Madam President

Madam President

Chapter II

February 2021

 

Tuesday, February 23rd

 

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

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

It had taken every single one of the last twenty-nine days for her to begin to become accustomed to rising at five in the morning so she could start the day with Dev. Lauren had actually groaned out loud when she found out that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays the President and a flock of Secret Service Agents went jogging. She smirked to herself as she began scratching out a few more thoughts. That wasnít quite true. They didnít jog. They raced the three miles around south lawn jogging trail as though their feet were on fire. Their blistering pace kept press corps participation to a bare minimum, and Lauren already knew Devlyn well enough to know that was no accident.

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

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays Dev worked out in the White Houseís private gym for at least an hour and a half, which was something Lauren found infinitely more palatable than the running. In this arena she had even shown the President a thing or two. Sunday was Ďfamily dayí. And Dev, Ďthe no good, lazy whelpí Ė Lauren underlined the words, drawing a wickedly smiling devilís face, complete with horns and flames shooting from her nose Ė didnít Ďofficiallyí exercise. But the woman got twice as much of a workout as normal because she always gave Emma the day off and took to chasing after Ashley, Chris and Aaron herself.

Dev even slept in until seven thirty or eight on Sundays, unless something crucial required her attention. Which, so far, had happened four Sundays in a row. But to Devlynís credit, she usually wrapped up her business before the children even woke up and didnít pick back up with it until they were tucked safely in bed.

The blonde woman quickly discovered that Devlyn was always working, even when she wasnít. And while Lauren could sneak back to the privacy of her room and collapse on her bed, Dev was always in a series of meetings or just one more phone call away from a little time to herself. Many nights Lauren would lay awake in bed, listening for Devlynís quiet footsteps as she slowly padded her way from her office to her bedroomÖ well after midnight. Lauren privately wondered if anyone could keep up the maddening pace established in this first month. And more importantly, why would they want to?

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

Lauren got a surprising thrill when she traveled with Devlyn in the Presidential motorcade. It wasnít the motorcade itself. Well, okay, she admitted privately, it is a great ego trip to feel like the world is spinning just for you. But what was even better, was that it gave her the opportunity to sneak a few moments alone with Devlyn. And although she wasnít positive, she suspected that Devlyn felt the same way. The older womanís sly grin, as she would shuffle them toward the waiting car, gave her away.

It was at times like these, alone in the back of Devís limousine, that they enjoyed some of their best conversations. In the past, Lauren had always prepared questions on note cards for her other subjects, stuffing them into her pockets to be used at a momentís notice. So far, with Devlyn, she hadnít even bothered. Dev was always willing to talk. She was honest and funny, and Lauren wasnít sure how it happened, but one day she heard herself laughing and telling Devlyn about her own college days, her research long forgotten in the wake of genuine smiles and a growing camaraderie.

They were becoming friends. Lauren could feel it. And while professionally she was certain this was a bad idea, personally she couldnít dredge up a single drop of will power to fight against it. She liked Devlyn Marlowe. And the more she got to know her, the more she wanted to know.

During the times she wasnít trailing after the President like a wayward puppy, Lauren was researching Devlynís family tree, consulting several well-known genealogists and even a cultural geographer. While Devlynís lineage wasnít going to be the focus of the biography any more than the campaign was, most readers seemed to appreciate it if you started at the beginning. Though, on occasion, Lauren would skip around chronologically and focus on the present day, trying to fit pieces of information with other bits and scraps of knowledge that would ultimately paint a portrait of an American President and a truly unique woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were sporadic moments of harshness amidst the general blandness of her youth, but she didnít dwell on them. She had grown up and gotten out, saving most of her contact with her parents for her monthly telephone calls home and short visits home at the holidays. Lauren glanced at the photograph again, and a bittersweet smile flickered across her lips before disappearing completely. No. She shook her head a little. Her childhood hadnít been anything like that.

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

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

Now Lauren wondered whether four would be nearly enough.

Friday, February 19th

 

"Well," David stood directly in front of the bossí desk, a thick stack of newspapers in his arms. "Twenty four days isnít quite a month."

Dev didnít even bother to look up; she just sighed and extended her hand. "What?" she asked in a voice that wavered somewhere between amused and annoyed.

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

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

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

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

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

She grinned rakishly. "No, but you can call the AMA and let them know I wouldnít mind playing doctorÖ" Dev instantly bit down on her tongue and chanced another glance up into Davidís wide, practically bulging, brown eyes. "You didnít hear that." She shook her finger at David. "I didnít say that!"

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

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

"What arenít you telling me here?"

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

"Me thinks thou doth protest too much." David pushed aside Devís steaming mug of coffee and leaned forward. "Something is going on between you and Lauren Strayer, isnít it?"

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

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

Devlynís eyes went slightly round. She wasnít expecting that. Damn you, David. "No." Then she shook her head, knowing that was a bald-faced lie. "I mean Ďyesí." But that wasnít quite the truth either. "Shit! I mean, Ďmaybeí." Jesus Christ, I sound like a hard core Democrat. "I donít know, David."

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

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

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

He blew out a frustrated breath. David didnít want to see his friend hurt. And Lauren could devastate both her career and her heart. But it was time that Devlyn started living again. Samantha had been the love of her life. But that life was over. And Dev had embarked on a new one the moment her wife had died. David was more than anxious to acknowledge that it was okay to feel againÖ even if the timing and circumstances sucked great big donkey balls. "Feels good, doesnít it?"

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

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

"Iím sorry for the interruption, Madam President." Liza gave her watch a perfunctory glance Ė the eighth one in the past five minutes. "Itís time for your press conference."

"Donít make that girl use a cattle prod," Jane called from somewhere behind Liza.

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

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

The President picked an imaginary piece of lint off the black, wool blazer. "Send copies of those to Lauren." She motioned toward the stack of newspapers. "I donít want her blindsided. And could youÖ ummÖ tell her Iím sorry about all this?"

David nodded. "Iíve already done it. And I asked her to skip the press conference today, too. I told her youíd call her right after."

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

"Yeah, my charming personality and good looks."

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

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

Devlyn grinned. "Iíd never say that. Your wife would kick my butt."

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

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

* * *

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

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

Gremlin whined and buried himself under Laurenís pillow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gremlin began to growl at the dark-haired women. Though even in the best of circumstances, he couldnít quite muster Ďferociousí.

"Hush!" Lauren wrapped her palm around Gremlinís slightly damp mouth and pulled him into her lap. "And for the last time, you canít bite that... itís just an image."

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

Lauren rolled her eyes. "You canít bite the real thing either. Itís about to start... quiet." She absently kissed the top of his head and folded her legs up underneath her Indian style, staring intently. "Devlyn will take care of this." Lauren nodded. "They wonít know what hit Ďem."

Dev shifted back and forth, waiting for the Press Secretary to introduce her. She couldnít help but wonder how Lauren was taking this news. Lauren is a reasonable, mature woman. Sheíll understand that this was inevitable and really couldnít be helped.

"Tear Ďem to shreds, Dev!" Lauren crowed eagerly.

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

Dev stepped out, and the cameras were turned on her. When she took her place, her gaze immediately drifted to where Lauren usually stood. Holding in the sigh, and hoping the disappointment didnít show on her face, Devlyn greeted the press. "Good morning."

Murmurs of ĎMadam Presidentí and ĎMorniníí answered her.

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

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

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

Devís expression hardened just a bit, but she answered smoothly, "Sheís a very talented biographer, and Iím delighted sheís agreed to write mine."

"What?" Lauren exclaimed to Devís image. She released Gremlin, who stuck his non-existent nose under the edge of the comforter and scooted underneath it to hide again. "Thatís it?" The writerís tone was incredulous. "Thatís all youíre going to say?"

Dev gestured to a woman in the middle of the room. "Címon, Kathleen. Iím sure you can do better than that."

The correspondent from CNN rose to her feet, pushing a lock of hair from her eyes. "I donít know about that, Madam President. Maybe you could fill us in on the details, like when did Ms. Strayer move into the White House, and why wasnít she put in VIP quarters? Why the residence? There was no press release to that effect. What are you hiding?"

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

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

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

Press Secretary Allen, who was waiting in the wings, closed her eyes briefly as she let out a long string of expletives under her breath. She turned to David. "Tell me she didnít use the word Ďprivateí."

David threw his hands in the air. "I donít think she meant it like it sounded." He shook his head. "Out of the frying pan, into the fire, my friend."

Dev immediately knew she had misspoken, and it wasnít just because the room exploded with questions.

"Where did you meet Ms. Strayer?

"How long have you known her?"

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

"Is she a real blonde?"

Two pale eyebrows disappeared into Laurenís hairline. "Youíll never have the pleasure of knowing, buddy," she answered tartly.

Dev silently endured the barrage of questions. She did consider what happened in her private residence to be private, despite the fact that Lauren was there on a professional basis. But why do I think the press isnít going to take it that way? Shit!

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

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

Laurenís eyes were drawn to Devís white-knuckled grip on the podium.

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

"No significance?" Lauren sprang to her feet, knocking her glasses onto the carpet. "Iíve just been crucified in every major newspaper in the country, and itís not significant?!" she shouted at Devís hologram. "Thanks so much!"

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

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

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

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

* * *

Lauren sat on her bed with her head in her hands. Her career was dying on the vine. What good was an historian and biographer who couldnít be trusted to be objective and honest? None. Jesus, Iím going to end up doing Ricky Martinís life story. I know it.

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

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

"You had your moment. And, if I recall, you decided to go with Ďno commentí." But, despite herself, she was drawn to the door. She took several steps toward it, but decided she wasnít ready to see Devlyn yet. Instead, she gracelessly plopped down on the coffee table, only to have it collapse under her weight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devlyn ignored the slumped set of Laurenís shoulders and pressed on when all she really wanted to do was give the woman a hug. "Havenít you been paying attention these last few weeks? Havenít you watched me jump from one issue to the next so quickly that sometimes I feel like a trick pony? If you havenít, then maybe you arenít the person for the job after all."

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

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

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

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

Devlynís lips curved into a sad smile. "I know whatís true, and so do you. Thatís all that matters today, because tomorrow weíre old news," she cocked her head to the side, "remember?" Then her forehead creased. She bit her lip, but couldnít stop the question that was on the tip of her tongue. "Would it be so horrible? People thinking that there was something between us. If it werenít for the job, I mean." That was smooth, Marlowe. Even Iím confused about what I just asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren nodded. She didnít know if that was still possible. But she was bound and determined to try. The writer lifted her chin. "Iím no quitter, Devlyn." She blinked away her remaining tears, splashing a salty drop on her cheek.

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

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

"Are we done arguing?"

A quick bob of the head.

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

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

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

Oh, God. Devlyn pressed her face into Laurenís soft, wavy hair, praying Ė hoping Ė that the smaller woman couldnít feel her heart, which was about ready to pound out of her chest. She squeezed a little tighter, then realized that her friendly two or three seconds were up, and sheíd have to release Lauren. Dev was about to speak when Laurenís door opened, and she looked up to find Christopher and Aaron staring back at her.

Laurenís gaze flicked to the door, and she affected a deer in the headlights look as the boys watched on, oblivious to the roomís mounting tension.

"The dog," Dev whispered in Laurenís ear, her warm breath causing a slight tremor in the writer. "Theyíre here for him."

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

"Gremlin!" the boys shouted happily.

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

Lauren stared for a moment. "Thatís amazing. Gremlin hypnotizes them."

"Itís true. My children are slaves to the cult of Gremlin."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You rat!" She made a mock angry face, but still said a small prayer of thanks. "Does this mean I donít have to sell a kidney?"

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

* * *

"Címon in." Lauren opened the door to her quarters, a soft, yellow light from the lamp sheíd left on spilling into the hallway. "Youíre going to love this picture. I just developed it over lunch. She was giving a speech to Congress."

Devís eyebrows hiked up behind her bangs. "Ashley?" Please tell me she wasnít a Republican.

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

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

"She looks just like you."

Devlyn felt a flush working its way up her neck. "I suppose so," she admitted sheepishly, although Lauren could still hear the pride in her voice. "Samantha always told me the same thing." Dev suddenly paused as though sheíd said something wrong. She felt a twinge of guilt, and her throat began to close. With a start, she realized that she hadnít thought of Samantha in daysÖ hadnít said her name in weeks. Tears filled her eyes, coming so fast she couldnít stop them.

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

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

Dev nodded weakly. "She was a very special person. But the world does keep spinning." Even if it took me a long time to really believe it. Her eyes fastened on Laurenís. "I donít think I was meant to walk through life alone." A wistful smile touched her face. "Itís much more fun with somebody else."

"Depends on the somebody," Lauren said seriously.

Devís voice was just as serious. "I guess it does."

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

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

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

"Whatís wrong, Daddy? Is it Mama?"

Dev wrapped her arm around Laurenís waist, bracing them both for bad news. Donít let someone be dead, Dev thought hastily.

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

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

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

"I know itís late. I just got back to my bedroom."

"Doesnít that lady President let you sleep?"

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

"Iíll tell you whatís wrong." He quoted The Revealer at length, and both women cringed. That was the tabloid rag that had used the phrase Ďbrainy sex kittení. "Everybody is talking about it! Our phone has been ringing off the hook. I had to unplug the damned thing. And now there are a bunch of news people parked on our front lawn, and they wonít leave!"

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

"We?" The word was said with as much rancor as the man could muster. This couldnít possibly be true, could it? "Who exactly is Ďweí?"

"UmmmÖ" Lauren fumbled for something to say, suddenly feeling very guilty despite the fact that she and Dev hadnít done anything wrong.

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

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

"You didnít tell them?!" Dev whispered harshly in Laurenís ear.

Lauren shrugged a little defensively as she pulled away from Dev. She had been abroad for nearly two years when she did Cardinal OíRoarkeís biography. And her parents never inquired once about her exact whereabouts. Never asked her for her address. They were content to have her phone number, which they never used. It hadnít occurred to her to let them know anything other than the fact that sheíd be in Washington D.C.

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

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

"Mr. Strayer, this is Devlyn Marlowe," Dev jumped in. "Please donít shoot the press. Iíll make sure your local police keep them from trespassing on your lawn."

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

"Yeah, right!" the man snorted. "And Iím the King of France."

Lauren covered her mouth, stifling a sudden laugh.

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

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

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

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

"Mr. Strayer, it really is me." Devlyn spoke over Laurenís renewed laughter.

"No shit?"

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

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

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

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

Devís eyes widened at the scolding, parental tone. Could someone elseís father ground you? "UhhÖ"

Oh, boy.

 

Sunday, February 21st

 

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

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

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

The blonde woman stood up to get a better view of the winter mayhem and wondered where Ashley was in the melee. Her eyes searched the lawn, pale brows drawing together when she realized the little girl wasnít there. "Come on, Gremlin, letís go for a walk."

Gremlin jumped up as though he hadnít been snoring only seconds before. He was ready to go in an instant, bouncing wildly at Laurenís feet, circling her madly as she gathered up her jacket and his leash. She shook her head and laughed at the dogís antics. "Crazy." Bringing along Gremís leash was more a habit than anything else. Here at the White House he wasnít required to be on his lead.

There were faster ways for Lauren to get to the lawn, but she strolled along the route that took her by the kidsí bedrooms and the Presidentís living room. Sitting in the hall outside the living room was Agent Hamlin. As she and the dog approached, Gremlin darted into the living room ahead of her. Lauren laughed to herself. Iím going to have to leave you here when Iím finished with this assignment, arenít I, Grem?

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

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

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

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

"You sure?" she asked gently. "Your brothers are having a ball. Why arenít you out with them?"

Ashley glanced to the door but didnít say anything. Lauren sighed. "Címon," she coaxed. "I think Gremlin wants to play. And Iím sort of tired this morning. Youíd be doing me a big favor if youíd play with him for a while and wear him out."

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

"Sure."

"But isnít it cold out?"

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

"Kay." The girl immediately brightened.

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

Ashley didnít bothering answering; she was already tugging on her boots.

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

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

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

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

 

Friday, February 26th

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

Dev shoved a plate of cookies at Lauren. She sighed and propped her feet on the coffee table. The fireplace was gently glowing, but Dev didnít think the flames were responsible for the dark shadows under Laurenís eyes. It had been a bear of a day, and she herself was drained to the bone. "Tired?" she asked needlessly.

Lauren looked at her like she was crazy, but answered the rhetorical question anyway. "Heck, yeah. Iím dead." The writer stared into her glass of milk with mild distaste. She hadnít drunk milk since she was a little girl. What was Emmaís obsession with the white liquid? When theyíd walked into the living room the older woman, with her hair up in rollers that had to be antiques, simply pressed the cold glasses into their hands and then marched off to bed without another word. Weird.

"I donít know how you do it day in and day out. I donít know how I follow you day in and day out." The shorter woman yawned. "And Iím not sure how weíre going to survive four years." She picked up several double-stuffed Oreos and sat them in her lap, not giving a ratís ass about the black crumbs on her crŤme-colored skirt. Thatís why God invented dry cleaning. She passed the plate back to Dev.

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

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

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

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

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

"All that fuss today was because youíre gay?"

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

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

Dev made a show of wiggling her happy, socked toes. "Please do. And, by the way, you have to be dead before they put you on a stamp. I donít want to give him that much satisfaction."

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

"Címon," Dev encouraged, wiggling her feet again. "Itís always better on the coffee table."

"Youíre sure?"

"Oh, please. This one didnít belong to George Washington either." She reached down and wrapped her fingers around Laurenís ankles.

The younger woman yelped at the unexpectedly cold hands.

"Sorry." Dev gestured at the glass of icy milk sheíd been holding. "My fingers arenít normally cold."

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lauren mumbled her agreement. If the public knew how much influence David, and even Jane, really had, America would have a collective heart attack. But Washington was a shark tank, and Devlyn needed a few friendly sharks swimming in her waters to make sure she didnít get eaten alive. Lauren turned her head slightly, watching as the President shoveled in what had to be her twentieth cookie.

Dev stopped mid-bite. "What?"

"You donít ever have to watch your weight, do you?" she asked enviously. "I think I hate you."

Given the opportunity, Dev gave Laurenís toned body a thorough once-over. "I donít think you have anything to be complaining about, Ms. Strayer," she teased, but had to drag her eyes back up to meet Laurenís. "Trust me, with the way we move around, very soon you will learn to eat anything and everything that is put before you. And you wonít gain an ounce. In fact, youíve lost a little already, havenít you?"

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

"No," Dev laughed. Iím just noticing everything about you. "But thatís the cool part about being here. Suddenly, all food is good for you. Youíll need all the extra energy you can find to get through marathon days like this one." She popped another cookie into her mouth, along with another deep swallow of milk. "Besides, I donít have to bother keeping track of my weight. All of America is watching it for me. Three hundred and twenty million people are all interested in how wide my ass will get in four years."

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

Dev grinned. "I wouldnít say that." In a heartbeat, her faced flushed a deep red, and she covered her eyes with her hands. "IímÖ ahÖ IÖ" Dev scrubbed her face, trying to erase the blush. "I cerÖ certainly didnít mean to say something as out of line as that." She shook her head. "Sometimes I wonder how I made it this far. Davidís right; open mouth, insert foot." Worriedly, she peeked between her fingers and saw Laurenís indulgent smile. "Iím sorry." Dev really wanted to kick her own ass right now. God, I canít remember ever being this embarrassed!

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 3

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