyn had placed on herself lately had already left her emotionally tapped out. A white Toyota sedan had turned out to be the straw that sent the camel sprawling. “There is something I need,” Lauren insisted, pointedly not letting go of Devlyn’s hand. “It’s what we both need… some time to heal. The shooting, the pressure, the press, they’re still eating away at us both.”
Devlyn’s lip twisted into a sneer, but the gesture was directed inward and Lauren knew it. “At me, you mean.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Lauren corrected, determined to make this happen if she had to get down on her knees and beg. “Please give us the time we need to heal. Please. We both need it desperately.”
Devlyn looked away, her mind still spinning. She needed to talk to David and Liza and Emma and Jane. She needed to tell the kids what had happened, and her parents and Lauren’s father. She needed to bring in the doctors. She needed to get someone to clean up the stinking mess she’d made. And with all that to do, she still wasn’t sure she could tear herself from this very spot if her life depended on it. She wondered with a slightly hysterical, humorless inner laugh if they could do a CAT scan with her still attached to Lauren.
Dev’s entire world still felt all wrong, as if everything were burning around her and she couldn’t see through the blinding, acrid smoke. She cleared her throat gently and clung to Lauren’s hand, trusting her, somehow, to guide her home. “Yeah.” She sighed. “I- I think you’re right.”
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