Madam President

Madam President

Chapter X

October 2021

 

 

Monday, October 4th

 

 

"Come here, you littleÖ" Dev ground out as she struggled to get further under the bed to retrieve several more puppies. "Your time here is over, you little beasties. Now you get to go and terrorize other parts of the world."

Lauren came back in from the bathroom where she had had to lock Gremlin and Princess before Dev could even get near the puppies. She covered her ears at the sounds of Gremlinís and Princessí howls. "God, I feel like a kidnapper!"

"Donít think of it as kidnapping, sweetheart," Dev offered. Lying flat on her belly, she reached under the bed, cursing as the puppies scooted away. She rose to her knees and looked at Lauren. "Think of it as liberation day." Dev gestured towards the bed. "I could use a hand here."

Lauren flinched as two of the puppies poked their noses out from behind the comforter, bared their teeth at the President, and growled. "Youíd better count your fingers when this is over, Devlyn. Because they donít seem to want to leave." The writer cautiously moved forward and picked up two of the more docile puppies; they were nearly asleep, despite the commotion their brothers and sisters were causing.

"Oh, sure, take the easy ones. I was hoping you could coax out the ones that were growling at me." She gestured to the two Lauren was putting in the box. "I could have done that. And if I get bit, you have to kiss it and make it better."

A lascivious grin twitched at Laurenís lips. "Iíll do that anyway, darliní."

Dev quirked an eyebrow. "You have a dirty mind. Just like my mother. No wonder she loves you." She looked back under the bed where the snarling puppies had once again taken refuge.

"Watch out, Devlyn. Iíve discovered I have a thing for older women."

"You-" Dev strained, trying to get under the bed again, "couldnít handle my mother. Sheíd kill you." Dev laughed recklessly, waiting to see what kind of a response that got. But before she got an answer one of puppies nipped her finger. "Ouch! Dammit!" The puppies all began to bark and whine.

"Hey." Laurenís eyes snapped. "Quiet!" The puppies instantly went silent. She dropped to her knees and gently began examining Devís finger. Please donít let it be bleeding.

"Iím okay. He missed. Mostly." Before Lauren could get a good look, Dev pulled her finger away and began wiggling it in front of her face. "I still have all ten, and thereís nothing broken or bleeding." She smiled at the sound of Laurenís relieved sigh. "You know why they donít want to leave, donít you?"

"Youíre sure itís okay? You donít need a Band-Aid or anything?" Lauren wanted to see for herself, so she captured Devís finger. She studied it carefully, finding only a small red scratch, which she promptly kissed. "They just like sleeping under my bed Ďcause itís so nice and quiet."

A sexy smirk overtook Devís face. "I can change that right now, sweetheart."

Lauren rolled her eyes and laughed, feeling a sudden heat in her cheeks. "Sorry, Devil. Iíve got a meeting with Wayne in fifteen minutes. And youíve got one with the Secretary of Transportation in ten. Iím surprised Liza hasnít been here looking for you already. Not that Iím not tempted. Because I am." More than you know, darliní. Her eyes twinkled.

Dev poked out her lip, then smiled when Lauren leaned in for a kiss.

"But," Lauren diverted her kiss at the last second, denying Devís lips and giving her a playful peck on the cheek instead, "can I have a rain check?" She laughed again at the look of shocked outrage on her loverís face.

"Brat."

"Later," Lauren promised, earning an instant smile. She turned back to the puppies and gazed at them affectionately, even the ones who had inherited Gremlinís dislike of the President. "Letís get this over with, so I can stop feeling like Cruella DeVille."

"Well, then get your little fanny under there, Mighty Mouse, and dig the little beasties out. I think youíll fit more easily than I will." The President sat back on her heels. "Then I can take them and make the coat."

"Thatís not even close to funny, Devlyn." But Lauren giggled anyway as she scooted her upper body under the bed and pulled out two reluctant puppies. "Hello, my little demons." She lifted them both up and gave them sloppy kisses, receiving an enthusiastic face-licking in return.

"Well, eeewww!" Dev grimaced as she watched the scene unfold. "Hurry up and put them in the box, and Iíll take them to their new victÖ I mean owners. Heh, thatís another perk to being President. You can give away really ugly puppies, and people have to take them." Dev wrinkled her nose and pointed at Laurenís mouth. "And if you think youíre gonna get another kiss from me, youíll need to, at the very minimum, brush your teeth. With bleach."

Lauren jerked her chin towards the door. "Out! Before I decide to keep them all," she drew out the last word, watching with satisfaction as blue eyes widened perceptibly.

"Going," Dev squeaked as she shuffled towards the door, trying to keep hold of the jiggling puppy crate.

Lauren puttered around her room for a few moments before taking Wayneís video call. She pulled out some hand-written notes, and her publishing agentís secretary brought Wayne on the line.

"Hiya, sweetheart," he said affectionately.

Lauren smiled. "Hi, Wayne. Howís life in the Big Apple?"

"Eh." He moved his hand in a teetering motion. "Could be worse. Could be Cleveland. How are you?" He wriggled eyebrows liberally dosed with gray. "Been doing anything lately youíd like to tell your old buddy Wayne about?" He gave Lauren his best wishing look.

Which had never worked on her anyway.

"God, Wayne, why do I work with you again?" Laughter bubbled up inside Lauren when the man patiently began listing all his virtues, which, in actuality, didnít take very long. "Okay. Okay." She held up her hands in defeat. "I get the picture."

Wayne continued unaffected. "And when youíre finished slumming with the President of the United States," he grunted, "donít forget to give me a call. Some people still appreciate a charming yet rugged man."

"Wow. Rugged and charming?" Lauren crossed her arms over her chest and tried not to laugh as both eyebrows edged their way up her forehead. "Uh huh. Iíll be sure to call you, Wayne," she drawled.

Wayne blew out a disgusted breath. "No, you wonít." He clutched his heart. "But Iíll love you anyway." His face grew serious. "Even when you mess with a winning formula."

Lauren worried her lower lip. Sheíd figured this was coming. "You didnít like it?"

"Oh, I liked it." He threw his hands in the air. "Hell, I loved it. But itís not a good idea, Lauren."

Her eyes went round and innocent. "Whatís not a good idea?"

"Lauren." Her name came out a low, raspy growl.

"You need to quit smoking."

"Donít change the subject." He shook his head ruefully. "Itís dangerous ground. Your Adrienne Nash books are bestsellers, for Christís sake. Why you would jeopardize that now, is beyond me. Well? I read the draft. I canít stand it, and I have to know!"

Laurenís eyes widened a little. Geesh. "Well, I donít think Iím exactly jeopard-"

"No. No," Wayne said irritably. "Not that." He rested his chin on a fist. "Are they or arenít they?"

OhhhhÖ "Adrienne Nash and her new partner are friends," Lauren replied a little defiantly.

"Thatís obvious. But I want to know if Adrienne is shagginí her lovely, new sidekick. Sometimes I think yes, sometimes I think no."

"That you think at all is beyond me," Lauren mumbled.

"Well?" he insisted.

Lauren sighed. "Iím not sure." Her face grew pensive. "Letís just say Iím strongly considering it."

"Well, donít," he said flatly. "Iíve got the numbers right here, and the gain isnít worth the risk."

"I sent you the first rough draft five days ago. And youíve already done market research?!" she asked incredulously, slipping off her glasses and setting them in her lap.

"Please." He rolled his eyes. "Ye of little faith. When Adrienne still had no boyfriend after your second novel I ran the stats." Wayne picked up a stack of computer printouts and waved them in the air. "Youíve got an 89% female following. Of that number, a third would pray for your immortal soul and stop reading outright if Adrienne took a female lover."

"They can go to hell," Lauren snorted.

Wayne tossed the papers back on his desk and Ďtskedí the writerís shortsightedness. "But only after buying the book." He pointed to the stack. "A third of the readers say they donít give a shit who she sleeps with, as long as sheís getting some. Then again, they also indicated that if Adrienne came out as a lesbian, they werenít sure whether theyíd keep reading. By the way, they want the bad guy from your first book to come back."

"Come back?" Laurenís brows drew together. "I drowned him. Heís dead! He canít come back!"

"Fic-tion," Wayne reminded in a singsong voice.

Lauren slumped back in her chair, looking completely bewildered. "My readers are idiots?"

"Ahem!" He shot her a pointed look, and she reluctantly quieted. "The last third approve of the idea, but insist on graphic sex scenes. Our research shows that their attention will wane if they donít get one at least every 63.4 pages."

Laurenís face dropped into her hands. She closed her eyes and groaned. "Oh, God."

"Thatís a start, sweetheart!" he praised. "But how about adding a ĎTake me now!í right after that?"

 

 

Sunday, October 10th

 

 

They entered quietly, going wholly undetected as three sets of socked feet tiptoed stealthily across the floor. The Secret Service could take lessons from the Marlowe children. This morning, the game plan was to pounce on their unsuspecting mother before she woke up. On the rare occasions when they were out of bed first, this had become a tradition of sorts. They usually ended up in her bed for a while, telling stories or discussing their upcoming day. It was a fun time that both mother and children enjoyed.

Ash noticed immediately that something was different this morning and shushed her brothers as she pointed at the extra lump in their motherís bed. She stopped and studied her mom, who was snoring lightly. Then she moved to the other side of the bed to find Lauren. A wicked grin curled the little girlís lips, and she dropped to her knees. Ashley crossed her arms and rested them on the edge of the bed. She propped her chin on her wrists and kissed Laurenís nose, barely touching the skin.

Her brothers fought hard to stifle their giggles.

Laurenís nose twitched as she was slowly drawn from a blissfully deep sleep. Another kiss and the blonde woman scowled, instantly aging features so youthful in slumber. Pale eyelashes fluttered open to find an unexpected pair of brown eyes staring back at her from only a millimeter away. "Holy-!" Laurenís eyes popped wide open, and she bolted upright, sending the sheet into a puddle around her waist. Her heart was pounding a mile a minute, and she stared wide-eyed at a smiling Ashley.

Still half asleep, Dev rolled over to see what was causing the commotion next to her. "Lauren? Sweetheart?" She pushed a stray lock of dark hair from her eyes, trying to focus. "Whatís wrong?"

Lauren snatched up the sheet to cover her nakedness. She was only partially successful, and her befuddled mind couldnít quite understand why Devís children were all standing in front of her giggling hysterically. "I... I donít know. I woke up, and these eyes were right in front me!" Lauren rubbed her own eyes in confusion, her voice still hoarse from sleep.

"Uh huh." Dev pushed up on her elbows and glanced past Lauren, quickly figuring out exactly what had happened and not buying her childrenís ĎWho me?í looks for a moment. "Yup. Morning raid." She sighed. "I probably should have mentioned those before." She glanced apologetically at Lauren and helped tug up the sheet again, this time covering the crucial areas.

"All right, you little monsters." Dev glared at her children. "Everyone turn around and look at the wall. Lauren and I need a minute to wake up."

"Aww, Mom!" Three whining voices joined forces.

"Donít ĎAww, Momí me. Do it." She made a spinning motion with her hand, then nudged Laurenís shoulder once they were no longer being watched. "You okay?" she asked quietly

"I guess." Lauren suddenly realized that the children had just caught her naked in bed with their mother, and she flushed from head to toe, her red skin causing her fair eyebrows to stand out in vivid relief. "Oh, God, Dev, this is bad, right?" she whispered, clearly upset as she unconsciously tightened the sheet around her. "This is bad. Bad. So not good," she babbled, pulling up the comforter as well. "I should have gone back to my room last night. I fell asleep-"

"Sweetheart, this is not bad; at least not for them. I promise. True, we need to get you some-"

"Pajamas."

"Right." The older woman nodded. "But theyíre fine. They adore you, and this wonít kill them." Dev wanted to hug Lauren, but she didnít think this was a good time to get physical with her. "They come wake me up once in a while, and we all snuggle. From now on Iíll make sure they know they have to knock."

"But, Devlyn-"

"But nothing," Dev said seriously. "I love you and wonít sneak around to be together. Iíll have a talk with the children." She softened her voice. "You know I love it when you stay with me at night." Unable to stop herself, Dev reached out and grazed Laurenís bare shoulder with the back of her hand. She sighed at the feeling of soft, warm skin. "Weíll make some changes so this doesnít happen again, okay? They have to learn to respect your privacy, too."

Lauren glanced uncertainly at the children who were talking among themselves. They giggled and punched each other periodically, and she thought she heard the words Ďboobieí and Ďnakedí. Oh, God! she groaned inwardly. Lauren turned back to Dev and gestured between them with a quick hand. "Isnít this the kind of thing that turns kids into serial killers and stuff?" She was half teasing, but this was painfully awkward for her, and she fought the urge to simple bury herself under the blankets or bolt from the room. A grown up she could have dealt with. Hell, what could be worse than Devís own mother walking in on them at the cabin? It didnít matter that it was purely innocent. Janet didnít know that. But this... this was different. These were kids!

Dev had to bite her lip to keep from laughing as she reached to the end of the bed to fetch her robe. "No." She handed it to Lauren. "Itís a lack of honesty about things like this that turns them into serial killers. Lauren, theyíve seen me naked before." Dev decided to tease Ashley, so she raised her voice. She waited until Lauren had slipped into the robe before she said loudly, "I was naked and in a swimming pool when I gave birth to Ash, for heavenís sake." She grinned when the little girl whirled around and narrowed brown eyes at her. Dev shot the small brunette a Ďserves you rightí look and ordered all the children to turn around and apologize to Lauren.

"Weíre sorry," they muttered, pointedly looking at Dev and not Lauren.

Dev tilted her head towards her lover and turned up the heat in her glare. "What was that, kids? And to Lauren, not me."

"Sorry, Lauren." This time the voices were clear, and the blonde woman was presented with three contrite faces.

Christopher bravely spoke up. "We didnít mean to scare you."

"Síokay, kids." Lauren smiled to make sure they knew she wasnít angry with them and was instantly greeted with three relieved sighs. "It just takes my brain a few minutes to wake up." Her eyes flicked back to Dev. "And letís not talk about giving birth, shall we?" She shivered at the thought of all that gore. "Iím still traumatized from watching Princess have those puppies."

"And Ash was probably just as ugly!" Chris exclaimed, to his brotherís delight. Both boys began laughing.

"Was not!" the little girl shouted back, punching Christopher hard on the arm.

"Ouch!"

"All right, guys, thatís enough," Dev snapped. "Go into the living room and give Lauren and me a minute or two. Weíll meet you out there."

"ĎKay." Ashley rousted her brothers towards the door, but ran back to Laurenís bedside before leaving herself. "I really didnít mean to scare you. Sorry." She grinned tentatively. "We like it when youíre here. You can sleep over as much as you want."

Lauren couldnít help but smile. She reached out and smoothed Ashleyís sleep-tousled hair. "Thank you, honey. Iíll remember that." She cupped the little girlís chin and tilted her head so that they were looking eye to eye. "And Iím sure you were a cuter baby than Gremís puppies." She stuck out her tongue and scrunched up her face. "Barely."

Ashley giggled and gave Lauren a hug, "Mom says I was the most beautiful girl baby. And she never lies."

Lauren gazed fondly at Ashley. "I know, sweetie."

Ashley pulled away when Dev cleared her throat and jerked her thumb towards the door, reminding her eldest that she was supposed to be vacating the room.

"Gotta go." Ashley giggled as she ran out to meet her brothers. "You were uglier than me, Chris! There are pictures to prove it."

Lauren laughed and shook her head, thinking that she should have guessed Devlyn would have such a precocious daughter.

"Oh, yeah," Dev sighed, leaning back against the headboard and opening her arms to Lauren. "Itís happening."

"Whatís happening, darliní?" Lauren sank back into Devís embrace, sighing contentedly. Surprisingly, she already felt a lot less embarrassed. She would make sure it didnít happen again, and Dev seemed okay with it. The kids seemed to consider it more funny than traumatic. Of course she was a little traumatized, but sheíd get over exposing herself to three munchkins.

"Youíre turning into a mom," Dev said with an air of finality. She brushed her fingers through Laurenís hair. "Youíll know the process is complete when youíre cleaning Ďfudgesicle-faceí with a napkin wet with your own spit."

"Ewwwwww!" Lauren moaned. She buried her face against Devís warm skin, then laughed. "That particular aspect of motherhood is something I will never experience, Madam President."

"And the other aspects?" Dev felt her heart skip a beat. "Iím sort of a package deal." She held her breath and waited.

Lauren pulled back to look at Devís face. "I know, honey." She smiled reassuringly and laid her hand over Devís heart. The pounding under her fingertips sent a pang through her own chest. "Everything else I take one day at a time."

"It scares the hell out of you, doesnít it?"

"Pretty much. But not as much as it did before." Her gaze softened, and she found herself wanting to kiss Dev in the worst way. Lauren leaned forward and gently brushed her lips against Devís, savoring their warmth and her loverís tender, heartfelt response.

The darker woman hummed into the soft mouth pressed against her own, returning the kiss with her whole heart. "Things are going to be great, Lauren," she muttered softly, taking a final nip of Laurenís lower lip before pulling away. "Youíll see."

Lauren licked her lips and grinned happily. "Things are already great."

 

* * *

 

Dev knelt down, tugging on Aaronís jacket as she zipped it up. He was about to protest again when she raised a finger to silence him. "Itís chilly out today. Youíre wearing a jacket."

"But-"

"Or you can stay home today while Lauren, and your brother and sister and I, go to the zoo. You choose, son."

He lowered his head, then looked back up. "Yes, maíam. Iíll wear the jacket."

"I kinda figured." She nodded and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. She glanced up at Lauren, who was standing next to her wearing a grin. "And whereís your jacket, missy?" A playful brow quirked. "Iíll be happy to take you to your room to get it, if you need me to."

Lauren wrapped her arm round Devís waist as the President stood to her full height. She lowered her voice. "You just want to get me alone in my room." I just want you to get me alone my room, her mind admitted happily.

"Do you blame me? We always have so much fun there. Besides, you want me to get you alone in there too." She winked. Oh, yeah. I read your mind. "Sorry to disappoint, but right now I have a much more wholesome motive. I just want to make sure youíre warm enough. Youíre just getting over being sick." She held up her hands to forestall any interjection. "Yes, I know it was last month. But you see, in mom and girlfriend time, that would be Ďjust getting over being sickí. Humor me."

Lauren rolled her eyes, but couldnít keep from smiling. "Okay, mom," she teased. "Iíll grab one on the way out... just like I was planning on doing anyway." She rose up on tiptoe and kissed Dev softly on the lips. "But itís nice that you care." Another tender kiss. "Itís sweet, like you." And makes my heart feel like bursting.

"Iíll give you Ďmomí." Playfully, Dev swatted Laurenís behind as the entire troop began heading down the hall towards the waiting motorcade. "Iíll remind you of that little wisecrack tonight, when you want to be tucked into bed." She chuckled.

"Ewww..." Lauren made a face. "Why must you keep doing that? You need help, Devlyn."

"Ah, probably true," Dev agreed unrepentantly as they stopped outside Laurenís room. "It comes with the job. I think my brain cells are dying faster now." She tapped on the door as the kids giggled and romped all around them. "Gíwan. Go get a nice warm jacket."

Lauren ducked into her room, grabbing a lined denim jacket from the closet next to the door and her camera from the top of her desk. "Is this good enough?" She held it for Devís inspection with one hand and looped the camera strap around her neck with the other.

Dev nodded her approval and freed Laurenís hair from the strap around her neck. Another few seconds and Lauren was wearing the jacket. Dev blinked in mild surprise when Ashley and Christopher each took one of Laurenís hands the very second they popped through the jacketís sleeves and began leading her biographer down the hall without a backwards glance. Dev looked down at her youngest. "Youíre stuck with me, buddy. Will I do?"

He nodded and smiled, reaching up with both arms so Dev would pick him up.

Dev looked at him doubtfully. "You think I can lift a chubby thing like you, do you?"

His grin broadened, putting dimples in his plump cheeks. "Yup."

Dev pursed her lips. "Lucky for you I work out." She scooped up her husky son easily, settling him against her good shoulder as they moved to the door.

As usual, the Press was waiting outside, snapping pictures of the First Family as they walked. Out of reflex, Dev shielded Aaronís face and was pleased to see Lauren using her own body to block their view of Ashley and Christopher. Several members of the Press Corps had been invited to the zoo in order to take photos. They, however, knew better than to be too obtrusive. Dev had been very generous with Press access. And none of the Corps was anxious to do anything that might harm that relationship. As they settled the children into the car, Dev leaned over to Lauren and whispered, "Thank you."

"Youíre welcome," Lauren whispered back, her expression turning sour. "I donít know how you do this year after year, Devlyn. Sometimes I think if I have to deal with one more of those bast-" She finished the mumbled word with Devís palm clamped firmly over her mouth.

Dev shook her head and grinned. "Careful there, Mighty Mouse. You almost slipped in front of my innocent," she glanced at her children and contorted her face into the silliest pose she could come up with, "impressionable kids."

The children all giggled, looking at Lauren and saying in unison, "But sheís very, very sorry, mom. And sheíll try to do better in the future."

With wide eyes, Lauren nodded and crossed her heart. "Iíll try to do better in the future," she dutifully repeated when Dev removed her hand.

"Thatís a good girl. My father is a bad enough influence. But I love you anyway," Dev said fondly, ignoring her childrenís groaned protests over her mushiness. She took a moment to look at the notes Liza had given her earlier in the morning. "Did you know Iím delivering a speech at the zoo today Ė at the monkey house? Iím dedicating it." She nudged Lauren. "Do you think someone is trying to tell me something about my administration?"

"I hope not." Lauren intentionally kept her voice light as she carefully studied her lover. She knew Dev was apprehensive about this. It was her first local appearance since the shooting. Lauren wrapped her fingers around Devís, feeling an uncharacteristic chill. "Hey," she whispered softly, her gaze straying for just a moment to find that the children had begun playing with the activity books Emma had sent along for them. She looked back to Dev. "Are you okay?"

"UmmÖwellÖ" Oh, boy, Marlowe, sheís got your number. "Iím a little nervous, you know? I canít seem to help it."

Lauren leaned closer to the President, worry coloring her tone. "Is there any reason to be worried? More than normal, that is?" She knew Dev didnít really believe there was a high level of danger. Otherwise, neither she nor the kids would be coming along. Still, when Dev had mentioned giving her speech, a tiny, worried crease had appeared in her forehead.

"No, of course not. The zoo is actually only open to government employees today. And while that doesnít mean everyone there loves me, it does make things a little more secure than usual." She turned and caressed Laurenís cheek. "Besides, you know Iíd never allow you or the children to be put in harmís way. Iíve just got butterflies." Dev swallowed and licked suddenly dry lips. Her voice grew even softer, so that the children wouldnít hear. "Sometimes I can still hear the shots." She gazed out the window, her eyes unfocused. "I guess itís going to take longer than I realized to get over that."

Lauren squeezed the hand she was holding, part of her wishing sheíd been there that day to help Devlyn, the other part relieved beyond measure that she hadn't. Iíd have gone crazy seeing her like that. The writer forced herself away from the dark thoughts and smiled gently. "Itís okay to talk about it, whenever you want."

Dev nodded, but said nothing.

Lauren exhaled slowly. Later, Devlyn. She smiled tentatively, her eyes searching for Devís. "Youíre going to be great today, darliní. You always are. And I know David will have security as tight as a drum." A smile shifted into a full-fledged grin. "And after your speech you can hang around with us and eat junk food all day long."

Dev couldnít maintain her solemn expression when faced with such a delightful prospect. "Ooo, a woman with a plan. I like that." She leaned in for a quick kiss, which inspired another round of giggles from the munchkins across from them. Dev turned her head slowly and smiled at them. "And, of course, should they realize theyíre short three monkeys at the zoo, Iíll be more than happy to make a donation."

 

* * *

 

The motorcade stopped at the private entrance the President and her family would be using to enter the zoo. Dev had to put her arm out to hold back the mad rush for the door. "Easy, kiddos," she laughed. "The doors on this car are eight inches thick. Letís let the guys outside open them so you donít rupture anything." Ashley dropped back onto her motherís lap with a sigh. She turned her head and they rubbed noses. "Whatís up, Moppet?"

"Can we see the penguins?"

"Absolutely. Weíre here to have a good time and see all the animals today. I only have this one little thing I need to do this morning, and then Iím yours for the day."

Lauren couldnít help but smile when the limousine was filled with wild cheers. It had been a while since theyíd gotten a full day with Dev. And while she, Emma, and Amy did their best to fill in, it just wasnít the same as having their mom with them.

Christopher plopped down in Laurenís lap, wrapping his little arms around her neck, while Aaron stood between them. "What animal do you want to see?" Chris asked.

"Yeah," Devís head turned slowly, and she raised an evil brow. "Which animal do you want to see, Lauren?"

"Well," she looked at each child in turn, "I already see a baboon, hyena, and wildebeest on a daily basis. How about something different?"

Three little voices all shouted together once they realized Lauren was actually talking about them. "Hey!"

Ashley turned to her mom and whispered indignantly, "You gonna let her talk about us like that?"

"Why not? Itís the truth. I just canít believe she didnít peg one of you as an enormous, stinky warthog.

"Mom!"

"Only if youíre good today. Otherwise, Iím pretending I donít know you," the President teased as the doors were opened from the outside.

Dev helped the kids out of the car and into the custody of their respective Secret Service agents. Before getting out herself she leaned over and leered at Lauren. "And in case youíre wondering what Iíd like to see most, itís a tiny, incredibly precious tattoo of a leprechaun, right on your-"

"Oh, God." A bright blush turned the tips of Laurenís ears scarlet, and she buried her face against Devís chest. "Youíd better hush up, Madam President. Or I wonít be responsible for my actions. I might have a tiny tattoo, but youíve got the cutest dimple right on your lovely-"

"Why, Ms. Strayer," Devís eyes went round. "I didnít realize that you were taking inventory of my dimples." She smirked. "I have three you know." Dev exited the car and then reached back in to help Lauren out.

Lauren stepped out of the limo, shielding her eyes from the bright morning sun with her hand. She could tell that Dev was much more relaxed and was a little shocked by how much it bothered her when Dev was anxious and worried. She leaned in close to Dev and whispered, "Believe me, darliní, I now know every square inch of your body."

Dev sighed with contentment and zipped up her jacket. "Yes, you do. And my body thanks you." She wiggled her brows at Lauren who grinned back as the agents began preparing for them to enter the zoo.

 

* * *

Dev met up with Liza while Lauren went with the kids. The President rolled her shoulders, wishing Lauren were there to rub them. She had learned where her muscles kinked the worst and the best way to work out the pain that settled there far too often now. Dev wondered if that was because of the job or the shooting.

She felt a hand brush her arm; turning, she found Liza slipping her last minute note cards into her pocket. "Thanks." Dev cleared her throat, wondering if she looked as nervous as she felt. This was a real trial by fire for her. Some of the people in this crowd had been present when she was shot. They had seen her taken down. They had seen their President taken down; seen her crumple and fall like a mere mortal.

For Devlyn Marlowe this was the closest thing to a panic attack that she had ever really experienced in her public life. She looked at her hands and realized they were actually shaking a bit. She rubbed them together, took a deep breath and walked out on the stage.

Lauren stopped at an exhibit and allowed the kids to point and talk to the animals while she turned around to observe her lover. Because the spot she had chosen gave her an excellent view, she didnít look like she was hovering. Which, of course, she was. But she was worried, dammit. Lauren lifted her camera and began to focus, zooming in on Dev. Jesus. Sheís shaking. She almost left the kids with the Secret Service and went up there. But before she could move, Dev strode to the podium.

She smiled and licked her lips, once again shoving down her nervousness. Her eyes moved more rapidly over the crowd now. The applause she was hearing was barely audible in her world as her eyes landed on Lauren. The smile that she had on her face softened and became one that Lauren would know was just for her. Thereís your strength, Marlowe. Latch on and take it. "Good morning, everyone. They tell me Iím here to talk about monkeys this morning, but since I donít like to tell stories about my Chief of Staff, I guess they mean the real thingÖ"

 

* * *

 

Dev didnít have problems tracking her family like everyone else who got separated in a situation like this. She was being guided along quite nicely by the Secret Service detail, which knew exactly where every member of the Marlowe family was at all times. And right now, she was being escorted to the seal exhibit.

She did take the time to shake a few hands and sign a few autographs for the crowd, hoping that would help her later in the day, when she would be less social as she spent time with her family.

Devlyn slowed her pace as she approached her four favorite people, a huge smile brightening her face. She wrestled it away immediately, glancing around to make sure there wasnít a drinking fountain anywhere nearby. There wasnít. Dev shoved her hands in her pockets as she closed the remaining distance between her and her family. She stopped alongside Lauren, who was kneeling in front of Aaron. They appeared to be in the midst of a very in-depth conversation. She still had to fight to keep the grin off her face as she watched Lauren cleaning something from her sonís face, oblivious to her presence.

"Umm, Lauren?"

Lauren glanced up. "Oh, hi. Youíre back." She smiled affectionately. "We missed you. And why are you looking at me like I grew a mustache while you were gone? Do I have something between my teeth?" Lauren immediately swirled the tip of her tongue across pearly whites, searching for the offending piece of food.

A small laugh bubbled up that Dev was helpless to control. "No. Your teeth are fine." Dev looked pointedly at Laurenís hand. "I was just wondering how exactly you wet the napkin youíre using to clean his," her gaze drifted to her son, and she grimaced, "filthy face."

"Huh?" Lauren looked down at the wadded up, chocolate ice cream-covered napkin in her hand. She frowned. "Well, there was no drinking fountain or bathroom nearby, and it was all over his little face, and it wouldnít come off, and I couldnít stand it. So I-" Gray eyes widened to an almost comical degree. "Oh, my God."

The look of pure, unadulterated shock on Laurenís face was priceless, and what had started out small was now a full-fledged belly laugh. Dev wiped tears from her cheeks as she leaned back against a rail and offered Lauren her hand so she could pull her up.

Lauren hadnít even made it all the way to her feet, before she was pulled into a heartfelt hug. She grinned against Devís chest as she felt the older womanís silent laughter. "Very funny." She pinched her hard in the belly for the teasing, drawing a muffled squawk that ruffled her hair.

"Welcome to the club, sweetheart," Dev finally said. "Itís been a wild year for you, hasnít it?"

Aaron looked between the women. "What club?"

"The one where they clean your sticky old face with their spit, stupid-head," Christopher added helpfully.

"Oh." Aaron just shrugged. What did he care?

"IÖ IÖ" Lauren stuttered, still a little wide-eyed. "I didnít even think about it."

Dev shrugged casually as she found something terribly interesting about her shoes and kicked at a non-existent pebble. "Yeah, comes pretty naturally to us mom types."

Lauren was speechless, and Dev took pity on her friend, giving her a moment to compose herself. She looked up and found Aaronís Secret Service agent lurking close by. She motioned the young man over and in a few quick strides he was ready for his orders. "Could you please take Aaron to the menís room and give him a little clean up? Even though clinical research has proven that Ďmom spití and hydrochloric acid are exactly the same thing, I think a little soap would come in handy for this job." Dev reached down and cupped her sonís chin, so she could get a good look at the damage. "Eww... now I gotta go wash my hands!" She arched a well-shaped eyebrow at her son. "Youíre a slob, buddy."

Aaron blushed.

Ashley, who had finally pried herself away from the railing where she was watching the seals, joined her brothers. Her voice took on a sage quality. "Grandpa says if it isnít on your face, youíre not enjoying it properly."

Devís eyes went round as an entirely X-rated thought popped into her mind at Ashleyís innocent statement. She felt a sudden, burning heat sting her cheeks.

Lauren looked at Dev quizzically. "Why-?" Her jaw sagged with her realization, and she blushed so fiercely she felt lightheaded. Lauren covered her eyes with her hands. "Youíre such a pervert, Devlyn Marlowe."

"What?" Ashley questioned. "What? And why are you guys all red?" She hated being left out of the loop.

Lauren narrowed her eyes at Dev who stared back at her with devastating innocence. "No wonder your parents call you Devil."

Dev just wriggled her eyebrows.

Ashley put her hands on her hips and waited.

Lauren looked down at the girl. "Itís nothing you need to worry about, sweetheart." The blondeís gaze flicked back to Dev, and she glared at the grinning woman. "Your mom was just making a very private joke."

Lauren reached out and took Devís hand. "Címon, you; weíre leaving the kids with their agents for five minutes so I can buy you some ice cream." In a much lower but still teasing voice she added, "And keep you from traumatizing them with your wicked ways."

Dev felt herself being tugged away. She waved at Ashley, who had already hooked up with Amy and was heading towards the alligator exhibit. "Keep an eye on your brothers; weíll be back in a minute. Be good and donít give Amy any trouble."

The little girl threw her hands into the air. "Do I ever?!"

"Yes," Dev called over her shoulder. "Iíve got an FBI file on you an inch thick. Be good till we get back."

"Yes, maíam."

Once the women were a few feet away, Lauren eased up on their pace. She leaned closer to Dev and spoke quietly, concern coloring her tone. "Your speech was wonderful, Devlyn." She looked for a tactful segue, but in this instance there didnít seem to be one. Lauren let go of Devís hand and gently rubbed her back as they strolled along at a snailís pace. "You okay?"

The President nodded slowly. "Yeah, Iím fine. I just needed to get back out there and do it. Kind of like falling off a horse for the first time. You just have to get up and get back on before you lose your nerve." She smiled wryly. "Funny, when I was on tour after the bombings, being out there didnít bother me, but this, here at home, where it happened Ė this shook me up." Dev felt her guts begin to churn when she thought of the shooting, and she quickly pushed the thoughts away, focusing on the here and now. "I donít understand it, but I survived it, and thatís all that matters."

Unexpected tears pricked Laurenís eyes, and she felt her throat close.

"Hey." Dev stopped walking and wrapped her arms around the shorter womanís waist. "None of that, okay?" She tilted her head in entreaty. "Todayís supposed to be fun."

Lauren nodded and drew in a deep breath. "Youíre right. Iím sorry." She smiled weakly, and they resumed their trek.

"It helped having you here today. Keeping watch over me, were you, Mighty Mouse?"

Lauren laughed lightly. "You know it, Wonder Woman. Somebodyís got to keep you out of trouble."

Devís hand let go of Laurenís waist as they maneuvered around a popcorn stand and a large family. "Get any nice pictures?"

"Hmm. Absolutely. A bunch of the kids and several great ones of you. Not that just about any picture of you isnít great."

"Right," Dev snorted.

Lauren rolled her eyes at the suddenly bashful look that had overtaken Devís face. "Trust me, Devlyn. You and the camera are carrying on a love affair that should make me green with jealousy. Youíre gorgeous, and you damn well know it."

Devís mouth opened, but no sound came out.

Lauren laughed in earnest, retaking her loverís hand and twining their fingers together. She wanted to talk more about how Dev felt about the shooting. Dev needed that. But she also sensed that the President wasnít quite ready. She needed more time, and that was okay by Lauren. She could be patient when she had to be, and she had no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.

The women approached the front of a brightly-bannered concession stand that smelled so good Lauren was sure she had gained five pounds just by being within sniffing distance. Thank God we work out so much. There were no lines, and Lauren walked right up ahead of Dev, taking a spot at the counter. "Pick your poison, Madam President," she said brightly. "Iím buying."

Dev sighed happily. God, sheís wonderful. Iím keeping her. Taking a deep breath, she wrapped her arms around Lauren from behind, and rested her chin on the shorter womanís shoulder as she considered the menu. She pressed her lips against Laurenís ear and in a sexy purr said, "Fudgesicle."

Oooo... Lauren nearly swooned on the spot. She held her fingers up for the vendor, who was openly staring at his most famous customer. "Make that two."

 

 

Wednesday, October 13th

 

 

"She looks nervous." Dev elbowed David, who was perched next to her on the edge of her desk in the Oval Office. "Donít you think she looks nervous?"

David nodded. "Oh, yeah. Sheís nervous." The man winced. "And that was just the promo."

Lauren was about to be interviewed by the nationís number one, live, early morning talk show, Wake Up, America. It was a Ďfeel goodí program that eased millions of Americans into the day. The showís anchor, the irrepressible and ever-so-palatable-before-breakfast, Debbie Charles, was a personal friend of Devís, who had interviewed her several times over the years, first as Governor of Ohio, then as President-Elect. The woman was fair and likeable and knew how to stick to relevant topics, never letting her questions drift into areas that were too personal or gossip-laden.

Devís face grew pensive. "Lauren will be fine, right?" Her glance flicked sideways to David just as the promo for the show ended and a coffee commercial took its place. "I mean, sheís done tons of personal appearances to promote her biographies. She told me so herself. This is just like that."

"Were they televised?" David asked absently, wishing he had a big, jumbo mug for his coffee like the incredibly happy-looking man on television.

Dev chewed her lip as she thought. "Umm... now that I think of it, I guess they wouldnít have been. There was no tape included with her background check. If sheíd done TV it would have been there." Dev chastised herself for being so busy the last few days that she hadnít really bothered to find out how Lauren felt about the interview. "She seemed fine with it, right?" Other than the younger womanís mentioning it earlier in the week, during breakfast, the subject had never even come up.

"Well, she was a little reluctant to do it when she found out it was going to be televised nationally. Especially since it was live." David frowned, resigning himself to his own, now apparently inadequate, coffee mug. "But once I explained how good publicity that showed her in a professional, rather than personal, light would be Ė and how it would go a long way towards keeping the party dogs off your back about your relationship," he shrugged, "she didnít seem to have a problem with it."

Dev sprang to her feet, knocking a folder containing the dayís agenda to the floor in the process. "You said what?!"

David looked up in surprise. "What?" His eyes widened at the look on Devís face. "Itís the truth, Dev. Laurenís a big girl. She asked me if this would help you, and I said yes."

"I donít care if it is the truth." Devís gaze hardened. "I donít want you pressuring her."

"And I didnít!" David defended, slightly miffed.

Jane and Liza, who were sitting on a sofa that had been pulled over next to Devís desk so that they could have a better view of the television, both looked at each other knowingly. If David and Dev didnít have at least three good disagreements a day, the world as they knew it might come crashing to a halt.

The commercials ended, and the music for Wake Up, America started. Lauren and the showís co-host, a young, clean-cut man in a cable knit sweater, were now sitting in side-by-side chairs, chatting quietly over their morning coffee. "Jesus Christ." Dev pointed at the image. "Does that freakiní coffee company own the world or what?" She reached behind her, picking up her steaming mug of that exact brand and sighed with pleasure as both she and Lauren took sips simultaneously.

David narrowed his eyes enviously at Laurenís enormous, super-sized mug. I donít care if it is nothing more than mug envy. After the show, Iím calling Beth. Beth knew the proper store for everything and its exact location.

"Wow. She looks good on TV," Jane commented appreciatively. "I donít see that extra ten pounds people are always complaining about."

Liza squinted. "Me neither."

"Shhhhh!" Dev leaned forward eagerly.

The man sitting next to Lauren turned to the camera and smiled brightly, his blindingly white teeth fairly sparkling in contrast to his tanned skin. "And next, Traci Corbin will be filling in for Debbie Charles, who called in sick with... if you can believe it... the chickenpox! Our very special guest this morning is Lauren Strayer, biographer to the President."

Jaws dropped in the Oval Office.

"But first," the young man continued, "the weather." A large map of the United States appeared and Wake Up, Americaís much beloved weatherman materialized right along with it.

"David!" Dev growled, her entire body shaking.

"Iím on it!" Liza thrust a phone into the Chief of Staffís hand, and he frantically began calling to find out whose head was going to roll, and how they could stop this interview before the portly weatherman worked his way to California.

Lauren shifted uncomfortably in her chair, running a nervous hand through her hair the second the camera panned over to the weatherman.

Traci Corbin brushed past the showís male co-host, who was on his way for a makeup retouch before his interview with the Washington Redskinsí quarterback, which was going to take place in the next segment. She took the seat opposite the writer and extended her hand. "Iím Traci. Sorry I didnít get a chance to introduce myself earlier."

Lauren grasped the chilled palm and gave it a companionable squeeze. "Lauren Strayer. Itís a pleasure to meet you."

Traci looked slightly harried. "I just got the call they needed me to come in an hour ago, and I had to make a mad dash for the studio." The forty-something woman needed all the time in makeup she could get. "I made a few notes while they were fixing my hair." She smiled. "I hope you donít mind if my questions are a little rough."

The older womanís friendly demeanor instantly put Lauren at ease. "No... I ..." She blushed slightly and forced her hands to stop twitching. "Thatís fine. As long as you donít mind a slightly nervous guest. I donít really do TV interviews, so this will be something of a first."

Traci nodded and gave Laurenís arm a sympathetic squeeze. "Live TV is always a little nerve racking. But youíll do fine."

A man suddenly appeared a few feet in front of Lauren and Traci, but well off camera. He held up five fingers. Then four, three, two, one. Traci smiled. "Welcome back to Wake Up, America. Iím Traci Corbin, filling in for Debby, who is home sick today. With us this morning, we have Presidential biographer, Lauren Strayer." She turned to face Lauren. "Good morning."

"Morniní."

"Thatís quite a job you have, Ms. Strayer! Following around after President Marlowe. Is it as exciting as it sounds?"

Lauren smiled as just a little more of her nervousness floated away with the simple question. "Sure. Sometimes. The White House is a whirlwind of activity. Always. And sometimes itís just a lot of hard work. I spend most of my time experiencing what the President does throughout her day, and the rest of my time doing research and organizing what I learned, so that, in the end, Iíll be able to distill four years into a single book thatís an accurate portrait of President Marlowe."

"Interesting." Traci tapped her chin as though she were truly considering her next question. "So how do you produce an," her fingers fashioned quote marks in the air, and her eyes took on a slightly predatory gleam, "Ďaccurate portraití when youíre sleeping with your subject?"

Devís face dropped to her hands as she groaned. "Oh, my God."

The sounds of the Presidentís groans were nearly drowned by the other moans echoing around her.

Dev peeked between her fingers so she could continue to watch the interview. "Come on, Mighty Mouse; donít let that bitch fluster you. Youíre better than that, sweetheart."

Lauren blinked at the interviewer, momentarily stunned by the blunt question.

Traci stared back at Lauren and a tiny, almost imperceptible smile twitched at her lips. I just got my Associated Press quote. Fuck ĎWake Up Americaí! I want my own show. And Marlowe can kiss my ass.

Dev had denied Traciís repeated requests for a one-on-one interview. Traci had been persistent. Too persistent, actually. And sheíd gotten a little visit from the Secret Service, who not so politely asked her to tone it down or risk prosecution under DCís stalking laws and a host of other federal statutes enacted to protect the President. Theyíd even revoked her press credentials for a short while, placing her on a probationary status. Her! Traci Corbin!

"Ms. Strayer?" Tracey reminded, absolutely loving the long seconds of stunned silence that were ticking away.

For a split second Lauren was confused. Sheíd been promised this interview would be about her work, and wouldnít venture into private matters like who she slept with. Then she caught a glimpse of the look on Traciís face. Her eyes narrowed at the sight as a flash of understanding passed between the women.

Dev paled. "Uh oh. Sheís pissed."

David finished yelling into his phone. He furiously snapped the cover closed and threw it to the floor at his feet. Stomping it. Twice. "Wake Up, America claims they didnít know that her press credentials had been pulled earlier this year. Apparently, the showís other correspondents refused to do the interview with Lauren. They didnít want to look unprepared. The show has used Traci in the past, and she was the best they could do on an hourís notice." He glared at his phone as though this were all its fault. He stomped on it again.

Lauren shifted in her chair, meeting Traciís gaze directly. "Thatís a good question, Ms. Corbin. And, to be truthful, I donít think I can be totally objective."

Traci smiled triumphantly. "You donít?"

Dev, David, Liza, and Jane all grimaced.

"No. But then again, no writer is one hundred percent objective, is he?" Lauren picked up the gauntlet and ran with it. "Everyone brings his own life experiences to bear on what she writes, despite the best intentions. Weíre only human, after all." Unlike the members of certain professions! Lauren began to warm to her topic. "I think the keys to being as accurate and honest as possible are good editorial support, meticulous research, and a heartfelt commitment to serve your readers."

Traciís smile began to slip.

"You can still maintain those things no matter what your relationship is with your subject," Lauren drew out the last word with evident distaste. Not that she hadnít used it herself in the past. She had. But she was sure sheíd never said it in a way that conveyed that the people she wrote about were laboratory rats... to be dissected. Lauren grinned sweetly. "Did that answer your question, Ms. Corbin?" she asked innocently, knowing full well sheíd just rained on the interviewerís parade. Bitch.

"Thatís my girl!" Dev shouted gleefully.

"Go get her, Mighty Mouse! Ask about her boob job and nose jobs!"

All three women stared at David.

"What?" he complained. "Iím Chief of Staff. I know things!"

Traci glanced down at her notes. "Um... yes, actually, it does." She looked up and smiled at the camera.

Dev shivered.

"Ah... yes. Now, Lauren-"

Lauren bit her lip to keep from asking ĎWho in the hell said you could call me by my first name?í Instead, she tried to look interested, wondering how long a three-minute interview could possibly last.

"President Marlowe is the first female President."

Lauren nodded, fighting hard not to roll her eyes. And you said you didnít have time to do research.

"Sheís also a very attractive woman, wouldnít you agree?"

Laurenís eyebrow twitched. "Anyone with eyes would agree, Traci."

"They sure would! Can you tell America what President Marlowe thinks about being named the worldís most eligible woman?"

The temperature in the studio dropped ten degrees. What? She is not eligible, and you know it! "Iím not sure what Devlyn thinks about that." Laurenís hands shaped into fists, though her face remained impassive.

"Donít take the bait, Lauren," Dev said to the image in front of her. "Iím not eligible!"

Jane nodded. "Off the market."

"Totally taken," Liza agreed fervently.

Lauren leaned forward in her chair, looking at the magazine Traci had suddenly thrust in front of her. Dev was pictured on the cover with her arm wrapped around Hollywoodís newest starlet, Takesha Vasquez. It was clear that the picture was doctored and merely intended to show how good the two women looked together. Which, Lauren admitted reluctantly, they did. "This is total and utter crap," she announced crisply, tossing the magazine down on a small table that sat between her and Traci.

Devís eyes widened, and she sucked in a nervous breath. "Donít kill her on live TV."

"I could fix that," David stated confidently.

Everyone in America waited for Lauren to blow a gasket. Instead, she smiled charmingly and said in a soft, southern accent, "I happen to know that President Marlowe prefers blondes."

Several members of Wake Up, Americaís crew chuckled. And Traci joined in reluctantly.

Off camera, a man held up his hand and began counting down on his fingers.

Traci dutifully read the teleprompter. "Thank you, Lauren. Join us in our next segment where America gets to wake up and meet Redskins star quarterback, Elvis Simpson."

On the television in the Oval Office a commercial replaced Traci and Laurenís images. Dev turned to David. "She did okay, right?" No bloodshed. Yet. Iíd be running if I were you, Ms. Corbin.

"Oh, yeah, very professional." Thank you, God! "She was wonderful. And she only looked like she was going to hit Traci for a minute there."

"Too bad sheíll never hear those compliments, pal," Dev said wryly.

Liza and Jane turned sympathetic glances towards David.

The red-haired man frowned, but took the implication seriously. "Sheís going to kill me, isnít she?"

Dev nodded and slapped her best friend hard between the shoulder blades. "I regret that you have but one life to give for your country... and that my girlfriend is going to snuff it out when she gets home."

 

* * *

 

Traci marched off the set in a huff, upset she hadnít gotten more of a reaction out of Lauren. What could have been a lead story on the news had been reduced to a meaningless sound bite that wasnít sensational in the least. She stopped dead in her tracks at the sound of a hard voice coming from behind her.

"That wasnít very nice." Lauren stood three paces behind the slender, older woman, her facial muscles twitching with the force of her pent up anger and frustration. Sheíd taken enough shit from the Press over the past ten months. But now... now there was finally a face attached to that malicious, big mouth.

Slowly, Traci turned to face the woman behind her. "Iím a news correspondent, Ms. Strayer. Iím paid to get a story, not to be Ďniceí. If I wanted to be Ďniceí, Iíd write biographies for a living."

Lauren took another menacing step forward. "I donít think you were trying to get a story at all. You were trying to get a reaction." And you almost did. "Those were nothing more than cheap shots. And something Iíd expect more from the tabloids than a supposed Ďnews correspondentí." Another step forward. "It takes skill and talent to write for a living, Ms. Corbin. Donít kid yourself. Your obvious inadequacies are the reason you canít do it."

"Oooo, ouch!" The reporter gave Lauren a less than sincere smile. "I can die happy now. The Presidentís girlfriend has told me off. Are you finished having your little tantrum, Ms. Strayer? Because Iím going home. Besides, Iím sure youíre due back at the White House to do a little Chief Executive back scratching."

Laurenís face turned an angry shade of purple. She calmly slid off her glasses and tucked them safely into the pocket of her jacket. "Oh, thereís going to be scratching." The writerís eyes glittered with rage. "But I was thinking more along the lines of bloody streaks down your face." Lauren smiled a cold smile, enjoying the look of shock and poorly masked concern on Traci Corbinís face. "Though Iíll be sure to give Devlyn your regards tonight."

"Hi, Lauren!" A nervous and very familiar voice interrupted their conversation.

Lauren didnít even turn her head; she just continued to burn holes through a wide-eyed Traci with her withering glare.

Oh, shit. David was right. Thank God I was so close to the studio. Davidís frantic call had reached his wife when she was only two blocks away from the studio and on her way to a downtown meeting. She could be there more quickly than anyone else, and by the tone of Davidís voice she knew she needed to hurry. Beth rushed forward and stepped into the small space that remained between the women. "Hi, Iím Beth McMillian." She reached out and took Traciís hand, shaking it vigorously. "And if I were you, Iíd leave now, before my friend Lauren claws your eyes out, and my husband has to find a place to hide your worthless," her gaze dropped to Traciís chest, "silicon-filled body."

"Oh, the cavalry!" Traci leaned in and stage-whispered to Beth, her bravado returning now that it appeared she wasnít about to be pounded within an inch of her life. "And just in time too. I would hate to have broken blondieís nose." She took a deep breath and looked over Bethís shoulder at Lauren. "Give the President my best, wonít you?" Traci smirked.

Lauren finally snapped and lunged forward, but Beth turned around more quickly than anyone would have thought possible for a basically sedentary history professor. She used her greater weight to hold Lauren back by the shoulders. The younger woman looked as though she was going to spontaneously combust if she didnít kill someone.

"Let. Me. GO!" The writer watched angrily as Tracy took this as her cue to leave.

"Lauren, donít do it," Beth soothed. "The legitimate media will tear you and Dev apart. Take a deep breath and think of Dev and the kids." She could see her words having an immediate effect. "Thatís it. Sheís not worth it."

Lauren blew out an unhappy breath and tried to calm herself. "Bitch," she seethed in a whisper, feeling hot tears spring to her eyes. "Itís always something. Theyíre always lurking and lying and distorting. And they never stop, even when you try to play their game!"

"No, they donít." Beth sighed, glad that when Lauren finally had this meltdown she was away from the White House. Beth had seen it building over the past few weeks as Devís popularity began to slip further in the polls. In addition to the furor over the bombings and subsequent FBI raid, Devís own party, along with the Republicans and several conservative Democrats, had begun to question the Presidentís morals. After all, she was shacked up with her girlfriend in what was considered by most people to be a public residence. "If you intend to have any kind of a relationship with Dev, youíre going to have to learn to ignore most of this."

"Easier said than done," Lauren admitted. She brought shaking hands to her eyes to wipe the tears away, then to her temples, where she was developing a horrendous headache. God, what is wrong with me? She let out a ragged breath, more upset by her lack of control than Traci Corbin. "Youíre right, Beth. Letís go." The two women began walking towards the exit. "Iím not even going to ask why or how in the hell you got here not thirty seconds after that joke of an interview ended."

Beth laughed. "My loving hubby called me on my cell phone." She shrugged. "I just happened to be nearby. He told me that if I didnít get over to this studio A.S.A.P. he was never coming home again because heíd be busy trying to explain how a simple interview turned into a homicide."

Lauren nodded. "David is a smart man. Too bad he has to die for talking me into this." A small grin edged onto Laurenís face. "He knows the early morning hours are when Iím most likely to commit murder."

Beth chuckled, linking her arm through Laurenís. "I suggest we let him live and just torture him for the rest of our natural lives. Itís far more fun that way. Never let them see you sweat and never let them forget it when they do something stupid. Now, how about I buy you breakfast?"

Lauren laid a hand on her churning belly. Sheíd been too nervous to eat anything and had already been up for nearly four hours. "Will there be alcohol?"

"Absolutely. Nothing wrong with a Bloody Mary at," Beth glanced at her watch, "7:30 A.M."

"Mmm hmm... or Mimosas."

"Or Screwdrivers."

"Or beer," they both said together, bursting into unexpected laughter as the tension surrounding them plummeted. They pushed through the front doors of the building and were hit with a blast of moist air.

Beth suddenly stopped walking and stared out at the street lined with cars and rain puddles. "Uh... youíre going to have to drive."

"Sure." Lauren shrugged, her eyes tracking Bethís gaze. "What are you looking at?"

"The empty space on the road behind that car in the handicapped spot." Her shoulders slumped. "Where my car used to be."

"Oh." Lauren grimaced and wrapped her arm around Bethís shoulders, steering her towards her own car. "Sorry." Her brows drew together as she thought. She glanced at her friend as they stepped down off the curb. "Do you think Dev could have Traci Corbin deported?"

Beth laughed. "Iím sure Davidís looking into it as we speak."

 

 

Friday, October 15th

 

 

"Gentlemen." Dev leaned back in her chair, allowing her gaze to sweep over every Emancipation Party member present. She closed her eyes briefly in a silent bid for control. "I donít give a good God damn what you think on this issue. This is my private life youíre prying into!"

Party Chairman Bruce Jordon loosened his necktie with thick fingers. He was only a few years older than Dev, but had silver hair and a deeply creased, hangdog face. "No offense, Madam President, but when the Party agreed to hire Lauren Strayer to write your biography, we didnít realize that youíd be getting into a..." he momentarily fumbled over his words, torn between what he wanted to say and what was appropriate. "AhemÖ WeÖ ahÖ we never seriously contemplated a physical relationship between the two of you."

"Good." Dev crossed her arms over her chest. " Because neither did I." She looked at David, but he just shrugged. Dev was on her own here. This had to come directly from the Presidentís mouth. Thanks a lot, buddy. Dev refocused on Party Chairman Jordon. "What happened between Lauren and me happened just like it would have for any other couple. Over a period of months, by working together and helping each other through some rough spots, we developed a close friendship which, in turn, blossomed into love."

She stopped and drew a deep breath, resenting the hell out of every second of this. She pointed directly at the main source of her antagonism. "It wasnít you, Bruce, in the hospital holding my hand after I got shot. And I donít recall your being the one to go in and help soothe my childrenís fears when they thought their mother might die." Dev wanted to shout at the top of her lungs that she didnít have to justify her actions to the Party or any other bastard on earth. But that wasnít totally true, and she knew it.

"DevÖ" The man sat up a little straighter in his chair. "Look, you know I have a great deal of respect for you. I have no problem with your... lifestyle. What I do have a problem with is that National News Magazine is about to release a nearly twenty page cover story about you and Lauren. Theyíve got pictures of the two of you out together."

"Yeah, well since weíve been out together in public, Iím sure they do. What is the real problem here?!"

Chairman Jordon slammed his palms against the table, the resulting bang causing nearly everyone in the room to jump. Dev didnít move a muscle. "Donít screw around with me, Dev. You know damned well that you got elected by being honest about your sexuality, but not by rubbing peopleís noses in it. Samantha-"

Devís face turned to stone, her voice dropping to a dangerous level. "Donít you dare bring her into this. Not one God damned word about her!" she boomed.

Mentioning Samís name was taboo, and the Party knew it. After her death, theyíd wanted to exploit public sympathy for Governor Marlowe, and theyíd nearly lost Dev because of it. If it hadnít been for Davidís cooler head, Dev would have broken with the Emancipation Party then and there. Since then, however, theyíd always been able to work through their differences. Until now.

Bruce Jordon threw his hands in the air and let out a disgusted grunt. "Not this time." He jutted his jaw defiantly. "Iím not catering to your ego for one more second! Weíve got problems that wonít go away by ignoring them. Half of Washington is calling your morality into question. Theyíve got big problems with the fact that sheís living in the White House, under the same roof with you and your children, while youíre carrying on an affair with her. They believe that your children are being exposed to something less than moral. And that by continuing to pay her, the Emancipation Party is encouraging this amoral behavior."

"And the Party would rather not be subjected to that kind of publicity?"

"Exactly."

"Yet the party doesnít have a problem when some half-assed gossip magazine calls me ĎThe Worldís Most Eligible Womaní?"

Mr. Jordon looked confused. "Dev, thatís true." And it was good publicity. There is a difference.

"Like hell it is. One, Iím not eligible. Two, the article in National News Magazine is accurate. I saw a copy of it last week, and I have no problem with it. Three, if people want to talk about my morality letís discuss the fact that before Lauren, I spent the last four years alone. Itís all well and good that then I wasnít Ďrubbing the publicís noseí in anything," Dev sneered. "But I had no one in my life. No one. I served my term as governor, and then ran for President, by myself." She enunciated her last two words with excruciating precision, letting everyone know just how she felt about that time. "For Godís sake, Bruce, youíve been with Olga for over twenty years, and now youíve got the nerve to criticize me for finding someone who makes me happy?"

"Itís not the same thing."

"Bullshit. Iím in love with a woman who loves me and adores my children and suddenly Iím immoral? I feel like Iím going backwards in my life! Doesnít make sense."

"If you were married to her it would be different." Chairman Jordon shifted in his seat. "But this living together-"

"Wrong!" Dev sprang to her feet. "You seem to be conveniently forgetting that same sex marriages still arenít legal in almost half the states! Weíve made strides, yes. ButÖ"

"But!" The Chairman jumped up, joining Dev. "It is legal in your home state." He squared his shoulders and sucked in his stomach, throwing his chest out in the process. "Or is she just a distraction and a quick roll in the sack that you have no intention of getting serious about? Because if she is-"

"You son of a bitch!" Dev turned on the man and advanced, her hand curling into a tight fist.

David was between them in an instant. What is it with Dev and Lauren this month?! Time for another vacation! "Donít do it. Itís not worth it." He held his hand firmly against Devís chest and his eyes met hers. "You and I both know youíre in love with Lauren. Heís just pissed and scared." He lowered his voice and pleaded with his friend, knowing he couldnít stop her if she really had a mind to punch Bruce. "Donít let him get to you."

David looked over his shoulder. "Mr. Chairman, I think it would be in your best interest to leave right now. We can continue this at a later time when heads are cooler and the facts are clearer. Let us run some numbers-"

"Screw the numbers, David! I will not let a damned poll tell me who Iím allowed to love and who Iím allowed to invite into my home." Dev pushed against his hand, still trying to get closer to Chairman Jordon as the rest of the party leaders quickly shuffled out of Devís office.

David and Dev were left alone to look over the scattered coffee cups and meeting agendas that were left on the table when the Party members fled the room. Each of them took a chair and sat quietly, wondering how the hell things went so wrong so fast.

 

 

Saturday, October 16th

 

 

"This last one is from me." Christopher thrust a package into his sisterís hands. "Happy birthday, Ash."

"Thanks, Chris." Ashley grabbed the box and tore open the paper. "Wow! Scientist Barbie with her laboratory! Thanks, Chris!"

The little boy smiled brightly and adjusted his glasses. "Youíre welcome." He leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, very aware that Lauren, his mom, and Emma were listening. "Can me and Aaron play too? Even though itís a girl toy. We can blow up the laboratory and kidnap Barbie!"

Ashley was about to tell her brother to keep dreaming when she got a warning glare from Dev. She relented with a tiny huff. "Sure, Chris. Címon." Ashley picked up the disk containing the Nancy Drew Mysteries that Lauren had given her, the tickets to The Nutcracker that were from her mom, the sweatshirt from Emma, and the glow-in-the-dark necklace from Aaron. She turned to follow her brothers, who had already run from the room, when Devís voice caused her to turn back.

"Arenít you forgetting something?" Dev reminded gently. Ashley had already politely thanked Lauren and Emma. But it never hurt to say it again.

"Thank you, Lauren and Emma," the girl dutifully repeated. Then a genuine smile creased her cheeks. "I love my stories and sweatshirt. Iím going to show my friends at school!"

Lauren chuckled. "Iím glad you like it, Ashley. I was just your age when I started reading those. Only I used the actual books."

Ashley made a face. "Wow. Youíre really old."

Dev and Emma dissolved into laughter.

"Gee, thanks, kid." Gray eyes twinkled.

"Youíre welcome," Ashley answered sincerely as she ran for the door.

Dev called out another ĎHappy birthdayí to her eldest, and Ashley skidded to a halt. She ran back to her mother and hugged her fiercely. "Happy birthday to you too, Mom. Itís so cool to share a birthday. Are we really going to go to the ballet Ė just the two of us?"

Devlyn closed her eyes and squeezed her tightly, feeling a nearly crushing guilt over the lack of quality time she could lavish on each child individually. "I promise, Moppet. Just you and me. A special afternoon for the two of us." Dev felt her chest constrict and decided if she didnít think about something different, and fast, she was going to cry. "How does it feel to be so big? Eight years old!" She sighed wistfully. "I can hardly believe it."

Ashley beamed. "Itís great! Bye." And this time when she ran out of the room, she didnít turn back.

"Well, now, Devlyn," Emma said, "I think Iím going to retire for the evening and call my son, Tommy." The matronly woman smiled tiredly. "Itís been a busy day." And it had. Ashley had had several girls from her class spend the afternoon at the White House, and then had another smaller family party that was just wrapping up.

"You do that, Emma. And thank you so much for everything." Dev smiled wryly. "I donít pay you nearly enough."

Emma snorted. "Isnít that the truth?" She began padding slowly towards the door. "Night, ladies."

"Night, Emma," Lauren and Dev called back.

"Wow." Lauren shook her head in admiration. "She did a great job this afternoon. I could barely hear all those screaming second graders from my room today. With my door shut. And my headphones on. And my head buried in a pillow."

Dev rolled her eyes. "Wimp."

"True," Lauren chuckled. She liked her quiet time, and life at the White House certainly was never that. At least not with the Marlowes in residence. "So..." Lauren sidled up to Dev and molded her body to the Presidentís lean, lanky form. She dropped a kiss on Devís throat. "What does the big birthday girl want today?"

Dev growled as she captured Laurenís lips in a passionate kiss. When she heard the younger woman moan softly, she deepened the kiss, reveling in the taste and scent of her partner. When she pulled away, Lauren looked a little dazed as she slowly licked her lips. "Does that give you a hint?"

Lauren swallowed. "Uh huh." She grabbed Devís hand and began leading her out of the living room. "Weíre going to my place. And Iím not letting you out until morning."

Dev was willingly led along as far as her front door. Then she pulled Lauren to a stop.

"What?" Lauren asked in exasperation. "Iíve been waiting my turn all day!"

Dev smiled. "I know, sweetheart. But couldnít you just stay here? What if the kids need something, or David could-"

"Nope. Itís all arranged." She tugged hard on Devís hand, nearly taking her right off her feet.

"But-"

"God." Lauren rolled her eyes, laughing when Dev didnít get a chance to close the door behind her before she was dragged out into the hall. "Emma knows. David knows. And probably the entire Service knows that Iím having," she unceremoniously pushed open her door and ushered Dev inside, "a sleepover tonight."

"Is that what you told them?" Dev chuckled, scanning the floor for Princess and Gremlin. She was always wary of surprise attacks. And since coming to the White House, Princess had taken on Gremlinís decidedly unpleasant disposition. Well, unpleasant to Dev. Everyone else, except for Michael Oaks, who Dev suspected hated Santa Claus and his own mother, seemed to adore both dogs.

"Yup. Thatís exactly what I told them." Lauren finally stopped her march when she stood in front of her couch. She lifted Devís hand and kissed it softly. "Sit. Itís time for me to give you my present now."

"Heh." A lecherous grin raced across Devís face. "Do I get to unwrap it?" She reached out and slipped her hands under Laurenís University of Tennessee sweatshirt, resting her palms against a warm, firm belly.

Lauren smacked Devís hands away and pushed her down onto the sofa, pausing to kiss her soundly. "Yes, you do. But not till later."

Dev threw out her lower lip, and Lauren couldnít help but laugh. "Sit tight for one second so I can get your present, okay?"

Dev nodded indulgently. "Yes, maíam."

"Thank you." Lauren patted Devís shoulder as she disappeared behind the President and headed for her desk. She retrieved an envelope from its shiny surface, surprised by her own nervousness. Relax. This was a good idea. She wonít think itís stupid. Lauren winced inwardly. I hope.

The blonde woman dropped down on the couch next to Dev, sitting Indian style.

Devís gaze drifted to Laurenís hands. She waited a few more seconds before her curiosity got the better of her. "Arenít you going to give it to me?" she prompted.

"Uh... of course I am." Lauren shook her head in dismay, suddenly wishing sheíd gotten Dev a more traditional gift. But knowing it was too late now, she screwed up her courage and slowly passed over the thick envelope. "Happy birthday, Devlyn."

Dev smiled brightly. "Thanks." With a gleam in her eyes she tore it open, blinking at what appeared to be a contract from Starlight Publishing. She glanced up in question at Lauren, who simply gestured back to the papers.

"Read it. You went to Harvard." The writerís eyes twinkled. "I know you can understand a simple contract between Lauren Gallagher and her unnamed co-author. The co-author for her next Adrienne Nash novel."

"I..." Devís face grew pensive. "I donít understand."

"I know how much you enjoy my Adrienne Nash novels. I thought you might like to help me with the next one." She worried the inside of her cheek. "I start planning the next when Iím about three-fourths finished with the one Iím working on." Lauren shrugged one shoulder. "Thatís where I am now. The contract is a 50/50 royalty with me and my yet to be named co-author. Nobody ever has to know about it but you, me, and the IRS." She grinned.

Blue eyes widened. "You want me to work on your book?" Dev whispered.

Lauren nodded slowly, not sure how to take Devís reaction. "Only if you want to," she clarified quickly. "IÖ IÖ oh, crap. Itís a stupid idea, right? I should have gotten you a sweater or something. I mean, youíre only the busiest person on earth, and thereís no way youíd-" Her words were cut off by an incendiary kiss, the force of which nearly sent her off the other end of the sofa.

"Itís great," Dev muttered against Laurenís lips. "Next to Ash coming on my birthday, itís the best birthday gift anyoneís ever given me. Itís another wonderful reason to spend time with you." Dev paused to slowly draw her tongue along Laurenís top, then bottom lip, earning a deep growl from her lover that sent shivers down her spine. "Even though being crazy in love with you is more than enough reason for me." She pulled the rumpled contract from between their bodies and dropped it to the floor, moaning softly as Laurenís hands slid under her shirt and around to her back, where they began teasing the sensitive skin between her shoulder blades. "Lauren?"

The writer was quickly getting lost in a sensual haze, which caused Devís muttered words to roll right over her. She pulled Dev closer, moaning as her fingers threaded into soft, dark hair, and she felt Devís entire body came to rest solidly atop her.

"Lauren?"

"Mmm?" she breathed faintly.

"Can I unwrap my other present now?"

"Oh, yeah." Laurenís eyes slid shut as her shirt was nudged over her breasts, then head. "God, I love your birthday."

Chapter 11

Back to the Academy