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. Sheíd known him since her undergraduate days at Harvard. Theyíd 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 Devlynís 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 Iíll 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 didnít 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 Ďthe chairí.

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

"Iím almost afraid to," she admitted. "Itís like, if I try to sit in that chair, Iíll wake up from the dream, and itíll all be gone."

"Nah. Itís real. Youíre here. And itís never gonna be the same again. Youíve already made history, Madam President. Now letís give Ďem four years theyíll 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. "Iíve lost my mind."

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

"Thanks, David." She looked up. "Hey, if we donít 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, Iíd 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 Devís 71Ĺ 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 Devís 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, maíam. 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, maíam. It was set for one oíclock."

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 womanís mind derailed at the sudden change of topic. "Umm... of course," she stammered. "I mean... yes, maíam. 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, maíam."

Dev pursed her lips. That simply wouldnít do. "Push everything back and give me an hour here. Iím gonna need it."

"Yes, maíam." Liza opened her notebook. This was only her second day, and sheíd already figured out that the President was always going to need some wiggle room in her schedule. "That means you wonít get back to the residence until sometime after seven thirty."

"If Iím 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 sheíd ever become accustomed to people whose sole purpose appeared to be to open doors for her. Okay. Thereís nothing to be nervous about. You respect her work. All right... you love her work. So what? Youíve met accomplished people before. Dev drew in a deep breath. She was an expert at burying how she felt. "Iíll be ready to move on in an hour." She reached over and tugged on Lizaís sleeve. "Do me a favor and find me a corned beef sandwich, huh? The food they served at the luncheon wasnít even close to edible."

"Right away. What aboutÖ?" 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. Thatís when the dark-haired woman got her first real life glimpse of Lauren Strayer. Wow. Not just cute. Dev mentally amended her assessment of Laurenís looks, based on her photograph. Beautiful. Dev cleared her throat gently, and the writerís head turned, slate gray eyes fastening on Devís face. Devís lips immediately curled into a smile, and she greeted Lauren warmly while remaining at the door. "Hi. Iíve been looking forward to meeting you. Iíll be right with you, I promise. Iím just making sure I get enough sustenance to keep from passing out." She stopped and took a breath. Okay, I usually donít talk that quickly. "Would you like a sandwich?"

Lauren practically jumped to her feet. She hadnít 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 Devís lightly tanned complexion and glossy black hair. She had the body of a track star, long and lean, with endless legs. Laurenís eyes widened as she realized she hadnít heard a word past ĎHi.í Her mind raced frantically. Shit! I know her lips were moving!

Devlyn wondered at the sudden look of confusion coloring the younger womanís 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 IímÖ"

"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. Heíd 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 wouldnít have to wear them at all in a few years.

"Thanks," Dev said over her shoulder, breathing a slight sigh of relief. Yes! Sheís not mad that Iím late. "I swear, Iíll 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, Devís 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 wasnít 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, letís make a deal right now. You let me be myself when weíre alone, and we both might make it through the next few years without going insane." She smiled at Laurenís intently interested look. "Besides, if I have to be the President of the United States all of the time, the bookís gonna be crap, and we both know it."

"Deal." Lauren was grinning now, but her smile quickly faded. "Does Ďyouí being Ďyouí equal Ďoff the recordí?" 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 Presidentís 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 donít 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, wouldnít it?"

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

The writerís 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 sheíd been born with. Karina was single with no children.

Laurenís 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 Ė 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 heíd never even had sex. With another human being, that is. But ultimately that tidbit didnít make it into his biography because she figured everyone could figure that out just by looking at or listening to Peter. She certainly didnít need to tell them.

And, finally, her most recent biographical subject had been Cardinal OíRoarke. 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 Marloweís children affected her?

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

Dev nodded. "If I werenít already certain of that, you wouldnít be here, Ms. Strayer. I donít take chances with the well being of my babies."

Lauren smiled engagingly, slightly taken aback by the Presidentís choice of words. ĎMy babiesíÖ so personal. Maternal. For some reason, I didnít think sheíd be that way. "But Iíd 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 didnít 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."

Sheís a talker. Thank you, God!

"I really wanted to make a good first impression. But being late kinda blew that, didnít 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 wouldnít happen to be among them. You make a charming first impression, President Devlyn Marlowe. But Iíll bet you already knew that.

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

The writerís 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. CharismaÖ in spades. It fairly oozed from the tall womanís 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 wasnít 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 Ďnoí. Well, thatís not quite true. She could laugh, accuse you of being insane and wanting to micromanage her work, and then say Ďnoí. "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 Laurenís lips, but she felt a tiny kernel of worry germinate in her belly. Where is she going with this? "Well, itís Italian Renaissance. Not exactly the Motel-6, but somehow Iím making do," she said drolly.

"GoodÖ 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 youíre going to follow me around on anything like a regular basis, youíll need to be close." That was brilliant. Duh.

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

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

Laurenís jaw sagged. "Inside the White House?"

Dev grinned. "Iíve found inside the White House to be far more comfortable than outside the White House. The park benches around here suck." When Lauren didnít answer Dev pressed on. "Look, if you really want to get to know me and understand what I do, youíre going to have to tag along after me. And you canít very well do that from the Hay-Adams Hotel. I donít exactly keep regular hours, and there simply isnít 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, sheíd make time for her anytime she wanted.

"I, umm... Madam President, I donít know what to say," she admitted honestly. Sure it would make things interesting, but Lauren knew she needed her privacy. She wasnít 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 doesnít have to be for the entire term. Just until you feel like youíve got a good handle on my day-to-day life." Címon, Lauren, say yes. Laurenís 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 donít take my legacy lightly, Ms. Strayer. The easiest way for me to give you full access is to have you nearby. I donít 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 Laurenís with an almost painful honesty. "Yes. I really do."

Lauren found it nearly impossible to disbelieve the Presidentís words. Damn, Iíll 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. Donít even go there, Dev. Keep your mouth shut. "I promise you I wonít censure you in any way. And once the book is done, as long as nothing concerning national security is revealed, I wonít 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."

"Youíll back me up?"

"One hundred percent." It wasnít lost on Devlyn that Lauren hadnít 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 didnít 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 weíre 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 wonít join me? I can see that my first executive order for one sandwich was completely ignored." She laughed. "Thereís 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. Iím in heaven.

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

Laurenís 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. Itís looks like youíll be having a guest for a while."

"Excellent!" Devís 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 Laurenís found hers, she squeezed firmly, absorbing its warmth with idle pleasure. "Itís a pleasure to meet you, Lauren."

"The pleasure is mine, Devlyn." Lauren exhaled and refocused on her sandwich as a knot that she didnít 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 Laurenís 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 donít. Letís 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 Devís 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 Iím praying itís strong. Thank you," Dev said as she took the cup from Laurenís 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 Devís fingers. "But somehow I canít see the President of the United States fetching my coffee."

"Hmm..." Dev begrudgingly nodded. "Youíre right, the President probably wouldnít. 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 sheíll be attending these meetings. For those of you who donít know alreadyÖ" 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 Iím announcing it anyway. Ms. Strayer is going to be chronicling this term in office and will be moving into the residence today. Isnít that right, Michael?" Dev arched a challenging eyebrow in the direction of Michael Oaks, who nodded resignedly.

Heíd tried to talk the President out of it. But the stubborn woman wasnít budging. There was something about Lauren Strayer he simply didnít like. Not only had she arrogantly refused his offer in Tennessee, but sheíd 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 sheíd had Secret Service agent Francis ĎNo Neckí 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 didnít look thrilled about the prospect wasnít lost on Dev. It wasnít that Lauren wasnít qualified. True, she was God awful young. Her work, however, was well respected. But that didnít 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... Iím thirty-eight, not eighty-eight. And that makes me sound as old as the hills." Dev shifted in her chair, regretting the fact that sheíd chosen a skirt instead of slacks today. "Biography has a less ancient ring to it, donít 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.

"Letís just call it a biography, Sharon. Iím 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 thatís 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.

"Iíve 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, sheís going to become more than an employee hired to write a book."

"You sound like Michael now. And I donít intend to tell the press sheís in residence here. If it becomes an issue, weíll deal with it then."

David rolled his eyes. "Itíll 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 biographerÖ"

"You forgot very Ďstraightí, single, well-respected biographer."

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

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

"Because I read that report, Dev. And I donít 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 canít believe I just said that."

David laughed. "Dev, whether Ms. Strayer is, in actuality, straight or gay isnít really the issue. Assumptions will be made. And youíre both single, and youíve 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 donít give a shit about them."

"But you should," David insisted. Heíd lost this argument a hundred times, but he never stopped trying. "Theyíre out there, and theyíre not going away."

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

Davidís brown eyes softened. "I know, Dev. But weíre talking about perceptions, not reality." He swallowed, wondering if he should go further. "Umm... you know Samantha wouldnít want you to mourn her forever."

Devís 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 donít 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, "Iím going to be right here to say ĎI told you soí."

"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, Iíll consider this a very successful month."

"It wonít take a month."

Dev ignored Davidís 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. "Weíre talking legitimate press. The Inquisitor and the other scandal sheets donít count, David."

"The legit press will pick it up if itís 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. Itís a law... like gravity or Murphyís."

Dev laughed to herself and stuffed Davidís 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, sheíd 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. Itís not like you donít know anything about herÖ 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 wasnít 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 sheíd 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 sheíd gotten when she was permitted inside some of the most private, holy areas of the Vatican while doing Cardinal OíRoarkeís 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 didnít 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 didnít 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 Laurenís 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 eveningís 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 didnít glow by now.

"I must be dreaming, Gremlin." But, God, talk about pressure. "I hope Iím 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 bedís 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 Presidentís children. She wondered if theyíd all be lined up like the Von Trapp family, awaiting inspection from their Commander in Chief. EwwwÖ I hope not. Lauren cringed. Plus, I canít sing for crap.

She was a little nervous. Life as an only child hadnít prepared her for dealing with kids. And always having your nose in a book when you were a child yourself, didnít help make you Miss Popularity. Then again, she was pretty sure she wouldnít 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 didnít think sheíd 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 weíve got a minute, Grem. Letís call him, huh?" Lauren chuckled. "Letís just hope this doesnít give Wayne that heart attack heís 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 Ďcallí, but stopped when she got a good look at the smooth machine. It didnít 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 wasnít one. In fact, there was no visible way to call anyone.

Suddenly, a genuine smile lit up Laurenís 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 mistressí hand. "Itís the Bat Phone!"

A light knocking sound drew Lauren and Gremlinís attention to the door. "Time to go meet the miniature humans. Wish me luck, boy." She waggled her finger at the mutt. "NoÖ you canít come." She almost ordered him off the beautiful comforter but shrugged instead. If she was going to live here, this would be Gremís home too. And heíd 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 donít 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 youíre stuck, arenít 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 manís 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. "Youíre ready, I assume?"

"YesÖ. errÖ noÖ 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 Iím ready."

"You canítÖ" He pointed toward the camera. "Thatís notÖ" 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 McMillianís full permission. Do you outrank him?" she asked innocently, inwardly chuckling.

"Well, ummÖ of course not." Michaelís frustration began to mount. "ButÖ"

"Get over it." She looked back down at her watch. "Weíre 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 hadnít 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. "Iím sorry," she apologized sincerely. "Heís not used to his surroundings yet. Let me go calm him down. Or I could bring him? Weíre only going a few doors down to see the kids, right?"

"Iíll 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 youíd like. But they certainly wonít be for Gremlin," she ground out harshly.

"He canít continue to howl like that."

Laurenís hands moved to her hips. "Actually, he can."

"Thatís unacceptable."

"I agree. I should go get him."

"No," Michael said flatly.

Lauren sighed. God, she was already tired of this person, and sheíd 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 isnít an apartment complex."

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

"Do you expect thatÖ 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. "Heíll calm down soon. Heís used to traveling, but heís only been here a few hours. Gremlinís also been poked, scanned, prodded, and donít 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! Heís only an animal. He canít 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 hadnít heard the voices raised in anger. She had been waiting impatiently for Lauren and finally came to seek her out. Michael scampered out of Devlynís way.

Lauren jumped to her feet. "We did... I... Iím 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 childrenís as Gremlin lay on his back, enjoying his belly scratching with orgasmic delight. He even groaned.

"I hope he didnít disturb you." Lauren approached Dev, relieved beyond measure that she didnít seem to be angry. "Heís only been here a couple of hours and wasnít too happy about me leaving him so soon."

Dev smiled at her kids and spoke to Lauren without turning her head. "Why didnít you just bring him along then?" God, I know theyíre going to want their own dog now. Maybe I am the meanest mother since ĎMommy Dearestí.

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 youíre 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. "Wonít 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.

"Iím 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, Iíd be far more interested in Gremlin, too."

Oh, I donít 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 boyís 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. Weíll 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 sheís 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. "Itís nice to meet you, too." Sheís a carbon copy of her mother, except for the brown eyes. She gestured toward the floor. "And youíve 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 Laurenís 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 boyís face turned brick red, and he suddenly ran for Devlyn, burying his head in her legs.

Lauren blinked. "What did IÖ?"

"Heís just a little shy." Dev patted the boyís back. "No worries," she assured, amused by the startled look that flickered across Laurenís face. She hasnít 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."

"Iíd 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 didnít have a care in the world, he yawned widely. His mouth clicked shut, and he innocently resumed playing with the children.

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

"Devlyn, remember?"

Lauren ducked her head. "Right. And I am sorry. Thatís so strange." Pale brows furrowed. "Grem loves everybody." Seeing Devís scowl, she realized how that must have sounded and added, "But he has had a really stressful day. But heís totally, one hundred percent safe, I swear. Heís 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, Iíll 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 sheíd been looking forward to relaxing. Reluctantly, she roused the kids. "I think we should give Ms. Strayer her privacy now."

"Donít 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.

"Thatís a pretty skirt." Laurenís gaze swept down Devís 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.

Devís voice called her back to the moment, and now it was the Presidentís 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 weíre not on a bus.

Chapter 2

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