Madam President

Madam President

Chapter XI

November 2021

 

 

Thursday, November 4th

 

 

"What in blazes is taking so long?" Dev complained.

"Donít worry so much. Whatever happens, weíll be fine." Right?

"But-"

"Darliní, itís only been thirty minutes," Lauren reminded as she crossed, then uncrossed, then crossed her legs again.

"I can see that youíre not worried."

"Very funny."

The two women were sitting in side-by-side, wingback chairs, clutching throw pillows that had large, gold, Presidential seals embroidered on their centers. They were in one of Devís sitting rooms, the Treaty Room, waiting anxiously to find out whether, by the end of the day, Lauren would no longer be the Presidentís biographer.

Things had come to a head last month when the Emancipation Party officially called for Laurenís resignation. Privately, Dev had been told that if her girlfriend didnít resign by Thanksgiving, Lauren would be fired outright. Devís response, which was that if Lauren were fired she would break with the Ďbastardsí for good, could be heard at the opposite end of the White House. It had been a shout fest of epic proportions that even David couldnít smooth over.

Wayne and two lawyers from Starlight Publishing had arrived in D.C. yesterday. They were now in a meeting with Party Chairman Jordon, the Partyís lawyer, and David, who, with great difficulty, had convinced Dev and Lauren to wait in the Treaty Room and leave the negotiating to the lawyers.

"You know," Dev began, pitching the pillow across the room and jumping to her feet, "they canít make you leave. They canít!"

Lauren exhaled wearily. "Devlyn, think about this for a moment. My credibility has taken a serious hit. They have a right to be upset. No matter what now, theyíre not going to get the biography they paid for."

"Bullshit! But you can still stay here, whether youíre doing the book or not."

Lauren tightened her grip on her pillow, her soul aching. "I donít think that would be such a good idea," she said so softly that Dev barely heard her.

"What?" Dev marched back to Lauren and dropped to her knees in front of the younger womanís chair. She felt a surge of panic tear through her. "WhatÖ what did you say?" No! I did not hear that. I didnít!

The look in Devís eyes sent a stabbing sensation straight to Laurenís heart, and she found her mouth refusing to repeat the words. "This is hurting you," Lauren finally whispered, fighting back tears. "The polls-"

Dev rested her palms on Laurenís knees, a determined glint in her eyes. "I donít give a damn about the polls! This is still my home, Lauren. I wonít be told who can stay with me and who canít. I love you, and I donít want you to go anywhere."

"I love you too," Lauren insisted. "But if my staying here is ruining your career, then I should leave." It was the last thing she wanted to do, but sheíd be dammed if she would take Devlyn down with her.

"Polls go up and down. Iím higher in the numbers than I was last month, and things are already looking better. It was the bombings that really hurt me in the public eye, sweetheart. Not you. And despite the Partyís complaints to the contrary, most people couldnít care less who Iím in love with and where she lives. This is just the bastard conservative wing flexing its muscles. And the head bastard, Bruce Jordon, is posturing and trying to gain a better foothold for himself within the Party. If they can get me to ask you to leave the White House, it will be a great show of strength. If I refuse, then theyíll just wave their Ďsuperior moralsí in Americaís face and blame every ill in government on our relationship. This is the ugly side of politics, Lauren."

"Thereís an attractive side?" A small smile began to twitch at Laurenís lips.

Dev shook her head in amused exasperation. "Iím sort of partial to the power, doing things to help mankind, shape the futureÖ" She shrugged. "Little things like that."

"You would be, Wonder Woman."

Dev relaxed a little. Lauren was teasing her. That was a good sign. "For some reason I canít fathom, they canít seem to get it through their thick skulls that I would never ask you to leave. Never."

Lauren opened her mouth to speak, but Dev pressed two fingers against her lips to forestall her words. She needed to clear this up once and for all. Because she, for one, knew she could never live with the doubt. With her free hand, Dev gently fingered the ends of pale hair that barely brushed Laurenís shoulders. "Do you want to leave?"

Lauren shook her head vigorously.

Thank you, God. "Are you happy living with us here?"

There was a secondís hesitation, while the events of the past year raced through Laurenís mind like wildfire. The battles with the Press. Devís shooting. The loss of a great deal of her personal freedom. Never being truly alone, but never being lonely. Dealing with idiots like Michael Oaks. The increased responsibility and fear that came along with loving Dev and her children. She quickly nodded. Lauren had never been happier.

Dev let out a shuddering breath and licked dry lips. A single second had never seemed so long. "Okay, then," she muttered. "Good." The President drew back her fingers and kissed Lauren gently on the lips. "Then no matter what happens with the job, youíll stay, right?" Her eyebrows lifted in entreaty. "Promise?"

Lauren smiled, giving in to what she really wanted in the first place. She had faith that Dev would be able to fend off the political attacks that her presence here would bring. And with her next breath, Lauren reached out and grabbed onto the life that Dev was offering. "I promise. Theyíll have to bomb me out."

Devís heart started beating again. "Itís about time you gave up on that selfless crap and got with the program, Mighty Mouse."

They both laughed, but the sound died quickly when there was a knock at the door; David opened it and poked his head inside. "Ready?"

Dev pushed herself off Laurenís knees and stood, offering her hand to her lover. When they were both on their feet, Dev nodded to him and David opened the door, allowing the small group of men and women to file into the Treaty Room.

Lauren held her breath as her eyes darted to Wayne. He gave her a smug smile, and she almost ended up in a heap on the floor from the sudden release of tension.

David was the first person to speak. "Madam President, I think weíve come up with a solution that we can all live with."

Dev crossed her arms over her chest and glared at Bruce Jordon. "Is she fired?" She casually draped an arm over Laurenís shoulders and pulled her close, raising an eyebrow in challenge.

The silver-haired man crossed his own arms and jutted out his chin. "One way or the other, Ms. Strayer will no longer be employed by the Emancipation Party." His defiance was obvious, and Dev felt her temper begin to flare.

The President lifted her arm from Laurenís shoulders and took a step towards Chairman Jordon. Her hands twitched, wanting to form fists. "You mother-"

But David slapped her on the back Ė hard Ė causing her to cough and sputter, and cutting off Devís snarl mid-sentence. "You really ought to see to that cough, Madam President."

Dev turned murderous eyes on her best friend.

David cleared his throat, figuring heíd better get to the heart of the matter before Dev had a stroke or killed him. Or both. "As I was about to say, this is the arrangement that, with Ms. Strayerís consent, weíll implement immediately. Lawyers from the Party, as well as Starlight Publishing, agree that, should the matter go to trial, there is a reasonable likelihood that Laurenís romantic relationship with you, Madam President, materially alters her ability to perform in a manner that is consistent with the terms and reasonable expectations of her contract. In other words, she may be found to be in breach. Though, at this point, all parties concerned want to avoid litigation."

Lauren threw up her hands and rolled her eyes.

"What in the hell does that mean?!" Dev roared. "Speak English, not lawyer."

David pursed his lips. "Hereís the deal, Madam President." But he glanced at Lauren as well. "Starlight Publishing has offered to buy out the remainder of Laurenís contract with the Emancipation Party. In addition to taking over her salary for the next three years, they will compensate the Party for the salary sheís already been paid over this past year. Starlight will also pay a reasonable fee for the biographical information Ms. Strayer gathered while working for the party."

"If you can call two million dollars reasonable," Wayne snorted.

David ignored him. "In return, Ms. Strayer will deliver a biography as planned. However, she will be under the direct employ of Starlight Publishing, who will receive all profits."

Lauren finally joined the fray. "So, I can continue to do my job, write the book, live here, and the only thing that changes for me is that I report to Starlight and sever any ties with the Emancipation party?"

Wayne winked at Lauren. "Thatís the deal, sweetheart. You can thank me later."

"Where do I sign?"

There was a knock on the door.

"Madam President, I have the contract that Chief of Staff McMillian requested," Liza called from the outer office.

"Come in, Liza, and thank you," David answered as the Presidentís tall assistant brushed past the attorneys and Wayne and presented David with three copies of the contract theyíd just negotiated.

Wayne handed Lauren a pen. "I think this is where you sign."

Starlight Publishing and the Emancipation Partyís attorneys each took a moment to give the document a quick once over before their solemn nods declared that it was, indeed, an accurate reflection of the deal theyíd struck.

Bruce Jordon signed first, then Wayne, and finally Lauren, who launched herself at Wayne and gave the flustered man a firm kiss on the mouth for his efforts. When he figured out what was happening, he pulled Lauren into an affectionate hug, laughing when she squeezed him so hard he could barely breathe. "Thank you, Wayne," she whispered in the stocky manís ear. "You donít know how much this means to me."

"You donít have to thank me, sweetheart. A bestseller will be thanks enough."

Lauren laughed then gave David a hug as well. "I know this was mostly your doing, David," she said softly, her face and voice conveying her true gratitude.

Davidís already ruddy skin took on a darker shade of red. He shrugged lightly. "Just doing my job." But his warm brown eyes glittered with pride over a job well done.

Lauren raised an eyebrow. "Uh huh."

"What about my hug?" Dev griped playfully. "Iím last on the list?"

Lauren grabbed the Presidentís hand. "You rate a full-blown celebration, Madam President. Liza," she said, never breaking eye contact with Dev, "how long until the Presidentís next appointment?"

"Twenty three, nearly twenty four minutes," Liza answered without hesitation, causing Wayne to raise both eyebrows. The woman was a human organizer and alarm clock all rolled into one. He wondered whether she was single.

"Good." Lauren smiled at Dev. "Would you like to take a walk with me?"

Devís face instantly mirrored the happy grin. This was turning out to be a great day. "Lead the way."

Lauren and Dev padded slowly to the door, hand in hand. The writer opened it for Dev, who was just about to walk through when she felt Lauren let go of her hand.

Lauren spun around and stomped back to face Bruce Jordon.

"Mr. Jordon," Lauren squared her shoulders, "you are an asshole of the highest order. And it will be my supreme pleasure to let America know that fact in Starlight Publishingís biography of the President." She smiled insincerely and spoke in her sweetest southern drawl. "Have a nice day."

And with that, Lauren marched past Devlyn and out the door.

Dev looked back to the Party Chairman with a smirk so perfect David wished he had a camera to capture it. "What she said."

Then she ran to catch up with Lauren, who was already half way down the hall.

 

Sunday, November 7th

 

 

"Címon, Daddy. Pick up the phone. Youíre always home after dinner." Lauren punched the speaker phone and video functions and waited, hoping tonight would be the night he would answer. Sheíd dutifully called her father once a month since her motherís death, just as she had since leaving home thirteen years ago. Only, since Anna Strayerís suicide, Laurenís father was suddenly never home when she called.

The generally stolid, retired plumber had told his daughter in no uncertain terms that when she chose to go back to Washington, D.C., after Devís shooting, and while Anna was still in the hospital, she was choosing Dev over her own mother.

Lauren hadnít disagreed with her father. Though the circumstances werenít quite the way he had made them sound, Lauren knew in her heart that if there were a real contest, she would always choose Devlyn.

His attitude had softened immediately following his wifeís death, however, and when Lauren came home for the funeral, he welcomed her with open arms. But it only took hours for bad feelings to rear their ugly heads again, and for Howard to assign blame for his loss to Lauren. If sheíd only stayed to help. The stress of reading about her daughter having an affair with the President was simply more than the fragile woman could be expected to take. If sheíd only sent Anna to different doctorsÖ The list went on and on, and Lauren found that she couldnít leave Tennessee fast enough.

But that was four months ago, and though theyíd never been close, sheíd never gone this long with no contact at all. While she was quite certain that sheíd never have the kind of relationship with her father that Dev had with Janet and Frank Marlowe, she still loved him and wanted to know that he was okay.

Lauren was about to give the verbal command for her phone to hang up when her father picked up. A flashing green light on Laurenís phone let her know that there was no image available. She remembered that her father had always hated that part of the phone and only allowed a visual link to please her mother. Now that her mother was gone, he must have disabled everything except for the simple voice transmission.

"Hello."

"Daddy?"

Click.

Lauren blinked at the sound of the buzzing dial tone. "Oh, that went well. Guess you figured out how to turn off the caller ID. Still mad at me, by any chance?" she muttered sarcastically. But she was hurting, despite the fact that she tried to brush it off.

The blonde woman snatched up Gremlin and Princessí leashes from the top of her dresser. Both dogs magically appeared from nowhere, beating Lauren to the door. "How do you do that?" she asked the short pooches, feeling herself slipping into a full-fledged bad mood. She bent over and snapped the leashes on the collars and grabbed her jacket from the coat rack near the door.

When she opened her door she was surprised to find Ashley standing there. "Hi, Ashley." Lauren peered down the hallway, looking for, but not finding, Ashleyís brothers. "I was just on my way out to walk the dogs. What can I do for you?"

Ashley dug her toe into the carpet. "I dunno." She reached down to pet Gremlin and Princess, who were howling, their bodies shaking in utter delight at the sight of their friend.

"Okay," Lauren drew out the word. "Well, we could talk when I come back, or you could join us? Grem loves it when you walk him."

Ashley smiled and reached for the leash. "I was coming over to see if he and Princess could play. Iím bored."

"AhhhÖ I see," the writer stated seriously, trying to remember what she had done for fun at Ashleyís age at, she glanced at her watch, 7:30 P.M. Somehow she didnít think throwing rocks at the abandoned house at the end of the street, putting pennies on the railroad tracks so passing trains could flatten them, or staring mindlessly at the television for hours on end would be high on Devís list of approved activities. "Wanna borrow a jacket of mine?"

Ashleyís eyes lit up. "Sure!"

Lauren chuckled softly. "Okay, you can have this one." She held up her worn jean jacket for the girlís inspection. "Or," she put the end of Princessí leash between her teeth and grabbed a second jacket from the rack, "Dhis un."

The girl selected the butter-colored suede jacket and shrugged it on. It swallowed her whole, and Lauren gave her a fond look, helping her push up the sleeves before she shut the door to her room.

Lauren said to the first agent they passed in the hallway, "Weíre going to the south lawn to walk the dogs." A few seconds more, and the agent normally assigned to Christopher joined them at the top of the stairs, remaining several respectful paces away. Lauren glanced down at Ashley. "Amyís night off tonight?"

"Uh huh."

Gremlin could tell they were getting near the door, and he began pulling Ashley along.

The dark-headed girl was trying to pull him back into line, but failing miserably.

"Gremlin!" Lauren barked.

He slowed for a moment in response to his mistressí cross use of his name, but soon began to tug on the leash again.

Ashley laughed; her arm was fully extended, and she was skipping every third step. "He really wants to go out!"

"Apparently." Lauren shook her head. "Letís trade." She took Gremlinís leash, giving it a sharp tug to slow down the Pug, and then handed Ashley Princessí.

The Pomeranian show dog was acting like, well, a show dog, prancing quietly down the hall like royalty. She was the very picture of serenity and obedience. "Why do I think instead of you getting better behaved, youíll just drag Princess down?" Lauren asked Gremlin flatly, more to hear Ashley laugh than to scold her beloved pet.

They opened the doors to the south lawn and were greeted with a blast of chilly autumn air that smelled heavily of wet leaves and soil. "Brrr!" Lauren shivered as she stuck her hand in her pocket. "Weíd better make this a short trip."

"Okay," Ashley agreed, snuggling deeper into the warm suede.

"You going to tell me whatís wrong?" Lauren asked casually. Ashley was a chatty, bright child who wore her emotions on her sleeve for the world to see. It didnít take a rocket scientist to figure out something was up with her. "You didnít seem too happy when you came to my door."

"You didnít look too happy either," Ashley shot back.

"Youíre too smart for your own good." Lauren snorted. "Just like your mama." She moved to the left, guiding Ashley and the dogs around a large, muddy puddle. "Well, you gonna tell me?"

"You first."

That earned Ashley a raised eyebrow, but Lauren didnít refuse. "I tried to talk to my daddy on the phone, and he hung up on me."

Ashley frowned. "Thatís not very nice."

"No." Lauren sighed and pulled the collar of her jacket closer around her neck. "Itís not."

"Is he mad at you?"

Lauren nodded. "I think so. Mad and disappointed, I guess."

Ashley made an unhappy face. There was nothing worse than having a parent disappointed in you. "How come?"

Lauren exhaled wearily and glanced down at Ashley, considering how much to tell her. She decided she was old enough to understand the simple truth. "Heís disappointed because I didnít stay in Tennessee to help my mama this summer." There was a pause. "When she was sick." They approached a bench, and Lauren motioned for Ashley to sit down.

They both took a seat. "Letís let Ďem run around for a while," Lauren said as she unhooked first Princessí then Gremlinís leash. "Theyíre already going to need baths."

"How come you didnít stay home then, when she was sick?"

Lauren winced at the complicated situation being distilled into a childís simple question. "Címere," she held out her arm, and Ashley scooted closer, pressing tightly against Lauren. "I didnít stay home because, in my heart, I didnít think there was anything I could do for my mama. But your mama needed me, and I thought I could make her feel better." She shrugged. "So I decided to come homeÖ this home."

"When she got shot," Ash recalled.

"Uh huh. So thatís why my daddy is mad at me.""

"That doesnít seem fair." The girl hugged Lauren. "Iím sorry."

Lauren leaned down and kissed the top of her head. "Iíll be okay, sweetie. It just makes me sad. Weíll work it out eventually." Or not.

They were both quiet for a moment as they watched Gremlin and Princess playing in the yard and splashing through the leaf-strewn puddles.

"Mom didnít come home for dinner tonight," Ashley commented very softly. "Sheís working late."

AhhhÖ so thatís it. "I know. Sheís in a meeting tonight with some people from Mexico."

"She couldnít come to The Nutcracker with me last week. It was my birthday present; it was going to be just the two of us. Emma took me, but itís just not the same."

"Oh, honey." Lauren closed her eyes and tightened her hold on Ashley. "She wanted to go with you. Your mama felt terrible about that." She was nearly in tears that night when she told me. "But it was an emergency and-"

"And she had to work late," Ashley finished glumly. "She always does."

Lauren let out an unhappy breath. She had no good answers for this. Ashley didnít give two shits about the global economy. "You know she has a very important job that takes up most of her time, right?" she began rhetorically.

"Yeah." A dark head nodded. "I know."

"But when she has to miss out on being with you and your brothers, itís not because she thinks yíall are less important than what sheís working on."

Ashleyís eyes widened a little, and she looked up at Laurenís face to see if she was telling her the whole truth. "Itís not?"

"No way, Ash. Nothing is more important to your mama than you guys," the writer announced firmly. She cupped Ashleyís chilled cheek. "But the stuff sheís doing is very important, and she knows that the people who love her will cut her some extra slack when there just arenít enough hours in the day to get everything done. Nobody except her family will do that."

"They wonít?"

Lauren shook her head gravely. "No."

Ashleyís face turned contemplative. "I didnít know that."

"I know. Itís a hard thing for even grown ups to understand. And itís not fair to you or your mama. But sheís doing the best she can, Ashley. If she could, sheíd spend all her time with you guys."

An enormous grin broke out across her face. "She would? Really?"

"Of course!" Lauren hugged her again. "Sheís very proud of you and loves you like crazy. Besides," she pressed her forehead forward against Ashleyís, "I happen to know she got tickets again for this week, so you guys can still go to the ballet."

"I know. Itís still going to be just the two of us." Ashley tugged on Laurenís coat a little. "Thatís okay with you, right?"

Lauren smiled warmly. "Absolutely. Youíll both have a wonderful time, and you can tell me all about it. And maybe, if something comes up, and your mama absolutely canít make itÖ even though she wants to more than anythingÖ maybe we can go?"

"Sure!" Ashley blurted out. "I would miss Mom. But that would be fun too." Impulsively, Ashley kissed Lauren on the cheek. "Thanks, Lauren."

"Youíre welcome, sweetie."

"I love you."

Lauren swallowed hard. "I love you too."

 

Tuesday, November 9th

 

 

"Weíre finished for the day, right?" Dev shifted on the sofa anxiously.

"Sure," Lauren answered slowly. "If you want to be." She sat down her notebook on the coffee table, a little put out that Dev wanted to end their interview so soon. This hour had been set aside all week. Then again, itís not like weíre getting anywhere. It had been thirty minutes of pure frustration, with Lauren having to pry every single word out of her normally chatty partner. Dev had been nervous and withdrawn, her gaze finding the antique grandfather clock, which had been an October addition to Laurenís room, every few minutes. Devís sudden restlessness left Lauren confused and on edge herself.

The blonde slipped off her glasses and began gnawing on the tip of an earpiece. "Do you have a hot date or something tonight?" she asked teasingly. But her words were laced with annoyance and insecurity.

"No. No." The President waved her hand dismissively. "Iíve got nothing going on." Dev groaned inwardly. Shit. That was convincing.

Five minutes into their work, while Dev was thinking about how much she loved Lauren and how much she wanted to be married to her, sheíd suddenly remembered she had an evening appointment with a jeweler to pick out a ring. Ever since then sheíd been a nervous wreck, just thinking about how she was going to make a quick exit in the middle of their scheduled meeting without arousing Laurenís suspicions. God, Iím helpless without Liza and Jane to keep my schedule.

The jeweler had also asked for Laurenís approximate ring and hand size, stating unequivocally that this was crucial information if Devlyn wanted to pick out a truly flattering piece of jewelry. Personally, Dev thought that was a load of crap, but where Laurenís happiness was concerned, she wasnít taking any chances. "Nothing is going on," she repeated when it looked like Lauren was waiting for her to elaborate. She reached for Laurenís hand, only to have it subtly pulled away.

"I see." Lauren sprang to her feet, easily detecting Devís lie. She picked her notebook up as she rose and walked back to her desk, setting it down carefully. The clock chimed seven times, and Lauren wondered if Dev might be hungry. Lauren spoke with her back to Dev as she gently tossed her glasses alongside her computer. "Would you like to have dinner together? Iím sure the kids have already eaten."

Arrghhh. "Iím not really hungry."

"Okay." Laurenís own appetite disappeared. Stop being such a big baby. She doesnít have to spend every evening with you. Maybe she just needs a little time to herself. She consciously kept her voice light. "Iíll see you tomorrow morning then."

Dev was on her feet and at Laurenís side in an instant. "How about a late supper? Iím sure Iíll have an appetite in... say... two hours?"

"Are you okay, Devlyn?" Lauren searched her face. "You donít seem yourself tonight."

"Iím fine," Dev blurted out more harshly than sheíd intended. She let out a muffled curse and glanced at the clock. "Iím just not hungry, thatís all." And that was the truth. Dev couldnít even think about food right now. Casually, she reached for Laurenís hand again, only to be denied. Dev cursed again.

"What is wrong with you? And donít you dare tell me nothing." A slender, fair eyebrow lifted. "Youíre acting all anxious. And why do you keep trying to grab me?"

"Iím not trying to grab you, Iím trying to hold your hand and talk to you." Devís voice took on that deep tone she normally reserved for when things werenít going well in a meeting.

"You are trying to grab me!" Laurenís temper snapped, and she held her hand up in front of Devís face, snatching it away just as Dev reached for it again. "See!" An angry flush began crawling up her cheeks. "And youíre not Ďtalkingí to me. Youíre lying to me."

"I am not lying to you! Iíve never lied to you!" It was like a slap in the face, and Dev took a step backwards, stung by the accusation that was technically true, though she knew this wasnít the sort of lie Lauren meant. She chewed on her lip as her own temper reared its head. "Thanks so much for thinking so highly of me. I am not a liar."

"Then why do you keep looking at the clock every ten seconds, but insist you donít have any place to be?!" Lauren shot back. She marched up to Dev and poked her in the chest with a rigid finger to get her attention. "You donít have to spend every minute with me, Devlyn Marlowe. But donít tell me you donít have someplace to be when itís not the truth. Iím a big girl. If youíve got other plans, just say so!"

"Okay, fine," Dev put her hand up in defense. "Youíre right! I have someplace to be. I have an appointment tonight. There. Are you happy now?" She crossed her arms over her chest and waited.

A large part of Laurenís anger deflated, only to be replaced with genuine hurt. "No, Iím not happy. All you had to do was say that in the first place." She turned her back on the President, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Judd lied to me whenever it suited his purposes. I wonít put up with that again, Devlyn." Not from someone I love.

"Thatís nice." She purposely ignored the barely detectable slump of Laurenís shoulders. "Thanks. Thanks for comparing me to the slime ball, cheating ex-husband, who was screwing his girlfriend and lying to you about it. Excuse me if I happen to have a meeting I canít really discuss." She stopped and grabbed her jacket off the couch, nearly taking the arms off as she pulled it on.

Lauren whirled around, gray eyes flashing. "How did you know about that?" she spat. "I know I never told you that."

"How in the hell do you think I knew that?" she huffed, buttoning her jacket. "I did the damned math when the FBI gave me your background file." Lauren opened her mouth, but Dev kept right on talking. "And before you go and get all pissed off at me for that, you donít really think the Party would have hired you without doing a complete background check first? Or that I would invite you into my home, with my children, without doing one! God dammit, Lauren! Iíve always been straight with you. This one time I have something I canít talk about, and you act like itís the end of the world. Well, itís not. Itís just something I canít talk about."

Laurenís face contorted in anger as she ground out, "Get out!"

"Fine!" Dev turned on her heel and marched towards the door. "You know where to find me when you come to your senses."

"Why should I bother to find you? Iím sure youíve got your spies watching every move I make. You can come to me!" Lauren rushed past Devlyn and flung the door open for her. It slammed so loudly against the wall that a picture hanging in the hallway outside crashed to the floor.

Dev took a deep breath and stepped calmly out of the room. She picked up the picture and hung it back on the wall, glancing back at Lauren when she was finished. "I donít have anyone watching you. I love you. But I wonít be treated this way either. Iím not out to hurt you. And you know that." She felt the tears in her eyes and forced them back. "But apparently you canít afford me the same courtesy." Dev took a deep breath. "Good night, Lauren. Sleep well. I love you." She fussed with the picture for another few seconds before turning and slowly walking away.

Laurenís chest constricted at Devís words. She nearly went after her, but her stubbornness and anger won out, causing her feet to stay firmly rooted to the ground. After all, she wasnít the one who had lied. Why should she chase after Dev to apologize when she hadnít done anything wrong? Lauren snorted derisively, completely disgusted with herself. She knew that one more look into those watery blue eyes, and sheíd be saying she was sorry whether she wanted to or not. "Damn. Damn. Damn," she muttered to herself, before quietly closing her door.

Gremlin and Princess poked their heads out from under Laurenís bed now that the loud, unpleasant lady was gone. With dark, beady eyes, they watched Lauren shut the door, then lean against it for a long moment with her eyes closed.

"You can come out now, you cowards." Lauren sighed dejectedly, wondering how in the hell things had got out of control so quickly. "Sheís gone." Lauren flopped gracelessly onto the bed and hugged her pillow. She blinked rapidly, sending a scattering of hot tears cascading down her cheeks.

Gremlin jumped up onto the bed and snuggled alongside his mistress, who pulled him close and kissed him on the top of the head.

"Thanks, buddy," she whispered to her pet. "You were right. I definitely needed a hug."

 

* * *

 

Dev entered her private office in the residence to be greeted by a smiling David and the jeweler. Her jaw was clenched shut like a steel trap as she tried to shake off her hurt and anger. She shrugged out of her rumpled jacket and hung it on a coat rack near the door. As soon as Dev let go of it, it slipped off the wooden hook and fell to the floor. But Dev remained frozen, not giving a damn about the blazer. She stood that way, staring at the wall, for a long moment before taking a deep breath and turning around to greet her guest.

"Good evening," Dev said, still not leaving her spot by the door. "Iím," she stopped and cleared her throat, coughing a little. "Iím sorry Iím late. I was unavoidably detained."

One look at Devís face and David made his way across the room as quickly as he could without alarming the jeweler. "Are you okay?" he queried under his breath, reaching down for the jacket and settling it on a hook.

"Maybe we should wait on this, David." Her voice cracked. "Now might not be the time."

David blinked rapidly as his mouth worked for several seconds before any sound came out. He lowered his voice. "What do you mean now is not the time?"

"Lauren and I just had a huge argument." She bit her lip. "Maybe I was wrong. Maybe Iím rushing things."

"What?" David hissed, gently grabbing Dev by the forearm and leading her out of the room. He glanced over his shoulder at a waiting Alvin Cartier. "Weíll be just one moment. Please sit down." Once they were safely in Devís den, David put his hands on his hips. "What happened?"

Dev paced for a moment and then turned to her friend. "I forgot about the appointment tonight, and when I remembered I got so nervous Lauren picked up on it and asked me what was wrong, and then it all just went downhill from there." It had all come out in a rush, and she took a deep breath and sighed. "We had an argument; she accused me of lying to her and of being like her ex-husband andÖ" She rubbed her temples. "Iím not like that. I know she was upset, and it was a silly argument, butÖ"

Dev felt confused and suddenly very tired. All she wanted to do now was go to her room and shower and go to bed. She knew that tomorrow it would probably all be over, but right now it just hurt.

"But do you really think youíre rushing it? Because if you do, then Iím marching out there right now and telling that man to go home and keep his mouth shut." David squeezed Devís shoulder comfortingly. "This one is your call, Madam President." The red-haired man didnít think for one second that Dev would take him up on it. But it was in the ĎBest Friend and Chief of Staff Handbookí for him to offer anyway.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "God, I must be out of my damned mind. No. Iíll take a look. I love her too much to let her go. Sheís not getting away from me that easily. Iíll just have to show her what this Yankee is made of." She grinned. "And then use the guilt Iím going to be able to milk this for, for the first two years weíre married."

David let out an explosive breath. "You had me worried there for a minute, Devil. I thought you were going to do something stupid over one argument." He smirked. "Not that it would be the first time." His face grew serious. "And what in the hell did you do to rate a comparison to Laurenís ex? Iíve never even heard her mention him."

"You know," she shook her head, "Iím not sure. She said I was like him because he lied to her. But I know deep down in her heart she doesnít believe that. At least I hope she doesnít. She was just mad because Iím an idiot. Iím so nervous over this whole thing Iím not handling her very well right now. Iíll have to figure out a way to make it up to her."

David rolled his eyes and shook his head, knowing Dev would be one of the Devilís own until she made up with Lauren. "How about you start by going out there and picking something really special? You can grovel later. Iíve always found that particularly effective with Beth."

Dev laughed, already feeling better. "Nice to know I can get groveling lessons from an expert." She slapped her friend on the back. "Now let me go find the perfect ring for my lady."

 

Wednesday, November 10th

 

 

Dev had completed her stretching routine three times, waiting for Lauren. She finally realized that the writer wouldnít be coming this morning. "She must really be pissed off at me."

"Maíam?" Jack, her running partner, and the one agent Dev was particularly fond of, lifted a brow. "Are you okay?"

She blew out a breath, sending her bangs into disarray. "Yeah, Iím fine for an idiot. Címon. Letís give the boys and girls a good run this morning."

After the shooting it was Devís shoulder that gave her, and continued to give her, problems. Her hip had fully recovered, and she was pretty much back to her old self as far as jogging was concerned. Despite that, it was her hip that ached whenever it rained or it was particularly cold. And since it was both on this crummy, pre-dawn November day, they were relegated to running laps in the gym. Dev was angryÖ with herself and with Lauren. She took out that anger on the track, and, by extension, on the agents who ran with her. Her blistering pace caused two of them to fall out, leaving them panting on the floor.

Jack was keeping up, but it wasnít easy. He could tell the President was working through something in her mind, and he hoped to God that she would find the answer soon, before the entire detail was reduced to a gasping, heaving mess. But he had to admit it; there was something kick ass about having a President who could give the most fit agents a run for their money.

By the time Dev was finally finished running, nearly an hour later, she was limping slightly and her hair, shorts, and T-shirt were soaked with sweat. She walked the track a couple of times to cool down, before grabbing a towel from her bag and wiping away the sweat that was pouring down her face. As she lowered the towel, Liza entered the gym.

"Good morning, Madam President."

"Not really, Liza," Dev groaned as she waved good-bye to the men and women who had run with her this morning. She received several barely veiled dirty looks as the agents filed out of the gym. The run had done Dev good, giving her time to set her resolve. "But I have hopes that I can salvage it."

"Maíam?"

"Nothing. Whatís on the agenda for today?"

"Well, since itís Saturday, itís very light. But I have some good news for you."

Dev smiled a pathetically grateful smile. "Wonderful. I could use it."

"The Secretary General of the United Nations called this morning. He regrets to inform you that he will be unable to attend lunch with you today. He is currently snowed in, and the storm is keeping everything grounded." Liza gave a little grin as she looked at her organizer. "I assured him that we could reschedule next week, and then I managed to make your afternoon appointment with Secretary Wisecroft a lunch meeting. So after your meeting with Press Secretary Allen, you have lunch with Secretary Wisecroft, and then youíre free for the rest of the day."

"You know," Devís smile grew larger, "youíre a good kid, Liza. I may just have to adopt you."

Liza smiled, genuinely glad that she had made her boss happy. "My parents might protest, but I appreciate the thought, maíam."

"Okay, then," Dev began as she exited the gym and headed towards the residence with Liza hot on her heels, "I have a couple of things I need you to do for me, then you can take the rest of the day off too."

 

* * *

 

Skipping their usual run rather than facing Dev before she was ready to talk, Lauren had spent the day alone in Georgetown, shopping and trying not to think about the way theyíd left things the night before. But the time away today had done her good. And she felt as though, once she was able to step back, she could put things in perspective. Better late than never. Lauren was still confused about why Dev thought it necessary to lie to her, but at least now that sheíd had a chance to calm down a little, she felt as if they could talk about it. She hoped.

Lauren discovered that she needed a day away from the White House, Secret Service, and especially the Press, more than sheíd realized. Sheíd never understood what a valuable commodity privacy was until it was in short supply.

When it became public knowledge that she and Dev were a couple, the two women had had a huge argument over Laurenís turning down the Secret Service protection that Dev was determined to pay for out of her own pocket. It wasnít just the money. Dev and her family were very well off, and this wouldnít affect their standard of living in the least. It was the principle more than anything. Lauren couldnít stand feeling like she was under lock and key.

She had just been fooling herself, of course. Lauren had been recognized twice today. Once by a middle-aged construction worker who was working on the building next to where sheíd parked her car. When he saw who she was, he began screaming something about taxes, alimony, and President Marlowe. Lauren didnít stick around for an in-depth explanation. Instead, she picked up her pace.

Next, a clerk at a toy store had recognized her when she was purchasing David, Liza and Dev matching, hot pink stress balls. Lauren was surprised when the frizzy-haired teenager asked for her autograph. She was about to ask the girl which one of her biographies sheíd read, when the clerk started peppering her with questions about the relationship between her and Dev. What kind of shampoo did Dev use? What was it like living in the White House? Were the Presidentís eyes really as blue as they looked on television? Lauren actually answered that one, laughing out loud as the girl nearly swooned when she confided that somehow, impossibly, they were even better in real life.

Lauren had to face the bitter truth. While she had achieved moderate success in her own right, her private life had never been public. Not like it was now. But even though her patience had been pushed to the limit time and time again since sheíd moved into the White House, in her heart she believed Dev was worth every moment of it.

Now, after having her bags full of Christmas presents for the Marlowe children searched and x-rayed, she was back in the East Wing and ready to search out Dev and try to settle things between them before they got any further out of hand. The writerís brows came together when she found a note taped to the front of her door. Fumbling with her bags, she pulled off the note and managed to open the door and stumble into her room without dropping anything. "Okay, next time, when the porter asks if I want help, I say Ďyesí," she muttered.

Gremlin appeared from behind the sofa and began whimpering with joy as he wound himself around Laurenís legs. She laughed. "I love you too. Gimme just a second, and you can slobber on me all you want."

She gently dropped the bags on her bed and perched on its edge. Gremlin jumped up next to her and laid his face on her lap, where he received an immediate scratching behind his ears. "Pleasure hound." Gremís tail, had it been able to reach the bed, would have begun to thump wildly against it, as he let out a happy moan. "Yeah, yeah, Iíll take you for a walk in just a while. Let my feet rest for a minute, will ya? Should we see whatís in the envelope?"

Lauren slid her nail under the flap of the envelope, and it opened with a tiny pop. She pulled out the note card, her face creasing into a brilliant smile before she even started reading. Devlynís hand writing. Taped to the note was a piece of milk chocolate, wrapped in bright silver foil. "MmmÖ" Lauren let out a sensual groan at the aroma, as she immediately opened the wrapper and popped it into her already watering mouth.

Gremlin whimpered.

"Sorry. No chocolate." She petted him sympathetically. "I could never be a dog."

Lauren allowed the rich chocolate to melt in her mouth, pooling on her tongue as she read.

 

Sweetheart,

 

Iím sorry.

 

I didnít mean to hurt you or lie to you. Iíve been a little preoccupied by something very important these last few weeks, and I had a meeting last night that brought me a step closer to my goal. Iím afraid I canít talk about it right now. Just this once, youíll have to trust me.

 

I wasnít thinking, and I made a poor choice. I know none of this makes sense to you. But Iíll explain the best I can if you let me. Just know that I love you, and I donít like it when we argue. I thought of you all day today.

 

Thereís something Iíd like to share with you. All you have to do is follow the trail I left for you.

 

With all my love,

 

Stinky

 

She laughed at Devís signature. Always the charmer, Devlyn. I shouldnít have thrown you out of my room before we could work things out. It was immature, and Lauren knew sheíd simply let her anger get the best of her. Now, however, she was more than ready to talk. The trail I left for you? She scratched her jaw then jumped off the bed, sending Gremlin scampering over to Princess, who was sleeping on her back at the foot of the bed in her favorite dog position. Trail?

Lauren opened the door and peeked out into the hallway. Sure enough, there were chocolates sprinkled down the hall in the opposite direction from where sheíd just come. I need to look down every once in a while.

Closing her door, Lauren moved a few paces down the hall and picked up another foil-wrapped chocolate. A few more feet, and there was another. And so the trail continued, with Lauren scooping up the candy, until she was led right to the door of the Presidentís formal dining room.

The writer paused at the door to chew and swallow, having popped no less than four pieces of chocolate into her mouth on the way there. She wiped the corners of her mouth with her fingertips, realizing that she was a little nervous. "Relax. Itís just Devlyn," she whispered to herself. Theyíd argued occasionally over the past eleven months. But rarely did it reduce either one of them to tears. And this time it had done just that to both of them.

Lauren took a deep breath and screwed up her courage, ignoring the sudden churning in her belly. She lifted her hand to knock but noticed that the door was just a crack open. The blonde woman hesitated with her hand still in the air, not sure whether the open door was an invitation or an oversight on the part of the President. Deciding that Dev made very few mistakes, Lauren pushed open the door and made her way inside.

The Presidential dining room was one of the younger womanís favorite places in the magnificent house. It had a light, airy feeling that was aided by its high ceilings and floor-length, mint-colored drapes. A delicate crystal chandelier hung high over the dark wood table, and a pristine, white marble mantelpiece surrounded a fireplace. The chairs were upholstered with a green, pale yellow, and rose floral print cloth, whose colors were repeated in the beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers that adorned the tabletop and mantel. It was elegant without being excessive.

Dev looked up from her seat at a small intimate dining table that was set for two. The lights were low but several candles were lit and the curtains were open, allowing the last remnants of daylight to spill through the window. Dev quickly jumped to her feet. Sheíd been waiting for over an hour, hoping that Lauren wouldnít just toss her note in the garbage can. She tried to find her voice as she gestured to the table. "Would you like to have an early dinner with me?"

Lauren let out a relieved breath and nodded quickly, crossing the floor to stand in front of her lover. "Absolutely," she said softly. Lauren reached up and affectionately raked her fingers through Devís slightly askew bangs. God, I think Iíd forgive her anything. "Iíd... Iíd love to."

Dev smiled. She reached out to take Laurenís hand, but stopped herself. There was no way she was going to invade her personal space without her permission, despite the fact that Lauren was still, seemingly absently, running her fingers through Devís hair. "Iím so sorry," she said sincerely, pulling out a chair for Lauren.

Lauren didnít say a word. The look of indecision on Devís face, when she began to offer her hand but quickly withdrew it, pierced Laurenís heart. She reached out and took Devís hand, wrapping strong fingers around Devís longer ones. She tugged the taller woman towards her and surged forward herself, pulling Dev into a desperately tight embrace. She buried her face in the crook of Devís neck, smiling when long arms immediately wrapped around her, returning the heartfelt gesture. "Iím sorry too," Lauren said on a slightly ragged exhale.

"I hate it when we argue," Dev whispered back. She tightened her arms around Lauren. "Letís not do that again anytime soon, okay?"

Lauren nodded against Devís shoulder. "Deal."

The viselike grip on Devlynís chest eased, and she said a small prayer of thanks as her world began to right itself.

Lauren greedily drew in a breath that brought with it the warm, clean scent of Devís skin. She found it comforting in the extreme and didnít want to move from this spot. But after a moment she did, knowing they werenít quite finished yet. Apologies were one thing, but this particular argument called for explanations as well. She licked her lips and leaned back in Devís embrace, tilting her head so that she could watch Devís face as she spoke. "Can we talk about what happened?"

"I think two reasonable adults can sit here over a wonderful dinner and talk about it, if youíd like." Dev began to move towards the phone, but Lauren held her firm.

"Later. Please."

Dev turned back to Lauren, swallowing hard. "Okay. IÖ but I need to know if you really think I would ever intentionally lie to you." Dev sat down in her chair and gestured for Lauren to sit in hers. Then a bleak thought entered her mind. Oh, God, what if she says yes?

"No, darliní," Lauren reassured quickly, seeing the pleading look in Devís eyes. She sat down and scooted her chair closer to Dev, not stopping until their knees were touching. "I donít. At least not if it was a planned thing."

Devís gaze dropped to the floor.

"I can understand your having a private meeting," Lauren paused here, treading very carefully as she reached out and grabbed a fork from the table and restlessly ran her fingertips over its prongs. "Youíve gone to lots of private meetings concerning security issues or whatever. And Iíve tried hard not to make myself a nuisance." A wry smile curled Laurenís lips. "Which is no easy task, considering I start missing you like crazy after a few hours."

Dev dared to glance up and meet Laurenís steady gaze. A stupid, happy grin creased her cheeks. "You donít know how many meetings Iíve sat through where you were the main thing on my mind. I donít just miss you when weíre apart. Hell, I start missing you before youíre even gone." Dev laughed quietly. "I actually anticipatorily miss you."

Lauren blushed slightly, but continued. "I wasnít upset that you had to go. I was upset because when I asked you whether or not you had plans, you said no, even though that wasnít the truth." She stared at Dev with a painfully open expression. "Why would you do that, Devlyn?" Lauren asked quietly.

Dev nervously twisted the napkin sheís picked up while Lauren was talking. "Lots of reasons, I guess." And they all suck. "Iím dealing with something now that is downright nerve-racking for me. I had a very important appointment last night, which I nearly missed because I scheduled our time together to work on the biography right over it. I forgot all about my prior commitment until a few minutes into our time together."

Devlyn shrugged one shoulder. "Then it sort of hit me between the eyes, and I panicked. I was embarrassed by my mistake and didnít want to make you feel bad or..." she winced, admitting this to herself as well as Lauren, "look foolish by having to cancel our meeting. So I tried to end it as quickly as possible. And then, to make matters worse, I tried to cover for the rotten decision Iíd just made."

Lauren let out a slightly shaky breath. "Thatís it?" When Dev instantly nodded, she couldnít help but roll her eyes at herself. Sheíd been imagining all sorts of rotten things. She liked Devís simple explanation much, much better. The blonde woman set the fork back down and reached out to still Devís nervous hands. "Itís okay," she promised.

Dev let out her own ragged breath as relief coursed through her.

Lauren lifted Devís hand and brought it to her lips, tenderly kissing a sensitive palm. "I guess we sort of pushed each otherís buttons yesterday, huh?"

Dev nodded and took a sip of melted ice water. "You really hit both of mine by comparing me to Judd. Iíve told you things about myself that no one on this earth but you and I know. And I trust you to protect them implicitly. Iíve been honest with you even when it would have been easier to omit or color the truth. So when you compared me to your ex-husband, who I knew had cheated on you..." A breath. "That hurt a lot."

Laurenís stomach twisted at the thought of causing Dev pain. "Thatís not what I meant. At least not completely. I was trying to tell you that when you lied, it made me feel like I felt when Judd did it, which was lousy."

The writer studied their linked hands. Time to open up a little yourself, Lauri. Itís your turn. "By the time Judd had started having an affair, for all intents and purposes, our marriage was over. I couldnít muster enough concern over our relationship to even begrudge his looking for happiness... or sex, I guess, elsewhere. But even though we werenít lovers anymore, I still considered him a dear friend." Laurenís voice was soft, but Dev could hear the frustration leaking into her words. "When I asked him outright if he was seeing someone else, he denied it. And he did it over and over again." Lauren shook her head, not quite understanding it herself. "I know it sounds funny, but in my mind that, and not the affair itself, was the real betrayal."

Lauren felt Dev squeezing her hand, and she returned the comforting pressure. Her face took on a slightly lost expression. "God, Devlyn, the thought of our drifting apart like that and not even caringÖ and..." She stopped and swallowed around the solid lump that was forming in her throat.

"Thatís not going to happen to us, and you know why?" There was a fierceness in Devís eyes that Lauren found oddly comforting. "Because we can do this after we argue. We can sit down and talk about it and make it better." Devlyn caressed Laurenís cheek with her thumb and smiled. "Let me tell you this. What Iím working on now is absolutely the most important thing I have ever done. The moment I can talk about it, you will be the first to know."

Lauren smiled a broad, genuine smile for the first time all day. "Fair enough." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against Devís, pulling away only a hairsbreadth. "Thank you for inviting me to dinner," she whispered, kissing Dev again. "I love you. All of a sudden Iíve decided that Iím incredibly hungry."

A soft moan was Devís reply.

 

Saturday, November 13th

 

 

It was beginning to look and feel like the holidays at the White House. Everyday Dev was amazed to see more and more early Christmas decorations Ė some antique, some new Ė going up. It was kind of like going to Disney World as a kid. She started, realizing that soon all her children would be old enough for that particular family trip. Maybe next August, before school starts.

Right now, however, she needed to have a chat with Lauren about one of the most cherished Marlowe family traditions. Dev prayed that her plans regarding Laurenís inclusion would be well received. She shifted the box she was holding under her arm and knocked on Laurenís door.

The door opened, and an arm shot out, nearly pulling her off her feet as she was yanked inside by her collar. Then there was the kiss that followed. Wow! Devlyn grinned when the writer finally let her go. "Hi."

"Hi. I missed you today." Lauren smiled at the slightly flushed look on Devís face, feeling the heat in her own.

"Me too." Dev reached around behind her and shut the door. "How was your day?"

Lauren tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and took off her glasses. "It was okay. I got a lot done." She gave Dev a little smirk. "Found a couple of your high school yearbooks."

Devís smile disappeared and was replaced by a petulant frown.

Lauren reached out and tugged on the protruding lower lip, keeping it up until Dev laughed and slapped her hands away. "Jane also came by and brought over a couple of boxes of her own personal mementos." The blonde woman winked. "I guarantee you donít know some of the stuff sheís got in there. I had no idea sheís known you since you were in college. And sheís got photos to prove it."

Dev covered her eyes. "Oh, God. This is what my secretary does on her day off?" The President groaned as she took a seat on Laurenís couch, giving it a pat so the younger woman would join her. "The new bio is going to have a more extensive picture section, isnít it?"

"You know it." Lauren smirked, dropping down on the sofa next to Dev. "Your mom has already donated baby pictures. Wayne is just wild about the picture of naked baby Devlyn on the bearskin rug, by the way."

Devís head dropped, but Lauren could see her shoulders shaking with silent laughter. "Iím gonna kill my mother."

"Wayne offered me an extra 5% on royalties if I could produce a current photo in the same pose for a Ďnow and thení comparison."

"In his dreams," Dev growled.

"And mine." Lauren wriggled her eyebrows. "Okay, whatís up? I didnít expect to see you until tonight."

Dev sobered. "We need to have a little talk. You have a minute?"

Laurenís brows knitted together. She didnít like the suddenly serious look on Devís face. "I came to the door, didnít I? Shoot."

"Okay. Every year at Thanksgiving the Marlowes set up candles that burn through the holidays, for our family and friends. White candles for those who are with us. Blue ones for those who arenít. We put them on the mantel." Dev glanced at Lauren, who was listening interestedly. "There are two reasons Iím telling you this. First, there is a set of candles for Samantha and her parents." Devís gaze softened. "If they make you uncomfortable, I wonít put them up."

Lauren laid her hand on Devís knee and gave it a gentle squeeze. She smiled softly at her friend. Her feelings about Samantha were so mixed up. Part of her admired Devlynís wife. By every indication she had been a strong, funny, interesting woman in her own right. A wonderful, loving partner to the young, ambitious politician, Devlyn Marlowe. Another part of Lauren felt helpless and angry. There was no competing with the memory of Devís first love and the woman who gave birth to Christopher and Aaron. But Lauren realized these were her own insecurities, and they existed despite the fact that Dev had never done a thing to encourage them.

The blonde woman swallowed. "Devlyn, darliní, thatís not necessary." Lauren mustered a smile. "Samantha doesnít disappear just because Iím in your life now. Not for you, or the kids. Donít get me wrong," she snorted a little, ready to admit her own shortcomings. "Iím not above petty jealously. But this is a beautiful tradition that must be important to you and the children. I donít see a reason to change it."

Devís posture instantly relaxed. "Thank you." She leaned over and gently kissed Lauren on the lips, allowing the contact to linger and then deepen. Dev didnít pull back until she felt the rise and fall of Laurenís chest begin to grow uneven, and her own breathing was ragged.

Lauren groaned softly when the lips against hers disappeared. "Have I ever told you what a great kisser you are?"

Dev smiled roguishly. "No. But feel free to do so. In great detail. You are a writer after all."

Laurenís eyebrows crawled up her forehead and disappeared behind pale bangs. "No, thanks. I was just checking."

"Brat." Dev stuck out her tongue.

Lauren chuckled, then poked the box. "So what do we have here? Something for me?" she hinted.

Dev repositioned the box on her lap. "Well, actually, with your permission, I was planning on making an addition to the family tradition, which is the second thing I needed to ask you about. Here, this is for you." Dev handed the box to her lover. "Itís sort of an unofficial welcome to the family."

"Whoa." Lauren jaw dropped open in surprise at the weight of the box. "You didnít have to..." She stopped when she lifted off the lid and released the rich aroma of vanilla into the air. Inside the box were two white candles and one blue, each about four inches in diameter and ten inches long. Carefully, Lauren moved aside the candles to find the source of the weight: three sturdy, silver candleholders. "Theyíre beautiful," she whispered, picking up one of the candleholders. ĎAnna Gallager Strayerí was engraved in bold letters across its front. She sucked in a surprised breath, feeling tears spring into her eyes so quickly that she was helpless to stop them.

Dev reached out slowly and pulled Lauren close to her. "I love you. I want to put those up with the rest of my family. Is that all right with you?"

Lauren sank into Devís embrace. "I love you too," she breathed softly, then sniffed. The writer pulled away and cupped Devís cheek, tenderly brushing a prominent cheekbone. "Are you sure, honey?" she whispered emotionally. "Iím not really-"

The President placed her finger over Laurenís lips to quiet her protests. "No, this is a tradition to celebrate the lives of the people who have touched us. The people who love us. And the people we want to remember. You belong there now. You belong there just as much as David and Beth do, or Emma, or Amy. Weíre adding one for Liza this year, too."

A blonde head nodded once. "Thank you," she whispered when Devís finger dropped from her lips. Lauren smiled affectionately at Dev, wishing she could put into words how special it made her feel to belong to Devís clan, whom she loved more than she would have believed possible. She sniffed again. "IÖ I donít know what to say."

Dev hugged her close and scooted down to get comfortable and make it clear she intended to stay there for a while and hold her lover. "You could tell me that youíll get that baby picture back from Wayne," she teased, placing a kiss on soft, fair tresses.

Lauren laughed and pinched Devís belly. "Nuh uh. Itís too cute not to share. Suffer, Madam President."

 

 

Monday, November 22nd

 

 

"Good morning, Madam President. Good morning, Lauren." Liza handed Dev a file and her mug of coffee. They were in the Oval Office, Dev sitting behind her massive wooden desk, with Lauren sitting several paces away in a high-backed, leather, upholstered chair. They were together, but lost in their own work, as Lauren prepared questions she had for an interview later that afternoon, and Dev mentally went over a short speech she was giving that morning about the new healthcare reforms she intended to officially propose in January 2022.

"Itís a light day today, Madam President," Liza continued. "First, you have to pardon a turkey."

Dev looked up from her folder, and Lauren snickered, taking a quick shot of the surprised look on the Presidentís face. "Excuse me?" Dev suddenly began paying closer attention. "Did I hear you say that I was pardoning a turkey?"

A soft click and muffled chuckle indicated that Lauren had just captured the surprised look on Devís face on film again.

Liza grinned, but refrained from asking Dev if she had ever bothered watching anything any of the past Presidents did. She didnít think it would be a wise career move. "Yes, maíam, itís a Thanksgiving tradition," Liza explained patiently, somehow looking at and speaking to Dev while entering something into her hand-held organizer. "The President always pardons a turkey; then itís sent to live at the zoo."

Dev tossed her pencil down and retrieved a pen, opening the file Liza had given her. "Liza, if I pardon the turkey, what will I be having for Thanksgiving dinner?"

"Turkey, of course; just not the one you pardon." Liza struggled for words, not sure how to explain this rather bizarre ritual. She finally settled on saying, "Itís just a tradition. Vegetarians and children love it."

"Not my kids," Dev snorted. "Theyíre carnivores and not ashamed to admit it."

"Especially Aaron," Lauren chimed in. "That boy could eat an entire turkey himself. I swear heís going to be a sumo wrestler when he grows up."

Dev sighed and took a sip of her coffee as she read through the rest of her agenda. "So, basically, itís become tradition for the President to give the country the bird on Thanksgiving?"

Liza and Lauren both rolled their eyes, but still burst out laughing at Devís lame joke, as the President searched her desk for something.

Devís assistant recovered first and glanced at Lauren, who just shrugged. "I guess you could say that."

"But donít say it in front of a live microphone, Madam President," Lauren suggested, taking a few more pictures, including a very nice one of Dev and Liza together looking over something on the desk.

"Picky, picky." Dev snorted without looking up. "Youíre starting to sound more and more like David everyday."

"David is a very wise man," Lauren teased.

"How much did he pay you to say that?"

"Nothing. But he did get on my good side by donating a photograph of your college dorm room. Now I know where Aaron gets his slob tendencies."

"Very funny." Dev looked up from the document she was reading. "Take note that two people shared that room, and one side of it was neat and clean, while the other was a vile pigsty. Then go have a good look at Davidís office and tell me which side of the room was mine. Those are his sweat socks lying on the floor in the picture."

Lauren rose to her feet and put her hands on her hips. She narrowed her eyes. "How did you know there were sweat socks on the floor in that picture?"

"Because the entire time David and I roomed together, there were sweat socks on the floor. And whatís really scary is that part of me believes they were the same pair."

Lauren and Liza both went ĎEwwwwwí at the same time.

Dev shivered. "I know."

David strode into the room, his face buried in a file as he did so, causing him to run right into Lauren. "Oh, sorry." He tucked the file under his arm as he looked around the room at the grinning women. David began chewing his mustache nervously. "Uh oh. Those smiles are nothing but trouble. Iíve seen my wife, mother-in-law, and sister-in-law, all in the same room together, smiling just like that. The next day our den was painted lavender."

"Youíre right, David. You should be afraid of us all." Dev didnít let Laurenís sniggers deter her. "But in this instance," she looked up, tapping her pen on the desk, "we were discussing turkeys, and your name just naturally popped up."

David gave a fake laugh, complete with raised upper lip. He lifted the file folder. "If youíre not nice to me, I wonít tell you what Santa got you for Christmas."

"I already know what Santa got me for Christmas." A satisfied grin curled Devís lips. "Itís the same thing I got for my birthday," she informed David casually, her eyes never straying to Lauren, who still blushed a bright red.

David looked between the women for an explanation, but gave up quickly. "Yeah, okay. But his elves also just delivered the Republican and Democrat-suggested amendments to your DNA Registration Act."

Dev jumped up from her desk and joined David, peering down at the file. "What did it cost me?"

"Just the first time offender clause. AndÖ" David paused, looking so completely pleased with himself that Dev thought he might burst. He couldnít help but puff up his chest. "We also managed to rewrite it so that it has the full support of the NRA and all of the major law enforcement advocacy groups. You, Madam President, are a very popular person at the moment. Your latest numbers just came in, and it looks like youíve finally gotten past that bombing mess. Christmas is going to be good to you, Dev. Lots of people will be wanting to ride on your coattails."

Dev scowled. "And I thought my coattails where short and unpopular."

David tilted his head up as he exclaimed, "Ha!"

Dev jumped back, her eyes widening just a little.

"Thatís why Iím here. I make them long and popular."

Lauren regarded David carefully. "What did Beth put in your cereal this morning, David?"

Dev rolled her eyes. "Donít pay any attention to that. He always falls in love with himself every time he does a good job." Dev gave her Chief of Staff a ghost of a wink.

Liza glanced at her watch. "Shall we go pardon a turkey, maíam?"

Dev stood and retrieved her jacket. By rote, David moved forward and took it from her hands, helping her shrug into it and smoothing the sleeves.

"Wonderful job, David," Dev said softly, all teasing gone from her voice.

 

The tall man picked a piece of lint from Devís navy blue jacket. "You deserved this one, Dev," he answered back equally quietly. "Itís a good piece of legislation."

Dev nodded and cleared her throat, breaking the intimate moment between friends. "By all means, letís go save a fowl, little life." She looked at Liza and Lauren whose faces remained impassive. "Oh, come on, that deserved at least a little groan." She encouraged them by making a Ďhurry upí motion with her hands until she got the desired response. "Thank you. Now that didnít hurt, did it?"

 

* * *

 

Lauren found Dev in the music room that had been added and decorated during Bill Clintonís administration. It displayed instruments donated by some of Americaís most respected musicians. The walls were adorned with an eclectic combination of gold records, sheet music signed by Broadwayís great composers, photographs of artists who had visited or performed at the White House over the years, and paintersí renditions of singers and musicians ranging from Louis Armstrong to John Denver to Kathleen Battle. Dev had it outfitted with the latest electronic equipment, and the room was now a music loverís and a techno geekís delight.

The writer entered quietly, enjoying the soft sounds of Vivaldi that filled the room. It wasnít until she was nearly on top of Dev that she realized the woman was sound asleep in a large, padded recliner.

"Itís been a busy life, hasnít it, honey?" Lauren said softly, gently brushing her fingers through Devís hair. The President had been running herself to near exhaustion trying to wrap everything up as best she could, just so she could start all over again on January first.

Lauren smiled down at her lover, and gently increased the pressure of her fingers moving across Devís forehead. "Devlyn?" she cooed in a hushed voice. "Darliní?"

"Hmmm?"

"Your mom and dad are due in about an hour from now."

Devís eyes remained closed as she reached for Lauren and tugged her onto her lap. She wrapped her arms around the smaller woman and nuzzled a sensitive spot behind Laurenís ear. "Iím not speaking to my mother," she said softly, her voice rough with sleep. "She gave you that nasty, little picture."

"That is a perfectly charming, bare-naked baby picture. I love it."

"My mother is a troublemaker."

Lauren waggled her finger at Dev. "Your mother is a wonderful, kind, sweet woman."

A single blue eye opened very slowly and looked into the smiling face that Dev adored. "Do you have a fever? Are you delusional?"

"Dunno; maybe you should check."

Devís hand worked its way under Laurenís T-shirt. "Oooo, thatís nice and warm."

Lauren wrapped her arms around Devís neck, which started a mini make-out session that neither one wanted to end anytime soon. Dev groaned and threaded her fingers in Laurenís hair, crushing her lips against hers.

"Oh, yeah, they got it all figured out, Frank." Janet clapped her hands together. "I knew that book was a good idea!"

Laurenís head snapped up, and suddenly the arms around her were gone and she was toppling backwards. The dark-haired woman tried to grab her, but it was too late, and Laurenís bottom hit the floor with a glorious thump that was immediately followed with a not so glorious "Ouch!"

Dev grimaced as she leaned over and helped Lauren to her feet, "Iím sorry, sweetheart."

Lauren rubbed her backside, mumbling something about Janet learning to knock. "Síokay."

Dev gave Laurenís backside a little pat "Werenít you the one who, not two minutes ago, called her a wonderful, kind and sweet woman."

"How nice of you, dear." Janet Marlowe beamed at Lauren and opened her arms to the blonde for a hug. "I knew there was a reason I liked you so much."

Lauren moved over to Janet and gave her a hearty hug. "Welcome back, Janet. Dev was just saying how thrilled she was that you dug up those old photographs." Gray eyes danced with mischief. "I hope you brought the other ones we talked about."

Janet winked. "And more."

"Oh, yippie," Dev groaned, watching Lauren give her father a hug. Dev fell in after Lauren and gave both her parents hugs. She elbowed her father. "Iím so doomed."

"You sure are, Devil. But itís a good kind of doomed." He leaned in close and whispered in Devís ear, "Thatís a fine young woman youíve set your sights on. Or your mother wouldnít think so highly of her."

Dev pulled back and looked into her fatherís eyes, soaking up the acceptance sheíd always seen in the blue-green depths. "That means a lot, Dad, knowing that you and mom like her."

"Sheís a sweetie, and your mom adores her."

"Good." Devlyn glanced over at Lauren and her mother who were chatting conspiratorially. She looked back to her father. "Iím going to propose to her on Christmas Eve." Dev raised her finger to her dad. "But donít you dare tell mom," she whispered urgently. "There is no way she could keep from spilling the beans. David and I are having a hard enough time keeping it from Beth. And the fact that Iím so nervous Iím ready to swallow my tongue isnít helping at all."

"Devlyn, thatís wonderful. And I promise, not a word to your mother." He wrapped his arm around his daughterís shoulders and began leading her out the door. Frank had grandchildren to spoil, after all.

Lauren and Janet looked up to find they were alone in the room. Bewildered, they glanced around for a few seconds then shrugged and sat down on the sofa, laughing and continuing their conversation.

Frank nudged his daughter. "Your mom will have a wonderful time planning a wedding. Thank God our stock portfolio is healthy."

"Itís more than healthy, and you know it," Dev snorted. "But I sure hope mom wants to do something, because there is no way Iíll have time." She sighed again. "If I had to do it, weíd end up getting married in front of a Justice of the Peace. Hey," she nudged her father back. "You werenít due for another hour or so, and how did you find us?" Dev looked around, noticing for the first time that her parents didnít have a Secret Service escort.

"Lord, you know your mother. She told that sturdy, young agent who wanted to walk us around the halls to go find someone else to guard, that she wasnít going to steal the china."

Dev laughed softly. "Sounds just like something Lauren would say." She shook her head. "No wonder they get along so well."

Frank scratched his neatly trimmed, white beard. "Could be. I have noticed a few subtle similarities." He winked at his daughter. "Lucky you. But, to answer your question, we caught a tail wind and arrived early. I personally think it was divine intervention."

Dev stopped walking. "What?"

"I know that other passengers were praying that the flight would be over soon before your mother talked them to death."

This time the President burst out laughing. She linked hands with her father and looked behind her, surprised not to see Lauren or her mom following. "Should we-"

"Now, Devil, letís not be too hasty. Theyíll notice weíre gone. Eventually." Frank patted the hand he was holding. "Besides, donít forget, I was on that plane myself."

Chapter 12

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