Disclaimers

Copyright: These characters originated in the deep dark recesses of TN and Advocate's overworked brains.
Copyright © 2001 by T. Novan, Advocate. All Rights Reserved.

Sexual Content: It's in there and it involves two women. If you're under 18 or this type of fiction is illegal in your neck of the woods, please move on. This story is intended for an adult audience only.

Violence: Mild

Language: Mild profanity

Acknowledgements: To our beta readers, Barbara Davies and Maggie Sheridan - your assistance was invaluable! And, of course, we had a blast working together. But we won't bore you with our mutual admiration. While we've got your attention, we'd like to offer a special 'I love you' to our respective spouses .

The Book: We are very pleased to announce that 'Madam President' is under contract for print publication by a brand new publishing house called Jane Doe Press (www.janedoepress.com). An announcement concerning preordering should hit the web very soon. Also, you should know that the print version will contain additional scenes not included in the online version. Don't worry, the online version is a complete story. Consider the print version a 'directors' cut' .

The Book: 2005 Update: Madam President (and it's sequel First Lady) are now available from Cavalier Press http://www.cavalierpress.com/

Comments/Feedback:  Tnovan@aol.com  and  advocate8704@yahoo.com

 

picture of book cover by calli

 

Madam President

By

T. Novan and Advocate (Blayne Cooper)

Prologue

November 2020

Friday, November 6th

Her iron, slightly sweaty grip on the chair's armrests clamped down even harder, causing white knuckles to stand out in vivid relief against the dark blue vinyl. She would have chewed her lower lip in consternation if she could have. But she couldn't. Right now all she could do was pray. I'm gonna be okay. I am. I can do this. Children do this, for Christ's sake! Her head snapped to one side, wrinkling the white, paper bib tied round her neck, and gray eyes went impossibly wide at the sound of footsteps. Oh, no. Someone's coming. It'll be him!

"Hello? Anybody home?" A cheerful voice chuckled for just a split second before a balding head, wreathed with white hair, peeked around the slightly open door. "Hi there!" The man smiled amiably at the frightened woman and marched happily into the room. "I'm Doctor Cardozo. So that means you must be..." He discreetly peeked at his patient's chart, having forgotten the name already, as he slipped into a pair of rubber gloves. Snapping the second glove loudly, he scanned for the pertinent information that his assistant had emphasized with hot pink highlighter.

Lauren Strayer

Blood diseases: None reported

Last checkup: 12/12/14

Patient Assessment: Complains of chronic pain in....

He glanced up from the chart and at Lauren. "Ms. Strayer, I think when you were here the last time you must have misunderstood one of my colleague's instructions. Checkup time comes around every six months. Not every six years." He shook his head sadly.

His voice was mildly chastising, and Lauren nodded but rolled her eyes. Asshole, she thought tartly. I only come here because you're close to my apartment. One more snotty comment, and I'm moving.

Dr. Cardozo scanned the small diagram of the human mouth where an 'X' was placed on the lower left wisdom tooth. He pursed his lips for a moment then set the chart down, pulling up a stool next to Lauren.

"Well now, let's see what we have." He grabbed a shiny silver pick from a tray full of instruments and pointed it at Lauren's mouth, which was already being held open by the jaw spreader that had been inserted by the dental assistant who had prepped her. One look, and the assistant had known that tooth was coming out... today.

Round, apprehensive eyes followed the instrument as it moved closer to its target. When it got within an inch or two of Lauren's mouth, she jerked her head away in pure reaction.

The dentist exhaled tiredly. "Come on now, Ms. Strayer. This is just a probe." He held out the pick for her to see. "I know you must be hurting. Your cheek is all pink and swollen." A cold finger poked the body part in question and Lauren winced, grunting her agreement.

She glared at him evilly, but, knowing he was right, dutifully turned her head and presented him with her wide-open mouth. Not that I have a choice with this thing holding my mouth open like the catch of the day. He immediately made a hissing noise that she correctly assumed meant something bad. Very bad.

"Needs to come out," he informed her bluntly. And, while he didn't do what he was about to do very often, he thought with this patient he'd make an exception. It was the reason he still kept the old machine around. "This will help." He reached over and turned a nozzle, then fiddled with a mask for a moment before placing it over Lauren's nose and mouth. "Just breathe normally."

She looked startled for a second, but then remembered getting laughing gas once as a child. Nice bedside manner. You could have at least explained what you were doing first. Lauren thought hard. Would they need to use the... she gulped... laser to extract a tooth? She couldn't imagine why. And with that self-serving conclusion, the woman felt her painfully ridged body begin to relax.

"You hold this." The dentist pried Lauren's fingers from one of the armrests and moved her hand to the mask. "I'll be back in a minute, and we'll fix you right up. Would you like to watch television while you wait?"

Lauren nodded gratefully. She would do anything to keep her mind off what was about to happen.

"TV on," he commanded. Three tiny, flat, gray boxes, each mounted strategically on a different wall, shot angled beams that, when combined, formed a stunning, three- dimensional picture whose edges simply fuzzed away into reality. Filling the space in the corner of the room there was now a handsome anchorman and his large paper-covered desk. 'Election 2020' was written in red, white and blue block letters and hovered over his left shoulder.

Lauren groaned loudly, but it was too late. Dr. Cardozo had already scuttled out of the room, presumably to attend to his next victim. Irritably, she pulled the mask away from her face and tried to give the voice command 'change channel' but the current state of her mouth made it impossible, her efforts serving only to drip saliva down her chin. Then she tried to curse, but that didn't work either. Which only made her want to curse some more. Finally, she simply gave up and pressed the gas mask tightly against her face. Inhaling deeply, she prayed she'd be so stoned in a few seconds that she would miss the Ken doll-like anchorman droning on and on about President-elect Marlowe.

The election music cued up and, in the blink of an eye, Devlyn Marlowe, at her podium on the steps of the Governor's mansion in Columbus, Ohio, was standing at Lauren's feet. The late autumn breeze was tossing around the President-elect's dark hair, and her bright blue eyes were clear and intense as she gazed out into the cheering crowd.

"Oh, God!" Not her again! Every day. Day after day after day after day... The buzzing from the room's fluorescent lights began to grow louder and louder, and Lauren felt her body began to magically sink into the chair as a lovely sense of dislocation overtook her. She stared at the charismatic woman dressed in a long, black trench coat who appeared oblivious to the light drizzle dampening her head and coat.

"How are you feeling, Ms. Strayer?" Dr. Cardozo reappeared at her side, and she blinked dazedly at him, not having heard him come in. He looked at her and grinned knowingly, quite certain she was feeling no pain at the moment. "I think we're finished with this now." The man gently pulled away Lauren's mask. "Don't you just love her?" He motioned over his shoulder with an instrument.

Lauren furrowed her brow. Love her? Nooooooo. I'm sick of her and this entire election. She allowed President-elect Marlowe's acceptance speech to roll right over her, the low tone of the dark-haired woman's voice soothing her further. But even so, her gaze remained focused on Marlowe's image. She's sure easy on the eyes. Nice hair, tall, her mind rambled as the dentist began rooting around in her mouth.

After a few moments, the dentist began flushing Lauren's mouth with water and suctioning it back out, the noise preventing him from hearing the television. "Volume up two," he ordered absently.

Lauren jumped a little, shocked back to the moment when Marlowe's voice suddenly grew too loud to ignore.

Devlyn Marlowe leaned forward on the podium, her hands resting on its edges. Although she was physically exhausted from what had been a grueling campaign, one whose final numbers were the closest since the Gore/Bush fiasco twenty years prior, she fed off the crowd's energy, soaking up their excitement, the palpable charge in the air reinvigorating frazzled nerves. "We did it!" She raised a fist in victory, and the crowd roared.

The President-elect laughed warmly, then raised her palms to quiet them so she could continue speaking. Devlyn looked up and flashed a charismatic, heart-stopping smile at someone in the crowd. And Lauren sucked in a breath; her drug-induced stupor further adding to the feeling that Devlyn was smiling directly at her. Wow.

Marlowe's gaze dropped from Lauren's, and she stuck her wet hands in her coat pockets, stepping down several stairs so she could speak more directly to the crowd. A flurry of activity around her made it clear that that move wasn't expected by the Secret Service agents flanking the edge of the steps. And several of them moved smoothly into new positions before disappearing from view. "As one of my favorite authors wrote, 'When faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge, you have but one choice... to dig deeper within yourself than you ever believed possible... to question the dedication and worthiness of your very soul... and then to throw caution to the winds and take your fate in your own two hands.' "

Lauren began choking wildly, gasping for air, her flailing arms knocking into the instrument tray and sending several tools onto her lap. Oh, my God!

The crowd had gone respectfully silent, but exploded once again when Devlyn added, "We did that, folks... and we made history in the process!" Her voice was drowned out by the cheering masses, and the anchorman broke in to add his own commentary.

"Dammit!" Dr. Cardozo clumsily yanked his hand out of the convulsing woman's mouth, her tooth trapped between the bloody tips of his shaking forceps. Thank God she didn't swallow it. My malpractice insurance is already hell. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"

"Cu... Cu... Cu...!!!"

"What? What?" he asked desperately, beginning to panic over Lauren's agitated state. Maybe she'd sue him anyway. He practically threw down the forceps onto the askew tray, sending Lauren's wisdom tooth bouncing across the carpet.

Without warning, the woman leaned over to a small porcelain basin and carelessly ripped the jaw spreader from her mouth, spitting and hacking several times in the process. Her lips were numb, and she could barely form the words. "Cu... Cu..." She swallowed and smacked her unresponsive cheeks and lips with her hands.

"Lord have mercy, girl. What is it?"

Lauren extended her finger toward the image of the anchorman who was still chatting away happily. A still head shot of Devlyn's was floating disembodied above him as election result percentages ran in a continuous stream just below her neck, disappearing into the area where Dr. Cardozo's coat rack stood.

"She cu... cu..."

Dr. Cardozo stared at her expectantly.

"She quoted me!" Lauren was finally able to blurt out. She frowned and wiped away a long string of saliva that was dangling freely from her chin.

The man rubbed his forehead, starting to suspect that Lauren's revelation didn't have anything to do with dentistry. "Huh?"

Lauren blinked in confusion, the laughing gas making her tongue feel thick, and her senses dull. "I'm the... the author." She ran a hand through wavy, shoulder-length, blonde hair. "Sweet Jesus," she drawled, the words taking on a slur at the end. "I didn't even vote for the Yankee!"

A glimpse of color caught her eye, and Lauren suddenly peered down at her paper bib, which was speckled with red dots and several good sized crimson smears. Her eyes widened, and the color drained from her face. "Is that blo... bloo?"

"Blood," Dr. Cardozo finished, looking down at Lauren's limp form which was lying peacefully in the dental chair. "Shit." Stepping around the unconscious woman's feet, he walked over to the doorway and motioned over the receptionist. "I need a phone number."

The receptionist peered inside the exam room. "Your lawyer?"

"My lawyer," he confirmed with a scowl.

*                      *                      *

Lauren pulled into her designated parking space outside her apartment complex, shutting down the engine with the voice command 'engine off' followed by '4213' which happened to be the last four digits of her social security number. In an effort to make her life simple, she used the same four numbers for every code she had, knowing full well that any thief with minimal brainstem activity could wipe her out financially in a heartbeat. Then again, she never got locked out of her apartment or accidentally routed her grocery bill to the phone company. Simple was good, she decided.

The fair-haired woman slipped off small, silver, wire-framed glasses and leaned over, resting her forehead against the steering wheel. After she had woken up at the dentist's office, it had taken nearly thirty minutes to convince the man that she wasn't going to sue him. She explained that passing out or throwing up was her typical reaction to the sight of her own blood. Nothing like making a total and complete fool of myself to start the day off right.

Lauren groaned slightly, her jaw feeling like she'd been hit in the face with a two-by-four. She plucked a small bottle of prescription pain pills she'd picked up on the way home out of her jacket pocket. Squinting, she studied the label, then shook her head and relented, sliding her glasses back into place. Three more hours until I can take another one. Just great. Her head felt like it was going to explode this very minute.

Stuffing the bottle back in her pocket, she exited her car and slowly made her way up the outdoor staircase to her second floor apartment. With one hand, she closed the lapels of her suede jacket to ward off the chill. November in Nashville was always unpredictable. Most of the time it rained; sometimes there were even flurries. Last week it had been a balmy 65 degrees and she'd pounded away on her computer out on her balcony in the warm afternoon sun. In contrast, today it was in the low 40s, and rain clouds loomed above, the cold wind seeming to intensify the pain in her jaw.

She rounded a blind corner to her apartment, digging in her purse for the keys she'd already put away without thinking. When she glanced up, she stopped dead in her tracks. Three slightly shivering men, two dressed in suits and one in khakis and a sport coat, appeared to be waiting for her outside her apartment door.

The oldest of the trio, a heavy-set man in his late fifties with a slightly graying goatee, caught sight of Lauren and visibly relaxed. "Lauren! I'm glad we caught you. I tried to call you, but I kept getting your service."

Lauren scrunched up her face as she narrowed her eyes. "Wayne?" My publishing agent? From New York City? Here? While they had seen each other a hundred times via satellite video feeds, they'd never, in the seven years they'd been business associates and, finally, dear friends, met face-to-face. He was shorter than she'd imagined, but his virtual image had accurately portrayed his chubby, bland face, deeply-creased cheeks and overall fatherly persona.

"Damn, I need to adjust the color on my machine. You're much more of a blonde than a redhead." His eyes twinkled happily. "Hiya, sweetheart. Oooo... how does the other guy look?" He grazed her slightly black and blue cheek with his fingertips.

Lauren didn't bother to answer his question. Instead, she grinned as much as her mouth packed with cotton swabs would allow. His rapid speech and nasal, New York accent seemed much more pronounced in person.

He smiled back in response and felt himself pulled into a tight, heartfelt hug, wishing, as he had many times over the years, that he were young enough to turn this pretty woman's head.

Lauren caught a whiff of peppermint, and a light crunching sound near her ear confirmed that he was chewing a piece of hard candy. "What are you doing here?" she asked curiously, her hands grasping his biceps so she could push back and look him over again. "I sent you those contract revisions three days ago. There was no need to come all the way out here for that." She smacked his arm lightly.

Remembering that there were two strangers standing only a few feet away, Lauren's gaze traveled to the other men who were both wearing navy blue, three-piece suits, and gray overcoats. She frowned and stopped talking, pressing her lips against Wayne's cold ear so she could whisper, "I told you I'm not doing a biography for Vinnie Lagulia! I don't care if he's sitting in a federal penitentiary with nothing but time on his hands. I don't do the mob!"

At the word 'mob' the two other men's ears seemed to perk up like a curious German Shepherd's.

"Kidding," Wayne exclaimed, looking back at the men. "She's kidding, of course!" He gently grabbed Lauren's elbow and somewhat nervously guided her the few remaining steps to the door. "If you let us all in I'll make the introductions. I've got wonderful news!"

*                      *                      *

"No."

Wayne's jaw sagged. "No?" he repeated incredulously. Dammit, what is wrong with her? It doesn't get any bigger than this! "What do you mean 'no'?"

Arching a pale, slender eyebrow, Lauren crossed her arms over her chest. "It's a simple word, Wayne. Don't make me get out the dictionary." Before Wayne could argue his case further, she turned, picked up the other men's coats and passed them over. Lauren extended her right hand once they had taken the hint and shrugged on the garments she was sure they wore to bed... along with their wing tips.

"Please let President-elect Marlowe know that I'm flattered beyond words that she wants me to do her biography. But that I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline. I'm sorry you had to come all the way to Nashville for nothing. I would have told you that over the phone."

Michael Oaks, one of Devlyn's most trusted aides, and soon-to-be Social Secretary for the new administration, reluctantly shook Lauren's hand, more than a little pissed off that he'd flown from Ohio to New York and then Tennessee, only to have the young woman shoot down his offer in five minutes flat. As far as he was concerned Devlyn could just find herself another writer... they had to be a dime a dozen. And shouldn't they be falling all over themselves to do this for Dev? For the country?

But Michael knew his boss would expect him to give Strayer the full court press, no matter how he personally felt about the task. His dark eyes went serious. "Why, Ms. Strayer? Why won't you consider President-elect Marlowe's request? This is an unparalleled honor. Surely you don't have a better offer pending?" He looked over at Wayne, who wildly shook his head 'no'.

The writer smiled sweetly and did her best to hold her tongue. Honor, my ass. This is one of those jobs where they tell you what to write, and then you slap your name on the book cover. No, thanks... she can find herself another propaganda puppet. "I'm simply not interested." Her tone was polite but cooling quickly.

"The compensation offer is more than generous, but still negotiable. We consulted several major publishing companies who indicated what we are offering is well above what their highest paid historians and biographers command."

"I'm sure it is. But the answer is still 'no'," she insisted. I don't respond well to overly aggressive, buddy. And you've already crossed that line.

The young black man tried again. "But-"

Lauren lifted her hands in forestallment. "First of all, I don't specialize in politicians."

"If I'm not mistaken, your last biography was of Cardinal James O'Roarke. Are you going to stand here and tell me that the Catholic Church isn't a political institution?" His voice was rising in volume and had taken on a slightly sarcastic edge.

Lauren felt her temper beginning to rise. Who did he think he was? The man next to him, who might as well have had 'Secret Service' tattooed on his forehead, stepped closer to her, invading her private space and looking at her with disapproving eyes. But she refused to back down. Am I supposed to be intimidated by 'no neck'? I think not. I can see how you operate, Devlyn Marlowe! "I've only been home for a few months after spending nearly two years in Ireland and the Vatican, writing Cardinal O'Roarke's story. I'm simply not ready to commit myself to a job that will last for a minimum of four years."

"It's important to the nation that..." Mr. Oaks continued, not stopping when Lauren tried to get a word in edgewise several times.

Wayne noticed the woman's face turning pink, then, finally, a bright red. He crunched down a new mint nervously. Oh, no. Here it comes. The IRS is going to audit Starlight Publishing, and me personally, every single year from now until the end of time! "Lauren, please. I know you had your heart set on Maya Angelou. But this is the President of the United States for God's sake!"

"No means no," Lauren ground out forcefully, her temper snapping. She marched over to the front door and flung it open with a loud bang. She automatically bent over and used one arm to keep her rambunctious Pug, Gremlin, from escaping. "This conversation is over."

Sunday, November 8th

The sedan slowed. Actually, several sedans slowed. To the casual observer, they could've been mistaken for a procession carrying a family mourning the loss of someone it loved. And if it weren't for the identity of one of the people in the third car, that might have been true. Before her car had even come to a complete stop, men in dark suits surrounded it; the men who protected the life of the President-elect. With a quick but thorough check, the area was deemed secure, and two long legs appeared from behind an automobile door as Devlyn Marlowe began to climb out of the car.

She leaned over, spoke to the other occupants, and retrieved a bouquet of roses before slowly walking to the stone that sat some thirty feet way. The men assigned to guard her were dutiful, but extremely respectful of her privacy at this moment, keeping as far away as safety permitted. She adjusted her scarf and tugged on the collar of her coat, raising it over the back of her neck. Dev gripped the roses and brought them to her nose, but most of their sweet, spicy fragrance was swept away by the cold autumn air.

She settled down in front of the gravestone, the damp, leaf-strewn grass soaking the knees of her slacks. Devlyn placed the flowers in a ceramic vase attached to the stone and brushed away a few twigs and leaves that had clustered around the base of the headstone. "Hiya, beautiful. I had to come today because things are going to get very nuts for me very shortly." Dev gave a slight chuckle as she intently studied a bright orange leaf with gloved hands. "Look who I'm trying to kid. Things are already nuts for me."

Dev let go of the leaf and watched the wind carry it away. She leaned forward so her fingers could trace the outline of the letters carved in stone. "I miss you. Sometimes at night, I still wake up and reach for you." She smiled and her hand dropped away. "I've been thinking about you a lot lately. I wouldn't be where I am if it hadn't been for you. I wish we could be together now."

Her smile turned wistful. "You'd make a great First Lady." Dev settled back on her bottom, resting with her legs stretched before her. She crossed her ankles. "Wonder how they would have handled that? At least I think they would have called you First Lady." She sighed, shaking her head. "Doesn't matter. You were, and always will be, my first lady, and that's what is important."

"I don't think I'll be coming back, Samantha. I'll bring the kids, of course. Anytime they want," she quickly added. "But I think... for me... I need to try and focus on the future for a while." She was silent for a long moment, listening to the faint howl of the wind and the sound of passing cars in the distance. "Yeah." She sighed and nodded a little. "I knew you'd understand."

Dev glanced back to the caravan and signaled. One of the agents opened the door to Dev's car, and three, small children climbed out. Ashley, the dark-haired seven-year-old, patiently waited for her little brothers to make their way out of the back seat before carefully taking their hands.

The tall woman smiled affectionately as the children walked toward her. She turned back to face the stone. "You'd be so proud of all of them. They're very special. Aaron has a picture of you on his nightstand. He kisses you goodnight before bed." Her voice shook a little as she spoke. "I've made sure they know you. They know both their Moms." She chuckled suddenly. "Ashley, bless her, has learned to roll her eyes at me the same way you used to."

The children joined her, and Aaron, the youngest at four, settled himself into Dev's lap, snuggling round her neck, while the older two placed tiny bouquets of flowers on the grass in front of the grave.

"Hi, Mommy," Ashley greeted easily, taking a seat Indian style. "I got an 'A' in math today. Mom says I'm doing real good in math now."

On impulse, five-year-old Christopher gave the cold stone a little kiss, then joined his brother in Dev's lap. At five, the fair-haired little boy was by far the quietest of the three kids. Ashley and Aaron seemed to take their monthly visits in stride. But Christopher seemed to have as difficult a time as Dev herself. Even though he never complained, she wondered if she should stop bringing him.

But Devlyn knew it was important to make these wonderful children understand that they had, indeed, had two parents who loved them very much. Even if one had been cruelly ripped away from them by a drunk driver just a few weeks after Aaron was born. It hurt Devlyn's soul that none of them could really remember much about Samantha. Only Ashley even had the smallest hint of remembrance. And Dev wasn't sure if those were genuine or a product of their many family photos.

The family spent a few more minutes together, then the President-elect sent the children back to the car. She stood, leaning over to leave a soft kiss on the stone just as her son had done. "I love you, Samantha. You'll be in my prayers. Just like always." She took a deep breath and turned for the car. She didn't cry anymore as she walked away, and she knew that was a good thing.

*                      *                      *

Devlyn settled down in her padded seat at the head of the dining room table with the children and their nanny. Emma was a godsend. Samantha had hired her right after Devlyn had Ashley. And she had been right there to lend a hand when Samantha had Christopher and Aaron. Dev's career kept her so busy that she never seemed to have as much time to spend with the children as she wanted. Emma had helped take up even more slack after Samantha's death, and Dev wasn't sure whether she or the children would have made it without her.

Emma Drysdale was exactly what you'd want a nanny to be. Dedicated and loving. Her generous smile and heart were appreciated by all who knew her. She was a tiny woman, with a fierce personality, ample hips and a matronly bosom. She had a thick head of golden/gray hair and was as quick with a hug as she was to scold. Emma was more of a grandmother to the Marlowe children than a paid employee. And that suited Devlyn just fine. She was one of the family, and the older woman's wrath was nearly as legendary as her chocolate chip cookies.

"Don't you dare think you're gonna get up from this table until you've eaten every last bite on your plate."

Dev looked at each of the children, wondering which was in trouble. Then she glanced at her own plate, and she knew who was in Dutch. "I'm eating, Emma," she protested uselessly.

"You're too skinny as it is." Emma tsked her and pinched at a broad shoulder that was anything but skinny. "And you're not eating. You're pushing your food around to make it look like you're eating." Emma raised a gray brow, glancing down at the seated woman even as she moved over to Ashley and buttered another roll for the child. "You don't want to make a bad impression on your children now, do you?"

"You know," Dev stabbed a helpless stalk of asparagus, "I hate it when you do that."

"I know." The nanny nodded and refilled Aaron's milk. "That's why I do it."

"Sit down, Emma," she groaned. "The kids are fine. Eat something yourself." Dev shook her head and leaned back in her chair, knowing her protest would go ignored on this night, just as it had on every other night. At least until Emma was ready to sit down.

She wasn't mistaken.

Ashley giggled and turned her large brown eyes on her mother. "Mom?"

"Yes, sweetheart?" Dev decided to make an effort to eat her dinner, even though she was so tired the only thought that really appealed to her was going straight to bed.

"Do I have to take her with me to the zoo tomorrow?"

"Huh?" Dev's forehead creased as she tried to figure out who her was. "Oh, you mean Agent Hamlin?"

Ashley scowled and Dev blinked, startled to see herself so clearly in her daughter's expression.

"I'll take that as a yes. And I'm afraid you will, sweetheart."

With her fork, the little girl angrily smashed into the lava river she had created with her mashed potatoes and gravy. "None of the other kids have to."

"I know, honey. But...I'll tell you what, we'll tell her to wear jeans and a sweatshirt, okay?"

Ashley thought about that for a moment. It couldn't hurt, she figured. "Fine."

Christopher and Aaron stopped eating so they could listen intently to this conversation. They both had new bodyguards as well.

"You might as well get used to Agent Hamlin and try to make friends with her. She's probably going to be with you for the next four years."

"What about Amy?"

"Look, Moppet. Amy was a State Trooper. She took care of you before I was elected President. Now it's going to be a Secret Service agent and it's going to be Agent Hamlin." She patted the girl's hand and noticed that Christopher and Aaron didn't look any more pleased with the prospect than Ashley. Her eyes softened, and she smiled reassuringly. "You'll get to like her as much as you liked Amy. I'm sure of it."

"'Kay," the little girl muttered.

"Mom, can I go too?" Christopher piped up from his spot directly on Dev's right. "I want to go to the zoo."

"I'm sure you do, buddy, but this is a class trip that Moppet is taking." She grasped his small hand in hers. "But I'll tell you what, I'll try to arrange a trip for you and Aaron, okay?"

"Yes," Aaron and Chris cried simultaneously. The brothers gave each other the high five. Unfortunately, Aaron's aim was a little low, and he ended up smacking Chris in the head. Chris immediately struck back, and a mini slapping war ensued with the boys laughing and yelling.

"All right. Time to get ready for bed." Emma moved from her place at the end of the table and began herding the children toward the stairs.

Dev stood up as well, but sat back down like a chastised child when the older woman gave her a disapproving look.

"I am the President-elect you know!" the tall woman protested with a fake pout.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm very impressed, Madam President-elect." Emma pointed to the full plate. "Now eat your dinner."

"Am I ever going to do anything that impresses you?!" Dev called to the retreating form.

"You already have. They're named Ashley, Christopher and Aaron. Now eat."

*                      *                      *

It was nearly three more hours before Dev was finally finished for the day and wearily began climbing the stairs toward her bedroom. An aide caught her before her foot landed on the top step.

"Governor?"

She let her head drop. "Yes?"

"The Secret Service just brought this file in for you. They said you wanted it immediately."

It's just a file. Thank you, God! I may get to bed yet tonight. "Thanks." She took it and gave the index a quick glance. "Strayer, Lauren Anna. Lauren not Loren, huh?" I figured 'L. Strayer' had to be a woman. The picture she drew in my mind....

"Governor?" The aide looked confused.

"Oh, nothing. Sorry. Good night."

"Good night, ma'am."

Devlyn made her way into Ashley's room first. It was a typical little girl's room. Filled with stuffed animals, doll houses and all the frills. The little canopy bed only served to remind Dev how precious her first born truly was.

"Hey, Moppet," she whispered into the darkness. "You asleep yet?"

"No, ma'am." The little girl rolled over, her soft, dark eyes glinting from the light coming from the hallway.

The tall woman took a seat on the bed, tucking the file under her arm. She studied her little girl, brushing messy bangs that needed trimming. "I know you don't understand everything that's going on right now, and it's kinda scary for you."

Ashley nodded.

"But I need you to trust me, okay? This is all a very good thing."

"My teacher says that you're gonna be the most powerful woman in the world. Is that true?"

Startled pale eyes blinked. "Well..."

"Even more powerful than Wonder Woman?" The little girl popped up in her bed.

Dev looked into her daughter's round, brown eyes. "No. No way. Wonder Woman would kick my butt. Besides she's got that great invisible jet," Dev reminded, giving her daughter a friendly poke in the tummy.

Ashley nodded. "And the golden lasso."

"Right." She gently laid her little girl back down until her shoulders sank into her fluffy pillow. Then she leaned over, and they rubbed noses. "But you trust me... right, Moppet?"

"Always and forever." Little arms tightened around her neck.

They held each other for a long moment. "Did you tell Mommy good night?"

"Yes, ma'am. Right after my prayers."

"Good girl."

"You really miss her, don't you?"

Devlyn frowned. Today at the cemetery had been very hard for her, and her astute daughter had obviously picked up on that fact. She'd been trying to say goodbye to Samantha for over three years, and she was never very good at goodbye. Especially when it came to people she loved. "Sure, I do."

A pensive look crossed Ashley's face. "Maybe sometime you'll find a new mommy for us."

A lump formed in Dev's throat, and it took her several seconds to speak around it. "Maybe, Moppet," she conceded doubtfully. "But your Mommy was very special. And I loved her very much."

"So did I... I... I think."

She tucked her daughter in, smoothing the covers underneath her chin. "I know you did. And Mommy knows you did, too. I'm sure of it."

Ashley yawned. "Do you think she's lonely, like you?"

The innocent words pierced Dev's heart, and she felt the beginnings of tears. "No, sweetie. She's happy up in heaven with grandma and grandpa. She's never lonely."

"'Kay." Sleepy eyes slipped shut.

Dev placed a kiss on her forehead. "Love you, Ash," she said softly, watching as the girl's breathing grew deep and even. "Sweet dreams." On her way out of the room she clicked on a tiny night-light that cast the space in a muted blue glow.

Next, Dev quietly padded to the room the boys shared where they lay asleep, tucked down in matching racecar beds. She knelt between the beds and felt the tears come in earnest. These boys, with their blond hair and blue eyes, were the spitting image of the woman who had given birth to them. And neither would ever know the mother who loved them so much.

"Dammit, Samantha," she growled under her breath. Dev angrily sprang to her feet. "How could you just leave us?" She covered her face with trembling hands, immediately ashamed of her outburst. She wiped away the tears. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it." The tired woman forced the tears to stop, wiping the last of them away with the sleeve of her shirt. "I love you. I didn't mean it."

She bent over and gave each boy a soft kiss on the cheek. "Great adventures to you both tonight. I love you."

Closing the door gently behind her, she made her way to her own room. She tossed the file down on a desk near the stone fireplace. Where, true to Mrs. Drysdale's mothering nature, there was a sandwich and a glass of milk, waiting for the President-elect.

She snorted and threw herself into a large recliner. She hoisted the milk to her lips, then paused to take a moment and offer a toast. "To Emma Drysdale, I wouldn't get through the days or nights without you." She leaned over, flipping open the file as she sipped the creamy beverage.

"Well, well, Lauren Strayer. Aren't you just the cutest thing?" There were several pictures of the young woman, and she held up a 5" X 7" candid shot of Lauren in the park with her dog. The blonde was wearing a baseball cap, and a short, wavy ponytail was poking out the back. She had on gray sweats and a bright orange and white, University of Tennessee sweatshirt. She was laughing, her arm fully extended by the taut leash as the hideous little beast appeared to be walking her.

Dev examined the date on the back of the picture and confirmed it was taken only two weeks ago. She flipped to the next photograph. In this one, Lauren was wearing a linen suit with a fitted skirt that stopped a few inches above her knees. The more sophisticated clothing made the writer look older, Dev considered. Lauren's suit jacket was draped over her shoulder and tanned arms peeked out from beneath a sleeveless, pale blue silk blouse. She was descending the steps of some office building and talking to a woman alongside her. The writer's hand had been caught in mid-air as she gestured. A smile edged its way across Devlyn's lips as she took a good long moment to enjoy Lauren's youthful good looks, devastating gray eyes and a smile that she was sure would melt butter.

The President-elect lifted the last picture, which was obviously Lauren's drivers' license photo. Making a face, she shivered and pushed a button on the edge of her desk. The silent room was suddenly filled with a quiet hum. With one last grimace, she slid the enlarged photo into a paper-thin slot that ran along the corner of the desk, nodding happily as her shredder obliterated the unflattering shot.

She retrieved the picture of Lauren in the park and spoke to it. "They'll retake it if you ask them nicely, Lauren," she chuckled. Tossing down the photo, she picked up the neatly typed report and glanced at the bio coversheet, but the words began to blur. She rubbed her eyes, knowing she still had several hours of pressing work ahead of her. Hell, they told you she passed the security check last week, Dev. The rest can wait until tomorrow.

"Well, Lauren Strayer, I don't need this file to tell me I want your help. I already knew that."

Dev finished her milk, ate her sandwich, and dug into a report on Chinese trade negotiations. She finally dropped into bed shortly after midnight.

Monday, November 9th

"No? What do you mean 'no'?" Dev scrawled her name at the bottom of a piece of paper and handed it to one aide while another was briefing her about her next three appointments.

Michael Oaks shook his head, wishing he could say to President-elect Marlowe what Lauren had told her publisher the day before. "She doesn't want the job, Dev." He shrugged. "It's as simple as that."

Dev shot him a look. "Nothing is ever 'as simple as that'. And you know it." She nodded absently to her secretary, who was going around the room and taking coffee orders from her staff. "Why doesn't she want it? No..." she told her secretary. "That day is bad. Can we push it up to the twenty-first?"

Michael took a seat next to the tall woman. "Strayer gave me a few lame reasons, but I think it comes down to the fact that she just wasn't interested in writing your biography."

"Then we need to get her interested."

"Dev, what does it matter? We can get someone else. Someone better. I know you love her work, but the woman didn't even vote for you, for God's sake!"

Now that got Dev's attention, and she looked up from her electronic organizer.

Her customary smile slid from her face. "What do you mean she didn't vote for me? Why not?"

Michael nodded his thanks when a pot of coffee was set down in front of him and Dev, then moved his elbows to make room for a mammoth stack of papers. "Didn't you read the report on her?" He poured Dev a cup, then one for himself, drawing in a deep, appreciative sniff of the strong aroma.

"I looked at it," Dev said, her brow furrowing. Okay, I looked at her picture. Shit.. "Jane?" Blue eyes scanned the crowded room.

"Here it is, Dev." Jane, Dev's personal secretary, thrust a manila folder into Dev's hand.

Twin eyebrows rose. "You frighten me sometimes, Jane. You do realize this, don't you?"

The plump woman smiled and winked. "After fifteen years, I know you better than you know yourself, Devlyn Marlowe." Her grin broadened. "And I can't wait to be President of the United States!"

The room exploded in laughter, with Dev joining in. "And a wonderful President you'll make, too. Just give a me a little bump if I ever get in your way."

Dev took a sip of hot coffee and plucked a blueberry bagel from a loaded tray that was now circling the room. She opened the file. Who are you, Lauren Strayer? And why did you turn me down? The room faded away as she began to concentrate on the words before her. She speed read the coversheet bio before tackling the report in toto.

Subject: Lauren Anna Strayer

D.O.B.: 7/4/1990

Ht.: 5'6" Wt.: 124 Eyes: Gray Hair: Blonde

Dev's eyes scanned beyond the address, non-remarkable medical history, lack of criminal history and employment information.

Marital Status: Divorced (dates of marriage 1/24/14 - 10/16/17)

Family: No children, no siblings, no significant other, parents: still living

Her thoughts stopped there for a moment. Sounds lonely.

Education: BA in History, minor in English Literature, University of Tennessee, Magna Cum Laude, graduation date: 5/5/11

Devlyn laughed as she read about the eleven outstanding parking tickets the City of Nashville had against the woman. Her gaze drifted back to the photo that had caught her attention the night before, and she smiled again. I wonder what the ugly little dog's name is?

She flipped to the back of the file for the supplemental information she knew would be there, quickly examining a photograph of Lauren's ex-husband, Judd Radison, an architect living in Chicago who had remarried two months after his divorce from Lauren. He now had a two-and-a-half-year-old-son. Dev did the math and stifled a curse. Cheating rat bastard. She decided to shred his picture later, too.

She frowned when there were no photographs of Lauren's parents, but the brief report indicated Howard Strayer was a retired plumber and 45-year member, and former Union Steward, for the American Plumbers' Union. Blue collar background. I wouldn't have guessed that. Interesting. Anna Strayer was a homemaker, who had been hospitalized for depression several times over the past ten years.

When Dev looked up from her reading, ten minutes later, she was alone in the conference room. Empty cups were everywhere, paper plates were strewn around the room and for the first time she noticed the ticking beeping of an alarm that had been set to remind her of her first appointment. Her coffee was cold, and she pushed the cup away with distaste.

Devlyn shuffled back to the first page of the file and, taking a large bite of her bagel, she picked up her phone.

*                      *                      *

Lauren began rooting around in her purse, finally finding a small mirror. "Auto drive on. Preset destination number 12. 4213." Lauren dropped her hand from the wheel and pushed her seat back as the car signaled and made a smooth lane change. She glanced at her watch. She was already late. "Increase speed by 10 miles per hour. 4213." She waited for the expected warning beep, then overrode the automatic speed control system with a voice command. "Speed override approved. 4213."

Holding up a small hand mirror, she applied a light coat of pale lipstick. She jumped when her phone rang, causing her to smear her chin with a streak of pink. "Uck." She snagged a tissue from a holder between the seats, and let the phone continue to ring as she wiped her face. On the fifth ring she answered, "Hello."

"Hello," a strong but decidedly female voice burred. "Is this Ms. Lauren Strayer?"

Lauren held the phone away from her face and stared at it as though she'd never seen it before. I know that voice.

"Hello? Ms. Strayer?"

Lauren pressed the receiver back to her ear, impressed, despite the fact that she truly didn't want to be. "This..." She cleared her throat gently. "This is Lauren Strayer."

Dev smiled, easily picking up on the younger woman's surprise and instantly loving the sweet, Southern drawl. "I'm glad to be talking with you myself. Oh, I'm sorry. I'm..."

"The President of the United States," Lauren finished at a total loss. My God! She's calling me about the biography? Herself?

"President-elect, actually." Devlyn kicked her feet up on the table, wishing that her always-ravenous staff hadn't scarfed down all the bagels. She found herself wanting another. "You spoke with my aide, Michael Oaks, yesterday?"

Lauren nodded. "I did." Her shock began to give way to remembered anger. "And I don't appreciate being strong-armed," she said, her tone suddenly cool.

Dev sat up straight, her feet sliding from the table and striking the ground with a loud thud. "What do you mean 'strong-armed'?" What did you do, Michael?!

"Why else was Mr. Oaks accompanied by Mighty Joe Young?"

Mighty Joe Young? Dev closed her eyes. Oh, God. Tell me he didn't bring Francis. "Could you be referring to Francis Davies? The very intense and unfortunate Secret Service agent, whose head happens to grow directly out of his shoulders?"

A laugh escaped Lauren, and she clamped down on it with the palm of her hand. A politician with a genuine sense of humor? It's snowing in hell. "That name sounds familiar," she offered noncommittally, not bothering to wipe the smile off her face.

"Then please allow me to immediately apologize. I'm certain that Francis' presence wasn't intended to intimidate." Please don't ask me why else he was there then.

Lauren held the phone out again and looked at it, wishing could see Devlyn Marlowe's face. She sounded sincere enough. "Perhaps I misunderstood then," she heard herself say.

"Ms. Strayer, your work is both intelligent and insightful. I'm a huge fan."

Lauren was surprised again by Dev's enthusiastic praise and felt her cheeks growing warm. "Th... Thank you." What she didn't know was that Dev was sporting a matching blush on the other end of the phone.

The President-elect mentally scolded herself for sounding like a star-struck teenager. "I need your help. I'm in a very unique position, Ms. Strayer. One that needs to be skillfully and, more importantly, accurately recorded." Dev's alarm went off, and she swatted at it with an irritated hand.

"I couldn't agree more."

Dark eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Then you'll do it?" People started filing into the conference room.

"I didn't say that."

Devlyn sighed in frustration. "Please, Ms. Strayer, help me out here. I've got a meeting in two minutes. Tell me what I need to do to get you to say yes."

Lauren's car came to a stop outside the public library and waited dutifully for her to give the command to kill the ignition. "I don't think there is anything you could say," she replied honestly. "I'm flattered. Really, I am." And curious as hell. "But I don't want to have my copy ghost written by the Emancipation Party President. That's not the type of work I do. I'd be happy to recommend someone..."

"What are you talking about?"

Lauren could hear the puzzlement in Devlyn's voice.

"That's not what I want." What did Michael say to you?

The writer blew out a breath, wanting to believe the other woman, but knowing better. "You say that now. But..."

"But nothing! I don't want a 'yes man' for the party. The party is paying you because I couldn't see asking the taxpayers to do it. And if I paid you myself it would call your professionalism into question, would it not?"

Lauren leaned forward, listening intently. "Yes, it would."

"I want someone with honesty and integrity and real talent. I want you, Ms Strayer. You'd have free rein to write whatever you see fit." Dev waved in the woman who she hoped would be the next head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Cursing the time, she spoke rapidly. "I'm giving you full access to everything and complete editorial control of the content. You're only constraint will be working within the bounds of reasonable National Security." Dev laughed. "And keeping up with me."

Lauren stared at the phone for the third time, not believing what she was hearing.

Dev held up a single finger, indicating to her people in the room she'd be just one more minute, as the last person sat down at the table and Jane closed the conference room door. The dark-haired woman turned her back to her guests and crossed her fingers. "Was that what you needed to hear, Ms. Strayer?"

Lauren nodded dumbly. Full access? Editorial control? And a 'subject' who is making history with every thing she does? "Yeah." She swallowed hard. "That was what I needed to hear."

~~~~~~~~~

 

Madam President

Chapter I

January 2021

Thursday, January 21st

Dev took a deep breath and looked at David McMillian, her oldest and most trusted friend, and the new White House Chief of Staff. She'd known him since her undergraduate days at Harvard. They'd studied and even roomed together for a semester, before Dev meet Samantha. Their time together cemented a friendship that had become a permanent fixture in both their lives.

While Devlyn's political aspirations put her squarely in the spotlight, David was more than content to play behind the scenes, where he often, and only half-jokingly, reminded Dev, the realpower lay.

Dev reached out and grasped the cool metal knob, an astonished smile playing on her lips. "We did it."

"Yes, we did, Madam President."

"Cut that out." She scoffed at the title coming from him. They were beyond things like that, at least in private. And David knew it. But still, she was fun to tweak. "Or I'll make you call me Wonder Woman."

The tall, red-haired man scratched his jaw, and his tobacco brown eyes went slightly round. "Huh?"

"Never mind."

It was just after dawn, and the offices were empty, an almost haunting quiet surrounding them. This was just the way Dev had wanted it to be the first time she and David entered the Oval Office as the President and the Chief of Staff. It had taken a horde of people to get her here. But without the support of her best friend she never would have made it. It was only appropriate that they should savor this moment alone together.

She pushed the door open but didn't step inside. David smiled broadly and gestured. "After you, Wonder Woman."

"Smartass."

She stepped into the office and took a deep breath, stopping in the middle of the room to enjoy every crazy emotion, soaking in the pure thrill of it all. An almost giddy laugh worked its way up from her chest. She turned around and found David standing behind 'the chair'.

He gave her a grin and patted the soft leather. "Come on. Try it out."

"I'm almost afraid to," she admitted. "It's like, if I try to sit in that chair, I'll wake up from the dream, and it'll all be gone."

"Nah. It's real. You're here. And it's never gonna be the same again. You've already made history, Madam President. Now let's give 'em four years they'll never forget."

Devlyn took another slightly shaky breath and made her way to the chair, sinking into the soft leather with an inaudible sigh. She spread her hands over the desk in front of her, feeling the cool, smooth surface under her palms. "I am the President of the United States," she whispered, looking up to her Chief of Staff.

"Yes, you are." David sucked in a breath, biting the edge of his thick red mustache, fully aware of the power of the moment.

She blinked and stared across the room with unseeing eyes. "I've lost my mind."

"Yes, you have." David cleared his throat. "I'll leave you now, so that you can get your personal things out." He gestured as he moved back to the door. "They're in those two white boxes in the corner."

"Thanks, David." She looked up. "Hey, if we don't hate this too much, are we going for eight?"

"Ask me in two years. Have a good day, Madam President."

"David!" she called after him.

He poked his head back around the door. "Yes?"

"Thank you for getting me here."

"We did it together, Dev." Her friend gave her a smile and left the office.

Monday, January 25th

Dev had quickly adjusted to the flock of people that always seemed to be on her heels no matter where she was going. It was a lot like being Governor only to the nth degree. Luckily, she had long ago learned to listen to everyone at once. Now, if someone could scare me up a good corned beef on rye without my having to fly back to Ohio, I'd be a happy woman.

"You have a meeting with the Secretary of Energy at three thirty," Liza Dennis, her new assistant told her, slipping another folder into her hands. Liza was young and every bit as tall as Dev's 71_ inches. She was rail thin with tightly curled brown hair and gums that showed just a little too much when she smiled. She was also saving Dev's life by getting her everywhere she needed to be with at least some semblance of punctuality.

Dev had learned early in her political career never to wear a watch. People read way too much into the gesture of glancing at the timepiece, which she tended to do often if she wore one. "What time is it now?" Dev eyed the door to the Oval Office, which was growing larger and larger with every step. She hoped to make it inside before someone declared war.

"One fifteen, Madam President."

"Remind me about the meeting at three fifteen."

"Yes, ma'am. You have an appointment now as well. With Lauren Strayer."

The President stopped dead in her tracks, turning to the young woman on her heels who nearly crashed into her. "Is that today?"

"Yes, ma'am. It was set for one o'clock."

Dev winced, and then suddenly became very aware of her appearance. "Damn." She gave herself a quick once over, straightening her jacket and smoothing back long, ebony locks. "Do I look all right?"

The young woman's mind derailed at the sudden change of topic. "Umm... of course," she stammered. "I mean... yes, ma'am. You look fine."

"Good." She handed all the files back to Liza, then wiped her palms on her slacks, chiding herself for her nervousness. "How long is this scheduled to go?"

"Half an hour, ma'am."

Dev pursed her lips. That simply wouldn't do. "Push everything back and give me an hour here. I'm gonna need it."

"Yes, ma'am." Liza opened her notebook. This was only her second day, and she'd already figured out that the President was always going to need some wiggle room in her schedule. "That means you won't get back to the residence until sometime after seven thirty."

"If I'm lucky," Dev grumbled as she stood in front of the door to her office and waited for an immaculately dressed man to let her in. She wondered if she'd ever become accustomed to people whose sole purpose appeared to be to open doors for her. Okay. There's nothing to be nervous about. You respect her work. All right... you love her work. So what? You've met accomplished people before. Dev drew in a deep breath. She was an expert at burying how she felt. "I'll be ready to move on in an hour." She reached over and tugged on Liza's sleeve. "Do me a favor and find me a corned beef sandwich, huh? The food they served at the luncheon wasn't even close to edible."

"Right away. What about...?" Liza gestured to the door.

"Oh, yeah." Where are my manners? "Hold on." Dev squared her shoulders and walked into the Oval Office, pushing aside the immediate thrill she felt just from entering the room. That's when the dark-haired woman got her first real life glimpse of Lauren Strayer. Wow. Not just cute. Dev mentally amended her assessment of Lauren's looks, based on her photograph. Beautiful. Dev cleared her throat gently, and the writer's head turned, slate gray eyes fastening on Dev's face. Dev's lips immediately curled into a smile, and she greeted Lauren warmly while remaining at the door. "Hi. I've been looking forward to meeting you. I'll be right with you, I promise. I'm just making sure I get enough sustenance to keep from passing out." She stopped and took a breath. Okay, I usually don't talk that quickly. "Would you like a sandwich?"

Lauren practically jumped to her feet. She hadn't even heard President Marlowe come in. It had taken her all of two seconds to commit her first breach of White House etiquette. "Hi." God, television does not do her justice.

Devlyn was wearing fashionably wide-legged, worsted wool trousers in the darkest of greens. Underneath a jacket that matched the slacks was a sleek-looking metallic silver turtleneck that complemented Dev's lightly tanned complexion and glossy black hair. She had the body of a track star, long and lean, with endless legs. Lauren's eyes widened as she realized she hadn't heard a word past 'Hi.' Her mind raced frantically. Shit! I know her lips were moving!

Devlyn wondered at the sudden look of confusion coloring the younger woman's face. "Sandwich?" she prompted hesitantly.

Right. That was it. "No, thank you, Madam President. I already had lunch." The few bites that the bat-sized butterflies in my stomach would allow, that is.

Sweet Southern accent. "Do you mind if I indulge? The NRA failed in its attempt to poison me over lunch. And I'm..."

"Of course, Madam President." Lauren smiled and tucked a strand of pale behind her ear. She slid off her glasses and began absently gnawing on the tip of one earpiece as Dev turned around.

Just like Christopher wears, the President mused. The boy was always fiddling with his glasses. Dev smiled again. He'd like knowing someone else who wore them too. A lot. Glasses were unusual nowadays, and she knew Chris hated wearing them, despite the fact that the lenses would actually correct his near-sightedness, so that he wouldn't have to wear them at all in a few years.

"Thanks," Dev said over her shoulder, breathing a slight sigh of relief. Yes! She's not mad that I'm late. "I swear, I'll be right back." With that, Dev pulled the door closed and stepped back out into the outer office. "One sandwich and one hour," she told Liza, who was now explaining some White House protocol to Jane Shultz, Dev's longtime secretary. The President gave Jane a small wave and received a sympathetic smile in return.

"One sandwich, fifty-six minutes." Liza grinned tentatively and tapped her large-faced, gold watch.

Dev raised an eyebrow, glad, and a little surprised, that the young woman was already growing more at ease with her. Everyone had begun this new administration in a way that was almost painfully formal, and although it was to be expected, and wholly appropriate, it wasn't making her own adjustment any easier.

"Right. Thanks." Dev re-entered her office. Leaning her shoulders against the door to close it, her eyes slid shut and she exhaled a long, slow breath. The breath turned into a happy whimper when the heavy door clicked shut, effectively locking away the rest of a very demanding world for another fifty-five minutes.

Lauren, who stood behind one of the rich leather chairs that sat in the center of the room, looked appropriately amused. Her hands restlessly rubbed at the back of the chair, and it looked as though she was trying very hard to stifle a laugh.

Dev stood up straight, intent on recovering at least a shred of her Presidential demeanor. But one look into understanding, even slightly indulgent eyes, and she gave up instantly, grinning as she slumped back against the door. "Tell you what, let's make a deal right now. You let me be myself when we're alone, and we both might make it through the next few years without going insane." She smiled at Lauren's intently interested look. "Besides, if I have to be the President of the United States all of the time, the book's gonna be crap, and we both know it."

"Deal." Lauren was grinning now, but her smile quickly faded. "Does 'you' being 'you' equal 'off the record'?" Oh, boy. Here it comes. The biographer instantly chastised herself for not listening to her first instincts and turning down this assignment.

Dev pushed away from the door. Padding over to the leather sofa across from Lauren, she gracelessly dropped into it, sighing with satisfaction. "Nope," she replied blithely, gesturing for Lauren to retake her seat. "The good, the bad, and the ugly of my life are an open book to you, Ms. Strayer." Unexpectedly, the President's voice grew serious, and she leveled a frank stare at the writer; one that caused her to lean forward as she listened. "My children, however..."

"You don't have to be concerned about that, Madam President," Lauren interrupted urgently. "I would never invade their privacy. As far as your biography is concerned, they are only relevant in the ways that they directly affect you."

Dev looked at her curiously and barked out a tiny laugh. "Well, that would be in just about every way, wouldn't it?"

Lauren was about to disagree, but stopped herself. Shut up, Lauren. It's not like you have kids. Well, at least ones that don't occasionally drink from the toilet. No assumptions, remember?

The writer's first biography had been of Karina Jacobs, the star of the 2016 Olympics who had been born in Harlem, addicted to crack cocaine. She was immediately touted as a 21st Century Wilma Rudolph and ended up winning seven gold medals, despite several physical disabilities she'd been born with. Karina was single with no children.

Lauren's second biography had been of Peter Orlosky, the mega-nerd who had brought down the Microsoft empire with his single, non-proprietary operating system. It could handle everything from the desktop computer to the largest global networks – instantly resolving the problems of interoperability that had plagued computer and network operations people for years. Not only was he unmarried and childless, but Lauren was pretty damned sure he'd never even had sex. With another human being, that is. But ultimately that tidbit didn't make it into his biography because she figured everyone could figure that out just by looking at or listening to Peter. She certainly didn't need to tell them.

And, finally, her most recent biographical subject had been Cardinal O'Roarke. While she was certain that he and his long time male secretary, Andre Ricardo, had a very up-close and personal relationship... as far as she could tell, he had never, literally, fathered any children. So how exactly could she know how President Marlowe's children affected her?

"Let me rephrase that..." Lauren tried again, her tone every bit as serious as Devlyn's. But unconsciously her gaze had softened. "You can trust me to know what's private in your children's lives... and what could hurt them. I promise," she swore intently.

Dev nodded. "If I weren't already certain of that, you wouldn't be here, Ms. Strayer. I don't take chances with the well being of my babies."

Lauren smiled engagingly, slightly taken aback by the President's choice of words. 'My babies'... so personal. Maternal. For some reason, I didn't think she'd be that way. "But I'd be pleased if you felt like you could be relaxed and be yourself around me, despite my job." She raised a playful eyebrow at the woman who was comfortably reclining in front of her, with pleasure so complete it bordered on sensual... "I can see how hard that will be for you," Lauren teased gently.

Dev laughed, glad that her genuine nervousness didn't appear to be showing. "Good. Because this," she laid her hand on her abdomen and, as if on cue, it growled ferociously, "is me... tired, hungry," she glanced at one of the several clocks mounted on the wall, her eyes quickly finding the one showing the correct time zone, "and a little late."

She's a talker. Thank you, God!

"I really wanted to make a good first impression. But being late kinda blew that, didn't it?" Dev inquired sheepishly.

She wanted to impress me? Lauren cocked her head slightly to the side as she regarded the leader of the free world with ever-growing curiosity. "Some would say so." But I wouldn't happen to be among them. You make a charming first impression, President Devlyn Marlowe. But I'll bet you already knew that.

"Then I guess all I can do is say I'm sorry, and hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me." A flash of white teeth brought Dev's face to life.

The writer's mind was already spinning, weaving a tapestry with words that would eventually form a picture of Devlyn herself. And there was one word that Lauren could already see was going to pop up again and again when it came to President Devlyn Marlowe. Charisma... in spades. It fairly oozed from the tall woman's pores. But it was in an understated kind of way that was both compelling and alluring. "I think under the circumstances, I can forgive you, Madam President."

"Thanks." The tall woman scooted forward a little on the sofa and leaned forward, her arms resting on her thighs with her fingers interlaced. What she really wanted to do was ask the writer about some of her work... especially a few pieces that had been written under the pseudonym Lauren Gallager.

But now wasn't the time to be a goofy fan. There was still one major wrinkle to iron out that Dev had saved for a face to face discussion. Something she hoped would give this biography a sense of intimacy and candor that she found lacking in so many others. Just ask her Dev. The worst she can say is 'no'. Well, that's not quite true. She could laugh, accuse you of being insane and wanting to micromanage her work, and then say 'no'. "You just arrived in town this morning?" the Dev began casually.

Lauren shook her head. "Last night. The Emancipation Party is putting me up at the Hay-Adams Hotel."

"And your room is nice? You like it there, I mean?"

A wry smile wanted to twitch at Lauren's lips, but she felt a tiny kernel of worry germinate in her belly. Where is she going with this? "Well, it's Italian Renaissance. Not exactly the Motel-6, but somehow I'm making do," she said drolly.

"Good... good." Dev missed the joke. She was too wrapped up in what she was about to ask. "I, um... well, actually, I had something a little closer in mind. I mean, if you're going to follow me around on anything like a regular basis, you'll need to be close." That was brilliant. Duh.

Pale eyebrows lifted. "The Hay-Adams is less than 3 blocks away. Any closer and I'd be residing in your back pocket."

"Hmm... true..." Shut up, Dev. God, don't scare her off now. "Okay, maybe not my back pocket, but how about in residence with me and my family?"

Lauren's jaw sagged. "Inside the White House?"

Dev grinned. "I've found inside the White House to be far more comfortable than outside the White House. The park benches around here suck." When Lauren didn't answer Dev pressed on. "Look, if you really want to get to know me and understand what I do, you're going to have to tag along after me. And you can't very well do that from the Hay-Adams Hotel. I don't exactly keep regular hours, and there simply isn't enough time in the day for a lot of one-on-one research discussions." And, while that was true, Dev knew instantly that if Lauren Strayer asked, she'd make time for her anytime she wanted.

"I, umm... Madam President, I don't know what to say," she admitted honestly. Sure it would make things interesting, but Lauren knew she needed her privacy. She wasn't at all sure that she could stand living in more of a fish bowl than she was already subjecting herself to.

"Living here is the only way to really know what I do," she said reasonably. "It doesn't have to be for the entire term. Just until you feel like you've got a good handle on my day-to-day life." C'mon, Lauren, say yes. Lauren's head began to sway slightly, and Dev knew she was considering it. She went in for the kill. "I want a totally honest and accurate accounting of the first term of office for the first female, American President. I don't take my legacy lightly, Ms. Strayer. The easiest way for me to give you full access is to have you nearby. I don't want to pull any punches."

"Do you really want that?" Lauren asked curiously. Giving her editorial control of the book was an enormous risk, and she knew it.

Sky blue eyes fastened on Lauren's with an almost painful honesty. "Yes. I really do."

Lauren found it nearly impossible to disbelieve the President's words. Damn, I'll bet that comes in handy in her profession. But a tiny part of the writer still found this opportunity too good to be true. "And no one is going to be whispering in my ear, telling me what to write?"

The President smiled. Don't even go there, Dev. Keep your mouth shut. "I promise you I won't censure you in any way. And once the book is done, as long as nothing concerning national security is revealed, I won't ask you to make any changes. There may be a few others that make requests of you... but you can take them on as you see fit."

"You'll back me up?"

"One hundred percent." It wasn't lost on Devlyn that Lauren hadn't agreed to move into residence yet. But she was thinking about it. And something inside the President told her that this was a woman who didn't respond well to being pushed.

There was a gentle knock on the door, and Dev dragged her gaze away from her guest.

"Come in."

A lunch table for two was rolled in and quickly set up. "Anything else, Madam President?" a young blond waiter asked, managing to sneak a peek at Lauren while he prepared the table.

"No. I think we're all set." Dev looked over at Liza, who was grinning. It was obvious the assistant had ordered lunch for two. The President gave her a smile and a wink. She nodded, and the small group left the room, once again leaving the two women alone. "Are you sure you won't join me? I can see that my first executive order for one sandwich was completely ignored." She laughed. "There's plenty. Everyone around here has been trying to feed me for days."

Dev took a large bite and groaned with undisguised ecstasy.

Lauren swallowed hastily. "Well, if you insist."

Devlyn waved toward the other sandwich and took another bite, the smell of corned beef and horseradish wafting up to her nose. She drew in a deep, satisfied sniff. Liza is getting a raise already. I'm in heaven.

The writer took a bite, and immediately mimicked Dev's reaction with a happy groan. "Oh, god," she mumbled, licking the corners of her lips. "This is so good."

Lauren's mind firmly told her living in the White House would give her fabulous access to the President, but would wreak havoc on her ability to keep a professional distance from her subject. She firmly told her mind to shut up. She held up half a sandwich. "Will I get more of these if I say yes?"

Dev suddenly stopped chewing and glanced up from her plate. "As many as you want," she promised seriously.

Lauren picked up her napkin and slid it over her knees. "Then set me up with a room, Madam President. It's looks like you'll be having a guest for a while."

"Excellent!" Dev's honest pleasure was written all over her face. "And my name is Devlyn or Dev, not Madam President."

Unaccountably, the blonde woman felt a blush rising to her cheeks. "Then please call me Lauren."

Dev extended her hand and when Lauren's found hers, she squeezed firmly, absorbing its warmth with idle pleasure. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Lauren."

"The pleasure is mine, Devlyn." Lauren exhaled and refocused on her sandwich as a knot that she didn't even know existed, unraveled in her guts. "So... I know you must have nearly as many questions for me as I do for you."

Dev smirked and picked up a crunchy, cold pickle. "Yeah. How does someone rack up eleven parking tickets in two days?"

This time Lauren's blush was pronounced. "How... how did you know about that?" she mumbled in embarrassment.

Twin dark eyebrows lifted. Dev took a bite of pickle, enjoying its salty, tart flavor. "Do I really need to answer that?"

Lauren scratched just above her brow. "No, I guess you really don't. Let's just say it started with a really bad day."

"That ended two days later?"

Lauren chuckled. "Something like that." She picked up the bottle of spring water that was resting in a small bucket of ice and poured it into a crystal glass.

"I had a day like that once. It lasted for almost a week." Dev reached for a coffee carafe that was much closer to Lauren than her, and the smaller woman immediately intercepted Dev's hands with her own.

"Let me do that." She picked up the carafe and poured two cups, deciding she could probably use some as well. "How do you take it?"

"Black. And I'm praying it's strong. Thank you," Dev said as she took the cup from Lauren's outstretched hand. "How about you? How do you take your coffee? I want to know in case I need to get you a cup sometime."

"Cream and two sugars." Lauren poured in a little cream and began hunting for a teaspoon, which magically appeared right in front of her face. "Thanks." She smiled and plucked the spoon from Dev's fingers. "But somehow I can't see the President of the United States fetching my coffee."

"Hmm..." Dev begrudgingly nodded. "You're right, the President probably wouldn't. But Dev Marlowe will."

Tuesday, January 26th

The early morning meeting with her staff was just about ready to break up when Devlyn remembered something very important. "By the way," she straightened in her wingback, "I met with Lauren Strayer yesterday afternoon, and from now on she'll be attending these meetings. For those of you who don't know already..." Every set of eyes in the room turned downward, and Dev sighed loudly, mildly annoyed but not surprised. "Okay, you gossip hounds already know this, but I'm announcing it anyway. Ms. Strayer is going to be chronicling this term in office and will be moving into the residence today. Isn't that right, Michael?" Dev arched a challenging eyebrow in the direction of Michael Oaks, who nodded resignedly.

He'd tried to talk the President out of it. But the stubborn woman wasn't budging. There was something about Lauren Strayer he simply didn't like. Not only had she arrogantly refused his offer in Tennessee, but she'd said something to Dev that had made the President especially cross with him and had called his judgement into question. Not only that, whatever Lauren had told her had gotten Dev so angry that she'd had Secret Service agent Francis 'No Neck' Davis transferred away from the White House. Permanently.

Dev took her last sip of coffee and carefully sat her cup back on its china saucer. "Ms. Strayer will be starting her assignment today. She has full privileges and complete access. Please be kind to her." This last part was delivered with a joking tone, but no one in the room doubted the sincerity of the request. The President looked around at the staff. "Anything else?"

The Chief of Staff glanced around the various faces in the room. Some were new to both him and Dev, but a few were loyal friends.

"We should do an announcement about Ms. Strayer being hired to write your memoirs," Press Secretary Sharon Allen stated firmly, opening her notebook and jotting down a few preliminary ideas. The fact that she didn't look thrilled about the prospect wasn't lost on Dev. It wasn't that Lauren wasn't qualified. True, she was God awful young. Her work, however, was well respected. But that didn't mean she had to live in the residence. Press Secretary Allen began to get slightly dizzy from the horrific scenarios that were playing out in her head. Someone older and fatter would have been a much safer choice.

"Ooo... I'm thirty-eight, not eighty-eight. And that makes me sound as old as the hills." Dev shifted in her chair, regretting the fact that she'd chosen a skirt instead of slacks today. "Biography has a less ancient ring to it, don't you think?" She gave Press Secretary Allen a pleading look.

The room filled with easy laughter, and Jane, who was standing against the back wall, shook her head. Dev was such a pain in the butt sometimes. God love her.

"Let's just call it a biography, Sharon. I'm not ready for a cane just yet."

Everyone stood up when the President did and began to file out of the room, ready to start their incredibly busy days. The door closed, leaving behind Dev, Liza and the Chief of Staff. David looked at the young woman and silently asked for a moment alone with the boss.

David smiled when she tapped her watch. Dev had a breakfast meeting with several members of the Democratic and Republican Parties, including the ultra-conservative Speaker of the House, this morning. He almost felt sorry for her. She had the unparalleled pleasure of facing two parties that resented and distrusted her. But that's the price she paid when she willingly joined a third party. David had always thought life would have been much easier if Dev had just stayed a Democrat.

Liza slipped out of the office quietly.

"Madam President?"

"Yes, David." Dev sighed, resting her head in her hand.

"I've got to tell you, I think Ms. Strayer being in residence is going to cause problems for you, Dev. Once the press gets wind of it, she's going to become more than an employee hired to write a book."

"You sound like Michael now. And I don't intend to tell the press she's in residence here. If it becomes an issue, we'll deal with it then."

David rolled his eyes. "It'll take the press all of one or two days to figure it out. If that," he snorted. "And trust me, it will be an issue. A single, openly lesbian President moves in an attractive, single, female biographer..."

"You forgot very 'straight', single, well-respected biographer."

David put his hands on his hips. "And just how do you know she's straight? Did you ask her?"

"Uhh... buu... ahh..." Dev's mouth worked, but no words came out. "What?!"

"Because I read that report, Dev. And I don't recall it mentioning any particular sexual orientation."

"But she was married to a man!" Dev blurted out a millisecond before covering her eyes with the palms of both hands. She shook her head furiously. "God, I can't believe I just said that."

David laughed. "Dev, whether Ms. Strayer is, in actuality, straight or gay isn't really the issue. Assumptions will be made. And you're both single, and you've got three kids. You know what the conservatives will do when they..."

"Fuck the conservatives!" Dev hissed, suddenly angry. She had long ago grown tired of their painting her as the worst mother since Joan Crawford. "You know I don't give a shit about them."

"But you should," David insisted. He'd lost this argument a hundred times, but he never stopped trying. "They're out there, and they're not going away."

Dev leaned back against the edge of the table. "Besides, I may be single, but I'm also still in mourning over my murdered spouse..."

David's brown eyes softened. "I know, Dev. But we're talking about perceptions, not reality." He swallowed, wondering if he should go further. "Umm... you know Samantha wouldn't want you to mourn her forever."

Dev's shoulders slumped, and her voice dropped to an anguished whisper. "I know."

David moved over to the tall woman and sat alongside her. "Look, I don't want to argue. I know how important it is to you that this book be done right... but when this comes back to bite you in the ass... and it will," he smirked a little, "I'm going to be right here to say 'I told you so'."

"Like always?" Dev teased weakly.

"Exactly." He patted her thigh, a little surprised to feel skin. Why is she wearing a skirt? She hates skirts.

"Well, if moving Lauren into the residence, so she can work, is the worst thing to come back and bite me in the ass, I'll consider this a very successful month."

"It won't take a month."

Dev ignored David's pessimism and turned around, pulling over a couple of documents Liza had set in front of her earlier. She felt around in her blazer pockets, and David deftly handed her a shiny, metal pen. "We're talking legitimate press. The Inquisitor and the other scandal sheets don't count, David."

"The legit press will pick it up if it's hot enough. And we all know that if three of the scandal sheets pick up the story of Lauren living in the residence at the same time, it must be true. It's a law... like gravity or Murphy's."

Dev laughed to herself and stuffed David's pen into her pocket, rubbing her thumb along the warm metal. "It is true, Mr. Smarty Pants. Try to remember that."

*                      *                      *

Lauren sat down on her new bed, in her new room, in her new house... the White House. "Wow." She shook her head in amazement, allowing herself to absorb where she was and what she had gotten herself into.

Since November, she'd been on a continuous, whirlwind publicity tour for her last biography, making the big push to drive up holiday sales and keep her publisher very, very happy. That had left her with no time to even scratch the surface of who Devlyn Marlowe was. And it left her feeling unusually insecure, slightly disconcerted even, like the college student who had blown off studying for the big exam and was now getting ready to pay the piper.

Lauren chided herself for her worries. It's not like you don't know anything about her... Hell, her face and those annoying, endless sound bites have been plastered all over your TV for the past six months. But the writer did admit to herself that the President was a lot more palatable when she wasn't being crammed down your throat. Okay, more than palatable. Nice, really.

She exhaled slowly. Lauren had finally been left alone for more than ten seconds at a stretch, her curious gaze unhampered by Secret Service agents and the milling, ever-present White House staff. It gave her a moment to order the mental snapshots she'd been taking since she met Devlyn. Although she itched to get her hands on her camera.

The thrill here, in this place, was the same she'd gotten when she was permitted inside some of the most private, holy areas of the Vatican while doing Cardinal O'Roarke's biography. Her stomach fluttered in a cross between nervousness and raw excitement, her palms moist and cool even as her keen intellect began cataloging information. But her tour of the Vatican had been a brief, escorted visit. She was actually going to live here. At least for a while. Lauren didn't think her penchant for privacy would allow her to stay here too long. But she was going to make the most of it while it lasted.

Her gaze glided across gleaming, Colonial style, cherry wood furnishings and the rich oil paintings of previous Presidents in heavy wooden frames that adorned the walls. The room was nearly as big as her entire apartment back home. And while it didn't have a kitchen or laundry room, it did have what amounted to a full bedroom, a well-stocked bar, and sitting area, complete with two small sofas that faced each other across a short, delicate-looking coffee table.

The bed was so tall that Lauren's feet barely touched the floor when she sat on the edge of the firm mattress. Predictably, it was a four-poster model made from the same cherry wood that dominated the room. Its deep, rich shine was so brilliant that Lauren could see her distorted reflection winking back at her when she looked at it. She immediately lifted her hand and ran her finger across it, smudging it with the same weird delight a kid gets when he rolls around in a pristine bank of even, white snow, happily making his mark by destroying its almost unnatural perfection.

A slender, matching dresser, nightstand with brass handles, and massive armoire flanked the bed. On the nightstand, in a cut crystal vase, sat two dozen long-stemmed, yellow roses, their gentle fragrance filling the room and mingling with the scent of wood polish. Long, cream-colored curtains that matched the impossibly soft comforter had been pulled open a few feet and tied with a gold sash, allowing the early evening's moonlight to spill in through the frosty glass.

Her few boxes had been unpacked by White House staffers, after, of course, everything had been properly inspected, X-rayed, sniffed and scanned... and that included her Pug, Gremlin, who was scampering around her feet, trying furiously to jump up onto the too tall bed. Lauren was actually surprised the little dog didn't glow by now.

"I must be dreaming, Gremlin." But, God, talk about pressure. "I hope I'm this good." Lauren blew pale golden hair off her forehead with a puff of warm air. An incredulous laugh bubbled up from inside her. "This is totally surreal." The fingertips of one hand idly grazed the satiny-soft top of the bed's comforter, while she leaned over and scratched Gremlin behind the ears as the dog growled in pleasure.

Slate gray eyes flecked with blue and green widened when the woman peered down at her watch and realized that it was already time to meet Devlyn and be introduced to the President's children. She wondered if they'd all be lined up like the Von Trapp family, awaiting inspection from their Commander in Chief. Ewww... I hope not. Lauren cringed. Plus, I can't sing for crap.

She was a little nervous. Life as an only child hadn't prepared her for dealing with kids. And always having your nose in a book when you were a child yourself, didn't help make you Miss Popularity. Then again, she was pretty sure she wouldn't do something embarrassing like lift up her shirt and show her boobies in exchange for two Hershey bars and the window seat on the school bus. Again. A grin tugged at her lips... of course that might depend on who was asking, and how good the candy was. She decided not to rule anything out for the time being.

The writer stood up and straightened the belt to her russet-colored slacks, sparing a wistful thought for the blue jeans she didn't think she'd be seeing a lot of in the next four years. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw it. Should I? She thought for a moment then nodded. "I think we've got a minute, Grem. Let's call him, huh?" Lauren chuckled. "Let's just hope this doesn't give Wayne that heart attack he's been worrying over for the past five years. Because he is going to die when I tell him where I ended up staying."

The second shelf of the dark nightstand slid out, forming a small table, making the phone easily accessible from the bed, but still keeping it mostly hidden from view, so as not to spoil the decor of the room.

The blonde woman opened her mouth to give the voice command to 'call', but stopped when she got a good look at the smooth machine. It didn't have a voice box on the top. "Huh." Must be a genuine old phone. Next she picked up the receiver and stared at the cord, pulling at it a few times and looking slightly annoyed. "Pain in the... okay, I can do it the hard way." She lifted the receiver and flipped it over to press the button pad, but there wasn't one. In fact, there was no visible way to call anyone.

Suddenly, a genuine smile lit up Lauren's face. "Hot damn, Gremlin." The dog finally took a running jump and was able to make it onto the bed. His tail wiggled furiously in victory, and his beady, black eyes fixed on the object in his mistress' hand. "It's the Bat Phone!"

A light knocking sound drew Lauren and Gremlin's attention to the door. "Time to go meet the miniature humans. Wish me luck, boy." She waggled her finger at the mutt. "No... you can't come." She almost ordered him off the beautiful comforter but shrugged instead. If she was going to live here, this would be Grem's home too. And he'd be up there for bed tonight anyway. "Just be careful," she pleaded, straightening the pillow Gremlin had mashed in his excitement. "Martha Washington or somebody probably made that. And I don't want to have to take out a loan to replace it."

The dog jumped to the edge of the bed to follow her, but hesitated when he looked down at the floor. He whined softly.

"Uh huh. Now you're stuck, aren't you?" Lauren laughed as she made her way to the door. "Serves you right."

She opened the door to find Michael Oaks standing there. Lauren was vaguely disappointed. Why was I expecting Devlyn? She looked over the slender black man's shoulder. "What? No reinforcements this time?"

Michael stiffened at her reference to his visit to Nashville. "The Secret Service agent assigned to this hall is properly positioned at his post, Ms. Strayer. I assure you. I saw no reason to bring him to the door." He tucked his purple necktie deeper behind his suit coat. "You're ready, I assume?"

"Yes.... err... no... just one minute." Lauren dashed back to the desk perched against the wall opposite the bed. Digging into a bag, she pulled out a camera and quickly slid in a fresh roll of film. She waited to click the cover closed before she spoke. "Now I'm ready."

"You can't..." He pointed toward the camera. "That's not..." he began to sputter.

Lauren arched an eyebrow. "Full access, Mr. Oaks. These will be for my own research purposes, not for publication. And I already have David McMillian's full permission. Do you outrank him?" she asked innocently, inwardly chuckling.

"Well, umm... of course not." Michael's frustration began to mount. "But..."

"Get over it." She looked back down at her watch. "We're going to be late. Shall we continue to stand here and discuss it?" Lauren was fully aware of how much she was annoying the aide, and she was loving every minute of it.

He gave her a thin-lipped smile. Bitch. "So we are." He extended his arm, and Lauren brushed past him, closing the door behind her. She hadn't taken two steps when a surprisingly loud, prolonged howl rang out from inside her room.

Gray eyes slid closed. Not now, Grem! Lauren bit her lip and turned back around to face Michael, who looked appalled. "I'm sorry," she apologized sincerely. "He's not used to his surroundings yet. Let me go calm him down. Or I could bring him? We're only going a few doors down to see the kids, right?"

"I'll have a cage and muzzle delivered immediately."

Lauren stopped dead in her tracks and turned icy eyes on the well-dressed man. "You can order those things if you'd like. But they certainly won't be for Gremlin," she ground out harshly.

"He can't continue to howl like that."

Lauren's hands moved to her hips. "Actually, he can."

"That's unacceptable."

"I agree. I should go get him."

"No," Michael said flatly.

Lauren sighed. God, she was already tired of this person, and she'd only been living here for three hours! "The apartment I had all picked out before my plans changed, permitted pets. Gremlin is doing the best he can here."

"This isn't an apartment complex."

"No, it's not. And I don't have a problem with calling the apartment manager and seeing if the place is still available," she shot back. "Look, Mr. Oaks, it isn't as though there are a lot of options here. Either I leave him alone, and he howls. Or I bring him with me, and he's quiet. Or I stay in the room with him for a little while and get him settled down, and he's quiet. " Lauren crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. "Your call."

"Do you expect that... that thing is going to have the run of the White House?!" Michael was almost yelling now, his anger getting the best of him.

"No," Lauren answered evenly. "He'll calm down soon. He's used to traveling, but he's only been here a few hours. Gremlin's also been poked, scanned, prodded, and don't even get me started on that glowing, bright green liquid they made him drink. Then they X-rayed him several times as though I had hidden a nuclear bomb in his Dog Chow! He's only an animal. He can't be expected to endure endless disruption and not react." With that, she marched back into the room and sat down next to Gremlin.

"I thought we had an appointment?" Dev poked her head into the room, acting as though she hadn't heard the voices raised in anger. She had been waiting impatiently for Lauren and finally came to seek her out. Michael scampered out of Devlyn's way.

Lauren jumped to her feet. "We did... I... I'm sorry..."

"No problem," the tall woman said casually, feeling a little guilty for her childish impatience. But all throughout the day her mind kept drifting to tonight. Well, tonight was here, dammit! She tilted her head toward the inside of the room. "Can we come in?"

Lauren nodded dumbly as Ashley, Christopher and Aaron raced in past their mother without giving the writer a second glance. They headed straight to Gremlin, who managed to jump to the floor with no problem whatsoever and began basking in their attention. "Faker," the blonde woman mumbled.

"I told you I heard a dog, Ash!" Aaron exclaimed excitedly, his hands fighting with the other children's as Gremlin lay on his back, enjoying his belly scratching with orgasmic delight. He even groaned.

"I hope he didn't disturb you." Lauren approached Dev, relieved beyond measure that she didn't seem to be angry. "He's only been here a couple of hours and wasn't too happy about me leaving him so soon."

Dev smiled at her kids and spoke to Lauren without turning her head. "Why didn't you just bring him along then?" God, I know they're going to want their own dog now. Maybe I am the meanest mother since 'Mommy Dearest'.

Lauren almost laughed. She looked past Dev to Michael, who was still hovering in the doorway. "Gee, what a great idea."

Michael turned on his heel and left in a huff, but by that time no one was paying any attention to him anyway.

"You look like you're settling in," Dev commented. Actually, the room looked exactly the same as it always did, except for a few boxes sitting on the desk.

Lauren glanced around the room and gave a slight nod. "I am." She extended her hand toward the sofas. "Won't you sit down?"

"Absolutely." Dev flashed Lauren a smile. "You know how much I love to relax. But I believe introductions are in order first." Both women looked down to find the children on the floor with the dog, giggling as he licked their fingers.

Without thinking, Lauren lifted her camera and crouched down, effortlessly snapping off several quick shots.

"I'm sorry." Dev sighed. "They were supposed to wait by me and be introduced."

"Please." Lauren waved a dismissive hand and chuckled, setting the camera on the coffee table. "If I were them, I'd be far more interested in Gremlin, too."

Oh, I don't know about that. You seem pretty interesting to me. "Kids?" Dev raised her voice just a hair, and three sets of little eyes immediately snapped up.

"Uh oh," Ashley mumbled, pushing up to her feet. Christopher and Aaron quickly followed, although the youngest boy's attention remained firmly divided between his mother and the dog.

"We forgot to wait at the door, Mom," Ashley admitted honestly, her toe twisting its way into the carpet.

"I know you did. We'll work on that later," Dev promised, but the words were tempered by an indulgent smile. "Kids, this is Lauren Strayer. Ms. Strayer is going to be writing a book about my time as President. We talked about how she's going to be staying with us for a while."

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Strayer," Ashley said politely, hoping she could make up for her earlier mistake. Her brothers just nodded.

Lauren smiled. "It's nice to meet you, too." She's a carbon copy of her mother, except for the brown eyes. She gestured toward the floor. "And you've already met Gremlin."

Christopher was smiling so broadly that Dev feared he would fracture his cheeks. He unconsciously pulled at the stems of his glasses, his gaze riveted to Lauren's glasses.

Lauren caught his obnoxiously pleased look and laughed gently, moving over to the children. Gray eyes twinkled. "Yours are just like mine," she needlessly informed Chris.

Chris nodded, mesmerized.

Lauren chuckled again and ruffled hair the same color as her own.

The little boy's face turned brick red, and he suddenly ran for Devlyn, burying his head in her legs.

Lauren blinked. "What did I...?"

"He's just a little shy." Dev patted the boy's back. "No worries," she assured, amused by the startled look that flickered across Lauren's face. She hasn't been around children. Oh, boy. This is going to be interesting.

Aaron walked over to Lauren and tugged on her pant leg, causing Lauren to drop to one knee so she was level with his bright blue eyes. "I have a very important question to ask you."

Lauren swallowed, suddenly apprehensive. "You do?"

He nodded solemnly. "Can we pet the dog again?"

Lauren burst out laughing. "Umm..." She had barely dipped her head into a nod when the kids, including Christopher, threw themselves down to the floor to pet Gremlin. Bemused, the blonde woman stared at her pet. She stuck out a tongue at the lounging dog. "Spoiled."

"I'd pay good money to any PR firm that could get me a greeting like that," Dev commented wryly.

"Oh, yeah."

Dev knelt down alongside Lauren. She held her hand out to the dog. "Why, hello... Jesus Christ!" She snatched her hand away when Gremlin growled unexpectedly, showing two rows of tiny, uneven teeth.

"No. That name was already taken," Lauren deadpanned.

Then, as though Gremlin didn't have a care in the world, he yawned widely. His mouth clicked shut, and he innocently resumed playing with the children.

Lauren's voice turned scolding as she glared at her four-legged friend. "Gremlin!" You are in so much trouble, you little shit. "I'm so sorry, Madam President."

"Devlyn, remember?"

Lauren ducked her head. "Right. And I am sorry. That's so strange." Pale brows furrowed. "Grem loves everybody." Seeing Dev's scowl, she realized how that must have sounded and added, "But he has had a really stressful day. But he's totally, one hundred percent safe, I swear. He's usually afraid of his own shadow."

Dev suddenly growled back at the dog and he jumped, scooting under the bed with a loud yelp just as fast as his tiny legs would take him. "Okay, I'll buy that," Dev agreed amiably, quite pleased with herself. Mental note: consult David about finding the best dog bribes for dogs more chicken than canine, who obviously hate me.

Dev pushed herself to her feet, groaning. It had been a long day. And she'd been looking forward to relaxing. Reluctantly, she roused the kids. "I think we should give Ms. Strayer her privacy now."

"Don't go," Lauren heard herself say, a little bewildered by the urgency in her own voice. She could feel her cheeks tingling with heat.

"Okay," Dev replied immediately, a grin forming. "Wanna chat while the kids play?"

Lauren nodded, and the women moved to the sofas. The younger woman sat down first, and Dev fought the urge to plop down next to her, moving to the opposite couch instead.

"That's a pretty skirt." Lauren's gaze swept down Dev's legs. She should wear them more often. Fantastic legs. The thought might have been startling, but for the fact that it was so undeniably true.

Dev's voice called her back to the moment, and now it was the President's turn to blush as she picked nervously at the material. "Thanks." Devlyn rooted around in her pocket until her hand emerged holding a foil wrapper. A sweet aroma drifted toward the writer.

"Wanna share my Hershey Bar?" Dev passed over a piece of chocolate.

"Sure!" Lauren reached out happily. A Hershey Bar? Oh, boy. Thank God we're not on a bus.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Madam President

Chapter II

February 2021

Tuesday, February 23rd

Lauren paused in her writing and pushed away from her desk. She tilted her head to the side in deep thought, her fingers absently twirling a pen as she read over her latest journal entry. This wasn't a private journal, although her personal thoughts were woven around her professional observations. She would extract them later. Or not. Depending on exactly what they were and how they related to what she was trying to convey. This was her collection of handwritten notes about her 'subject'. And they already filled a single, heavy-duty, three-ring binder.

The writer had to admit that her first month as Devlyn's biographer had been little more than a blur. A whirlwind of motion and activity. Pledges and compromises. Deals and sacrifices.

It had taken every single one of the last twenty-nine days for her to begin to become accustomed to rising at five in the morning so she could start the day with Dev. Lauren had actually groaned out loud when she found out that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays the President and a flock of Secret Service Agents went jogging. She smirked to herself as she began scratching out a few more thoughts. That wasn't quite true. They didn't jog. They raced the three miles around south lawn jogging trail as though their feet were on fire. Their blistering pace kept press corps participation to a bare minimum, and Lauren already knew Devlyn well enough to know that was no accident.

The President approached her workouts with the same single-minded intensity with which she approached everything. Dev wanted to sweat. She didn't mind if some good conversation took place while she was doing it though, which was the only reason Lauren could make herself attend. But President Marlowe wasn't going to slow down to let it happen. She set the pace. And that made Lauren even more determined than ever not to fall out. After the first week she stopped wishing Dev were dead and started wishing she was. But then, begrudgingly, grouchily, as the days ticked by, her body began to accept this new demand.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays Dev worked out in the White House's private gym for at least an hour and a half, which was something Lauren found infinitely more palatable than the running. In this arena she had even shown the President a thing or two. Sunday was 'family day'. And Dev, 'the no good, lazy whelp' – Lauren underlined the words, drawing a wickedly smiling devil's face, complete with horns and flames shooting from her nose – didn't 'officially' exercise. But the woman got twice as much of a workout as normal because she always gave Emma the day off and took to chasing after Ashley, Chris and Aaron herself.

Dev even slept in until seven thirty or eight on Sundays, unless something crucial required her attention. Which, so far, had happened four Sundays in a row. But to Devlyn's credit, she usually wrapped up her business before the children even woke up and didn't pick back up with it until they were tucked safely in bed.

The blonde woman quickly discovered that Devlyn was always working, even when she wasn't. And while Lauren could sneak back to the privacy of her room and collapse on her bed, Dev was always in a series of meetings or just one more phone call away from a little time to herself. Many nights Lauren would lay awake in bed, listening for Devlyn's quiet footsteps as she slowly padded her way from her office to her bedroom... well after midnight. Lauren privately wondered if anyone could keep up the maddening pace established in this first month. And more importantly, why would they want to?

But, despite what she'd come to call the 'grind', there were still a heaping handful of pleasant memories that stood out in her mind and made her smile just to recall them. She had discovered that Dev was at her most Presidential away from the White House.

Lauren got a surprising thrill when she traveled with Devlyn in the Presidential motorcade. It wasn't the motorcade itself. Well, okay, she admitted privately, it is a great ego trip to feel like the world is spinning just for you. But what was even better, was that it gave her the opportunity to sneak a few moments alone with Devlyn. And although she wasn't positive, she suspected that Devlyn felt the same way. The older woman's sly grin, as she would shuffle them toward the waiting car, gave her away.

It was at times like these, alone in the back of Dev's limousine, that they enjoyed some of their best conversations. In the past, Lauren had always prepared questions on note cards for her other subjects, stuffing them into her pockets to be used at a moment's notice. So far, with Devlyn, she hadn't even bothered. Dev was always willing to talk. She was honest and funny, and Lauren wasn't sure how it happened, but one day she heard herself laughing and telling Devlyn about her own college days, her research long forgotten in the wake of genuine smiles and a growing camaraderie.

They were becoming friends. Lauren could feel it. And while professionally she was certain this was a bad idea, personally she couldn't dredge up a single drop of will power to fight against it. She liked Devlyn Marlowe. And the more she got to know her, the more she wanted to know.

During the times she wasn't trailing after the President like a wayward puppy, Lauren was researching Devlyn's family tree, consulting several well-known genealogists and even a cultural geographer. While Devlyn's lineage wasn't going to be the focus of the biography any more than the campaign was, most readers seemed to appreciate it if you started at the beginning. Though, on occasion, Lauren would skip around chronologically and focus on the present day, trying to fit pieces of information with other bits and scraps of knowledge that would ultimately paint a portrait of an American President and a truly unique woman.

Lauren had already turned up at least one interesting tidbit that had required considerable digging. All evidence pointed to the fact that Devlyn's great, great, great Grandfather was a Native American. Chippewa to be precise. And the biographer suspected that Devlyn could trace her dark hair, lightly tanned complexion, and angular bone structure back to this side of her family. It was likely that this information had never come to light before because, by the early 1800s, the Marlowe family had evolved from French fur trappers into society bluebloods. And in 19th century America, having an Indian lover was something no daughter of privilege would have ever admitted to.

Lauren turned the page in her notebook. She dropped her pen when the newest pile of photographs she'd taken caught her eye. One in particular captured her attention, and she pulled it from the stack.

It was of Dev and the kids, stretched out on the floor of the residence living room. Dev was sprawled on her back, holding a book slightly above her face, and the children were all lying on her, their heads each resting on a different body part. It was a fairytale, Lauren recalled. She had been invited to spend the evening with the family and remembered enjoying the story nearly as much as the children. Dev looked younger, her face relaxed and happy. Dark hair spilled onto the light-colored carpet, and her blue eyes stood out vividly against the shadows created by the book and the fireplace.

The writer sighed audibly as she traced the photograph carefully, lingering over Devlyn's face. She has such interesting eyes and lips. So expressive.

It was a beautiful picture. A portrait of domestic bliss that, to Lauren, looked as alien as it did comforting. For the most part, her own childhood had been unremarkable. While not overly loving, it wasn't abusive either and was characterized more by simple indifference than anything else.

Her parents were stuck in their roles as 'provider' and 'keeper of the house', and she always considered them in a never-ending rut. Each living out his and her lot in life with a stoic acceptance of their place in the world and an almost intentional blind eye to their own happiness or the happiness of those around them.

Lauren's own dreams of travel and education were neither encouraged nor discouraged. And she learned very early on that she was expected to make her own way in life, unburdened by the sentimentality and support of family. Still, she loved them, and felt that love timidly returned in the form of actions, if not words.

There were sporadic moments of harshness amidst the general blandness of her youth, but she didn't dwell on them. She had grown up and gotten out, saving most of her contact with her parents for her monthly telephone calls home and short visits home at the holidays. Lauren glanced at the photograph again, and a bittersweet smile flickered across her lips before disappearing completely. No. She shook her head a little. Her childhood hadn't been anything like that.

She compared the photo in her hand to several others where Dev was in full Chief Executive mode, exuding power, intellect, and an unsurpassed determination. Lauren grinned in amazement. Each picture perfectly suited a different aspect of the President's personality. She was never 'in' or 'out' of character as so many people were. These were all Devlyn. Every last one.

At first, four years studying Devlyn and her life sounded like more of a prison sentence than an opportunity.

Now Lauren wondered whether four would be nearly enough.

Friday, February 19th

"Well," David stood directly in front of the boss' desk, a thick stack of newspapers in his arms. "Twenty four days isn't quite a month."

Dev didn't even bother to look up; she just sighed and extended her hand. "What?" she asked in a voice that wavered somewhere between amused and annoyed.

"I." He dropped a copy of the Washington Post on the desk under her nose. "Told." Next came the New York Times. "You." Followed by the Los Angeles Times. "So." Then he just tossed the rest of the stack, which consisted of a majority of the papers with the largest circulation in the United States.

Dev picked through them until she found The Columbus Dispatch. "Oh, look. They're trying to figure out what caused the explosion at the gunpowder factory." She drew a deep breath, pursing her lips and covering them with a finger as her face scrunched up in contemplation. "Could it be... oh, I dunno... gunpowder?"

"Top half of the front page, Madam Smartass." David flipped the paper over and pinned it to the desk with a long, ruddy finger. He gestured with his chin.

Devlyn made a show of squinting at the page. "You mean that tiny, little one column, barely two inches long announcement that a biographer has been hired?" She snorted. "Big deal."

"That one is nice to you because it's your home state, and you know it. The New York Post is comparing you to Bill Clinton and wants to know if you and Lauren are playing house inside the White House."

She grinned rakishly. "No, but you can call the AMA and let them know I wouldn't mind playing doctor..." Dev instantly bit down on her tongue and chanced another glance up into David's wide, practically bulging, brown eyes. "You didn't hear that." She shook her finger at David. "I didn't say that!"

"Oh, yes, I did! And, oh, yes, you did!" He nervously tugged at his tie. This was not good. No. Actually, this was outright bad. "Deeeeeeev," he drew out her name menacingly.

"What happened to Madam President? Hell, I even liked Wonder Woman better than Deeeeeeeev." She imitated his worried tone perfectly.

"What aren't you telling me here?"

His voice was low and stern, and Dev felt like a child caught with her hand firmly entrenched in the cookie jar. "Nothing, I swear." She crossed her heart. "Nothing is going on; nothing will be going on." Dev frowned, unable to keep how she felt about that prospect from showing on her face. "She's writing a book, and I'm the subject of that book. End of story."

"Me thinks thou doth protest too much." David pushed aside Dev's steaming mug of coffee and leaned forward. "Something is going on between you and Lauren Strayer, isn't it?"

"No." She looked him straight in the eye.

He searched her face. She was telling the truth. So far. "Do you want something to be going on between you and Lauren Strayer?" David carefully enunciated the words, not giving her a way out.

Devlyn's eyes went slightly round. She wasn't expecting that. Damn you, David. "No." Then she shook her head, knowing that was a bald-faced lie. "I mean 'yes'." But that wasn't quite the truth either. "Shit! I mean, 'maybe'." Jesus Christ, I sound like a hard core Democrat. "I don't know, David."

David's eyes softened at the look of distress and confusion on his friend's face. He backed off a little, sitting on the edge of the desk and dropping his hands to his lap as he waited for Devlyn to continue.

"I know that when I'm in the room with her, I feel like a giddy teenager. I find myself thinking about her all the time. Wondering what she's doing. What she's thinking." Why she always smells so nice and what she's wearing, she added privately. Dev stood, turning around to stare out the window and into the dingy, gray, winter sky. "I think I've been alone so long that I'd forgotten what it's like to spend time with someone new, where it felt easy... comfortable."

"Lauren doesn't want anything from me except for me to talk and be myself. I mean... I know she's just doing her job." She shrugged one shoulder. "But it feels like more. Like she really cares about what I think and feel. Not like I'm under her microscope."

He blew out a frustrated breath. David didn't want to see his friend hurt. And Lauren could devastate both her career and her heart. But it was time that Devlyn started living again. Samantha had been the love of her life. But that life was over. And Dev had embarked on a new one the moment her wife had died. David was more than anxious to acknowledge that it was okay to feel again... even if the timing and circumstances sucked great big donkey balls. "Feels good, doesn't it?"

She nodded without turning around, but he caught her weak smile in the window's reflection. "Yeah," she admittedly softly. A pause. "It really does."

David allowed the conversation to dwindle down, which was never very hard to do when Dev was working through something in her mind. The tall woman was prone to lapse into long moments of silence as she thought, even if it was in the middle of a conversation. He chewed at his mustache for a moment, and just as he was about to speak again, there was a knock on the door, and Liza entered the office.

"I'm sorry for the interruption, Madam President." Liza gave her watch a perfunctory glance – the eighth one in the past five minutes. "It's time for your press conference."

"Don't make that girl use a cattle prod," Jane called from somewhere behind Liza.

Liza smothered a smile. Jane would say anything to her boss, and, to Liza, President Marlowe's secretary from Ohio walked on water... a goddess of the highest order.

Dev rolled her eyes, properly chastised by Jane. "Right. Of course." She turned and retrieved her jacket from the coat rack, handing it to David. As per their ritual, he held it for her, and she shrugged into it, buttoning all the buttons as he smoothed the shoulders. It was simple and intimate in a way that spoke of their affection and true friendship. Dev had done the same thing for him on many occasions.

The President picked an imaginary piece of lint off the black, wool blazer. "Send copies of those to Lauren." She motioned toward the stack of newspapers. "I don't want her blindsided. And could you... umm... tell her I'm sorry about all this?"

David nodded. "I've already done it. And I asked her to skip the press conference today, too. I told her you'd call her right after."

"Good man. I knew there was a reason I kept you."

"Yeah, my charming personality and good looks."

Dev burst out laughing. She punched David in the gut, making him instantly regret stopping at the McDonald's drive-thru for breakfast. "No, it's because you're the best damn handler in the business, and we both know it." Dev reached out and took the note cards from Liza and placed them in her left pocket.

"Are you saying I'm not good looking?" He squared his shoulders indignantly and wrinkled his slightly pug nose.

Devlyn grinned. "I'd never say that. Your wife would kick my butt."

"Madam President, we really need to go," Liza reminded, already walking to the door.

"Cattle prod time!" was heard from somewhere in the distance.

*                      *                      *

Lauren opened the folded paper, her mouth still hanging open from the last article she had read. Impossibly her face turned a darker shade of red as she scanned the words. "Playing house? The President's little blonde toy? Hanky Panky Washington Style?"

She crumpled the paper and tossed it onto the pile of balled-up newspapers on the floor by her bed. "Arrrggghhhhhh! You—slimy—sons of bitches!" Then she read the byline and snorted angrily, tearing the article with her name and horrific college yearbook photo right out of the paper. "You were an asshole in college, Marjorie. And you're still one!"

Gremlin whined and buried himself under Lauren's pillow.

A toneless but soothing female voice rang out in Lauren's room. "Estimated time to press conference, one minute. Activate image feed."

"Activation authorized... umm... um... crap... 186... um... 1868... ugh! Pause activation."

She tried valiantly to remember the number, her hands flailing the entire time. Michael Oaks had informed her that the last four digits of her social security number were an unacceptable password and had insisted she come up with another one. Lauren agreed just so he would shut up and leave her room. She'd been sorry ever since.

Grabbing Gremlin by his back legs, she pulled the pooch out from under her pillow. "Get...," she snatched a squirming leg and gave another tug as he tried to scramble back under her pillow, "...get out of there, you coward! I'm not mad at you!"

Once she freed him, she flipped him over and peered down at his dog collar, the shiny tags reflecting off her glasses. She raised her voice and read aloud his license number. "Activation authorized 18686GH89ZDC." Let someone figure out that code! she thought defiantly.

The video image popped into being, and a life-size Devlyn was now standing next to Press Secretary Allen, a few feet from her podium in the press room, and in front of Lauren's desk. The writer's first thought was that the image that had once seemed so vivid and intense, paled in comparison to the real woman. Of course, I was stoned at the time.

Gremlin began to growl at the dark-haired women. Though even in the best of circumstances, he couldn't quite muster 'ferocious'.

"Hush!" Lauren wrapped her palm around Gremlin's slightly damp mouth and pulled him into her lap. "And for the last time, you can't bite that... it's just an image."

He gave a hopeful whine, wiggling his bottom as he got comfortable.

Lauren rolled her eyes. "You can't bite the real thing either. It's about to start... quiet." She absently kissed the top of his head and folded her legs up underneath her Indian style, staring intently. "Devlyn will take care of this." Lauren nodded. "They won't know what hit 'em."

Dev shifted back and forth, waiting for the Press Secretary to introduce her. She couldn't help but wonder how Lauren was taking this news. Lauren is a reasonable, mature woman. She'll understand that this was inevitable and really couldn't be helped.

"Tear 'em to shreds, Dev!" Lauren crowed eagerly.

"Ladies and gentlemen, President Marlowe will now take a few questions on the topics we've covered this morning." Press Secretary Allen adjusted the microphone on the podium so that it was more suitable for the President's height.

Dev stepped out, and the cameras were turned on her. When she took her place, her gaze immediately drifted to where Lauren usually stood. Holding in the sigh, and hoping the disappointment didn't show on her face, Devlyn greeted the press. "Good morning."

Murmurs of 'Madam President' and 'Mornin'' answered her.

Devlyn shuffled her notes on the podium. "Let's start with the DNA Registration Act, shall we?" She pointed to a man in the front row and smiled. "Let's have it, Bill. I know you're dying to get into this."

The balding reporter from the Chicago Tribune stood and adjusted the mini-recorder he held in one hand and the notepad he held in the other, jumbling them for just a second as he settled himself. "Actually, Madam President, what can you tell us about Lauren Strayer?"

Lauren all but snarled. "Set him straight, Dev."

Dev's expression hardened just a bit, but she answered smoothly, "She's a very talented biographer, and I'm delighted she's agreed to write mine."

"What?" Lauren exclaimed to Dev's image. She released Gremlin, who stuck his non-existent nose under the edge of the comforter and scooted underneath it to hide again. "That's it?" The writer's tone was incredulous. "That's all you're going to say?"

Dev gestured to a woman in the middle of the room. "C'mon, Kathleen. I'm sure you can do better than that."

The correspondent from CNN rose to her feet, pushing a lock of hair from her eyes. "I don't know about that, Madam President. Maybe you could fill us in on the details, like when did Ms. Strayer move into the White House, and why wasn't she put in VIP quarters? Why the residence? There was no press release to that effect. What are you hiding?"

"Nothing, you moron! We're hiding nothing!" Lauren tore her glasses from her face and tossed them onto the bed.

Dev raised a sharp eyebrow at the CNN reporter. "Just because I don't disclose every detail of my private life to the press, does not mean I'm hiding anything," Dev growled.

"Oh, my God," Lauren muttered, covering her face with her hands.

Press Secretary Allen, who was waiting in the wings, closed her eyes briefly as she let out a long string of expletives under her breath. She turned to David. "Tell me she didn't use the word 'private'."

David threw his hands in the air. "I don't think she meant it like it sounded." He shook his head. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire, my friend."

Dev immediately knew she had misspoken, and it wasn't just because the room exploded with questions.

"Where did you meet Ms. Strayer?

"How long have you known her?"

"What's it like trying to go out on a date as the President of the United States?"

"Is she a real blonde?"

Two pale eyebrows disappeared into Lauren's hairline. "You'll never have the pleasure of knowing, buddy," she answered tartly.

Dev silently endured the barrage of questions. She did consider what happened in her private residence to be private, despite the fact that Lauren was there on a professional basis. But why do I think the press isn't going to take it that way? Shit!

"How do your children like her, and how do they feel about her living with you?"

With that question, the color rose to Dev's cheeks, and she drew in a deep, calming breath before speaking. "Ladies and gentleman, I know Press Secretary Allen came out here and gave you a full briefing about five very important pieces of legislation I'm working on. I came here to answer questions about those and other important issues facing our nation."

Lauren's eyes were drawn to Dev's white-knuckled grip on the podium.

"I did not come here to answer questions about something that is of no significance at all."

"No significance?" Lauren sprang to her feet, knocking her glasses onto the carpet. "I've just been crucified in every major newspaper in the country, and it's not significant?!" she shouted at Dev's hologram. "Thanks so much!"

A chorus of voices protested, and Dev raised her hands to silence them. "I'm sure, overall, that the American public is far more interested in how I intend to make sure every child has adequate health care, and whether or not there will be a social security program at the end of my time in office."

Press Secretary Allen and David looked at each other, rolling knowing eyes simultaneously.

"And when you're ready to talk about those, you let Press Secretary Allen know, and I'll be back. Your current line of questioning is a waste of my time, and, therefore, the public's money. Good day, ladies and gentlemen."

And with that, she left the room. I need to see Lauren.

*                      *                      *

Lauren sat on her bed with her head in her hands. Her career was dying on the vine. What good was an historian and biographer who couldn't be trusted to be objective and honest? None. Jesus, I'm going to end up doing Ricky Martin's life story. I know it.

The blonde woman heard a light rapping on her door. "Go away."

Devlyn pressed her forehead against Lauren's door, not caring who saw her. "Lauren, please give me a moment."

"You had your moment. And, if I recall, you decided to go with 'no comment'." But, despite herself, she was drawn to the door. She took several steps toward it, but decided she wasn't ready to see Devlyn yet. Instead, she gracelessly plopped down on the coffee table, only to have it collapse under her weight.

Devlyn pounded on the door several more times, but waved away a Secret Service agent who had jumped to her assistance. When he was back at his post she called softly, "Are you all right?" God, she's stubborn. "C'mon, please let me in. At least let me apologize to you face to face."

Lauren pushed up from the rubble. Great. There go my next ten pay checks. I hope Gremlin can learn to appreciate generic dog food. Her gaze traveled to the door. Dev sounded sincere enough. Brushing off her pants, she reluctantly crossed the room and pulled the door open just a crack. "Yes?"

Now that they were face-to-face Dev found herself a little tongue-tied. But one look into flashing gray eyes and she got over it quickly. "I'm sorry."

Lauren felt a pang in her chest at the look of regret etched across Dev's face and fought the urge to accept Devlyn's apology on the spot. But the words from the press conference were still too fresh in the writer's mind. She turned her back on the President and moved deeper into her room with Dev trailing behind her, the door left open just a crack. "Why are you sorry about such an insignificant little thing as the career I've worked my ass off for, President Marlowe?"

Devlyn flinched at Lauren's icy tone and the use of her title. Not to mention that she didn't particularly enjoy having her own words thrown back at her. Patience. "Yeah." She sighed. "I know that came out wrong. Lauren, I didn't mean to say, or even imply, that you or your career were insignificant. I just meant that this was something the public didn't need to concern itself with. I am sorry."

Lauren shook her head. Apologies were all well and good, but Devlyn didn't seem to grasp what this meant for both of them. "I record. I observe. I can't be the subject of speculation!" How blind am I, that I didn't even see this coming? "You had one chance to nip this in the bud, and you didn't do it. You promised you'd go to bat for me, and you didn't. If I'm not credible, I'm worthless as your biographer." And anyone else's.

The President straightened as Lauren's accusations hit home. "You are not worthless, and you never will be! Lauren, if I take the time to address this issue, it won't just go away. The best thing to do is let it run its course, and let it die a slow, quiet death. Trust me. Tomorrow," she paused. "Okay, maybe not tomorrow, but next week or next month, this will just be a memory, and the world will move on to other pieces of gossip."

Devlyn ignored the slumped set of Lauren's shoulders and pressed on when all she really wanted to do was give the woman a hug. "Haven't you been paying attention these last few weeks? Haven't you watched me jump from one issue to the next so quickly that sometimes I feel like a trick pony? If you haven't, then maybe you aren't the person for the job after all."

The dark-haired woman's jaw worked for a few seconds, and she let out an explosive breath. She didn't want to say the next part, but she knew she had to. She stared at the wall beyond Lauren with unseeing eyes. "We're not involved and... well... of course... you're not a prisoner. You're free to leave anytime you like with the highest recommendation I can offer."

Lauren's shoulders dropped further, and Devlyn felt her guts twist into a solid knot with the knowledge that she was the cause. This was all her idea. "Just know that I'm sorry for what happened. I would never intentionally cause you pain, Lauren." Please believe me.

The shorter woman closed her eyes at Devlyn's words. She never blamed Dev for this happening, only for not handling it differently. Or am I just upset that she didn't handle it my way? "Leave?" she whispered weakly. Did she want to leave? No. She wanted the day to start itself over again and to not have a stack of newspapers, and a room full of reporters, questioning her morals and professionalism and Devlyn's good sense.

Her anger began to drain away, and when she turned around and peered up into concerned blue eyes, her own filled with tears. "But we didn't do anything wrong. It's not fair!" She knew how naive that sounded. But at that moment, she didn't care. It was the truth.

Devlyn's lips curved into a sad smile. "I know what's true, and so do you. That's all that matters today, because tomorrow we're old news," she cocked her head to the side, "remember?" Then her forehead creased. She bit her lip, but couldn't stop the question that was on the tip of her tongue. "Would it be so horrible? People thinking that there was something between us. If it weren't for the job, I mean." That was smooth, Marlowe. Even I'm confused about what I just asked.

Lauren shook her head as a few unshed tears spilled over. She wiped them away angrily, hating that when she was upset her first reaction was to yell, her temper boiling over. Her second was to cry. And, to her embarrassment, Devlyn had just been treated to both. "I... um...." Her brows furrowed. Was Devlyn asking if it bothered her because they were both women? She wasn't quite sure so she guessed. "It's not that."

Devlyn's voice was softer now, and she crossed the final steps to Lauren, not stopping until she was close enough to get a good look at the crystal scattering of tears in pale lashes. "It's hard to have everything you are put under a microscope. Trust me, I know. I just need you to believe that I'm sorry."

She swallowed hard, morbidly picking at what she immediately recognized as a sore spot. "If you want to resign, I'll understand. And I'll make sure that Sharon puts out a proper press release as to why. You ...umm...just let me know. In the meantime, if there is anything I can do, you let me know that too."

Their eyes locked, and Lauren found herself unable to break Dev's intense gaze. "Is that... I mean... do you want me to resign?" She had never stood quite this close to Dev before and she felt a slight, inexplicable yearning to move even closer.

Dev shook her head gravely. "No. That's the last thing I want. What I want is for you to be happy and comfortable here."

Lauren nodded. She didn't know if that was still possible. But she was bound and determined to try. The writer lifted her chin. "I'm no quitter, Devlyn." She blinked away her remaining tears, splashing a salty drop on her cheek.

Dev reached out tentatively, her hand moving so slowly that Lauren could detect its faint trembling. "I know you're not." Devlyn chuckled softly. "Why do you think I wanted you in the first place?"

Lauren smiled when soft fingertips grazed her cheeks, gently brushing away her tears. She laughed nervously, unconsciously leaning into Dev's touch.

"Are we done arguing?"

A quick bob of the head.

"Good. Because I just discovered that I really hate arguing with you." Dev smiled, the relief coursing through her nearly enough to make her dizzy.

They stood there awkwardly for a moment, and Dev dropped her hand from Lauren's cheek. "Sometimes, after fussing with a friend, a hug can feel really nice," she offered gingerly, still not sure she was on solid footing with the biographer.

Lauren needed no further invitation. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Dev's solid, lanky form, sighing with relief when Dev mirrored her actions and squeezed her gently but firmly. Her face was pressed against Dev's shirt, and her heart was thumping double time, she realized. But she could feel Devlyn's pounding pulse in return. She pulled in a deep, comforting breath, catching the faintest whiff of the President's perfume.

Oh, God. Devlyn pressed her face into Lauren's soft, wavy hair, praying – hoping – that the smaller woman couldn't feel her heart, which was about ready to pound out of her chest. She squeezed a little tighter, then realized that her friendly two or three seconds were up, and she'd have to release Lauren. Dev was about to speak when Lauren's door opened, and she looked up to find Christopher and Aaron staring back at her.

Lauren's gaze flicked to the door, and she affected a deer in the headlights look as the boys watched on, oblivious to the room's mounting tension.

"The dog," Dev whispered in Lauren's ear, her warm breath causing a slight tremor in the writer. "They're here for him."

Lauren suddenly whistled, and Gremlin poked his head out from under the bed where he was hiding. He saw Devlyn and immediately growled, baring tiny crooked teeth.

"Gremlin!" the boys shouted happily.

The dog bounded across the room. But not before stopping in front of Devlyn and offering another short growl. Then he ran over to the boys, who immediately began playing with him, forgetting all about the fact that their mother and Lauren were still wrapped in a loose embrace.

Lauren stared for a moment. "That's amazing. Gremlin hypnotizes them."

"It's true. My children are slaves to the cult of Gremlin."

They both burst out laughing and reluctantly disentangled themselves from each other.

Dev spied the broken coffee table. "Next time you get mad at me, you might want to hit me. I doubt I'm worth as much as that table."

"Sweet Jesus," Lauren drawled, her Southern accent popping out in full force. She examined the shards of wood scattered on the carpet and gulped. "How much was it worth?" Not that I really want to know. But I'm sure Michael Oaks is running me a tab, so I might as well hear it now.

Devlyn crossed her arms. "Dunno. It was made for Andrew Jackson. It's a one of a kind historical piece. Completely irreplaceable." I will not laugh. I will not.

Lauren's eyes grew wide as her voice grew weak. "It was," she uttered glumly. I so should have stayed in bed this morning. Well, except for that hug. I'd get out of bed for one of those any day of the week.

"Yeah. It was," Dev commiserated. "I heard they had appraisals done on it last year, from both Christie's and Lloyds of London. It was too expensive to insure."

Lauren could hear the smile in Dev's voice, and she glanced up from the coffee table to see twinkling eyes. "Lloyds of London, huh?" Her tone was skeptical.

Dev laughed. "Okay, would it make you feel any better to know that I bought it at a yard sale in college, paid four bucks for it, and refinished it myself? It came with me from Ohio."

"You rat!" She made a mock angry face, but still said a small prayer of thanks. "Does this mean I don't have to sell a kidney?"

"No kidney." Dev arched a droll brow. "But you owe me four bucks."

*                      *                      *

"C'mon in." Lauren opened the door to her quarters, a soft, yellow light from the lamp she'd left on spilling into the hallway. "You're going to love this picture. I just developed it over lunch. She was giving a speech to Congress."

Dev's eyebrows hiked up behind her bangs. "Ashley?" Please tell me she wasn't a Republican.

The women stopped in front of Lauren's desk. The shorter woman grinned and handed Devlyn the picture. "Uh huh."

Dev chuckled and held the photo at eye level. "So that's why she's wearing my blazer." The navy jacket hung nearly to the floor on the seven-year-old, its broad shoulders making her head appear tiny. "She's so cute."

"She looks just like you."

Devlyn felt a flush working its way up her neck. "I suppose so," she admitted sheepishly, although Lauren could still hear the pride in her voice. "Samantha always told me the same thing." Dev suddenly paused as though she'd said something wrong. She felt a twinge of guilt, and her throat began to close. With a start, she realized that she hadn't thought of Samantha in days... hadn't said her name in weeks. Tears filled her eyes, coming so fast she couldn't stop them.

Lauren laid a gentle hand on Devlyn's arm. "You miss her a lot, I'm sure." She smiled sympathetically, at a total loss as to what else she could say.

By the time Lauren had divorced her ex-husband, there were no tears of grief for her; not that there had been many to begin with. She had been more upset by her own failure to make the marriage work than by losing him. And, by the bitter end, she was more than ready for it to all be over and to let go. Looking at the older woman, Lauren felt a little ashamed that she hadn't ever mirrored the stinging loss that was so evident in Dev's face.

Dev nodded weakly. "She was a very special person. But the world does keep spinning." Even if it took me a long time to really believe it. Her eyes fastened on Lauren's. "I don't think I was meant to walk through life alone." A wistful smile touched her face. "It's much more fun with somebody else."

"Depends on the somebody," Lauren said seriously.

Dev's voice was just as serious. "I guess it does."

A smooth, female voice interrupted the room's silence, and Lauren tore her gaze away from the riveting blue. "Incoming call from (865) 555-9537. Call forwarded from cell phone. Status: emergency."

Lauren sucked in a breath. Calls designated as emergencies didn't ring on the phone. An automated voice system kicked in instead. And she'd had her cell phone off all day. While she called home once a month, she had never, ever received a long distance phone call from her parents. Not caring that Devlyn was still in the room, she took the call. "Call accepted."

"Lauri?" a deep, male voice boomed in an accent that was far more pronounced than Lauren's.

"What's wrong, Daddy? Is it Mama?"

Dev wrapped her arm around Lauren's waist, bracing them both for bad news. Don't let someone be dead, Dev thought hastily.

There was a long pause and then a sigh. "She's been in bed all week. You know her."

Lauren looked concerned, and Devlyn wanted to ask about her mother, but Lauren's father spoke before she could.

"Holy hell, girl! I've been trying to get a hold of you since this morning. Do you know what time it is?"

"I know it's late. I just got back to my bedroom."

"Doesn't that lady President let you sleep?"

This, coming from a man who got up every morning at 4:30 A.M. for work. "Never mind about that. Daddy, what's wrong?"

"I'll tell you what's wrong." He quoted The Revealer at length, and both women cringed. That was the tabloid rag that had used the phrase 'brainy sex kitten'. "Everybody is talking about it! Our phone has been ringing off the hook. I had to unplug the damned thing. And now there are a bunch of news people parked on our front lawn, and they won't leave!"

"Oh, Daddy, I'm so sorry. We never meant for that to happen. And for the millionth time, tell Mama to stop reading that trash." Not that the 'respectable' papers were much better, she thought sourly.

"We?" The word was said with as much rancor as the man could muster. This couldn't possibly be true, could it? "Who exactly is 'we'?"

"Ummm..." Lauren fumbled for something to say, suddenly feeling very guilty despite the fact that she and Dev hadn't done anything wrong.

"Girl, are you living there? In the White House?"

"Surprise," she teased listlessly. "I was going to tell you next weekend when I called."

"You didn't tell them?!" Dev whispered harshly in Lauren's ear.

Lauren shrugged a little defensively as she pulled away from Dev. She had been abroad for nearly two years when she did Cardinal O'Roarke's biography. And her parents never inquired once about her exact whereabouts. Never asked her for her address. They were content to have her phone number, which they never used. It hadn't occurred to her to let them know anything other than the fact that she'd be in Washington D.C.

There was a pause while Howard Strayer covered the receiver with his palm. "I told you to get away from those bushes, God dammit!"

Lauren looked at Devlyn in panic when she heard the unmistakable sounds of her father's shotgun being loaded.

"Mr. Strayer, this is Devlyn Marlowe," Dev jumped in. "Please don't shoot the press. I'll make sure your local police keep them from trespassing on your lawn."

Lauren turned and looked at Dev, her jaw sagging. What are you doing, Devlyn?

"Yeah, right!" the man snorted. "And I'm the King of France."

Lauren covered her mouth, stifling a sudden laugh.

"I um... but I am Devlyn Marlowe!" Dev persisted indignantly.

"Girl, this is no laughing matter. And stop making your voice all deep and gravely like a man's. I should think you're too old for such nonsense."

Two sable eyebrows curved upwards. Dev put her hands on her hips and mouthed "Like a man?" to Lauren, who was now doubled over with laughter.

"Daddy, this really is President Marlowe," Lauren finally choked out when she caught her breath. She motioned to Dev. "Say something while I'm talking, so he'll believe me."

"Mr. Strayer, it really is me." Devlyn spoke over Lauren's renewed laughter.

"No shit?"

"No shit." Dev replied smoothly, now smiling herself.

"Well then, Madam President, I only have one question for you."

Dev tilted her head toward the intercom. "Yes?"

"What in the Sam Hill are you doing in my daughter's room at 11:30 P.M.?!"

Dev's eyes widened at the scolding, parental tone. Could someone else's father ground you? "Uhh..."

Oh, boy.

Sunday, February 21st

The writer liked Sundays. This fourth Sunday in the White House was quiet and nearly what an ordinary person would call normal. Why would anyone want this job? There was never really any time to rest. Even today, Dev was called into a meeting over a brewing crisis in the Middle East. This was the time she had set aside for the kids, and they all wanted to go outside and play in the fresh two inches of snow that had fallen overnight.

Lauren's plan was to stay in and write. Though she knew she needed to take Gremlin for a walk soon. Lauren was craving some time outside herself. Gray eyes slid over to her little companion, who was curled in a tight ball at her feet.

A noise drew her attention outside the window next to her bed, where she could see Christopher and Aaron and their Secret Service agents romping in the snow and having a good time, squealing as they pelted each other with soggy snowballs. The two young agents who were assigned to them were honestly playing, and looked to be having nearly as good a time as the children. She noticed several other agents standing in the background, drinking steaming beverages and keeping a watchful eye over the snowball fight.

The blonde woman stood up to get a better view of the winter mayhem and wondered where Ashley was in the melee. Her eyes searched the lawn, pale brows drawing together when she realized the little girl wasn't there. "Come on, Gremlin, let's go for a walk."

Gremlin jumped up as though he hadn't been snoring only seconds before. He was ready to go in an instant, bouncing wildly at Lauren's feet, circling her madly as she gathered up her jacket and his leash. She shook her head and laughed at the dog's antics. "Crazy." Bringing along Grem's leash was more a habit than anything else. Here at the White House he wasn't required to be on his lead.

There were faster ways for Lauren to get to the lawn, but she strolled along the route that took her by the kids' bedrooms and the President's living room. Sitting in the hall outside the living room was Agent Hamlin. As she and the dog approached, Gremlin darted into the living room ahead of her. Lauren laughed to herself. I'm going to have to leave you here when I'm finished with this assignment, aren't I, Grem?

At the doorway the writer paused, leaning on the frame and watching the dark-haired little girl, who had a few coloring books laid out in front of her. Her jacket and cap were balled up on the table next to her crayons.

Gremlin gave a little bark and Ashley immediately perked up, wiggling herself out of her chair and flopping onto the carpet to give him a loving scratching. Gremlin was purring as though he were a fat cat. He was clearly in canine heaven, and Lauren wondered what she could do in this life to insure coming back as a spoiled pooch in her next.

The woman took off her glasses and stuffed them into her jacket pocket, knowing they'd just get so steamy outside they'd be of no use anyway. Besides, they were bifocals and she really only needed them for reading and writing, but it was just easier to leave them on all day and not worry about it. She pushed off from the doorframe. "Hey, we're just about to go out for a walk. Would you like to go with us?"

Ashley looked up and gave her a little shake of her head. But the profoundly sad look in the little girl's eyes said more than most of the words the writer had ever put on paper. She stepped into the room and knelt down next to Gremlin.

"You sure?" she asked gently. "Your brothers are having a ball. Why aren't you out with them?"

Ashley glanced to the door but didn't say anything. Lauren sighed. "C'mon," she coaxed. "I think Gremlin wants to play. And I'm sort of tired this morning. You'd be doing me a big favor if you'd play with him for a while and wear him out."

"Really?" she asked interestedly, allowing the dog to lick her hand.

"Sure."

"But isn't it cold out?"

Lauren pursed her lips. Since when did a kid care about the temperature when it came to playing outside? "Well, I suppose. But you'll be bundled up, right? And we can always come back inside if it gets too chilly."

"Kay." The girl immediately brightened.

"Good." Lauren nodded. "You put on your coat and gloves and..." She looked at the big pile of clothes on the table. "And whatever else is in that pile, and I'll let Agent Hamlin know."

Ashley didn't bothering answering; she was already tugging on her boots.

Lauren marched purposefully to the door. Leaning out, she spoke very quietly. "Get your ass up out of that chair and get ready to go out. Ashley and I are taking Gremlin for a walk. It is not too cold to have a little fun outside. What do you think her brothers are doing at this very moment?" God, no wonder Ashley wasn't hitting it off with the agent. The woman acted like she was an old lady! Wasn't Emma enough for any household?

"But..." The agent looked into a pair of very unamused, slate-gray eyes, and her protest died on her lips.

The blonde turned back to see Ashley and Gremlin happily bounding toward her. As they stepped into the hall Lauren heard Agent Hamlin speaking behind them. "Princess and Mighty Mouse are on the move. We're headed out to walk the dog."

Mighty Mouse? Mighty Mouse! Oooo, Devlyn Marlowe, they had better not have gotten that moniker from you. Then she laughed at what David had covertly suggested the Secret Service call Devlyn. As Lauren followed behind Ashley and Gremlin she hoped her name didn't fit as well as Devlyn's. A wry smile pulled at her lips. Hope your meetings are going okay, Wonder Woman.

Friday, February 26th

They were sitting in Devlyn's living room. Exhausted. Lauren looked at her watch. It was almost midnight, and they had been up since five in the morning. Almost twenty hours straight. She glanced into the face of the woman across from her, watching as she sipped a tall glass of milk.

Dev shoved a plate of cookies at Lauren. She sighed and propped her feet on the coffee table. The fireplace was gently glowing, but Dev didn't think the flames were responsible for the dark shadows under Lauren's eyes. It had been a bear of a day, and she herself was drained to the bone. "Tired?" she asked needlessly.

Lauren looked at her like she was crazy, but answered the rhetorical question anyway. "Heck, yeah. I'm dead." The writer stared into her glass of milk with mild distaste. She hadn't drunk milk since she was a little girl. What was Emma's obsession with the white liquid? When they'd walked into the living room the older woman, with her hair up in rollers that had to be antiques, simply pressed the cold glasses into their hands and then marched off to bed without another word. Weird.

"I don't know how you do it day in and day out. I don't know how I follow you day in and day out." The shorter woman yawned. "And I'm not sure how we're going to survive four years." She picked up several double-stuffed Oreos and sat them in her lap, not giving a rat's ass about the black crumbs on her crème-colored skirt. That's why God invented dry cleaning. She passed the plate back to Dev.

"Today actually got a little out of hand, and you know it." Blue eyes rolled. "That little fit the Secretary of Defense threw was quite unexpected, and it totally FUBARed my schedule."

"That man," Lauren plucked up a hapless Oreo and twisted it apart, digging out the impossibly sweet, creamy filling with her teeth, "is an ass."

Dev shrugged, dunking her own cookie in her milk until is was properly soaked. "He hates me."

"Then he's a bigger ass than I thought. Why does he hate you?" Lauren moaned a little as she sipped her milk. It was actually good. Who knew?

"Because," Devlyn quickly popped the soggy cookie in her mouth, sucking out the milk before swallowing, "and these are his words, not mine –," Dev affected a heavy Bostonian accent, "– 'She's queer as a three dollar bill'."

"All that fuss today was because you're gay?"

The tall woman snorted. "Lots of people hate me because I'm gay." She sipped her milk as an evil grin crossed her lips, nearly causing the milk to drip out of her mouth. Dev leaned forward just a bit and whispered in a conspiratorial tone, "I want the Federal Treasury to print three dollar bills just to piss him off."

Lauren burst out laughing, and was only able to keep from spraying Devlyn with cookie crumbs by slapping her palm over her mouth. An impish smile twitched at her lips. "You might not want to start out with something so drastic. Maybe you could start small? Like with a Devlyn Marlowe rainbow postage stamp?" I know I'd buy a book. Then Lauren's face grew serious. "Why have a cabinet member who hates you?" She glanced down enviously at Dev's feet.

Dev made a show of wiggling her happy, socked toes. "Please do. And, by the way, you have to be dead before they put you on a stamp. I don't want to give him that much satisfaction."

Somewhat hesitantly, Lauren pushed off her low-heeled pumps. She sighed with relief at the feeling of the soft, cool carpet against her nylon-covered toes.

"C'mon," Dev encouraged, wiggling her feet again. "It's always better on the coffee table."

"You're sure?"

"Oh, please. This one didn't belong to George Washington either." She reached down and wrapped her fingers around Lauren's ankles.

The younger woman yelped at the unexpectedly cold hands.

"Sorry." Dev gestured at the glass of icy milk she'd been holding. "My fingers aren't normally cold."

Lauren remembered their hug from the week before. "I know."

"Now, back to your question." Dev smiled, looking at their feet sitting side-by-side on the coffee table. She has cute feet.

"Yes?" Lauren prompted, wondering why Dev was staring at her feet.

"Right. Why have cabinet members who hate me? Well, it took a lot, and I mean a lot, of dealing to get me here. I agreed to put people in important positions in return for support within the Emancipation Party itself. It got me the Presidential nomination and then four years of putting up with assholes like Secretary of Defense Brendwell. It's a political game. And that's how it's played." She drowned another cookie.

"I see," Lauren answered thoughtfully. But she didn't really. At least not until that very moment. "So, you're not only fighting the Democrats and the Republicans... you have to worry about your own people too?"

"Well, sort of. My party supports me now. It would be stupid for them not to. A lot of sacrifices were made along the way. I've got a lot more enemies around here than friends. The friends I do have are the key. David, for example. He's a Democrat," she sighed. "So he's my deal man. He can cross party lines and not look like a total phony. I also trust him with my life."

Lauren mumbled her agreement. If the public knew how much influence David, and even Jane, really had, America would have a collective heart attack. But Washington was a shark tank, and Devlyn needed a few friendly sharks swimming in her waters to make sure she didn't get eaten alive. Lauren turned her head slightly, watching as the President shoveled in what had to be her twentieth cookie.

Dev stopped mid-bite. "What?"

"You don't ever have to watch your weight, do you?" she asked enviously. "I think I hate you."

Given the opportunity, Dev gave Lauren's toned body a thorough once-over. "I don't think you have anything to be complaining about, Ms. Strayer," she teased, but had to drag her eyes back up to meet Lauren's. "Trust me, with the way we move around, very soon you will learn to eat anything and everything that is put before you. And you won't gain an ounce. In fact, you've lost a little already, haven't you?"

Lauren blinked. "Only five pounds." She arched an eyebrow. "Are you spying on my scale?"

"No," Dev laughed. I'm just noticing everything about you. "But that's the cool part about being here. Suddenly, all food is good for you. You'll need all the extra energy you can find to get through marathon days like this one." She popped another cookie into her mouth, along with another deep swallow of milk. "Besides, I don't have to bother keeping track of my weight. All of America is watching it for me. Three hundred and twenty million people are all interested in how wide my ass will get in four years."

Lauren made a face. "Well, all America may be watching your ass. But no one is watching mine."

Dev grinned. "I wouldn't say that." In a heartbeat, her faced flushed a deep red, and she covered her eyes with her hands. "I'm... ah... I..." Dev scrubbed her face, trying to erase the blush. "I cer... certainly didn't mean to say something as out of line as that." She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder how I made it this far. David's right; open mouth, insert foot." Worriedly, she peeked between her fingers and saw Lauren's indulgent smile. "I'm sorry." Dev really wanted to kick her own ass right now. God, I can't remember ever being this embarrassed!

Lauren just laughed, enjoying the rosy tint of Dev's cheeks. Was the woman actually flirting? "It's all right, Dev. Just a little slip of the tongue, right?"

Dev's eyes widened slightly, and her blush deepened. "Yeah," she croaked, bringing her glass to her lips.

How am I even going to maintain the pretense of any professional distance from you, Devlyn? Jesus, just look at us now! They were sitting so close together their thighs were nearly touching. And Lauren's brain nearly seized up on the spot when she found herself leaning a little closer, willingly losing herself in sky-blue eyes. I am in so much trouble.

Dev offered her the last Oreo by way of a peace offering, and Lauren chuckled. "A bribe?"

"Well, we are in Washington. Would you expect any less?" She wiggled the cookie, wondering what brand of perfume her biographer wore and whether it smelled that intoxicating on anybody else. Oh, man, I'm never going to make it through four years.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Madam President

Chapter III

March 2021

 

Wednesday, March 3rd

 

Washington D.C. was a mud pit. Snow had given way to a deep, icy slush, which, in turn, mutated into a soupy, dirty sludge. But, thankfully, the spring warm front had parked itself over the nation's capital and had finally vanquished even the last signs of what had been a brutal winter. Lauren cocked her head toward the window, hearing the faintest chirping of a robin.Oh, yeah,she sighed.I am so ready for spring.

The writer smiled at the vase of fresh-cut, yellow roses that brightened her desk. Every evening when she made her way to her room, a fresh bouquet was there to greet her. At first, she assumed that they were delivered to every room in the residence as a matter of course. Then she realized she hadn't seen them anywhere but her room. She had asked David McMillian about it, and the man just snorted, never really answering her question.

This sunny morning, the President was in a meeting with her National Security Advisor, and Lauren took the time to start researching a topic that had been niggling at her for weeks. She had thought Devlyn might discuss it with her herself. But the few times that it naturally came up in the conversation, Devlyn looked tense, angry perhaps. Unable to bear the shadows of pain behind Dev's eyes, Lauren steered the conversation into different waters, despite the fact that Dev appeared willing to press forward. Thankfully, this part of the President's past had already been very well publicized.

With a series of quick commands, Lauren fired up her computer and logged on.

"Good morning, Ms. Strayer," the soft computer voice greeted her.

"Good morning." She laughed at her response. She always answered the greeting, even though it was a machine. It somehow just seemed rude not to. "Search files. Marlowe, Devlyn."

"Searching. Files located. Directory?"

Lauren leaned back in her chair and removed her glasses, rubbing the bridge of her nose as the earpiece found its way into her mouth. "Sub-directory: Marlowe, Samantha. Source: All available."

"Searching. Files located. Directory?"

"Open all files. Most recent first. Current directory."

"File name: Sentencing Hearing. Harris, Theodore, 5/17/2017"

A three-dimensional video image cued up, and Lauren replaced her glasses, sliding her chair back a foot or two to maximize the resolution of the image. Dev was in a wood- paneled courtroom, and the mere sight of her caused Lauren to suck in an unexpected breath. The dark-haired woman was standing alongside a podium, her face drawn and tired looking, dark circles ringing normally bright eyes.She looks like she's been to hell and back.

"If it pleases the Court," Dev paused and took a sip of water. "I stand here before you today, not as the Governor of the state of Ohio, but as a victim. I stand before you, a spouse in mourning over the loss of my my wife"

Dev's eyes flashed, and Lauren could see a barely suppressed rage mingled with a profound sadness, both begging to be released. "I spent nearly fifteen years with Samantha and intended to spend many more." Her penetrating gaze flicked sideways, and her face hardened. "Except that that man," she pointed to a bearded, frazzled-looking man who appeared to be in his early thirties, "decided to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking all night. As has already been proven, he was speeding along in a drunken stupor when he broadsided the car that Samantha was driving. Mind you, his car was fully equipped with auto-drive. And that would have prevented the accident. If he had bothered to turn it on!"

Lauren leaned forward, watching intently as Devlyn paused again, fighting to keep her emotions in check. Her chest felt tight, Dev's tension making it hard for her to breathe.

"The defendant left that crash scene with barely a scratch to show for it. And while Samantha Marlowe layblebleed bleeding and dying, trapped in her car, he continued on his merry way to the liquor store to buy more booze!"

The image quickly shifted to the defendant, whose head was now in his hands, before panning back to Devlyn. Lauren recognized Jane in the gallery.

"It took the fire department nearly an hour to tear apart the car and get her out. And and by that time she was already." Dev's voice dropped to a whisper, "she was dead."

The sound of weeping could be heard in the background, and Lauren wondered whether it was a friend or family member of Samantha's or the defendant himself.

Dev's jaw worked for a moment, and she stepped back around behind the podium. Her eyes dropped down to look at the notes she had spread out on the slanted wooden surface. They were crinkled and tattered, and Dev suddenly pushed them away, as though deciding not to use them after all.

Lauren looked from the papers to Dev.It was too personal to be read in open court, wasn't it?

"She left behind three beautiful children," a tiny smile edged her lips, and Lauren smiled back sadly. No matter what the circumstances, Dev always smiled when she mentioned her kids. "Our three-year-old daughter, Ashley, whom Samantha adopted as soon as I had her. Our son, Christopher, who is one. He um... he took his first steps the day after Samantha was killed." Sniffles joined the sound of muted weeping in the background. "And our youngest baby, Aaron, who was barely four weeks old when she was killed."

Dev's composure began to crack, and hot tears slowly crept down her cheeks, plunking lightly onto the papers in front of her. Lauren closed her eyes briefly, her stomach churning. She didn't want to see anymore, but she knew she had to.

"These three bright and wonderful children will never know the love of this woman who took care of them, and in the case of Chris and Aaron, carried them in her body, gave them the very lives they live today. Because of his carelessness his recklessness his indifference and disregard for human life" Devlyn spat. "Because of his refusal to seek treatment after hisprevious twoDWIs, I have lost my partner and my best friend. He destroyed my family," Dev stopped, completely unable to continue.

She won't even say his name,Lauren thought.

Dev took a deep breath and stilled her shaking hands, making firm eye contact with the judge. "I request that this Court do the right thing and sentence this man to the maximum time allowed by Ohio state law for the crimes of which he has been convicted. I'll never get Samantha back." Her voice shook. "Our children have lost an irreplaceable part of their lives. The community has lost an outstanding, contributing member. He," she jerked her head toward the defendant, "should lose as much as we have." Dev squared her shoulders. "But that's not possible. So his freedom is the least that he can give."

David suddenly entered the picture, wrapping a strong arm around Devlyn's waist as she appeared to falter for just a second.

"Halt image." Lauren reached under the lens of her glasses, catching a salty tear just as it began to fall. She'd had enough. "Computer, tell me the sentencing of one," she glanced down at the handwritten notes in her lap, "Teddy or Theodore E. Harris. Convicted of aggravated vehicular manslaughter in Ohio, 5/14/2017."

"Searching. File located. No visual."

The writer stared at the frozen image on the screen, looking directly at Dev's shell-shocked face. "Open," she said quietly.

"Harris, Theodore, a k a, Harris, Teddy, case number 12843CR17, sentenced on 5/18/2017 to two years in Lebanon State Prison"

Lauren's jaw dropped. "Two years?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Two lousy years!"

The computer continued, unfazed by the woman's outburst. "Paroled on 5/19/2018, after serving twelve months."

"My God," Lauren whispered. She took off her glasses and disgustedly tossed them onto the desk, rubbing her watery eyes.

The phone on her desk startled her from her thoughts. "Computer off." She wiped her eyes once more and reached over, tapping the video feature on the phone. She was immediately greeted by Dev's smiling face.

"Hi there."

The President leaned back in her chair, and Lauren could tell by the background that Dev was in the Oval Office. "How was your meeting?"

"Top secret." Dev grinned and wrinkled her nose in a way Lauren found impossibly endearing.

It would be nice to watch laugh lines form around those baby blues. I'll bet Samantha was looking forward to that."Of course. I'm sorry."

"No problem. Listen, it just so happens that I'm sort of free for lunch. If you don't mind eating in my office, that is. I can sign my name, talk to you and eat my lunch at the same time." The smile slipped from Devlyn's face, and she eyed Lauren worriedly, idly noting the absence of her glasses. "Is um are you okay, Lauren? You look a little upset."

Lauren smiled softly, and made a conscious effort to brighten her somber mood. "I'm fine. And you can do all those things at the same time?" Her voice was playful. "My, my, you are multitalented."

Hush, Dev.But she couldn't keep a charming, slightly mischievous grin from stretching across her face. "Years of experience. How about it?"

"Dunno," the blonde teased. "Lemme check my calendar and see if the Prime Minister of Great Britain has"

"Hardy har har."

Lauren chuckled. "I'll be right down."

* * *

"I don't give a good goddamn!" Dev slammed her fist against her desk.

Lauren heard the jarring thud and winced at its intensity as she quietly closed the door. The entire White House didn't need to hear this. When she turned, Dev was on her feet, the receiver pressed tightly against her ear. "What do you mean they changed their minds? They're only allowed to do that when they disagree with well me! Get those votes back. I won't lose this because some lame ass Democrats can't decide which side of the fence to stand on!"

The biographer couldn't resist. She brought her camera up and began clicking off several frames.Damn, Dev, you do have a temper, don't you?Lauren smiled inwardly.That pulsing vein on your forehead would make an impressive book cover shot.

"Find them! And don't call me back until you do." She slammed the phone down and then hit the intercom switch. She took a deep breath, purposely calming herself before speaking. "Jane"

"The Chief of Staff is already on his way, Madam President. He was at a meeting on the Hill, but he's coming now. I put the call in as soon as the Deputy Chief of Staff phoned you."

"God bless you, Jane." Dev leaned against her desk with her palms against the flat surface. "Thank you." She sighed. "Are you having fun being President yet?"

Jane laughed. "Uh huh. and you're welcome."

The President switched off the intercom and sheepishly glanced up at Lauren.

"Hold it!" Lauren commanded, crouching down and changing the angle of the picture, and focusing the lens.

Dev shook her head and burst out laughing. She moved around the desk and leaned on its edge, crossing her long, silk covered-arms across her chest. "Suddenly I feel like a fashion model." She struck a pose, causing Lauren to giggle.

"You could have done that, you know been a model. The camera loves you." Lauren lowered her camera. "Do I want to know what's got you so upset?"

Dev pursed her lips unhappily. "Ah, my DNA Registration legislation is meeting with some last minute and very unexpected resistance."

"I knew that was gonna happen," Lauren said absent-mindedly as she fussed with her camera lens.

Twin eyebrows jumped.

Lauren shrugged. "During that meeting last week, well, they just didn't seem like they'd made up their minds. I didn't believe them when they said they'd support you. It was those Yankees from New Jersey that turned on you, wasn't it?" She made a face. "I think they were just here for the free lunch."

"Well, next time feel free to warn me, okay?" Dev chuckled. "Speaking of lunch, looks like I'm skipping it today. There is a little bipartisan butt that needs kicking." For once the Emancipation Party seemed to unite behind an issue.It's really not a good idea for you boys to stab me in the back like that. Time a few people found that out.

"No problem." Lauren waved a dismissive hand, bringing the camera to her ear to listen to the film rewind. There were easier ways to take pictures. But she loved this old camera, enjoying that she had to think to use it. "Want a spectator? It's been, ooooooh" she put her fingertip to her chin, pretending to think, "at least a week since I've seen a bipartisan butt kicking. I need my fix." The writer grinned.

"I'd be honored, madam." The President jumped down and bowed slightly at the waist before retaking her perch. "I'll even be your escort." Dev stopped speaking for a moment and stared intently at Lauren. "Would you vote ‘yes' for my bill? You've heard more than enough about it to make a well-informed decision."

Lauren sighed resignedly.Why did Devlyn always do this?She winced then drew in a deep breath. "Well um"

"Lauren." Dev's impatient voice dropped an octave.

"No."

"No?!" Dev exploded off the desk and marched over to other woman.

Lauren shook her head firmly, adopting a more stubborn pose as Devlyn approached. "No."

"No?"

"Nope."

"You're joking."

The younger woman just waited.

Devlyn threw her hands in the air. "But why? I rejected the Republican proposal requiring every person to submit a DNA sample at birth."

Lauren lifted a sassy eyebrow, letting Dev know exactly how she felt about the little suggestion made by the Speaker of the House.

"My proposal only registers people when they're arrested. Isn't there asingleDemocrat who will see reason?"

"Apparently not. And innocent people get arrested every day," Lauren said reasonably, opening the door to Dev's office. "It's invasive and creepy. Like Big Brother or something."

Dev motioned with her hands as they walked. She was in full ‘persuasion' mode. "We already fingerprint people when they're arrested. And this will ultimately save lives and help solve future crimes."

The younger woman stopped walking. "Fingerprints are not" Lauren shivered and said her next word with so much distaste that Dev nearly laughed, "blood. You can't clone people from their fingerprints. And what if someone decided to do something hinky with all those samples, huh?" Okay, she was half-teasing about that last part. But she knew Devlyn would bite.

"Arrrrrghhhh! I don't want to clone anyone! God," Dev rolled her eyes as they turned the corner and made their way down the hallway leading toward the Green Room. "They'restillshowing those damned "X-Files" reruns on television, aren't they?"

Round, gray eyes were the picture of innocence as the women continued on their way.

 

Thursday, March 4th

 

"So," from the door of Lauren's room, Dev grinned over her mug of coffee, "you want to take a trip with me?"

"Business or personal?" The blonde smiled back as she looked up from her journal and at the President.

"Does it really matter?"

"I'll need to know what to pack."

Dev rolled her shoulders, and with her free hand unbuttoned her blazer, leaving it on. "It's business. Our protocol specialist, Mrs. Baldridge, will help you with what to take." She took another sip, then set her ruby red mug on a coaster on the corner of Lauren's second coffee table. Silently, she gestured at the couch.

Lauren nodded her approval and snagged a stack of mail from her desk as she joined the President.

Dev settled down across from Lauren, bouncing a little on the springy cushion. She looked around covertly for Gremlin, the Devil Dog. "Your room smells nice," she commented idly.

"It's the flowers."

"Umm, nice" Dev figured Gremlin was hiding someplace and would jump out and growl at her later. But for now, she'd focus on Grem's mistress. "Lauren, I'd love for you to come, of course. But I'll understand if you need a break." Though she didn't like the idea of not seeing the writer every day, Dev did appreciate that the daily grind could be oppressive at times. "We've been at this for nearly two solid months. Surely you're getting tired of me."

"Nah." Lauren stretched. "Compared to Supergeek, who spoke computer gibberish most of the time, and Cardinal O'Roarke, who napped from 12:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. every single day, you're a dream," she teased.

Dev bit the inside of her cheek. "Gee, thanks."

Lauren laughed softly as she sorted through her mail. Most of it was junk, which she left unopened, but she did retain a thick manila envelope that was from Starlight Publishing. She was certain it was an advance copy of her latest book, but she was slightly embarrassed by the notion of Dev's seeing this particular piece of work. Lauren dragged her eyes up from her envelope.

"You're very dedicated. I appreciate that," Dev commented sincerely.

Lauren flushed with pleasure. Coming from a true workaholic, that was a big compliment. "So, where are we going, Madam President?"

"We're going to the U. S. Embassy in the United Arab Alliance. I need to oversee some trade negotiations. And there are certain - shall we call them ‘diplomatic' - issues that are more easily resolved if I host the talks at our Embassy."

Lauren gave Dev a confused look, still fingering the envelope in her hand. "Diplomatic issues?"

Dev grunted her agreement. "The whole ‘she's a woman and a demon lesbian' diplomatic issue." She smiled wryly. "In the Embassy we're technically on American soil. And what is punishable by death in their country, is, well, it will be begrudgingly accepted at the U. S. Embassy. It would also be a great insult for them to turn down my invitation. These people are very respectful of their traditions, and they won't want to insult me."

"Sneaky." Lauren was continually impressed by the way that Dev worked around the limitations placed on her by her gender and sexual orientation.

Dev chuckled. "Thank David. That's why he gets the big bucks and bigger headaches." She gestured at Lauren's hands. "You gonna open that, or would you rather I leave first?" Dev didn't want to leave at all. But she couldn't take another second of Lauren picking at that envelope. She was nearly ready to reach over and rip it open herself.But,she conceded inwardly,that would be just a tad difficult to explain.

"No!"Okay, that was way too quick.Lauren cleared her throat awkwardly. "I um you don't have to leave. I mean, you don't have a meeting or anything, right?" she asked hopefully.

"Not a single one, and it's only 5:30." Dev crossed herself. "It's a miracle."

Lauren moved to get up, clutching the envelope. "Let me just put this away. I'm sure it's nothing"

"Aw, c'mon, Lauren." Dev smiled charmingly and poked at the slightly dingy, golden paper. "I'm dying to see what happens next to the intrepid, female explorer, Adrienne Nash. Or do I have to call you Ms. Gallager when I talk about your series?"

Lauren looked at Dev blankly, thinking she must have heard her wrong. She couldn't mean "You you read these?" The younger woman waved the envelope.

"Oh, yeah! Devour is more like it. I've read all of them. Been waiting like an idiot for the new one."

Lauren fell back onto the sofa limply. "You knew and youstillhired me?"Duh!Of course she knew. She's the President of the United Friggin' States of America! She probably knows more about me than I do.

Dev scoffed at the question. "Your biographies are the best I've ever read. And your credentials as a biographer and historian are impeccable." Dev picked up her mug again and took a healthy swallow. "I never have understood the notion that writers couldn't do both fiction and non-fiction, and still be respected in each field. Plus... well um..."

"Plus, I use a pen name for my fiction so I can still ‘pass' as respectable because nobody knows?" Lauren's voice was resigned, but tinged with sarcasm.

Dev stiffened. "I control a lot of things. But I don't set the standards of acceptability for the publishing industry."

Lauren's gaze dropped to her shoes.Quit being such a bitch about it. It's not her fault you can't own up to most of the writing you do."Of course you don't. I'm sorry." A thought occurred to her, and she smiled tentatively, hoping to make up for her misdirected anger. She handed the envelope to Dev. "Here, enjoy it. A gift from me to you; the first copy of Lauren Gallager's newest tale."

Devlyn snatched the book like a little kid who had just been handed her first present on Christmas morning. She practically squealed with delight. "Ooo, neat!"

Lauren burst out laughing as Dev tore open the envelope with abandon. The tall woman looked up as she slipped the book out. "What?" she complained somewhat bashfully. "You gave it to me. Don't laugh at me now."

Lauren blinked as Devlyn flipped the book over in her hands, examining it from every angle and running her fingers over its shiny cover. Then she looked up at her with eyes so filled with innocent pleasure that they immediately brought to mind Ashley's, despite the difference in color.

A slow blush worked its way across Dev's cheeks. "Don't suppose you'd autograph it for me?"

Mutely, Lauren bobbed her head.Wow.I can't believe this."I'd be happy to. Let me get a pen." Before she could move, Dev was seated next to her, eagerly handing her the book and a pen. "Umm... wow, that was fast. Okay, any particular way you want this signed?"

"No." Dev shook her head as she tapped her knees excitedly. "Just think of me as your biggest, geekiest fan."

Lauren chuckled as she took the book back, opening it carefully. She'd lay money on the fact that Devlyn Marlowe didn't break the bindings on books. The tip of her tongue appeared for just a second as she thought of what to write. Then she quickly inscribed the book and handed it back. "You're all set."

Dev gingerly opened the novel, peeking at the inside cover. "To Wonder Woman: Please enjoy it, my geeky friend. Lauren Gallager." Dev shook her head. "Cute," she snorted. "Veeery cute." The President was loving this and it showed in the sparkle of her eyes and the bright smile that creased her cheeks. "Well, now I have something to read on the plane."

"Holy shit!"

Dev jumped, fumbling with the book as it threatened to fly out of her hands. "What? What is it?" She searched Lauren's face.

"We'll be taking the Bat Plane, won't we?"

Dev blew out a relieved breath, her eyebrow twitching in amused annoyance. "I'm thirty-eight years old. One more unexpected exclamation like that, and I won't see thirty-nine." She clutched her chest for effect, and Lauren rolled her eyes. "And, yes, we'll be aboard Air Force One, if that's what you mean. And Lauren?"

A pale head tilted.

A reckless grin made Dev feel like a kid again. "It's so much better than the Bat Plane."

 

Friday, March 5th

 

"Come on now, give me a hug." Dev was on her knees with the children.

The looks of disappointment on their faces tore at Lauren in a way she never thought possible.Sweet Jesus, is it always like this? I'd never be able to go anywhere!

"You gonna be gone long?" Chris asked, his face buried in Dev's long, glossy hair.

"I'll only be gone as long as I have to, pal. You know that. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Miss you." Aaron gave her a kiss on the cheek as Dev wrapped her other arm around him.

"I'll miss all you guys. And I promise, when I come home, we'll do pizza and Disney movies all day on my first Sunday back, okay?"

"Can Lauren and Grem watch movies and eat pizza too?" Chris asked, pushing his glasses up his nose, looking at Lauren with a bashful grin.

Dev glanced up at the writer, giving her a tiny smile.So, you've bewitched my children too, huh?"If she wants to." Her eyes flicked to Lauren's and held the same look of adoration that Christopher was currently sporting. " But you'll have to ask her yourself."

Before Chris could open his mouth, Lauren answered. She held Dev's penetrating gaze as she spoke. "I wouldn't miss it for the world. I enjoy spending time with you guys," she heard herself say.Huh. I really do. Judd would keel over from a heart attack if he heard me say that.She glanced over to Chris and wagged her finger in warning. "But no pizza for Grem. It makes him burp."

Dev winced at the mention of the dog's name. "Speaking of Gremlin."The hateful little flea bag."Lauren's gonna need someone to look after him while we're gone, and we agreed you guys can do it if you want. What do you think?"

The boys cheered, but Ashley, who was standing next to Emma, only shrugged noncommittally. Dev rose and moved past the tow-headed boys to her daughter. "Now c'mon, Moppet." Her dark head tilted in entreaty. "You're the oldest, you have to agree too."

"‘Kay." Ashley tried to smile, but it was weak and watery at best.

Dev leaned in and touched noses with her daughter. "I have a surprise for you."

Despite herself, Ashley's eyes suddenly glittered with youthful excitement. "Yeah?"

"Yeah." Dev gave a whistle and the door opened. Gremlin came charging into the room, followed by a certainformerOhio State Trooper who had finally been coaxed into joining the Secret Service.

Ashley's eyes grew wide as saucers when she saw her friend. "Amy!" She bolted past Dev, her bothers and Lauren to grab the woman around the waist, squeezing as tightly as she could.

Dev said a prayer of thanks that she was finally able to do something to make Ashley smile. She knew it had been a difficult winter for the girl.

Devlyn asked Emma, "You're sure you're okay with dog sitting?"

"Tch. Why not? I've been taking care of you for years. The dog might actually listen to me." The older woman gave a playful poke to Presidential ribs.

"I really appreciate it too, Emma," Lauren offered, delighted by the motherly interplay between Emma and Devlyn. "I think he'd be miserable in a kennel after all the attention he's used to getting from the kids. They love him."

The nanny smiled knowingly. "It's springtime." She waved her hand out in front of her. "It's in the air."

Dev regarded the ugly black and white dog that looked like his face had been smashed flat by a cast-iron skillet. She just knew he was a Republican. "Hey, you little beastie."

Grem's ears perked up, and his tail began wagging furiously. Then he saw who called him and he grumbled, baring crooked teeth and mottled gums.

Dev reached into her pocket and pulled out a small zip-locked baggie. "I've got something for you," she taunted wickedly. Dropping to the ground, she sat back on her heels and pulled a treat from the clear plastic, pretending to eat. She moaned and hummed ‘boy, eating this is one hell of an orgasmic experience' sounds the entire time.

Lauren unconsciously licked her lips.

Gremlin took a nervous step forward, his beady eyes trained on Dev's hand.

Devlyn waved the dog snack in front of his face, watching as his little nostrils flared with interest.

"Now you're bribing my dog?" Lauren's hands moved to her hips. "Good grief, have you no shame?"

"Nope. None." Dev shrugged lightly. "I figured if you could be bought for a double-stuffed Oreo, Gremlin would be ripe for the taking with a few Snausages."You'd better not make me look stupid in front of your mommy by biting me, Gremlin!I hear NASA is looking for a few test animals for their next mission to Mars.Devlyn was careful to hold the treat at the very tips of her fingers as the dog sniffed it warily. "Oh, yeah. You know you want it." Dev's eyes narrowed with a predatory glint. "C'mon take it."

Lauren watched in fascination as the President of the Unites States and her Pug faced off in a battle of wills. She was taking even odds.I can't believe I'm seeing this.

But Grem broke first, snatching the fragrant treat from extended fingers before he retreated behind Emma's legs. Dev felt a big, satisfied smile edge its way onto her face. "Ahhh, progress. I wish Congress were that easy." The tall woman put her palms on her knees and pushed to her feet so she could hand the bag to Emma. "Keep those handy in case he turns on you."

Emma nodded. "Be careful, Devlyn Marlowe. These babies need you." She gave the President a long hug.

"I will, Emma. And we'll be home soon." Dev disentangled herself and opened her arms to her children once more. "Last chance. You know just one is never enough for me." She sighed. "I have to go before Liza has a conniption and gets the cattle prod after me."

All the kids ran over and hugged their mother in turn. Ash tugged her down to her level. "Thank you, Mommy. Amy is the best present ever."

"I'm glad, Moppet. Take good care of her. She just finished her Secret Service training, and I think she could use a little TLC."

The girl giggled. "I will. I promise." Then, without thought, she darted over to Lauren and threw her arms around her.

Lauren started in surprise but managed to gently, albeit it a little awkwardly, lower her hands and softly rub Ashley's back. She wasn't sure what to say and felt a flood of relief course through her when Ashley spoke first.

"I promise we'll take good care of Grem, too."

Lauren relaxed and returned the girl's hug with more vigor. "I know you will, Ash. Have fun while we're gone."

* * *

Lauren tried not to let the excitement show in her face as the limousine pulled up to the plane.It's just a plane. It's just a plane. You've been on a plane before.Her eyes were riveted on the enormous steel monster.Oh, man, for two Hershey bars and a window seat on that bad boy, I'd have Dev's baby.Her face turned bright red as the direction of her thoughts registered.

"I've arranged for you to have your own office onboard," Dev commented casually, oblivious to the sometimes profound, but always unique, mental machinations of her biographer. She leaned closer to Lauren, wondering exactly when it was that they'd gone from sitting across from each other to sitting side by side. Not that she was complaining. "It's the office normally reserved for the First Lady. I um I hope you like it and the plane, too. It's really nice and um... fast," she babbled.Great, now I sound like a sixteen-year-old trying to impress a pretty girl with a ride in my Daddy's Corvette.

"Oh, well, I'll just have to make do. I don't know how I'll manage," Lauren drawled, fanning herself in mock-distress and doing her best southern belle imitation.

Dev laughed. "Well, it's only fitting that you have the First Lady's office on Air Force One since you've been sleeping in her room in the White House." Dev pulled Lauren's new novel from the bag at her feet and eagerly set it on her lap. "I don't intend to work any more than I have to on this flight. I'm going to read."

Lauren's ego practically purred under Dev's gentle stroking. She never got to enjoy a real live fan's reaction to her novels. "Any suggestions for the next Adrienne Nash book? Since you've read them all?"

Dev nodded emphatically. "Oh, absolutely. She needs a girlfriend."

Lauren crossed her arms, drawing back from Dev. "Oh, she does, does she?"Could be interesting. A tall, beautiful one with piercing blue eyes perhaps? That would sure throw a few readers for a loop.

"Yup!" Dev grinned. "She'd be much more at peace with herself. More content. And completely satisfied."

Pale brows lifted. "That's one hell of a girlfriend."

"Uh huh."

Lauren glanced sideways at the President. "And what makes you think Adrienne Nash is interested in women?"

Before Dev could answer, the car stopped and her door was opened from the outside. She smiled and climbed out, turning to give the waiting Press a quick wave before extending her hand to Lauren. With a slight tug, she helped the writer out of the car. "What makes you think she's not?" Dev asked, pressing her hand lightly against the small of Lauren's back, giving her a nudge in the right direction.

"Good point."

The women were pelted with a flurry of questions from the waiting Press, their shouts barely heard above the general hum of car and plane engines and other airport activity. Dev completely ignored the reporters, but noticed that Lauren's back went ramrod straight and that her stride slowed after a particularly personal and inappropriate question was thrown her way. The President leaned down a little and told Lauren, "Just keep walking. Ignore it."

The blonde woman lifted her jaw, and Dev felt a flash of worry. She could tell that Lauren was considering doing or saying something, and Dev shivered when she imagined what it could be. "Ahh... Lauren, I'm sure whatever you're thinking about doing would be extremely satisfying."

Lauren nodded tersely, kicking a pebble across the concrete as she picked up the pace. "So very satisfying."

"But please don't. It will only add fuel to the fire."

Dev paused, allowing Lauren to start the climb up the stairs ahead of her. She was very well aware of the cameras going off all around them as they boarded. At the top Lauren paused to wait for Dev, but quickly stepped inside when Dev motioned her back. "Go inside so they'll leave you alone." The President winked, then turned at the top of the steps to give a final wave before stepping onboard herself.

David met them at the door, as did Liza, who slipped a file into Dev's hand. "We have a call waiting for you, Madam President."

Dev's head dropped forward and she groaned. "Of course you do. I'll take it in my office. David, will you show Lauren to her office and make sure that her computer and other things were deliv-"

David nodded and gave Dev a push toward her office. "Everything is ready, and I'll be happy to show her where she can set up."

Dev gave Lauren an aggrieved look, then peeled off, following Liza down the hall. Before she disappeared into her office, she turned around and tapped Lauren's novel, yelling, "I'm telling you-"

"I'm thinking about it," Lauren shot back with a grin.

"Thinking about what?" David gingerly took the writer by the elbow and pointed to the opposite end of the hallway.

"Lots of things," the blonde admitted quietly.

David opened the door to the office and gestured for Lauren to enter. "Wow." She took a moment to take it all in. "This is incredible. I can't believe I'm on an airplane."

"Well, it's not called ‘The Flying Oval Office' for nothing. It really is amazing. Did you know that about 238 miles of wire wind through the plane? That is more than twice the wiring found in a typical 747. The wire protects the plane from electromagnetic pulses generated by a thermonuclear blast. Even in a nuclear war, we'll still be able to receive electronic signals," he enthused.

The blood drained from Lauren's face.

"Oh! Sorry. Not that I suspect a thermonuclear war," David offered quickly.

"Thanks for clearing that up."

He unbuttoned his jacket and ran a hand through his close-cropped red hair. Taking a deep breath he asked, "Can I come in for a moment? I'd like to talk to you for a few minutes."

Lauren eyed him seriously, chewing her lip as she wondered if she'd done something wrong. She and David had been getting along just fine these past few months. Lauren moved behind her desk and dropped into a soft leather swivel chair. It forced David to talk to her across the desk and put her in an immediate position of power. It was a trick she'd subconsciously picked up from Dev. "Sure. Is something wrong?"

"Truth is," David closed the door and took a seat on the couch, skipping over the chair in front of the desk, "I'm not sure."

"What do you mean? Is there a problem with the book?" Lauren had agreed to let David read the rough notes that would form the beginning of the prologue to Dev's biography. It was mostly background and family information and wouldn't change, no matter what happened in the next four years. She'd never shared any part of her preliminary work before, but, as Dev's best friend and the President's Chief of Staff, she valued David's unique insight.

"No! Everything looks great so far. Dev is going to love it. She'll get a big chuckle out of the fact that one of her ancestors was a convicted horse thief. Must be where her natural talent for politics comes from."

"Then what?"

"It's Dev." He looked her directly in the eye. "She's, umm, really opened up to you, you know?"

Lauren nodded reluctantly, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable with where this was going. "That's true. For a biography to be good, a subject has to open up to the writer."

"I'm not talking about the book, Lauren. I'm talking about on a personal level. She's really taking a chance here. In fact, I haven't seen her warm up to another person so quickly since..." his words trailed off, and Lauren caught the significance.

"Samantha?" Her voice conveyed her astonishment.

David nodded. "I can see you understand." He stood and buttoned his jacket. "I trust you not to hurt her. You're the first person in a long time who has seemed to make her happy." He paused. "Just don't lead her on. Please." The man turned and quietly left the office.

Dumbfounded, Lauren blinked several times in rapid succession.Lead her on?Coming to her senses, she jumped up from her desk. "David, wait!"

The Chief of Staff stopped and turned around in the hall. "Yeah?"

"You believe the rumors, don't you?" Lauren lowered her voice, looking around a little nervously. "The ones about Devlyn and me."

"I'm not sure what to believe at this point." He placed his hand on the plane wall as he felt the big machine begin to taxi down the runway. "I'm just asking you to be careful."

"Then, just like Devlyn, you're going to have to trust me." She could see the hesitancy in his eyes. "I'll admit it probably wasn't the smartest professional move I've ever made. But somewhere in the last two months, we became real friends, David. Please know that I wouldn't do anything I thought would hurt her. I'm not leading anyone on."

Her voice was pleading, and he had no choice but to believe her. He hated being surrounded by honest people. This was Washington politics for God's sake.

"I do trust you." He smiled softly. "And I'm glad she has you for a friend. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a call to make myself."

* * *

Lauren's notebook was in her lap as she sat hunched over on the long sofa in her office aboard the ‘Flying Oval Office', scrawling away. She glanced up at the steward, who placed the milk on the table in front of her. After so many weeks with Dev, the writer had grown rather fond of the beverage as well, but she discovered it had to be ice cold for her to truly enjoy it.Do I need to wonder where this came from?"Thank you."

"My pleasure, Ms. Strayer. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No, I'm fine, thanks." She pushed her glasses up, rolling her neck to work out its tightness before taking the glass. She was amazed that it was, indeed, ice cold.Are they all mind readers?

Lauren glanced at her watch. They'd been in the air almost two hours, and she hadn't seen hide nor hair of Devlyn since they parted in the hallway.Quit your whining. You're a big girl, and you know she's busy.With a soundless sigh, she went back to her notebook and her milk.

Dev finally showed up outside her door almost an hour later. The President gave a light rap and heard Lauren's answering ‘Come in'.

Blue eyes rolled at Lauren as Dev marched into the office, arms outstretched in front of her like Frankenstein's monster. She walked stiff-legged across the room to the couch, where she collapsed face down. "I'm such a bad mother," she mumbled into the cushion.

"What?!" Lauren snorted. "No way."

Dev rolled over, clutching a small throw pillow to her chest. "I just realized that I'm not going to be home for Christopher's birthday next week." She folded her arms around the pillow and tucked it under her chin, looking down the couch at Lauren. "Maybe I can airmail him a camel."

The writer turned her body, lifting one arm to rest it on the back of the couch. "Nah, that's overkill. Besides, you get him a camel, and next he'll want an elephant, and before you know it: poof! You've got rhinos eating the bushes in the Rose Garden, and the south lawn is a petting zoo."C'mon, Dev, smile.

Dev's laughter rang out through the plane so loudly that Lauren wondered if the Press rats, who were housed near the rear of the plane and went along on every Air Force One flight, could hear her. Then she got hit in the head with the pillow Dev had been using.

"Hey, be nice!" Lauren scolded as she confiscated Dev's pillow and pressed her face into the soft cloth.

"I'm always nice." Dev grinned, but the happy expression faded quickly. "I'll figure out some way to make it up to Christopher." She stopped speaking for a moment, and a contemplative look crossed her face. Dev's eyes went serious. "This is the kind of thing he's never going to forget though, isn't it?"

Lauren felt a pang deep in her chest. It was only a birthday, right? He would eventually understand that Dev had pressing commitments that were of global importance things that couldn't wait for a little boy's party. Lauren smiled sadly at the President. "No, it's not something he'll ever forget."

Dev nodded slowly and pushed up off the couch, moving toward the door. She exhaled tiredly. "That's pretty much what I figured."

 

Tuesday, March 9th

 

They had been at the Embassy for three days and this was the first time that Lauren had had more than a moment to enjoy her room's balcony. She stared out at the city that pulsed with life. It was congested and colorful. Foreigners stood out like sore thumbs, their business suits or touristy shorts and T-shirts clashing with the native's traditional white robes. Car horns mixed with the angry shouts of pedestrians and the occasionally whinny from a donkey or horse. It was a curious mix of old and new world technology, culture, and attitudes that Lauren found more interesting than appealing.

The writer snapped off a few photographs, then headed back inside, stepping out of the heavy perfume of highly seasoned, roasting meats, local pastries, and car exhaust.

She was amazed when Dev ordered everyone to take their third day ‘in country' to rest and relax. ‘Everyone', Lauren found out, was a relative term. David was still working like a madman, as were several aides and advisors on foreign policy. But most of the other staff, including Dev herself, used the day to relax.

The President slept away the entire day, and Lauren suspected that the dark-haired woman was still fighting a nasty case of jet lag. While she slumbered, David had easily taken charge, giving orders that Dev not be disturbed for anything. He made it perfectly clear that she needed to be well rested for the upcoming meetings.

Lauren had managed to take a nap herself, but felt restless and was up long before Dev. She took the time to do some exploring and shot two rolls of film, but was hesitant to venture too far from the executive quarters. There were just too many strange faces milling about, constantly staring at her and whispering as she, or anyone connected to Devlyn, passed. No. Lauren preferred to stick close to her friends, especially the beautiful one who ran the most powerful nation on earth.

The first meeting was set for tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. Tonight, however, Dev was hosting a reception for the dignitaries who would be attending the meetings. The Embassy was simply crawling with workers, ranging from kitchen and cleaning staff to security personnel and military. Lauren was soaking up the dry heat, watching the ordered chaos from the balcony of her room for a few moments, before a knock at the door sent her back inside.

She settled her camera on a table and opened the door to be greeted by Dev's thousandwatt smile. Devlyn was holding a garment bag and looking incredibly pleased with herself. "You know," Lauren started, her hands coming to rest on her hips, "I've known you long enough now to know that that smile is trouble." But even as she teased, her eyes worriedly searched Dev's face, relieved that the lines of fatigue and tension that she'd seen yesterday appeared to be gone.

"Oh, so that's how it is, huh? I bring you a present, and you accuse me of causing trouble." Dev shrugged nonchalantly and threw her nose in the air. "Fine. I'll just take this reeeeally beautiful, incredibly expensive evening gown and find some other short, cute blonde to give it to." She sniffed in mock indignation and turned around, barely clearing Lauren's line of sight before an enormous grin sprang to her lips.

Lauren's arm shot out, grabbing the back of Dev's shirt. "Waaaait just a minute, Madam Commander and Chief!" She tugged the woman into her room and eagerly closed the door. "Number one, I'm not short"

"You're shorter than I am."

"Everyone without male plumbing is shorter than you are, Stretch," Lauren defended.

Dev laughed. "True."

"And number two" Lauren held up two fingers.

Dev draped the garment bag over her arm. Her eyes twinkled. "You're not gonna try and deny that you're cute, are you?"

"Do I look stupid?"

Dev opened her mouth, and Lauren clamped her hand over it. "There's really no need to answer that, Devlyn."

The President's eyes screamed, ‘Who, me?' But she prudently remained silent.

Lauren smirked and pulled away her hand. She eyed the bag. "So are you gonna show me? Or do I have to beg?"

Dev didn't say a word. Her evil laugh alone was more than enough to make Lauren blush to the roots of her hair.I love it when she does that,Dev thought affectionately. "All right, Mighty Mouse ouch!" Dev grasped her arm and scowled. "I bruise easily, you know!"

"Then you shouldn't call people names," came the reasonable response.

"You know, I'm pretty sure it's a federal crime to hit me."

Lauren lifted a brow as she liberated the garment bag from Dev's arms, noticing it was a tad heavy for a garment bag. "Call a cop." Her gaze flicked around the room, looking for a place to hang it, but before she could move, Dev took it back and held it up for Lauren's easy inspection.

The blonde carefully unzipped the leather bag. She gasped when the dress came into view. Dev hadn't lied.Wow."Oh, my." She fingered the black, sequined material reverently. "It's" She swallowed emotionally. Nobody had ever given her anything so lovely. "It's beautiful. I can't um I can't believe it's for me." Suddenly bashful eyes tilted upward, and she gazed at Dev from beneath pale lashes. "Thanks," she said softly.

Dev sighed happily.God, Marlowe, she's got you hook, line, and sinker. I'm totally and irreversibly twitter-pated."It's I mean, it's for the reception tonight," she explained needlessly, her tongue failing to comply quickly enough with her brain's command to start talking and stop looking like a moron.

Lauren nodded and mercifully dropped her gaze from Dev and refocused on the dress.

Once out of the beam of those intense gray eyes, Dev found she could think much more clearly. "I personally thought the most beautiful woman in the room should have the most beautiful dress."

Lauren blushed again, unsure how she should take these compliments. Dev was as solicitous as a lover, but surely she didn't feel that way about her. Other than a little harmless flirting, Dev had never given Lauren any indication that she felt something other than friendship for her. Still, she was flattered by the attention, and the way Dev was looking at her caused her belly to flutter nervously and her palms to go moist.

The biographer dismissed the most obvious explanation of what she was feeling, chalking up the sweet-talking to Dev's being well rested, in a really good mood, and charming as hell. "You know, you're gonna spoil me if you keep this up. I mean, gee, great big white house, a private plane, permanent dog sitters." She grinned, scrunching up her nose and wrinkling the corners of her eyes. "I think I'm ruined for anyone else."

Dev nearly bit her lip through.From your lips to God's ears,Lauren.

"If I didn't know better, I'd think you were someone awfully important."

"Nah, I'm just a geek stalker." She laughed. "Okay, I've got a meeting and Liza is gonna be here to drag me downstairs by my ear any moment. She has learned too much from Jane, I tell you, but I'll be back to get you at about six and we'll go down for the reception. I'd invite you to join me for the meeting, but it wouldn't go over well."

"I thought the first meeting was tomorrow?"

"The first official meeting is tomorrow. This afternoon's is with the Crown Prince. It's nothing important. Photo op and sound bites for the press, that sort of thing." Dev grimaced, wondering how much longer she could hold up her arm before discreetly lowering without looking like a wuss in front of Lauren. "It'll be boring as hell. And you've already been there and done that a million times, so please continue to enjoy your day off. If I didn't have to go I wouldn't. Just relax and enjoy. You can watch the dog and pony show on closed circuit if you like."

"I'll do that." She closed her eyes for a moment, scratching just above her eyebrow. "Umm, please don't tell me I need my password to activate anything here. It's several thousand miles away at the moment."

"No, everything here is simple voice activation."

"Finally, something simple." Lauren rolled her eyes. She studied Dev's face, her eyes widening with realization. "Jesus, put that down." Without a warning to Dev, Lauren pulled the bag from her hand. She grunted at its weight and interestedly peered into the bag. There were shoes in the bottom and several jewelry boxes. "My goodness, Devlyn! This weighs a ton!"

"Nah. I barely noticed it," Dev lied. "I just wanted to make sure you had a decent selection of accessories to go with your surprise." Dev suppressed a grin. "There are a few baubles in there I hope you'll like." Her fingers idly played with the bag's zipper. "But I burrowed them. So no losing them, okay?"

Lauren nodded, gulping a little. "This wasn't necessary, Devlyn. I could have..."

"Don't be silly," Dev admonished gently. "I wanted to." Dev gestured toward the bag, already picturing how lovely Lauren was going to look. "I'll be back in a couple of hours to escort you. Unless you've got someone else in mind," she commented with forced casualness. Half the Press Corps and a good portion of her own staff were in love with the beauty.

Lauren shook her head. "I'm all yours, Madam President."

Now that's more like it.Dev's heart began to swell. She knew that those simple words shouldn't mean so much, that they didn't mean what she wanted them to. But still they made her happy, she found herself lacking the will power or inclination to fight the feeling. "See you soon then."

When Dev left, Lauren unzipped the bag and pulled out several pairs of shoes. She held them up to the dress and, with a little nod, selected a medium black heel with a thin strap around the ankle. Then she set them aside and pulled out several velvet jewelry boxes that had Cartier imprinted on them in gold letters.

Grey eyes widened slightly when she realized that when Dev said she had ‘borrowed' them, that meant the jewelry was on loan from one of the finest jewelers in the world. Lauren shook her head in simple disbelief. "Good God, Devlyn. Don't ever let it be said that you don't know how to make a woman feel special." She tugged over the dress and let out a nervous breath. "I only hope I can do all this justice."

* * *

Lauren flopped down on the bed and ordered the TV on, requesting a translation in English so that she could watch the photo op. Dev stood proud and tall, looking absolutely incredible. The power of her presence alone drew every eye to her and captured the viewer's attention completely.

Almost resentfully, she dragged her gaze from Dev to inspect the shorter man standing alongside her, who was undoubtedly Crown Prince Karim Sami Hassan. He was nice enough looking, she considered thoughtfully, estimating his age somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. He had a generous mouth and a well-trimmed, dark beard that disappeared into a thick mass of wavy, black hair. The Prince's olive coloring made him appear more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern, and his dusky skin was set off nicely by his loose, golden-colored robes, which were streaked with red. He wore the traditional headgear of his people.

The United Arab Alliance had chosen him for this meeting because most of his formal education had taken place at Cambridge. Once, he had even visited Devlyn's own college alma mater, Harvard. They believed his youth and open mind would serve him well in dealing with such an infidel. He wouldn't be as quickly offended as the elder members of the Alliance.

They spoke quietly with one another and then shook hands, dragging out the normally quick ritual for the flashing cameras.

After a few moments, the Prince leaned over and whispered something to Dev. When she pulled back, she was still smiling, but something had changed.

Lauren sat up on the bed and pulled a pillow into her lap, missing Grem at that very moment. She studied the image, looking into eyes that were normally rich and vibrant, but now appeared as cold and stony as a grave. "Oh, boy, I do believe that Madam President is pissed."

* * *

The meeting ended, and the Press Corps shuffled out of the room. David began making his way over to Dev, but she waved him off, needing a few moments with the Prince. She did her best to maintain her calm demeanor, but she could already feel the sneer forming on her lips.

"Your Highness." She stopped and cleared her throat. "I appreciate the fact that you saw Ms. Strayer today on television. And I also appreciate the fact that you find her an attractive, desirable woman." Dev's nostrils flared. "But let me make something perfectly clear to you. She isnotapproachable. And she is most certainlynotinterested in remaining behind in your lovely country upon my departure." Dev's heart clenched at the very thought.

The man's eyes narrowed, and he ran the back of his hand over his dark, closely cropped beard. "I was under the impression that there was no romantic involvement between you and Ms. Strayer," he said in perfect, though slightly accented, English. "My people were assured by your people that your press was simply looking for a sensational story, and that Ms. Strayer was free to be, shall we say, pursued."

When I find out who said that, he's walking back to the United States!So what if it's true!Dev's teeth actually ground together when he looked at her with eyes daring her to say differently, which she immediately did. "You were misinformed," Dev answered flatly. "I'm sure that you understand I must deny our involvement to the press for appearances' sake. But I assure you, Ms. Strayer is very much taken. She will be accompanying me to the reception tonight."

The Prince looked Dev directly in the eye. "She is your lover then?"

"Absolutely," she practically snarled, startled by the proprietary ring to her voice.

"But she is not your wife," he clarified smugly. He tilted his head to the side, waiting for Dev's response. With a quick jerk of his chin, he kept his own approaching entourage at bay.

Dev's jaw clenched.Asswipe isn't getting the picture."That changes nothing."Except for the fact that if she were my wife, and you were saying these things, I'd wring your scrawny neck on the spot."The fact remains that Ms. Strayer isunavailableto you, Your Highness." She straightened to her full height and looked down at the Prince with barely contained rage.How dare he?"I trust, Your Highness, that this is a closed issue?"

"This discussion is over," he agreed amiably, flashing Dev a smile that was anything but reassuring. "Madam President."

Dev could see that the Prince was used to getting his way in every matter.Too bad that's not going to happen with this, junior.Dev stiffened, her body unconsciously responding to the challenge that was flashing in his eyes. To him, Lauren was still a prize to be won, and she'd just made things worse by tossing the gauntlet at his feet.God, Lauren, I hope you trust me this much. Because he's gonna be watching us like a hawk tonight.

* * *

Dev knocked on Lauren's door. She nervously ran her hands over her long, white jacket, tugging on its hem and smoothing it against her wide-legged silk trousers. It wasn't what she normally would have worn for such an occasion, but it was still formal attire and she wasn't about to put on a stitch of clothing that would detract from Lauren tonight.

Despite Dev's loosely worn hair, elegant jewelry and modest makeup, her outfit would help Prince Hassan see her as Lauren's escort and his peer, not just a woman. In this male dominated region of the world, Dev's trousers were more than a fashion statement.Besides, I'm the President of the United States, I'll wear whatever I damn well please.

Devlyn's mind was a whirl with tomorrow's likely headlines. She sighed. There was no choice now. If the Prince found out that she'd outright lied to him about her relationship with Lauren, the entire trip could be in jeopardy. She had put Lauren's feelings ahead of a summit that had actually been in the works for more than ten years. But she wouldn't see Lauren harassed as though she were an object to be owned.

The door suddenly swung open, and Dev's breath was simply stolen from her body. "Stunning," she whispered reverently as wide blue eyes eagerly absorbed every detail of Lauren's appearance.

Her pale hair had been swept up into a low knot that rested snuggly on her neck. Several fair tendrils had already worked their way free and served to frame Lauren's youthful face in a quietly graceful way. The black sequin dress was strapless, showing off a slender, succulent neck and slightly muscular shoulders that were covered with creamy, white skin and dotted with faint freckles. The snug cloth clung to every curve of the writer's body, outlining firm breasts, a trim waist and the womanly flair of her hips. Dev found herself wishing it were shorter, say mid thigh, but this was an evening event, so the floor length gown was already pushing the limits of propriety by showing so much of those incredible shoulders.

Dev sucked in a breath, very conscious of the low burn that had ignited deep in her belly.

"Can I take your staring at me as though I had sprouted a tail as a good sign?" Lauren asked a little insecurely. She felt her heat rise to her cheeks. Dev's eyes raked over her body in a way that was making her pulse flutter happily. Unfortunately, it was also making her even more nervous than she already was. Which was pretty damned nervous.

"Wow," Dev mumbled. "You look" She shook her head, unable to form the words.Fabulous,her mind screamed.She looks fabulous!Uh oh. Too fabulous. Prince What's-his-name is gonna drop dead at first sight.

Lauren tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, and her earrings glittered in the light. Her hand dropped to her throat. "Thank you. And for these especially. I feel like some sort of princess." Her fingers shifted and grazed the sparkling diamonds wreathing her neck, then moved down to the matching bracelet that hung loosely around her wrist. She smiled warmly. "I'm a little concerned about turning into a pumpkin at midnight." Lauren spoke without paying much attention to her words. Her gaze was firmly fixed on Devlyn, and the mere sight of the President tonight threatened to seize up her brain entirely.

"You um" Lauren laughed helplessly, finding herself tongue-tied and with the inexplicable urge to run her hands up and down Dev's body.And kiss the hollow of her throat? Okay, that's new.

"Clean up pretty good?"No, you cannot lean in and nuzzle that soft- looking cheek.

"Mmm" Lauren agreed. "That's an understatement, Devlyn."

"Shall we?" Dev offered the smaller woman her elbow.

"Oh, yeah."

"Wait a second." Dev frowned a little and pointed back toward the room. "Don't you need your glasses?"

"Will I have to read or write?"

"Well, we were all going to sit around and retake our SATs for fun." Dev slapped her forehead. "But so much for that. Now what will we do after drinks?"I have a few suggestions. One of them includes whipped cream andSTOP IT!

Lauren laughed. "We'd better get going, President Marlowe." Lauren spied Dev's Secret Service men lurking down the hall. "I'm sure Liza is stroking out someplace, waiting for you." Lauren tucked her arm around Dev's as they made their way down the hall.

"Umm Lauren?"Time to face the music, Marlowe.

"Yes?"

"Do you trust me?"

* * *

"You did what?!" Lauren stopped dead in her tracks just as the couple entered the reception hall. She stared at Dev in disbelief.

The room went dead silent, and every set of eyes turned to the two women.

"Don't make me say it again," Dev pleaded under her breath as she grinned at the crowd and gave a quick wave. "I know by the way your jaw just hit the carpet that you heard me the first time."

"Devlyn!" Lauren huffed through her plastered on smile. She was temporarily blinded by a dozen quick flashes from the press' cameras. "The gossip just started to die down back home." She spoke without moving her lips. "If we put on some show tonight, so we can convince Prince Hassan, it's just going to start all over again."

David rushed to Dev's side, pushing down his irritation. Dev knew the drill. Why was she being difficult? She'd been in an unusually foul mood ever since the photo op that afternoon. "Good evening, Madam President," was what he said.

Devlyn, however, heard exactly what David meant, which was, ‘Why didn't you wait for your introduction, bozo?!' "Sorry, David. I was distracted. Besides, I was already introduced to everyone this afternoon. This is just a little reception. Relax." She glanced sideways at her Chief of Staff and elbowed him in the ribs affectionately. "Nice tux. Your tie is crooked, by the way."

"Thanks." He fussed with the tie until it was straight. "And you know we have to follow protocol, Madam President."

Prince Hassan made a bee line for the women, and Dev immediately wrapped her arm around Lauren's waist, tugging her closer and surprising the hell out of both David and Lauren. A flurry of camera flashes lit up the room, and the press hounds began to murmur among themselves. "Let's just skip it and say we didn't, David. I've got something else I need to take care of right now anyway. If you'll excuse us?"

David turned round eyes on Lauren who could only shrug helplessly. "Fine," he mumbled. "I'll be back in a few moments. I'll handle it."

Dev nodded absently, her eyes tracking the Prince and the advisors that flanked him like bookends.

Prince Hassan stopped right in front of Devlyn and Lauren. He motioned his men back a few feet. "Madam President, it's a pleasure to see you again." But somehow Dev just couldn't believe him. It might have been the fact that he was looking at Lauren the entire time he spoke. "I don't believe I've been introduced to your lovely biographer."

Dev remained stubbornly silent until Lauren nudged her. "Your Highness, Prince Hassan, may I present Ms. Lauren Strayer?"

"It's a true pleasure." Prince Hassan bowed deeply at the waist and grasped Lauren's hands. He kissed her knuckles, lingering for several seconds too long.

"Hello," Lauren replied cordially, wanting her hands back.

Dev fought not to roll her eyes.If I strangled him, I wonder if it would start a war?Dev knew she wasn't acting very Presidential. But she couldn't seem to help herself.

"What a lovely necklace, Ms. Strayer." The Prince gestured to the glittering stones then let go of one of Lauren's hands to reach out and touch them. Using the grip on the hand he still held, he tugged Lauren closer.

"Thank you." Lauren pulled her hand away and discreetly moved out of his reach, trying not to appear as repulsed as she felt.Okay, now I know why Dev didn't want him to feel like I was fair game. Yuck."It was a gift from Mad Devlyn."Her lover would say her name,she admonished herself. Lauren smiled up at Dev, who glanced back down at her with apologetic eyes.

Prince Hassan retracted his hand casually, although he felt stung by her actions. "I trust that you are enjoying all that my lovely nation has to offer."

"Unfortunately, this is a business trip, Your Highness," Dev interrupted. "We've had no free time for sight seeing. Perhaps another time."Like ten minutes after never.

He frowned. "Perhaps." Then his frown shifted into a smile that the women were sure onlyhefound charming. "I believe then that I need to make the most out of our short time together." The man handed a full glass of champagne to Dev, who took the glass without thinking. Then he turned to Lauren and smiled broadly. "It seems that I need some more champagne. Would you care to join me, Ms. Strayer?"

Dev stepped in between Lauren and the Prince, her temper flaring. "No, she would not, you son-"

"Why, yes." Lauren laid a calming hand against Dev's back, then moved around her. "Thank you, Your Highness. I would be delighted."

The man's chest immediately puffed out, and he tossed Devlyn a conceited grin.

No unmarried woman would refuse him. And that a woman could be chosen over him? That was unthinkable.

"One moment please, Your Highness. I need to speak with Devlyn." Lauren immediately grasped Dev's hand and walked them several feet away. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Let me handle this, Devlyn."

"I will not!" Dev whispered back angrily. "He's making a play for you right in front of me! Of all the arrogant pieces of"

"I know." Lauren made a face. "He's a pig. But I've got the sneaking suspicion that you punching him in the nose wouldn't do anything for our two country's relations." A pale brow lifted. "Right?"

Dev's expression turned sulky. "I wasn't going to punch him."Yes, I was. Shit. I'm going insane.

"Uh huh." Lauren smiled gently. "I know you were only trying to get him to leave me alone by telling him we were lovers. And for most men, I think that would do it. But Prince Hassan is apparently the over eager type who needs a little extra convincing." She patted Dev's arm reassuringly. "Trust me."

Devlyn exhaled unhappily. "Do I have a choice?"

Lauren pretended to think for a moment before she smiled sassily. "Ummm... not really."

Blue eyes took on a dangerous glint as Dev peeked over her shoulder at the Prince. "I'm going to be watching him. And if he gets even the tiniest bit out of hand"

"I know. I know. Now go greet your other guests before you get a reputation for being a horrible hostess." Lauren squared her shoulders, realizing that she'd never even had the chance to be nervous in her surroundings. Things had just happened too quickly. "I'll be fine."

Dev flashed her a gleaming smile full of admiration and affection. But there was a serious edge to her voice that garnered the younger woman's complete attention. Piercing eyes bore straight into Lauren, and they stopped speaking for a long moment as the rest of the world faded away. "Just don't forget who your escort is tonight," Dev finally whispered softly, her heart thundering in her ears.This should be for real. Not some stupid ruse.

Lauren swallowed. "I won't." Several more seconds passed before their surroundings seeped back into their consciousness. Lauren closed her eyes for a moment to clear her head.Time to get this fixed.She purposefully strode over to Prince Hassan, who had been waiting, stealing furtive glances at the women and wondering if his bed might be warmed by more than just Lauren tonight. Lauren wrapped her arm around his and headed them in the general direction of the bar. "We need to have a little talk."

"I was hoping you would see me alone."

"I... um... I wanted to make something clear to you, Your Highness. I thought it best if we spoke privately. That's all."

"But a woman as beautiful as you should not be required to think."

Lord, help me. Maybe I'll be the one to punch him.Prudently, Lauren decided to plow ahead, ignoring his last remark. "I'm flattered by your attentions, Your Highness."Gag."But I'm perfectly happy with Devlyn."

"Obviously, President Marlowe values you, or you would not be attending a function such as this. But you are merely a lover and not her wife, correct? I have four wives and several lovers. And it is you that I am interested in tonight."

Lucky them."Be that as it may, I only have one lover, and I'm not interested in any others." Lauren was running out of patience quickly. What was it going to take to put off Romeo? Her imaginary status as Devlyn's lover was apparently far enough below that of a spouse that Prince Hormones felt free to try his luck. A server finally passed them, and she snatched a flute of champagne from the tray, tossing it back in one deep swallow. "Your Highness, I'm trying to be discreet here. But you've left me no choice but to be rather explicit."

He leaned closer, obviously extremely interested.

"I amcompletelysatisfied." Lauren wriggled pale brows, and her voice dropped to a sexual purr that did an excellent job of conveying inexactlywhat way Dev satisfied her. "I wouldn't trade Devlyn for ten men." She licked her lips slowly and tried not to burst out laughing at the look of surprise, then arousal, that swept across his face. "No offense."

The Prince cleared his throat, suddenly embarrassed. His respect for the tall American jumped several notches. "None taken, Ms. Strayer. I'm glad that you are so," he paused and smiled with open appreciation, "satisfied." Lauren was a beauty. But he wasn't foolish enough to chase after a lost cause.

"Thank you. I am a very lucky woman." Relief flooded her.Finally.Just then David joined them.Perfect timing."It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. I hope your meetings tomorrow go very smoothly."

"I'm sure they will. It seems that President Marlowe is a master at getting and keeping what she desires most."

Lauren ducked her head and smiled. "I agree. Good night." She turned to David. "I believe there was someone you wanted to introduce me to?"

David stared at her blankly.

"Across the room," she prompted, tilting her head in a direction she's chosen randomly, hoping it would put her as far away from Prince Dipshit as she could get.

David's eyes widened slightly with recognition. "Oh, yes, of course." He quickly scanned the crowd and threw out a name. "If you'll excuse us, Your Highness?"

The Prince nodded and insisted on taking Lauren's hand and giving it another little kiss.

"You're a lifesaver, David," Lauren said softly as soon as they were out of the Prince's earshot.

He stopped walking and looked at her curiously. "How'd you know my Secret Service name?"

* * *

The Prince smiled at Dev. He had managed to avoid her for the past two hours but he was about ready to retire and decided a quick goodbye was in order. "It seems that your Ms. Strayer is very much taken," he conceded.

Dev spun around at the sound of the Prince's voice, and another glass of champagne was thrust into her hand.

She had downed hers in one swallow when Lauren and the Prince left in search of a server or the bar. And even as she tried to mingle, she found her attention drifting across to Lauren. It was only after Lauren had finally broken away with David, that she felt comfortable enough to begin mixing with her guests. "I told you that this afternoon," Dev stated flatly. "What finally convinced you?"

The young man burst out laughing. "Ms. Strayer's declaration of her ‘satisfaction' in your ‘arrangement'."

Dev blinked.What?Oooooo...Well, thank you, Lauren! She grinned rakishly at the Prince, who looked as though he would high-five her if he were familiar with the gesture.

Instead, he slapped her between the shoulders with gusto. Apparently, Dev had been accepted as ‘one of the boys'. "I have no hard feelings, Madam President." His brow furrowed a little, not quite understanding why this whole thing seemed to bother the American President so. Lauren was merely her lover. President Marlowe was a beautiful and powerful woman, and her nation obviously accepted her sinful ways. Surely she had dozens of lovers. "She's just a woman," he finally said, still puzzled but willing to let it go. He waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing that we should allow to interfere in our negotiations tomorrow."

"Until tomorrow then," Dev ground out, needing to make a hasty retreat before she did something stupid.It'll only make Lauren mad if I go ahead and punch him in the nose.

"Anxious to get back to your beautiful blonde?" he laughed. "Ahh... I cannot blame you a bit. Lucky for me, she can easily be replaced with another beautiful blonde."

Dev's eyes darkened with unspent anger, and she moved to shake Prince Hassan's hand. She grasped it firmly and leaned forward, placing her lips near his ear. "That, Your Highness, is where you are dead wrong."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Madam President

Chapter IV

April 2021

 

Sunday, April 4th

 

"Why so glum, chum?" David leaned over the chessboard, wondering why he always fell for that same gambit.

"Oh, I don't know." Dev sighed, then sipped her brandy. She leaned back in her chair and watched pensively as David tried to get out of trouble again. Would he never learn?

They were in the spare office in the private residence of the White House. It was a cozy room that Dev had turned into a family game room of sorts. The kids loved it. On this chilly spring night, however, her babies were fast asleep, as was, Dev suspected, nearly everyone else in Washington D.C. without insomnia. But David's wife was out of town visiting relatives, and her old buddy was lingering in Dev's quarters, not wanting to go back to his empty house.

"The only time you drink is when you're having women troubles," David said casually, his eyes never leaving the board.

Dev looked into her snifter and frowned. "It's brandy, for God's sake. And I certainly don't have women troubles. No women, no troubles."

"Well, I'm really glad to hear that."Here goes nothing."Because guess who's in town this week?"

"The Emperor of Japan?"

"Noooooooo" David moved his knight.

Dev leaned forward and made a move that would allow the game to continue as long as David didn't do something stupid. She wasn't ready to be alone either. "King of England?"

"Noooooo" His brows knitted together.Why didn't she go for the quick kill?"Think a little less political. More, umm, your type."

"My type?" Dev kicked her long legs out in front of her. "David, I don't have a type."

He leaned back in his chair, after making his move, and leveled his best brotherly stare at his friend. "Yeah, I know. And it's about time we changed that."

Dev glared at the ruddy-skinned man. "David, please don't tell me that you went and did something incredibly stupid like-"

"I set you up on a date."

A dark head dropped. "Oh, God!" Dev set her snifter on the table next to her, its heavy crystal bottom making a loud thump. Then she changed her mind and irritably jerked it back up again. "Isn't my life already complicated enough without you fixing me up? Half the U.S. and one horny Arab prince already think I'm sleeping with Lauren."

"And since you're not," David said sensibly, "there's no reason you shouldn't go out with Candy Delaney."

Devlyn began choking on her drink, wincing as the strong liquor stung her sinuses. She covered her mouth with her fist and tried to breathe through her nose.

"Surprise."

When Dev could finally speak she managed to gasp, "You mean you fixed me up with ‘C'mere and get a piece of Candy' Delaney? Jesus, David, why didn't you just hire me a hooker and call the press in to take pictures!"

David chewed the inside of his cheek unhappily. He was starting to get the idea that the only person who was going to satisfy Dev was one Lauren Strayer. "I'll have you know that Candy Delaney is now Candice Delaney,M.D.,and she's in town attending the Surgeon General's conference on STDs."

"Well, she had enough of them in college. She should be an expert by now."

"Deeeeeeev" But he couldn't stifle a laugh.

"You know how I hate being set up!"

"I set you up with Samantha, Dev."

"Oh, yeah." She frowned, slumping back into her seat. "But you'll never get that lucky again. And I still don't want to be set up now."

"C'mon! You're being ridiculous!"

"I am not going out with Candy ‘Check out my crème filling' Delaney!" She leaned forward and lazily moved her bishop. "Checkmate."

"You're right. You're not going out. You're the President of the United States, for God's sake."

Dev snorted. "‘Bout time you remembered that."

"She's coming here. Friday night, seven o'clock. I thought a nice dinner in residence. Maybe a movie after. Or a tour of"

"How very Andy Hardy of you."

"She'snot even going to be here on Friday.She'sgot a date," David said quietly. He knew the words would sting. But there was no use in Dev's continuing to brood about it.

Devlyn didn't have to ask who ‘she' was. Liza had practically been beaming because of it all week. The President's personal assistant had happily blabbed to everyone who would listen that Lauren had agreed to go out with her favorite cousin, Casey Dennis. "Thanks for reminding me, pal." Dev glowered. "I had almost forgotten," she mumbled sarcastically.And where is that damn FBI report I ordered on Liza's cousin?! I asked for it hours ago!

David made a face at the chessboard and lifted his palms in a gesture of defeat.

Dev thought of Lauren being wined and dined, having an intimate evening out with someone else. They might hold hands orGod, what if he kisses her? Or she kisses him? And what if that leads to No. No. No! I will not think about that. I won't!Her face screwed up with anger, and she knocked David's king across the room with her bishop.

Both sets of eyes followed the king, as the white, wooden chess piece sailed through the air and landed in the lit fireplace. It burst instantly into flames, and David gulped audibly.

"Oh, yeah, buddy, you're just lucky you won't fit."

 

Friday, April 9th

 

Dev sighed as she entered the hallway. She looked at her Secret Service agent who pushed up out of his chair and stood the moment she left her room. "Don't suppose you'd just shoot me now?"

The man paled a little. "Madam President?"

"Did you ever do something that you didn't really want to do just to your keep busybody friends happy?"

He began to relax and gave her a knowing grin. "Blind date, Madam President?"

"Almost. I haven't seen her since college." Dev sighed. "Well, at least I made it clear to my Chief of Staff that he and his wife were coming too." Her head jerked up when Lauren's door opened several paces in front of her.Oh, shit. She looks great. Why does she have to look so damned good? If I didn't know better, I'd almost say she was trying to drive me insane.

They approached each other very slowly. Lauren slid her purse over her shoulder as she moved alongside Dev. "So, you ready for the big evening?" She'd heard about Dev's blind date from Emma. And the thought did not make her happy. Dev had been looking tired these past few days.She only gets ten free minutes a week as it is. She should be relaxing or watching TV or reading my book, or something,Lauren thought petulantly.Not making her life more complicated. So what if this chick is a big time doctor from Harvard? Big deal. I know I'm not impressed. University of Tennessee is a great school!

Dev nodded and tried to sound positive. "Yeah, it'll be nice to see Candy eh Candice um, Dr. Delaney again." A tiny frown line appeared on Lauren's forehead, and Devlyn barely stopped herself from reaching out and smoothing it away.

"Well, I should be going. Liza asked me to come along with her and her boyfriend. Umm... her cousin is going to be there. And well"

"Really? I hadn't heard," Dev said casually, hoping no divine being actually kept track of little white lies, especially where Lauren was concerned. If he did, she was in deep shit.

Lauren tugged on her glasses uncomfortably. She felt an inexplicable urge to explain herself to Dev. "I've been going kind of stir crazy lately. It's been months since I've really gone out. And she asked um Liza, I mean, and really wanted a fourth person so her cousin wouldn't feel uncomfortable."Why do I feel like I'm cheating on her? We're not a couple!

"Oh, I understand completely."I am going straight to hell."You never know when you might meet Mr. Right."

Lauren smiled weakly and shrugged. Somehow she didn't think she'd be meeting Mr. Right tonight. "Or Ms. Right."

Dev's ears pricked up. "Huh?" she practically shouted.

"Candice Delaney?" Lauren clarified, puzzled by Dev's outburst. "Your date tonight?" Her cheeks turned pink with embarrassment. "Um... Emma mentioned it a couple of days ago. That's how I know her name."And I haven't been able to think of anything else since.

"Oh. Right." Dev tried not to look too crestfallen. She tilted her head in the opposite direction from the one Lauren was heading in. "I'm on my way there now, as a matter of fact."

Lauren eyed Dev's casual suit appreciatively, perversely pleased that Dr. Delaney didn't rate a skirt or heels. "I can see that. That's a pretty outfit."

"Thanks." A tiny smile edged onto Dev's face. "Same back." Awkwardly, she stuffed her hands in her pockets and rocked on her heels. "Well, I'll see you around." But she made no effort to move.

Lauren sighed wistfully, already sorry she had agreed to Liza's double date offer. She firmly commanded her feet to move, when what she really wanted to do was stay here and visit with Devlyn.Ugh. Except that Dev is going to spend the evening with Ms. Harvard. She sees me all the time. I'm sure I'm the last person she wants to spend more time with."Yeah. See ya around."

* * *

By the time Lauren's taxi dropped her off in front of the Been Gi Palace a cloud of depression had settled over her. She glanced up at the restaurant sign and wrinkled her nose.Why did I agree to Korean food? I hate not being sure about what I'm ordering. I'm from Tennessee, dammit! I'm very happy knowing that the ‘C' in KFC stands for ‘chicken' and not ‘cat'.The irksome thought made her shiver.

"This is what I get for wanting a life," she mumbled to herself as she squared her shoulders and pushed open the restaurant's heavy wooden door, allowing the strong aroma of the Korean food to waft out onto the sidewalk.

A smiling hostess immediately rushed to greet her. Lauren slid off her trench coat and draped it over her arm.

"Hewo, hewo," the young woman greeted, bowing her head several times. She looked exceedingly pleased to see Lauren.

"Hi." Lauren began bowing her head too, until she caught herself and realized what she was doing. She stopped and smiled at the petite woman. "I'm here to meet the Dennis party."

"Party of one?" the hostess chirped. Her accent was so thick Lauren found herself leaning forward as though the words might somehow make sense if their volume were increased.

"No."

The hostess looked confused. "You no want food?"

"No I mean yes. I'm meeting some friends here. The Dennis party," Lauren tried again.

"If you no want food, you just go! This not funny joke." The young woman began shooing Lauren back toward the door.

"No I do. I mean yes, I want food."Just not this food.The odor was making her a little sick. Lauren exhaled impatiently and peered around the small woman.

The restaurant was dark, illuminated only by the candles dotting the tables and by several yellow-toned hanging lights over the bar. She squinted as her eyes continued to adjust to the dim light. Liza was no place to be seen, so she started looking for Casey, which was no easy task, considering she had no idea what the guy looked like. A handsome, dark-haired man in a sports coat and tie was sitting at the end of the bar nursing a drink. The seats on either side of him were empty.

Lauren decided to take a chance. She stepped forward, past the hostess, and waved in his direction. Despite the darkness, the man spotted Lauren and his head popped up. He smiled broadly, gesturing her over. Lauren sighed in relief. Liza and her date must just be late.

She turned to the confused hostess, who had moved back in front of her, apparently prepared to block her path if necessary. "I found my party. See?" Lauren pointed to the man who raised his drink in acknowledgement.

The hostess nodded furiously, finally understanding that Lauren was meeting the man at the bar. "You go then," she said happily. "I get you table, and waiter leave menus."

Lauren just stared, not having understood a blessed word.

"Go!" the hostess finally huffed. "Tourists so stupid," she grumbled as she stepped back to the door, her head bobbing again as she greeted an elderly couple who had just stepped inside.

Lauren took the bull by the horns and approached the man. He stood up and offered her the seat next to him.

She extended her hand, and he shook it briskly. "I'm sorry I'm a little late." She slid onto the stool next to him. "I'm Laur-"

"That's okay, honey," he interrupted. His eyes tried their best to focus, but this was his fifth drink, and things were a little fuzzy around the edges. Still, he could see enough to know this was the luckiest damned day of his life. "You were worth the wait." He smiled triumphantly. And his friends tried to tell him that munching down the worm at the end of a bottle of Cuervo wasn't really good luck. Ha!

Lauren's eyes narrowed, and she caught a good look at the man for the first time, noticing his slightly disheveled shirt and askew necktie. "What's your name?"

The man suddenly grasped the importance of this question and thought wildly. "John?"

Lauren rolled her eyes. "More like ‘asshole'." She pushed off the bar.

"Bill?" he valiantly tried again. "David? Sam? Rick? Steve? Bob? David?"

"You already said that one."

"It's the right one then?"

"Nope."

"C'mon! Give me a hint at least."

"Sorry, pal. None of those are close to Casey."Thank God.

The woman two seats down, who had been listening to the exchange with mild amusement, suddenly jumped to her feet. "Lauren?"

Lauren's eyes jerked toward the sandy-haired woman. "Yes?"

"I'm so glad to finally meet you. I'm Liza's cousin, Casey Dennis." She extended her hand, and Lauren lifted hers in utter shock. "Your date," Casey added when Lauren continued to stare at her blankly. The writer's hand was as limp as a spaghetti noodle.

"You're a woman," Lauren said needlessly, her jaw sagging slightly.Do I look totally gay or what?

Two eyebrows jumped. "Yeeeah," Casey drew out the word. "Last time I checked, anyway. Surely you knew that. I mean, Liza said" She stopped, noticing that Lauren looked a little spooked. "Hey, are you okay?"

Lauren scratched her jaw. "Boy, that's a good question."The idea's not totally new to you, Lauri, and you know it. You've thought about it before. Especially lately. So don't even think about acting all shocked.

She'd been mildly interested in a few women over the years. Lauren had wondered, if given the chance, whether things might have developed beyond friendship. But time marched on, and the opportunity never knocked. Her marriage to Judd had been one long study in unfulfillment for them both. So maybe it was time to broaden her horizons? She'd been skirting the edge of it for years. Lauren had to admit that it wasn't a lack of interest in women that had held her back. More like a lack of attraction. Or at least a feeling of attraction that was more than fleeting.

Attraction should beher mind immediately hit upon the answer, and she sighed quietlylike what I feel for Dev.To pretend to be anything other than attracted to Devlyn was simply a lie, and she knew it. She was drawn to the older woman like a moth to a flame. Her heart hadn't as much as spared a second thought toward Dev's gender. Lauren tried not to think that Dev was probably kissing Dr. Delany at this very moment.

The writer firmly clamped down on her wandering thoughts and glanced up at Casey, who was, admittedly, a pretty woman. She concentrated on her for a second, holding her breath and purposely looking long and deep into Casey's warm brown eyes. Nothing. No glimmer of interest. No spark of desire. No attraction. No pull. It was nothing like what she felt with Dev, even from the very first. Lauren exhaled.But she's not Dev. So stop doing that!

"I'm sorry. And I'm fine," Lauren finally answered, realizing that she was staring. "What I meant to say earlier is that you're a woman who looks really familiar. Have we met?"Okay, that was pathetic.But Casey seemed to buy her answer without question.

"No, I'm sure I'd remember you." Casey led the way to the empty table that awaited her return.

"Where's Liza?" Lauren hoped the question came off casually, despite the fact that she was starting to get a little worried.

"Oh, she called a few minutes ago. Something came up at the White House, and so she and Art won't be meeting us tonight." Casey smiled as she slid into her seat, tossing her menu onto the empty place setting next to her. "It's just you and me for the whole night!"

Lauren's eyebrows crawled behind her bangs. "Umm wow. The whole evening?" What time was it? She fought the urge to glance at her watch.Give the woman a chance. If Dev were interested in you, she wouldn't be dating someone else, right?"That's great," Lauren said with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.The whole night.

* * *

In the dining room of the residence, David and Beth chatted with Candy, while Dev tried not to look totally miserable. She smiled at all the right times and feigned interest in what was being said as she pushed her pasta around on her plate.

She had lost her appetite long before dinner even made it to the table. It had been totally vanquished between the soup and salad; Dev had nearly dislocated her knee by smacking it into the table when she felt Candy's hand land on her thigh.

Once she had managed to get Candy's insistent hand off her leg, she looked up to find the woman openly leering at her. It had been a long time since anyone had looked at her like she was the main course. But coming from Candy it was downright unappealing. It actually made her a little sick to her stomach.Candice Delaney, respected MD by day, Superslut by night. Some things just never change.Dev just shook her head.

She imagined Lauren looking at her like that, with lust-filled, slate gray eyes, and her cheeks immediately flamed a bright scarlet.Oh, God.An involuntary moan escaped from deep in her throat.

The conversation around her suddenly stopped, and everyone stared.

Okay, that wasn't a good idea."Hot pasta," Dev explained lamely, fanning the tepid entree.

With dessert, things went from bad to worse. While David and his wife were lost in their own conversation, Candy whispered an obscene suggestion to Dev, explaining just how she'd like to use the cherry sauce once they were alone. Dev cringed at the mere thought.Not even with someone else's tongue!Her shoulders slumped, and she tossed her napkin onto the table.How am I gonna survive this? Wonder how Lauren's doing? Couldn't be any worse than this.

* * *

Lauren's head bobbed dutifully as she poked her fork around her plate, barely listening to Casey's endless droning, but fascinated by the 188186stinky conglomeration ofsomethingthat had been placed in front of her. Were those tiny legs? She gulped. Or tentacles?I didn't order anything with legs!A mental pause.I think.

"And that's how I became a medical technician at the morgue."

Lauren nearly dropped her fork. Her eyes shot upward. "You're what?!"

"A morgue clerk," Casey enthused, heartened to see that Lauren was as excited about it as she was. Maybe the writer wasn't as big a dud as she seemed. "It's such a totally interesting job! Why one time, after a mob hit downtown"

The biographer felt the blood drain from her face.She's not going to tell me about it, is she? Oh, God!"So, what's your favorite book?" Lauren changed the subject as quickly as she could. The legs mixed in with what she thought were noodles on her plate were nearly enough to make her barf. Hearing about corpses would surely push her over the edge.

"You know, people are always asking each other that," Casey commented sagely. "I don't really have one. I've always preferred the movies." She rattled off a half dozen titles, none of which Lauren had even heard of. "Aren't those great? They're my favorites."

"Um sorry, I haven't seen any of those."

"Oh." Casey looked mortally wounded, and Lauren wasn't sure whether to feel bad or relieved. Maybe she could cut the evening short.

Both women were silent for several awkward moments. "What about travel?" Lauren prompted. "Have you been anywhere interesting? Or is there someplace you'd like to visit?"

"No. Not really."

More painful silence.

"Oh."

Casey took a long drink of Korean beer. "Astrology is a hobby of mine. I'm a Virgo. What's your sign?"

"Cancer."

Casey suddenly found the contents of her glass very interesting. "Oh."

Lauren cocked her head to the side. "Oh, what? Is that bad or something?"

"No. Not really. Well, they just aren't very compatible with Virgoans." She shrugged lightly. "That's all."

No shit, Sherlock.Lauren covertly studied her watch. Who knew two hours could feel like this?

"You gonna eat that?" Without waiting for Lauren to answer, Casey reached over and stuck her fingers in Lauren's dinner, fishing out something green and slimy that she immediately popped into her mouth.

Lauren's eyes turned to slits, and she considered stabbing Casey with her fork. If that had been a French fry, Casey would be sporting fork marks on her hand right now. But, as it was, she really wouldn't miss one more piece of slimy thing.

"Umm..." Casey chewed happily. "Thanks, those are great. And I can't believe you didn't eat them right off. I can never wait. Ooo have I told you how much I love the symphony? Have you heard our local symphony? They're fabulous!"

Lauren shook her head. "I've heard they're wonderful, but I'm not really a big fan of the symphony. So I haven't seen them myself. But I like opera," she tried hopefully.

Casey's face twisted in disgust, and she stated flatly, "I hate opera."

Lauren looked down at her plate hopelessly. She scooped up a big bite, legs and all, and shoveled it into her mouth. She reasoned that she'd probably have to be rushed to the emergency room soon, and then she could escape the date from hell. Or she'd be dead. Either way worked.

Casey's face suddenly brightened. "But this body we had down at the morgue last week sort of looked like one of those fat opera guys."

Lauren didn't even look up. She just took another enormous bite.

"He was pale and bloated. I think they fished his carcass out of the river near Dulles Airport. But that's not the worst thing I've seen. Not by a long shot! The worst was this"

* * *

Dev seriously considered hurting David when he and Beth excused themselves after an insufferably long dinner, but suggested that the President give Candy a tour. She grabbed his arm as he was leaving. "I will make you pay for this!" she growled under her breath, knowing that only David was close enough to hear her.

"Well, you know what the old song says," he whispered back. "If you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with."

"Not in this lifetime, David."

"Good night, Madam President." He leaned over and spoke very quietly into Dev's ear, "I didn't remember her coming off this strong, Dev. This was a slight miscalculation on my part. I'm sorry."

Slight?"Good night, former Chief of Staff."

David and Beth made a hasty exit, and Dev turned to face the music.Why do I keep hearing "Little Red Corvette" playing in my mind? Dear God, I promise you I'll do somethingreallygood for the environment if you'll just get me out of this.

"Well," the President gestured nervously down the hall, "let's go see what we can find to look at around here."

"Come on, Dev." The woman moved closer, and Dev took a step back. "I don't bite." She grinned. "Unless you ask real nice. How about a tour of the Executive Bedroom?"

"They say Lincoln's bedroom is haunted." Dev stepped around Candy, only to have her ass pinched in the process.

* * *

"Thanks for the ride, Casey."Which youinsistedon giving me.

"No problem. I was coming back here to meet Liza anyway." The women made their way around to one of the staff entrances just as Casey's phone rang. It was Liza. "Well, what are you doing there?" Casey practically crowed into her cell phone. "We just came from there!" She placed her hand over the receiver and turned to Lauren, who was quietly digging for the ID that was required before she could sign in and gain entrance to the White House, even though the guard at the door knew exactly who she was and that she lived there.

God, I'm totally screwed if I ever lose this thing.Lauren finally pulled it out and signed the clipboard before turning a bored, slightly frustrated expression on her companion. "Let me guess," Lauren sighed. "She's at Been Gi's?"Please don't tell me this means I have to spend anymore time with you.

"Yup. And she wants to know if you wouldn't mind giving me the nickel tour." Casey gave her a hopeful expression. "She doesn't want to drive all the way back. She lives in the opposite direction."

Lauren held out an impatient hand. "Let me talk to Liza."

"Okay." Casey put the phone to her mouth again to say goodbye, but didn't pass it to Lauren. "Liza says it's not necessary to thank her, that you can do that on Monday. She, umm... she hung up."

Lauren's shoulders slumped and she exhaled wearily. Would this date never end? "C'mon, Casey, the nickel tour is really quick."

* * *

Dev wondered if she could still be President after her brain finally exploded in her skull. She figured if Ford could do it, she might be able to get away with it too. There were bigger stumbling blocks than brain death when it came to the Oval Office. Devlyn decided that if she had to remove Candy's hand from some part of her anatomy just one more time, she was going to have to throw ‘polite' out the window and simply kick Candy out on her ass.

"The umm China Room is this way." Dev gestured again.

As the pair entered from one side, Dev was more than relieved to see Lauren enter from the other doorway. Then the fact that she was with a woman registered just a millisecond behind that.What in the hell? A woman! Casey is a woman?"Lauren, you're home." It slipped out before Dev could get her lips and brain in sync with each other. The one thing that her mouth and brain could readily agree on, however, was to smile at Lauren. Which she did, quite readily, despite the fact that she felt hurt. It was clear that Lauren liked women. Just not her.Whoever didn't get me that FBI report is going to be looking for a new job come Monday.

"Hi, Devlyn." Lauren smiled warmly at the President, but threw a look of solid ice at the attractive woman standing next to her. "I don't believe I've met your friend."

"Oh, yeah."And what does this Casey woman have that I don't, Lauren Strayer?"Uh, Lauren, may I present Dr. Candice Delaney? Dr. Delaney, this is Ms. Lauren Strayer, the very talented young woman who is writing my biography."

Candy slipped a possessive arm through Dev's, only to have the tall woman shift away. She gave the President an annoyed look, and then offered her hand and a catty smile to Lauren, instantly sniffing the blonde out as her competition. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Strayer. I have some great Dev Marlowe stories from college," her voice was condescending, "if you need them."

Candy's Bostonian accent grated on Lauren's nerves like fingernails running down a blackboard. "Nice to meet you, too. And I see Devlyn everyday. I don't need anyoldstories. She's perfectly willing to tell me anything I want to know." The smile she gave Dr. Delaney was every bit as catty as the one she'd received. "I'm sure that Dev was pleased with how well you've held up over the years."

Dev snorted, but tried to cover it by pretending to cough. Then she got a good look at the woman with Lauren, who hadn't so much as given her the time of day, and whose eyes were feasting on Candy like she was well, a piece of candy. "Uh, Lauren, you haven't introduced us to your friend." Dev shifted her gaze back and forth between the two women, hoping to hell Lauren would pick up on it.

But Lauren was too busy mentally cataloging every reason that Candy Delaney wasn't nearly good enough for Devlyn to notice. It wasn't until Dev repeated her question that Lauren said, "Madam President, may I introduce Casey Dennis, Liza's cousin?"

Casey completely ignored Dev and continued to stare lustily at Candy. "Please tell me you're nottheDr. Candice Delaney," she said in awe. "I read your article on crabs last year, and I haven't been able to pee in a public restroom since." Casey's brown eyes grew moist, and her voice trembled. "You are... I mean,itwas magnificent."

An enormous smile split Candy's face, and she openly appraised Lauren's date. "Why, thank you very much, Ms. Dennis. Tell me, are you in the field?" Candy stepped past Dev, and offered her limp hand to Casey."

"Oh,yeah!" Lauren said, almost too loudly. "Casey has a fascinating job, and she just loves to talk and talk about it."

Casey nodded enthusiastically. "It would be a honor to discuss my passion with someone as accomplished as you."

Lauren turned her best southern charm on Casey for the first and last time this evening. "Casey, darlin', maybe you could give Dr. Delaney a ride back to her hotel?"

"I'd be delighted." Casey grinned dumbly.

"Well," Dev clapped her hands together in sheer joy. "I'm glad that's settled. Jack!"

A young Secret Service agent popped into the room. "Yes, Madam President?"

"Would you please show Ms. Dennis and Dr. Delaney out?"

"But"

"Don't worry, Jack. I'll be going back to the residence, and I doubt that Ms. Strayer is out to hurt me."

"Yes, ma'am. Right this way, ladies." The young man gestured, and the two women were so wrapped up in talking with each other they barely mumbled a hasty goodnight to their original dates.

Lauren and Dev both held their breath until the women were gone. After a few seconds, they sighed in unison.

"Thank God," Dev mumbled

"Amen to that," Lauren agreed.

"What does Casey do for a living?"

"Morgue attendant."

Dev suddenly took a big step away from Lauren. "Well, eeeewwww," she teased.

* * *

Dev and Lauren started back to the residence. Dev stared at her shoes as she walked. She hated that seeing Lauren with another woman hurt. But it did. A lot, actually. She was feeling anger as well. Anger that she didn't have a right to. Lauren hadn't done anything wrong. So she was obviously only interested in Dev as a friend.That's my problem not hers.Dev shoved back the disappointment that stung her heart and threatened to give her away by leaking from her eyes. She cleared her throat, determined to try and salvage a little of her evening and spend it with her friend.

"Umm, Lauren?"

"Hmm?" Lauren stopped walking and faced Dev. She looked up into eyes brimming with sadness and something else. And she felt a twinge deep in her chest. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah." Dev smiled softly. "I, umm, well I didn't really get much to eat tonight. Don't suppose you'd like to come back to the residence with me. We could order up a couple of corned beef sandwiches and maybe watch a movie or or something."And then I can torture myself all night with something I'll never have.

Lauren felt a genuine, heartfelt smile stretch her lips for the first time that night. "I'd love to." That earned her a broad grin from Devlyn, and both women started for the residence once again. "Dev, I cannot believe I was ditched by Casey!"

"I'm sorry. Did you really like her?"Twist the knife, Dev.

"Right," Lauren snorted indignantly. "Give me more credit than that please."

Dev sighed inwardly. Even if Lauren didn't care for her the way she cared for Lauren, she didn't want to see her friend hurt. "Yeah, well, can you imagine how I feel?" she teased. "The biggest slut I've ever met just dumped me..."

"The President of the United States," Lauren chimed in for effect, grateful that Devlyn was taking this all in stride.

A dark eyebrow rose, but Dev continued. "... for a morgue clerk. Not a great evening for my ego."

Lauren chuckled. "No. I suppose not." Dev's hand brushed hers as they walked, and she wondered for a brief moment what would happen if she reached out and took it. "Can I ask you something?" she said in a soft voice.

Dev smiled, placing her hand gently on the small of Lauren's back as they climbed a short flight of stairs. "Why would you stop now? You know you can ask me anything."

"You didn't seem very surprised that Casey was a woman. Were you?" She smiled wryly.Like I was.

For a moment Devlyn didn't know what to say. Somehow, she didn't think it was a good idea to tell Lauren she had nearly swallowed her damned tongue. "Well, I mean, I was surprised." The words tumbled out nervously. "But what was I supposed to say? ‘Gee, Lauren, didn't realize you'd gone all lesbian on me.'"

Lauren slid off her glasses and tucked them into the front pocket of her blouse. "I didn't realize that I had either." She held her breath, waiting for Dev's reaction.

"See, there you go. It would have been rude for me to point it out in front of your date."What do you mean, you didn't realize?

Lauren laughed weakly. "Yeah, I guess it would have."

"So, um, this was your first date with a woman?"Please don't let me be totally misunderstanding this conversation.

Lauren nodded as Dev opened the door to the living room and ushered her inside.

Blue eyes widened a little. "Wow."

"Yeah, wow. I guess I've always known there was some interest there," Lauren clarified, wanting to be honest. "This was just my first actual date... that, um... didn't include a man." She could sense Dev was upset about something, and she wasn't sure if that ‘something' was her.

Dev grunted with satisfaction at the softly lit room and the fireplace, which was already burning. She chewed on the inside of her lip as she reached for the house phone. She was dying to hear more from Lauren, but it seemed so personal. Dev kicked off her shoes, then removed her jacket. "Yes, send up two corned beef sandwiches with all the trimmings." She paused and looked at Lauren. "What do you want to drink?"

"Beer. And since I'm being brave and asking you outright, does it bother you that I like women?"Something is bothering you. You always chew your lip like that when you're upset.

Dev took a deep breath. "Send up an ice bucket full of beer, too."I'm gonna need it.She put the phone down and put her fists on her hips. "Why would it bother me? I like women too, in case you hadn't noticed."

Lauren shrugged, her insecurity showing. "I dunno, Devlyn. We're friends, right?" She looked up at the older women with an expression so open it was nearly painful in its intensity.

Dev sighed and took a seat next to Lauren on the sofa. "I'd really like to think we are. I'm... well, I'm very fond of you." She really wanted to pull the young woman into her arms and just hold her until they both felt better. "I always have such a good time when we're together. And, God, I was so miserable tonight. Then, when I saw you, I wanted to"Kiss you senseless,she finished silently.Of course, I'd probably have a heart attack before I got the nerve up to try it. But it's still a nice thought."Well, let's just say I'm really glad we're here now."

Lauren let out a shuddering breath and felt every ounce of tension leave her body. "That's how I feel too, Devlyn. I just wanted to make sure that that wouldn't change after you saw me with Casey." Lauren pushed off her shoes and tucked her legs underneath her until she was sitting Indian style. "So, do you want me to tell you about my horrendous evening? Or would you like to start?" She leaned back, her eyes twinkling gently.You are so stupid, Lauri. This is where you should have been all along.

 

Saturday, April 10th

 

When her alarm went off, Lauren's hand crept out from under the comforter and she slapped it silent. Then her hand retreated back under the warm thick blankets with the rest of her body.Wonder what it would take to keep her in bed for just one morning?She groaned and tossed back the covers, rolling over to look at the clock.Five A.M. on a Saturday morning. It just doesn't get any more disgusting than this."Ughhh, the gym today. Thank God, we're not jogging."

She briefly contemplated covering back up and playing hooky when Grem crawled up from the foot of the bed and placed his head on her stomach. "Yeah, yeah, I know, Grem. If you can't take the heat, you shouldn't be in the kitchen.

"But at least this is your favorite day of the week. In a few hours those kids will be here just begging for you to come out and play, so they can spoil you rotten." Gremlin growled contentedly as his mistress rubbed his belly. "And I've got two phone interviews set up for some of Devlyn's old High School teachers. That should be interesting, huh?" She pictured an adolescent Devlyn, all gangly arms and legs, tall, and sparkling baby blue eyes. A smile came to her lips unbidden.

Lauren gave her pal a long scratch behind the ears, trying to find the energy to get up and pull her sweats on so she could go watch Dev sweat. Not that she minded that part. She laughed softly.

Her attention was drawn away from her pooch by a loud commotion in the hallway. Not once since she had been here in residence had she heard anything like it. It sounded like the world was coming to an end. Lauren jumped out of bed and pulled a robe on over her pajamas. Haphazardly, she ran her hands through her hair and grabbed her glasses from the nightstand on the way to the door.

The hallway was teeming with dark-suited Secret Service agents. She stuck her head out, and a hand reached out to stop her, until the agent recognized her and allowed her to step out into the hall.

Mixed in with the Secret Service were medical personnel. They were dragging or carrying armloads of equipment into Dev's bedroom. For a brief moment, Lauren could have sworn her heart stopped.

"What's..." She cleared her throat and tried again. "What's going on?" She pulled her robe closed at her throat and ordered her stomach to stop roiling in protest at what her eyes were seeing.

"The President won't be going out today, Ms. Strayer. You may go back to bed if you'd like."

"I didn't ask if she was going out. I asked what was going on."

"I'm not at liberty to say, Ms. Strayer." Michael Oaks gave her a frosty smile. They had stopped pretending they liked each other a long time ago. "And even if I were, it's none of your concern."

A Secret Service agent tapped Michael on the shoulder, and his attention shifted away from the biographer.

Lauren tried to peer around the milling men, but she wasn't tall enough to see into the outer room that led to Dev's bedroom. She grabbed another agent as he shuffled past. "What is going on?! Is she okay?"

He only shrugged and then continued on his way.

Gray eyes flicked from face to face, and she heard more raised, panicky voices from inside Devlyn's room. Then she did the only thing she could think of...

Lauren started screaming at the top of her lungs. "Emma!" She knew that if something was wrong with Dev, the nanny would be close by.

The men around her jumped back as though she were insane. And, from the look on Lauren's face, more than a few of them were sure that that was, indeed, the case. They knew better than to touch her, however. For something like that, President Marlowe would likely have them transferred to the North Pole to guard Santa's ass.

Emma rushed out into the hallway to see what had happened now. "What in the world is the matter?" she asked, trying to grasp why Lauren was yelling at the top of her lungs.

Lauren immediately stopped and composed herself. She was a little lightheaded from her exertion. "What's wrong with Devlyn? No one will tell me a damned thing!"

"Didn't you tell her?" Emma looked to Michael Oaks. Her tone was scolding.

"Somebody tell me!"

"C'mon inside." Emma shook her head sadly. "You need to see this for yourself."

Lauren braced herself for the worst. She swallowed hard and followed Emma into the confusion.

Dev opened her eyes.Is that Lauren's voice?Then she saw a fair head in the crowd outside her room. A very raspy voice gave the low order. "Make way for the lady."

The flurry of motion around the bed ceased for just a moment as the doctors and nurses parted and allowed Lauren to take a seat on the bed. Without thinking twice, she took Dev's clammy hand in her own and squeezed gently.

She heard the doctors talking to Dev, but only got about every other word. Her eyes and her mind were firmly focused on the sick woman. Lauren was about to ask Dev what was wrong when a doctor said, "Madam President, we're going to start an IV." He set down two large test tubes full of crimson blood that he'd drawn from Dev only seconds before. "You're going to feel another prick."

Lauren's stomach twisted. The thought of Devlyn being impaled by a sharp object was every bit as distressing as if they'd informed her that she herself was next. Shivering, she tore her eyes away from the test tubes.

The doctor stepped forward, but was stopped dead in his tracks by Dev's grumpy bark. "Get that damned needle away from me."Can't you see you're freaking out Lauren?Dev's bleary eyes focused on Lauren's robe, and the pajamas that were peeking out.God, are those pink elephants on her pajamas? Could she be more adorable? I wonder what she'd think if I invited her to a slumber party."This is food poisoning, not the plague. I don't need any IVs." She motioned weakly toward the tank next to the bed. "Or oxygen."

Lauren cringed at the words ‘food poisoning', fully knowing how miserable that was, but totally bewildered by the staff around Devlyn who were acting as if she were on her deathbed. She expected the flag outside the White House to be flying at half-mast. Lauren put her face in her hands. "Food poisoning?" she breathed somewhat shakily, reassuring herself that it wasn't any more serious. She willed her heart to resume beating.

"Mornin', Mighty Mouse. You sure do know how to get attention when you want it."

Lauren smiled weakly and stroked Devlyn's palm with her fingertips. "Well, I got tired of you hogging the spotlight all the time. And I'll let the Mighty Mouse comment slide only because you're sick. All this," she motioned around the room to the doctors and Secret Service agents, "scared the crap out of me, you know."

Dev rolled her eyes.God, people overreacted around you when you were President."Sorry about that. And I'm not really sick. It's just a ruse to get the day off." But her pale face told a different story.

A tiny, unexpected laugh escaped Lauren's throat. "How are you feeling?" she asked gently. But before Dev could answer, she broke in. "And I want an honest answer, Devlyn."

"Been up the entire night, worshipping the porcelain Goddess. How do I look?"

"Like crap."

"Funny, I don't feel that good."

Lauren's brow creased with worry. Dev did look terrible. She glanced up at one of the doctors. "It's just food poisoning, right?" She knew she was being nosey. But she couldn't help but worry.

The doctor, a short, middle-aged man with a bald head and slightly protruding belly, looked annoyed that Lauren had interrupted the notes he was making on Dev's chart. He pulled two labels from a small packet and placed them on the President's blood samples, deliberately ignoring the interruption.

Dev's brows creased, and she turned her head. "Doctor?"

"Yes, Madam President?" he answered immediately, giving Dev his undivided attention.

"Ms. Strayer just asked you a question. It would be in your best interest to answer her. Right now!" Dev growled, pale eyes flashing with sudden anger.

The writer and doctor jumped, and the man fumbled with the tubes in his hands before settling them on the tray. "The President appears to have a serious case of Salmonellosis, which is commonly referred to as ‘food poisoning'. We believe the culprit was the shrimp from her dinner last night. The blood work is just a precaution."

Lauren nodded slowly, trying not to lose her temper at the doctor's rudeness.They don't owe you an explanation. Get that through your head."Thank you." She turned back to Dev and smiled sympathetically. "If you'd seen what I ate on my date last night, you'd never believe that you'd be the one who was sick in bed."

A nurse approached Dev with a long needle and a tourniquet once again. "I'm sorry, Madam President. I'm afraid we need one more sample. One of your doctors just requested another series of tests be run." She shifted uneasily, not missing Lauren's wide-eyed stare. "This will need to go to a different lab. That's why we need another sample."

"Oh, all right." Dev held out her arm.

The color drained from Lauren's cheeks. "You're going to... right now..." Darkness invaded her peripheral vision, and her eyes rolled back in her head as she bonelessly lurched forward onto Devlyn.

Dev looked down at the woman who had passed out right in her lap. She grinned tiredly at the doctor. "I swear to you, doc, this is not the normal reaction to being in bed with me."

The doctor rolled his eyes and ordered the nurses to pull the limp blonde off the President. Dev chuckled and told them just to get Lauren settled next to her. The bed was queen-sized, and Dev wasn't quite ready to give up her hand. It made her feel better to know Lauren was close.

On Dev's orders, reluctantly, one by one, the medical personnel and staff filed out of the room. Emma raised a sharp eyebrow at Dev and, with a nod from the President, left the door open a crack before leaving. After the blood had been drawn, then, and only then, was the young woman brought around with a little help from an ammonia capsule.

Devlyn waved the powerful chemical capsule under Lauren's nose, and after only a few seconds, the shorter woman's head began to thrash. Confused eyes popped open, and she immediately sat up and looked around the room. She stared at Devlyn and then back at herself. "We're in bed together?"

Dev coughed and laughed. "Yes. But I assure you, your integrity is firmly intact, Ms. Strayer. You passed out in my lap."

"Oh, my God. I did, didn't I?" Her hands immediately went to her face, where she straightened her slightly askew glasses. Devlyn's hand covered her own, and before she knew it the glasses were slid off and placed on the nightstand. "Thank you." Lauren swallowed hard, feeling her stomach flutter, although this time it wasn't only because of worry.

Dev smiled gently. "Would you do me a favor?"

"Anything I can," Lauren answered sincerely.

Dev completely bit back the request she wanted to make of the young woman and trudged on with her second choice. "Well, you see, when I'm sick, I'm like the biggest baby in the world." She smiled sheepishly. "I hate to be alone. Emma is far too busy with the children to sit here and hold my hand. Would you stay with me? We could work on the book if you like."

Lauren nodded mutely. Of course she wanted to stay. If Devlyn hadn't asked, she would have offered. "But... um..." She gestured to their half-reclined, pajama-clad bodies. "Is this okay?"

Dev took a deep breath. "Well, I have to be here like this, but umm"I can't believe I'm saying this. She looks so damn good with her hair all mussed and in her wrinkled pajamas. But I don't want her to be uncomfortable."If you want to go get a shower and change, I think I can manage for a few minutes."

Lauren was vaguely disappointed, but Devlyn's words caused her to suddenly feel self-conscious. "You're right. I don't know what I was thinking coming out of my room like this. I was just worried... and..."

Dev placed her fingers against Lauren's lips. "I'm glad you did. Thank you for being worried about me." Reluctantly, she pulled her hand back, struck by the softness of those coral lips.

"But it's just food poisoning, right?" Lauren asked warily, her eyes flicking to the various pieces of medical equipment that were sitting around the room. "You'd tell me if it were more serious?"

"This is just a precaution. If I weren't the President, I'd be left to my own devices just like any other normal human being. They're not worried about me. They're worried about their boss."

Lauren frowned. "That's not true."I'm worried about you.

Dev's eyes started to grow heavy, and she wondered if the doctor had slipped a little something extra in her last dose of medication. "Sure itis. But you care" She couldn't help the fact that she was falling asleep right in the middle of the conversation. But she had been up all night.

Lauren smiled softly and whispered, "Don't fight it."

Devlyn's eyes immediately slid closed, and the dark-haired woman let out a slow, deep breath.

Lauren lifted their intertwined fingers, looking at them as though she had forgotten she was holding Devlyn's hand. She pulled up the covers and smoothed them around the taller woman's body, then glanced at the nearly closed door.Do it. You know you've wanted to since you walked into the room. ‘Longer than that', her mind whispered stubbornly.

Refocusing on Devlyn, she tenderly brushed the President's cheek with her knuckles before dropping a soft kiss on the warm skin. "Pleasant dreams, Devlyn. I'll be here when you wake up." Lauren snuggled back into her own side and allowed her eyes to flutter closed. A gentle peace stole over her as she dropped off to sleep.

* * *

Lauren woke well before Dev. She lifted her head and looked at the woman. Instinctively, she raised her hand and checked Dev's forehead for fever. She was relieved to find it cool, not only because she didn't like the thought of Dev being sick, but she wasn't really sure if she could tell whether she had a fever or not.

Lauren moved away slowly, not wanting to wake the President, and retrieved her glasses from the nightstand. Carefully, she climbed out of the bed and started for her own room. She paused briefly to speak the Secret Service agent and the nurse seated outside the room. "I'll be back in a few minutes. Please let her know if she wakes up in the meantime."

The nurse nodded. "Yes, Ms. Strayer."

As Lauren walked away she heard a comment pass between the people she had left behind. "Not sleeping together, my ass."

Lauren turned on her heel and marched up to the Secret Service agent and the nurse. She opened her mouth to deny the rumor, but stopped herself before saying a word. Her mouth clicked closed, and her lips curved into a delighted, borderline shit-eating grin. She winked. "You don't know the half of it." Then her tone cooled. "And you never will. So instead of spending your time gossiping, why not do your jobs before you end up as a security guard at Sears and an orderly at the morgue?"It's not like I don't know someone there now,she thought wryly.

Squaring her shoulders, she marched back to her room, not quite believing what she'd just done. She took the fastest shower known to man, threw on her sweats, grabbed Grem up for the quickest walk of his little life and returned to her room.

Lauren gathered her notebook and her laptop together and, with a quick nod, started back for Dev's room. Just as her hand touched the knob, Gremlin began to whine. Her shoulders drooped, and she pressed her forehead against the door. "Come on, Grem. Not now. Not today. Please?" she mumbled, turning around. "I'll buy you the biggest, fluffiest dog bed you've ever seen if you just behave today."

The dog was not impressed. He bounded over to his mistress and flipped over on his back, presenting his belly for a good scratching.

Lauren blew out a frustrated breath and glanced at her watch. It was still too early for the kids to be up. "Okay, you can come with me, but you have to promise to behave. Devlyn doesn't feel well. No growling at her."

The dog rolled over happily, his tail wagging furiously.

"You little, snaggle-toothed extortionist," Lauren grumbled. "C'mon. And I mean it. One growl and you're history." She pulled open the door.

A nurse was just exiting Dev's room to rejoin the agent outside the door. Lauren gave them a raised brow before she and Grem disappeared inside. After setting down her things, she moved to the bed to check on the President. Dev whimpered slightly, her head tossed from side to side. She seemed to be having trouble breathing, or she was gagging in her sleep, Lauren couldn't tell which.

"Devlyn?" Lauren peered down at the President's ashen face.

Pale eyes blinked open.

"Hey." Lauren smiled. "What's wrong?" She quickly ran her fingertips over dry lips. "Is your throat sore, or are you thirsty?"

The brunette shook her head wildly and groaned piteously. "Laur... you you'd better..."

Lauren leaned in closer to hear Dev better. "What is it?"

Dev's entire body convulsed, and she leaned forward and heaved, throwing up all over Lauren's chest. Lauren's eyes went impossibly wide as warm, chunky liquid slowly slid down the front of her shirt, pooling in a great blob in her bra. She moaned, her own stomach furiously roiling at the rancid smell. "Oh, God! Ewwwwww!" She pawed at her shirt as Dev leaned forward again, and Gremlin ran out of the room. "No, you don't!" Lauren grabbed a basin from the nightstand next to Dev's bed and thrust it in front of her just in time to catch round two.

After a moment that felt like ten lifetimes, Dev stopped retching and turned red, watery eyes on her friend. "I'm so," she paused, gagging momentarily on the taste of bile, "so sorry."

Lauren moved the basin back under Dev's chin and left it there until she was sure the President was finished.

"I can't believe I did that."

The blonde's skin itched everywhere, and she couldn't believe she'd lasted this long without puking herself. "Are you all right?" she managed, trying to hold her breath.

Devlyn nodded, too mortified and weak to do much else. "Sorry."

"It's okay." Lauren stood up, consciously not looking down at her shirt. "Nurse!" she called to the woman, hoping she'd hear her. She expelled a huge breath when the matronly woman quickly burst through the door. "Please see to the President. I needI need to I'll be back after I shower. You'll be okay?" She pushed Dev's bangs back from her eyes.Please say yes. Please say yes.

Even behind Lauren's revulsion, Dev could see her genuine concern.You are something else, Lauren. I could fall in love with somebody like you."Yeah, I'm feeling much better now." She gave a weak grin. "Save time, use my shower. There are fresh clothes and robes in the closet. Take what you like. I owe you." Dev gestured behind Lauren. "Through that door."

Lauren could tell that Dev was in good hands as two more nurses entered the room and immediately got to work. They could handle getting Dev cleaned up. Which really wouldn't be that hard, considering she'd thrown up all over Lauren, not herself. Lauren needed to get to the bathroom fast.

She stood in the multi-jet shower in Dev's bathroom. If it weren't for the completely disgusting circumstances that had brought her here, she'd be impressed by this bathroom. But for now she was too busy scrubbing herself. She just wanted to get clean. Very clean.

Twenty minutes later she emerged, dressed in a set of Dev's sweats which had to be cuffed several times – towel drying her hair. The clothes were big, but they were comfortable and after the recent turn of events she decided comfortable was good.

Lauren rentered Devlyn's room without being stopped. She stood back and watched as the medical staff tucked Dev back into bed. They took away her toothbrush and a small basin, and propped her up against the headboard, putting several pillows at her back and head. Her bedding and pajamas had been changed, and she was looking much better. Even a hint of her normal color had returned to formerly pale cheeks.Thank goodness.

Lauren approached slowly.

A nurse fluffed the President's pillow one last time. "We've given her a shot for the nausea."

"Better late than never," Lauren mumbled playfully, knowing Dev could hear her. "And thanks for doing it while I was gone." She was serious about that last part.

Soon Dev and Lauren were alone again. "So, have you used the puking thing to get women out of their clothes before?" Lauren teased. Then she took a seat on the bed next to Dev. "Next time, just ask."

Dev blushed fiercely, but quickly recovered. "Don't tease me. I'm not a well woman."

"Oh, trust me, I know. But at least we can find comfort in the fact that Candy is probably barfing all over Casey at this very moment."

Both women smiled broadly at the thought.

"I know something that will make me feel even better than that." Dev's grin turned wicked. "Phone activate."

A soothing, female voice said, "Voice recognition system on. Activation code?"

"I am Devlyn Marlowe. Code: 18758OHIO6236ACA." Dev waited for the phone to verify her access code and recognize her voice.

Pale eyebrows lifted at Dev's far more sophisticated phone set up.She's leaving it on speaker phone?

"Call David McMillian."

Why do I think David is in trouble?

After six rings David picked up his phone.

"David?" Dev smirked when the only sound she heard was a deep groan. "How you feelin' this morning, pal?"

"I'm dying, Dev," he whined, hoarsely.

"Yeah, me too, you pain in the ass. We got food poisoning from the shrimp last night; the shrimp you insisted the cook get specially for Candy ‘the Slut' Delaney."

"Ohhh, God."

Dev could almost imagine David hiding under the covers of his bed. "The doctor says it'll pass in a few days, David. But you know what?"

He shook his head unhappily, then remembered there was no video link on this call. "What?"

"You'll be in your office bright and early Monday morning."

"Yes, Madam President, you bitch."

Lauren burst out laughing and grabbed a spare pillow, pressing it against her face to muffle the sound.Oh, God. Only David could get away with that.

Dev chuckled. "And what will I be doing on Monday, you ask?" Dev continued cruelly. "I'll be taking the day off and spending it in bed. Just me and my body pillow."And I might be lucky enough to continue enjoying the company of the beautiful, blonde biographer who is in my room right now. I wonder if I can make up enough stories about myself to fill up two days.Then Dev's brain kicked into gear.What am I thinking? I'm a politician for God's sake. No sweat.

David let off a few more choice words that nearly had Lauren in tears.

"See you Monday. Oh, and did I mention that you can take the Secret Service on their run? They get all twitchy without it."

Another loud groan.

Dev laughed wickedly. "Phone call ended. Code: 18758OHIO6236ACA." She turned to Lauren, who was shaking her head and smiling at Dev's antics. She shrugged only somewhat guilty. "Sometimes it's great to be President."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Madam President

Chapter V

May 2021

 

Monday, May 3 rd

 

Dev was whistling as she tucked a newspaper under her arm and gathered up two steaming coffee mugs. She strode out of her office with Liza trailing behind her. "I just need ten minutes alone, Liza."

"Can you live with five?"

"I'll settle for seven."

"Deal."

David met her in the hall. "Madam President?"

"Not now, David. I have a very important meeting."

Rust-colored brows furrowed. "With whom?" David's mind raced. Had he missed an appointment?

Dev flashed him a grin.

The tall man rolled his eyes. "Never mind. That silly smile says it all. How long will you be, Madam President? You have a meeting with the Secretary of Health and..."

"Yeah, I know. Liza has granted me a seven minute parole from my duties as President. Go talk to Jane. She's got the job until I get back."

David shook his head. "Have a good time."

"I intend to." She smirked. Boy, I hope Lauren's in a good mood. She sounded like it when I asked her to meet me.

Dev walked quickly to her destination, waving off the small tribe that was following her. She pushed the door to her destination open with her hip and drew in an appreciative breath. The earliest of the spring roses were blooming in the Rose Garden, and their sweet aroma wafted over Dev.

Lauren was sitting on a bench with her arms across the back and her face turned towards the warm spring sunlight. Though Dev could see only her profile, she could tell that Lauren's eyes were closed but she was awake. She looked contented and happy. A grin tugged at Dev's lips at the sight.

"Morning, Mighty Mouse." Dev couldn't resist teasing the writer with her Secret Service name. She got a different reaction every time she used it.

Lauren's body remained perfectly still as she continued to soak in the morning sun and Dev's good-natured taunt. "It's amazing. I hear the words, but I know no one is talking to me," she drawled calmly. "Because there is no one here by that ridiculous name."

Dev chuckled and took a seat next to Lauren, nudging her over on the bench. "Do you luuuvv me, Lauren?" she asked in a playful voice. When a single, questioning, gray eyeball slowly opened and rolled in her direction, the President offered the blonde woman a cup of steaming coffee, which just happened to be in Lauren's very own red mug. It was prepared with two sugars and cream, just the way she liked it.

Lauren smiled coyly as she took the warm mug. "Thanks. And I love anyone who brings me coffee the way I like it."

Dev grabbed the neatly folded paper from under her arm and made a show of looking at it. "Huh." She set her mug on the bench and scratched her chin. "Looks like they're right then. You are cheap and easy." She handed the paper to the writer. "And cheating on me." Dev pulled a nonexistent knife from her chest. "Why am I always the last to know?" she moaned piteously.

Lauren reached for the paper. Using her hand to block the sun, she scanned the spot where Dev was pointing, which was the social column. "White House live-in, Lauren Strayer, was caught rendezvousing with her new love at Been Gi's last month." Her eyes scanned the rest of the short article, stopping on the small, unflattering photograph of her getting into Casey's car. Lauren wrinkled her nose. "God, I have no taste whatsoever. I'm cheating on you with a morgue attendant named 'Lacey'."

"It would appear so. Yes." Dev braced herself for the pending explosion. But it never came.

"Oh, well," Lauren casually tossed the paper aside and took a sip of coffee, hiding her smile behind the rim of the cup, "if you'd keep your woman satisfied, I wouldn't be forced to look elsewhere for romance."

"Ouch!" Dev clutched her heart. "And just so cold about it, too. Gee, I have all the popularity of the plague. I can't catch a damned break. My live-in lover andmy date threw me over for this Casey/Lacey woman. Who knew the morgue had such appeal?" Dev shook her head, sending her dark hair spilling over one shoulder. "Maybe I should try the other team. I'm batting zero with my own."

Lauren burst out laughing. She bumped shoulders with the older woman. "Don't tell me something in the press finally got to you? They've been writing about us for months. And the other team has its faults, too. Trust me."

"I just didn't want you to see this and explode," Dev explained sincerely. "It's just another attempt to get a reaction out of us." She leaned back and tried to act nonchalant about putting her arm over the back of the bench and dropping it down to rest lightly on Lauren's shoulders. I am sooooo pathetic.

Lauren jerked away at the feeling of Dev's arm on her shoulder. "What is it? A bug?" She began slapping where Dev's arm had been, her eyes searching her pale green blouse.

Dev threw her head back and laughed. "Might as well have been, the way my luck is running lately." She sighed and this time, decisively wrapped her arm around Lauren's shoulders, pulling the younger woman closer to her. "No, it wasn't a bug." She grinned devilishly and added a belated, "Mighty Mouse." I should just gather up my courage and ask her out. What's the worst she can say – no? That wouldn't be a big surprise either. I've got nothing to lose."Uh... Lauren?"

Lauren blushed when she realized what Dev had tried to do and what her response had been. Sorry, Devlyn. And I'm glad it wasn't a bug. She happily snuggled closer. Is she going to? Oh, my God.Lauren crossed her fingers and toes. "Yes, Devlyn?" Ask me before I die!

"I was wondering... I mean... umm..." I am six feet of pure, unadulterated chicken shit. Good thing I don't run the government the way I run my love life. If I hada love life, that is.

Dev cleared her throat and lifted her chin. It was now or never. "Okay. What I wanted to know was-"

Liza opened the door to the rose garden looking slightly harried. She winced, clearly seeing she was interrupting something. "I'm sorry, Madam President..."

Lauren nearly groaned with disappointment, letting off a string of curse words in her mind.

Dev's mouth clicked shut, and her head dropped forward. That was not seven minutes!

"There is an emergency phone call for Ms. Strayer."

 

Friday, May 7 th

 

The loudspeaker crackled, and the school auditorium was alight with excitement, when the school principal nervously announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, students, staff and faculty of Jefferson High School, the President of the United States!"

The high school band fired up 'Hail to the Chief', and Dev grinned at Liza as she stuck her notes in her jacket pocket. She tilted her head toward the drums. "Hey, they're not bad."

"No, Madam President. And they were very honored that you picked them to play for you."

Dev buttoned her jacket. "Well, for some of these kids it's a big deal." She shrugged. "Guess I'd better get out there, huh?"

This was another of Dev's many Community Visits. Her goal was to do at least one a month. They were already wildly popular, and requests from communities across the nation had come pouring in. Thus far, however, none of the visits had taken her too far from Washington. But she had plans to change that once she'd made a complete transition into office and things settled down.

These visits were held in high schools or community centers and were open to the public, but, at Dev's request, not televised. She wanted the most intimate setting and feeling possible, and she believed this was her chance to give something back and stay connected to the people.

"Bzzzz...." Liza sounded off like a cattle prod in action, just as Jane had taught her.

Dev laughed. "I'm ready. I'm ready. There's nothing after this, is there, Liza? I want to try and get home early tonight."

"No, Madam President." Pushing a few buttons, the tall assistant checked her electronic organizer and nodded. "This is it."

Dev leaned over to her assistant. "Don't suppose you've heard from Ms. Strayer."

"I'm sorry, Madam President. I haven't. I could call and have someone...?"

Dev's eyes strayed to her Secret Service agent, who was about to give her the cue to walk onto the stage. "No. That's okay. She'll call if she needs something." Like me, for instance.Dev inwardly cursed the cabinet meeting that morning that had kept her from flying out to Tennessee to check on Lauren herself.

Receiving a short nod from the dark-suited agent, the President strolled onto the stage of the high school auditorium. She smiled and waved to the crowd as a thousand cameras clicked furiously, their flickering flashes illuminating the room. Dev had learned to give everyone a moment or two before she tried to speak. This time she walked back and forth across the stage, waving and making eye contact with as many people as she could.

The last time she had done one of these Community Visits, she'd gone down into the audience, causing the Secret Service, and David, to go nuts. But after her Chief of Staff had lectured her incessantly, she did promise to be good.

Once the audience settled down, she took a seat in a high back, bar-like chair. She smiled at the crowd and said, "Hi."

The auditorium exploded into applause.

*                      *                      *

Lauren shifted in her chair as she watched her mother sleep. Dark circles ringed the older woman's eyes, and her fair hair looked thin and lifeless. They were in Nashville's St. Andrews hospital, in the same wing where Lauren had visited her mother on several other occasions. The very hallways stirred up dark memories she'd rather forget, and, at this moment, the writer was wishing herself anyplace but here.

Earlier in the week, Howard Strayer had called and calmly explained to his daughter that Anna's depression had taken a turn for the worse... that her mother had steadily been going down hill since Christmas, really. And that she had tried to take her own life.

Lauren's mother had gone grocery shopping and fed the cat before stripping naked and climbing into the cold, empty bathtub. Howard wasn't sure why, but for whatever reason, she didn't bother to fill it with any water. Using his razor sharp, fish scaling knife, she had slit both her wrists to the bone and closed her eyes, patiently waiting to die.

Anna had burst into uncontrollable, gut-wrenching sobs when Howard had come home in search of an aspirin and found her still alive, bleeding profusely.

Lauren stared bleakly at her mother's ghostly white figure. The sight of her, combined with the antiseptic smell of the hospital, and the stomach churning tension of the last day, made her shiver. But Lauren couldn't honestly say she was surprised by the suicide attempt. The older woman had fought nearly debilitating bouts of depression all of her adult life. This was the third suicide attempt that Lauren could remember, the other two haunting her otherwise unremarkable childhood like annoying, out of place specters.

When Lauren was eight she'd walked in on her mother trying to cut her wrists. The woman was weeping and fumbling helplessly with a safety razor, whose blades she'd somehow popped free of their plastic casing. Lauren had tried to calm her, but in the end was forced to wait until her mother actually passed out before she could get near enough to her to help.

On her second attempt Anna Strayer tried sleeping pills, but ended up vomiting before they could do much damage. The result was a killer headache and six months of institutionalization, at the end of which, she was functional. She was sent home with an armload of anti-depressant drugs and, ironically, a prescription for sleeping pills... in the event that her insomnia should make a reappearance.

But those days seemed far away, even as the pain from this most recent attempt came in fresh waves. Howard had gone to the cafeteria for a much needed cup of coffee, leaving Lauren alone in the room with her mother.

Spring sunshine poured in through the sparkling clean windows, warming the room that was painted in soothing tones of green. The writer's eyelids felt heavy, but she knew she was too wired to sleep. Instead, she sat quietly, watching over the person who was supposed to watch over her.

Lauren felt chiefly sad. But there was also anger and a crushing guilt, because a big part of her wondered if her mother wouldn't be better off finding the peace in oblivion she so obviously craved. Was it selfish to force her to continue when she so clearly didn't want to? This was no cry for help. Howard was supposed to be gone for the morning, and, unlike Anna's other attempts, this couldn't be painted as half-hearted. She had wanted to die. It was as simple and as complicated as that. Who were the doctors, or Lauren herself, or her father, to tell her that she couldn't?

Anna stirred, slowly turning her head toward Lauren and opening her eyes for the first time since the day before. "Hi, honey," she said softly, when her gaze landed on her daughter. Anna's expression was the very picture of despair, and Lauren watched in agony as her mother's face contorted with pain as she took in her surroundings, realizing what had happened, and what the likely outcome would be.

"Hi, Mama," Lauren croaked weakly. Her chin quivered slightly, but she took a calming breath and slowly made her way to her mother's bedside. What could she say? 'I'm glad you're alive, even though I know that you're not. Daddy and the doctors saved you, only so you can spend God knows how long back in the institution or spaced out on drugs'?

Anna tried to lift her arms. She looked with wide, dazed eyes at the strong bindings that strapped her to the bed. "I can't do anything right, can I?" she whispered brokenly, then turned away from Lauren, wallowing in just one more failure.

A soft knock on the door caused Lauren's bowed head to swing around.

Anna Strayer tried to sit up, confusion written all over her face. A low keening sound suddenly erupted from her throat. Why wouldn't everyone leave her alone?!

"Shh... rest now, Mama," Lauren said quietly, doing her best to block out the almost inhuman noise that was hurting her ears and shredding her heart. She tenderly straightened her mother's covers, intentionally keeping her eyes away from the wide leather straps that tightly held her arms and legs to the bed, and the stark white bandages that wrapped her wrists. "I'll go see who it is."

Lauren bent and placed an awkward kiss on her mother's cheek, then headed for the door, which was already being pushed open by a heavy-set black nurse. "Yes?" Lauren asked, wondering why she'd bothered to knock.

"Ms. Strayer?" The woman's voice was deep, her thick accent drawing out each word and adding syllables where there were none.

"Yes."

"You have a phone call, ma'am. It's from the White House," the nurse said, awe reflected in her warm chocolate eyes. "The doctor said you could take it in the conference room, even though it's for staff only. You need to come now. It's urgent, ma'am."

Lauren nodded slowly, another kernel of worry blossoming in her belly. What now?"One second." She turned back to her mother. "I need to take this call for work, Mama. I'll be right back."

For a moment she thought her mother hadn't heard her. But then Lauren noticed that the gray eyes, whose color so closely matched her own, were vacant and unseeing, staring off into space. She was awake but somewhere else. Lauren had tried to understand... tried to figure out where her mother went when she just disappeared inside herself. Tried to reach her and begged her to come home...

It wasn't until she was a teenager that Lauren fully grasped that that far away place would forever be Anna Strayer's alone. Despite her best efforts, in her heart she fully believed that there was no bringing her mother back, no helping her find her way home. Ever.

With a soundless sigh, Lauren stepped out into the hall with the nurse. "Let's go."

At the end of the hallway was a small room with a round table and six chairs, a coffee maker, and a phone with video link. That was all.

"You can take the call in here, ma'am. When I get back to the nurse's station I'll tell the operator to transfer it."

"Do you-"

"I'm sorry," she nurse said sincerely. "I don't know anything more." She shut the door quietly, and Lauren wrung her hands for the thirty seconds it took for the video link to fire into life.

An image of Jane, from the shoulders up, appeared above the phone and across the small table from Lauren. The older woman's eyes were teary, and lines of worry cut deeply into her forehead. "Lauren?"

Lauren paled at the expression on Jane's face. She licked her lips. "Yes?"

"I'm sorry to have to be..." Jane paused for a moment to collect herself, and Lauren felt her anxiety ratchet higher. Whatever it was, it was bad. Very bad. "It's Dev... there's been an accident. Umm... no, that's not right," Jane corrected herself quickly. "She's been shot, Lauren."

Lauren blinked, staring stupidly at Jane's image, the secretary's words not quite penetrating her brain. "Wh... what?"

"Devlyn's been shot, Lauren." This time Jane's voice was firm. "About twenty minutes ago. David asked me to call you."

Lauren swallowed around an enormous lump in her throat. Devlyn's been shot? Someone shot her? Jesus.She felt sick. "Is she... is she?" The blonde woman choked out the words.

Jane shook her head. "Not at last report, dear. But we don't know how bad it is yet."

Lauren's eyes fluttered closed. "Oh, thank God," she muttered softly, her stomach still roiling. "Thank God." She let out a shuddering breath and scrubbed her face with slightly shaking hands. "What happened?"

"She had a speech at a local high school today. When she was leaving the stage someone opened fire. We're still putting all the information together." Tears leaked from Jane's eyes and trickled down her round cheeks. "David wanted me to call you. He didn't want you to think... well, he wanted to make sure you didn't just hear it on the news."

"So... so, the kids were at home. They didn't see. They're okay, right?" Lauren asked in a rush, her mind desperately trying to process what she was being told. I need to get back there. I need...

"The children are safe with Emma and Amy. They haven't been told yet. We didn't want to tell them until we had some real news." Jane hesitated, knowing she was putting Lauren in a terrible spot just by mentioning it. But she needed to. "Should I tell David you'll be coming back? Or..."

"No! I'll be there just as soon as I can." There wasn't a second's hesitation. She could tell her father on the way out of the hospital. "Where is she?"

"David will send someone to meet you at the airport. They'll take you to her then. Her location is classified. They'll be doing a press announcement in about five minutes."

"Classified? Shit! Fine. I guess I'll come into Dulles. I'm not sure when." Lauren rubbed her temples. "And I'm not sure what airline. Maybe I can book a private plane or..." She was starting to panic.

"Lauren, calm down, dear. I'll make all the calls. Just go to the airport. We'll get you to her no matter what. I'll call you on your cell phone and let you know where to go."

Lauren nodded furiously. "Okay, okay. I'm leaving right now." She jumped to her feet, swaying a little as her knees threatened to give way. Lauren was on her way out of the room before she realized she hadn't said goodbye. She turned back to Jane. "You tell Devlyn... well... just... you tell her not to do something stupid like die, okay? I'll be there as soon as I can, Jane." Without waiting for a reply, Lauren ran out of the room, leaving Jane to hear the fading sound of her pounding footsteps as they echoed down the hospital hall.

*                      *                      *

David stood at the front of the limousine, pushing his hands in and out of his pants pockets over and over again as the private jet he'd arranged to pick up Lauren taxied to a stop. She'd made it from the hospital in Nashville back to Washington D.C. in just a little more than three hours. The jet door burst open and Lauren jumped out, toting a small carry-on bag. She broke into a dead run for the thirty or so yards it took to reach the Chief of Staff.

She was panting by the time she reached David and skidded to a stop. Please don't let me be too late. No, David wouldn't be here if she were..."David! Is..."

He waved her off, indicating the press hounds that were waiting nearby, their cameras snapping away and tape recorders waiting to pick up any part of the conversation. The world had simply imploded since the announcement had been made. The Press was everywhere, dogging every move every White House staffer made. Looking for hidden meanings behind every activity or decision.

David pulled open the limo door and hustled Lauren inside the car. The door had barely slammed shut when the car jerked forward, a police escort clearing their path.

He took a seat across from her. The first words out of David's mouth once they were alone were, "She's alive."

Lauren let out a shuddering breath and said another prayer. But before she could even savor a moment of relief, a wave of anger assailed her, overwhelming her and guiding her action. She leaned forward and poked David in the chest with a furious finger. "Where was all her security, David?!" The volume of her voice increased with every word. "They were supposed to protect her!"

Guilt clouded his eyes. "Lauren, she was shot leaving the stage. They reacted quickly, exactly the way they're trained to. They got her out of there and to the hospital. They caught the assassin." His jaw clenched. "You know as well as I do, if someone is determined enough, nothing will stop him!"

Lauren lowered her hand, but her posture remained challenging. "Those sound like nothing but excuses to me. If they were doing their job, they would have gotten the assassin beforeshe was shot!" She slumped back in her seat with her arms crossed. Lauren knew she was being unreasonable. That she was lashing out at someone who didn't deserve it. But she was furious, and she felt like she was losing the tenuous control she had of her emotions. It was too much at the same time. Her mother. Dev.

David took a chance and moved next to Lauren who remained deathly still. He could see she was trembling slightly, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her against his shoulder. "Have you cried yet?"

Lauren violently tried to shove him away, unable to stand the closeness, not wanting to let go of the fraying emotional thread she was clinging to. But David didn't move. He was as solid as a rock. Lauren's pushing soon gave way to weak pawing, punctuated by ragged, pained breaths as the writer fought more with herself than David. "I... don't... need... to... " She tried to grind out the words between clenched teeth, but her speech was interrupted by her quivering chin and by broken sniffles she foggily realized were her own. She felt long arms tighten around her, and she sank into their warmth and comfort. Another sniffle and the dam simply broke. Lauren buried her face in David's chest and began to cry in earnest. For everything.

"That's it. Get it all out. It's okay," he soothed softly, knowing damn well that he'd be doing the same thing in his wife's arms tonight. "Get it out before we get to the hospital."

They traveled several miles before the hot tears began to slow, and Lauren began to hiccup.

David blew out a deep breath. "I'm gonna tell you something she'll kill me for later, but you need to know. In the ambulance, it was you she was calling for."

"Real... really?" Lauren sniffed, wiping her eyes with the clean, white handkerchief David pressed into her hand.

He nodded, backing off a little to give Lauren some breathing room so that she could compose herself. "Really. She wanted you. She only relaxed after we all assured her you were on your way back."

Lauren wiped her face one more time and expelled a shaky sigh. God, I needed that."Thank you, David." Her eyes conveyed her true regret, and she reached out and squeezed his forearm gently. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have said those things, especially to you."

He laughed. "What do you think the first thing I said was? Only I wasn't very nice about it." He rolled his neck and shoulders, popping the joints. "It's been a long day. Okay, do you want me to fill you in before we get there, or do you need more time to just let it all soak in?"

Lauren shook her head. "No. Tell me now so I don't fall apart at the hospital." She turned a watery smile on David. "Instead, I'll just fall apart... again... here with you if I need to."

He gave her a reassuring smile. "That's what I'm here for. I've got broad shoulders." David placed his hand over the one Lauren had resting on his arm. "There were four shots, and Devlyn was hit three times. Once in the hip, once in the shoulder, and one grazed her head." He stopped when he saw the color drain from Lauren's face. Poor kid. It's been a helluva couple of days for her.

Lauren's eyes widened, and she swallowed against a wave of nausea. "Three times? My God," she breathed. Lauren shivered and wrapped her arms around herself in mute comfort. She pinned David with shiny, determined eyes. "Is she going to be okay?"

David nodded. "With rest and lots of help from her friends, yeah, she's gonna be fine. She got out of a couple of minor surgeries to repair the damage about an hour ago. They went very well. Dev is a strong woman." He wrapped his arms around Lauren, and she didn't resist his reassuring touch. "When you see the video it'll seem worse than it really is; scalp wounds like to bleed a lot. The shoulder wound was clean and the bullet traveled clear through. The bullet had to be removed from her hip. She's going to need a lot of TLC and therapy to get back on her feet. And if her bout with food poisoning was anything to go by, boy, is she gonna be grumpy. She's not accustomed to being inactive, and I would imagine we are going to have our hands full."

Lauren wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. "As long as she's okay. She can be as grumpy as she wants."

David's laughter rang out for the first time all day. "You and I are talking about the same Devlyn Marlowe, aren't we? You know how she gets. You think you're ready for that?"

Lauren laughed along with the Chief of Staff. "Umm... well, it sounded good at the time. But you're right, this is Devlyn we're talking about. So nobodyis ready for that."

David lowered his head to give her a very serious look. "She cares for you, Lauren." There was more to it and he knew it. So a second later he added, "A lot. She's going to need you now. Need your friendship." He searched to gauge her a reaction.

Gray eyes brimmed with tears again. She straightened David's wrinkled suit coat and smiled warmly at the man she had coming to regard as a friend. "Don't you worry, David. She's got that." And a lot more.

*                      *                      *

Dev's nose began to twitch as a familiar fragrance washed over her senses. It was so faint that it was barely detectable, but it was an aroma easily recognizable even in her drug-induced stupor. Lauren's perfume.Dev forced open impossibly heavy eyelids, blinking with exaggerated slowness. "Is... she...?" Her voice was scratchy, and her tongue felt thick and unresponsive. She licked dry lips to moisten them. "Is Lauren home yet?" She tried to look around the quiet room, but her mind was in a murky haze brought on by painkillers and the lingering effects of anesthesia.

Dev felt the bed move slightly and the heat of another human being press up against her. Her cool, limp hand was lifted and cradled by two, smaller, warmer ones. "Hiya, Wonder Woman," a soft, southern voice burred. "I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?"

Devlyn tried to wrestle the silly grin off her face as she blearily focused on Lauren. "Hey, Mighty Mouse. Know what?"

Lauren ran her fingertips down Dev's cheek. She's okay. She's here."What, Devlyn?"

"Morphine is my friend. And I luvvv your accent. Did you know that it slips out more when you're not thinking? It's so sweet." She giggled, for some reason finding that incredibly humorous. "There's just so much about you..." Her rambling paused when her eyes began slipping closed.

Tears filled Lauren's eyes again, even as she blushed. "Thanks," she chuckled weakly. Her fingertips gently moved up to trace the bandage circling Devlyn's head. How that must have felt.The dilated eyes that tried so valiantly to maintain contact with hers were confused, but hopeful. They held none of the soul weary despair of her mother's, and Lauren was able to draw a sharp contrast between the two hospital room scenes, having been in this same position only hours before.

The President's eyes opened, rolling up slightly to track Lauren's hand. "Don't worry, sweetheart, it's too tough to do any real damage." She licked her lips again and tried to knock on her own head, to demonstrate its hardness, but her hand fell limply to the bed after valiantly lifting a few inches. Which was okay, Dev decided, because she had already forgotten why she was raising it. She let out another small laugh and then began to mumble just loud enough for every one to hear. "Have I mentioned lately how beautiful I think you are?" A dreamy expression crossed her face.

Lauren's eyes flickered around the room, lighting on indulgent, smiling faces. Her blush deepened. "Oh, God," she muttered, raising her hands to her cheeks to feel their flaming heat. "Devlyn, um... you know we're not alone right now, right?" she asked in a low voice. But even in the midst of her embarrassment, a smile formed unbidden on Lauren's lips. Sweetheart? She thinks I'mbeautiful?She nearly swooned.

Dev still couldn't focus her eyes clearly, but she could hear the smile in Lauren's voice. "Yeah, so? I'm never alone. That's part of my problem." She took a deep breath. "Do you have any idea how nervous you make me? I babble like an idiot when I'm around you."

"No, you don't," Lauren lied. Her tone was mildly scolding, but there was a playful edge there as well. "You're perfectly charming, and you know it."

David, Jane and several Secret Service agents politely turned away from the women's conversation, feeling very much like they were intruding on a private moment.

"How are you feeling, Devlyn?" Pale brows drew together at the sight of Dev's multiple IVs, and the machines monitoring her heart rate, blood gases, breathing, and a host of other things Lauren didn't pretend to understand. She had mentally prepared herself the best that she could. But it was still so hard, seeing someone she cared about hurt.

When the President didn't answer she continued, "You scared the crap out of me again, ya know?" Lauren cocked her head to the side and smiled at her friend's vain attempts to keep her eyes pried open. This was second time she'd seen Dev flanked by hospital equipment. "That's becoming a habit I don't much care for. We need to work on that."

"Didn't mean to..." Dev wanted to apologize for scaring Lauren. She didn't want to do anything that would upset the young woman, but words began to go fuzzy in her mind. She grumbled like a petulant child trying to fight the irresistible call of sleep. Her mind began to drift helplessly, but she felt better with the warm body perched on her bed.

Lauren patted Dev's chest comfortingly, careful to avoid her heavily bandaged shoulder. She leaned close to Dev's ear and placed a gentle kiss on her cheek before crooning softly, "Sweet dreams, darlin'. I'll be here when you wake up."

 

Monday, May 10 th

 

The agent outside Dev's hospital room door gave Lauren a small, slightly irritated smile as he went in search of some caffeine. His replacement was already standing in place, alongside the President's door. When Lauren entered Dev's room, she was greeted by the sound of frustrated voices.

"I don't want to wait!" Dev rasped.

Lauren could hear the taller woman fighting to catch her breath, even before she could see her. "I want to see it now, David!"

"Madam President..."

"Cut the Madam President bullshit, David. Order in the video link before I have to call someone else in here to do it!"

"But..." David tried again.

Lauren stepped around the Chief of Staff to see Dev struggling with her IV tubing and a host of wires as she futilely tried to get more upright.

"Jesus, Devlyn." Lauren rushed to her side. "Are you crazy? You're going to tear your stitches!"

Dev seemed to calm almost as soon as soon as she saw Lauren. "Help me, then."

Lauren immediately reached out to take Dev's hand. "I don't understand. What's the matter?" She set to untangling Dev's IV tubing, cursing mildly at the mess the President had made. Why didn't she call a nurse if she wanted to sit up? Or ask David? Lauren fished around for the bed controls, which ended up being on a detachable panel on the side of Dev's railing.

"I want to see the video of the shooting." Devlyn was breathing hard and shooting daggers at David. "But some people don't think I'm ready."

Lauren pressed a button and slowly raised the back of the bed until Dev nodded. "'Some people' are probably right, Devlyn. The tape isn't going anywhere. It's been less than two days."

Dev turned her stare on Lauren, whose cheeks were tinged pink from the cool, spring air and whose hair smelled like flowers. "Oh, don't you go rebel on me too! I am still in charge around here!"

Lauren flashed a look at Dev that was part irritation and part trepidation. "You're going to insist on doing this, aren't you?"

"I shouldn't have to insist, I should only have to ask." She glared at David again, who threw his hands into the air disgustedly.

"Then I'm staying too," Lauren insisted, her tone making it clear she that she wouldn't be dissuaded. Every single cell in her body told her that she did not want to see the tape of Dev being shot. But if Dev ever needed a friend to stand by her... this was the moment. And Lauren swore to herself she wouldn't fail her. But please don't let it be too horrible.She took a deep breath. How could it not be horrible? Somebody shot her three times!

"Fine! I give up." David picked up the phone and made the call.

Dev glanced at Lauren, giving her hand a little tug, and bringing her down to sit on the edge of the bed. "I don't want you to see this." I don't ever want to see you sad.

A tiny crease appeared on Dev's forehead, and the writer had the strongest urge to smooth it away. Lauren's determined gaze softened as she looked into Dev's eyes. "And I feel exactly the same way about your seeing it."

"Yeah, but I need to see it. If for nothing else, so I'll know what not to do next time." Devlyn chuckled humorouslessly, wincing as a burning bolt of pain shot through her shoulder and hip. "I guess not getting hit would be a step in the right direction."

David's gaze dropped to his shoes. Though intellectually he knew he had done everything he could to keep this from happening, he still felt like he'd let down Dev and her kids. He sighed... and Lauren and the entire damned nation.

Lauren squeezed Dev's hand. "You know I'll have to see it eventually. Let's get it over with together." She needs you to be strong. Don't get sick or start crying like some pathetic baby again.

In only a few moments everything was ready, and Dev had ordered the room cleared of everyone but Lauren. She leaned a little closer to the writer. "You ready?" The younger woman's nod seemed hesitant, and Dev briefly considered simply calling the whole thing off, and waiting to view the tape after Lauren had gone home for the day. But Lauren was right. She would have to see it eventually for the book anyway. And at least now they'd be together. "Um... Lauren, this is a combination of several tapes that were running at the same time and have been put together for the best angles. These weren't made for television. The Secret Service films all my public appearances for security reasons. But what happened, the shooting part, is unedited. You know that, right?"

Lauren kept her voice even and her eyes focused straight ahead, though her voice was slightly strained. "I know."

Dev gave a short nod. "Start video."

Lauren found herself taking in a deep breath and holding it when the image came to life in front of them. She smiled at Dev, standing on stage in her dark slacks, tan shirt and camelhair jacket—which was a few shades darker than the shirt. The applause in the auditorium died down, and Dev perched on a chair to address the students.

"Who called you and told you what had happened?" the dark-haired woman asked quietly, her mouth near Lauren's ear, but her eyes on the unfolding scene.

Lauren licked her lips, remembering Jane's pale face and shaky voice. "Umm... Jane," she replied softly. "Jane called me."

The President nodded. "She was a good choice for the job. Jane always holds together, no matter what." Dev briefly remembered getting word about Samantha's accident. It was Jane who had broken the news.

Lauren nodded, her attention split between Dev's real life voice, burring quietly in her ear, and the image of Devlyn at the foot of the bed. "She was great."

Dev's grip on Lauren's hand tightened as the video continued to play. With a start she realized she could be hurting the smaller woman, though Lauren hadn't mentioned it. She loosened her grip and patted the slender hand before regretfully resting her palm on her thigh. Dev immediately felt the loss and balled her hand into a fist.

Lauren had been so busy over the past couple of days she hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about the exact circumstances of the shooting. She'd spent countless hours at the hospital. And, at Dev's request, made sure the children knew what had happened, but weren't scared out of their wits. Though she wasn't convinced she had been completely successful on that front. The kids had already lost one mother. The looks on their little faces when Lauren told them Devlyn was in the hospital nearly broke her heart. Thank God for Emma, who immediately stepped in to help when Lauren began to flounder.

Lauren watched the video with intent eyes, scanning the shots of the crowd for the crazy boy who had tried to kill Dev. But no one looked out of place. Everyone seemed happy and excited that the President had made time for them in her busy schedule.

"Where is he?" Lauren whispered to herself, frustrated that she couldn't spot him right away. A killer should be immediately recognizable, shouldn't he? He should... well... look guilty, sinister, something.Lauren knew it was a ridiculously naive thought. But she couldn't help but think it easier. It would make things so much easier. "I always foreshadow in my books," she mumbled.

Dev turned away from the playback. "What? Pause video," she ordered in a louder voice. "What did you say?"

Lauren frowned. "I don't see him anywhere. The camera is panning the audience, but I can't spot him."

"Well, if he'd been that easy to spot I'm sure the Secret Service would have picked him up before he got off four shots. I don't know for sure which one he was either. But the shots came from the center of the audience just as the crowd began to applaud when I was about to get off stage." Dev waved a hand in the direction of her frozen image. "Let's skip all the boring stuff about how my DNA Registration legislation could help capture criminals on the loose." She chuckled, "Funny that in this case it wouldn't have mattered either way. The shooter had never even had as much as a speeding ticket."

Lauren smiled weakly, not quite able to enjoy the irony that Dev seemed to. She could feel her stomach turning into a solid knot of tension and her palms growing sweaty. Her heart rate picked up in anticipation of what was to come, and she unconsciously leaned closer to Devlyn, reassuring herself that she was here. That she was alive.

"Video playback advance." Dev's eyes scanned the events as they flew by at five times their normal speed. She moved her hand slowly, letting it come to rest on Lauren's arm, stroking gently. "Halt. Regular play."

They watched together as Dev made a few parting comments and cracked a joke that had the students laughing and clapping. Then she gave a short wave and turned to leave. The band hadn't even cued up again before a well-dressed teenager, who had only seconds before been smiling and applauding like everyone else in the audience, stood and yanked a gun from the back waist band of his pants. He held it straight out and screamed, "Die, bitch!" as he pulled the trigger four times, with a brief pause between the third and fourth shots.

Dev flinched when the shots rang out. She watched with an odd sense of detachment as her body recoiled and blood began pouring from her shoulder, hip and face. The last shot, the one that hit her head, dropped her instantly.

Lauren's entire body jerked with the loud crack of the pistol. Her stomach lurched, and her heart jumped to her throat, the raw pain of the moment shocking her for several dazed seconds. She had known it was coming. But that still hadn't prepared her for witnessing Dev's body recoiling violently, then crumpling to the ground from the vicious impact of the shots. "God, Devlyn." Lauren whispered. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut just as a warm arm wrapped around her shoulder and pulled her close.

Suddenly, the camera angle changed, and the image of Dev on the stage was magnified to a close up. The sound quality was slightly worse because the background noise had risen to a dull roar, but it was still focused, allowing the viewer to hear every raspy, ragged breath Dev took.

"God..." Dev groaned, reaching up and smearing away the blood that was dripping into her eyes.

Three agents immediately descended upon her, using their bodies to shield her as several more Secret Service members tackled the boy in the audience and disarmed him. The camera angle shifted again, this time to an overhead shot. Michael Oaks was the first member of the President's staff to reach her side.

"They got the shooter. The Chief of Staff and Vice President Vincent are being notified, Madam President," Michael explained worriedly as an agent pressed his suit coat jacket into Dev's shoulder to stop the bleeding. Dev gasped.

Lauren sucked in a quick breath in response to seeing Dev's pain.

"The kids...?" Dev winced as two men rolled her onto a backboard.

Michael looked out into the audience, which was being herded out of the auditorium like spooked cattle. "They're fine, Madam President. No one else in the auditorium was hit."

"My children?" Dev's eyes closed as she struggled to move her left arm, but found it impossible.

"They're fine too. The nest has been notified, and all security precautions are being taken."

Devlyn opened her eyes and focused on one of the agents who was pressing a thick pile of bandages against her hip. "Bad?"

"No, Madam President." He leaned over and whispered to her, "This is nothing for Wonder Woman."

Dev blinked, and they were moving. Her confusion was evident, and she looked as though she was going into shock. "Mighty Mouse..."

Lauren burst into tears at the sound of her Secret Service name.

"It's okay," Dev whispered. "It all turned out all right." The President's men had done everything right. They had covered her and gotten her out of there more quickly than she remembered. Although, to be honest, she couldn't remember much, beyond a searing pain in her hip and shoulder and the smell of her own blood.

Then the video simply stopped after Dev's gurney was wheeled away, freezing on a shot of the bloodstained stage. Dev's gaze dropped to her lap, and she concentrated on that day. "That boy. I remember him. He, he kept smiling at me..."

"You remember him?" Lauren turned in her friend's loose embrace so that she could see Dev's face. The President had watched with little more than a flinch, though Lauren didn't miss that her face was slightly paler than when the tape began. "Out of that entire crowd?"

"Yeah. He was right there. Smiling at me. Listening to me. Watching me." Dev shook her head. "Hell, I thought he was interested in what I had to say."

Lauren's anger mounted as she imagined the teenager biding his time, waiting to murder Dev, smiling as she tried to connect with him, just knowing that he was going to kill her. Little bastard!She turned away from Dev and was struck again by the image of the bloodstained stage. "Jesus..." She pointed at the image. "Can you...?"

"I'm sorry. Image off." Dev looked to Lauren, who looked like she was going to throw up. "Are you all right?"

Tears filled the blonde's eyes again. "I... I..."

"Hey," Dev said softly as she reached out and cupped Lauren's cheek in her palm. "I'm okay. I might leak when I drink now, but I'm okay," she joked.

This time Lauren did laugh through her tears. "Okay," she sniffed. "You're right. I'm sorry for being a baby."

"Don't be sorry." God, Dev. You haven't even asked about her mother. What kind of a lousy friend are you?"How's your mom?" She felt Lauren stiffen. "Do you need to go back to Tennessee to be with her?" Her heart went out to the younger woman.

Lauren pulled away a little, suddenly uncomfortable. "What, um... what exactly do you know about my mom?" She eyed Dev warily.

"I know what happened, Lauren. And I understand if you don't want to talk with me about it. I mean, I'm not family." She's been here for me these last few days when her heart is probably back in Tennessee."If you want to talk, I'm here, okay?"

Lauren nodded, but continued to pull away. She wasn't ready for this discussion. Especially not now. Not after everything that had just happened with Dev. Lauren felt like she was on an emotional roller coaster, and, while a big part of her wanted to talk about it with someone, she just wasn't ready.

The blonde woman's father hadn't understood her leaving Anna to come back to Washington D.C. She'd tried to explain that Devlyn wasn't just part of her job, that she was a good friend, but that hadn't worked either. They'd had a horrible argument in the hospital, and, despite the fact that she wasn't close to either of her parents, her father's parting words had hurt her more than she'd thought possible.

The writer grabbed a tissue from the stand next to Dev's hospital bed. "I don't need to go back." She wiped her eyes. "There's nothing I can do back home." Dev remained silent, but Lauren could tell she wanted to know more, and her chest constricted at the prospect. The room began to close in on her. Air. That's what she needed. Clean air, without the scent of disinfectant. She needed to be outof the hospital.

Lauren nearly jumped from the bed, startling Dev in the process. "I... um... I'm going to tell David we're finished here." And without looking back she bolted across the room and flew out the door.

"Lauren! Wait!" Dev cursed inwardly when the shorter woman disappeared out the door. She wanted to follow her and try to apologize for upsetting her. She wanted to hold her and tell her everything would be all right.

Dev groaned as she pushed herself forward, and a jolt of pain shot through her hip. She dislodged her heart monitor in the process, and the room was suddenly pierced with a shrill beeping noise as an alarm sounded.

Several doctors burst through the door with David right along side them. His eyes shut in pure relief when he saw that Dev was all right. "Oh, no you don't!"

"David," Dev grunted as she swung one leg off the bed. Another blast of pain made her feel lightheaded.

Jane joined David at Dev's bedside and after several moments she and David were finally wave off the panicky medical staff. "You can't get up, Dev!"

"Lauren"

"Lauren is a big girl." David eased the President onto her back and carefully repositioned the leg she still had hanging off the bed. "She'll be back, Dev."

Dev had asked David to keep tabs on Lauren's mother. Apparently, everyone in the hospital had been talking about the very public argument between Lauren and her father. The old man had yelled at Lauren as she'd left the hospital. Screaming for everyone to hear that if some woman she'd barely known for a few months was more important than her own damned mother, that she didn't need to bother coming back home... ever.

David let out an unhappy breath. "Dev, she's been through more than you know. Give her some space."

Dev settled back into her bed with an angry sigh. "She's going to be okay, because I'm going to make sure of it." She looked up at her Chief of Staff, determination glinting harshly in pale blue eyes. "Sit down, David. I think you've got something to tell me."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Madam President

Chapter VI

June 2021
 
 

Tuesday, June 1 st

Dev sat with her head hanging between her knees. She was panting slightly as her physical therapist stood back and made notes on the President's chart. The therapist was young and fit and a rising star in his field, having earned the glowing recommendations from Devlyn's leading physicians. The man took a breath and girded his mental loins before turning back to face the tall woman straddling the weight bench. They were about two-thirds of the way through their rehabilitation routine for Dev's shoulder and hip and he could clearly read the lines of exhaustion and pain on his patient's face. Things were about to get ugly.

"Madam President?"

"What?" she growled, not bothering to lift her head. Sweat was dripping from her forehead and chin onto the vinyl-covered bench between her legs.

"We need to do another set to work your arm." The therapist looked up to see Lauren slipping quietly into the room.

Lauren closed the door behind her and motioned for the man not to alert Devlyn of her presence.

"Don't want to." The President shook her head, grimacing at the bolt of pain even that small movement caused her stressed muscles. "We're done for the day."

"Ma'am, you have a routine that we need-" He ducked just in time for a small water bottle to sail past his head.

"Fuck the routine! I said we're done for the day!"Dev's shoulders slumped even further. "Now leave me alone," she whispered, ignoring the twinge of guilt she already felt over her outburst.

Lauren cleared her throat, causing two sets of frustrated eyes to swing her way. "Hi. It's Julio, right?" The blonde extended her hand to the therapist. "I'm Lauren Strayer."

The young man smiled and moved several steps towards Lauren to take her hand. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Strayer. I was just on my way out. I'll be outside if you need me."

Lauren watched as the therapist made a hasty exit. She decided to ignore Dev's mini-meltdown. Lauren had been meaning to come to one of Dev's sessions earlier. But something always seemed to come up. Be honest, Lauri. You don't want to see her in pain. And you don't know what to say to her after tearing out of the hospital like an idiot a couple of weeks ago. You're embarrassed to face her in private.

The writer slowly padded to a bench near Dev and sat down. She studied the President carefully. Other than a quick initial glance, the older woman hadn't even acknowledged her presence. Dev's face was flushed and drawn. And it was clear that she was hurting. Lauren's thoughts turned to Dev's would be assassin, Louis Henry. The little bastard.

When it was clear that the President wasn't going to say anything, Lauren blew out an unhappy breath. "Hello, Devlyn," she drawled softly. "Are you finished for the day?" She cocked her head to the side. "Liza said you'd be going for at least another half an hour or so."

"Liza was wrong." Dev self-consciously wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "That's the beauty of being the President – I can tell people to fuck off and they actually have to do it."

Lauren sat up a little straighter at Devlyn's choice of words. "I see," she answered seriously. "And does that include me as well?"

Dev shot Lauren a contrite look and shook her head. "No."

Lauren watched as the President tried to make a fist with the arm that had been injured. She couldn't do it. "I'm just tired." Her voice was resigned. "And it hurts a lot."

Lauren had to sit on her hands to keep from literally reaching out for Dev. She wasn't sure it would be welcomed and she was already treading on dangerous ground. "I know it does. But there's something else I'll bet you didn't know."

"What?" Dev reached for her sling and looped it over her head.

"You're the strongest person I've ever met." Lauren stood up and moved behind Dev, carefully tugging long hair out from under the sling's strap. "And you're not a quitter." Okay, this is where she blasts you for not understanding what she's going through.Lauren closed her eyes and waited.

"I'm not as strong as you think, Lauren. I've been through an awful lot and I'm just damned tired. I only want to go to my room and go to bed."

Okay, that didn't work. "And you can go back to your room and take a nap." She waited until she saw Dev's head bob before adding firmly, "Right after you finish your physical therapy."

Dev looked up. "Excuse me? What happen to the ‘fuck you' factor?"

Lauren raised an eyebrow and gave Dev's sling a little tug. "It was just trumped by the ‘Lauren factor'. Go figure. Don't make me get tough with you, Devlyn. Southern women are relentless and you'll lose eventually." Gray eyes twinkled.

Dev stared at her for a moment. Lauren was serious, but the words still held a teasing edge. It was something she'd missed sorely the past few of weeks. "I knew somewhere along the line I'd find someone who had the trump card. I always figured it'd be Jane or Emma though." Dev visibly squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. "I guess I should apologize to Julio for being a royal bitch, huh?" Dev eased her arm into the sling

"It couldn't hurt, Madam President." Way to go, Devlyn. "I'll go tell him you're ready to continue."

"‘Kay. I'm not going anywhere. Umm... thanks." Dev sat stock-still as Lauren walked away. She wanted Lauren to stay, but a bigger part of her didn't want Lauren to see her like this. Weak. Miserable. A disgusted look crossed Dev's face. Most of all, she just wanted this day to be over.

Lauren paused at the doorway, waiting for any reason, any word from Dev that she wanted her to stay. After a few seconds she swallowed hard and opened the door. "The President is ready to continue her therapy, Julio." She smiled at him sympathetically. "Thank you for being so patient."

The man blushed and stared at his sneakers. "No problem, Ms. Strayer. That's my job." He glanced back up. "She's really hurting."

Lauren's brow creased with worry. "I know."

He inclined his head toward the gym. "You coming back?"

"Nah." Lauren pursed her lips before pushing her glasses up higher on her nose. "She doesn't need me." But I wish she did.

* * *

David entered the debriefing room just as the video of the assassination attempt ended on a freeze frame shot of the bloody stage floor. He shook his head. Why did they always stop it at that very second? His temper flared and angry brown eyes flickered around the room, landing on each man and woman before moving on and glaring at their next target.

"How in the hell did that happen!" He pointed at the video image. "Would somebody like to tell me why the President of the United States is currently undergoing physical therapy to heal her three bullet wounds?" David bolted across the floor and slammed his fists hard on the long table where the agents sat. "Well?"

The silence was deafening and not a single agent could meet David's glare. He angrily tugged at his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. "Get comfortable, ladies and gentlemen, because no one's leaving this room until I have the answers I want," he boomed.

Several agents flinched.

David took his jacket off and tossed it onto a couch. With quick, angry tugs he rolled up his sleeves. "I want to know how a fifteen-year-old kid got a gun in the first place. How he got it into that high school." David's already red skin tone turned an angry shade of scarlet. "And how he managed to get it and himself in perfect position to kill the President of the United States! God dammit, I want to know why he did it!"

An older man at the end of the table drew in a deep breath and rose to his feet before speaking.

David's jaw worked. "Yes, Agent Rothsberg?"

"It was a hate crime, sir," he began tentatively.

"Speak up!"

"A hate crime, sir." His voice was a little more solid this time. "The suspect tried to shoot the President because she is a woman and a lesbian." The agent pushed a file towards David, sending it sliding down the glossy tabletop.

"He didn't try," David barked, "he didshoot the President. Several times!"

The agent nodded quickly. "Yes, sir. All the information we have is in there." He pointed to the file David was now holding. "That's the latest intelligence."

David picked up the file and thumbed through it. "He very nearly succeeded in killing her." The Chief of Staff continued to chastise as he read. "Which one of you in here wants to have to confess that it was on their watch that the President of the United States got killed? Because if we continue to be this sloppy, that's exactly what's going to happen!"

David yanked an empty chair out from under the table and gracelessly plopped down in it, his nose still buried in the file. "Hell, it's been almost sixty years since Kennedy died. I guess most of those guys are dead now too. Trying to fill their shoes? You all had better hope that the investigation proves that kid got lucky." He closed the file. "Because if I find out any of you were lacking in your sworn duty to protect the President, or that you in some way made the attempt possible..." The rest of the threat remained unspoken, but was crystal clear.

Deep brown eyes traveled to every face in the room. All David saw was sadness, embarrassment and regret, which actually made him feel a little bit better. For now he could believe that the kid had gotten lucky. But this couldn't happen again. Somehow, someway, they would find where they had made their mistake. There might not be a second chance.

"Video rewind," David commanded. "Okay, kiddies, here we go again. We're gonna watch it over and over again until I know where everyone was and what they were doing when our President was struck down. Video start."
 
 

Friday, June 4 th

Dev groaned as she eased herself back down into the bed and propped her cane against the wall. Her hip still hurt like hell and she missed not being able to run or work out. She wondered if anyone would be surprised when she pulled her sling off and choked several people with it. Probably not,she mused silently, knowing full well she could be a royal bitch when she didn't feel well. But since she'd lost her cool with her physical therapist, she'd tried her best to rein in her frustration. Maybe she'd only choke one person.

She sighed as the warm sun spilled into the room through the tall windows that stretched from floor to ceiling. Devlyn was recovering in the Solarium, which also happened to be her favorite room in residence. Ironically enough, it was in this very same room that President Reagan had recuperated after being shot some 40 years before.

Devlyn's gaze strayed out the window. Well, I'm the first American President of this century that someone hated enough to try and murder. Too bad it was some woman/lesbian hating punk that did it. He doesn't even care about my politics!her ego squawked indignantly.

Liza strode in through the open door and past two Secret Service agents so she could drop a pile of folders onto a table next to Dev. "If you feel up to it, Madam President, you really need to look through these and sign off on them."

Dev snatched up the first folder, happy to be able to wallow in something besides self-pity. "I'd be happy to do that. I'll have them for you by dinnertime."

Liza smiled. Jane had insisted she give Devlyn something to do so she'd stop terrorizing the entire White House staff. As usual, the President's long time secretary knew best.

"Lauren's gone to get the kids. We're going to spend a few minutes with them in here." Or at least I am. I dunno if Lauren will stay. Seems like since I got shot she's almost afraid to be around me. Not that I can blame her. Who wants to walk next to a target? I might as well have a big red bullseye tattooed on my ass. And then I had to go and pry into her family's private affairs. If she wanted to talk to me about her mother she would have. Good going, moron. Fuck. So much for ditching the self-pity.

"That's wonderful news." Liza looked at her watch. Ever since she set up Lauren with Casey, she'd been avoiding the writer like the plague. She'd heard from Emma that Lauren was after her ‘no good Yankee ass.' Liza wasn't quite sure what that meant. But she was pretty sure it was bad. Very bad. But at least Casey was happy. She and Candace Delaney were getting married in the fall!

Liza handed Dev a pen and looked nervously towards the doorway. "Should I have the call from the British Prime Minister transferred up here?" She began edging her way out. "It's a social call but he may want to discuss the State Dinner coming up in September for His Majesty."

Dev nodded absently. "Sure. I'll probably spend the rest of the afternoon in here. So transfer everything up here that's not classified."

"Yes, Ma'am." Liza turned to leave as the children came barreling in and skidded to halt just before they crashed into their Mom's bed. She scooted around Ashley, purposely avoiding Lauren's evil gray gaze as they passed each other just outside the room. Liza winced when she heard a growl. Gremlin or Lauren? Did it matter?

The children were careful to mind their mother's injuries but still gave her enthusiastic hugs and kisses before settling down with coloring books and crayons. Ashley's Secret Service agent, Amy, joined them on the carpet, leaving Dev and Lauren to talk quietly in the corner.

"I wanted to thank you for taking extra time with them these past few weeks," Dev said quietly, noticing that Lauren had taken a seat in the center of the couch instead of closer to the end and nearer to the bed.

Lauren twisted uncomfortably in her seat. Devlyn had already thanked her for this very thing. Several times.

They'd never discussed her bolting from Dev's hospital room several weeks before, and ever since then things between them had been... she sighed inwardly... strained. Dev was on pins and needles around her; she wasn't doing much better. Their brief conversation during Dev's therapy session two days ago had been the most they'd spoken all week. Silences that were once comfortable now felt uneasy. And at the moment, it was painfully obvious that Devlyn was making small talk to avoid one of those silences. It was equally obvious that it was a strain for the older woman.

Lauren chewed her lip. This was her fault. She glanced apologetically at Dev. "I haven't minded spending the extra time, Devlyn." It was the truth. "The book will be better because of it. And I lo… I mean… your kids are great."

Dev couldn't stop the grin that transformed her face. "Thanks. They're all crazy about you. Except for Christopher, that is."

Lauren leaned forward and frowned. "Really?" Her gaze darted to the tow-headed boy sprawled out on the carpet. She looked back at Dev helplessly as her mind raced for what could have possibly happened that she didn't know about. They always got along great! "But… but…"

"He's not justcrazy about you," Dev clarified, "he's madly in love with you and asked me the other day if you were married."

Lauren laughed. "Wow. You had me worried there! Did you tell him I'd be available when he gets legal?"

Like hell you will.Dev smiled. This was going better than she'd hoped. The banter that had been missing over the past few weeks was edging its way back. She hoped. "I most certainly did not. I want grandchildren and by then you'll be-"

"Not that much older than you are now!" Lauren crossed her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes.

"Yeah. An old lady!" Dev winked and they both laughed softly.

Dev was determined to keep the conversation going. "From what I can squeeze out of David, he seems to think the book is going great so far. But he keeps threatening to reveal a few really embarrassing stories if I don't behave and do all my therapy." Her face colored when she remembered the last time they were together. "He always was a blackmailer at heart, and if he'd seen how I behaved the other day in the gym he'd have kicked my sorry ass."

Lauren made a face but didn't disagree.

"I'm sorry."

"You don't have-"

Dev stopped her with a stern look.

Lauren grinned and ducked her head graciously. "Apology accepted, Devlyn." Her gaze dropped to her lap for a moment before she changed the subject. She looked a little nervous. She wasn't sure how Dev would feel about the personal interviews she wanted. "Speaking of my progress on the book, I... um... I think I've done all the background research I can do from the White House."

Dev's suddenly felt her heart stop and her throat close up tight. So much so, as a matter of fact, that she was having trouble breathing and had to clear her throat and take a drink of her coffee before she could speak again. She wondered briefly if her panic was showing on her face. God she's gonna leave! She wants to move out. Think of something quick!"Ahhhh…" Dev's mind went absolutely blank for all of a horrifying second. "How about a chance to meet my parents!" she blurted out, a little faster and a lot louder than she meant to, but she didn't think her heart could take losing Lauren right now. Maybe in a few weeks when I feel better, but not now. Please, God, not now. I can't lose her, too.

Lauren's brow wrinkled and she stood up and crossed over to the bed. She hesitated for only a moment before sitting on its edge. She wanted to pat Dev's leg or hold her hand. But she didn't. Instead, she trapped her hand under her own leg to keep it from roaming. "What's wrong, Devlyn?" Her concerned voice was soft and warm and made the President want to burst into tears.

"I… I… umm… was just thinking that, after everything that has happened, maybe a vacation was in order. My folks own a beautiful little cabin back in Ohio and we could have a few days off. The kids could see their grandparents and we… I mean, I… uh… well, we could get some rest and peace and quiet if you wanted to go with us. And my folks could be interviewed for the novel." Dev took a chance and let the back of her fingers graze Lauren's leg very lightly. If Lauren was going to leave she wanted to have every possible memory she could get.

At the word ‘Ohio', Ashley excitedly jumped up and ran to Dev's bedside. "Grandma and Grandpa! Can we? Please, mom? That would be wonderful! Can we take Gremlin with us?"

Dev patted her little girl's back. "Yes, sweetheart," she chuckled. "We'll go see them. But we can only take Grem if Lauren goes with us." The President smiled unrepentantly, knowing she was putting Lauren on the spot, but willing to use any advantage she could.

Lauren's lips quirked. "Very sneaky, President Marlowe. You know your kids get their way with me nearly as much as Gremlin." She tried not to laugh as Christopher, who was now standing at the foot of Dev's bed with Aaron, nervously tugged at his glasses, waiting for her answer. Then she blinked. Did he pick that up from me?

Before Lauren could answer Dev, Aaron trotted over and climbed up into her lap, turning blue eyes that rivaled his mother's on the writer. The little boy, like his best buddy Gremlin, had no shame whatsoever when it came to manipulating Lauren. "Please," he asked pathetically. Lauren's head dropped forward and her shoulders started to shake with silent laughter. "Yes!" she crowed, happily. "Yes, Grem and I will come."

The children cheered and Aaron jumped off Lauren's lap to go play with his brother. His work here was done.

Lauren turned back to Dev, who was grinning like a Cheshire cat. She leaned into the fingers that were still lightly pressed against her thigh. "I'd love to talk to your parents. I've been meaning to ask David to arrange an interview. But seeing you with them and talking to them in person will be so much better." She needs this. We all do.

Dev still had dark circles under her eyes, and she'd lost weight over the last few weeks. But she was still the most beautiful woman Lauren had ever seen. "I think we could both use a vacation." She grinned. "I'd love to get out the city for a while." With you.

Dev's answering smile caused her to laugh out loud. Suddenly, her eyes took on added depth, and she lowered her voice so that only the President could hear her. She hesitated and glanced around the room. "We need to have a talk soon though, okay?" She inclined her head, waiting for Dev's reply.

"Okay." Dev nodded, suddenly apprehensive. "Anything you want. Whenever you want it." She licked her lips. "Lauren, if I've done something to upset you, you'd tell me now, right?"

"No, I wouldn't," the blonde replied seriously. "I'd rather do this alone."

The knot in Dev's stomach tightened. "Son of a-" she stopped when she realized that the kids were only a few feet away. The phone rang and she let out a frustrated grunt. "Activate phone."

The image of the British Prime Minister began to take shape. "Madam President." He looked around and smiled. "I hope I'm not interrupting some family time. I was just concerned for you. How are you today?"

Devlyn went into full Presidential mode. "Well, to be honest, Prime Minister Hawkins, I've had better days. But I'm hoping things will turn around soon. And how are you and your family?"
 
 

Friday, June 11 th

Dev, with the help of her cane, walked slowly down the hall. This was her first day back in the Oval Office after being shot. Even from her hospital room she'd been performing her duties as Chief Executive, but this was her first ‘official' day back at work.

David and Sharon had done a wonderful job of keeping the press updated, and she was currently enjoying an approval rating near sixty-five percent. Damn, if he'd hit me with that fourth bullet I'd either be dead or at eighty percent!

"Good morning, Madam President." Jane was already on her feet when Dev entered the outer office, having heard the rhythmic thumping of her cane as Dev progressed down the hall. Jane smiled and handed Dev what would be her first of six or seven cups of coffee.

A few feet behind Dev came Liza, her nose stuck firmly in her electronic organizer.

"Good morning, Jane." Dev did her best to smile despite the throbbing pain in her shoulder and hip. "Would you come into my office for a moment, please?"

"Of course."

The three women entered but Liza broke away from the other two, taking the mug out of Dev's hand and setting it on the President's desk. She immediately went to work on her half-day schedule, pounding away on her organizer with one hand while writing in Dev's leather bound appointment book with the other.

Dev turned to Jane when the door clicked shut. She stepped forward and gave the woman a hug. "Thank you. Thank you for being a rock for my family again, Jane. I don't know what I'd do without you."

Jane, who was never big on emotional scenes, gave Dev a warm hug and then pulled back. "You'd leave your own head lying about if David, Emma and I didn't keep it fastened there."

The President rolled her eyes but quickly acquiesced. "You're absolutely right."

"And now Liza has earned her place on the roster as well, Devlyn. That girl doesn't earn nearly enough money for chasing around after you like she does."

Dev's eyebrows jumped. "You're right again. I should send her some flowers, don't you think?" she asked in a whisper.

"What a grand idea, Madam President," Jane whispered back with a grin. "I'll get right on that."

"Thank you." Dev turned toward her desk, then paused. "Oh, Jane?"

"Yes?"

"Why don't you get yourself one of those ugly cactuses you like, too."

Jane huffed, "I may get two. And expensive ones at that!"

Dev grinned and shook her head as she listened to the older woman leave the Oval Office. The President gingerly settled down at her desk, taking time to look over her schedule and sip her coffee. "Liza, where did Lauren rush off to this morning? Do you know?" She propped her cane up alongside her desk, out of sight.

"Yes, Ma'am." Liza winced slightly at the mention of the writer's name. "Ms. Strayer had several meetings on the Hill today. Doing interviews for the book with the congressmen and senators from Ohio, I believe."

"God, I hope everybody is in a good mood up there this morning," Dev mumbled as she signed her name to several documents. She paused, staring long and hard at the paper in front of her. "What the hell is this? A grocery list?"

Liza peered over Dev's shoulder. "It's the suggested menu for the State Dinner, Madam President."

"Ah, well give this back to the social secretary to go over. If she has any questions, have her direct them to Jane or even Beth McMillian. They make much better stand-ins for the First Lady than I do. Besides, as long as they don't serve sauerkraut, I don't care what we eat."

Liza's eyes widened. "I'll meet with Jane immediately."

Dev chuckled. "You do that, Liza."

The young woman took the file from Dev's hand and handed her a half a dozen more.

Dev glared at her, but there was no real heat behind the look. She lifted a single dark eyebrow. "You get a perverse pleasure out of doing that, don't you?"

Liza smiled. "I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that it might incriminate me."

"Oh yeah? Well, you haven't looked at your watch in at least ten seconds."

"I don't need to look at my watch to know that you have four minutes until the Chief of Staff and the special prosecutor arrive."

The smile slid from Dev's face. She sighed and dropped her head forward onto her desk. "Do I have to?"

"Yes, Ma'am, but look at it this way. Today is the last day for a week. This time tomorrow, you, the children, Ms. Strayer, and the McMillians will be on your way home to Ohio for a much deserved vacation."

"This is true. Tomorrow night, Lauren will no doubt be treated to my mother's pot roast."

Liza bit back a smile. How many times had the President already mentioned Lauren this morning? "Is it good?"

Dev read over another paper before answering. "I never said that." She signed her named, never looking up.

Laughing, Liza excused herself just as David and a tall, dark-haired man entered the Oval Office. David moved over to Dev's desk and leaned forward, bracing his hands on the desk's edge. "Liza looked pretty happy. Glad to see you haven't lost your ability to make people laugh."

"That was pity, my friend. She knows we're having dinner with my folks tomorrow night."

David's eyes grew wide and he crossed himself. Twice. "Is your Mom cooking?" He gulped. "If she is, I need to tell Beth to pack the antacid."

"Well, that's the threat currently hanging over our heads, old buddy. Her world famous pot roast. And don't even think of backing out now. You know it would hurt her feelings." She closed the last folder and looked up at the man quietly waiting behind David. She started to stand, but David motioned her back down.

Dev grunted her thanks and interlaced her fingers. "So, gentlemen, I take it you're here to discuss the prosecution of a fifteen-year-old boy."

"Madam President," David began, "this is special prosecutor William Miller."

"Mr. Miller." Dev extended her hand, they shook formally, then the President gestured. "Please have a seat."

The slim man unbuttoned his suit coat and carefully dropped into one of the wing back chairs that sat in front of Dev's massive desk. David was already in the other one. "Thank you, Madam President."

Dev pressed an intercom button. "Jane could you have someone-"

"Send up a tray of coffee? It's on its way, Madam President."

"Of course it is. I'm sorry I doubted you, Jane."

David winced at Dev's faux pas. Jane neverforgot coffee and cookies.

"It's the painkillers. I forgive you," she chuckled from the other end of the intercom.

"Thanks so much." Devlyn looked at David who gave her a disapproving look. "Can I help it if I'm addicted to coffee? That's got to be why Emma makes me drink a glass of milk every night. She's trying to coat the hole in my stomach." She leaned back in her chair, took a deep breath, and studied both men seriously. "So tell me what's going on with this young man."

"We intend to prosecute him to the fullest extend of the law, Madam President," Miller stated authoritatively as he removed a file from his briefcase.

"What about the people who put the gun in his hand and taught him how to use it?" David took one of the files offered to him, flipping through it. "A boy doesn't materialize a handgun out of nowhere. He stole it, bought it, or it was given to him. He had help."

Miller nodded. "We are looking for accomplices, sir. But so far we haven't come up with anything."

"Good. Because I want everyone who had a hand in this brought to justice."

Dev crossed her arms. "David?"

"Yes, Madam President?"

"Suppose he did it on his own. No law against being a bigot."

"But there is one against attempted murder," David shot back. "And where'd he get the gun? That person is responsible too, Dev."

Special Prosecutor Miller broke in. "The gun was purchased on the street. It's been traced back to a small police department in Wyoming where it was stolen from an officer who was shot and killed in the line of duty. The gun is a complete dead end."

"Jesus." Dev let her head drop. "The gun has quite the history doesn't it?"

"Yes, Ma'am, it does."

"You know," Dev said. "That gives me an idea." She reached over and scribbled a note on a pad.

"Your ideas can be dangerous, Dev," David mumbled. "Don't forget we're going on vacation tomorrow."

"I'm not." Dev looked back up. "Mr. Miller, if the boy is prosecuted what kind of sentence can he expect to get?"

"Life."

She blew out a disgusted breath and closed her eyes. "Such a waste." He's not that much older than Ash. And his whole life is probably over.

"Dev, what that boy tried to do to you... Well, it isn't that different from what Ted Harris did to Sam." David shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He knew he was hitting below the belt by mentioning Samantha. But he could tell Dev was on the verge of doing something stupid, like publicly coming across as soft on what Louis Henry had done. It was one thing for her to appear sympathetic to the boy's parents, to his brothers and sisters, and the community that helped raise him. But it was quite another for her to openly act as though what he did could be forgiven. If she did, she'd be opening the door for every nut in the world that wanted to take a pot shot at the President.
 
 

Saturday, June 12 th

Lauren nervously wiped her hands on her jeans, shifting from one foot to the other as she stood outside the President's office on Air Force One. They'd been in the air for forty-five minutes and she'd finally mustered her courage, knowing that she couldn't put off this discussion with Devlyn for much longer. This had already been a month in coming and that was way too long.

Their friendship was suffering and she wasn't sleeping well because of it. Lauren hadn't realized how much she counted on the little intimacies between them until this awkwardness sprang up, robbing her of something she'd come to want... maybe even need in her life. She felt foolish and guilty. Their relationship was slipping between her fingers like fine grains of sand and she was letting it happen. No more. I need to put this right.

Taking a deep breath, she lifted her hand and gave the door three light raps. There was no answer. She tried a second time. Still nothing. That's odd. I know she's in there.Taking a chance, she quietly turned the handle and peered around the door. "Dev?"

Devlyn was lying asleep on the sofa with Lauren's very first Adrienne Nash novel fanned open on her chest as her gentle snores filled the room. The blonde's eyes softened and her heart swelled with affection as she took in the sight of the President sleeping curled up on the sofa, her chest rising and falling in a slow even pattern.

Lauren started to retreat when Dev cried out quietly and her eyes began to working beneath closed lids. "Don't," she whispered. "Please."

The writer hesitated for only a second, before clicking the office door closed behind her and crossing the room. She knelt on the floor next to Dev. "Devlyn," Lauren soothed. "It's okay."

Dev's arms began to thrash and she knocked the book that was lying on her chest onto the floor. "Please don't," she whimpered again as her breathing increased and she began to struggle weakly.

The urge to touch Devlyn was too strong to ignore, and Lauren reached out and laid warm hands on Dev's arms, using her thumbs to stroke soft skin. "Everything is just fine, darlin'. You're not alone. And it's only a dream." The thrashing stopped at once, and the older woman's short breaths began to lengthen and even out again.

Lauren gnawed her lower lip as she wondered what Dev's nightmare was about. Samantha? The shooting? Or something else perhaps.She smoothed a dark lock of hair off Dev's forehead, careful of the still healing pink scar that ran along the left side of her forehead.

In this quiet, semi-private setting, with Devlyn asleep, Lauren felt comfortable indulging herself. She studied Dev's relaxed face carefully, her eyes lovingly tracing every line and contour. God, you are so beautiful.Her gaze dropped to full, red lips and she felt herself drawn closer. A shock of pale hair tumbled forward and Lauren tucked it behind her ear as she leaned in and allowed the light scent of Devlyn's shampoo and skin to wash over her sense. I need to kiss her.The familiar thought came unbidden. Only this time a sense of urgency was attached. If I don't kiss her, I'm going to die.

An unexpected patch of turbulence caused the plane to lurch slightly and Dev's face twitched, her eyes fluttering open. She blinked, mildly alarmed until the face so close to hers came into focus.

Lauren immediately pulled away, her heart hammering in her chest. Oh yeah. I was going to do it. I was going to kiss her!

"Hi." Dev's voice was rough with sleep. She leaned forward a little, rubbing her eyes with one hand and bracing herself with her good arm. "What are you doing in here?"

Lauren immediately stumbled to her feet. "I'm sorry," she said in a rush. "I knocked and there was no answer and-"

"Lauren," Dev stopped the younger woman's rush of words. Before Lauren could escape, Dev reached up and grabbed the writer's hand, holding it tightly. She sat up all the way, her eyes searching around for her book. "I'm glad you're here."

Lauren reached down and fished it off the floor, wordlessly handing it to Dev.

Dev shrugged. "I was just reading."

Lauren chuckled at the deep creases the back of the sofa had made on one of Dev's cheeks. She decided not to mention the nightmare since Dev didn't seem affected by it. "I can see that." Lauren waggled her finger at Dev's sleep-marked face. "I hope that isn't a reflection of the story."

"Oh, no!" Dev corrected her quickly, flushing slightly. "The first one is still one of my favorites." With a slight groan, she threw her feet over the edge of the sofa, making room for Lauren. She patted the cushion next to her in invitation.

Butterflies began to flutter wildly in the younger woman's belly. Apologize now, you coward, before another minute goes by. And then just kiss her.

"So," Dev prompted, purposely not letting go of Lauren's hand. Her body tensed in reaction to Lauren, who did not look happy.

"Yeah." Lauren exhaled slowly. "So."

Dev lifted her jaw. "What have I done to upset you, Lauren? Please tell me. Things haven't been the same between us since that day in the hospital." And it's killing me.

Lauren's shoulders slumped and she restlessly picked at the couch's navy-colored fabric. "You didn't do anything. I just... I just...."

"Are mad at me?" Dev ventured, bracing herself for Lauren's anger.

"No!" Lauren's brow furrowed and she shook her head. "It's me, not you."

Dev's lips formed a thin line. "Me, not you," she muttered. That's sounds like the kiss off. She's can't break up with me! We're not even together... like that."What does that mean... exactly?"

Lauren licked her lips, letting out a slow breath. "It means you didn't do anything wrong. I need ... um... I need to apologize for running out on you in the hospital." Lauren felt a pang deep in her chest when she thought about what she'd done. "You needed a friend and I just ran away," she admitted softly. "I'm so, so sorry."

"Hey." Dev scooted closer to her companion, though there was already almost no space between them. She forced herself not to flinch as she lifted her arm and wrapped it around Lauren's shoulder. It had only been out of her sling for a few days and she still had several weeks of physical therapy to go before it would be back to close to normal. "You didn't have to apologize. I've been worried about you."

Lauren voice was full of self-loathing, and she pulled away from the comforting embrace. "But I just left you after you sat through that horrible video!"

"That doesn't matter." Dev pulled her back.

"It does matter, Devlyn!"

"No, it doesn't. And if I'd known that's what was bothering you, I would have made that clear weeks ago."

Lauren's watery gaze lifted to meet Dev's, and she found only genuine curiosity and concern shining in those pale blue eyes. There wasn't an ounce of anger. Or worse yet, the pity she feared she'd find. "I see you everyday and I still miss you."

At the sweet words, Dev found herself gulping back tears. "I miss you too."

"That day I was embarrassed and ashamed." Lauren paused and then added, "And tired and angry."

"Angry?"

Lauren nodded. "When you told me that you knew about Mama, it suddenly felt like you were spying on me. It was like all my family's dirty laundry was being paraded in front of you whether I wanted it to be or not."

Dev winced at the truth of the words. She'd known Lauren was having trouble adjusting to life in a fish bowl. And her actions, though started with only the sincerest of intentions, hadn't helped much. "I... I... didn't mean for you to feel that way. I was worried about you. I only had David check into things so I could help." Dev's gaze dropped to her lap. "I didn't mean to pry. I just wanted to be able to help if you needed me, but..." I couldn't go with you when I wanted to. I couldn't be there when you really needed a friend.

"I know." God, how can I explain this?"But it's so hard. Mama... my mother... I mean..." She let out a frustrated breath. "If I'd been thinking straight I would have assumed that you'd find out what happened." Lauren winced, seeing flashes of her younger self and slashed wrists and a pool of dark crimson blood spreading across the floor in her mind's eye. "It's so personal and ugly what she tried to do."

"It's hard." Dev swallowed back the pain of her next admission. She'd never lied to Lauren and she wasn't about to start now. But this went beyond that. Her political mind wanted to say ‘off the record' but she believed deep down that Lauren wouldn't betray her trust and that that kind of lack of faith on her part would seal a future for herself without Lauren.

Dev's face was deadly serious but her voice was still even and soft. "Some people just can't fight the urge. They want to escape. Lauren, I'm going to tell you something I've never told another living soul." She could feel the weight of Lauren's expectant stare, and slender fingers threaded themselves tightly between her own. Devlyn looked the smaller woman square in the eye. "When Sam was killed, I thought about it." Dark brows creased in thought. "I didn't know how to deal with the loss. I wouldn't, I couldn't find a place for the anger and pain and it started to overwhelm me. I couldn't breathe without it hurting. Every heartbeat was painful." The tears welling in Lauren's eyes nearly made her stop. But she didn't. "Somehow, after a long while, I found a way back. Through my children. But some people just can't fight."

Lauren squeezed her eyes shut. She had trouble picturing the strong woman beside her giving up on anything. But then she remembered the video image of Dev testifying at Theodore Harris' sentencing hearing. Only one word came to mind. Broken. She was broken. But somehow, someone had fixed her. Or she'd fixed herself. "But I can't help mama," Lauren whispered in anguish. "I've tried! My whole life I've tried and nothing works. I'm not enough." Nothing is ever enough.

Oh, Lauren. Don't do that to yourself."Sweetheart, you've helped her even if you don't know it. By growing up into such an intelligent, generous woman. By being there for her when she needed you, and by trying your best. Sometimes people just can't help what they do or how they feel. If you want, we'll hire new doctors to see her. They can try to help her. Maybe there is a new technique or medicine or-"

"She's got the best doctors I could find. My royalty checks are enough to see to that." Sweetheart?She let the word soak deep down inside her, balming spots made raw by worry and fear. She hasn't said something like that to me since she was in the hospital."I appreciate your offer. But I don't think there's anything you can help us with." She squeezed Dev's hand. "Other than continuing to be my best friend."

Lauren sniffed, then smiled when she heard Dev doing the same thing. They were quite a pair. "After I ran out of the hospital, I felt like I wasn't enough to help you either. All you were doing was being kind to me. But all I could think about was running away." Lauren reached up and wiped away a shimmering tear that was hanging suspended in the corner of Dev's eye, waiting to fall. "I'm so sorry about that," she whispered. "And especially sorry about being too embarrassed to apologize sooner." Say the rest!"Things between us have been awkward and I don't like it. I um…" A pause. "I want to hold your hand... a lot... and I can't do it if we won't sit by each other." She held her breath and waited, praying that Dev felt the same way.

A brilliant smile edged its way onto Dev's lips and she instantly saw its echo on Lauren's. "So," the President shrugged a little, hoping to lighten the mood and barely able to keep herself from jumping up and down like a little kid. "Sit next to me. I don't bite." She expression turned playfully. "I'll even give you a hug if you need one. And my hands are alwaysfree to be held."

Lauren nodded shyly. She lifted their linked hands. "We're half way there. But how about that hug?"

"Okay." Dev used the arm lying loosely across Lauren's shoulder to pull her closer. "This is not a bug," she teased. "This is me hugging you. I don't want any confusion." She eased her arm around Lauren's shoulders and pulled her close. When Lauren was pressed tightly against her, both women let out long, shuddering breaths. Dev rested her cheek atop strands of fair, wavy hair. "I know we're not done talking about the privacy issue. But maybe we can take things a little bit at a time, you know?"

Lauren murmured her agreement against Dev's collarbone. "I won't let things get so out of hand again. I promise." She sank into the embrace, not thinking about what it meant or where they were going. Just accepting the affection and comfort Devlyn was offering. And doing her best to return it in kind.

"But you know what else?"

"Mmm?"

"Nash still needs a girlfriend."

Lauren began to shake with silent laughter.

Then Devlyn felt the softest of touches graze the hollow of her throat. She went completely still and her eyes fluttered closed. Oh God, she's kissing me!

Lauren pressed her lips against the soft skin again, marveling at the tiny tingles that chased their way up and down her spine, and the flood of warmth that flowed through her veins like a strong wine, heating her from within. The featherlight kisses were painfully intimate and it felt so good to finally be showing Dev how she felt, how deeply she cared for her, that Lauren had no intention of stopping yet. She leaned forward and barely brushed Dev's throat with her mouth, feeling the dark-haired woman's pulse pound wildly in response.

The plane lurched again, sending Lauren a little sideways and interrupting the perfect moment. Dev drew in a breath to speak and the writer pulled back a little, tilting her head up and regarding Dev seriously. "No." Her voice was gentle but insistent.

Lauren brought up both hands and gently cupped Dev's cheeks, enjoying the warm, smooth skin against her palms. She stared deeply into panicky eyes tinged with desire and affection. "Nothing is going to interrupt us again. Okay?" A tiny bit of insecurity popped through but was quickly quashed by Dev' response.

The taller woman let out a shaky breath and nodded once, tilting her head and pressing her a cheek more firmly against Lauren's steady but delicate touch. She fell willingly into warm gray eyes that were so full of honest friendship and devotion that Dev's chest constricted at the sight. "Okay," she croaked softly, honestly surprised she could speak considering her heart felt like it was going to burst the confines of her chest at any moment. She already felt lightheaded and they hadn't even really kissed yet. Please don't let me pass out now.

Lauren smiled shyly and licked her lips to moisten them. With a tiny tug of her hands, she drew Dev's face to hers. "I've been wanting to kiss you for forever." Dev's warm exhale caressed her lips and she forgot the rest of what she was going to say.

The President's eyes slid closed when as light as a feather, impossibly soft lips brushed against her own, then settled more firmly there. A moan escaped from deep in her throat and she threaded one hand in Lauren's hair, holding her gently in place as she returned the kiss. Lauren's mouth was soft; inquisitive lips were setting her on fire. The younger woman let her set the pace of their heartfelt exploration and Dev felt like her entire body had been placed on a slow burn.

It lasted a long sweet moment, not stopping until tentative tongues had reached out and tasted what both had been wanting for so long. Finally, Lauren began to pull back, slightly breathless. But Dev surged forward and nipped at her bottom lip, tugging it into her mouth in a move that earned a gasp and then a low, sensual groan. But the high intensity of the moment quickly shifted when Dev began nipping and teasing with her teeth until both women were laughing.

This time it was Dev who began to loosen the fingers she had threaded in Lauren's hair, but before she could pull completely away, Lauren exacted her revenge by surging forward and passionately kissing Devlyn into insensibility. Her initial fears had melted away and now she acted on pure instinct, letting the rightness of the moment sweep them both away and easily deepening the kiss. She swirled her tongue around Devlyn's until the taller woman began to whimper. Yes!Lauren's mind cried. This is what she wanted. It was the desire and hunger that lurked behind every touch, every innocent glance and tender gesture. And now she was tasting it.

Lauren felt her body responding, as much to the sounds she was evoking from Dev as the wonderful touch she was receiving. Her belly was beginning to clench as a combination of rampant hormones and adrenaline sang through her blood.

When they finally parted, she drew in a deep breath, slightly dumbfounded and more than a little giddy. Lauren happily smiled and Dev's face immediately flushed a bright red. The younger woman laughed.

"That was... um..." Dev searched for the right words with slightly wide eyes.

"That was wonderful, Devlyn, and I wish we would have done it ages ago."

Dev was nodding before Lauren could finish her sentence. She sighed with relief, still a little tongue-tied from the effects of the mind-blowing kiss.

Lauren smiled again, finding Devlyn's bashfulness, mixed with pleasure and a good dose of nerves, utterly charming. "I think, considering that I'm the one who's never done that before... with a woman, that is, that I'm the one who is supposed to be scared witless." She reached up and with the very tip of her finger traced the delicious mouth that was already beckoning her back with its softness.

Dev grinned then bit her lower lip. "You would think that, wouldn't you?"

The pilot's voice came over the loud speaker, informing the plane's passengers that they were making their final descent into Port Columbus International airport and that they were advised to buckle their seat belts.

Devlyn stood up and pulled Lauren up with her. Together they moved to two seats side-by-side that they could buckle into.

"I think we've got some things to talk about on this trip, Lauren," Dev said seriously, but her twinkling eyes gave away her utter delight with the turn of events.

Lauren couldn't stop from beaming as she happily settled into her seat. "I think this is going to be one hell of a vacation."

* * *

As they traveled toward Dev's family home. Lauren was struck by the familial feeling that pervaded the back of the limo. Emma and Amy sat across from her and Dev. Ash was sound asleep with her head in Emma's lap, Christopher was slowly nodding off in Amy's arms and Lauren looked down at the little boy in her own lap. She couldn't resist placing a tender kiss on Aaron's forehead as he slept in her arms. Even Gremlin seemed content to nap on the floor of the limo, only rolling over occasionally to offer a growl. He had taken to waiting for Dev to growl back. Which she always did.

Dev reached into her pocket and took out a small bottle of pills. She dropped one into her palm and replaced the cap. Taking a bottle of water from the holder, she was about to take a drink when she caught the look that Emma was giving her. "What?"

"Do you need that?"

"It's ibuprofen, Emma. Nothing serious." She glanced sideways at Lauren and felt compelled to offer an explanation. Her gaze dropped to the bottle where she fiddled with lid. "Umm... This is not something that ever went public, but after Samantha was killed," she hesitated and then finished in a rush, "I had a small problem with sleeping pills." She chanced a look up at Lauren, whose eyes held no censure. "But I don't anymore."

"I'm glad you don't anymore," the writer said softly, gently bumping Dev's good shoulder with her own. Lauren grinned when Dev dropping her free hand down, wrapping long fingers around smaller ones. Devlyn was so different from anyone else she'd ever met. She was always brutally honest about herself. Even though this was something that she'd managed to keep in the family, she knew that if someone asked Dev about it, she'd tell the truth.

But Lauren had already promised herself that she wouldn't print a single word that would hurt Devlyn or her family. It didn't hurt that she really hadn't uncovered anything that could be truly damaging. She prayed she never would.

The writer watched as Dev closed her eyes and rolled her shoulders carefully. Then the President's head sagged forward. Lauren's face showed her concern. "Tired?"

"No. Praying."

Twin eyebrows disappeared behind fair bangs. "Praying?"

"Yeah. Praying that my dad doesn't let my mom cook for us."

"Amen," Emma and Amy said at the same time. Over the years, both women had been subjected to the offerings of Janet Marlowe. The woman was sweet as could be. She loved her husband and Dev more than life itself and cooking was a hobby she'd enjoyed since childhood. Unfortunately, her skill level had also stayed the same as it was in childhood.

Dr. Frank Marlowe, Dev's father, had always had a cook. Luckily for Dev, that didn't change once he got married. But her mother still felt the need to jump in and ‘help' the cook every once in a while. Especially when she had guests.

"Oh, come on." Gray eyes rolled. "It can't be that bad." Lauren looked at each face. "No one is that bad a cook." Okay, I am. But at least I don't make other people eat it.

"Well, let's just say I'd rather eat some more of that shrimp from my ill-fated date with Candace Delaney than be subjected to my mom's cooking. I love my Mom. Don't get me wrong but…"

"Oh my God," both Emma and Jane finished simultaneously, shuddering with revulsion.

Lauren laughed, causing Aaron to fuss a little. She immediately clamped her lips shut and cuddled him closer to her. Kids weren't nearly so scary when they were unconscious.

Dev looked over at Lauren and grinned, lifting her pinkie and wiggling it at the writer.

Lauren stuck out her tongue in reply but she knew Devlyn was right. Boy, am I wrapped by each and every member of the Marlowe family, or what?

Two hours later and they were all standing in the entryway of the Marlowe family home. Lauren hung back with Emma and Amy, watching Frank and Janet welcome their daughter and grandchildren home. She desperately wanted to snap off a few photographs but she resisted the urge, not knowing how Mr. and Mrs. Marlowe would react. Lauren looked on uncomfortably as Janet Marlowe, who looked like a shorter, salt and pepper-haired version of Devlyn, wrapped her arms around her daughter and wept openly.

Frank Marlowe stood back with one grandson in each arm, wearing an indulgent smile for his granddaughter who was wrapped around his waist. He was tall and slim, with a thick head of white hair, a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, and generous mouth.

"Oh, baby!" Janet Marlowe put her hands on Dev's cheeks. "I'm so glad you're home." She frowned when she got an up close look at the fading scar on her daughter's face. "Are you really okay?"

"Mom, I'm fine. You know me, too stubborn to…" Dev stopped when she realized what she was about to say. She remained prudently silent while her mother stepped back and examined her from head to toe. "I swear to you, Mom. I'm totally intact."

"I'll be the judge of that, young lady," Janet snapped peevishly. But her eyes instantly softened. "You looked so tired when we called. I don't know why you wouldn't let us come up there and let me take care of you."

"I have a whole house full of people who-"

" Theyare not your mother," the small woman huffed, poking the President in the chest.

Lauren tried to stifle a giggle but failed.

Janet looked over and made eye contact with Lauren. Ah, the infamous Lauren Strayer.She lifted a brow.

So that's where Devlyn gets it.Lauren tried to look properly castigated as she lowered her eyes.

"Ah, Mom, Dad, you remember Emma and Amy." Dev directed her parents to their other guests. The greetings were quick and everyone's attention was soon back on Lauren. The younger woman began to visibly squirm under Janet and Frank's appraising, parental stares. She turned pleading eyes on the President that screamed, ‘help!'

Dev almost smiled at the look of unveiled panic on Lauren's face. "And this," Dev extended her hand to the writer and tugged her forward, "is Lauren Strayer. She's writing my biography, as you know. She's going to want to interview you both. So could you try not to tell her all of my embarrassing stories at once please?"

"But I wouldn't mind a few," Lauren jumped in.

"Oh, I'm sure I could come up with a thing or two about Stinky here," Frank offered with a wink. "Nice to meet you, Ms. Strayer. Welcome to our home."

"Please call me Lauren. And thank you, Mr. Marlowe." The writer was just dying to know where in the hell ‘Stinky' fit in here. She was definitely going to set aside some time to hear that story.

"Then you, young lady, should call me Frank." He smiled charmingly.

Lauren nodded and grinned back. Frank's Southern accent was even more pronounced than her own. "Thank you." She took a deep breath and faced the one she knew really counted here. "It's very nice to meet you, Mrs. Marlowe. Devlyn has told me a lot about you."

"It's nice to meet you, Lauren." The small woman took the writer's proffered hand. Lauren just knew she was being sized up and she straightened her shoulders and made sure she gave a proper handshake. Nothing wimpy would do for Janet Marlowe. "And call me Janet. Mrs. Marlowe was my mother-in-law. God rest that evil bi-"

"Mom," Dev gritted out.

Janet smiled innocently. "God rest her soul."

* * *

David, his wife Beth, and Lauren were simply howling with laughter. Tears were streaming down their faces as their eyes darted between Dev's flaming cheeks and Frank's shit eatin' grin. Janet was trying not to burst into laughter by busying herself with the coffeepot that had just been placed on the dinner table. But her slender shoulders were shaking.

Frank Marlowe looked properly satisfied as he leaned back in his chair. He had done every father's duty and regaled his audience with the time that Dev took off her diaper in the middle of a family dinner party.

Devlyn narrowed her eyes at her father and mumbled something from behind the napkin that she was holding firmly against her face. Lauren wasn't sure, but she thought she heard the words ‘air strike'.

"So," Lauren sipped her water when her laughter finally died down. She fanned her cheeks. "Tell me, where did Stinky come from?"

Dev looked up, her eyes wide, and she clamped a hand over Lauren's mouth. She eyed her father warily. "You did not hear that. She did not ask that question. You did not hear that."

Lauren licked the offending palm, causing Dev to jerk it free. The writer nodded wildly before Dev could recover from yelling ‘ewwwww' and wiping her hand on her jeans. "Yes, he did!"

Frank laughed low and evil. "Well, Devil here, was about, oh, fifteen I think…"

"OMIGOD! Kill me now, he's gonna tell her." Dev slumped in her chair and began to moan for mercy.

Frank snorted and then happily ignored his daughter. "Anyhow, she went out on this camping trip with a bunch of her friends. Seems our little Devil and a young lady friend of hers decided to go skinny-dipping in the pond."

Lauren's eyebrows nearly launched up off her forehead. She turned to Devlyn. "Skinny dipping? Oh my, Madam President. Who knew you had such a naughty streak?"

Dev glared at her father. "Well, if this makes it into my biography, the entire world will!"

Lauren patted Dev's knee and refocused on Frank and made a quick gesture with her hands. "Go on. Go on."

"Apparently, everything was going along pretty well until one of the chaperones heard them splashing around and giggling in the pond and decided to check it out. The girls must have seen the flashlight, because they got out of the water, grabbed up their clothes, and started back to the camp, running buck nekkid through the woods…."

Dev groaned and slumped a little more. Was it really possible to die of embarrassment? David was pointing at her and laughing hysterically. Yes, she decided, it really was.

Lauren clamped her hand over her mouth. She tried to imagine a Dev wet and naked, running through the woods. Oooooh... How much would I pay to see that? Hell, I'd take out a loan.Her face suddenly colored and she shook her head slightly to clear it of its decidedly lascivious thoughts. "Gotcha. Nekkid," the word slipped out effortlessly, "teenaged Devlyn, streaking through the woods." She waited expectantly for Frank to continue, not sure which she was enjoying more, Frank's yarn, or the mortified look on the President's face. "Is there more?"

"Uh huh." Dev's father nodded. "Her friend made it back okay, and never got caught." He stared at Dev and pursed his lips. "Officially, that is." Then he laughed. "But Devil here, wasn't so lucky. Her nekkid a-" He stopped abruptly and cleared his throat. "Backside, I mean, stumbled into a den. A den containing one very protective Mama skunk and four little baby skunks, all scared witless by the dripping wet human that had woken them. You know what spooked skunks do, Lauren?"

Lauren burst out laughing. Then she wrinkled her nose at Dev. "Oh yuck, Devlyn."

Dev recovered long enough to scratch her cheek and flip Lauren the bird at the same time before she tossed a napkin at her father. "Thanks so much, Dad. There goes any shred of dignity I had left in Lauren's eyes."

David and Beth looked at each other. "We heard you puked on her, Dev. There was no dignity left."

Dev covered her face with her hands. "Was this visit really my idea?" she groaned.

"Yes!" the room chorused.

Frank continued undeterred. "It took two weeks, and thirty gallons of tomato juice, before we could be in the room with her without our eyes watering. And that'swhere the name Stinky came from."

Lauren felt a pang of sympathy for Dev who was still hiding her face. Once the writer managed to get her laughter under control, she reached out and gently rubbed Dev's back. Lauren leaned over and whispered, "If it makes any difference, I've always thought you smelled great."

Dev whispered back without moving her muscle but Lauren could hear the smile in her words. "It makes a difference."
 
 

Sunday, June 13 th

Lauren munched on a piece of toast and sipped her juice as she stood on the porch of the house in the morning sun. This was a beautiful place, and the fact that the Secret Service had been ordered to set their perimeter several hundred yards away made it feel cozy and safe. She could only wonder what it would be like in the cabin they would go to later in the day. The writer actually liked the main house.

Dev had let her sleep in this morning. Although to be fair, since the shooting she'd gotten to sleep till 6:30 A.M. while Dev was undergoing her physical therapy. But her daily sessions had been switched to three times per week and Julio had even given her this week off ‘for good behavior'. Dev thought it was a therapeutic break for her muscles and Lauren decided she didn't need to be enlightened.

She had woken to a soft summer breeze blowing in her window, the sound of children laughing and playing, and the smell of bacon cooking. Oh yeah. Throw in sex and Lauren would swear she was in heaven not Ohio. She let that thought rattle around in her head until she had a dull ache in her lower belly and points more southerly. Lauren imagined Dev leaning over her and... Enough!She forced herself out of bed and padded toward the bathroom. Time for a shower. A very cold shower.

After her shower, Lauren towel-dried her hair and ran a comb through it before brushing her teeth and moving out onto the large back porch. She leaned against the house, watching Dev's mother and father playing with their grandchildren. Gremlin was right in the middle of the chaos, romping, barking, and chasing a stick that Frank would toss out onto the lush green lawn every minute or so. You little flea bag. You'd never fetch for me! Traitor.

Amy and Emma where seated at a picnic table enjoying their breakfast. Lauren smirked. They were gossiping, by the looks of it. She'd catch up with them later.

Lauren had seen David and Beth walking hand in hand toward the woods. The only person that was missing was Dev. She slipped her hand into her pocket of her denim shorts and took another sip of her tangy, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.

The blonde woman looked up when she heard a soft clomping sound coming toward her. Her breath left her lungs in a quick whoosh when she got a good look at the noise's source. And who was riding him. Dev was sitting atop a beautiful quarter horse, wearing tight fitting black jeans and chaps that were barely visible because they blended into the dark denim. A loose, light-blue chambray shirt that matched the color of her eyes was tucked into the jeans, and well-worn boots covered her feet. Her thick, ebony hair hung in a single braid that trailed down the middle of her back. Lauren sighed. It was truly enough to make any Tennessee girl swoon. Okay, maybe not anygirl. But it did wonders for Lauren. To the writer, the President looked absolutely delicious. I'm gonna need another shower.

Dev rode slowly up to the porch and pulled her horse alongside. "Morning, Ma'am," Dev drawled, sounding very much like her father.

Lauren couldn't stop her grin. She used her hand to shield her eyes as she looked up at Dev and moved to the porch railing. "Good morning."

"Sleep well?"

Lauren nodded slowly, not quite able to tear her eyes from Dev's. "Very well. How about you?"

"Oh, I was doing great until Dad came and got me up to go feed the horses."

The younger woman wrinkled her nose. "Lemme guess. 5:00 A.M.? Is that where you get it?"

"That's where I get it."

"How, by the way," Lauren motioned to the tall, chestnut-colored beast, "did you get up on the tallest horse I have ever seen with your injured hip? You know you're not supposed to-"

Dev held up a forestalling hand. "Before you tear into me, like Mom did," she grumbled, "I used a bale of hay and Dad helped me. I'm fine, I promise."

"It doesn't hurt?" Lauren asked skeptically.

"If I say it does, will you kiss it and make it better?"

Lauren began choking on her juice. "Who are you and what have you done with the President?" she coughed.

"Oh, that's still me. I guess I forgot to mention that I'm just much more relaxed at home." Dev laughed and took pity on her friend by changing the subject. "You get any breakfast?"

"Umm... yeah, the cook actually has a plate in the oven for me whenever I'm ready."

Dev nodded again. "Yup, that's Dottie. Been the family cook since I was a kid. And she's even successful at keeping mom out of the kitchen. Mostly. No one goes hungry in the Marlowe house with Dottie around. If I'm really lucky, she'll make her special Devil cookies while I'm here."

Lauren smiled innocently and ran her hand up and down the rough wooden porch post. "You wanna tell me how you got the nickname Devil or should I ask your Dad?" She allowed her head to come to rest against the post, and took a deep breath of morning air, catching the scent of damp grass, and the horse, and the faint aroma of Dev's soap and shampoo. She felt her knees go a little weak.

Devlyn shrugged. "It just comes from Dev. You know, like DEV-astating," she growled in a sexy voice. She leaned down towards Lauren who was nearly at her level because of the tall porch, her pale eyes sparkling with mischief in the morning sun. "And DEV-oted and DEV-our…" She grinned, giving the writer a truly evil smirk. "Just naturally pop up…"

Lauren's eyes raked over Dev. "Don't forget DEV-ine"

"Like you."

Lauren waited a beat, trying not to smile.

"Hey, that's not spelled right!"

Lauren was undeterred. "Call it artistic license."

Dev mulled that over for a moment. "Huh. Okay, I'll buy that from you. But only ‘cause you're so cute."

My God we're actually flirting with each other. Two more seconds of this and I'm gonna kiss her again. I swear I am.Lauren pushed off the post and leaned towards Dev until she could feel the combined heat of the older woman and her mount. She closed her eyes and their breath mingled...

"Hey, Devil!"

Lauren jumped back at the sound of Frank Marlowe's voice.

"Shit," Dev groaned, straightening in the saddle. "Later, Ms. Strayer." It was promise.

Lauren adjusted her glasses and smiled. "Later, Madam President."
 
 

Tuesday, June 15 th

Dev walked slowly towards the cabin where she, Lauren, David and Beth would spend the next few days while the kids stayed with their grandparents in a tent out in the back yard.

Lauren had spent a solid day with each of Dev's parents. And the tall woman suspected they now liked Lauren better than they did her. Dev laughed good-naturedly. I guess it was inevitable.

Dev spied several Secret Service agents out of the corner of her eye. They were setting up in campers several hundred yards away. She wanted to give Lauren at least some sense of privacy. With everything that had happened, they all needed some rest.

She glanced down when she felt an arm loop through her own. "Hello, Mother dear."

"Indeed, Devlyn Marlowe."

Dev knew that tone. It was her mom's ‘you are in such big trouble' tone. "What have I done now?" She sighed.

Janet kicked a stick from their path as they walked. "What is going on between you and Lauren?"

"Nothing."

"Don't you lie to your mother." She tugged on Dev's arm. "I've seen the way you two look at each other."

"And that would be exactly how?"

The shorter woman dug in her heels, bringing both of them to an abrupt stop. She reached up and caressed a tan cheek. "You haven't looked at anyone like that since Samantha. Are you sleeping with her?"

"No!" Dev pulled back a little. "You know I would never… I mean, I can't…I mean…"

Janet's blue eyes twinkled and she shook her head at her daughter. They began walking again. "I know. You always were horribly old fashioned like that. You nearly drove Sam crazy. I thought the poor girl was going to spontaneously combust."

"I drove her crazy?"

"Uh huh. Before you two were married, she'd call me and ask me what she was doing wrong and why you weren't trying to get her into bed. Devlyn, in my day your actions would have been considered prudish. Now, it's just downright archaic. You need to chill out a little. It isn't as though one of you is going to end up pregnant." Janet chuckled at her own joke.

Dev stopped and put her hands on her hips. "Mother, are you suggesting I take Lauren to bed?"

"You love her, don't you?"

Dev hesitated. "I don't know."

"Devlyn Odessa Marlowe, don't you dare..." She waggled a finger in her daughter's face. "I can't believe you kiss me with those lying lips."

Blue eyes rolled and Dev nearly stomped her foot. "Mom!"

"Dev, you know I don't get involved in your life unless I think you're doing something really stupid." Janet's posture mirrored her daughter's. "I think holding back from Lauren is really stupid. She's good for you, honey. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that."

"Mom…"

"She's a very attractive woman. She's sweet and smart. Why I hardly knew she was pumping me for information when we spent the day together." Janet's voice was filled with honest admiration. "And in case you haven't noticed, your children adore her."

"Mom…"

"And she watches you with eyes that very nearly worship every move you make."

Dev's mind flickered back to the kisses they had shared on Air Force One. "She kissed me," she admitted quietly.

"Good for her! It her appears that her parents did not raise a chicken."

Dev's jaw sagged. "Are you calling me a chicken?"

"If the feathers fit, dear."

"Funny."

"Did you kiss her back?" They turned a blind corner and were now facing a large wood cabin, with a small attached porch and a pile of split logs for the fireplace lining the front wall.

"I'm old-fashioned, Mom, not stupid. Of course I kissed her back!"

"Then what happened?"

"The plane landed. We came here and Dad told her the ‘stinky' story. She may never kiss me again, for all I know."

"Oh, I wouldn't be to sure about that." Janet elbowed her daughter lightly in the ribs. "I think if you give her any sign at all, she'll do a lot more than kiss you, Dev."

"Mom!" The President scrubbed her face hoping to remove some of the red from her cheeks.

"You've been alone too long, honey. Let the past remain where it belongs and look to the future. You need someone in your life. I know you. You don't fall quickly and you don't take these things lightly. But wake up and smell the coffee, Devlyn. You're in love with that girl." Janet helped Dev up the stairs. "There was saying when I was a kid that I feel is most appropriate now."

"Shit happens?"

Janet snorted. "Hardly, dear. You snooze," she eyed her daughter seriously, "you lose."

* * *

David's wife, Beth, pushed herself off the cabin's sofa and plopped gracelessly onto the hard wood floor, causing her brown curls to bounce. Beth was a little shorter than Lauren, with wide hips and a scooped nose. She had a quick wit and a quicker smile and was a professor of early American history at Georgetown University. Beth and Lauren had instantly hit it off and the evening had already been filled with equal parts intellectual conversation, rambunctious laughter, and beer.

"Well," Beth said cheerfully, "why don't we play a game?"

"What kind of a game?" David wriggled his eyebrows and sank deeper into the soft sofa. "Strip checkers maybe?"

Beth laughed and reached over and slapped her husband's knee. "Pervert."

"And you married him," Dev reminded. "What does that say for you?"

Beth took a long swallow of her beer while she pondered Dev's comment. "Good point," she finally admitted. She turned to Lauren. "I was thinking of something that could help us all get to know each other a little better."

"Beth." Dev's tone was warning.

Beth raised her amber-colored bottle, it's golden contents sparkling in the firelight. "We could play spin the bottle." She laughed again when her husband suddenly perked up. "But I don't want David to have a heart attack." Beth smiled sweetly at her husband, gleefully bursting his bubble. "He's right in the danger years."

"I am not!"

"Are too!"

"So what were you thinking about?" Lauren asked, curiosity finally getting the better of her. She set her third bottle of cold beer down on the floor next to her chair and dropped down onto the area rug beneath it, mirroring Beth. The writer tucked her legs beneath her Indian style, enjoying a light buzz from the alcohol and the aroma of oak from the crackling fire.

"We could always see how brave Madam President really is." Beth smirked at Dev. "How about truth or dare?"

"Bring it on, Beth! If I can handle a Republican controlled Congress, I can handle three measly Democrats."

Lauren snorted, nearly sending her beer through her nose. "Thanks a lot, Devlyn," she laughed. The blonde woman mentally cataloged her most embarrassing moments and most evil sins and then decided they would be worth sharing just to hear Dev's. "Okay, Beth. I'm in."

David yawned. "You know me, I'm game."

"You're all heathens, but I'll play along. I have a feeling I'm the good girl of the group."

Beth rolled her eyes. "You forget who you're talking to, Devil. Lauren might believe that BS, but don't try it on me or David. We've known you for toooooooo long." She took another drink and emptied her bottle. Then she clapped her hands together and reached into the ice-filled tub full of frosty bottles that sat between the four people. "Dev, you're so cocky tonight. I think you should go first. Truth or dare, Madam President?"

Three sets of expectant eyes turned towards Dev.

"Well, let's cut the President of the United States bullshit for the rest of the week. And I'll go with truth."

Lauren giggled when David made a loud honking noise, indicating that Dev had already made a tactical error with her selection of truth.

Beth happily picked up the gauntlet. "Truth: How many people have you slept with?"

"I'm assuming you mean in a sexual sense?" Dev sipped her beer and shot Beth a look that screamed ‘Bitch!'. "One," she said very softly.

Lauren dropped her bottle in her lap then cursed as the icy liquid seeped through her jeans. "Jesus... Damn, that's cold." She turned wide eyes on Dev. "One?! As in one, single, solitary person?!" Maybe she means one at a time. God, I hope she's not interested in more than one at a time.

David and Beth burst out laughing .

"Yes!" Dev huffed. "What else would it mean?" Dev grimaced when she realized her voice had taken on an indignant tone that sounded a lot like her Aunt Myrtle. "I know it seems kind of pitiful and pathetic but... umm... well..."

"It's not pitiful at all! It's really... err..." Lauren desperately searched for the right word, immediately throwing out ‘unbelievable' and ‘amazing'. "Sweet." There, that's a good word.‘One?' She mouthed the word silently, clearly in shock as she reached for another beer. She's practically a virgin! Oh, please don't let them ask me that question. Please, please. Compared to ‘one' I look like a total slut! Pleasepleasepleaseplease.

Dev exhaled and considered who should be her first victim. She was tempted to pick Beth to exact her revenge, but was far more curious about the writer. "Okay, Lauren, truth or dare?"

"Dare!" Lauren blurted out, relieved she could avoid the question Dev had been asked.

The trio burst out laughing at how quickly the writer had made her decision. They all knew that this meant she had something to hide and now they could work as a team to figure it out. "Okay," Dev grinned. "Give me your bra." She laughed and gestured casually. "The one you're wearing."

Lauren's mouth dropped open.

Beth leaned over and clapped her hand over David's eyes, causing the man to protest loudly. "Hush up, David!" she scolded.

Lauren shook her head at Dev, loving the mischievous twinkle in the slightly glazed blue eyes. "You're drunk, aren't you?"

"No." A little drunk."I'm...happy. If you can't run with the big dogs, Mighty Mouse, just get up on the porch."

A single pale eyebrow lifted and Lauren sat up to her knees. She turned until she was completely facing Dev. "It was my bra, right?" She lifted her hands to the buttons of her lightweight denim shirt and Dev stopped breathing.

The suddenly stillness in the room alerted David that something was happening and the man begin to squirm, trying to get a peek between his wife's fingers. They both began to laugh and Beth began to poke David in the belly. "No way!"

Lauren slowly undid the first button of her top, keeping her eyes riveted on Dev's.

Dev watched as Lauren paused briefly and then began to finger the second button. Oooo, now I gotta put up or shut up. But if she takes her shirt off, I'm gonna die. My brain is just gonna ooze out my ears.Dev knew she was grinning like a total idiot and blushing furiously, but she met Lauren's eyes and never wavered. "That's what I said. Of course, you could change your mind and go with truth."

Lauren's fingers stopped. "Do you want me to change my mind, Devlyn?" she asked softly.

David shook his head and was about to cry out ‘no' when his wife clamped her other hand over his mouth.

Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!"I want you to do, what you want to do." The President licked her lips and sipped her beer, knowing she had firmly hit the ball back to the writer.

Lauren nodded slowly. I want to ask you to come over here and do it for me. But since that's probably not a good idea – tonight – this will have to do.The writer unbuttoned the second and third buttons, sliding her hands inside her shirt to find warm skin. Her bra happened to unhook in the front, and with a quick twist the cups fell away. Her bloused shirt and hands covered the most crucial spots. She grinned as Dev began to fan herself but didn't look away.

"Hurry up, Lauren," Beth called. "She said lose the bra, not perform a damn striptease!"

David whimpered at what he was missing. This was so unfair.

Dev finally bit her lip and glanced down at her beer just long enough for Lauren to pull away her hands and slip her bra out of one of her sleeves. She buttoned the third button but left the two highest buttons of her shirt undone, however. It was enough to a fair amount of cleavage, but not enough to get arrested for. Then she crawled over to Dev on her hands and knees and held the lacy undergarment in front of her face. "I believe you asked for this?"

Dev took the garment and looked at it. Then she mopped her brow with it before sticking it in the pocket of her pants. "Yeah," Her voice cracked like a prepubescent boy. "Thanks."

Beth finally removed her hands from David's face. "No more naked dares! How long do you think I can hold him?"

"Well, hell, Beth, you've held onto him for nearly 15 years what's another 15 minutes? Okay, Lauren, it's your turn."

Lauren didn't go back to her seat. Instead, she sat down next to Dev who had moved to the floor. The President lifted her bottle for another drink but just as the glass touched her lips Lauren snatched it from her hand and finished it off in one long swallow. "Ahhhh..." she breathed. "Thanks. It was getting hot in here."

"I'll say!" Beth pressed her bottle against her forehead.

David frowned and mumbled petulantly, "Not like I'd know."

Dev retrieved her bottle and held it up to the light. "You stole my beer. Man, you ask a girl for her bra and you gotta give her a whole beer? For a whole beer I should get the panties too!"

This time it was Lauren who blushed. Oh yeah. Dev's drunk. Nobody would believe I'm playing a teenager's game with the President of the United States.

"Your turn," Beth reminded Lauren.

"Okay." The very tip of Lauren's tongue appeared as she concentrated for a moment. She pushed her glasses farther up on her nose. "David..."

The red-headed man sat up straight.

"True or dare?"

"Truth."

Lauren grinned wickedly. "What's the last horribly embarrassing thing that Devlyn did that you kept out of the Press?"

"She went out with Candy Delaney."

"Hey! No fair," Lauren protested instantly. "I already knew that!"

Dev made a face at her Chief of Staff. "Besides, dumbass, that was your fault. You set me up with her. Personally, I think the fact that I got my speeches mixed up last week was pretty good. I mean, when was the last time the President started to give a speech written for The National Cattlemen's Association to the World Vegetarian League?"

Lauren sniggered. "That was embarrassing. But David really couldn't answer with that one." A beat. "Considering I read about it for two days."

"David!" Beth chastised. "You're supposed to nip that kind of thing in the bud!"

"I know you think I'm the great and powerful Oz-"

"You mean you're not?" Beth asked with devastating innocence, just as David leaned over and stole a kiss.

The tall redhead smacked his lips together happily when the kiss ended. "Okay, Dev, truth or dare?"

"Truth."

David grinned and grabbed a handful of popcorn. "How'd you break your pinkie finger, Devil?"

Dev choked on her beer and flicked the cap at David's head. "You know how I broke my finger, you prick."

"But I don't," Lauren pointed out happily. She grinned at Beth who grinned back. Oh boy. This should be interesting.

Dev took a deep breath and then a big drink of her beer. "One night I got my hand slammed in a window..." She pretended to take another drink, hoping that would be a suitable answer.

Lauren elbowed the President. "Annnnnnnnd?"

"And it got broken when the window came down on it."

David wiped his fingers on his jeans. "The part she leaving out is that she was naked and in the throws of passion when she did it. She grabbed the bottom of the window and pulled it shut on her own hand."

Dev reached over and punched him on the shoulder. "Thanks, pal!"

Lauren burst out laughing. She reached out and grabbed Dev's pinkie finger, holding it up for examination and giving serious consideration to kissing it. "And you know this how, David?"

"Because she was running for office at the time and they called me first to tell me the window was jammed with her hand stuck in it and Samantha thought they were gonna have to call the fire department. They wanted me to keep it from hitting the papers."

Beth began to howl. God, she loved this story! She knewDavid would be cruel enough to bring it up during the game. God, she loved David!

Lauren and David joined in until Dev, who was sitting with her arms crossed over her chest, pouting, finally had enough.

"Okay, fine. Laugh it up, you rat bastards. Truth or dare, Strayer?"

Lauren jerked her thumb toward Beth. "It's her turn!"

"That's okay," Beth said. "Since no one has bothered to ask me a question, I'll be happy to let Dev take my turn. Have at it, Devlyn. And make it good."

Lauren stuck out her tongue at Beth. "Fine. I pick dare." You're not getting me on that sex question tonight, Devlyn Marlowe.

"I'm betting good money you have a tattoo somewhere. If you do, show it."

"No way! She is not the tattoo type. A hundred says she doesn't have one," David taunted.

"You're on!" Dev leaned over and they shook hands.

Gray eyes narrowed. Shit!"What makes you think I have a tattoo?" Lauren's words were tinged with as much indignation as she could muster. Which wasn't much, considering she did actually have a tattoo. But David was right. She wasn't the type. It was something stupid she'd done on a dare when she was in college. Kind of like what she was doing right now.

"I know the type," Dev pronounced firmly. "Deceptively cute looking, all innocent like the girl next door. No, make that the ‘All American' girl next door." She chuckled at the appalled look on Lauren's undeniably cute face. "You girls always have a tattoo because at some point in your life you bucked the system and either got a tattoo or dated a biker." Dev took another swallow of beer. "And you don't strike me as the biker-dating type."

Shit, I hate it when Devlyn's right. And dating a biker would have been so much less permanent!Lauren looked nervously at David and Beth who were staring back at her, waiting with bated breath for an answer. She leaned close to Dev's ear and whispered, "Ummm... assuming just for a moment that I do have a tattoo, who exactly would I have to show again? Not everybody, right?" There was a hint of pleading in her voice.

Dev looked at David and Beth, giving a vague gesture. "You'd trust me to verify it and tell the truth, right Beth?"

Beth grinned. "Absolutely, Devil." David was about to protest but his wife beat him to the punch. "And so would David. We trust you implicitly, Dev."

Dev turned her silly, truly buzzed face to Lauren and wiggled her brows. "Just me then. You only have to show me. C'mon, Lauren," she crooned, barely able to control her laughter.

Lauren blew out a breath. "Just you?"

Dev nodded. "Just me. Where is it?" Dev's smile widened, she hadn't really believed the writer would have a tattoo. Lauren was far too straight-laced for a tattoo. And someone got close to her with a needle? "You were unconscious when you got it, weren't you?"

Lauren nodded. "You know it."

The blonde woman turned to Beth and David and made a circular motion with her index finger. The McMillians turned their backs, but not before a few more mumbled protests from David. She raised an eyebrow at Dev. "Promise you won't laugh?"

"No, I won't promise that." God if I don't kiss her again soon I'm gonna die. "When a girl gives you her bra before you've even ever bought her dinner, she totally gives up the right not to be laughed at," Dev teased.

"Bitch," Lauren mumbled as she rose to her feet and began undoing the button to her jeans. "It's on my..." A pause. "Hip. Sort of."

Dev swallowed hard, holding up her hand. "What do you mean sort of?" You drop your pants and I will die.

"I mean sort of. It's well, I guess I'll have to show you. There really isn't a word to describe exactly where it is. But if you'd rather I stop-"

"No, no, go ahead." I just wish I were gonna remember this in the morning

Lauren bit her lip but nodded. "Stupid game." She positioned herself in front of Devlyn and glanced over her shoulder to find Beth and David making out on the rug and not paying the slightest attention to her and Dev.

She unbuttoned her pants with agonizing slowness, then began to slide them over her hips.

Dev felt her heart pounding so hard she was sure that it was going to burst out of her chest at any moment. She whimpered pitifully when she glimpsed panties that matched the silky, lacy bra. Her vision suddenly began to get fuzzy and she felt light-headed. Then everything went black.

Beth and David turned around at the sound of a loud thump.

Lauren pulled up her jeans and simply stared at Dev's prone body.

David jumped up. "Jesus Christ, Lauren, you killed her! Where the hell is that thing!"

Lauren pointed to Dev's body. "She's still breathing! I didn't kill her! She didn't even make it to the unveiling!"

* * *

Everyone retired shortly after they had carried a snoring Dev to bed, which sucked, considering her room, along with Lauren's, was upstairs. Lauren went to her room, which was connected to Dev's via a shared bathroom. David and Beth had been awarded the master bedroom downstairs because of its larger bed.

Lauren changed into a pair of soft cotton, short boxers and a threadbare T-shirt. She held her panties in her hand wondering if Dev would give her back her bra or if the set would be lost forever. Oh well, she smirked inwardly, it was sort of kinky thinking of Dev with a pair of her panties. God, how old am I again? Besides, she probably won't remember tonight. Those beers went right to her head, poor, evil thing.

The writer placed her glasses on the nightstand and crawled into bed, sighing at wonderful feeling of clean sheets and soft bedding. "Oh, this is nice." She nuzzled the comforter and closed her eyes, still a little wound up after the silly game she and Dev had played with each other. Her head was a little foggy from the beer, but she was certain she hadn't drunk enough to warrant a hangover in the morning. Just enough to feel incredibly... relaxed.

Lauren wasn't quite sure what woke her up. It took a moment or two for the sounds to register. She squeezed her eyes shut and crammed the extra pillow against her face. "I so do not need this," she mumbled into the thick feather pillow. One particularly low moan caught her attention and made her giggle. She wasn't sure whether it was Beth or David. "Somebody is a verrrrry happy camper right now." When the sounds continued, Lauren briefly considered stuffing a blanket or towel into the air vent that was carrying the erotic sounds.

Finally, when she couldn't take it any longer, she headed for the bathroom, hoping that if David and Beth heard footsteps above them, they'd tone down their bedsports to a dull roar – in deference to those not so lucky.

She didn't turn on the light - a small night light provided more than enough illumination. Lauren used the facilities and washed her hands. She smiled into the mirror when she realized that couldn't hear them in here. I can sleep in the shower!It wouldn't have been the first time. But it was a stall shower, so, with an unhappy groan, she quickly gave up on the idea. This couldn't go on all night. Hell, she'd been married for three years. She could attest to that fact!

Then another sound caught her ear. It was Dev. Lauren didn't hesitate to quietly open the door that led to Dev's room and check on her friend.

"Don't…" The President's voice was pleading again; apparently she was caught up in another nightmare.

Lauren stepped deeper into the room and moved to the edge of Dev's bed. She noticed two things right away. Dev was rolling around in her bed, all twisted in her sheets. And she was naked as the day she was born. From the waist up at least. Her pajama top was wadded into a ball on the floor.

"Don't!" Dev's thrashed again. Her breathing was coming in short, raspy bursts.

Lauren swallowed as a feeling of helplessness washed over her, leaving her nearly in tears. Another nightmare? God, Dev, how often do you have these?

"Please…please. Don't leave!" Dev tossed in the bed, fighting the covers and becoming more distressed by the second.

Lauren knelt alongside the bed. "Devlyn," she whispered. "It's just a dream, darlin'." Lauren carefully reached out to straighten Dev's sheets and tug something over Dev's naked breasts, which were bathed in silver moonlight. The sheet stopped just below what she was trying to cover. "Jesus." Lauren closed her eyes and tugged harder, cursing softly when the bedding wouldn't move. Dev's whimpers grew louder and when no amount of soothing seemed to work, Lauren tentatively crawled in bed alongside the older woman.

Dev let out a long hard breath, instantly curling up against Lauren and wrapping her arms around the writer's waist. She made a few more frustrated noises that were quickly followed by soft mewing sounds that eventually evened into gentle snores

Lauren pressed her cheek against Dev's hair and returned the embrace. "That's it. Relax." She took a deep breath, catching the smell of fresh linen and Dev's skin. She exhaled contentedly. Lauren tried not to the think of the warm, soft breasts pressing against her. I don't want to move, even though I need to. This feels too nice. What are you dreaming of, Devlyn?
 
 

Wednesday, June 16 th

Dev was caught up in that wonderful place between sleep and wakefulness, where the slightest push one way or the other is all it would take to get you there. She was having the most wonderful dream: Lauren was in her arms, she could feel her, smell her, and if she lowered her lips just a hair, she could taste warm, soft skin. She shifted to hug her body pillow closer. But with her next breath she was suddenly more awake than asleep.

Panic set in when she could feel her body pillow's gentle breath against the sensitive skin. Don't panic, Marlowe! Too late! Okay, you don't remember anything after the tattoo thing. But that doesn't mean anything. Relax.Dev could hear footsteps downstairs and by the angle of the sunshine cascading in through her window, she could tell it was at least mid-morning. Wake her up, but don't do anything stupid. Tread softly."Lauren?"

"Hmmm?" Lauren murmured, snuggling closer.

"Lauren?" It was all Dev could do to breathe and not bolt upright. "Come on, sweetheart. It's time to wake up."

Lauren shook her head and mumbled a grumpy ‘no'. "Go ‘way," she slurred even as she snuggled closer, shifting and pressing her face against Dev's chest. She sighed and began to lightly snore.

Dev whimpered. She bit her lip as the shivers worked their way down her spine and the gooseflesh broke out all over her shoulders. I could stay like this for a while. What would be so wrong about that?She ran her fingers through disordered, wavy blonde hair, loving its silken texture.

She was about to try again when there was a sharp rap on the door, just a split second before it opened. "Devil, breakfast is ready and I-" Janet Marlowe stopped dead in her tracks as Dev quickly pulled the covers over her half-naked body and the woman sleeping in her arms.

"Mom!"

Lauren's eyes flew open, only it was dark. She could feel something brushing against her cheek. Her mind desperately searched itself. "Oh my God! A nipple!" she squawked loudly, squirming wildly as Dev held her down.

Dev's face flushed bright red and her mother began howling with laughter. "Well, Devil dear, it's good to know that she recognizes all the important parts!" The older woman tossed her head back in renewed laughter. When Janet finally composed herself, she said, "Breakfast is ready if you two are the least bit interested." The woman continued to chuckle even as she pulled the door shut. "Frank, put a couple of plates in the oven – it may be awhile. Thank the Lord!"

Dev groaned, trying to decide what part of this was going to kill her first. She suspected it would be Lauren.

When Devlyn finally let go of her death grip on the sheet, the writer practically flew out of the bed, landing on the floor with a glorious, unceremonious thud. She looked around the room. Dev's room? Then the events of the night before came rushing back. "You..." Lauren swallowed. "You were having a dream."

Dev made no effort to move. She simply lay on her back with her arms out at her side. "Apparently." After a moment she added, "Do you, perchance, know where my shirt is?"

"I didn't take it off!" Lauren shot back defensively. Then she stopped and got a really good look at Devlyn's semi-nude body, which amazingly looked even better in the bright morning sun than it had in the moonlight. She stared. "Damn, Devlyn."

Dev rolled over on her side, pulling the blanket over herself, trying to hide her smile at Lauren's obvious appreciation of her body. "I didn't say you did. Can you get in that dresser behind you and get me a T-shirt? You'll know they're mine because they have the Presidential seal on them," she teased, hoping to lower Lauren's defensiveness.

They were here to relax and Dev was going to relax and get this sorted out without causing another problem between her and Lauren. More kissing, less problems. Was that so much to ask?

"Why are you so concerned about your shirt," Lauren hissed. "I'm a girl too, you know." She ignored the fact that she had been staring at Dev's naked body like she was a 16-year-old boy. "We need to worry about your mother! She caught us... us..." Lauren waved her hands in the air. "In bed together!"

Dev took a deep breath and got out of the bed, looking around until she found her pajama shirt on the floor at the foot of the bed. She slipped it on. "First, I only wanted my shirt because believe it or not, I'm modest." When I'm not drinking beer."And second, did my mother sound upset by the fact that she found us in bed together?" Dev tilted her head, finally getting a good look at Lauren in her cotton boxers and thin T-shirt. Nice, very nice.

"I dunno. I couldn't hear very well because one of my ears was pressed up against..." She pointed at Dev and flushed a bright red. "You know!"

"Oh yeah. I know." Dev sighed and took a tentative step forward. "Trust me. My mother was not upset. There's no reason for you to be, unless you're upset that you were in bed with me." Which, you moron, she probably is. Jesus, Dev, what the hell did you do last night?"I'm umm… I'm sorry if I did anything out of line, Lauren. I never meant to hurt you. To be honest, I'm not even sure how we ended up here together. But if I hurt you or upset you-"

Lauren raised her palms. "Hold it." Dev's parents are not your parents, Lauri. Relax. She's not upset. Her mother didn't freak out. They won't be mad at her and nobody's going to come in here brandishing a shotgun. With effort, Lauren allowed some of her tension to slip away. "You didn't do anything. You were having a nightmare and I came in to see if I could help." She smoothed out the bottom of her T-shirt as she approached Dev. "I was worried. You didn't wake up when I shook you, so I climbed into bed and you calmed right down. I... umm... I guess I feel asleep," she admitted bashfully.

Dev smiled. "You came in to help me with a bad dream? That was very sweet of you. I've been having trouble sleeping lately. Apparently you… uh…well, we both slept like babies last night. Thanks for staying. I know it must have been hard for you." Please tell me it wasn't. Please, please, please.

Lauren looked up shyly. "Hard?" She laughed. "Ummm… that's not exactly how I would describe it, Devlyn." She reached up and fingered a lock of dark hair.

Dev took Lauren's hand, kissing it very gently. When their eyes met, a smile spread across her lips. "You know what, Lauren Strayer?"

Lauren shook her head ‘no' and gazed up at Dev from behind pale lashes. "What?"

"I really want to kiss you right now. Do you think that'd be all right? Or are you afraid my mom will come back in?" She gave the shorter woman a lop-sided grin and inched a little closer, taking a deep breath and stroking Lauren's cheek with the back of her hand.

Lauren's eyelids drooped slightly when she felt the warmth of Devlyn's body come to rest against hers. Her heart began to pound and she lifted herself up onto tipped toes. "Who's mom?"

Dev slid her arms around the smaller woman and barely brushed her lips over Lauren's. Then, on impulse, she sighed and decided to show Lauren exactly what she felt. The kiss was slow, and patient and as loving as she could make it.

Lauren whimpered quietly when Dev gently requested more, which she gave without hesitation.

The writer felt Dev thread her fingers in her hair and pull her closer, deepening the kiss. Oh yeah, this is good in so many ways.Lauren's thoughts slowly moved from how good the kiss was to what else might be worth trying. Every blessed thing I can talk her into trying, she decided, as soon as I can figure out what that might be.

When they finally broke apart, Dev smiled and brushed her thumb over Lauren's lips. "So soft. Now I have another question for you."

"Yes," Lauren sighed dreamily. "Whatever it is, as long as I continue getting kisses like that, the answer is yes."

Dev straightened and gave Lauren a bright smile. "All right. If I'm going to take you out, then the least you can do is pick the place."

Lauren blinked. "Are you asking me on an honest to goodness, real live date?"

"Yes. And you can't back out now," Dev teased. "You already said yes."

A playful expression overtook Lauren's face. "Oh, I wasn't going to back out, Devlyn Marlowe. I'm holding you to your offer." She put her finger on her chin and pretended to seriously consider Dev's question. "Wherever we go, will there be a team of Secret Service agents lurking in every corner?"

"Yup. Unless you have some kinky fantasy that I'm not aware of that requires several agents."

"Ha! Wouldn't you like to know," Lauren shot back, stealing another small kiss. She hummed as they separated. "I should go get dressed." The smaller woman turned on her heel and moved toward the bathroom. "You don't have to take me anywhere, Devlyn. We can spend time together at home for all I care. So long as it's together."

"Actually, I would like to know," Dev called after her. "Now we get to go downstairs and face the family. Not to mention David and Beth. You ready for that?" Home? Did she just say home? Go ask her, stupid. No. Wait. One thing at a time. Ask her later.

Lauren turned around as she pulled open the bathroom door, the wood floor made her toes cold, but she felt warm inside. She cocked her head to the side. "We do it together right?"

Dev nodded.

"Then I'm ready if you are."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Madam President

Chapter VII

July 2021

 

Thursday, July 1st

 

Dev rubbed her temples. The men and women in the cabinet meeting waited for her to say something. Finally, she looked up and smiled. Even in a few months, this group had learned that this particular smile was not a good thing. "Fine," she said on a low and determined breath. "Since we don't seem to be getting anywhere talking to each other, let's try it the old fashioned way."

"With a lot of screaming and yelling?" Secretary of Agriculture Montgomery joked, trying to relieve some of the tension.

"That's definitely another option." Dev smirked. "But I'm thinking more in the line of progress reports. These should be simple summaries of what you're currently working on. I want them from your sub-committees too. And do me a favor?" Dev pinned Transportation Secretary Diovanni with annoyed eyes. "Read over what your assistants are going to prepare for me to see, before you send it. I'm holding you to the contents of these reports, ladies and gentlemen. I'm tired of trying to pry information out of you people. It's like trying to brush a tiger's teeth. I've already been shot; I'm not gonna lose an arm too."

David smirked, nearly choking on his juice. He raised a fist to his lips, coughing slightly as Dev turned her head to give him the ‘look'.

Dev continued speaking as she glanced at her agenda. "Now that the peanut gallery has been heard from, are there any questions?" She looked at each face around the long table. "Comments, concerns? Criticism can be left with the woman who runs the shredder," she said wryly as she stood up.

"Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, we're doing good work here. But we need to open the lines of communication a little more. I'm not trying to purposely torpedo all your programs. But without the proper information, I can't make an informed decision. I'm assuming that our next meeting will be more fruitful?" She tilted her head and waited until her question was answered with a round of affirmative, if slightly grumpy, murmurs. "Good." She buttoned her blazer and handed her notebook to Liza.

The room cleared quickly, leaving behind the President, David and Liza. Dev shook her head. "I swear," she mumbled, "you'd think I was working against them instead of with them. I can't believe I actually gave those people their jobs." She turned to her personal assistant. "How does my schedule look?"

"You're fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, Madam President."

"You're kidding? Let's fly to Paris for lunch!"

David laughed. "Madam President, are you always so sarcastic?" Translation: do you have to be a smartass every second of the day?

Dev smiled sweetly. "Is that a rhetorical question? Those are so annoying." Dev pushed in her chair and headed for the door.

Liza hurried after her. "The gift you ordered for Ms. Strayer's birthday arrived, Madam President. It's in your office if you'd like to go inspect it."

"Oh, good! God, I hope it's something she's going to like." Dev tugged on the sleeves of her blazer. "Not like I have time to return it and get something else."

"She's going to love it," Liza confirmed. "They're beautiful texts. First editions of Dickens aren't easy to come by these days."

"Tell me about it." Dev rolled her eyes as they turned the corner and headed down the corridor towards the executive offices. "Took me weeks to find mint quality and put these together. Let's just hope she likes them."

"She'll be fond of them because they're from you. Not just anyone gets birthday gifts from the President of the United States."

"The President isn't giving them to her." Dev looked at her assistant and wiggled her brows. "You coming to the party?"

Liza chewed her lip nervously. "Are you sure Ms. Strayer won't throw me off the balcony?"

"Nah. She's over that whole Casey thing."

"Really?" Liza asked hopefully.

"Umm nope." Dev laughed. "But I'll keep her occupied." She suddenly stopped walking and glanced around conspiratorially. She leaned close to Liza. "Why did you set her up with a woman? How did you know she wouldn't freak out? Lauren hadn't ever mentioned a sexual preference that I'm aware of."

It was all Liza could do not to laugh. "Have you ever seen the way she looks at you, Madam President?"

 

Friday, July 2nd

 

Dev stood in front of the full-length mirror. She studied her reflection critically. "So what do you think?" The tall woman turned to face the four pairs of eyes that had watched her through the last three changes of clothing.

Emma clucked approvingly. "Devlyn, you look fine. Of course, you looked fine in the blazer, the skirt, the sweaterandthe blue jeans."

"Yeah, but I think the slacks are the best. Not too formal, not too informal." She smoothed the sleeves of her silk, rust-colored blouse.

Emma snorted and rolled her eyes. "You're going to a movie in the private theater. You could go in your bathrobe if you wanted."

Blue eyes full of affection and exasperation glared at the nanny. "Do you mind if I want to impress her?"

Emma glared back. "I hate to break this to you, Devlyn, but if you haven't impressed her yet what you wear tonight isn't going to make any difference at all."

"I didn't need to hear that! You're supposed to be giving me an inspirational pep talk!"

"Okay, look back at that mirror."

Dev dutifully complied.

"Now repeat after me: I'm good enough. I'm smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me!"

Dev whipped her head around and narrowed her eyes at the older woman. "Why do I put up with you again, Emma?"

"Because you love her," the children chorused the familiar answer.

"Oh, yeah," Dev mumbled. She noticed Ashley had moved from her sitting position and was now lying on her bed with her head on her arms. Her posture was undeniably dejected.

The President walked over and sat down next to her daughter, rubbing her back. "Hey, Moppet?"

"Yeah?" Slightly sad eyes looked up at her.

"What's the matter?"

"Nothin'."

"Aww, c'mon. I know my girl better than that." She straightened her daughter's bright blue T-shirt. "What's wrong?"

"Does this mean you don't love mommy anymore?" the little girl asked earnestly.

Dev's chest constricted painfully at the unexpected, blunt question. For a moment she had to remind herself to breathe. "No, I-" She swallowed hard and started again. "You know better than that. I'll always love mommy, no matter what. And that doesn't mean I can't be very fond of Lauren. I want to see how she feels about me."

Christopher popped up next to Dev. "She likes you, Mom."

"Oh, she does, huh?" Dev asked, kneeling down to her son's level.

"Uh huh." The boy nodded. "A whole lot."

"How do you know this, pal?"

He just shrugged one shoulder. "Dunno. She always won't let Gremlin eat you, and she smiles at you."

Dev snorted. "I may just eat him!"

"Nooooo!" the kids cried, laughing hysterically when their mother turned her hands into claws and began licking her lips in an exaggerated fashion. "Maybe Lauren just thinks I'm silly. Besides, she smiles at you guys too."

Christopher grinned broadly and stuck out his little chest. "I know. She likes me a lot too."

"Chris is right, Mom!" Aaron climbed up on the bed next to his sister, propping his chin on his fists and adding his voice to the choir. "She likes you."

"Are you just buttering me up because you want me to ask Lauren about letting Grem sleep with you?" Dev teased, tweaking the nose of her youngest.

"Nuh uh!" Aaron laughed as he rolled away from Dev's pinching fingers.

Dev turned serious eyes back to Ash. "So, you don't like the idea of me and Lauren maybe seeing each other?"C'mon, Ashley. Please don't be that way. This is hard enough for me without having to worry about how you guys feel about her. I know you're crazy about her!

Ashley shrugged noncommittally.

Dev pushed off her knees and perched on the bed alongside the dark-haired girl. "Wasn't it you who said that I shouldn't be lonely?"

Ashley sighed. "Yeah."

"Well, what if Lauren could keep me from being lonely? That would be good wouldn't it?"

The girl's brows furrowed. "I guess it would."

"Ashley, your mommy wouldn't want me to spend the rest of my life alone. And I really think that she'd like Lauren."

"Really?" Ashley seemed to brighten with this news.

"Oh, yeah." Dev nodded enthusiastically, knowing it was the truth. Sam would definitely approve of Lauren. She was an intelligent, beautiful woman, who seemed to love her kids, and she wasn't afraid to challenge or support Dev, depending on what she needed. What's not to love? "Don't you agree, Emma?" Dev turned slightly pleading eyes on the nanny.

Emma smiled. "Most definitely." The older woman knew she was confirming this for Dev as much as she was for her daughter.

* * *

Lauren pulled her hair back. She had finally settled on the fourth outfit she'd tried on: a pair of loose-fitting, brown trousers, flats, and a sheer, crème-colored blouse. She inserted two small, silver, hooped earrings into her ears and set her glasses on the table. Then she dusted her cheeks with a light coating of earth-toned makeup and carefully applied her lipstick. Now it was time to argue with the hair. "Up or down?" She turned to Gremlin, who was lying on the bed.

He lifted his head and looked, then flopped it back down on the comforter and closed his eyes.

"Thanks so much for that invaluable input, buddy."

The writer turned back to the mirror and let her hair fall free around her shoulders. "Down. Definitely down." She pulled it back once again and grinned. "Of course, up has its advantages too." Lauren turned back to the dog and presented her neck. "Does this say, ‘I'm a toy; chew on me'?"

Gremlin yawned.

Lauren dropped her hair again and used her fingers to try and give some order to the wavy, fair locks.

She glanced down at the clock, knowing Dev was due at any moment.I wonder what we're going to do.Lauren laid her hand on her belly and chuckled as what had to be thousands of butterflies danced in her belly. "Why am I nervous?" she asked her reflection as she dabbed a touch of perfume behind her ears. "It's just Devlyn. I see her every day."

The blonde woman knew they wouldn't be leaving the White House, but she also knew Dev was a romantic at heart and would make their first official date together something special. "Now, as long as no one declares war anywhere, we'll be all set."

The knock on the door sent her stomach jumping, and she sucked in a deep breath.Calm down! You've seen her nearly every day for the past seven months. You've even seen her half-naked.A slightly lecherous grin twitched at the corner of her lips.Okay, that's not what I should think about if I want to be calm.

Setting her perfume back down on her dresser, Lauren took one last look in the mirror, reluctantly admitting to herself she really didn't have time to try a different outfit. "Okay." She nodded to herself.I'm ready. Better answer the door before she leaves. Then again, it's not like I couldn't track her down. She only lives down the hall.

Lauren opened the door, and Dev stood before her. She held a single, pale rose, which appeared even more pristinely white as it stood out against her dark blouse. She held the flower out, and gave Lauren a gentle smile. "Ms. Strayer? I'm Devlyn Marlowe, your date for the evening. By the way, I donotwork in the morgue."

A million things ran through Lauren's mind at that moment, but the only thing she could think to say was, "That's the best damned pick up line I've ever heard." She took the rose and pressed the fragrant petals to her nose as she looked into Dev's eyes. "Hi," she said softly.

Effortlessly charmed, Dev smiled back. "Hi."

Dev fought the urge to nervously shove her hands into her pockets. "I believe we're supposed to drop your furry little companion off with my children. They told me they're supposed to dog sit tonight. For some reason they don't think that little... I mean, Gremlin, can spend anytime alone now."

Lauren grinned knowingly.

"I think there may even be a petition to officially adopt him in the works. Sorry, it's out of my hands now."

The biographer laughed. She'd resigned herself to losing Gremlin to Dev's kids months ago. Not that she could blame him. She snapped her fingers, and Grem jumped off the bed. But he walked over to her at a snail's pace, and when he looked at Dev and bared his crooked, little teeth, he couldn't even muster a growl.

Dev looked at the dog and pointed. "What's wrong with him? I should be fearing for the skin on my ankles right now."

Pale brows drew together. "I don't know. Ever since we came home from Ohio, Grem's been acting weird. Almost depressed." She held up the flower and smiled warmly. "Thanks. It's beautiful. You... um... you look beautiful."

"Thanks." Dev tried to act nonchalant, but knew her cheeks were tinged pink. "Just something I tossed on. You look," her own sigh interrupted her, "absolutely wonderful." Dev held out her hand and felt the warmth of Lauren's palm as she wrapped her fingers around the writer's. "Shall we?"

Gremlin followed slowly behind them as they moved down the hallway. The President glanced back at the midget canine and frowned. "I almost feel cheated because he didn't growl at me. And I didn't get to growl back."I've been practicing, beastie."If he doesn't seem any better the first of the week, let's call in a vet." She glanced back again. "Or maybe a little doggie therapist."

"I think a vet would be best. Somehow I just don't see Gremlin responding well to therapy." She looked back at the ugly little dog. "Isn't that right, Grem?"

He grumbled in response, his head hanging low.

As they entered the family room, Grem seemed to perk up a little. He trotted over to the kids who were playing Chutes and Ladders on the coffee table.

Lauren looked at Dev again and let out a slightly nervous breath. She had wondered if going out with a woman would be much different than dating a man. With Casey, she had determined they could both be equally disappointing. With Dev, however, she was looking forward to their evening with a heady mixture of excitement and arousal. "So where are we going, Madam President? Are you my partner for Chutes and Ladders?" she teased, pointing at the game. "Frankly, I could use the help. Aaron kicks my butt every time."

Dev chuckled. "No, let's leave the kiddie games to the kiddies, shall we?" She opened the door and ushered Lauren out. "I have something entirely different planned for us."

They walked down the hall and were greeted by smiling faces every few paces. "Wow. I don't believe this." Lauren smiled back, a little confused. "I didn't even know that agents had teeth! Does every member of the Secret Service know that we're on a date tonight?"

Dev looked embarrassed. "Umm, I may have mentioned it once."

"Once?"

"Maybe twice."

"Uh huh," Lauren drawled skeptically. "Twice?"

"Or a few hundred times."

"Lord."

Dev ducked a swat as they continued through a series of hallways, stopping outside the private theater. Dev looked down at Lauren and smiled. "You know that new movie that's coming out next week? The one by that director you're so wild about?"

"Yeah." Lauren sighed. She knew she probably wouldn't get a chance to see it while it was still in theaters.

Dev pulled the doors open and the lights automatically came up. "Well, since I happen to have a house with a theater, I thought you might enjoy a sneak preview. But if it totally stinks, you're not allowed to leak it to the press. The director would come kill me herself," Dev joked.

Lauren's jaw dropped. "You got a copy of the movie before it was released?" She instantly held up a hand. "Wait. You're the leader of the free world. Sometimes I forget." She gazed at Dev in pure adoration. "This is so sweet." Lauren gently pulled the taller women into a hug, still mindful of her shoulder. "Thank you."

Dev returned the embrace, not giving a damn about her shoulder. In her opinion, this was the best therapy she could get. "Well, it's the least I could do since I can't really take you out on a proper date." Very slowly she released Lauren and led her to the front of the room. "And what's a movie without dinner?" A blanket had been spread on the carpet, and various chafing-dishes had been set out on a low table.

Lauren hummed appreciatively; her belly grumbled when the spicy scent of hot tamales, Spanish rice and black beans invaded her senses. "I guess I'm just a little hungry," she admitted sheepishly.

Dev refrained from commenting about Lauren's grumbling stomach. "So, shall we eat and chat or would you like to just cut straight to the chase?" She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I mean, would you like to watch the movie first or have dinner or" She stopped, drawing a deep breath. "I'm babbling now. I'll just shut up and let you tell me what you want to do."

Lauren chuckled softly and took Dev's hand. "I do believe, Madam President," she drawled, "that you are even more nervous than I am." She regarded Dev seriously for a moment. "Why is that?"

"Umm... well." Dev moved them to the blanket and began fiddling with the food. She prepared a couple of small plates and poured two glasses of wine. "You see, I've not been a veryGod, this is awkward. I've only had one real experience with this whole dating thing" She sipped her wine, gesturing for Lauren to join her. "Samantha was the only woman in my life. And since she died, I haven't I mean there hasn't been anyone else" She finally stopped when she realized she sounded totally stupid.

Oh, Devlyn. Lauren's gaze softened, her heart going out to her friend. They needed to have a talk about Samantha soon. But tonight was for them alone. "Don't be embarrassed by that. Maybe we can learn how to do this together." She looked into her wineglass. "I haven't been overly successful in the dating department myself. But... um..." The blonde woman lifted her head and looked into Devlyn's eyes. "I'm pretty sure we'll be able to muddle through if we really put our minds to it."

"I think we could muddle through anything if we put our minds to it." Dev leaned over and placed a delicate kiss on the smaller woman's cheek. She allowed her lips to linger for a moment before pulling away. "I think part of my nervousness comes from the fact that I've never been out with someone who already knows everything about me." She sipped her wine and closed her eyes tight. "Including some things I'm going to get my father for when he least expects it." She looked up again. "But if those didn't send you screaming into the night, then I'm damned lucky, and I'm really glad I met you."

Lauren suspected she'd barely scratched the surface of this complicated, sweet, beautiful woman. But she wasn't going to waste the chance. Her gaze dropped to Dev's lips as the urge to kiss the tall woman welled up within her. She leaned forward, smiling when Dev immediately leaned in to meet her. "I'm glad I met you too," she whispered, and let her lips brush lightly against the President's.

 

Sunday, July 4th

 

Dev hung up the phone, looking to the clock on the wall. "Do people not realize it's 3:00 A.M. here?" She looked to David who was slumped in the chair across from her desk.

"With all due respect, Madam President, they don't care."

"Ironic, isn't it? It's Independence Day here in the States, and I'm up in the middle of the night handling a possible missile crisis in China."

"And that's why you get the big bucks and the cool toys."

Dev snorted. "Yeah, right."

"Do we need to call in the Secretary of Defense?"

"No, not yet. But I suggest we haul the Chinese Ambassador's ass over here. His input will be very insightful."

"Lemme guess." David arched a rust-colored eyebrow and slid his tie completely off. "Just because you can?"

Dev picked up the phone. "Pretty much. If I can't sleep, no one can." She reached across her desk and picked up a picture of Lauren and the kids that had been taken when they went on vacation. "Tell you what, just for grins and giggles, get the Secretary of Defense over here too."

David pushed himself out of the chair. "Yes, ma'am. I'll get the latest intel from the situation room too."

* * *

After several hours of tense negotiations, Dev had managed to get a satisfactory resolution to a problem that could have gotten completely out of hand with the simplest of missteps. "God, I need a shower and a nap. We've got the barbecue tonight and" Her eyes went wide. "Oh, shit!"

"What?"

"It's Lauren's birthday. I ordered breakfast and flowers delivered to her room with a note saying I'd be joining her," she glanced at the clock again, "an hour and a half ago. Aw, she's gonna kill me." Devlyn opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a brightly wrapped box. "Let's hope she likes this."

She bolted out of her office and headed for the residence, and a houseguest turned very potential girlfriend, who she was sure was going to be supremely annoyed. "I should never have had breakfast delivered so early! She hates getting up early!"

"It's okay, guys." David called off the alarmed Secret Service agents who saw Dev sprint past them. "She's just... she's late, she's late"Awww... go ahead and say it."For a very important date."

A few minutes later she stood in front of Lauren's door, running her hand through her hair. She took a deep breath and held it as she knocked on the door. "God, please don't let her be mad."

Lauren opened her door, and pale brows lifted at the sight of a very disheveled Dev. She would have said something except for the fact that her mouth was full of an enormous bite of sweet roll. Instead, she grabbed Dev by the front of her shirt and tugged her into her room, kicking the door shut behind her.

"I'm soooo sorry," Dev began quickly. "I meant to be here when they woke you, but I had to deal with something that's kept me busy half the night. If I'd had time I would have called and told them not to do it. Or called you and told you to go back to bed or... umm... just called you, I guess."

Lauren waved a dismissive hand. "S'okay, Devlyn. Relax, I'm not angry." She motioned to the couch. "Can you stay for a minute?" She held out her roll, and Dev ducked her head and took a bite.

"Umm... are there more of these?"

Lauren nodded and motioned her to the couch as she went to retrieve the plate of rolls and a pot of coffee. "So, what happened?" She hunted quickly for a second cup. "If you can talk about it, that is."

"I helped deter World War III this morning, and I need a break. That's what happened." The dark-haired woman settled on the couch with a groan. She kicked long legs out in front of her. "Looks to me like they brought you a nice breakfast." Suddenly she remembered she had Lauren's birthday present. "Happy birthday!"

Lauren's face paled. "Oh, my God, Devlyn. Did you really stop World War III this morning?"

"Actually, pretty close." She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "I've been up all night."

Lauren joined Dev on the sofa and patted her knee. "I'm sorry." She looked down at the present that was thrust into her hands. "Wow, it is my birthday again. I swear they come quicker every year." She shook the package, trying to guess what was inside as she folded one leg beneath her. "Can I have a hint?"

Dev didn't answer. Instead, she jumped up and grabbed Lauren's glasses off the nightstand.

Lauren reached out and took them, wordlessly wrapping the wire frames around each ear. She stared down at the gift, trying to remember the last time she'd gotten a birthday gift. Her parents always sent a card. But they stopped giving presents when Lauren turned eighteen and became too old for such foolishness. Judd always gave her a gift on her birthday, but he was the only one. Ever. The writer pushed aside the bittersweet memories and held the box up to her ear, giving it another gentle shake. "Do you want me to open it now?"

"Please." Dev sat back down. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to go lie down before the barbecue tonight, so we won't get a lot of time together until then. I wanted a quiet moment to give it to you. I hope you like it."

"Okay, if you insist." But Lauren was eagerly ripping open the paper and box even as she said the words. Out of the box she pulled three small, brown, leather-bound novels. "‘A Tale of Two Cities'. ‘Oliver Twist'. ‘Great Expectations'! That's one of my..." Lauren paused and studied the books more closely, flipping open the first few pages. "My God, are these first editions?" she whispered reverently. Dev released a very tense breath. "Yeah, they are. Do you like them?" she asked hopefully.

Lauren looked up at her with teary eyes. "I..." She had to stop for a moment. "I love them." She smiled, and her chin quivered a little. "Thank you."

"Hey!" Dev reached out and caught a tear just as it fell from the corner of Lauren's eye. "My gift wasn't supposed to make you cry. No crying allowed!" She grinned. "Wait until you see what I ordered for you for tonight."

Lauren sniffed, only mildly embarrassed. She gave Dev a watery smile. "Will it make me cry too?"

"Gee, I hope not. You'll just have to wait and see." Dev suddenly felt an unexpected, stabbing pain at the base of her skull. "I just can't win. I've got a headache like you wouldn't believe. I'm going to go grab a couple of aspirin, call for a massage, and try to get some sleep." Suddenly she sat up straight. "It's Sunday, isn't it?"

"It sure is, Madam President." Lauren's expression sobered. "You work too hard sometimes, Devlyn. And you get headaches way too often. You need more sleep."

Dev grunted her agreement. "When I took the job, I knew what it meant." She sighed. "I guess sleep is out of the question. The kids will be up soon. Maybe I have time for a massage."

Lauren carefully set down her books on the coffee table. "Umm. Devlyn, you know, I could give you a massage." She slid around behind the couch and began digging her hands into Dev's tense shoulder muscles, kneading them firmly. "Or, I could call someone for you?" she offered innocently, nearly laughing at Dev's deep moan of pleasure.

"Yeeeeesssss." Dev's head dropped forward, giving Lauren more room to work her tired, aching muscles. "I'll give you an hour to stop that. Okay, two hours. But that's my final offer."

Lauren chuckled and continued, feeling Dev relax even more. Abused muscles began to loosen, and before long the President's head fell to the side, and she began snoring softly. Lauren enjoyed touching Dev for a few more moments before she began to slowly cease her massage. She gently helped the exhausted woman to lie down, easing her onto the cushions and allowing her to stretch out. Lauren retrieved a blanket and tucked Dev in. She leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, absently wiping the faint lipstick smudge away with her thumb. "Sleep well, darlin'. Grem and I will be with the munchkins."

The biographer had just stepped out of her room when Emma met her in the hall. "If you're looking for Devlyn, she's in there taking a nap on the sofa. She was-"

"Up all night. I know." Emma shook her head and smiled. "I'm glad she's getting a little rest. Here," she thrust a heavy package into Lauren's hands, "this came in Dev's personal mail this morning, but it's addressed to you. Looks like an early birthday gift to me."

Lauren examined the brown paper wrapping. The return address just said ‘home', but there was a Columbus, Ohio postmark. "Must be from Dev's folks."

Emma nodded. "I'm sure that's Janet's handwriting. But the only way to know for sure is to open it and see."

Lauren chuckled and tore into the paper. "Exactly." It was a book, and when she finally pulled away the last of the brown wrapper both she and Emma turned as red as lobsters. "Oh, my God," Lauren whispered, feeling the heat in her cheeks.

Emma began laughing so hard that she had to step away from Lauren's door for fear she'd wake up Dev. "Oh, yes," she laughed. "That is most definitely from Janet Marlowe. Only she would do that, God bless her liberal soul. Dev certainly took after her traditional father, but you'll see a little of Janet peek out in her every now and then." Emma poked the white cover, tilting her head and seeing the darker pages at the end of the text. "At least she got you the paper and not the electronic version. I just don't think the illustrations would be the same on screen. Do you?"

"How would I know?" Lauren squeaked.

Emma rolled her eyes. "That's why she sent you the book, Lauren."

"Oh, yeah." Lauren shook her head and cracked open the cover. There was an inscription.

Lauren:

"You and Devil make a beautiful couple. I know you both insist that you're not sleeping together. But I still thought this would come in handy. SOMEDAY. Since you already appear to know what a nipple is, I'm quite certain you can skip all the way to chapter two.

Happy birthday,

Janet

Lauren closed the book.What kind of mother sends the woman her daughter is seeing a copy of ‘The Joy of Lesbian Sex'?!A smirk overtook her face.A pretty damned good one.

* * *

Dev rolled up the sleeves on her denim shirt so they stopped just below the elbow. Tucking her shirt into her jeans, she looked around the room for her sneakers. She happened to be on her hands and knees looking under the bed when Lauren entered the room.

"Devlyn, the kids and Iwell, that's an interesting view." She chuckled, crossing her arms, taking the time to appreciate the denim-clad backside. In her hand was her camera, and Lauren smirked as she clicked off a few photographs. Dev reached under the bed for her sneaker, grabbing it and banging her head on the way out. ‘Ouch! Damn!" She sat on the floor rubbing the back of her head. "Hey! America does not need a close-up of my butt!"

"America might not" Lauren wriggled her eyebrows, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "But these are going in my personal collection."

"Pervert."

Lauren only laughed.

"Okay, what is it you and the kids want?" Dev winked at the trio as they marched into the room together.

"We're wondering if we have time for a movie with you before the barbecue?"

"Don't see why not." She continued to rub her head. "That hurt," she whimpered, hoping to get a little sympathetic TLC from the writer.

Lauren had to give Dev an ‘A' for effort. She was being treated to puppy dog eyes and Dev's most pitiful, pouty lower lip. The shorter woman laughed and gently stroked the back of Dev's head. "Poor, wittle baby," she teased.

"Oh, okayI see. That's how it is" Dev huffed playfully, pulling on her shoes. "You'd think I'd get more sympathy than thatbut noooooo"

"I can call in some staff members to coo over you, if you'd like." Lauren winked at Ashley, and the little girl laughed.

"No, no, that's all right. I'll just sit here and be unloved," she paused for a melodramatic sniff. Then she started singing a song Ash recognized immediately "Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. Going in the garden and eat worms"

Lauren and Ash burst out laughing at Dev's little song. Ashley walked over and planted herself in her mother's lap, kissing her nose. "I love ya', worm breath." She hugged her mother tight around the neck and received a tight squeeze in return.

"I love you too, Moppet. Now, why don't you go back into the living room with your brothers and pick out a movie for us to watch? Lauren and I will be in in a minute or two."

"‘Kay!" Ashley jumped up and ran back into the living room. "Mom said I get to pick the movie!"

"I did not!" Dev contradicted as she got to her feet. She turned to Lauren and opened her arms for a hug. "What about you? Can you love someone with worm breath?"

Lauren wrapped her arms around Dev and squeezed gently. She took the opportunity to nuzzle Dev's throat and sniff. "Ash is right. Definitely worms."And I think I could easily fall in love with someone exactly like you. Lauren exhaled loudly when Dev squeezed her hard for her comment. "Okay, okay. Lucky for you I like worms," she choked out.

"Guess it's just my lucky day then." Dev wrapped her arm around Lauren's shoulder, wincing slightly at the movement. She'd recently been taken down from three physical therapy sessions to two, because of the progress she'd made with her shoulder and arm. The pain, however, seemed to be a constant she was going to have to live with for some time to come. Then the sounds of children most definitelynotbehaving themselves drifted into the room. Dev closed her eyes as she propped her chin on Lauren's head. "Can I go back to bed?"

Lauren bit her lip to keep from saying ‘Only if I can join you!'. She couldn't, however, stop the light blush that colored her cheeks from the mere thought. "Umm maybe we should make sure the kids don't kill each other." The writer grabbed Dev's hand and tugged her towards the family room. "Can I ask you something?"

"You know you can. My life is an open book to you. No pun intended."

"Like I've never heard that before." She made a face. "Even Cardinal O'Roarke hit on that joke in the first six months." Lauren pinched Dev on the butt as they walked.

"Hey!" Dev protested, knowing full well that she was loving every minute of the teasing and banter.

"What I wanted to ask you was how you got to be so good with kids? Your kids, I guess. I know you don't have any brothers or sisters." They made their way to the sofa, casually stepping over Christopher and Aaron who were sprawled out on the floor, wrestling each other. "Half the time they terrify me, and the other half I'm worried for them. And they're not even mine."

"Hold that thought." Dev clapped her hands together, and the children's squeals came to an abrupt halt. "Why are we fussing?"

"Ashley is a stupid head!" Christopher offered, glaring at his sister, who had teamed up with Aaron against him.

"Am not!" Ash shouted back.

"Knock it off, or I know three midget humans who will not be attending the barbecue tonight."

"Mom!" the kids moaned together. "The fireworks!"

"I mean it." Dev's tone was firm. "Now, find a movie and agree on it, and we'll watch it together as a family. Otherwise, you can all go to your rooms and stay there for the rest of the day."

"Yes, ma'am," they grumbled with varying degrees of sincerity. Aaron led the way to the cabinet to claim his favorite disc and begin making his case to his brother and sister.

"You were asking?" Dev said wryly.

Lauren shook her head. "You solved the problem." She pointed to the kids. "No more fighting."

"Until the next time."

"I said you were good with the kids, not a miracle worker."

"True." Dev leaned back and faced Lauren. "I guess I've just had lots of practice." She grinned. "And as far as how you feel about them, your reaction sounds like a typical mom reaction to me. They terrify me half the time too."

Lauren's eyes widened. "Mom?" Sure, she occasionally spent time with the kids. With or without Dev. But that was mostly for the book. Sort of.

Uh oh. I'm scaring her."Hey, it's okay. I didn't mean to imply I meant that well, I just think that being a mom will come naturally to you." She paused, a slightly sick feeling washing over her. She still had the niggling fear in the back of her mind that Lauren was planning on leaving the residence soon.

Dev was frankly surprised Lauren had lasted this long. And she was giving strong consideration to firing Michael Oaks outright. He and Lauren mixed like oil and water, and she knew that his presence, in what was supposed to be Lauren's home too, was a continuously aggravating factor for the writer. After all these months he was still angry that Dev had invited Lauren to stay in the residence over his objections. He made a special point of showing Lauren any bad press her presence drew, once even going as far as trying to attribute a drop in opinion polls to the fact that Lauren had accompanied Dev to a very public function.

"I'm not so sure about that, Devlyn," Lauren answered, breaking Dev out her wandering thoughts.

"I am." Dev smiled reassuringly. "When you're ready, you can be fond of my kids without being tied down to them or anything. And someday, when you're good and ready, you're gonna be a great mom yourself."

Lauren felt confused and suddenly unsure of herself. She could hear the disappointment in Dev's voice. "Umm thanks. But I doubt I'll have kids."

Dev thought about that for a moment. Lauren always chose her words very carefully. She hadn't said she didn't want children. Just that she didn't think she'd have them herself. "You never know. I have it on good authority that stranger things have actually happened."

"Brat."

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

Dev and Lauren suddenly stopped to find all three of the children staring at them in shock.

"Uh oh," Lauren mumbled. "Was that bad?"

"Nah," Dev whispered back. "They already know I'm a brat." The President reached out and tugged Christopher closer by the elastic of his shorts. "Isn't that right, buddy?"

"Yup," he giggled.

Aaron stepped forward. "But she's very, very sorry, Lauren. And she'll try to do better in the future." The little boy knew this speech by heart, having heard it applied to him on a nearly daily basis.

Dev shot Lauren a smug look. "We're a team."

Gray eyes rolled. "A team of troublemakers!"

The children cheered at this very accurate pronouncement.

Dev lifted her arm to the back of the sofa, and, with a significant look at the small expanse of cushion between them, she invited Lauren to snuggle. "Even if you decide never to have kids, I still have three I can rent out from time to time."

"Do I get an employee discount?"

Dev mulled that over for a moment. "Absolutely! I am a President sympathetic to the plight of the little people, you know."

Lauren narrowed her eyes. "Was that a commoner or short person joke?" she demanded with mock fury.

"Yes."

The kids finally decided on "Stuart Little," and all three of them plopped down on the floor to enjoy the show.

Dev's mind relentlessly probed the sore spot that was never very far from her thoughts. "We'd really miss you if you left." Dev whispered. She just couldn't go on wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. It was making her crazy. Realistically, she knew Lauren would leave at some point. But her heart was firmly entrenched in its state of denial.

Lauren felt a pang in her chest at Dev's words. "I'm not planning on going anywhere for a while, Devlyn. We had a deal right?"

"Right." She drew a deep breath and smiled. Dev wanted to question her further, but that ‘mother' comment had already spooked Lauren a bit. Now wasn't the time to press her. "I'm really glad to know you're gonna be here for a while longer." She grinned and poked Lauren playfully. "It's nice to have someone to argue with."

Lauren smiled at Dev. "You argue with everyone, Madam President. I'm just one of the few people who will argue back."

"Yeah, you do, and I love that. Sometimes it's the most intelligent conversation and spirited debate I get all day."

Dev yelled for the kids to turn the TV down. "So, I, uh, know it's kinda last minute, Ms. Strayer. But do you happen to have a date for the barbecue tonight?"

Gray eyes twinkled. "What if I said yes?"

Dev hummed a little, tapping her chin as she thought. "Well, then I'd say whoever gets to take you is very lucky indeed."

The writer batted her eyelashes and drew out the already drawled words. "You mean you wouldn't have the CIA take him?"

"Him?"

Lauren smirked, not taking the bait. "Or her."

"No. You're an adult. Free to make your own decisions. Free to date whomever you'd like. Even if it might be thewrongperson. Thetotallywrongperson! Which is, of course, everyone but me. Does the name Casey ring any bells with you?"

Lauren made a face. "You Yankees always did fight dirty!"

"Madam, might I remind you I am only half Yankee?"

Lauren slapped Dev in the belly with the back of her hand. "Yankee is Yankee," she pronounced firmly.

"Yeah, yeah. You're not answering my question. Do you have a date for tonight?" Dev turned a slightly predatory stare Lauren's way. "Hmmmmm?" She drew her brows together as her body language suggested that maybe, if she didn't get the answer she wanted, Lauren might find herself being tickled senseless.

Lauren giggled. "Fine. Fine. I don't have a date. I'm completely dateless." She nudged her companion. "How about you, Devlyn?"

Dev laughed and pulled back. "No. I have a date. I just wanted to see if you did."

Lauren suddenly went very still. "If David set you up again, I'm going to-"

"Yeeees? You're going to what?" A dark brow arched.Really, now? Well, well, feeling a little possessive, are we, Ms. Strayer?

The blonde woman's eyes narrowed. "Why, I'll..." she paused, realizing that she was being tweaked.Oooo, Devlyn! Not nice. She consciously lowered her voice, and her body took on an air of unconcern. "Why, I'll graciously make myself scarce. In fact, now that I know about it, I'll see if I can't find an escort as well. That agent who always sits outside the Green Room is a cutie. And I didn't see a wedding ring."

"You don't have to go that far!" Dev held up her hand and wiggled her finger. "No ring here either. I'd love it if you'd let me take you tonight."

"I was counting on it."

* * *

Evening settled in as most of the senior staff joined the President and her family on the balcony of the White House, overlooking the Washington Monument and the Mall. Tens of thousands had gathered for the Fourth of July celebration, totally unaware of the fact that a party was going on at the White House.

Lauren watched as Dev made the rounds, shaking hands and taking a moment to visit with each person. This didn't seem at all like the tired, slightly frazzled woman who had shown up at her door early this morning, after having been up all night. Dev never ceased to amaze her. The more she found out, the more she wanted to know.One of these days I swear I'm going to get Beth McMillian alone.

Eager eyes were looking over the beautiful spread of food that had been prepared, when she felt a certain tall, dark presence move in behind her. "Boy, that looks good," Dev whispered in her ear.

Lauren ran her finger across the piece of BBQ chicken she'd just placed on her plate. She brought the tip of her finger to her mouth and then licked off a speck of zesty barbecue sauce. "Ummm... it is." She looked over her shoulder and into the clearest, most beautiful blue eyes she'd ever seen. For a moment she was speechless. Lauren gave her head a small shake. "Did... did you get a plate yet?"

"I've just been sneaking little bites of the most delicious things."

Pale eyebrows disappeared behind windblown bangs. "Really?" She glanced at the President's empty hands.

"Umm hmm." Dev leaned in, placing her mouth a hairsbreadth from Lauren's ear. "A nibble here. And a nibble there. You know how it is." She gave her earlobe a nip.

Lauren pulled away. She turned around to face Dev, painfully aware of the interested faces watching them. "What do you think you're doing?" she whispered harshly.

Dev stood up straight. She mentally kicked herself for making Lauren feel uncomfortable. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I forgot for a second that that weirds some people out."

There was a moment of almost painful silence, and it was Dev who awkwardly sought to fill the gap. "Are you having a good time?"

Lauren lowered her eyes and blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm sorry, Devlyn. I just..." She rocked her head back and forth and lowered her voice. "I've spent months denying that you and I were more than friends to nearly every person at this party. Now, I guess I feel... I..." She hesitated. "I don't know how I feel." Lauren grabbed Dev's hand and squeezed, hoping it would give her a physical reassurance her words obviously lacked.

"I know. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable on your birthday. But... um... make sure you save room for dessert. It's something special. And it'll be here in about ten minutes." Dev took the time to make sure Lauren was looking right at her when she said, "I don't ever want to do anything that hurts or embarrasses you, Lauren. I mean that. If you're not ready for me to touch you in public, that's okay. You just let me know when and if you are, all right? I'll be here."

Dev's words were delivered in a calm, even voice. But Lauren could see pain lurking behind her eyes. "Damn, I'm sorry." She squeezed the hand she was holding again. "It's not like that, Devlyn. Really." With a gentle tug Lauren pulled Dev behind a large table and into the corner of the balcony, the most private spot she could find without going inside. She set down her plate. "It's not that I'm not ready," Lauren whispered. "It's that I feel like I've been lying to these people, and now I'm rubbing their noses in it."

"Lying?" Now Dev was totally confused. " Sweetheart, you haven't lied to anyone. What are you talking about?"

Lauren winced. "That's not true. At least, not completely." She turned and braced her arms on the railing, gazing out at the crowds in the distance who had packed the Mall area to wait for the fireworks. The view was truly breathtaking. "I've been thinking about you for months," she muttered cryptically.

"Thinking about me how?" Dev nudged her, starting to understand what Lauren meant. "Thinking about me, dating me, and sleeping with me are three separate things. All we have said to this point is that we weren't sleeping together, and we're still not doing that. And we've just started dating. You don't need to feel guilty or uncomfortable. And if you think Beth McMillian doesn't know that, and hasn't passed that fact along to every person she can think of, you are a seriously deluded person. I love Beth dearly, but if you look up the word ‘gossip' in the dictionary, you'll find an autographed 8" X 10" of her, smiling."

Lauren couldn't help but laugh. "You're right about that. Once I corner Beth alone, you're done for, Madam President. I'll be able to retire on the ‘tell all' book." A bird caught her eye, and she followed it high into the early evening sky. "I know it sounds silly. But for the last few months every time I denied the rumor that we were a couple, it felt like a lie." She shrugged one shoulder. "I guess it's all just catching up with me. I can't believe so much of what is happening." The writer turned to face Dev. "And who it's happening with." Her eyes conveyed true regret. "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. I didn't expect you to be so," she searched for a word, "demonstrative, I guess. At least not in public."

"No. I'm the one who should be, and is, truly sorry. I've just always been ‘out'. I figure that people know my preferences, and I'm just being me. But you're not exactly ‘out'. I mean you're not even exactly are you? Wait, it doesn't matter... I mean... okay, I'm gonna shut up now. Let me just say that I've been thinking about you for months too. And this relationship is a two way street. I care for you a lot; more than a lot."

Before Dev could say another word a dessert cart that carried two huge sheet cakes on it was rolled out. One was decorated for the Fourth of July. The second was a special cake, done for Lauren's birthday.

Lauren tried to peer around Dev to get a good look, but the taller woman clamped her hand firmly over Lauren's eyes. "I told you I ordered something special for you. You ready?"

Lauren nodded excitedly. "Totally!"

"‘Kay." Dev guided Lauren away from the railing and around the table, careful to make sure the blonde woman didn't trip. When the candles were lit, she peeled her hand away, showing Lauren the beautiful cake that had been crafted and prepared just for her by one of the top pastry chefs in the world, who also happened to work for the White House. Around the outside of the cake was a ring of Dottie's special Devil cookies. "Had those shipped in from Ohio just for you, Mighty Mouse. Happy birthday."

Lauren grinned as she looked down at the cake. "It's beautiful! I'm gaining weight just looking at all those Devil cookies."

The crowd that had gathered around them laughed.

Lauren's eyes suddenly widened, and a slightly astonished look overtook her face. "Please tell me that isn't the correct amount of candles."

 

Sunday, July 11th

 

Lauren was heading for the library when she spotted a very tired President slowly padding down the hall towards her. An enormous smile lit up her face. "Welcome back!" Jogging the last steps until they met, she wrapped her arms around Dev and pulled her into a heartfelt hug. "How was Camp David?"God, it's great to see you again. It's just not the same on video link.

"It was rotten because you weren't there," Dev whispered into a pink ear. She pulled away, groaning at her own exhausted state. "It's great to be back." Her smile at Lauren was weary, but genuine. "C'mon, I need to make it to the living room before I drop dead right here in the hallway." Dev grabbed Lauren's hand and determinedly steered her in the opposite direction of the Clinton Library. "I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to call more often. It was pretty crazy."

"Well, seeing as how it was all part of the continuing process to stop World War III, I don't see how I can really complain."

Dev snorted. "Well, I can complain. I missed you!"God, I hate being called away at the last moment. Especially when you can't come with me.

Hand in hand, they turned the corner and nearly ran into two agents.

"Welcome home, Madam President." The man straightened his tie and stood a little straighter.

"Thank you, Jack."

Amy nodded at Lauren, then addressed the President. "Good to see you again, Madam President."

"Good to see you too, Amy. I haven't made it back to the apartment yet. How's Ashley? Did you manage to keep her out of trouble while I was away?"

"All the kids are in bed early tonight, ma'am. They had a pool party at the Vice President's house and were wiped out. And Ashley is hardly ever any trouble."

"Do you get paid enough to tell a mother sweet lies like that?" Blue eyes twinkled.

"Nope," Amy answered confidently. "The kids will be sorry they missed you tonight."

"Not as sorry as I am." A frown marred Dev's face. "Thanks, Amy." She tugged on Lauren's hand again to get them moving. Sheneededto kiss Lauren, and she wanted to do it in private. "Good night."

The agents both nodded. "Good night, ma'am," they called after her retreating figure. "Night, Lauren."

Lauren smiled and waved.

Dev picked up the pace.

"You're sure moving quickly for someone who's dead on her feet!" Lauren was having to jog every other step to keep up with Dev's longer, powerful strides. "I can see first hand that your hip has completely healed."

Dev guided her around a small, antique table that held a vase of dried flowers. Side by side portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland, both on horseback, hung above it. "When I'm motivated I can do amazing things."

Lauren's eyebrows shot up. "Really, Wonder Woman?" she purred playfully.

Dev chuckled. "Oh, yeah." Merely waving hello to the agent posted outside the living room, Dev pulled open the door and yanked Lauren inside, nearly pulling her off her feet.

"Devlyn!" Lauren exclaimed.Is it wrong that this is kind of turning me on?

Dev kicked the door shut and pulled Lauren into her arms, forcing the smaller woman to tilt her head way back in order to look at her face. She didn't bother to say a word. Instead, she captured Lauren in a surprise, passionate kiss them left them both breathless.

"Hi," Dev said softly when their lips finally separated. Her heart was pounding so loudly she couldn't even hear the words when she muttered earnestly, "Ireallymissed you."

Lauren sucked in a deep lungful of air, and her eyelids fluttered open. She snuggled deeper into Dev's embrace, savoring her own body's reaction to her friend's closeness, and enjoying the solid, warm feeling of Dev's lanky form pressed tightly against hers.Wow.Lauren gazed deeply into Dev's eyes and sighed dreamily. "Hi. And Ireallymissed you too."

"Ahem..." From across the room, Emma cleared her throat. "I missed you tooooooooo, Dev," she teased. Emma laughed so hard at Lauren's instant blush that her ample bosom threatened to take out one of her own eyes.

"Very funny, Emma. How is everyone?"

"Well, I'm fine. And the children are all in bed. Too much sun and fun at Vice President Vincent's did them in early, I'm afraid."

"Let's all have breakfast together tomorrow though, okay? I'll make sure Liza gets me back to the residence around 8:30 A.M."

"We'll be ready." The older woman shuttled past Dev and Lauren on her way out. "I'll see you two tomorrow."

"Good night, Emma." Lauren smiled.

Dev shed her jacket, tossing it on a nearby chair. Next she began untucking her blouse from her slacks. "Night."

Lauren plopped down on the couch and gazed at Dev affectionately as the dark-haired woman puttered around, quickly made herself as comfortable as possible, and put in a call for dinner. With a nod of the writer's head, dinner for one was turned into dinner for two.

Devlyn sat down next to Lauren and closed her eyes. "I'm so tired." She sighed and leaned towards the small fingers that began gently stroking her hair.

"Then you should rest."

"I'm hungry."

"Then eat, Devlyn," came the simple reply.

Dev smiled. "I'm so glad you're here with me tonight."

"Mmmm... then you should definitely kiss me again."

Before Dev could comply, there was a light knock at her door. "No," she whimpered, grabbing a throw pillow and burying her face in it. "That can't be dinner this quickly. Whoever it is can just go away! I don't want to be the President any more tonight."

Lauren chuckled at Dev's minor tantrum. "You rest. I'll take care of it."

A dark head shook. "No," Dev sighed egregiously. "If they're knocking here, they're after me. I'll tell them to buzz off." She stood and gave Lauren a quick peck on the tip of the nose. "Save my seat."

Dev rolled her shoulder as she slowly moved to the door. It ached tonight. "This had better be good," she mumbled, pulling the door open. She was surprised to see Michael Oaks.

"Yes, Michael?" Dev inquired in a bored tone. Didn't the man have any life? They'd only been off Marine One for an hour. Didn't he have a home or girlfriend or pet rock somewhere? "And why are you still here?"

Michael blinked. "I had work to do, Madam President. But that's not why I'm your door. Security is holding a man downstairs who wants to see Ms. Strayer. He claims to be her husband."

"What?!" Lauren exclaimed from across the room. "Ex-husband!"

"I see that sheishere and not in her room." Michael's displeasure was clearly written across his face.

Lauren joined Dev at the door. "Judd is here?" She felt a dread building in the pit of her stomach.Why would he be here?

"Shall I bring your husband up to your room, Ms. Strayer?" Michael couldn't think of a single thing he'd like more than to throw a wrench into Devlyn and Lauren's budding romance. Lauren was an unmanageable annoyance that had somehow, and most certainly unjustly, gained the President's ear. It wasn't smart, it wasn't safe, and his dislike for the writer was only rivaled by the resentment he felt because his opinion on the subject had been completely ignored by the President.

"Ex-husband," Dev growled. She turned to Lauren. "You want me to have him tossed out on his butt? I can do that you know."

"Michael?" she asked innocently, smirking as the black man's face darkened.

Dev wrestled the grin from her face. "No. Mr. Radison."

Lauren chewed her lip, sorely tempted to say yes and spend a few moments alone with her favorite person. But Judd hadn't contacted her in years. He wouldn't come here for nothing.

The writer laid her hand on the small of Dev's back. "I'd better talk to him in case it's something important." She turned to Michael. "You can have an agent bring him up to my room."

"Bring him here instead," Dev interjected. "If that's all right." She looked down at Lauren who nodded.

Michael quickly disappeared, ordering two agents to bring Mr. Radison inside the residence. He would personally escort him the rest of way.

Dev pushed her door, leaving it open just a crack.

Lauren crossed her arms over her chest. "I know how tired you are, Devlyn. Judd and I can go to my room and talk. I'm sure it will only take a few moments."

Dev's jaw worked. "I don't trust him."

"You don't know him."

A well drawn eyebrow arched.

"I know that he was married to you, and lost you. Therefore, he is an idiot. I don't trust idiots."

"Dev." Lauren shook her head and sighed. "It wasn't like that. Judd and I just grew apart. Actually," she hesitated as she gathered her thoughts, "we were never really together, if you know what I mean. I thought I loved him. It was a mistake."

Dev clapped Lauren's shoulder, squeezing gently. "I'm sorry."

Lauren reached up at patted Dev's hand. "Don't be sorry. It just wasn't meant to be. I'm not even sorry," she admitted. "He wanted a wife. And I wanted to have a career and a playmate, and we just couldn't make it all work. Judd's not a bad guy. We just weren't good for each other."

Lauren was leaving out a lot, and she knew it. But what little anger or frustration she had over her failed marriage was long since gone. And, in truth, it had mostly been directed towards herself anyway. There was no reason to dig up old bones now.

The blonde woman nervously tugged on her glasses, glad to have Dev's close, supportive presence. "I just have no idea why he's here. Judd's not a social kind of guy. He wouldn't just drop by the White House at eight in the evening on a Sunday night to say hello."

"You don't know for certain-"

Another knock indicated Judd and Michael were back. "Come in," Dev called.

Michael marched into the room with Judd Radison following somewhat reluctantly behind him. He quickly introduced Devlyn, who gave Judd a firm handshake, hoping her frank appraisal of the man wasn't as obvious as it felt.

Dev had to give him credit, he was a more handsome man than his photograph had made him seem. Judd was dressed in slacks with a neatly pressed crease down the front, and a navy sport coat. He had short, curly, brown hair and dark blue eyes that constantly flickered around the room as he walked, taking in the wonderful architecture and beautiful furnishings that characterized the White House.

Dev quietly dismissed Michael, making sure he left two agents immediately outside the living room, so that Mr. Radison would have an escort ready whenever he left. Which, despite his harmless demeanor, she hoped would be soon.

"Hello, Lauri." Judd smiled weakly at his ex-wife and gave her a tentative hug, which she returned just as awkwardly.

Dev blinked. The unease between the former couple was palpable.They weremarriedto each other? I'm less standoffish with my hair stylist!

"Hello, Judd." The embrace loosened enough for Lauren to look at his face. She regarded him silently for a moment, and tears began to well in both their eyes.

Something was happening; Dev could see it. She felt confused and anxious at the same time.I guess they do know each other.

Lauren finally pulled away from Judd, the familiar scent of his after-shave lingering in the air. "Let's sit." She left her hand on his forearm as she directed him to the couch. "Tell me what's the matter," she said gently, feeling sick to her stomach.Oh, God.Something was very wrong. Judd's eyes never lied. Despite the fact that his lips could be significantly less reliable.

The man sat down and studied his shoes for a moment.

Lauren perched on the coffee table in front of the sofa and, with pleading eyes, wordlessly held out her hand to Dev.

Dev wouldn't have moved faster if she were on fire. With an enormous sense of relief she stepped forward and took Lauren's hand.

Judd glanced up, surprised by the scene in front of him. His thick brows drew together as he focused on the women's linked fingers and the positions of their bodies. There was no space between them. "Are you two... um...?" He gestured vaguely, and Lauren nodded. "Wow," he breathed, clearly in awe. "Not according to your dad."

The writer had always suspected that Judd and her father remained friends after the divorce. She'd just never had confirmation before now. And frankly, she hadn't been interested enough to ever ask. "It's a sort of recent development, Judd. Now, tell me what's wrong. I can see that something is. Are you in some sort of trouble?"

"No! It's not that. I... um... I moved to Falls Church, Virginia, last month. Took a job at a small architectural firm there. I guess we're sort of neighbors."

"Okay." Lauren drew out the word, rapidly losing patience. She'd forgotten about Judd's penchant for beating around the bush. "And you showed up at the White House to tell me that? C'mon, Judd."

"Your father called me an hour ago. I came right over." He looked at Dev, a little unnerved by her presence. But not enough that he wanted to drag this out any longer. "He wanted me to come and tell you in person, Lauri, so he wouldn't have to tell you on the phone." A deep breath. "Your mo-"

"She finally did it, right?" The color drained from her face as she said the words. "Oh, God," she whispered to herself.She finally got what she wanted.Her stomach threatened to rebel, and she wasn't sure whether she should feel relieved for her mother or appalled by what she'd done. At the moment all she could feel was sick.

Judd nodded quickly, glad for the moment not to have to say the actual words. His forehead was sweaty and his hands were shaped in fists. "I'm so sorry, Lauri. Your dad, he... um... he wants you to call him as soon as you can. She died a couple of hours ago. He didn't want you to be alone."

"She's not alone!" Dev interrupted, her voice cracking with emotion. "She's not."

Lauren pulled her hand from the older woman's, despite the death grip Dev had on her fingers. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms around her stomach in mute comfort. Her chin quivered slightly, and Dev's chest constricted at the sight. "I don't... don't feel so well."

Lauren's complexion was taking on a slightly green tinge, and tears swam in her soft gray eyes.

"C'mon, sweetheart. I think we need to get you to the bathroom." Dev put her arm around Lauren and began to help her up.

"I'm fine," Lauren insisted unconvincingly, but she didn't stop Dev from guiding her to her feet. "I need to call daddy." Just then her stomach lurched harder, and she bent at the waist and groaned quietly. "God, I think I'm going to be sick." She'd forgotten all about Judd, who was still sitting on the sofa, wishing he were somewhere else, and her legs felt shaky.

"I know." Dev took charge of the situation, trying not to think about how she'd felt when Jane had told her about Samantha. "Let me help you."I need to help you. As soon as Lauren was far enough away from the coffee table for Dev to get a good grip on her, the older woman held her around the waist and quickly started walking them to the bathroom. "Please wait," she called back to Judd without looking over her shoulder. "I'll be out in a moment."

Her tone of voice made it clear that it would be wise for him to do as she asked. Judd nodded reluctantly.

When the bathroom door opened Lauren rushed forward and fell to her knees, retching violently into the toilet.

Dev grabbed her glasses just before Lauren lost them. Quickly shoving them into her pocket, she held back Lauren's fair hair with one hand and stroked her back with the other, offering quiet words of comfort.

When she was finished, Lauren sat back on her heels. She was shivering a little, but she did feel much better. Dev handed her a cool glass of water and she rinsed her mouth out with the first sip, spitting it into the toilet and flushing it. Lauren greedily drank the rest of the glass down in one long swallow.

"Better?"

Dev's fingers were massaging her neck. She sighed at the coolness against her clammy skin. "Yeah. Much." Lauren grabbed a tissue and wiped her mouth. "Thank you so much." She exhaled raggedly. "This... it would be worse alone." Reaching behind her, she hugged Dev's legs.

"You don't have to thank me, honey. This is what friends do."And you won't ever face anything like this alone - not if I can help it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Madam President

Chapter VIII

August 2021

 

Sunday, August 1st

 

Lauren's fingers typed steadily across the keyboard as the kids played on the floor with Gremlin. A quick command had allowed her to disable the voice recognition input system. Now she was doing her work the old-fashioned way. But she didn't want to add to the noise in the room by talking over it. God only knew what the computer would do with the background noise that ranged from quiet giggles to levels just above a jumbo jet, depending on what mood struck the kids and dog.

Right now, Gremlin was bouncing around them, yapping and barking and squirming between their legs as they played. To anyone else, his display would have seemed like that of a truly happy canine. But to Lauren's eyes, it was crystal clear that the pooch still wasn't himself. She was beginning to wonder if Dev wasn't right. Maybe he did need a doggy shrink. But the kids do seem to make him happy. If Lauren was sure of one thing in this life, it was that Grem was completely in love with the Marlowe children. She snorted inwardly. You're not the only one, buddy.

Since she and Dev had returned home from her mother's funeral, the writer found herself using any excuse to spend a little extra time with the children, not to mention their mother. Dev had been wonderful. And Lauren was quite certain that if it hadn't been for her constant support and comfort... She shook her head, forcing herself to stop considering the painful thought. Dev had been there for her every step of the way, exceeding the expectations she'd previously placed on a friendship, much less a romance.

Dev had pulled out all the stops, even managing to make sure that the family wasn't besieged by the Press at the funeral and during the quick burial service in the graveyard. The President of the United State's attendance alone was an invitation for chaos. But Dev had made it clear that she would stand by Lauren during this very emotional time. And that no one would 'suffer' because of her presence. Lauren had felt a pang deep in her chest when she heard the self-recrimination in Dev's voice. But the Press had been mostly absent and she wondered what favors Dev had called in just to make it happen.

It wasn't until they were back home in Washington, DC, that a reporter caught Lauren and Dev on their way out of the White House and inquired as to the cause of her mother's death. To her dismay, the writer had burst into tears. Dev's growled 'No comment', coupled with a feral glare that would melt steel, had sent the reporter scurrying, and she hadn't been asked a question about it since.

Even with the constant pressure, Dev had been a total rock. When the President's popularity took a five point dive during her trip with Lauren to Tennessee, she'd brushed it off with her typical graciousness, assuring Lauren that the numbers would rebound as her tax cut package cleared the House.

Lauren felt the beginnings of tears. But they weren't sad ones. This time it was simple awe and appreciation over a relationship and a woman she'd come to count on and care about deeply that brought them to her eyes. She reached under her glasses and caught the tears on the tip of her finger. With a sniff, she wiped them away before they could fall and allowed a bittersweet smile to cross her lips. Despite the events of the last two weeks, Lauren had never been happier.

She glanced at the children, who were now settling down with Gremlin and arguing over which cartoons to watch. Dev was very careful about what her children where exposed to when she was away from the residence. The television set was firmly locked on channels appropriate to their ages.

The writer also knew that Dev preferred that the children play games or read over watching television. Lauren clicked the off switch, placed her handheld computer on the table, and moved over to the floor with the kids. "Hi, guys."

They immediately stopped fussing when she joined them. "Hiya, Lauren!" Christopher grinned at the writer and scrunched up his nose as his face turned bright red.

Lauren smiled back. You're too damned cute for your own good, Christopher. Just like your mama.

Aaron simply scooted over closer to Lauren, slipping his hand into hers, then placing his head in the crook of her arm.

Ashley rolled over on her back, turning soft brown eyes on the writer. "How do you feel?"

Lauren was surprised at the question and blinked a couple of times. "Well, I'm… I'm okay, I guess."

"It's okay to be sad."

"You're right. It is," Lauren agreed quietly, knowing that Ashley had misunderstood her tears. She forgot sometimes that the children, even when they seemed as though they were off in their own world, were very aware of everything around them.

"Yeah," the little girl breathed. "I was sad for a long time when my Mommy died."

Lauren's smile was bittersweet. "My mama was very sick. There wasn't much-"

Ash put her hand on Lauren's arm. "But it's still okay to be sad. Mom used to be sad all the time." Ashley's face suddenly brightened, and Lauren could not help but mirror her instant enthusiasm.

"What happened?"

"You came to live here."

"Oh, yeah?" Lauren fought the urge to cry again, knowing that it would only confuse the kids. Besides, she was tired of crying. "That makes me feel really good, Ash. Thank you for telling me."

Ashley shrugged, totally unaware of the significance her simple statement held for Lauren. "It was the truth."

"What was the truth?" Dev asked as she strolled into the room. She wore an enormous grin.

But Ashley was already focused back on the television.

Lauren stood up to greet Dev. "It's not important." She narrowed her eyes. "Why do you look so happy, and why do I have a feeling I'm not going to like it?"

Dev laughed. "I'd better watch myself. You're getting to know me far too well, Lauren Strayer."

"Uh huh. That doesn't answer my question, Madam President. Spill it."

"I just spoke with Julio, and he gave me the green light to start jogging again. My hip is as healed as it's going to get. We're going out right now as a matter of fact. Hence, my lovely outfit." Dev gestured down her body with one hand. She was wearing a navy blue T-shirt, running shoes, and gray gym shorts.

The smile fell from Lauren's face. "Great," she said with a hundred percent false enthusiasm. "You know how much I love to jog."

Devlyn laughed. "Oh, I certainly do. But if you'd rather, I can just tell Michael Oaks that you're not up to it."

Lauren stepped close enough so that only Dev could hear what she said. "That was such a low blow," she teased. "Do you really think I can be baited so easily?"

"Yes."

"True."

Dev looked down at her shoes. "Actually, I was hoping to invite just you and the number of agents that David will let me get away with."

Dev's head was tilted downward, but Lauren could see the contemplative, serious look on her face. "It's been a couple of months..." she continued, talking about her hip and the physical therapy, and Lauren eventually caught a clue.

She's embarrassed about how slow she's going to be. Before, she could keep up with even the most fit agents. This is an easy one to help you out with, darlin'. "You know, Devlyn, for the last couple of months we've been working out in the gym and walking, but I really haven't been running. Do you think that maybe I could run up in the front with you, but that you could take it easy on me? Just until I get back in shape?"

Dev's eyes lit up. "Sure," she agreed enthusiastically. "I mean, if you really want me to, that is."

Devlyn had a healthy ego, but was truly egotistical about precious few things. Her fitness level, however, happened to be one of them. Lauren enjoyed indulging her friend where she could. And was happy to do it here. That, however, didn't stop her from nearly having to bite her lip through to keep from smiling. "If you wouldn't mind too much, it would really help me out if we could go extra slow for a while." Lauren gave Dev a hug and whispered in her ear, "I'm so glad your hip is doing so well, Devlyn." She held Dev a little tighter, the thought of the shooting sending a dull ache to her heart. "I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been okay. I-"

"Hey." Dev felt a tremor run through the smaller woman, and she tightened her hold, her mind racing to catch up with what had just happened. "It's okay." She pressed her cheek against the top of Lauren's head, hearing and feeling a series of unexpected sniffles. Dev didn't say anything for a moment so that Lauren would have a little time to get herself together.

"You okay?" Dev finally burred.

Lauren nodded against her shoulder. "I didn't mean to do that. I think it's been building all day."

"It happens," Dev said quietly. "You're doing great. Better than I would under the same circumstances." If my mother had hung herself in the living room... Jesus.

Lauren snorted. "Somehow I doubt that." She lifted her head and looked at Dev's T-shirt. "I got you all wet."

"Like I give a damn."

Lauren gave Dev a watery smile. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For everything. For being there when I needed you. For giving me the opportunity of a lifetime with this job. For just... just everything." Lauren exhaled in frustration, unhappy that she wasn't able to articulate what she wanted to say any better than that.

She's thanking me? When the mere thought of being without her makes me physically ill? "Don't be silly, Lauren. I didn't do anything anybody else wouldn't have done."

Gray eyes flashed. "Wanna bet?"

"Lauren." Dev drew out the word.

"You dropped everything to be there for me." Lauren shook her head. "No… Nobody-"

"Else is as lucky as I am," Dev finished for her. She lifted Lauren's chin with two fingers. "And I intend to keep it that way."

Lauren surged forward and kissed her soundly, willing Dev to understand every emotion she was feeling, and just how much she cared for her. She broke away giggling when the kids began screaming 'ewwww' and 'gross', and Ashley broke in with the kissing song.

"Aren't they romantic?" Dev asked drolly. "Little demons." She shot her offspring an evil look that still somehow managed to look smug.

Lauren blinked at Christopher, who was giving his mother a miniature version of her very own challenging, arched eyebrow glare. "Oh, boy." She winced. Dev gets to take care of that little man. "Okay, I need to go get changed if I'm going to let you torture me."

"You don't have to come." Dev smiled. Lauren was going to come, and she damn well knew it. Once she said she was going to do something, she never backed out.

"I know. But I will." She jogged back over to the sofa and picked up her tiny computer.

"We need to get you an office."

"I don't want an office," Lauren insisted. This was about the tenth time she had told Dev that since moving into the White House. "I like the view from the desk in my room. I just wanted to visit the kids today. Besides, the cherry blossoms were fabulous this spring. I looked out at them every day while I was supposed to be working." Her eyes twinkled. Say it. You know it's the truth. "I'm already looking forward to seeing them again next year."

Dev tried to hide the smile on her face by pursing her lips together, which didn't work. So then she bit the inside of her cheek. But that only held it at bay for a second or two. She had the nearly overwhelming urge to jump up and down like a little kid and scream, 'Thank you, Lord!' Instead, she reached out and pulled Lauren closer, kissing the tip of her nose. The relief that flooded through her was almost enough to knock her off her feet. She needed something to hold on to. "You're not looking forward to it nearly as much as I am, sweetheart."

Thursday, August 12th

 

Dev knocked on the door with her elbow. She let out a disgusted breath even as she glanced at the heavy crate in her arms. Leaning the box against the wall, she lifted her hand to knock again, but the crate shifted, and she decided she shouldn't risk it. The President set the box down and pounded on the door with her fist. "Come on, Strayer! I know you're in there. You and that little demon you live with can run but you can't hide!" She narrowed her eyes at a passing staffer whom she swore had sniggered at her.

Lauren pulled the door open and tugged her glasses from her face. "I was on the phone with the Attorney General. Did you know she thinks you're cute?"

Dev smirked. "I am cute. But would you like to see what is not cute?" She bent over and retrieved the box. "Well? Aren't you going to invite me in?"

"Oh, sure." Lauren stepped aside so Dev could fit past her. She cocked her head and looked at the crate "What's up, Devlyn?"

"Where's that little monster you live with?"

"Grem?" She shrugged. "I'm not sure. He's around here somewhere." That was a lie, and she knew it. Lauren had seen him scoot his chubby butt under her bed an hour ago. She wasn't one hundred percent certain he was still there. But then again, she hadn't seen him crawl out either. The poor pooch had been so despondent lately, she just didn't think he was up to a showdown with Devlyn. "Why?" she asked warily. What have you done now, Grem?!

"Because I intend to sue him for pupamoney. Or pup support! Or, or, arghhhhh... something!"

Oooo, there's that little pulsing vein in her forehead again. "What are you talking about?" Lauren chuckled.

Dev flipped the lid off the crate to reveal an enormous, bloated, miserably pregnant Pomeranian. The female lifted her tired head and whimpered softly, before letting it drop to the bottom of the crate in defeat. "You remember my mom's prized, pure breed, show dog?" Dev tapped her foot impatiently. "This is all that's left of her!"

Lauren burst out laughing and backed up a step from a glaring Dev. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" She continued to laugh.

"It's not funny! I'm in trouble with my mom. If she could reach my butt with her wooden spoon, it would be bright red by now!"

Dev's comments did nothing to curb Lauren's snorts of laughter. "Your mother will forgive you anything, and you know it. Besides, how do you know he did this?" she challenged uselessly, covering her smile with her hand. "He couldn't have been the only male dog in the area."

Dev lifted an eyebrow. "Look how unhappy she is." She pointed to the dog whose enormous belly forced her to lie on her side like a mutant pig. "Only sleeping with Gremlin could make a dog look that pathetic!"

Lauren rolled her eyes. But when she peeked down at the former champion again, she couldn't help but wince. "Oooooo... that's why I'm never having children." Time to face the music, buddy. But I'd be more afraid of facing that Pomeranian than Devlyn. Lauren turned her head and gave a soft whistle. "Gremlin, get your snaggle-toothed little ass out here."

The pudgy beast slowly crawled out from under the bed. Suddenly, he stopped and sniffed the air. His tail began to wag furiously, and he broke into what almost resembled a run. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at almost running, and hit the crate head on, causing Dev and Lauren to jump back in surprise. But Gremlin's face was already basically flat, so he was completely unaffected. His chunky rear end wiggled wildly as he tried to use stubby back legs to climb into the crate.

The Pomeranian, 'Princess', began to whine, and her tail began to wag too, thumping rhythmically against the bottom of the crate.

"Ah ha!" Dev accused.

"That's not proof!" Lauren cringed when the rotund Pom tried to sit up to greet her now howling pet. "Okay," she admitted, "that's proof."

The writer took pity on Grem and hoisted him up into the crate, setting him gently next to Princess. That wasn't an easy task, considering lifting Gremlin was like lifting a small torpedo, and both dogs were shaking so hard it looked like they were having spasms. "Well, what do ya know?"

The dogs immediately started nuzzling each other, with Gremlin purring like a cat the entire time.

"He looks so happy now! They must have been missing each other." Awwww… Grem you romantic devil, you. You were pining for your sweetheart all this time. "Isn't that sweet, Devlyn?"

"Yeah," Dev agreed flatly. "Real sweet."

"Looks like Grem's gonna be a daddy." Lauren smiled at the President. "I guess that makes you an aunt."

"Wrong! They are all yours." Dev enunciated each word carefully. "Grem is yours, and he got her pregnant. Have fun, 'grandma'. My mother has disowned the little tramp, and I certainly don't want them."

But the sparkle in pale blue eyes gave Dev away. She wasn't too mad, and Lauren knew it. She moved closer to Dev and rose up on tiptoe, giving Dev a tender kiss on the cheek. When she pulled away she could see a definite softening in the President's expression. "Don't be mad." She kissed Dev again, this time on the chin. "How can you be angry at true love? Please."

Dev fought to hold onto her indignation and anger, but they were melting faster than snow cones on the Fourth of July. "Tease," Dev grumbled petulantly. She made one last ditch effort to maintain her angry pose and failed miserably. Again.

"Uh huh." Lauren's expression was unrepentant. She threaded her fingers together at the fine nape hairs of Dev's neck and kissed her in earnest.

For a long, breathless moment, both women forgot about the dogs at their feet.

Devlyn licked her lips when they separated. "Nice."

Lauren grinned. "Mmm hmm..."

Gremlin's happy groan drew both women's attention back to the crate. Lauren scratched her jaw speculatively. "Well, think about this, Devlyn. The kids can finally have their own dog."

"Oh, no!" Dev shook her head vigorously. "We're not taking even one of the demon spawn from hell. Cerberus and his mate can just find homes for their evil seed elsewhere."

Lauren glanced down and made a face. "They are going to make some… er… ugly puppies."

"You're being kind."

"I know."

"My mom says any day now, so I hope you know something 'bout birthin' puppies, Scarlett. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with the Secretary of Health and Human Services."

"That's great. Will you pick me up a food stamp application?"

Dev laughed and shook her head. "Spoken like a true Democrat. And, no, I will not. But I will gladly pay to get them sterilized."

Gremlin chose that exact moment to start howling even louder. Princess, however, remained conspicuously silent.

"Hush," Lauren scolded her pooch. Then she stuck out her tongue at Dev. "Spoken like a true Emancipationist."

"I prefer Emancipator."

"Oh, is that so?" Lauren grinned and crossed her arms.

"Oh, absolutely. Because, my lovely," Dev reached out for Lauren. Speaking in her deepest, sexiest voice, she said, "I can set you free."

Lauren leaned forward until her forehead was resting against Dev's chest. She sucked in a deep breath. "God, I love it when you talk dirty."

Both women began to laugh.

Friday, August 13th

 

Dev pushed herself away from her desk and tossed her pen down, clearly upset. God, everything about this made her sick.

Special Prosecutor Miller leaned forward eagerly in his chair, causing it to squeak as he braced his forearms on the desk. His eyes took on a predatory glint. "We need to make a statement to the nation."

Dev's jaw worked. "How many times do I have to repeat that this isn't about the nation. It's about a fifteen-year-old boy!"

"A fifteen-year-old who tried to assassinate the President!" David closed his eyes and shook his head. He just knew Dev was going to react this way. "Madam President, I'm sorry, but I agree with Special Prosecutor Miller on this one."

"Better watch out, David. The A.C.L.U. is gonna want your membership card back for that."

Miller squared his shoulders. "This is a serious issue, Madam President."

Dev's face went stone cold. "You don't need to remind me of that, Mr. Miller."

David broke in, hoping to forestall an argument. "He was old enough to buy a gun on the street, plan the crime for weeks, sneak in the weapon without being detected by the Secret Service or any other damned security, and shoot you three times. Those aren't the actions of a child, Madam President."

"Our briefs are ready. Our position is strong. I'm certain we'll win," Miller said confidently.

"This shouldn't be about winning and losing. You're talking about putting someone who is too young to shave, and spends more money on pimple medication than gasoline, into a maximum security federal penitentiary for the rest of his life."

"With all due respect, Madam President, my job is to prosecute." Miller braced his large hands on Dev's desk and stood. He'd had about all he could take. Every step of the way the President had insisted that he justify not only his office's investigation methods, but his tactical decisions as Special Prosecutor. If this was how Devlyn Marlowe was acting now, she'd be testifying for the defense by the time the case went to trial! The man stepped around the side of the desk, and Dev rose to her feet to meet his challenging stance. "My job isn't to do what's best for Louis Henry. He's got three attorneys who are safeguarding his rights very nicely, thank you."

"That's enough, Bill!" It wasn't that David disagreed with him. But he could see that Dev was about to boil over. And arguing wasn't going to get them anywhere.

"I agree that Louis Henry is dangerous and should be kept in jail for as long as possible. I'm reminded of it every time I look in the mirror." She reached up and traced the fine scare that ran along her left temple. "I just think that a federal penitentiary is the wrong place for him now. Certainly we can find something else."

"Would you excuse us for a minute?" David gestured towards the door with his head. "I'd like to speak with the President alone for a moment."

"Of course." Miller stepped away and marched angrily out of Dev's office.

Dev settled back in her chair, tapping her fingers on the soft leather. "You're gonna yell at me aren't you, David? I can tell. The veins in your neck are all bloated, and your voice has that little squeak to it. Beth was right. You are in the heart attack danger years."

David grunted with frustration, not wanting to smile at his friend's joke. He did not want to say what he was going to say next. Sometimes my job just sucks. "It will make you look weak by not going after Henry with both barrels."

Dev drew in a quick breath.

The Chief of Staff held up his hands. "Hold your horses, Devil! And for once let me finish."

Her mouth snapped shut.

"Every political talk show in the nation has already speculated as to why we haven't made this move sooner. The Republicans started grumbling three weeks ago. Now, even the more conservative Democrats are joining in. You're pushing a crime bill that includes your DNA legislation right now. It's not the time to appear soft on crime!"

"David."

"I'm not through. I know you don't like Miller. He's aggressive and arrogant, and he's very damned good at his job. But this time he's right, Dev. Louis Henry belongs in prison. Not some juvenile detention center. I really believe that, separate and apart from the political implications."

Dev crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her eyebrows. "Can I say something now?"

"Uh, yeah." David rubbed the back of his neck with his palm.

"If this is only about the boy, and not about my crime package, then why the little speech?"

David shrugged. "You pay me to tell you the political reality of things. This time, what's best for you also happens to be the best thing for the case. You need to trust your people."

Dev couldn't take David's brown eyes boring into hers, so she got up from her desk and moved over to the window, gazing out at the clear blue sky. She gave herself a mental kick in the ass and then spoke. "I just hate this, David. I can't stop thinking about my kids. It's like his prosecution has struck some sort of nerve or something. I can only imagine what Louis' parents must be going through. No, wait. I can't imagine that."

"And you feel guilty for going after him because right now it's going to help you."

"Yes." Dev turned to face her best friend, at a loss as to what to say. She knew that if she pushed matters, she could get her way on this. But she never brushed off David's recommendations. They were too valuable and almost never wrong. "You think I'm too close to this, and it's affecting my judgment, right?"

"Yes."

"And that I should back off."

"Yes."

"And to let Miller make his motion, and let the court decide whether Louis Henry should be tried as an adult."

"Yes."

"And enjoy the political benefits without guilt."

"Yes."

Dev sighed heavily. "These conversations are always so enlightening, David. Let's have one again real soon."

David chuckled. "I'm sure we will. Well," David clapped his hands together, "I suppose I should get him."

"I suppose." Dev smiled when, instead of heading for the door, David joined her at the window and put his hand on her shoulder. "You do realize that Liza is probably going to buzz me sometime in the next thirty seconds. I'm already running late for my next appointment."

"True."

"Well, it's not like you to waste even a few seconds when you could be picking my brain. So, what earth-shattering thing do you wanna know?"

A broad grin shaped David's lips. "Where exactly is Lauren's tattoo."

 

Saturday, August 14th

 

Dev was grinning like the Cheshire cat when she offered Lauren her hand and gallantly helped her out of the limousine. "You know it's official now, don't you? The Press will be all over us again." She linked arms with Lauren, and with exaggerated slowness, began walking her towards the White House steps. They stopped often and took a wide path to the house, letting the evening breeze rustle their hair and dresses.

Lauren leaned into Dev, gripping her bicep with her other hand. "After an evening like tonight, Madam President, the Press can go to hell. I don't care what they write about us."

Dev laughed at Lauren's spirited reply. "Don't go giving them carte blanche, or they'll be relentless."

"And they aren't usually?"

"Good point. When Sharon does a Press recap about tonight, she'll mention that you were my date for the evening. There won't be anymore denying it. Are you ready for that?"

The answer came more easily than she thought it would. "Absolutely." Her integrity as Dev's biographer would come under heavy fire. But hadn't it already? Devlyn would stand by her, and she knew in her heart that she was up to that challenge. What she felt for Dev, how she felt about herself when they were together… it was worth the hardship.

Yes! Dev wondered if her cheeks would sustain permanent damage if her grin grew any wider. She was so proud at the moment it nearly hurt. But she tucked the feeling away as one of the most important in her life. "Are you tired? Could I buy you a nightcap?" Dev wiggled her brows. "I happen to have an incredibly expensive brandy hidden in my room."

Lauren looked up at a sky full of a million twinkling stars. But tonight she didn't envy their position in the heavens. Tonight, things right here on Earth were pretty damned magical. They'd gone to dinner and the theater. The food had been fabulous, the performance had brought her to tears, and the company had been better still. The Secret Service had been there, as always, but ever since Dev's shooting she found it hard to resent their presence. Lauren laughed to herself. Maybe I'm just getting used to this whole crazy life. No – not 'getting used to', just doing a better job of accepting the realities.

Despite the fact that this had been Lauren and Dev's first public event as a couple, when a normally reclusive rock star had shown up at the performance, to Lauren and Dev's delight, he'd received most of the attention. Lauren suddenly wondered if that was really dumb luck, or the machinations of a certain lanky brunette who was known to pull out all the stops when she really wanted something.

"I'm feeling nothing but wonderful right now, Devlyn." She bumped hips with the older woman. "I'm not tired at all. And I'd love to have a drink with you. But before I do, there's something terribly important that you should know."

"And that would be what, Ms. Strayer?" Dev removed the silk scarf from around her neck and draped it over Lauren's shoulders, allowing her fingertips to linger. "Don't tell me you have a jealous boyfriend who's going to show up tonight, and who I'm gonna have to punch in the nose?"

Lauren grasped Dev's hand and lifted it, examining her long fingers in the moonlight. "Have you ever actually done that?" she asked curiously. "Punched somebody, I mean?"

"Well, maybe once or twice… but I swear only when that person deserved it."

"Tch." Lauren's gave Dev's arm a little pull but didn't let go of her hand. "I don't know whether I believe that or not. I've never seen you so much as lift a hand to the kids. And you haven't pummeled the Secretary of Defense senseless, not that he has very far to go." While Devlyn did have the Devil's own temper when provoked, a gentle – even sensitive – woman lurked underneath. Lauren wondered what it would take for Dev to get mad enough to resort to violence.

Dismissing such serious musings, the writer sucked in a deep breath. The late summer air was still warm and humid. And the aroma of fresh flowers floated on the breeze. She almost regretted taking the last few steps into the White House and out of the evening air. "What I wanted to tell you, was that I hate brandy. Always have. Don't suppose it would be possible to get something complicated, like a perfectly aged, frosty mug of rootbeer?"

"Hmmm…" Dev pretended to think. She nodded. "Yeah, I think I can handle that order. Or at least the kitchen staff can. Maybe we'll make it two, and I'll throw in a little ice cream in mine."

"Ooooo... you've finally hit upon my idea of decadence, Madam President." Lauren smiled her greeting to several cleaning staff members who were polishing the staircase railings with practiced hands and gossiping about their favorite soap opera couples. She lifted the hem of her dress as she ascended the stairs, easily navigating them in high heels but wishing she were in sneakers nonetheless. "Should I change first?"

"Hmm, tell you what. You come with me, and I'll loan you a set of very baggy, Presidential sweats if you'd like. That's what I'm changing into." Dev turned her head and whispered into Lauren's ear. "There's only one thing more comfortable."

Lauren shivered at the feeling of Dev's hot breath tickling her ear. "If you say something with the word 'naked' in it," she paused to fan her cheeks, "I'm going to jump your bones right here in the hallway. I swear I will, Devlyn."

"And this is a deterrent exactly how?" Dev laughed, tightening her grip on Lauren's hand. "You have such a dirty mind. So I guess I'll just have to make sure I don't say naked until we actually get to my room. Wouldn't want to give anyone a show."

"Liar."

"Now, now, Ms. Strayer." Dev's voice held a solemn but teasing note. "Have I done anything to make you think I would be anything but a very private and very passionate lover?" She waited until a lovely, pink blush crept slowly up Lauren's cheeks and greeted her words. Damn, she's adorable. Wish I knew what she was thinking.

Lauren swallowed hard. Okay, you started this. Don't chicken out now. "Honestly, Devlyn, I'm not sure. You haven't given me any clear signal one way or the other when it comes to..." She bit her tongue, then whispered, "You know." There. That was clear as mud.

Over the past two months the women had kissed. A lot. A whole lot. But things hadn't progressed beyond that. For the most part, Lauren was grateful. It had given her time to come to terms with certain truths about herself, and about what any romantic relationship with Devlyn would really be like. The taller woman was amazingly patient about the whole thing. Or absolutely terrified. Lauren couldn't tell which. But she was never rushed. Never pushed for more. The problem was, Lauren really wasn't nearly as patient as Dev. And as her anxieties about a more intimate, physical relationship with Dev lessened, her libido began to squawk. Loudly.

Then there was that damned book! There were only so many times a woman could read The Joy of Lesbian Sex before needing to try some of those things out. Lauren's mental picture of her and Dev doing what was talked about on page 212 was nearly enough to make her brain explode. Oh, yeah. She especially wanted to try that.

"What does 'you know' mean?" Dev tormented more. "No, no, I'm not sure what you're referring to at all." She chuckled wickedly as they turned down another corridor. "Skiing, knitting…" She opened the door to her private suite and turned a single standing lamp on. It cast the women in long shadows, but was more than enough to see by.

"Bitch."

"Is that any way to address the President of the United States? Tsk, tsk, little girl. I may just have to spank you for that." The door wasn't even shut yet, and Dev was kicking off her high heels. One sailed all the way across the room, hitting the wall with a dull thud. "Yuck. No wonder I never wear those. I don't know how you even stand those short ones you're always wearing. Ahhh, that's soooo much better," she moaned throatily as she closed her eyes and wiggled her toes.

The sound of Dev's low moan and the sight of her in that black, fitted dress, head thrown back, eyes closed, was more than enough to send every single drop of blood in Lauren's body stampeding south. "Sweet Jesus," she muttered, licking suddenly dry lips. "You really are trying to kill me, aren't you?"

Dev opened her eyes and marched over to the writer, who was now perched on the arm of the couch. She bent down and brushed her lips against Lauren's, teasing the tender skin around her mouth with nips and little licks. When they were both breathing raggedly Dev pulled back and swallowed hard, nearly undone by her own game. "Nope. I'm not teasing you at all," she lied blatantly, walking toward the dresser on slightly wobbly legs.

Lauren whimpered. "I repeat: liar." She smiled at Dev's responding chuckle. "I hate to do this to myself, Ms. Tease. But I'm afraid I'm going to need someone's help with these buttons. Emma was around when I got dressed earlier." Lauren shifted, showing Dev a row of tiny pearl buttons that worked their way from the top of her buttocks to her mid back. "I can reach them all, but they're teensy tiny and murder on my nerves. Would you mind giving me a hand?"

It would be my pleasure! "Now who's teasing whom?" Dev moved in behind Lauren and very slowly began unbuttoning her dress. "But remember, my dear," she swept Lauren's hair off of her neck and leaned in to taste the skin there, "I don't lose gracefully." She gently undid each button, letting the back of her fingers graze over baby soft skin that hadn't been touched that way in far too long.

"Devlyn." Lauren groaned, her eyes growing hooded. Her blood began to pulse hotter in her veins, even though she knew this was Dev exacting her revenge at her request to undo the dress. Unfortunately, her body didn't seem to care. "Be nice," she ground out. "You… um… said something about sweats."

"Sure did." Dev nuzzled the writer's neck for just a second more before giving it a little nip and undoing the last button. She ran her hand up Lauren's bare back before turning on her heel and heading for her bathroom. "You know where I keep them. Help yourself." Oh, God, I need a cold drink of water… poured over my head.

Lauren took a deep breath. She cracked open her eyes and watched as Dev disappeared into the bathroom. "Evil. Just plain evil," she whispered.

A big part of Lauren wanted to follow Dev into the bathroom. With the slightest push she suspected they'd end up in bed together. But Dev seemed content to play and tease, going forward steadily, but very slowly. Lauren could do that. She hoped. A moment of doubt assailed her, and she laughed at herself, certain that once her body's blood flow directed itself back towards her brain, she'd be okay.

The blonde woman was rolling up the sleeves on one of Dev's sweatshirts when the President exited the bathroom wearing a navy blue, fleece robe. Gone was her dress, make up and jewelry. The hair around her face was slightly damp, and she looked comfortable and content.

In the time Dev had been in the bathroom, Lauren's body temperature had managed to drop to normal. In fact, that, combined with the White House's powerful air conditioner, and Lauren was surprised to find herself fighting off a chill. She dressed, smiling as the soft material warmed her skin. In truth, she plain enjoyed wearing Dev's sweats. For one, they were Dev's and smelled different than her clothes did, despite the fact that, like Emma and the Marlowe family, she used the White House's laundry service. The second reason was it really ticked Michael Oaks off when he saw her sharing things with the President. She smirked inwardly. Bite me, you anal retentive prick.

Dev looked at Lauren and told her with a gesture to turn around as she pulled another set of sweats out of the dresser. The writer dutifully turned and faced the door, but peeked over her shoulder just as Dev disrobed.

"Eyes front, Strayer," Dev teased while pulling on her pants.

Lauren squeaked as her head snapped forward. But she'd already gotten a nice look at an absolutely marvelous backside. Her mind strayed to their time in the Marlowe cabin in Ohio. Oooo…this is like a sexy puzzle that I get to put together piece by piece. And at the end… oh, my. An enormous smile curled her lips at the delicious thought.

The strong hands on her shoulders startled her out of her thoughts. "Still want that root beer?"

"Uh huh." Lauren nodded, before turning around. Chapter Six was all about how to use food…stop it! Just stop it! You'll drive yourself insane.

Dev's bedroom was large and spacious, and they settled in a sitting area on a large, padded sofa, cuddled close together. They'd done this many times before, especially when Dev had something on her mind and just needed someone to talk to. Both women were comfortable with it, and it spoke of their growing camaraderie and intimacy as friends. Lauren pulled her legs up and leaned her head against Dev's shoulder.

She sighed as the familiar weight of Dev's arm settled around her. "The play was wonderful. Thank you for taking me out tonight."

"Oh, it was my pleasure. Trust me. I'm glad we've gotten to a point where we can go out in public. The Press is going to go nuts. But I'm hoping it will be short lived. The conservatives will be up in arms. We'll take some heat and be called nasty names. But if we keep our heads down and stay low, the storm will blow over."

"I trust you, Devlyn."

"Glad to hear it, Mighty Mouse."

Lauren's eyes strayed to the mantel where a photograph of the Marlowe children was proudly displayed. She smiled at the sight. They had been so sweet, trying to cheer her up after her mother's suicide. Especially Ashley. They'd made her cards and showered her with drawings for her room. But in her heart Lauren didn't really think it was fair of them to equate the loss of their mother with hers. She'd had 31 years to get to know her mother and failed. These sweet children were robbed of that chance all too soon. "Tell me about Samantha, Devlyn," Lauren was surprised to hear herself ask. "You don't talk about her much."

Dev tensed briefly and unconsciously pulled Lauren a little closer. "She was a political science major when we met in college, and she was three years older than I was. David and Beth set us up, and we kind of fell for each other right away. We dated for about a year before I proposed. And soon after, we had a commitment ceremony." Dev began stroking Lauren's arm with her fingertips.

She glanced at Lauren, who looked genuinely interested, so she reluctantly continued.

"Eight years after that, as soon as it became legal in Ohio, we had a short civil service. But we were already married in our hearts. We had three kids, and I loved her very much." A bittersweet smiled edged its way onto Dev's lips. "You two would have been great friends." She shrugged. "I don't think there's really anything else to say."

Lauren frowned and shifted in Dev's arms until they were facing each other and she could look into Dev's eyes when she spoke. "I think you're wrong. I think there is a lot to say about someone who was obviously so important in your life."

Dev shrugged again, dark brows drawing together. "I guess there is. I just wouldn't know what to say."

Quiet and unseeing, Devlyn stared at the far wall for so long that Lauren decided to change the subject. She opened her mouth to speak when Dev's low burr pierced the silence of the room.

"Sam was the only person I ever trusted enough to give myself to completely. She held who I was in the palm of her hand and the core of her heart. She intrigued my mind, challenged my soul, and soothed my body and spirit. When she died, I was sure I had lost those things forever." She looked at the woman in her arms and smiled softly. "But I think I may have found them again."

Soothed her body and spirit? Jesus. I thought you didn't know what to say! Lauren tried to smother the bolt of jealously that lanced through her at those words. You asked her, Lauri. Now suck it up and live with her answer. You knew she loved her like that. But somehow, it was different hearing it from Dev's own lips.

The smaller woman unconsciously pulled away from Dev.

"Oh, God, I'm so sorry." She closed her eyes. Too much, fool! That was too much! "I didn't mean... I mean... I didn't want you to be hurt or upset." Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Dev moved forward as Lauren retreated, not wanting to let her get away. "How can I make it right, Lauren? I don't want you to be jealous of Sam. She was a part of my life, yes. But a part that is now over and long," she paused, feeling the beginnings of tears, "dead." She wiped her face. "I know I need to get on with my life, and I want to get on with my life with you."

Lauren moved her hands through the shadows and wiped away Dev's tears with gentle fingers. "I didn't mean to upset you. I'm the one who should be sorry, not you. I want to know about her." She turned painfully open, gray eyes on her friend. "That was just a little hard to hear. It caught me off guard. But it was beautiful, and I'm so glad you had that... and have the kids." She smiled weakly and cupped Dev's cheeks. "I'm the one who asked you about her, right? So it's okay. I promise," she whispered. Lauren leaned forward and softly kissed Dev's wet cheeks, tasting the salty remnants of tears.

Thank God. "I don't want to make you feel any less special or important in my life. And I certainly don't want you to feel like you're competing with her, because you're not." Dev took a deep breath. In for a dollar... Since we're already talking about Samantha, I might as well go all the way. If she's going to think I'm a complete idiot, she might as well have all the facts. "Okay, I'm going to confess something that very few people know about me. Remember when Beth asked me that sex question during our game at the cabin?"

Lauren blinked, trying to follow what appeared to be a radical change in subject. She gave a slow nod. "Of course."

Dev shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Well, I told you that I'd only been with one person. So that was obviously Samantha."

Lauren nodded again, still confused. "I assumed that."

"Well, not only was she my one and only. Umm... we waited."

The writer looked at Dev questioningly. "For permission?" she hazarded wildly, not having a clue as to what Dev was trying to say.

Dev frowned. "Permission? Why would we need permission from anyone? We were both grown women. No, we waited until we were married. Well, I was waiting; she was complaining to mom," Dev tried to joke. I have never felt so incredibly ridiculous in all my life. She rubbed her hands on her sweats, wishing she didn't sound so backward. So old-fashioned. Lauren was outgoing and adventurous. There was no way in hell she could find this attractive in a potential partner. "I don't know why. I was young, and it's something I didn't – I still don't – take lightly." Dev stopped and braced herself, praying Lauren wouldn't laugh.

She didn't. Instead, her mouth formed a tiny 'O'. "Wow," she finally muttered. Dev had just made several things very clear to Lauren, although she still wanted to shine a light on a few fuzzy parts. "So is it like a religious or a moral thing? I-"

"No. Just a 'Dev is a nut' thing. I don't just want sex, Lauren. I want it all. I want to make love and be in love with the person I'm with. I don't think I could fully enjoy the physical side thinking that there was nothing more to it."

Lauren sudden straightened. "Is that how you feel about us?" She blinked stupidly. "Like there's nothing more to it?"

"No!" Dev blurted out a little louder than she intended. "That's not it at all. I just wanted to explain. You know I like to tease and play and all. And I love that we can have fun that way, without pressure or expectations. But that doesn't mean there isn't more behind it. Especially when it comes to you, Lauren."

Lauren smiled tentatively, enjoying the fire behind Dev's words.

"My mother, of course, thinks I've lost my mind and all but told me to take you and ravish you." She smiled back at Lauren reflexively. "And don't think I haven't thought about it." Dev groaned, "Because I have. A lot. More than a lot." She swallowed hard. "I haven't tried anything more because my emotions for you run so deep that I can't bear the thought of taking advantage of you. Does that make any sense to you at all?"

Pale brows shot skyward. "No! What in God's name are you talking about? Taking advantage of me?"

Dev sighed. Of course it doesn't. "Sweetheart, I just wanted you to know that you mean so much to me that I want to be really careful. You and the kids are the most important things in my life, and I don't want to rush or take chances with any of you." She dropped her hands into her lap. "My mom says I need to lighten up." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "I'm just not sure I know how. I want to go slow. I want to be careful. I care about you too much to do anything else. This is the way I've always been."

"There's nothing wrong that way, Devlyn." Lauren gently reached out for Dev's hand and smoothly intertwined their fingers. "It's really very sweet." And I am hopelessly in love you.

"Face it. It's old-fashioned, and I know I sound like a complete fool. But I want you to know how much you mean to me." Devlyn gathered her courage and looked Lauren squarely in the eye. She drew in a deep breath. "Lauren, the reason I'm saying these things to you is that I want you to understand how important you are in my life." Dev swallowed hard. "I care for you very, very much. Over the course of the last few months I've definitely realized that I'm totally in lo-"

An alarm rang out, causing both women to nearly jump out of their skins. "Madam President," a rapid, unfamiliar male voice spoke over the rarely used intercom system, "we need you in the Situation Room. Code One."

"Damn!" Dev leaned forward and kissed Lauren quickly. "I've got to go. We'll finish this as soon as I can, I promise." Dev was off the couch and to the front door before Lauren could say a word. As the door closed she could see Dev being surrounded by advisors and heard the word 'bombing'.

* * *

The Situation Room was buzzing when Dev pushed open the heavy door. The men and women in the room were in various states of dress that ranged from Michael Oak's khaki pants and pressed polo shirt to the director of the FBI's jogging shorts and academy sweatshirt. Everyone who was seated immediately jumped to his feet. "At ease." God that was annoying, especially when she knew there were far more important things to deal with.

"When did the last one go off?" Blue eyes flickered to a large screen displaying a map of the Unites States with five areas lit up in bright red. To the left of the screen, were five live holographic images of the sites with a city name hovering directly above them.

The Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor entered the room with David hot on their heels. Dev turned to face them. "Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, it's going to be a wild night." She shook her head and pointed to the map. "Five bombings from coast to coast, all within the last hour."

"Military or terrorist?"

"My guess is terrorist," Secretary of Defense Brendwell jumped in. "Our military checks are already coming back negative. Though we've still got about 20% to go."

David ran a hand through his short, disheveled hair. "Foreign or domestic?"

"We don't know yet."

David glanced around the room. "How and why?" He tossed his briefcase on the table and began rolling up his sleeves. When no one answered his question he barked, "Anyone?"

The Director of the FBI cleared her throat. "We don't know, sir. No one has come forward to claim responsibility."

"Yet," David clarified. "You don't know yet."

"Yes, sir."

Dev winced at the live image shots of several firefighters heading straight into the billowing flames of one of the buildings. "Get Press Secretary Allen out of bed and get her over here. We're going to need a lot of damage control on this. And where in the hell are the Directors of the DEA and ATF and the Secretary of the Treasury!" Dev yelled as another paper listing the exact bombing times and locations was placed in her hands. "And somebody find me a pair of socks or something!"

"Everyone is on their way, Madam President," came the answer from the back of the room.

"Okay, what do we have here?" Dev pointed to the screen, but looked at a young man to her left. He wore a U.S. Army uniform.

"In reverse order of attack; a post office in New York City, an IRS building in Atlanta, a federal courthouse in Dallas, a junior high school in Portland, and a shopping mall in San Diego."

She glanced up at the clocks on the wall, looking until she found the one telling her it was just after 11:00 P.M. on the West Coast. She cursed to herself; the stores would have just been closing about the same time as the explosion. "Injuries in the mall?"

"We're just starting to get casualty reports now, ma'am. But there are reports of dead or wounded coming in from each of the sites or adjacent buildings." The young man reached over and picked up the ringing phone next to him.

"David!" Dev whirled around to find her Chief of Staff in the jostling crowd. "Not good enough! We need this contained now!"

"We're on it, Dev!" his voice called back even though she never saw his face.

"Wake up every damned staffer we have if you need to. I want every piece of information available. Get me the mayors of the cities in question, and the governor of each state, on the phone."

Dev headed for the small room at the side of the larger one that was her own personal command center. Just before she entered she felt something being pressed into her hands. She looked down to see a fresh pair of white socks. Before she had a chance to even utter a small thanks, the person who'd handed them to her was swallowed up by the crowded room.

 

Monday, August 16th

 

The President rubbed her temples and took another sip of coffee. She eyed the omelet that had been placed before her. Dev wasn't hungry, but she could hear Emma's scolding voice blaring in her brain, 'Eat! You won't be any good to anyone if you don't eat.' She picked up the fork and cut away a small bite, placing it in her mouth and chewing slowly as she scanned one of the reports in front of her.

She wasn't a hundred percent sure, but she believed it had been at least thirty-six hours since she had stepped into the Situation Room. She'd only been out once; to give a brief prepared statement to the Press. Since then, she'd been hunkered down at her desk, working like a dog, making sure the world knew what a safe place the United States was, and how she would most certainly bring to justice the bastards that had called the nation's safety into question.

Among a million and one other things, this required phone call after phone call, video conference after video conference, sitting in on strategy sessions with her advisors and department heads, and continuing to deal with just as many of her normal duties as was possible. God, there aren't enough hours in the day. She was grateful, at least, that the children had Emma and Lauren, who she knew would spend a little extra time with them, just because she couldn't. That was one thing she wouldn't have to worry about.

"Don't," she grumbled to the staffer who was about to place a glass of orange juice in front of her. "Please. I hate the stuff. It gives me heartburn. Milk. A large glass of milk."

The young man nodded quickly. "Yes, Madam President."

They'd been lucky so far. Although Dev never thought the word 'luck' was an appropriate one when it came to a situation like this one. Five bombs had gone off and only six people had been killed and twenty injured. Only. It's not 'only' when one of those people is someone you love. By all accounts, it should have been so much worse in San Diego, but part of the explosive device had failed to go off. The junior high school in Portland had been nearly flattened, but even the janitorial staff had all gone home by the time the bomb had detonated. The community, however, was reeling.

While still wholly unjustifiable, Dev could almost understand the bombings in New York City, Atlanta, and Dallas. Those were all government buildings; always a favorite of terrorists. The two civilian targets, however, made no sense whatsoever, and this pissed her off more than anything.

When the door opened again, the Attorney General entered the room. She looked as tired as Dev felt. "Coffee's fresh." Dev pointed to the carafe in front of her.

"If I take another drink of coffee, it'll be oozing out my pores, and my husband won't come near me for weeks."

Dev chuckled and rested her chin on her fist. "Nah, that's just a nasty rumor started by people who sell tea." Her good humor faded quickly, and she blew out a frustrated breath. "I need good news. Please tell me you have some good news."

"There's very little good news in a situation like this. But we have our top people deployed at every scene."

Dev nodded. "Do we know anything yet? Are they connected? If you feel the need to lie just so that I feel better, I won't resent it in the least."

"Well, that at least, is something we do know. Preliminary reports show that the explosive devices in Atlanta, San Diego and New York were nearly identical. We're still waiting on the results from the other two cities. But, for now at least, it looks like the same person, or group, is responsible."

"Is that good news?"

"Most definitely. One group is easier to round up than two or three."

Dev leaned back and sighed heavily. "This is true. Well there's some progress at least."

"Yes, ma'am. We'll get there. "

Dev met the Attorney General's gaze head on. "Yes. We will." She laid her palms flat on her desk. "In your professional opinion, is this an all right time for me to get out of here for a little while, so that I can take a shower and see my family?"

"Yes, Madam President. It would be a fine time." The older woman gave Dev a bittersweet smile. "You've had more challenges in your first eight months than most Presidents face in four years. You're facing these challenges in a way that makes me proud to be an American, a woman, and a member of your team. A lot of people think of you as a hero. I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that I'm one of them. It's an honor to work with you, Madam President."

For a moment Dev was speechless. "Wow," she finally mumbled. "That was one helluva pep talk. My kids' nanny could learn a lesson from you." Dev's expression turned serious. "You know I feel the same way about you, Evelyn."

Evelyn squared her shoulders proudly as her cheeks took on a slightly pink tint. "That's just because I kick ass and take names."

Dev chuckled. "Why do you think I appointed you? That's my version of kicking ass."

Evelyn lowered voice. "We'll get them, Dev. I know it."

Dev nodded as she rose to her feet. She stretched, rolling her head in a slow circle to get out the kinks. "I'll be back in a few hours." Dev made a show of sniffing the air. "I think I tend to offend."

The Attorney General snorted. "Have you smelled the air in the Situation Room? Why the hell do you think I'm in here with you?"

* * *

Heading into the residence, the first things Dev heard were the faint, but delighted squeals of two children; her brow creased as she wondered what had happened to her youngest child, whose voice was missing from the mix.

As she made her way farther down the hall, she realized the sounds were coming from Lauren's room. She stopped and listened outside the ajar door.

"Is she okay?" Ashley asked worriedly.

"I think she's fine," Lauren answered with more confidence than she felt.

Dev rapped on the door. "Anyone home?" She pushed the door open a little further and stepped inside. "Is this a private party, or can anyone join the fun?"

"Mom!" Christopher jumped up and ran over to his mother, flinging himself into her arms.

"Hiya, pal." She groaned quietly as she picked him up. Damned shoulder. Blue eyes flickered around the room, landing on Aaron, who was on Lauren's bed fast asleep. She turned back to Ashley and Christopher. "Now, what's causing all this ruckus? I could hear you half a mile way."

"Puppies!" Ash grinned. "Princess is having her puppies!"

The tall woman leveled her gaze at Lauren, who was looking slightly green around the gills but otherwise in good spirits. "Oh, joy. How many so far?"

Lauren stepped out of the way to reveal Princess' bed. If Dev strained she could hear the faint whimpering sound of the mutant baby dogs. "Do you guys need a vet?"

"I don't think so. Then again, Princess has been silent on the subject." The writer stepped closer to Dev, leaving Christopher and Ashley leaning over the box Lauren had placed Princess in.

The little boy and girl cooed at the squirming puppies and gently stroked their longish, wiry hair.

Princess grunted and then let out a long-suffering groan.

"She's had two so far." Lauren winced. "But I don't think she's finished."

Dev couldn't disagree. Judging by the sounds coming out of the box, Princess still had a way to go. "Sucks to be Princess today."

"Oh, yeah." The shorter woman wrinkled her nose. "But on the bright side, I haven't thrown up or passed out yet."

A genuine grin stretched Dev's cheeks. "Wow. I'm impressed."

"You should be," Lauren teased back.

Dev peeked over Lauren's head and caught a glimpse of the puppies. "Oh, my God," she muttered.

"I know," Lauren giggled. "Poor things. They didn't inherit all of Grem's good looks. They look at least part Pomeranian." She mulled that statement over in her mind for a moment and then amended herself. "Or maybe part alien. One of the two."

"Grem's good looks?" Dev flicked Lauren a disgusted look, but chuckled when the tip of a pink tongue was the blonde's reply.

Of their own accord, Lauren's arms found their way around Dev's waist, and she placed a gentle kiss on waiting lips. "How goes it?"

"Not so well," Dev admitted quietly. "But we're handling it and starting to make some progress."

"Of course you are." Lauren cupped Dev's cheek with her palm, and the President leaned into the comforting touch. "Anything I can do to help?"

Dev glanced at Aaron who was curled in a tight ball, snoring happily with a thin blanket draped over him. "You're already doing it, sweetheart. Thank you."

Slate gray eyes went round and innocent. "Well, I thought they should be here when the puppies were born."

Devlyn chuckled and lifted a well-defined eyebrow. "Very sneaky. But we are not taking even a single one of Grem's babies. Speaking of my arch nemesis..." Dev's gaze narrowed as it crisscrossed the floor.

Lauren burst out laughing. "He's hiding under the bed. I tried to get him to come out earlier, but he's not budging."

Princess whimpered pitifully as another portly part Pug shifted within her.

Dev shook her head, cringing at the piteous sound. "Maybe he's smarter than I gave him credit for." Dev captured the writer's hand and gave it a kiss. "I'm on my way to get a shower and a changes of clothes. I'll be back in a few minutes. I don't have a lot of time, but I'd love to spend what I have with the four of you. How about I meet you in the dining room for a snack in about twenty minutes?"

Lauren drew the tip of her finger down Dev's throat, lingering almost imperceptibly at her pulse point, then coming to rest on her collarbone. "What would you like?" She looked up at Dev from behind pale lashes.

Dev swallowed hard as a warm wave of desire washed over her. Damn, she can flirt. She growled and ducked her head for another quick kiss. "There are lots of things I'd like. But I guess I'll have to settle for food and good company." She winked at Lauren before heading towards the kids. Dev gave Christopher and Ashley a quick kiss on the tops of their heads, trying not to look into the crate again and risk traumatic blindness. Again. Weren't all puppies supposed to be cute? "See you guys in a few minutes."

* * *

After a snack of fresh fruit and milk, they returned to Lauren's room to do a puppy check. Dev was dismayed to find that Princess had delivered not only a third, but a fourth puppy. "Holy cow!" she exclaimed, fending off Lauren's playful slaps. "They are so, so…" she searched her mind for an appropriate word.

"Cute!" Aaron provided helpfully, still a little dazed from his nap. He positioned himself in his mother's lap so that they could peer into the puppy crate together. "Now there's enough for us each to have our very own!"

And so it begins… "Aaron, we are not keeping these puppies."

Aaron's bottom lip immediately poked out. "Awww, Mom…"

"Aw, Mom…" Lauren echoed him cheekily.

"No." Dev glared at the writer. She put Aaron down and tried to look firm about her decision. "No. And that's final." She ignored Lauren's muffled snort.

Gremlin had finally gathered his courage and was standing on his hind legs, his front paws hanging over the edge of the crate as he peered down at his growing family. He looked at Dev and growled in warning, protectively baring his teeth.

Dev only laughed. "Oh, don't worry about it, buddy. They are all yours." She started herding the children away from Princess and the squirming puppies so that the detachment process could begin.

All three kids began whining and dragging their feet.

Just as Dev was about to lose control of her brood, Emma poked her head inside Lauren's room. Upon seeing the impending disaster, she took charge, reining in the Marlowe children and escorting them out of Lauren's room.

"Thank you, Emma!" Dev called out to the nanny as the door shut.

When they were alone, Dev opened her arms and Lauren stepped into them without hesitation. She hummed her delight at having the smaller woman wrapped tightly in her embrace. They both stood in total silence. Devlyn needed the wordless comfort, and Lauren was more than happy to oblige. "Don't suppose we can spend all day like this," she finally sighed.

The blonde woman tightened her grip on Dev. "I'm game if you are, darlin'."

Dev smiled into Lauren's hair, enjoying the light scent of her shampoo and the closeness of a friendship she'd come to cherish. "I need to get back there."

Lauren let out an unhappy breath. "I know. I haven't been able to keep up with much that's been happening. Between the puppies and the kids it's been crazy. I tried not to have the television going when we were together." She shrugged. "Ashley heard some people talking and had some questions that I thought you'd want to answer yourself." She stopped and rubbed her cheek against Dev's shoulder. "Were very many people hurt and killed?"

"One is too many. But, yeah, several people were killed. I checked the numbers one more time before I left the Situation Room, and deaths had gone up to ten and forty-six injured. Initial numbers weren't as high as we suspected they would be, but they've been slowly climbing because of injuries in nearby buildings that weren't initially included in our figures or weren't reported. And some of the more seriously injured didn't make it." Dev stared at the far wall as she thought. "I'm going to be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks. I'll be doing a lot of traveling, meeting with governors, mayors, and community groups."

"I know." Lauren's voice took on a no-nonsense tone. "I'm coming with you. It's important for me to be there for you too, Devlyn. Like you were there for me at my mom's funeral. Not to mention that it's critical for the book."

Silence.

Lauren frowned, an uneasy feeling blossoming in the pit of her stomach. "Dev?" Lauren frowned.

Dev cursed under her breath and braced herself. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. But it's not safe for you to come on this trip."

"Oh, no! No, you don't!" Lauren tried to pull away, but Dev held her tight.

"No." She set her jaw. "I mean it, so there is no sense in arguing with me on this." Even though you usually win our arguments. "I'm not going to clear you for this trip, Lauren. It's too dangerous right now. Lots of people are scared and upset. And people who are scared and upset do stupid things. I won't risk your getting hurt."

Lauren's temper began to rise, and an angry flush started working its way up her neck. "I won't be coddled! And if it's too dangerous for me, then it's too dangerous for you."

"I don't have a choice. I can't appear to be afraid to be seen in public. One of the points in going is to make sure that people see that this administration won't be bullied." Dev's eyes flashed with anger. "That I won't be bullied. This is my job."

"And what about my job?" Lauren snapped back. "The book-"

"Is not worth risking you over!" Dev consciously lowered her voice and grabbed hold of her emotions. She knew she was being overly cautious. But she kept thinking of what she'd already lost and what she wasn't willing to risk. The rational part of her mind told her that the Secret Service could keep Lauren as safe as they could keep her. Then again, she'd been shot three times.

"What happened to unlimited access?" Lauren demanded.

"This is not about that, and you know it."

Lauren finally pried herself loose from Dev's embrace. She couldn't get good and pissed off when the older woman held her in her arms. Lauren needed distance. Even if it was only a foot or two. She crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her chin defiantly. "After the assassination attempt we still went places together. Why is this so different?"

"Because this is hot on the heels of something that has the public in an uproar. And half of them are insane on a good day! But when things like this happen, the crazy ones get even crazier and the extremists more extreme. And that anger is directed at the piss poor government that they didn't like to begin with. People protest, people riot. And since yesterday there have been several credible threats made against me, the Vice President, and Air Force One." Dev threw her hands in the air. "Now is just not a good time! It's not forever, Lauren. I promise. God, with everything else that's going on right now, I just can't handle worrying about you. I couldn't stand losing you too. Please."

Lauren went stone still. "How credible?"

"Even David is worried."

"Then you should stay!"

"I can't. But you can." Dev's eyes begged her to agree.

The President's words were soft but fierce, and the biographer felt herself caving in without wanting to. For God's sake, not the 'sad eyes'. That's not fair!

"Please, just this once give in. For me. Please," Dev whispered. This was far more than just business. She was playing on Lauren's affections, and she knew it. But this wasn't a game, and if Dev had to fight dirty, she would.

The writer could see real fear in Dev's eyes, and she exhaled explosively, running a slightly shaky hand through her pale hair. She looked away from Devlyn and bit her tongue to keep from continuing to protest. Damn, you fight dirty. She scowled at her options, and when she turned back, intense, gray eyes bore so deeply into the President that she sucked in a surprised breath. "Swear to me that you'll do everything David says when it comes to security."

Dev blinked a few times. She wasn't expecting that. "Uh..."

"Promise, Devlyn! Or, so help me, I'll follow you around on a commercial plane if I have to, like some sort of damned groupie!"

Dev nodded, letting out a long, relieved breath. Yes. Thank you. "I promise."

"I can't believe I'm letting you get away with this." Lauren shook her head, then pushed her glasses higher up on her nose. "I'm going to worry about you the entire time you're gone."

Dev stepped forward, and, seeing no resistance in Lauren's face, put her arms back around the smaller woman. "Thank you, Lauren. I know you think this is silly. But I swear to you it's not."

A pale eyebrow lifted.

"Okay," Dev conceded, "not completely silly."

"Just this once, Devlyn." Lauren sighed. "Next time I'm not letting you off the hook so easily. We'll duke it out like always."

Dev crossed her heart. "Next time you can pitch a fit for a long as you want… and then give in."

"Don't push it." But Lauren couldn't help but crack a tiny smile.

Dev smiled back and lifted Lauren's chin so that she was looking deeply into her eyes. She didn't stop to think about what she was saying, or the fact that she hadn't ever said it out loud to Lauren before. "I love you so much it hurts," she whispered fervently. The words dropped effortlessly from her lips. And in that instant, she wondered why in the hell she had waited so long to say them.

Lauren closed her eyes and buried her face in the crook of Dev's neck. Hot tears pricked her eyes, and she let them come. Dev's arms tightened around her, and she sighed, absorbing the sweet pleasure of the moment. "You-" Lauren stopped and swallowed hard, collecting herself. "You are shameless and will say anything to win an argument," she teased weakly. She squeezed Dev hard and dropped a tender kiss in the hollow of her throat, pulling back to meet glistening blue eyes. Her heart swelled, and she promised, "I love you too."

* * *

David handed Dev the report as soon as she walked into the room. "We've got them, Madam President." He smiled triumphantly. "A militia group out of Oregon. They claimed responsibility about twenty minutes ago, and what specifics they let slip about the bombings were enough to confirm that their claim is legitimate. We've already got a bead on their location. They've been under minimal surveillance for months. Although, obviously, we didn't know they were planning anything like this."

"Everyone involved in the decision making process, in the Oval Office now," Dev ordered, already heading for the room herself. She wanted to be comfortable when she heard this.

She settled in behind her desk, while everyone else filed in and remained standing. They all stood, waiting for David, who took a seat across from Dev. The next twenty minutes were spent briefing Dev about the militia group and the FBI's plan to go in and 'neutralize' them. She asked every question she could think of and soaked up the intelligence information like a sponge. There were several minor clashes between agencies over exactly how this 'neutralization' should take place, but Dev felt those disagreements helped to flesh out important considerations that shouldn't be ignored.

When the last briefing was over, Dev remained silent for several moments, absorbing what she'd been told, her mind running through the several scenarios that had been laid on the table for her consideration. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I need you to step outside for a moment while I consult with the Chief of Staff." Dev's request was met with murmurs of agreement, and the room cleared in a matter of seconds.

David studied the President attentively. "You know what has to be done, Dev." He sighed, and his gaze dropped to his hands. "We need to take them out before they do more damage."

"Women and children?"

The red-haired man chewed the inside of his cheek. "Yes." David looked at his hands again. "The Director of the FBI confirmed that there will very likely be women and children in the compound. Dev, they brought them in months ago as a 'fuck you' to you. The families are there to act as human shields against government invasion."

"We were just kids, David, but do you remember Waco?"

"I do, Madam President, but this is entirely different." His mind flashed to the television in his parents' living room, filled with images of flames, explosions, and body bags. "These people have struck out against the nation as a whole. They've already killed. They are large and organized. We got very lucky in tracing their location to this Oregon compound. They have 'hidden' camps all over the country."

Dev scrubbed her face with her hands. "Jesus Christ." She covered her eyes with her palms for a moment and then let her hands drop to the tabletop. "Can you call everyone back in?"

David nodded and moved quickly. He opened the door and motioned for the group to reenter the room.

Dev's expression was firm and grim as she waited for the last man to shut the door behind him before beginning. "So, are we operating under the theory that if we cut off the head of the snake, the body will die?"

The Attorney General set a new file in front of Dev. "Yes, ma'am, that is the current theory."

Dev pushed away from the table, rolling her shoulder to alleviate the slight ache that had developed. Her eyes flickered to each person as she spoke. "Is anyone here a student of Greek mythology? Does the word Hydra mean anything to you?"

The Director of the FBI nodded. "Yes, Madam President. The mythical creature had nine heads. Problem was, if you cut one of them, two grew back."

"Exactly." Dev waited and let that statement sink into the gathering of men and women. "One moment please." She turned her attention to the new file, carefully reading it over and processing. The best choice was clear. But it made her stomach roil all the same. She closed the manila folder and tossed it back on the table.

Every set of expectant eyes trained themselves firmly on her, and she met them head on. "Go get them, ladies and gentlemen. The first plan was the best. Go with that, but first incorporate the changes proposed by the ATF. And let's pray that we get every head of this particular Hydra, so we don't have to worry about any growing back."

"That's it!" David announced quickly getting to his feet. "I want the new plan, with those changes added in, ready for final review by the President in fifteen minutes. Let's call it," his eyes darted to Dev, then back to his audience, "Operation: Hydra."

The room emptied quickly, leaving Dev and David alone. "You okay?" he asked in a low, concerned voice.

"I may have just ordered the deaths of innocent women and children. No, I'm not okay," Dev ground out harshly. She stood and gathered the files she'd asked be left for her review. "But it was my call to make, and I made it. Three hundred and ten million people expect me to keep them safe. I had no choice. We have to move right now, before these assholes dig in deeper or bomb somebody else's building."

David didn't say a word. He knew this tone. This was her I-hated-every-minute-of-it-but-I-did-what-I-had-to-do tone. Her speech was quick, and it was rough. This was a bitter pill for his friend to swallow. But he knew her well enough to know she'd take her medicine. Now Dev just had to live with her decision. Right or wrong.

"Tell them to get Air Force One ready to fly, David. And then call Beth and-"

"Tell her I won't be home for dinner?"

"For probably the next couple of weeks. We're going to Oregon first; I want to be there for the fallout. Then to the bombing sites. Jane and Liza will have a heart attack that I'm moving this trip up at the last moment." Dev shrugged. "But the time is right, and they'll live. That reminds me, based on the reports you showed me this morning, only absolutely crucial personnel are going with us this time. I don't want to risk anyone's safety unnecessarily." She moved for the door, but looked back over her shoulder before juggling the files and opening the door. "By the way, congratulations."

"For what?"

"You are now the proud owner of the ugliest puppy you will ever lay eyes on."

* * *

"Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Press, The President of the United States."

They had worked on her speech on Air Force One. And by the time her plane landed in Oregon, Operation: Hydra was over, and it was time to brief the nation. You could hear a pin drop as Dev took a deep breath and slowly walked to the podium. She looked directly at the camera and reminded herself to stay cool. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today. As Press Secretary Allen said, I'll be making a short statement about the actions that were taken a few hours ago. At this time, I won't be taking questions; we'll set that up at a later date."

She paused for a moment, taking a sip of water. To the viewing audience her expression appeared concerned, but mild. But those who knew her well could tell she was troubled. "Early this morning, special tactical units of the DEA, FBI, and ATF, in conjunction with state and local law enforcement agencies, made an early morning entry into the fortified structures of the compound of the Brothers of Freedom militia group – group that had been under observation."

She looked at the faces before her, making sure her eye contact conveyed that she had nothing to hide. "The entry into the compound was quick and decisive. It was well planned and timed to take place when the least number of people were expected to be awake and moving about. By timing the entrance for the very early morning, we hoped to limit the number of potential casualties, both for the people fortified inside this heavily armed encampment, and our own duly sworn law enforcement and military personnel."

Devlyn glanced at her notes very briefly, not wanting to lose an ounce of the trust and leadership she was trying to communicate by her statement and confident demeanor. "While, overall, the entrance was a successful one, and many members of the organization were taken into custody, there were, unfortunately, casualties on both sides. Twenty-two members of the militia were killed, and fourteen wounded. Our own agencies sustained losses and injuries to their personnel as well. Combined figures show losses to law enforcement organizations in this operation to be ten dead and five wounded."

She gripped the edge of the podium and increased the intensity of her voice to finish on a strong note. "The people responsible for the five terrorist attacks within our own borders, which took the lives of several innocent citizens and did millions of dollars in damage to government and civilian targets, have been placed under arrest and will be duly charged. A full investigation continues, and I assure you that everyone involved will be brought to justice. Everything that has happened over the course of this operation happened only after I had been briefed and had given my full consent. I am the only person who should be held responsible for finding the answers to any questions that might arise out of the actions taken under my direction today. As one of my predecessors said, 'The buck stops here'. I am your President, and I will be held accountable."

Dev knew that last bit was going to drive her entire staff right up the wall. It hadn't been a part of the original speech, but she didn't want there to be any doubt about who had made the decisions in this matter, and who would take the blame for any missteps. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen."

She took the time to unbutton her blazer and collect her notes, then she turned and left the room. As she knew they would be, David and Sharon were waiting for her with both their mouths open. "Not a word right now. You can both yell at me later." Dev followed her Secret Service agents through the passages that led back to her hotel room. She did so silently, rereading a list of dead and wounded from the compound raid. She had highlighted the fourth and fifth names on the list; Lisa Lindsay, age eight, and Brian Lindsay, age six. Seeing the words made her sick to her stomach. These were two names she would never forget.

God help me, I got them killed. And now I get to live with that for the rest of my life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Madam President

Chapter IX

September 2021
 
 

Wednesday, September 1st

Lauren glanced at her watch again and plopped down on her bed, scattering a handful of envelopes. She sighed and started to tear open another letter. Dev was supposed to have called more than an hour and a half ago, and she needed something to do while she waited. So she was going over the last few days' mail, which was starting to form a messy pile on her desk.

"C'mon, Devlyn," she grumbled to herself. "Hurry it up. I've got an appointment in an hour." Lauren discarded several pieces of junk mail and began looking over some documents from her publisher. She laughed. Wayne always mixed some personal correspondence in with the business documents he sent. He was ‘old school' and insisted that his authors get paper copies of their books as well as contracts. Technology be damned. This meant that Lauren occasionally got an actual letter. In handwriting! Nobody would believe it.

Wayne had never believed that she and Dev were only friends. Even in the very beginning, when it was actually true. But once she'd admitted to him that they were in fact dating, the man had become relentless, hammering Lauren for juicy details of her relationship and prodding her forward, telling her she'd been alone far too long. "You were damned right about that, Wayne." The writer looked at her watch again and frowned.

She was about to toss his letter in the waste bin next to her bed, when she felt something hard in the envelope. She peeked inside and found a small disk. "Ooooo, a present! You might have said something, Wayne," she mumbled. "I almost threw it away."

Lauren hopped off the bed and checked her watch one last time. She shrugged. "Might as well kill a few minutes while I'm waiting on Wonder Woman. If she calls at all, that is." She moved to the entertainment center that was hidden inside an antique, cherry cabinet. Opening the door, she slid the shiny circle into her videodisc player, wondering what it could be. Not that she was complaining. She'd only seen one movie all year, and that was when Dev had arranged for the special screening in the White House on their first date, over two months ago.

She scrambled back to her bed and nearly tripped over the crate that was filled with a sleeping Gremlin, Princess and their puppies.

A three-dimensional image of a beautiful, middle-aged woman, wearing a white terry cloth bathrobe and sitting on a recliner flared to life, and her dulcet tones filled Lauren's room. "Starlight Publishing presents, the videodisc version of the best selling novel: Lesbian Loving: A Step By Step Guide to Satisfaction."

Lauren's mouth dropped open. "Why is everyone sending me instructions? Do I look totally inept or something?!"

"I'm Angela Pickard. And this is my lovely partner, Francine." She made a ‘come hither' motion with her index finger, and a tall, stacked brunette suddenly came into view as she joined her mate.

"Oh, my God, Wayne! You are such a shithead," Lauren laughed, covering her eyes.

"Come with me and Francine on a journey of self-exploration, enlightenment, and sexual satisfaction."

Lauren uncovered her eyes and smirked. "But will you get naked?"

"Chapter One: Getting to know each other's bodies."

"Oh, my." Gray eyes widened. "We have naked."

* * *

Dev looked at Liza, who tapped her watch. The President had been in such a mood lately that her assistant hated to say anything. Then again, that was her job. "Madam President, you're incredibly late."

"Aren't I always?" Dev answered moodily as she circled her hotel suite, looking for the phone. She waved Liza off with an impatient hand. "I know. I know. But I just need five minutes. Please? I'm already late. What difference could five minutes make now?"

Liza sighed. "Ma'am-"

"I'll give you the state of Arizona."

Liza smiled. "I don't think you can do that, ma'am."

"Okay, I won't make you take one of the puglies." Dev crossed long arms and waited.

"You just bought yourself five minutes, Madam President."

"Wonderful!" Dev practically dove for the phone, which turned out to be on the night stand by the bed. The President always traveled with her own communications equipment, and her staff knew just where she liked things placed. Unfortunately, some hotel room electrical layouts weren't as accommodating to Dev's preferences as others.

Liza snorted softly and left the President to her call.

But before the brunette could give her access codes, David entered her suite without knocking. "Dev-"

"Go away!" She grabbed a throw pillow from the bed and threw it at him with deadly accuracy. "I'm calling my girlfriend." The words sounded strange and thrilling to Dev's ears, and she smiled for the first time all day.

David grinned indulgently. Being in love suited Dev. "Liza said you aren't gonna make her take one of those hideous dogs." He threw the pillow back, hitting Dev right in the head, earning a glare as the President used a hand to straighten the shock of hair that was now covering her eyes.

"Go away!" she hissed. "I only have a few minutes, and I'm already nearly two hours late. Although Lauren probably gave up on this call ages ago."

"Awwwww..." David stuck out his lower lip. "Do you want to be alone so you can lie on the bed and coo and ‘ahhh' like a love-struck teenager?"

"No," Dev defended. "I'm going to sit up straight and do my best to look irresistible. Michael made sure this place had video link capability before we booked it. I hate being stuck without it."

David rolled his eyes, then took on a more serious expression. "Listen, Dev, I know how much you want to talk to Lauren, but we're due at the Governor's mansion in fifteen minutes, and it's a thirty-five minute drive."

Dev glared at her friend and began manually entering her security access codes and dialing Lauren's number. She was calling Lauren. She needed to hear her voice. To see her smile. For once, the rest of the world could just wait. "Tell me, David, what is the Governor of Georgia gonna do to me if I'm late? Throw a rotten peach at me?"

David opened his mouth to speak, and Dev held up her hand, forestalling any further comment. "If you don't give me five minutes alone, to speak with Lauren in peace, I'm going to march across this room and snap your scrawny neck."

"Scrawny!"

"David," Dev groaned. "Out! Or you're getting two of Grem's puppies!"

David's eyes went round, and he threw his hands up in defeat. "No need to be cruel. I'll just call the Governor and let him know we're running a little behind schedule." He didn't wait for an answer; instead, he hightailed it out of the room just as the sound of the ringing phone in Lauren's room filled the suite.

* * *

Lauren's head jerked up at the sound of the phone. "Jesus," she gasped, surprised by the interruption in her viewing pleasure.

Angela Pickard smiled broadly. "You're doing wonderfully. I just know you are," she encouraged in a singsong voice. "And now it's time to move forward. Chapter Four: Multiple Orgasms – Making The Dream a Reality."

The writer jumped off the bed and began hunting for the remote control. Not finding it immediately, she headed for her videodisc player. She opened the entertainment center door and pressed the ‘off' button just as her phone rang for the second time. Nothing happened. She pressed it again. Still nothing. "Shit!" Lauren jammed her finger down hard on the button. She heard a light clicking sound as the button broke off and fell into the machine itself. Lauren blinked at the hole in the front of the machine then began cursing like a sailor called home early from leave. Her eyes frantically searched the machine for a volume control button, but she realized belatedly that the only volume control was on the remote.

Lauren screamed in frustration. The phone rang a third time.

"I'm coming!" Lauren called out uselessly as she tore at the covers of the bed looking for the remote.

Another ring.

"Coming!"

"Oh, yes, baby!" Francine threw her head back in ecstasy as the video's host, Angela, slid her hands up the brunette's naked body and began messaging ample breasts.

"I meant me. I can hear that you're coming," Lauren growled. She jammed the ‘off' button again, grunting with abject frustration when nothing happened, and the phone rang a fifth time. She tried to lift out the disc player to yank the plug, but it was bolted to the cabinet, and she couldn't fit her hand behind it to reach the cord. Not wanting to miss Dev's call, Lauren finally began calling out her access codes as she darted to the side of the cabinet and tried to reach behind it for the power cord. With any other phone she could just answer. But not in the White House.

The phone dutifully processed Lauren's numbers and instantly said, in a clear, warm voice, "Video conference requested."

Lauren stretched out to reach the plug, but her fingertips could only graze its edge.

"Yes! Oh, Angela! Yes, give it to me! I want it!" Francine screamed.

Lauren's eyes widened when she heard the words. She pushed away from the cherry wood cabinet and desperately instructed the phone, "No. No video conference. Audio only. No! No! NO!" But it was too late, and Dev began to materialize in front of her.

Lauren whirled around, and her jaw dropped at the vivid, three-dimensional image of the two women, now both naked, kissing deeply, and touching each other intimately. For a moment she just stared, mouth agape, until the phone snapped her out of her haze.

Angela pulled away from her partner and looked directly at Lauren. "I recommend direct stimulation."

"Oh, yes," Francine purred happily.

"Uh, Lauren?"

The blonde spun around at the very familiar voice and found herself looking right into confused, blue eyes. "Hi, Devlyn," she squeaked, giving the President a weak wave.

A well-shaped eyebrow crawled up Dev's forehead and stayed there. "I know we've been taking things slowly-"

"Again! Again! Again!" Francine screamed at the top of her lungs, while Angela calmly described exactly what she was doing to earn such an enthusiastic response from her lover.

Lauren covered her face with her hands. "Sweet Jesus, just take me know," she mumbled into her palms. "Please. Right now. This very second."

Dev continued undaunted. "But, sweetheart, was it really necessary to start without me? I'm hurt," she teased, recognizing the slightly distorted scene before her as a video playing in the background. A very interesting video. Who knew Lauren was so naughty?

"Oh, Angela! Another one?" Francine squealed delightedly at the prospect. "But I can't." A pause. "Ohhhhhh… I can! I can!"

Dev's second eyebrow joined its twin. "Hurt, but impressed. Very impressed."

Lauren opened her fingers and peeked out at Devlyn, who was wearing a bemused grin. She dragged her fingers up into her hair, forming an interesting, Mohawk-like hairstyle. "I can't make it stop, Devlyn!"

"You lost the clicker again, didn't you?" Dev asked knowingly.

"Again, Angela? No, I can't." She was nearly sobbing.

"Francine, love, you can, baby. I know you can."

"Yes!" Francine screamed again. "I can!"

Lauren could only whimper and pray a lightning bolt would miraculously strike her directly in the forehead and put a stop to this wretched, endless torture.

Dev shook her head and chuckled. The color of her friend's face was a sight to behold, the vivid, red tint making Lauren's pale eyebrows appear nearly white. "Did you try the night stand?"

Gray eyes scanned it. "Not there."

"The bed?"

A shake of the head. "Already tried that."

Both women suddenly glanced down when they heard the pitter-patter of tiny, scampering feet. "The puglies!" they shouted in unison. And, sure enough, a remote/chew toy was lying on the floor, under the bed.

Lauren retrieved it with a mumbled prayer of thanks. And, with a quick press of the button, Angela and Francine disappeared.

Dev smirked at her blushing friend. God, she's pretty. "So, Lauren-"

"Don't ask."

"But-"

"If you love me, you'll drop it."

Devlyn began to pout. "Pleeeeeeeeease." She batted long eyelashes.

Throwing her hands in the air, Lauren looked up beseechingly and spoke to a cream-colored, plaster ceiling. "What exactly did I do to deserve this?"
 
 

Friday, September 3rd

"Grandma! Grandpa!" Ashley screeched. The little girl flung herself at Frank Marlowe, winding her arms and legs around him like a vine that had attached itself to a tall tree. He leaned down and scrubbed his soft beard against Ashley's cheeks, laughing as she squirmed and giggled with delight

His gaze dropped to Chris and Aaron. "Hi, boys." The white-haired man continued to torment his granddaughter as he spoke to his grandsons. "We've missed you. You're growing like da-"

A sharp glance from Janet silenced him.

"Like weeds," he finished sheepishly.

"We missed you too!" Aaron chimed in from his position in his grandmother's embrace.

Christopher nodded his head wildly, agreeing with his brother Aaron as he waited impatiently for an open spot with a grandparent.

Janet Marlowe extended her free arm, and Chris joined his brother.

Letting go of Ashley, Frank looked up and smiled at Lauren, who was standing quietly in the wings, enjoying the family reunion. "Nice to see you again, Lauren," he drawled slowly, his eyes twinkling at the young woman.

"Same here." She turned to Janet. I will not think about the book she sent. I will not! "Did you have a nice flight?" She began nervously tugging at her glasses.

Janet just rolled her eyes. "Well, come here! I talked to Dev on the phone before this horrible bombing mess. You can't pretend you're not a couple anymore," she announced firmly. She shot Lauren a look when the writer started to protest. "And that means I get a hug."

Lauren laughed and happily joined Christopher and Aaron in giving Janet a good squeeze.

Amy and Emma hovered in the background, and the nanny directed the porters carrying the Marlowes' luggage to take it to the Lincoln bedroom. "Well, now," Frank boomed, once everyone had said hello, "Devil's going to be sorry she missed this, but how's about we get McDonald's for lunch?"

The children cheered, and Emma laughed and picked up the phone, already knowing what everyone's orders would be. They were the only household in America that had a hotline to the local McDonald's.

Janet looked around the room, slowly shaking her head. She still couldn't believe her little girl was President. Sometimes it was truly incomprehensible. She watched fondly as the boys tugged their grandpa by the hand back to their room to show him their latest drawings. Ashley was hot on Frank's heels, exacting his promise to go to her room next and see the Barbie that grandma had sent her, and the new hairdo, much improved, she'd graced her with.

The room quickly emptied, leaving just Lauren and Janet. The younger woman stood by somewhat awkwardly. Dev wasn't due back to the White House for several more days, and Lauren was dying to use this time to get to know her parents better. Dev loved them, and she knew it would be important to the President that she establish at least some sort of relationship with them. She rocked back and forth on her heels, suddenly a little nervous. She hadn't exactly had raving success with her own parents. "Well, I guess I'll leave you-"

"Good Lord, get over here and say hello. I don't bite, dear. Despite what Frank might say after a few beers."

Lauren giggled, then made a face when the comment fully registered. Ewww.... "No offense," she mumbled, taking a seat next to Janet on the sofa. "But let's not go there."

"You're thinking ‘ewww', aren't you?" Janet accused. "I can tell." She looked mortified. "I'm not that old!"

"Oh, no," Lauren quickly corrected. Uh oh. "It's not that." Her head swayed back and forth as she searched for the right words. "It's just... just... Good grief! You're somebody's mother!"

Janet was dumbfounded. "And mothers aren't sexual beings?" She snorted and eyed Lauren in disbelief. "Maybe I needed to start you off with a more basic book, dear. I didn't think the cabbage patch theory of conception was popular with young people these days."

"That's not what I meant, and you know it!" Lauren groaned in embarrassment, but it soon shifted into laughter with Janet joining in. The blonde woman's earlier tension was all but forgotten. It was hard to remain formal or even the slightest bit uncomfortable around Devlyn's brash, uninhibited mother.

"Just remember, Dev is three somebodies' mother." Janet wriggled her eyebrows, and Lauren saw a flash of Devlyn in the gesture. "And I'll bet you think things about her that make the stuff in chapter eight look tame."

"Bu… bu…" Lauren sputtered helplessly. Her eyes widened. "You readThe Joy of Lesbian Sex before mailing it to me?!"

Janet waved a dismissive hand in the air. "For research purposes, of course." Then she winked. "Why, if I showed that book to Frank, I'd never get out of bed. Well, you've been married, you know. As a matter of fact, one time…"

"Oh, my god," Lauren whimpered and covered her ears with her hands. "This is just wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong."

Janet laughed harder.

Lauren fixed a hard stare on Dev's mother. "Now I know where your daughter got her evil streak."

Janet only shrugged. "Frank could have told you that, dear."
 
 

Wednesday, September 8th

Dev's long strides carried her down the hallway of the White House and towards her family and Lauren. She'd been gone for nearly a month, touring the bombing sites and participating in endless community rallies and meetings with community leaders. The tall woman was so glad to be home, she nearly cried when Air Force One landed at Andrews Air Force Base.

Her parents and Ashley met Dev in the hallway, where they all shared a round of hearty hugs, and Devlyn endured her mother's scolding over the fact that she'd lost some weight. Weight she didn't need to lose. "I'm okay, Mom. I swear. I've just been busy." Dev smiled indulgently. "You need to get Dottie to send up Devil cookies more often. I haven't had any since Lauren's birthday."

Dev's eyes scanned the hall, and her brow furrowed. "Speaking of Lauren... where is she? And the boys?" She didn't say it, but Dev was disappointed Lauren hadn't greeted her along with her parents and Ashley. She'd thought about the writer for days on end and was so anxious to see her it was giving her a slight stomachache.

The small group was silent for a beat, and Dev's demeanor instantly turned wary. She stood up straight, and her alert eyes snapped in the direction of Lauren's and the boys' rooms. "Where are they?"

"Now, honey, this is nothing to worry about." Frank put his arm around his daughter's shoulders. "They'll be completely fine in a few days."

The blood instantly drained from Dev's face.

"Good Lord, Frank! You're scaring her to death. And to think you're a doctor," Janet scolded, fixing her eyes on Dev's face. "They've got the chickenpox, honey. That's all. The first spots showed up yesterday. It's nothing serious; that's why nobody called you."

Dev closed her eyes and willed her heart to stop pounding. "Chickenpox?" she questioned on a ragged exhale. Wait. Chickenpox? That can't be right. "But I thought nobody got-"

"You thought we'd beaten those nasty buggers?" Frank answered. He ran a hand over his beard and scratched his chin. "Not so, Devil. Not this strain anyway. It's resistant to the standard vaccination. Now, it's not nearly as common as the old classic was, because it doesn't appear to be quite as contagious. It popped up in isolated spots all over the country a few years ago, and now it seems to be visiting the capital." He snorted. "Apparently, some children at the boys' school have it as well."

Dev frowned, still not placated. They began walking towards the residence. "But they're okay, right, Dad?" The President held her mother's and daughter's hands as she went, nodding her greeting to several agents who'd remained behind with her family.

"Absolutely," Frank agreed confidently. "Miserable, but okay."

"They're spotted like freaks!" Ashley added enthusiastically.

Dev raised an eyebrow. "And just how did you avoid this, when your brothers and Lauren-"

"And Emma," Janet added, wincing.

"Ooo… and Emma," Dev amended, "weren't so lucky?"

Ashley shrugged one shoulder. "Grandpa said it's a crap shoot. And they stepped right into a big pile of-"

"Ahem," Frank interrupted. "I'm sure your mama gets the idea." He pretended to be oblivious to the evil glare Dev leveled at him.

They reached the boys' room first, and Dev had laid her hand on the knob when her private physician stepped out of Lauren's room just down the hall. Blue eyes flicked sideways, and Dev jogged across the carpet, catching the man before he could turn the corner.

"Hold up, doctor!"

The doctor straightened and tucked his stethoscope into his coat pocket. "Madam President, welcome back. How's the shoulder?" He reached out to touch the body part in question, but Dev pulled back annoyed. She didn't want to talk about her damned shoulder.

"How is everyone?"

"They have the chickenpox, Madam President. I just checked on the boys. They're sleeping and seem to be doing well."

"And Lauren?" Dev leaned in a little, awaiting his response.

He shifted uncomfortably, tempted to say Lauren was nearly as big a pain-in-the-ass patient as Dev. But the man wasn't an idiot. "Chickenpox is always a little more difficult on adults than children, Madam President. That seems to be especially true with this new strain. But I'm sure she'll appreciate that you were concerned. I'll tell her you came by to check on her."

"No, that won't be necessary. I'll be in to see her as soon as I get changed. I only need five minutes."

The doctor looked aghast. "Oh, no, Madam President, you can't go in there." The doctor's tone was authoritative and unyielding. "She's still contagious and will be for several more days."

Dev put her hands on her hips. "I really don't care, doctor. I will be going in there." Her hand shot out, and she grabbed him by the wrist, checking the time on his Rolex. "At about 4:35, as a matter of fact."

"That goes contrary to my best medical advice as your chief physician. You simply cannot-"

Blue eyes flashed. "If you try to keep me out," she said, dropping his wrist, "I'll call in the Marines to clear the path."

The short man gulped audibly, and Dev could see beads of perspiration suddenly begin to dot his bald head. God, she was the most difficult patient he'd ever had! "It's my duty to inform you that it is not in your best medical interests to be around Ms. Strayer, your sons, or Ms. Drysdale for the next several days." He puffed out his chest and stood his ground. "I'm afraid I'll have to insist. I'm certain that Mr. McMillian would back up my-"

"You can insist until you're blue in the face, doctor! And David McMillian is not the President. I am. And I don't intend to be kept from my family when they need me most. My own father, who is an extremely competent and well-respected physician himself, says that getting this strain of the chickenpox is a crap shoot. I think I've been through enough crap this year, don't you? My chances of catching it are slim. But if it'll make you feel better, I'll wear one of those silly, little masks." Dev pointed the mask still hanging around the doctor's neck.

"Well, um, yes." He gave a short nod. "That would greatly reduce your chances of infection." He nodded again, wishing he had thought to suggest that to begin with. "Other than staying completely away from them, which is something I can see you won't do," he finished in a rush before Dev could begin arguing with him, "the mask would be best, Madam President." He was mollified for the time being, now that the President was at least starting to see reason. "I'll see that you get one immediately."

"You do that," she said, already heading back towards her room. "I'm going to put on some blue jeans." And then visit three spunky blondes that I've been missing with all my heart.

* * *

True to her word, five minutes later Dev had changed out of her suit and was now wearing jeans, sneakers and a short-sleeved denim shirt. Her mother had talked Frank and Ashley into a visit to the rose garden, luring them away from their prospective checkers match with the promise of ice cream later. The older woman had smiled indulgently at her daughter, knowing she needed a few moments alone with Lauren to say hello. Besides, what kind of people stayed indoors when it was such a beautiful day?

The boys' nurse was sitting outside their bedroom door, reading a magazine, when Dev approached. The young woman quickly explained that the doctor had given them each a shot earlier, and that it had not only brought down their slight fevers, but put an end to their itching. The only reason they were napping now was that as soon as the medicine began to take effect, and they started to feel better, they had begun wrestling with each other like there was no tomorrow. They were simply worn out.

Dev's doctor had found the nurse only moments before and grumpily given her a paper mask to pass along to the President. She handed Dev the turquoise-colored mask, and chuckled when the President rolled her eyes but dutifully put it on.

Devlyn thanked the nurse and quietly crept into the boys' room. They were snuggled together in Aaron's bed, wearing only their underwear. The bedding was in a pool around their feet, their pillows were on the floor, and they were both drooling. God, she wished Lauren were here with her camera. Dev moved quietly over to the bed and perched on its edge. Ashley was right. They were spotted freaks. But they were her spotted freaks. And that made all the difference.

She softly stroked the top of each fair head before pulling up the sheet and tucking it around them. "Good rest, boys. We'll catch up at supper."

Dev left instructions with the nurse to let the boys know she was home when they woke up. With butterflies in her belly she made her way to Lauren's room. I should have brought flowers or something. Or candy. She likes chocolate. Damn! Why didn't I bring chocolate? I'm much more charming with the help of chocolate. Dev had almost talked herself into going to get some at this very moment when she found herself standing in front of Lauren's door. A Secret Service agent walked past her with an odd look on his face. But the dark-suited man said nothing.

She frowned, giving him a look as he walked by. "What's with him?" Then she realized she was still wearing the surgical mask and must look a little odd. "Oh, well," she mumbled, reaching up and knocking lightly on Lauren's door.

Her knock was greeted by a loud thump as something hit the door.

Lauren yelled out, "I told you to go away! And don't even think of coming near me with that damned harpoon you call a needle! Don't make me sic Grem and his demon litter on you. They're meaner than they look!"

Blue eyes went round. "Oh, boy." I'll bet she's been giving the doctor hell. Heh. Good girl. "Laur-" Dev paused and slipped off her mask, stuffing it into her pocket. "Lauren, it's me."

"Dev?"

"Yup. Can I come in?" Dev had just begun to turn the handle when Lauren's voice stopped her.

"No."

Dark eyebrows lifted. "What do you mean no?" she asked impatiently. "I want to see you!"

"No. Go away!" A pause. The next time Lauren spoke her voice had softened. "I'm not fit to be seen, darlin'. And you might catch it."

Dev narrowed her eyes at the door, wishing she had X-ray vision. "I don't give a damn what you look like; I want to come in!" She leaned her forehead against the cool wood. "Don't make me order an air strike."

Lauren chuckled, but sobered quickly. Could this be a trick? "You don't have a needle with you, do you?"

Dev rolled her eyes. "Gee, I knew I was forgetting something. Ever since I got over that pesky crack habit, I've been fresh out."

"Very funny. Okay."

Thank God, Dev thought as she began to turn the knob.

"You can come in as long as you don't laugh."

Dev stopped, then bit her lip. I will not laugh. I will not laugh. The President opened the door, took one look at Lauren, and burst out laughing. "Oh, God, I'm sorry."

Lauren's wavy, shoulder-length hair was sticking up wildly in all directions. She was wearing a pair of old, gray sweats and an oversized T-shirt that swallowed up her compact body, making her look like a little girl. Her skin was slightly pale except for the speckling of bright red dots that covered every inch of exposed skin. One hand was roaming her body, scratching as furiously as her fingers would allow. She was wrapped in a sheet and wearing the absolutely most pathetic face Dev had ever seen. Well, when she walked in it was pathetic. Ever since she'd laughed, Lauren just looked pissed.

"Kill, Gremlin!" Lauren shouted. "Attack! Eat her!"

Gremlin was lying on the floor at the foot of Lauren's bed. To his credit, he did look up at the President in response to his mistress' command. Unfortunately, all he could muster was a weak growl and a big yawn. Fatherhood was even more taxing than the activity that got him in that position to begin with.

Dev took the time to shoot the pooch a disgusted look before smiling sympathetically at her sick friend. "I'm sorry, sweetheart. You just look so adorable, I couldn't help but laugh." The murderous glare in Lauren's eyes let Dev know the writer wasn't buying it, and she sat down on the edge of the tall bed, close to Lauren, but not touching her. "I missed you. I love you," she said softly.

Lauren's gaze immediately softened, and she sighed. "I love you too." She shook her head sadly. "You're going to continue to make it impossible for me to stay angry with you, aren't you?"

A satisfied smile worked its way across Dev's lips. "Basically." She reached up to smooth back a lock of golden hair only to have Lauren duck out of her way.

"Devlyn! You can't touch me!"

"Wanna bet?"

Lauren blew out an exasperated breath. "I don't want you to get sick."

Dev shrugged one shoulder. "And I can't not touch you. Not anymore."

Lauren's heart melted at the words. She looked up into honest eyes and felt herself fall a little bit more in love with this amazing woman. "I'm so glad you're home," she whispered.

"Me too."

They stared at each other for a long moment, and Lauren could see something lurking behind Dev's eyes. She knew Dev was upset about the people who had been killed when the FBI raided the Brothers of Freedom compound. David had told her that Dev had taken the deaths of the children especially hard, which didn't surprise Lauren in the least. It was a horrible waste. These months of getting to know and love the Marlowe children had driven that point home.

With a morbid streak that surprised even Washington insiders, the Press had relentlessly harped on that aspect of events during Dev's tour of the bombing sites. They assigned the blame to Dev and the Attorney General, and the nation followed right along with them. The tall woman appeared to take it all in her stride, patiently answering question after question about every detail of the raid, and every decision she had made concerning it. But even on television, Lauren easily spotted the lines of tension that etched Dev's normally open face, and the wariness in her usually unguarded personality. Especially when a reporter would mention Lisa and Brian Lindsay.

"Are you okay?" they both asked simultaneously. They smiled.

"I'm okay, Lauren. It wasn't a fun trip. But it needed to be done. I'm just glad it's over."

Lauren ached to hug her friend, and felt her frustration building over the fact that she couldn't. Then an idea came to her. She scooted down by Gremlin and picked up a small blanket that had been tossed across the foot of her bed. The shorter woman grabbed it and shook it open.

"What? Phft! Phft!" Lauren threw the blanket over Dev, covering her upper body completely and cutting off her words. Before she could say anything else she felt strong arms wrap around her and squeeze her tightly. Dev closed her eyes in pleasure, instantly returning the comforting embrace. "Damn, I needed that."

"So did I."

Dev frowned at the unusual heat she could feel coming from Lauren. "You have a fever," she pointed out flatly.

"A little one. Yes." Lauren shifted in Dev's arms as Dev's fingers grazed her back. Ooooo... Jesus, that feels good! She moved again, this time pressing her shoulder into Dev's and wiggling it.

Dev looked a little alarmed. "Uh, Lauren?"

Lauren threw her head back. "Ooooooo, yeah."

The President sucked in a breath, immediately aroused by Lauren's low groan. When Lauren's movements grew more frantic, Dev finally caught a clue. "Oh, no, you don't! I'm not a scratching post." With firm hands she pushed the smaller woman away.

"Pleeeeeeeease," Lauren begged. "I'm itching everywhere!"

"No." Dev shook her head from under the blanket before pulling it off. "I can't."

"Yes, Devlyn," Lauren said seriously. She pinned the President with stone hard, gray eyes. "You can. For the love of God, scratch my back. I need you to scratch it."

Dev tried not to think about how sexy and cute Lauren looked when she begged. She loved her; she could overlook the bright red dots. "I won't." And I'd die before I put one mark on your beautiful skin. Well, normally beautiful.

"Puuuuhleeeeez," Lauren whined pathetically. With a loud moan, she flopped backwards on the bed and began moving around like a fish out of water, trying to get to a spot between her shoulder blades.

"No." Dev rose to her feet. "Get the shot the boys got, and you'll feel better," she explained reasonably.

"Shot? A needle stabbing into my flesh, and a foreign liquid forced into my body?" Lauren made a face. "Are you insane?"

"Most likely. But that's not the point." Deciding it was safe to be near Lauren, just not on the bed with her, Dev knelt in front of the bed. Shivering in revulsion as she caught a glimpse of one of the puppies that had wandered out from under the bed, Dev scooted closer. "I just want you to feel better, sweetheart."

"I want that too, Devlyn. But you know how I feel about needles."

Dev smiled affectionately. "I know, but it will just be a small one."

Lauren regarded her skeptically. "How small?"

"Tiny. Barely noticeable."

"And it will stop the itching?"

"Or your money back," Dev finished lamely.

Lauren's head swayed back and forth as she considered her options. Three more days of itching until she went insane. Or the shot. This was a really tough call.

"You know," a leer transformed Dev's face, "once you start feeling better, I'd love to scratch an itch of a different kind."

Dead silence.

"Call the doctor."
 
 

Sunday, September 12th

"So?" Dev settled down on a bench in the White House sculpture garden. The afternoon was sunny and crisp. A gentle breeze blew across the lawn, bringing with it the scent of wet grass. Dev raised her arm in a familiar manner, inviting Lauren to snuggle into her. The movement still caused a dull pain in her shoulder muscles, but the President considered the closeness of the position well worth the discomfort. "Are you feeling better? Her eyes lighted on a delicate metal windmill sculpture that moved with every gale. "You look great, Lauren. I'd never even know you'd been sick."

Lauren didn't care that they were outside, and instead of snuggling next to the tall woman, she laid her head in Dev's lap, stretching out on what was left of the bench. "I feel soooo much better. The doctor gave me a clean bill of health this morning. No more fever, no more itching. I'm even glad I had that shot," she admitted somewhat sheepishly. "It made the last five days bearable."

Dev gently combed her fingers through Lauren's hair, rolling its heavy strands between her fingertips. "I'm glad you're feeling better." Dev frowned. "I've discovered that I hate it when you're sick, and there's nothing I can do about it."

"Nothing you can do about it?" Lauren snorted quietly as she absorbed the warm sunshine and Dev's interested gaze with idle pleasure. "Yeah, right. And I suppose everyone has Bethesda's best doctor making house calls for the chickenpox."

"Well, I…" Dev's face colored, and she looked off into the distance. "I just wanted you to be okay."

"You're sweet." The writer tangled her fingers with Dev's free hand. "So," she gave the hand she was holding a little tug and let out a slightly nervous breath. "Now that I'm feeling better, and we're allowed to talk about the tough stuff, how are you really doing, Devlyn?"

Dev remained very still, then shrugged a little. "I'm okay."

A slender, pale eyebrow arched. "Don't, Devlyn," she said with quiet finality. "After all these months, I know better."

The President looked down and regarded Lauren seriously. She was met with a direct gaze. "You do, don't you?"

"Yes." A tiny smile curled red lips. And she gave Dev a playful poke, drawing her out. "So tell me. How are you doing?"

Dev sighed so deeply it was nearly a groan. "How am I supposed to be doing?" she bit out harshly. "I got innocent women and children killed. I hurt like hell."

Lauren chose her words carefully. "You didn't get anyone killed."

"I did!" Dev insisted. "I sent in the FBI. I gave the order." She swallowed hard. "I knew they were in there. I knew those bastards had women and children in there. And, God help me, I did it anyway. Two babies died that morning. The little boy, Brian, was caught in the crossfire and shot in the chest. The little girl, Lisa, died from smoke inhalation when the west wing of the compound caught fire."

Dev's chin began to quiver, and Lauren felt her heart break. Lauren sat up and looked at Dev, meeting watery blue eyes with her own. The younger woman gently cupped Dev's cheeks with both hands, dropping a soft kiss on her lips, before slowly gently pulling back, waiting patiently for her to continue.

Dev swallowed again, nearly undone by Lauren's tenderness. "They found the girl curled up under her bed with her dolls and her backpack." Dev laughed without a trace of humor. "Apparently, she was hiding from the big bad government invasion."

"Jesus." Lauren closed her eyes and squeezed Dev's hand. The exact cause of death for individual militia members and their families hadn't been released to the Press yet because of the ongoing investigation.

"They were nearly the same ages as-" Dev stopped, the churning in her guts threatening to send up her last meal.

"That wasn't your fault, darlin'," Lauren whispered. "Stop blaming yourself. You're not eating." Her fingers grazed dark circles that had become a nearly permanent fixture under Dev's eyes over the past few weeks. "You're not sleeping."

"But-"

"No!" Lauren lowered her voice. "No. Those people had to be stopped. We both know that. You did what you had to so that could happen. That doesn't make you responsible for the children's deaths. Their parents became responsible when they put them in harm's way. Not you."

Dev nodded miserably. "David has been saying the same thing. But I just feel so damned responsible for it all. And I should. That comes with the job." She exhaled wearily. "In my heart of hearts, I know there are horrible things happening everyday that I can't control, no matter how much I want to. But this... how do you live with this?" Her eyes pleaded with Lauren for an answer, but the biographer held her tongue, letting Dev finish. "I hurt for everyone who died that day. On both sides. But to have the names of those two innocent children weighing on my heart, knowing that if I personally hadn't said ‘Go in there', they'd still be alive…" Dev looked away. "That's hard to deal with."

"I know," Lauren muttered quietly, gently guiding Dev's face back around with the palm of one hand. She softly stroked a prominent cheekbone with her thumb and tilted her head slightly to the side as she spoke, sending soft, pale hair tumbling over one shoulder. "I'm so sorry that you're hurting. But you're a caring woman, Devlyn. I wouldn't expect anything less from you." Lauren smiled softly. "But you made the best choice under the worst of circumstances. You told me so yourself. Don't second-guess that now. You did the right thing." She held out her arms. "You look like you could use a hug."

Dev smiled, slipping into Lauren's outstretched arms. "From you? Always. Never doubt that." Dev felt much of the tension of the past weeks melt away under Lauren's comforting touch. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to be held. "You've got the touch." She murmured, sinking deeper into the embrace. Soothing my soul. "I love you."

Lauren pressed her cheek against Dev's, feeling its softness and warmth. She squeezed her tightly, praying to convey even a fraction of the love and concern she felt for her. "Any time, Devlyn. I love you too."

Dev rested there for a long moment, listening to the birds, finding a surprising amount of solace and peace. She blew out a long, slow breath and did her best to just let the worries and guilt go. It would take more time, to be sure. But she had that. And she wouldn't be alone.

When Dev finally pulled back she was ready for a change of subject. "Now I want you to tell me something." She lifted a dark, playful brow, indicating that the deep thinking part of the conversation was over.

"Whatever it is, I didn't do it." Lauren grinned charmingly, irrationally pleased that she could help to lighten Dev's load.

Dev chuckled. "Oh, I'm sure you didn't. You're totally innocent, right?"

"Oh, yes," Lauren dutifully replied, batting golden lashes.

Dev nodded. "I see. So, tell me, sweetheart, what kind of videos are you watching while I'm away?" Okay, I pretty much know what kind. But it's still fun to watch you squirm. Blue eyes twinkled. "Even more importantly, what kind of books is my mother sending you?"

Lauren's face immediately turned bright red. That was the last question she expected, and her mind reeled for a moment as she searched for a good answer. "Why?" she squeaked. Oh, yeah, I'm brilliant with words. She mentally rolled her eyes.

"Because just before my parents left, my mom said she sent you a book that would help you identify all the parts, despite your good head start." She grinned and bumped shoulders with the shorter woman. "Did she give you a book on the care and feeding of your very own lesbian or something?"

Lauren burst out laughing, feeling a little dizzy from her blush. "Umm... something like that." She wriggled her eyebrows. "It's got pictures."

Dev's own grin widened. She had missed this with Lauren, and needed it just as much as she had needed the talk. She loved teasing her friend. She gave her another slight nudge. "What kind of pictures?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" And now that I'm feeling better, I think it would be a very good time to show you.
 
 

Friday, September 17th

It had been another magical evening for Lauren. In her wildest dreams she had never imagined herself in this place, either emotionally or physically. Part of the magic was undoubtedly the setting, the White House itself, whose walls held unimaginable secrets and whose rooms were as interesting and unique as they were beautiful. Even after nine months of living there, Lauren found herself utterly fascinated. Then there was her dinner partner, the most powerful person on earth. Not too shabby there either. But the biggest factor was Dev herself – not her influence or position, but the woman underneath, whom Lauren had come to adore.

"I can't believe I just had dinner with the King of England." She laughed a little, taking Dev's hand as they strolled through the garden.

The President pulled away in mock annoyance. "Is there no woman in my life impressed with the fact that I am President of the United States?"

"Yes." Lauren rolled her eyes and laughed. Only you could pull off that ego, darlin'. "I was horribly impressed with you the first time I laid eyes on you." Then she paused and started to laugh. "No, that's not quite true. When I first saw you in person I nearly dropped dead on the spot. But obviously I'd seen you on television a gazillion times before that."

"A gazillion?"

Lauren nodded. "At least."

"Wow. My PR people rock." Dev made a motion for Lauren to continue as they passed in and out of the shadows created by the softly glowing lamps that lined the garden path and a full moon.

"I wasn't really impressed with you until I took the time to go beyond the sound bites that saturated network television. But once I did... wow!" Lauren quirked a playful grin. "Or maybe the fact that I was stoned out of my mind at the time."

Dev nearly stumbled. "Excuse me?"

The blonde woman scrunched up her face and smiled brightly, crinkling her nose and the corners of her eyes. "It's not what you think," she laughed.

Dev accepted Lauren's answer easily, but not before offering a tiny snort. She kicked a stone from her path. "So is that why you didn't vote for me? Because I was over-exposed?"

Lauren stopped dead in her tracks, tugging Dev to a halt with her. "How do you know I didn't vote for you?" Her hands automatically went to her hips, and she shot Dev a meaningful look.

Dev scratched her cheek and smiled ruefully. "Oh, that." She winced inwardly. Me and my big mouth.

"Yes, that," Lauren demanded.

"Well, umm... Michael Oaks was a little overzealous in the materials he requested for your background check." Dev's eyes conveyed regret and a good dose of embarrassment. "That information is private. I swear it. But that doesn't mean, if you ask the right people, it's not easy to find out. I'm sorry."

"Bastard."

"Are you mad at me?" Dev braced herself.

"Yes."

"Really mad?" Dev tilted her head to the side and peered into eyes that looked nearly translucent in the muted light.

Lauren dropped her hands from her hips. "I should be." She tugged on the stems of her glasses, bringing the glasses a little higher on her nose, and sighed. "But I'm not, I guess."

Dev smiled. "Thank you." But the smile slid away quickly. "Why didn't you vote for me?!"

"Oh, God." Lauren rolled her eyes as the women resumed their walk.

"What?" Dev waved a frustrated hand in the air. "I want to know."

She laughed. "I know you do."

Dev growled in mock frustration. "Why are you torturing me?!"

"Because it's fun."

"Well, there is always that."

A long arm wrapped around Lauren's waist as they slowly walked, the easy rhythm of their strides matching perfectly.

So, this is what being in love is like, Lauren thought with equal parts awe and gratitude. God, was I stupid before. If I'd only known... Now she understood what Dev had been talking about. Making sure that it was real… that it was right. She glanced sideways, admiring the way the moonlight washed over Dev's hair, bathing her in a rich, white aura. And at that very moment, Lauren realized that nothing in her whole life had ever felt so completely right.

She had, in her own way, loved Judd, but there had always been something missing. A connection that was absent from their marriage. Lauren never felt as if part of herself was missing when they were apart. Even in the best times she had never longed for his touch or laugh or smile. Never bled when he was cut. With Dev it was so different. If, for some reason, they couldn't talk, which they did most evenings when Dev was finally finished for the day, Lauren would lie awake in her bed and listen for the President's distinctive footsteps and the sound of the door opening just down the hall.

No matter what she was doing, or whom she was talking to, she always found her eyes or thoughts straying to Devlyn. And when miles separated them, she felt truly alone.

They walked silently. But it was a comfortable silence. A gentle peace stole over Lauren.

Dev stopped and turned to face the shorter woman, pulling her into a tight embrace. "I'm so very much in love with you, Lauren. You have no idea-"

"No." Lauren shook her head emphatically. "You're wrong. I do. For the first time in my life I honestly do understand. More than that, I finally understand what you were trying to say to me in your room that night. About having it all." She reached up and cupped Dev's cheek, peering into eyes that shone silver in the moonlight.

"I think we do." Dev slowly leaned in and gently kissed the writer. Their lips separated, but only a hairsbreadth, and Devlyn whispered, "It's been worth it, hasn't it?" Believe it like I do, Lauren. With your whole heart.

"Oh, yeah," Lauren sighed, immediately feeling the loss when Dev pulled back far enough so that she could look her in the eye and gage her reaction. Something suddenly clicked in Lauren's mind, and she thought of the fresh roses that had been placed in her room every morning since her very first day at the White House. She smiled, utterly charmed. "You've been courting me from the very beginning, haven't you, Devlyn Marlowe?"

Dev felt a heat flood her cheeks. But the blush went unnoticed in the dim light. The tall woman leaned in until Lauren could feel the heat of her body and whispered in her ear. "That's the point of courting, Lauren. You fall in love so slowly that it becomes a part of you without your knowing it." She brushed her lips against Lauren's ear, feeling the tremor left in the wake of her tender touch. "You do realize that at this very moment the marksmen on the roof are probably watching us," Devlyn teased a bit. "Didn't your little sex video tell you that this is a big turn on for most males of the species?"

Lauren groaned. "The video pretty much ignored men altogether, which was sort of the point, smarty pants. And you're never going to let me live that down, are you?"

"You're not the one who had to explain to her Chief of Staff why there were erotic sounds coming from her bedroom when I called you. He thought we were having phone sex, for God's sake!"

The breeze blew a lock of Lauren's hair into her eyes, and she reached up, absently tucking it behind her ear. "I'm so sorry. That was a bit of a surprise for me too. A joke from Wayne, I think. Or maybe it wasn't a joke. I'm not exactly sure." She leaned into Dev as they began heading back towards the White House. A gust of wind caused her to shiver and shift closer still to her warm-blooded companion.

"Cold, sweetheart?"

"Mmm hmm. A little."

"Then I know of a certain fireplace and two cups of cocoa that have our names on them."

"Marshmallows?"

Dev kissed the top of Lauren's head. "As many as you'd like."

* * *

Lauren wiggled her toes in front of the fire, grinning from behind her mug as Dev pulled on fleece slippers. "Wimp," she muttered, getting a lovely view of Dev's tongue as a reply. "This is truly heaven. Take those off and let the fire do the work."

"Nuh uh," Dev grunted, picking up her own mug and joining Lauren on the floor. "Hate being barefoot. Have since I was a kid."

"Any particular reason why?" Lauren leaned back, staring into the glowing embers as the wood let off an occasional pop or hiss.

Dev thought about that for a moment, rolling a swallow of hot chocolate around in her mouth. "None that I'm aware of. But maybe I had a traumatic, barefoot incident when I was little."

"Maybe subconsciously you're afraid you'll have to make a mad dash through the woods naked," Lauren taunted. If Dev could find every excuse to bring up the video, the least she could do was to return the favor.

"I admit it wouldn't be on the top of my list. I had scratches in delicate places that itched for weeks."

Lauren snorted, having to clamp her hand down over her mouth to keep from losing her cocoa. "No comment." Ooooo, wait. Wasn't there talk of scratching a particular itch when I was sick? God, I itch!

Dev reached over and pushed a lock of blonde hair behind Lauren's ear. "That's my line."

Lauren looked confused. "God, I itch?"

"Huh?"

Lauren shook her head, suddenly realizing what Dev meant. "Never mind."

"Are you okay?" Dev questioned softly. "You seem a little distracted." When Lauren nodded in an uncharacteristically shy fashion and smiled at her, Dev's face instantly mirrored the gesture. She was glad to know she wasn't the only one who could be thrown off track by the simplest of looks or touches or phrases. She drew her fingers lightly up Lauren's neck and threaded them into silky, pale hair. The touch was soft and intimate, and meant to garner the writer's complete attention.

It did.

Lauren found herself holding her breath without knowing why.

Dev set down her mug, then deftly relieved Lauren of hers, though neither woman's eyes strayed from the other's. The President lifted her other hand to Lauren's face, tracing a pink cheek with her thumb and silently drawing Lauren closer. She didn't stop until their faces were almost touching.

"I think you should know, Madam President, if you don't kiss me, I'm going to die." Lauren's voice was an octave below normal, and it resonated all the way to Dev's bones.

"Me too," Dev breathed.

Their lips met, slowly, gently, brushing together in an explosion of sensation that caused both women to moan and shiver. Nothing was ever rushed or hurried with Devlyn. And Lauren wasn't sure if she should be singing her praises or cursing her name. But whichever it was, it would have to come later. Right now her body was otherwise engaged. She was set on a sweet, low burn when the kiss deepened, and warm, wet tongues began gently tasting and exploring.

Dev was nearly done in by the soft moans that escaped Lauren as their lips eagerly brushed together again and again. In the garden, in the moonlight, bewitched by a pair of shining gray eyes, Dev had already decided that tonight she wouldn't stop unless Lauren asked her to. The writer's gentle touch, and the heady smell of her skin and hair, only served to strengthen Dev's resolve. She was nervous as hell, but her body shared none of her mind's trepidation and was responding in hot flashes to Lauren's touch and taste and the heat of the moment.

"Oh, God," Lauren gasped softly when they parted for much needed air.

Dev groaned, and her eyes fluttered open with exaggerated slowness. "That was, um…"

"Wonderful."

"Oh, yeah," the President agreed quickly. "But your kisses always are." She wiggled her brows a little, trying not to look as aroused as she felt.

"Can we-" Lauren paused and wet her lips. "Can we do that again?" she asked quietly, giving Dev an adorable grin that she knew the older woman found totally irresistible.

Dev nodded nervously. "Actually, why don't we move someplace where we can be more comfortable?"

The blonde woman glanced down, flushing a little at the suggestion. She was pretty damned comfortable right where she was. "Like?"

"The couch?"

Considering the couch was all of six inches away, Lauren had no reason to object. "The couch could be good." She sucked in a slightly ragged breath and slid up to perch on its edge. Lauren glanced down at Dev, who was rising to her knees.

Dev placed warm hands on Lauren's thighs, and the smaller woman adjusted her legs so that Dev could kneel between them. This was different. Mixed in with the desire she'd seen so often in her friend's eyes, was a good dose of fear. Lauren could think of only one reason that Dev would be afraid right now, as opposed to all the other times they'd kissed in front of fire… after a wonderful evening together, sitting so close together they could feel the heat of each other's skin through their clothes. Oh, God. Lauren suddenly became very aware of her own heartbeat and the sensitivity of her skin.

Devlyn swallowed hard and reached out to take Lauren's hands. "I'm very nervous, just so you know. I'm not trying to… I mean," she stopped again and frowned, clearly unable to articulate exactly what she wanted to say. "I'm just… I'm-"

Lauren pressed two fingertips against Dev's lips, feeling their incredible softness. "I understand." She removed her fingers and replaced them with her lips, giving Dev a gentle, almost chaste kiss. "Don't worry," she whispered against Dev's mouth. "Nervous goes both ways."

Blue eyes widened a little. "It does? You don't seem-"

"I am."

Dev licked her lips. "Okay. Just didn't want you to think that I wasn't. Because I so very am," she admitted.

Lauren shrugged a little. "But we'll be that way together, right?" She searched Dev's eyes for her own reassurance and was instantly rewarded by a stupid, lovesick, lopsided grin that threatened to melt her into a puddle right on the spot.

The President took a deep breath and let her hands slowly slide up Lauren's thighs, then hips. Her palms found their way under Lauren's sweatshirt, stopping the moment she felt the hot, bare skin of her belly.

Lauren sucked in a quick breath, and her body jerked in response.

Dev almost pulled away, but small hands covered hers, holding them firmly in place. She flicked a questioning gaze at Lauren's face and was held there by intense, dilated eyes.

Lauren leaned in, enjoying the feeling of Dev's hands on her naked skin. They felt as good as she'd imagined they would – warm, soft and strong.

Dev moved closer and dropped her mouth to Lauren's slender neck, nuzzling the hot, slightly damp skin, and tasting its saltiness with gentle lips and tongue. Her hands traveled slowly up around the younger woman's torso, to her back, where she began a gentle massaging.

"Oh, that's nice…" Lauren moaned as she wrapped her arms loosely around Dev. "Very nice." Of its own volition, her head rolled to the side.

Devlyn responded without hesitation, moving up Lauren's throat to the slight hollow behind her ear, nipping softly as she went.

Lauren gasped when Dev hit a particularly sensitive spot.

For Dev, it was an experience she was sure would kill her before the evening was over. But what a way to go. Lauren felt so good, and it felt so right to be touching her, that she couldn't even fathom stopping. Not now. "I'm thinking," Dev whispered as she took Lauren's earlobe into her mouth and sucked gently, "I dunno… bed?"

"Yes," Lauren breathed. She was pretty sure if this torture didn't end soon, she'd find herself on the other end of a federal prosecution for hurting the President of the United States.

They stood on slightly wobbly legs and walked slowly towards the large four-poster bed along the back wall. At the foot of the bed, Dev stopped. She cupped Lauren's chin with her palm and gently tilted her head upward so she could look deeply into her eyes. Despite the butterflies in her belly, Dev smiled and spoke with a quiet certainty. "If you want to stop, you just say the word."

Lauren gave a quick nod, frantically trying to remember how to form a coherent, verbal response. She finally settled on, "Okay." Like that's gonna happen! her mind snorted incredulously. Nothing short of a nuclear attack on the United States was going to stop what was happening in this bedroom tonight. She drew in a deep, but ragged, breath when she felt her sweatshirt being tugged up her body. Yes. Too many clothes. The idea was more than welcome, and Lauren lifted her arms over her head to assist in its removal. Her jeans and panties were next. And when Dev trailed her fingers down her thighs, as she swept the material off her body, Lauren felt as though she might faint. Thin, satin bra straps were lowered one at a time, and kisses left in their place. Lauren closed her eyes and moaned softly.

Devlyn took in the sight before her and licked very dry lips as Lauren's bra fell from her boneless fingers. "Beautiful," she whispered reverently. "Absolutely beautiful." She slowly reached out and allowed her fingers to make contact with smooth skin that glowed slightly in the faint light of the room.

The way Dev was looking at Lauren sent a flood of blood to her belly and a rush of heat between her legs. She felt as though she were being worshipped by those incredible blue eyes and wasn't nearly as nervous about her nakedness as she thought she would be. Any remaining uneasiness was fading fast as her body reacted to Dev. Lauren took in the rapid rise and fall of the taller woman's chest, and the flare of her nostrils, as she stood open before her, exposed and inviting.'

Dev's breath caught as her hands slowly slid over more soft skin. She leaned in and placed a tender kiss on Lauren's cheek. "I love you."

Lauren turned her head and captured Dev's lips in a sweet kiss. She laid her hands on Dev's hips and gave a gentle tug, bringing their bodies together all along their lengths. When their lips separated, she pulled back a little and smiled. "I love you too, Devlyn. Very much," she said softly. "With all my heart." Her gaze quickly dropped back to the full lips she already wanted to taste again. Lauren threaded her fingers through long, dark hair, and she went back for more, offering herself to Dev in every way she could convey with a heartfelt, passionate kiss. She was rewarded with a deep moan and a rush of breath as the kiss turned hungry, and she gave herself up to the passion of the moment.

A hot path was cut across flesh now slightly damp from anticipation and desire. Dev's fingernails caused a tingling sensation up and down Lauren's back as the President grazed her skin. A tremor tore through Lauren as a rush of desire hit her so hard she felt her knees go weak.

The writer's hands soon found themselves working their way under Dev's shirt, pushing it up as they sought silky skin. Dev ducked as Lauren pulled the material over her shoulders, then her head. She felt her shirt slide down her back as Lauren simply dropped it the second it cleared dark tresses.

Lauren's gaze burned a path from Dev's face to her chest. She grinned broadly, fully appreciating Dev's braless condition. "Definitely a nipple." Lauren chuckled as Dev lowered her arms.

A dark, elegant brow lifted. "Mom was right. You do recognize the important parts."

"Umm, Dev?" Lauren questioned, never taking her eyes off Dev's breasts. She licked her lips and swallowed.

"Yes, sweetheart?"

"We're about to make love, right?"

"God, I hope so," Dev breathed. "I'd hate to have to go swimming in the Potomac."

"Then leave your mother out of this."

"Deal." Dev laughed, but it quieted quickly when she felt Lauren's fingers begin to work the buttons of her jeans.

The smaller woman instantly dropped to her knees and began sliding off Dev's jeans and panties at the same time. Where Dev's fingers had trailed down her thighs, Lauren used her lips to tenderly pay homage to every inch of newly exposed skin. She worked her way down one leg, then back up the other, as she slipped off her fleece slippers then pants and panties. By the time she reached Dev's hip, both women were visibly shaking. She placed one last kiss on Dev's hipbone before rising to her feet.

It felt as though fire was rushing through Devlyn's veins, and her furiously pounding heart was threatening to escape the confines of her chest. She wrapped her arms around Lauren and slowly began leaning her back towards the bed. Both women moaned loudly at the first exquisite feeling of skin on skin as their bodies met again. Dev prayed nothing would interrupt them. She was sure if they had to stop now, she would simply die. "Oh, God…" she groaned as Lauren came to rest on top of her, and soft breasts pressed into hers. Their legs tangled together, igniting a new fire in her soul.

For Dev it was an expression of absolute love, trust, and devotion to the woman now in her arms and bed. To touch her like this, to finally add a physical dimension to the deep love they shared, sent her spirit soaring and set her body aflame.

Dev savored Lauren's tentative touches, which were growing bolder by the second. This was where she wanted to be. Always. She didn't give her heart easily, but once she did, she held nothing back. Anything she had, anything she was, was Lauren's for the taking. I want her for the rest of my life. For an instant, the thought surprised her, then she felt Lauren's breath caress her neck as she left a gentle trail of kisses on her neck and shoulders. "Lauren…"

The younger woman smiled when she heard Dev say her name. She had never heard it said with such passion and urgency before, and her own body responded with enthusiasm. God, it's never been like this before. So good. So right, her mind thrilled. There was no denying her reaction to the combination of soft skin, toned muscle, and womanly curves beneath her. And she admitted to herself that she should have given into some of her curiosities years ago. But when Dev whispered her name in her ear, and sure hands drifted from the small of her back to her bottom, pulling them closer together, she knew it was more than gender. It wasn't just a woman making her feel this way. It was Dev. And that made all the difference. There was no way on the planet that Casey would have evoked these sensations or emotions. It was the person. And she was hopelessly in love with the person.

Remembering that she was the one who had done this before, Dev rolled them over and slowly began kissing her way down Lauren's body, the blonde woman's soft whimpers and moans urging her on.

Every muscle in Lauren's body went rigid with pleasure, and she heard herself moan just as her very sensitive nipple was enveloped by a hot, wet mouth. Her hands found purchase in Dev's hair, and she gasped, pulling Dev tightly to her breast, desperate to be closer still "God, yes…" she encouraged, shifting her body and making more room for her lover to take her places they'd never been together.

Dev hummed her approval into Lauren's breast, her own body pulsing in time with the gentle ministrations of her lips and tongue. She knew it wouldn't take much before she would simply explode from the pleasure she was giving and receiving.

They crested together as a couple, and again as individuals. And when their bodies finally came to rest, the room was filled with soft whimpers and labored breaths. They cuddled together, pulling the sheet up over their damp bodies.

Lauren snuggled close to Dev and hummed quietly, waiting for her to say something. She kissed the hollow of Dev's throat, feeling her lover's ribs expand against her as Dev drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, ruffling Lauren's hair.

Dev kissed the writer on the forehead. "I love you, and I'm keeping you, Mighty Mouse."

Lauren laughed and poked Dev in the side, drawing a muffled squawk. "I love you too. And you certainly gave a new meaning to Wonder Woman."

Now it was Dev's turn to laugh. "And here I was afraid I'd lost my touch."

"Oh, no, darlin', your touch is just fine." Lauren closed her eyes, feeling the irresistible tug of sleep. "Trust me, it's juuuust fine."
 
 

Saturda