Wednesday, March 3rd
Washington D.C. was a mud pit. Snow had given way to a deep, icy slush, which, in turn, mutated into a soupy, dirty sludge. But, thankfully, the spring warm front had parked itself over the nationís capital and had finally vanquished even the last signs of what had been a brutal winter. Lauren cocked her head toward the window, hearing the faintest chirping of a robin. Oh, yeah, she sighed. I am so ready for spring.
The writer smiled at the vase of fresh-cut, yellow roses that brightened her desk. Every evening when she made her way to her room, a fresh bouquet was there to greet her. At first, she assumed that they were delivered to every room in the residence as a matter of course. Then she realized she hadnít seen them anywhere but her room. She had asked David McMillian about it, and the man just snorted, never really answering her question.
This sunny morning, the President was in a meeting with her National Security Advisor, and Lauren took the time to start researching a topic that had been niggling at her for weeks. She had thought Devlyn might discuss it with her herself. But the few times that it naturally came up in the conversation, Devlyn looked tense, angry perhaps. Unable to bear the shadows of pain behind Devís eyes, Lauren steered the conversation into different waters, despite the fact that Dev appeared willing to press forward. Thankfully, this part of the Presidentís past had already been very well publicized.
With a series of quick commands, Lauren fired up her computer and logged on.
"Good morning, Ms. Strayer," the soft computer voice greeted her.
"Good morning." She laughed at her response. She always answered the greeting, even though it was a machine. It somehow just seemed rude not to. "Search files. Marlowe, Devlyn."
"Searching. Files located. Directory?"
Lauren leaned back in her chair and removed her glasses, rubbing the bridge of her nose as the earpiece found its way into her mouth. "Sub-directory: Marlowe, Samantha. Source: All available."
"Searching. Files located. Directory?"
"Open all files. Most recent first. Current directory."
"File name: Sentencing Hearing. Harris, Theodore, 5/17/2017"
A three-dimensional video image cued up, and Lauren replaced her glasses, sliding her chair back a foot or two to maximize the resolution of the image. Dev was in a wood- paneled courtroom, and the mere sight of her caused Lauren to suck in an unexpected breath. The dark-haired woman was standing alongside a podium, her face drawn and tired looking, dark circles ringing normally bright eyes. She looks like sheís been to hell and back.
"If it pleases the Court," Dev paused and took a sip of water. "I stand here before you today, not as the Governor of the state of Ohio, but as a victim. I stand before you, a spouse in mourning over the loss of myÖ my wifeÖ"
Devís eyes flashed, and Lauren could see a barely suppressed rage mingled with a profound sadness, both begging to be released. "I spent nearly fifteen years with Samantha and intended to spend many more." Her penetrating gaze flicked sideways, and her face hardened. "Except that that man," she pointed to a bearded, frazzled-looking man who appeared to be in his early thirties, "decided to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking all night. As has already been proven, he was speeding along in a drunken stupor when he broadsided the car that Samantha was driving. Mind you, his car was fully equipped with auto-drive. And that would have prevented the accident. If he had bothered to turn it on!"
Lauren leaned forward, watching intently as Devlyn paused again, fighting to keep her emotions in check. Her chest felt tight, Devís tension making it hard for her to breathe.
"The defendant left that crash scene with barely a scratch to show for it. And while Samantha Marlowe layÖbleÖbleedÖ bleeding and dying, trapped in her car, he continued on his merry way to the liquor store to buy more booze!"
The image quickly shifted to the defendant, whose head was now in his hands, before panning back to Devlyn. Lauren recognized Jane in the gallery.
"It took the fire department nearly an hour to tear apart the car and get her out. AndÖ and by that time she was alreadyÖ." Devís voice dropped to a whisper, "she was dead."
The sound of weeping could be heard in the background, and Lauren wondered whether it was a friend or family member of Samanthaís or the defendant himself.
Devís jaw worked for a moment, and she stepped back around behind the podium. Her eyes dropped down to look at the notes she had spread out on the slanted wooden surface. They were crinkled and tattered, and Dev suddenly pushed them away, as though deciding not to use them after all.
Lauren looked from the papers to Dev. It was too personal to be read in open court, wasnít it?
"She left behind three beautiful children," a tiny smile edged her lips, and Lauren smiled back sadly. No matter what the circumstances, Dev always smiled when she mentioned her kids. "Our three-year-old daughter, Ashley, whom Samantha adopted as soon as I had her. Our son, Christopher, who is one. HeÖ um... he took his first steps the day after Samantha was killed." Sniffles joined the sound of muted weeping in the background. "And our youngest baby, Aaron, who was barely four weeks old when she was killed."
Devís composure began to crack, and hot tears slowly crept down her cheeks, plunking lightly onto the papers in front of her. Lauren closed her eyes briefly, her stomach churning. She didnít want to see anymore, but she knew she had to.
"These three bright and wonderful children will never know the love of this woman who took care of them, and in the case of Chris and Aaron, carried them in her body, gave them the very lives they live today. Because of his carelessnessÖ his recklessnessÖ his indifference and disregard for human lifeÖ" Devlyn spat. "Because of his refusal to seek treatment after his previous two DWIs, I have lost my partner and my best friend. He destroyed my family," Dev stopped, completely unable to continue.
She wonít even say his name, Lauren thought.
Dev took a deep breath and stilled her shaking hands, making firm eye contact with the judge. "I request that this Court do the right thing and sentence this man to the maximum time allowed by Ohio state law for the crimes of which he has been convicted. Iíll never get Samantha back." Her voice shook. "Our children have lost an irreplaceable part of their lives. The community has lost an outstanding, contributing member. He," she jerked her head toward the defendant, "should lose as much as we have." Dev squared her shoulders. "But thatís not possible. So his freedom is the least that he can give."
David suddenly entered the picture, wrapping a strong arm around Devlynís waist as she appeared to falter for just a second.
"Halt image." Lauren reached under the lens of her glasses, catching a salty tear just as it began to fall. Sheíd had enough. "Computer, tell me the sentencing of one," she glanced down at the handwritten notes in her lap, "Teddy or Theodore E. Harris. Convicted of aggravated vehicular manslaughter in Ohio, 5/14/2017."
"Searching. File located. No visual."
The writer stared at the frozen image on the screen, looking directly at Devís shell-shocked face. "Open," she said quietly.
"Harris, Theodore, a k a, Harris, Teddy, case number 12843CR17, sentenced on 5/18/2017 to two years in Lebanon State PrisonÖ"
Laurenís jaw dropped. "Two years?" She shook her head in disbelief. "Two lousy years!"
The computer continued, unfazed by the womanís outburst. "Paroled on 5/19/2018, after serving twelve months."
"My God," Lauren whispered. She took off her glasses and disgustedly tossed them onto the desk, rubbing her watery eyes.
The phone on her desk startled her from her thoughts. "Computer off." She wiped her eyes once more and reached over, tapping the video feature on the phone. She was immediately greeted by Devís smiling face.
The President leaned back in her chair, and Lauren could tell by the background that Dev was in the Oval Office. "How was your meeting?"
"Top secret." Dev grinned and wrinkled her nose in a way Lauren found impossibly endearing.
It would be nice to watch laugh lines form around those baby blues. Iíll bet Samantha was looking forward to that. "Of course. Iím sorry."
"No problem. Listen, it just so happens that Iím sort of free for lunch. If you donít mind eating in my office, that is. I can sign my name, talk to you and eat my lunch at the same time." The smile slipped from Devlynís face, and she eyed Lauren worriedly, idly noting the absence of her glasses. "IsÖ umÖ are you okay, Lauren? You look a little upset."
Lauren smiled softly, and made a conscious effort to brighten her somber mood. "Iím fine. And you can do all those things at the same time?" Her voice was playful. "My, my, you are multitalented."
Hush, Dev. But she couldnít keep a charming, slightly mischievous grin from stretching across her face. "Years of experience. How about it?"
"Dunno," the blonde teased. "Lemme check my calendar and see if the Prime Minister of Great Britain hasÖ"
"Hardy har har."
Lauren chuckled. "Iíll be right down."
* * *
"I donít give a good goddamn!" Dev slammed her fist against her desk.
Lauren heard the jarring thud and winced at its intensity as she quietly closed the door. The entire White House didnít need to hear this. When she turned, Dev was on her feet, the receiver pressed tightly against her ear. "What do you mean they changed their minds? Theyíre only allowed to do that when they disagree withÖ wellÖ me! Get those votes back. I wonít lose this because some lame ass Democrats canít decide which side of the fence to stand on!"
The biographer couldnít resist. She brought her camera up and began clicking off several frames. Damn, Dev, you do have a temper, donít you? Lauren smiled inwardly. That pulsing vein on your forehead would make an impressive book cover shot.
"Find them! And donít call me back until you do." She slammed the phone down and then hit the intercom switch. She took a deep breath, purposely calming herself before speaking. "JaneÖ"
"The Chief of Staff is already on his way, Madam President. He was at a meeting on the Hill, but heís coming now. I put the call in as soon as the Deputy Chief of Staff phoned you."
"God bless you, Jane." Dev leaned against her desk with her palms against the flat surface. "Thank you." She sighed. "Are you having fun being President yet?"
Jane laughed. "Uh huhÖ. and youíre welcome."
The President switched off the intercom and sheepishly glanced up at Lauren.
"Hold it!" Lauren commanded, crouching down and changing the angle of the picture, and focusing the lens.
Dev shook her head and burst out laughing. She moved around the desk and leaned on its edge, crossing her long, silk covered-arms across her chest. "Suddenly I feel like a fashion model." She struck a pose, causing Lauren to giggle.
"You could have done that, you knowÖ been a model. The camera loves you." Lauren lowered her camera. "Do I want to know whatís got you so upset?"
Dev pursed her lips unhappily. "Ah, my DNA Registration legislation is meeting with some last minute and very unexpected resistance."
"I knew that was gonna happen," Lauren said absent-mindedly as she fussed with her camera lens.
Twin eyebrows jumped.
Lauren shrugged. "During that meeting last week, well, they just didnít seem like theyíd made up their minds. I didnít believe them when they said theyíd support you. It was those Yankees from New Jersey that turned on you, wasnít it?" She made a face. "I think they were just here for the free lunch."
"Well, next time feel free to warn me, okay?" Dev chuckled. "Speaking of lunch, looks like Iím skipping it today. There is a little bipartisan butt that needs kicking." For once the Emancipation Party seemed to unite behind an issue. Itís really not a good idea for you boys to stab me in the back like that. Time a few people found that out.
"No problem." Lauren waved a dismissive hand, bringing the camera to her ear to listen to the film rewind. There were easier ways to take pictures. But she loved this old camera, enjoying that she had to think to use it. "Want a spectator? Itís been, oooooohÖ" she put her fingertip to her chin, pretending to think, "at least a week since Iíve seen a bipartisan butt kicking. I need my fix." The writer grinned.
"Iíd be honored, madam." The President jumped down and bowed slightly at the waist before retaking her perch. "Iíll even be your escort." Dev stopped speaking for a moment and stared intently at Lauren. "Would you vote Ďyesí for my bill? Youíve heard more than enough about it to make a well-informed decision."
Lauren sighed resignedly. Why did Devlyn always do this? She winced then drew in a deep breath. "WellÖ umÖ"
"Lauren." Devís impatient voice dropped an octave.
"No?!" Dev exploded off the desk and marched over to other woman.
Lauren shook her head firmly, adopting a more stubborn pose as Devlyn approached. "No."
The younger woman just waited.
Devlyn threw her hands in the air. "But why? I rejected the Republican proposal requiring every person to submit a DNA sample at birth."
Lauren lifted a sassy eyebrow, letting Dev know exactly how she felt about the little suggestion made by the Speaker of the House.
"My proposal only registers people when theyíre arrested. Isnít there a single Democrat who will see reason?"
"Apparently not. And innocent people get arrested every day," Lauren said reasonably, opening the door to Devís office. "Itís invasive and creepy. Like Big Brother or something."
Dev motioned with her hands as they walked. She was in full Ďpersuasioní mode. "We already fingerprint people when theyíre arrested. And this will ultimately save lives and help solve future crimes."
The younger woman stopped walking. "Fingerprints are notÖ" Lauren shivered and said her next word with so much distaste that Dev nearly laughed, "blood. You canít clone people from their fingerprints. And what if someone decided to do something hinky with all those samples, huh?" Okay, she was half-teasing about that last part. But she knew Devlyn would bite.
"Arrrrrghhhh! I donít want to clone anyone! God," Dev rolled her eyes as they turned the corner and made their way down the hallway leading toward the Green Room. "Theyíre still showing those damned "X-Files" reruns on television, arenít they?"
Round, gray eyes were the picture of innocence as the women continued on their way.
Thursday, March 4th
"So," from the door of Laurenís room, Dev grinned over her mug of coffee, "you want to take a trip with me?"
"Business or personal?" The blonde smiled back as she looked up from her journal and at the President.
"Does it really matter?"
"Iíll need to know what to pack."
Dev rolled her shoulders, and with her free hand unbuttoned her blazer, leaving it on. "Itís business. Our protocol specialist, Mrs. Baldridge, will help you with what to take." She took another sip, then set her ruby red mug on a coaster on the corner of Laurenís second coffee table. Silently, she gestured at the couch.
Lauren nodded her approval and snagged a stack of mail from her desk as she joined the President.
Dev settled down across from Lauren, bouncing a little on the springy cushion. She looked around covertly for Gremlin, the Devil Dog. "Your room smells nice," she commented idly.
"Itís the flowers."
"Umm, niceÖ" Dev figured Gremlin was hiding someplace and would jump out and growl at her later. But for now, sheíd focus on Gremís mistress. "Lauren, Iíd love for you to come, of course. But Iíll understand if you need a break." Though she didnít like the idea of not seeing the writer every day, Dev did appreciate that the daily grind could be oppressive at times. "Weíve been at this for nearly two solid months. Surely youíre getting tired of me."
"Nah." Lauren stretched. "Compared to Supergeek, who spoke computer gibberish most of the time, and Cardinal OíRoarke, who napped from 12:00 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. every single day, youíre a dream," she teased.
Dev bit the inside of her cheek. "Gee, thanks."
Lauren laughed softly as she sorted through her mail. Most of it was junk, which she left unopened, but she did retain a thick manila envelope that was from Starlight Publishing. She was certain it was an advance copy of her latest book, but she was slightly embarrassed by the notion of Devís seeing this particular piece of work. Lauren dragged her eyes up from her envelope.
"Youíre very dedicated. I appreciate that," Dev commented sincerely.
Lauren flushed with pleasure. Coming from a true workaholic, that was a big compliment. "So, where are we going, Madam President?"
"Weíre going to the U. S. Embassy in the United Arab Alliance. I need to oversee some trade negotiations. And there are certain - shall we call them Ďdiplomaticí - issues that are more easily resolved if I host the talks at our Embassy."
Lauren gave Dev a confused look, still fingering the envelope in her hand. "Diplomatic issues?"
Dev grunted her agreement. "The whole Ďsheís a woman and a demon lesbianí diplomatic issue." She smiled wryly. "In the Embassy weíre technically on American soil. And what is punishable by death in their country, is, well, it will be begrudgingly accepted at the U. S. Embassy. It would also be a great insult for them to turn down my invitation. These people are very respectful of their traditions, and they wonít want to insult me."
"Sneaky." Lauren was continually impressed by the way that Dev worked around the limitations placed on her by her gender and sexual orientation.
Dev chuckled. "Thank David. Thatís why he gets the big bucks and bigger headaches." She gestured at Laurenís hands. "You gonna open that, or would you rather I leave first?" Dev didnít want to leave at all. But she couldnít take another second of Lauren picking at that envelope. She was nearly ready to reach over and rip it open herself. But, she conceded inwardly, that would be just a tad difficult to explain.
"No!" Okay, that was way too quick. Lauren cleared her throat awkwardly. "I umÖ you donít have to leave. I mean, you donít have a meeting or anything, right?" she asked hopefully.
"Not a single one, and itís only 5:30." Dev crossed herself. "Itís a miracle."
Lauren moved to get up, clutching the envelope. "Let me just put this away. Iím sure itís nothingÖ"
"Aw, címon, Lauren." Dev smiled charmingly and poked at the slightly dingy, golden paper. "Iím dying to see what happens next to the intrepid, female explorer, Adrienne Nash. Or do I have to call you Ms. Gallager when I talk about your series?"
Lauren looked at Dev blankly, thinking she must have heard her wrong. She couldnít meanÖ "YouÖ you read these?" The younger woman waved the envelope.
"Oh, yeah! Devour is more like it. Iíve read all of them. Been waiting like an idiot for the new one."
Lauren fell back onto the sofa limply. "You knew and you still hired me?" Duh! Of course she knew. Sheís the President of the United Frigginí States of America! She probably knows more about me than I do.
Dev scoffed at the question. "Your biographies are the best Iíve ever read. And your credentials as a biographer and historian are impeccable." Dev picked up her mug again and took a healthy swallow. "I never have understood the notion that writers couldnít do both fiction and non-fiction, and still be respected in each field. Plus... wellÖ um..."
"Plus, I use a pen name for my fiction so I can still Ďpassí as respectable because nobody knows?" Laurenís voice was resigned, but tinged with sarcasm.
Dev stiffened. "I control a lot of things. But I donít set the standards of acceptability for the publishing industry."
Laurenís gaze dropped to her shoes. Quit being such a bitch about it. Itís not her fault you canít own up to most of the writing you do. "Of course you donít. Iím sorry." A thought occurred to her, and she smiled tentatively, hoping to make up for her misdirected anger. She handed the envelope to Dev. "Here, enjoy it. A gift from me to you; the first copy of Lauren Gallagerís newest tale."
Devlyn snatched the book like a little kid who had just been handed her first present on Christmas morning. She practically squealed with delight. "Ooo, neat!"
Lauren burst out laughing as Dev tore open the envelope with abandon. The tall woman looked up as she slipped the book out. "What?" she complained somewhat bashfully. "You gave it to me. Donít laugh at me now."
Lauren blinked as Devlyn flipped the book over in her hands, examining it from every angle and running her fingers over its shiny cover. Then she looked up at her with eyes so filled with innocent pleasure that they immediately brought to mind Ashleyís, despite the difference in color.
A slow blush worked its way across Devís cheeks. "Donít suppose youíd autograph it for me?"
Mutely, Lauren bobbed her head. Wow. I canít believe this. "Iíd be happy to. Let me get a pen." Before she could move, Dev was seated next to her, eagerly handing her the book and a pen. "Umm... wow, that was fast. Okay, any particular way you want this signed?"
"No." Dev shook her head as she tapped her knees excitedly. "Just think of me as your biggest, geekiest fan."
Lauren chuckled as she took the book back, opening it carefully. Sheíd lay money on the fact that Devlyn Marlowe didnít break the bindings on books. The tip of her tongue appeared for just a second as she thought of what to write. Then she quickly inscribed the book and handed it back. "Youíre all set."
Dev gingerly opened the novel, peeking at the inside cover. "To Wonder Woman: Please enjoy it, my geeky friend. Lauren Gallager." Dev shook her head. "Cute," she snorted. "Veeery cute." The President was loving this and it showed in the sparkle of her eyes and the bright smile that creased her cheeks. "Well, now I have something to read on the plane."
Dev jumped, fumbling with the book as it threatened to fly out of her hands. "What? What is it?" She searched Laurenís face.
"Weíll be taking the Bat Plane, wonít we?"
Dev blew out a relieved breath, her eyebrow twitching in amused annoyance. "Iím thirty-eight years old. One more unexpected exclamation like that, and I wonít see thirty-nine." She clutched her chest for effect, and Lauren rolled her eyes. "And, yes, weíll be aboard Air Force One, if thatís what you mean. And Lauren?"
A pale head tilted.
A reckless grin made Dev feel like a kid again. "Itís so much better than the Bat Plane."
Friday, March 5th
"Come on now, give me a hug." Dev was on her knees with the children.
The looks of disappointment on their faces tore at Lauren in a way she never thought possible. Sweet Jesus, is it always like this? Iíd never be able to go anywhere!
"You gonna be gone long?" Chris asked, his face buried in Devís long, glossy hair.
"Iíll only be gone as long as I have to, pal. You know that. Iíll be back as soon as I can."
"Miss you." Aaron gave her a kiss on the cheek as Dev wrapped her other arm around him.
"Iíll miss all you guys. And I promise, when I come home, weíll do pizza and Disney movies all day on my first Sunday back, okay?"
"Can Lauren and Grem watch movies and eat pizza too?" Chris asked, pushing his glasses up his nose, looking at Lauren with a bashful grin.
Dev glanced up at the writer, giving her a tiny smile. So, youíve bewitched my children too, huh? "If she wants to." Her eyes flicked to Laurenís and held the same look of adoration that Christopher was currently sporting. " But youíll have to ask her yourself."
Before Chris could open his mouth, Lauren answered. She held Devís penetrating gaze as she spoke. "I wouldnít miss it for the world. I enjoy spending time with you guys," she heard herself say. Huh. I really do. Judd would keel over from a heart attack if he heard me say that. She glanced over to Chris and wagged her finger in warning. "But no pizza for Grem. It makes him burp."
Dev winced at the mention of the dogís name. "Speaking of Gremlin." The hateful little flea bag. "Laurenís gonna need someone to look after him while weíre gone, and we agreed you guys can do it if you want. What do you think?"
The boys cheered, but Ashley, who was standing next to Emma, only shrugged noncommittally. Dev rose and moved past the tow-headed boys to her daughter. "Now címon, Moppet." Her dark head tilted in entreaty. "Youíre the oldest, you have to agree too."
"ĎKay." Ashley tried to smile, but it was weak and watery at best.
Dev leaned in and touched noses with her daughter. "I have a surprise for you."
Despite herself, Ashleyís eyes suddenly glittered with youthful excitement. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." Dev gave a whistle and the door opened. Gremlin came charging into the room, followed by a certain former Ohio State Trooper who had finally been coaxed into joining the Secret Service.
Ashleyís eyes grew wide as saucers when she saw her friend. "Amy!" She bolted past Dev, her bothers and Lauren to grab the woman around the waist, squeezing as tightly as she could.
Dev said a prayer of thanks that she was finally able to do something to make Ashley smile. She knew it had been a difficult winter for the girl.
Devlyn asked Emma, "Youíre sure youíre okay with dog sitting?"
"Tch. Why not? Iíve been taking care of you for years. The dog might actually listen to me." The older woman gave a playful poke to Presidential ribs.
"I really appreciate it too, Emma," Lauren offered, delighted by the motherly interplay between Emma and Devlyn. "I think heíd be miserable in a kennel after all the attention heís used to getting from the kids. They love him."
The nanny smiled knowingly. "Itís springtime." She waved her hand out in front of her. "Itís in the air."
Dev regarded the ugly black and white dog that looked like his face had been smashed flat by a cast-iron skillet. She just knew he was a Republican. "Hey, you little beastie."
Gremís ears perked up, and his tail began wagging furiously. Then he saw who called him and he grumbled, baring crooked teeth and mottled gums.
Dev reached into her pocket and pulled out a small zip-locked baggie. "Iíve got something for you," she taunted wickedly. Dropping to the ground, she sat back on her heels and pulled a treat from the clear plastic, pretending to eat. She moaned and hummed Ďboy, eating this is one hell of an orgasmic experienceí sounds the entire time.
Lauren unconsciously licked her lips.
Gremlin took a nervous step forward, his beady eyes trained on Devís hand.
Devlyn waved the dog snack in front of his face, watching as his little nostrils flared with interest.
"Now youíre bribing my dog?" Laurenís hands moved to her hips. "Good grief, have you no shame?"
"Nope. None." Dev shrugged lightly. "I figured if you could be bought for a double-stuffed Oreo, Gremlin would be ripe for the taking with a few Snausages." Youíd better not make me look stupid in front of your mommy by biting me, Gremlin! I hear NASA is looking for a few test animals for their next mission to Mars. Devlyn was careful to hold the treat at the very tips of her fingers as the dog sniffed it warily. "Oh, yeah. You know you want it." Devís eyes narrowed with a predatory glint. "CímonÖ take it."
Lauren watched in fascination as the President of the Unites States and her Pug faced off in a battle of wills. She was taking even odds. I canít believe Iím seeing this.
But Grem broke first, snatching the fragrant treat from extended fingers before he retreated behind Emmaís legs. Dev felt a big, satisfied smile edge its way onto her face. "Ahhh, progress. I wish Congress were that easy." The tall woman put her palms on her knees and pushed to her feet so she could hand the bag to Emma. "Keep those handy in case he turns on you."
Emma nodded. "Be careful, Devlyn Marlowe. These babies need you." She gave the President a long hug.
"I will, Emma. And weíll be home soon." Dev disentangled herself and opened her arms to her children once more. "Last chance. You know just one is never enough for me." She sighed. "I have to go before Liza has a conniption and gets the cattle prod after me."
All the kids ran over and hugged their mother in turn. Ash tugged her down to her level. "Thank you, Mommy. Amy is the best present ever."
"Iím glad, Moppet. Take good care of her. She just finished her Secret Service training, and I think she could use a little TLC."
The girl giggled. "I will. I promise." Then, without thought, she darted over to Lauren and threw her arms around her.
Lauren started in surprise but managed to gently, albeit it a little awkwardly, lower her hands and softly rub Ashleyís back. She wasnít sure what to say and felt a flood of relief course through her when Ashley spoke first.
"I promise weíll take good care of Grem, too."
Lauren relaxed and returned the girlís hug with more vigor. "I know you will, Ash. Have fun while weíre gone."
* * *
Lauren tried not to let the excitement show in her face as the limousine pulled up to the plane. Itís just a plane. Itís just a plane. Youíve been on a plane before. Her eyes were riveted on the enormous steel monster. Oh, man, for two Hershey bars and a window seat on that bad boy, Iíd have Devís baby. Her face turned bright red as the direction of her thoughts registered.
"Iíve arranged for you to have your own office onboard," Dev commented casually, oblivious to the sometimes profound, but always unique, mental machinations of her biographer. She leaned closer to Lauren, wondering exactly when it was that theyíd gone from sitting across from each other to sitting side by side. Not that she was complaining. "Itís the office normally reserved for the First Lady. I umÖ I hope you like itÖ and the plane, too. Itís really nice and um... fast," she babbled. Great, now I sound like a sixteen-year-old trying to impress a pretty girl with a ride in my Daddyís Corvette.
"Oh, well, Iíll just have to make do. I donít know how Iíll manage," Lauren drawled, fanning herself in mock-distress and doing her best southern belle imitation.
Dev laughed. "Well, itís only fitting that you have the First Ladyís office on Air Force One since youíve been sleeping in her room in the White House." Dev pulled Laurenís new novel from the bag at her feet and eagerly set it on her lap. "I donít intend to work any more than I have to on this flight. Iím going to read."
Laurenís ego practically purred under Devís gentle stroking. She never got to enjoy a real live fanís reaction to her novels. "Any suggestions for the next Adrienne Nash book? Since youíve read them all?"
Dev nodded emphatically. "Oh, absolutely. She needs a girlfriend."
Lauren crossed her arms, drawing back from Dev. "Oh, she does, does she?" Could be interesting. A tall, beautiful one with piercing blue eyes perhaps? That would sure throw a few readers for a loop.
"Yup!" Dev grinned. "Sheíd be much more at peace with herself. More content. And completely satisfied."
Pale brows lifted. "Thatís one hell of a girlfriend."
Lauren glanced sideways at the President. "And what makes you think Adrienne Nash is interested in women?"
Before Dev could answer, the car stopped and her door was opened from the outside. She smiled and climbed out, turning to give the waiting Press a quick wave before extending her hand to Lauren. With a slight tug, she helped the writer out of the car. "What makes you think sheís not?" Dev asked, pressing her hand lightly against the small of Laurenís back, giving her a nudge in the right direction.
The women were pelted with a flurry of questions from the waiting Press, their shouts barely heard above the general hum of car and plane engines and other airport activity. Dev completely ignored the reporters, but noticed that Laurenís back went ramrod straight and that her stride slowed after a particularly personal and inappropriate question was thrown her way. The President leaned down a little and told Lauren, "Just keep walking. Ignore it."
The blonde woman lifted her jaw, and Dev felt a flash of worry. She could tell that Lauren was considering doing or saying something, and Dev shivered when she imagined what it could be. "Ahh... Lauren, Iím sure whatever youíre thinking about doing would be extremely satisfying."
Lauren nodded tersely, kicking a pebble across the concrete as she picked up the pace. "So very satisfying."
"But please donít. It will only add fuel to the fire."
Dev paused, allowing Lauren to start the climb up the stairs ahead of her. She was very well aware of the cameras going off all around them as they boarded. At the top Lauren paused to wait for Dev, but quickly stepped inside when Dev motioned her back. "Go inside so theyíll leave you alone." The President winked, then turned at the top of the steps to give a final wave before stepping onboard herself.
David met them at the door, as did Liza, who slipped a file into Devís hand. "We have a call waiting for you, Madam President."
Devís head dropped forward and she groaned. "Of course you do. Iíll take it in my office. David, will you show Lauren to her office and make sure that her computer and other things were deliv-"
David nodded and gave Dev a push toward her office. "Everything is ready, and Iíll be happy to show her where she can set up."
Dev gave Lauren an aggrieved look, then peeled off, following Liza down the hall. Before she disappeared into her office, she turned around and tapped Laurenís novel, yelling, "Iím telling you-"
"Iím thinking about it," Lauren shot back with a grin.
"Thinking about what?" David gingerly took the writer by the elbow and pointed to the opposite end of the hallway.
"Lots of things," the blonde admitted quietly.
David opened the door to the office and gestured for Lauren to enter. "Wow." She took a moment to take it all in. "This is incredible. I canít believe Iím on an airplane."
"Well, itís not called ĎThe Flying Oval Officeí for nothing. It really is amazing. Did you know that about 238 miles of wire wind through the plane? That is more than twice the wiring found in a typical 747. The wire protects the plane from electromagnetic pulses generated by a thermonuclear blast. Even in a nuclear war, weíll still be able to receive electronic signals," he enthused.
The blood drained from Laurenís face.
"Oh! Sorry. Not that I suspect a thermonuclear war," David offered quickly.
"Thanks for clearing that up."
He unbuttoned his jacket and ran a hand through his close-cropped red hair. Taking a deep breath he asked, "Can I come in for a moment? Iíd like to talk to you for a few minutes."
Lauren eyed him seriously, chewing her lip as she wondered if sheíd done something wrong. She and David had been getting along just fine these past few months. Lauren moved behind her desk and dropped into a soft leather swivel chair. It forced David to talk to her across the desk and put her in an immediate position of power. It was a trick sheíd subconsciously picked up from Dev. "Sure. Is something wrong?"
"Truth is," David closed the door and took a seat on the couch, skipping over the chair in front of the desk, "Iím not sure."
"What do you mean? Is there a problem with the book?" Lauren had agreed to let David read the rough notes that would form the beginning of the prologue to Devís biography. It was mostly background and family information and wouldnít change, no matter what happened in the next four years. Sheíd never shared any part of her preliminary work before, but, as Devís best friend and the Presidentís Chief of Staff, she valued Davidís unique insight.
"No! Everything looks great so far. Dev is going to love it. Sheíll get a big chuckle out of the fact that one of her ancestors was a convicted horse thief. Must be where her natural talent for politics comes from."
"Itís Dev." He looked her directly in the eye. "Sheís, umm, really opened up to you, you know?"
Lauren nodded reluctantly, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable with where this was going. "Thatís true. For a biography to be good, a subject has to open up to the writer."
"Iím not talking about the book, Lauren. Iím talking about on a personal level. Sheís really taking a chance here. In fact, I havenít seen her warm up to another person so quickly since..." his words trailed off, and Lauren caught the significance.
"Samantha?" Her voice conveyed her astonishment.
David nodded. "I can see you understand." He stood and buttoned his jacket. "I trust you not to hurt her. Youíre the first person in a long time who has seemed to make her happy." He paused. "Just donít lead her on. Please." The man turned and quietly left the office.
Dumbfounded, Lauren blinked several times in rapid succession. Lead her on? Coming to her senses, she jumped up from her desk. "David, wait!"
The Chief of Staff stopped and turned around in the hall. "Yeah?"
"You believe the rumors, donít you?" Lauren lowered her voice, looking around a little nervously. "The ones about Devlyn and me."
"Iím not sure what to believe at this point." He placed his hand on the plane wall as he felt the big machine begin to taxi down the runway. "Iím just asking you to be careful."
"Then, just like Devlyn, youíre going to have to trust me." She could see the hesitancy in his eyes. "Iíll admit it probably wasnít the smartest professional move Iíve ever made. But somewhere in the last two months, we became real friends, David. Please know that I wouldnít do anything I thought would hurt her. Iím not leading anyone on."
Her voice was pleading, and he had no choice but to believe her. He hated being surrounded by honest people. This was Washington politics for Godís sake.
"I do trust you." He smiled softly. "And Iím glad she has you for a friend. Now, if youíll excuse me, I have a call to make myself."
* * *
Laurenís notebook was in her lap as she sat hunched over on the long sofa in her office aboard the ĎFlying Oval Officeí, scrawling away. She glanced up at the steward, who placed the milk on the table in front of her. After so many weeks with Dev, the writer had grown rather fond of the beverage as well, but she discovered it had to be ice cold for her to truly enjoy it. Do I need to wonder where this came from? "Thank you."
"My pleasure, Ms. Strayer. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No, Iím fine, thanks." She pushed her glasses up, rolling her neck to work out its tightness before taking the glass. She was amazed that it was, indeed, ice cold. Are they all mind readers?
Lauren glanced at her watch. Theyíd been in the air almost two hours, and she hadnít seen hide nor hair of Devlyn since they parted in the hallway. Quit your whining. Youíre a big girl, and you know sheís busy. With a soundless sigh, she went back to her notebook and her milk.
Dev finally showed up outside her door almost an hour later. The President gave a light rap and heard Laurenís answering ĎCome iní.
Blue eyes rolled at Lauren as Dev marched into the office, arms outstretched in front of her like Frankensteinís monster. She walked stiff-legged across the room to the couch, where she collapsed face down. "Iím such a bad mother," she mumbled into the cushion.
"What?!" Lauren snorted. "No way."
Dev rolled over, clutching a small throw pillow to her chest. "I just realized that Iím not going to be home for Christopherís birthday next week." She folded her arms around the pillow and tucked it under her chin, looking down the couch at Lauren. "Maybe I can airmail him a camel."
The writer turned her body, lifting one arm to rest it on the back of the couch. "Nah, thatís overkill. Besides, you get him a camel, and next heíll want an elephant, and before you know it: poof! Youíve got rhinos eating the bushes in the Rose Garden, and the south lawn is a petting zoo." Címon, Dev, smile.
Devís laughter rang out through the plane so loudly that Lauren wondered if the Press rats, who were housed near the rear of the plane and went along on every Air Force One flight, could hear her. Then she got hit in the head with the pillow Dev had been using.
"Hey, be nice!" Lauren scolded as she confiscated Devís pillow and pressed her face into the soft cloth.
"Iím always nice." Dev grinned, but the happy expression faded quickly. "Iíll figure out some way to make it up to Christopher." She stopped speaking for a moment, and a contemplative look crossed her face. Devís eyes went serious. "This is the kind of thing heís never going to forget though, isnít it?"
Lauren felt a pang deep in her chest. It was only a birthday, right? He would eventually understand that Dev had pressing commitments that were of global importanceÖ things that couldnít wait for a little boyís party. Lauren smiled sadly at the President. "No, itís not something heíll ever forget."
Dev nodded slowly and pushed up off the couch, moving toward the door. She exhaled tiredly. "Thatís pretty much what I figured."
Tuesday, March 9th
They had been at the Embassy for three days and this was the first time that Lauren had had more than a moment to enjoy her roomís balcony. She stared out at the city that pulsed with life. It was congested and colorful. Foreigners stood out like sore thumbs, their business suits or touristy shorts and T-shirts clashing with the nativeís traditional white robes. Car horns mixed with the angry shouts of pedestrians and the occasionally whinny from a donkey or horse. It was a curious mix of old and new world technology, culture, and attitudes that Lauren found more interesting than appealing.
The writer snapped off a few photographs, then headed back inside, stepping out of the heavy perfume of highly seasoned, roasting meats, local pastries, and car exhaust.
She was amazed when Dev ordered everyone to take their third day Ďin countryí to rest and relax. ĎEveryoneí, Lauren found out, was a relative term. David was still working like a madman, as were several aides and advisors on foreign policy. But most of the other staff, including Dev herself, used the day to relax.
The President slept away the entire day, and Lauren suspected that the dark-haired woman was still fighting a nasty case of jet lag. While she slumbered, David had easily taken charge, giving orders that Dev not be disturbed for anything. He made it perfectly clear that she needed to be well rested for the upcoming meetings.
Lauren had managed to take a nap herself, but felt restless and was up long before Dev. She took the time to do some exploring and shot two rolls of film, but was hesitant to venture too far from the executive quarters. There were just too many strange faces milling about, constantly staring at her and whispering as she, or anyone connected to Devlyn, passed. No. Lauren preferred to stick close to her friends, especially the beautiful one who ran the most powerful nation on earth.
The first meeting was set for tomorrow morning at 9:00 A.M. Tonight, however, Dev was hosting a reception for the dignitaries who would be attending the meetings. The Embassy was simply crawling with workers, ranging from kitchen and cleaning staff to security personnel and military. Lauren was soaking up the dry heat, watching the ordered chaos from the balcony of her room for a few moments, before a knock at the door sent her back inside.
She settled her camera on a table and opened the door to be greeted by Devís thousandwatt smile. Devlyn was holding a garment bag and looking incredibly pleased with herself. "You know," Lauren started, her hands coming to rest on her hips, "Iíve known you long enough now to know that that smile is trouble." But even as she teased, her eyes worriedly searched Devís face, relieved that the lines of fatigue and tension that sheíd seen yesterday appeared to be gone.
"Oh, so thatís how it is, huh? I bring you a present, and you accuse me of causing trouble." Dev shrugged nonchalantly and threw her nose in the air. "Fine. Iíll just take this reeeeally beautiful, incredibly expensive evening gown and find some other short, cute blonde to give it to." She sniffed in mock indignation and turned around, barely clearing Laurenís line of sight before an enormous grin sprang to her lips.
Laurenís arm shot out, grabbing the back of Devís shirt. "Waaaait just a minute, Madam Commander and Chief!" She tugged the woman into her room and eagerly closed the door. "Number one, Iím not shortÖ"
"Youíre shorter than I am."
"Everyone without male plumbing is shorter than you are, Stretch," Lauren defended.
Dev laughed. "True."
"And number twoÖ" Lauren held up two fingers.
Dev draped the garment bag over her arm. Her eyes twinkled. "Youíre not gonna try and deny that youíre cute, are you?"
"Do I look stupid?"
Dev opened her mouth, and Lauren clamped her hand over it. "Thereís really no need to answer that, Devlyn."
The Presidentís eyes screamed, ĎWho, me?í But she prudently remained silent.
Lauren smirked and pulled away her hand. She eyed the bag. "So are you gonna show me? Or do I have to beg?"
Dev didnít say a word. Her evil laugh alone was more than enough to make Lauren blush to the roots of her hair. I love it when she does that, Dev thought affectionately. "All right, Mighty MouseÖ ouch!" Dev grasped her arm and scowled. "I bruise easily, you know!"
"Then you shouldnít call people names," came the reasonable response.
"You know, Iím pretty sure itís a federal crime to hit me."
Lauren lifted a brow as she liberated the garment bag from Devís arms, noticing it was a tad heavy for a garment bag. "Call a cop." Her gaze flicked around the room, looking for a place to hang it, but before she could move, Dev took it back and held it up for Laurenís easy inspection.
The blonde carefully unzipped the leather bag. She gasped when the dress came into view. Dev hadnít lied. Wow. "Oh, my." She fingered the black, sequined material reverently. "ItísÖ" She swallowed emotionally. Nobody had ever given her anything so lovely. "Itís beautiful. I canít umÖ I canít believe itís for me." Suddenly bashful eyes tilted upward, and she gazed at Dev from beneath pale lashes. "Thanks," she said softly.
Dev sighed happily. God, Marlowe, sheís got you hook, line, and sinker. Iím totally and irreversibly twitter-pated. "Itís Ö I mean, itís for the reception tonight," she explained needlessly, her tongue failing to comply quickly enough with her brainís command to start talking and stop looking like a moron.
Lauren nodded and mercifully dropped her gaze from Dev and refocused on the dress.
Once out of the beam of those intense gray eyes, Dev found she could think much more clearly. "I personally thought the most beautiful woman in the room should have the most beautiful dress."
Lauren blushed again, unsure how she should take these compliments. Dev was as solicitous as a lover, but surely she didnít feel that way about her. Other than a little harmless flirting, Dev had never given Lauren any indication that she felt something other than friendship for her. Still, she was flattered by the attention, and the way Dev was looking at her caused her belly to flutter nervously and her palms to go moist.
The biographer dismissed the most obvious explanation of what she was feeling, chalking up the sweet-talking to Devís being well rested, in a really good mood, and charming as hell. "You know, youíre gonna spoil me if you keep this up. I mean, gee, great big white house, a private plane, permanent dog sitters." She grinned, scrunching up her nose and wrinkling the corners of her eyes. "I think Iím ruined for anyone else."
Dev nearly bit her lip through. From your lips to Godís ears, Lauren.
"If I didnít know better, Iíd think you were someone awfully important."
"Nah, Iím just a geek stalker." She laughed. "Okay, Iíve got a meeting and Liza is gonna be here to drag me downstairs by my ear any moment. She has learned too much from Jane, I tell you, but Iíll be back to get you at about six and weíll go down for the reception. Iíd invite you to join me for the meeting, but it wouldnít go over well."
"I thought the first meeting was tomorrow?"
"The first official meeting is tomorrow. This afternoonís is with the Crown Prince. Itís nothing important. Photo op and sound bites for the press, that sort of thing." Dev grimaced, wondering how much longer she could hold up her arm before discreetly lowering without looking like a wuss in front of Lauren. "Itíll be boring as hell. And youíve already been there and done that a million times, so please continue to enjoy your day off. If I didnít have to go I wouldnít. Just relax and enjoy. You can watch the dog and pony show on closed circuit if you like."
"Iíll do that." She closed her eyes for a moment, scratching just above her eyebrow. "Umm, please donít tell me I need my password to activate anything here. Itís several thousand miles away at the moment."
"No, everything here is simple voice activation."
"Finally, something simple." Lauren rolled her eyes. She studied Devís face, her eyes widening with realization. "Jesus, put that down." Without a warning to Dev, Lauren pulled the bag from her hand. She grunted at its weight and interestedly peered into the bag. There were shoes in the bottom and several jewelry boxes. "My goodness, Devlyn! This weighs a ton!"
"Nah. I barely noticed it," Dev lied. "I just wanted to make sure you had a decent selection of accessories to go with your surprise." Dev suppressed a grin. "There are a few baubles in there I hope youíll like." Her fingers idly played with the bagís zipper. "But I burrowed them. So no losing them, okay?"
Lauren nodded, gulping a little. "This wasnít necessary, Devlyn. I could have..."
"Donít be silly," Dev admonished gently. "I wanted to." Dev gestured toward the bag, already picturing how lovely Lauren was going to look. "Iíll be back in a couple of hours to escort you. Unless youíve got someone else in mind," she commented with forced casualness. Half the Press Corps and a good portion of her own staff were in love with the beauty.
Lauren shook her head. "Iím all yours, Madam President."
Now thatís more like it. Devís heart began to swell. She knew that those simple words shouldnít mean so much, that they didnít mean what she wanted them to. But still they made her happy, she found herself lacking the will power or inclination to fight the feeling. "See you soon then."
When Dev left, Lauren unzipped the bag and pulled out several pairs of shoes. She held them up to the dress and, with a little nod, selected a medium black heel with a thin strap around the ankle. Then she set them aside and pulled out several velvet jewelry boxes that had Cartier imprinted on them in gold letters.
Grey eyes widened slightly when she realized that when Dev said she had Ďborrowedí them, that meant the jewelry was on loan from one of the finest jewelers in the world. Lauren shook her head in simple disbelief. "Good God, Devlyn. Donít ever let it be said that you donít know how to make a woman feel special." She tugged over the dress and let out a nervous breath. "I only hope I can do all this justice."
* * *
Lauren flopped down on the bed and ordered the TV on, requesting a translation in English so that she could watch the photo op. Dev stood proud and tall, looking absolutely incredible. The power of her presence alone drew every eye to her and captured the viewerís attention completely.
Almost resentfully, she dragged her gaze from Dev to inspect the shorter man standing alongside her, who was undoubtedly Crown Prince Karim Sami Hassan. He was nice enough looking, she considered thoughtfully, estimating his age somewhere between twenty-five and thirty. He had a generous mouth and a well-trimmed, dark beard that disappeared into a thick mass of wavy, black hair. The Princeís olive coloring made him appear more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern, and his dusky skin was set off nicely by his loose, golden-colored robes, which were streaked with red. He wore the traditional headgear of his people.
The United Arab Alliance had chosen him for this meeting because most of his formal education had taken place at Cambridge. Once, he had even visited Devlynís own college alma mater, Harvard. They believed his youth and open mind would serve him well in dealing with such an infidel. He wouldnít be as quickly offended as the elder members of the Alliance.
They spoke quietly with one another and then shook hands, dragging out the normally quick ritual for the flashing cameras.
After a few moments, the Prince leaned over and whispered something to Dev. When she pulled back, she was still smiling, but something had changed.
Lauren sat up on the bed and pulled a pillow into her lap, missing Grem at that very moment. She studied the image, looking into eyes that were normally rich and vibrant, but now appeared as cold and stony as a grave. "Oh, boy, I do believe that Madam President is pissed."
* * *
The meeting ended, and the Press Corps shuffled out of the room. David began making his way over to Dev, but she waved him off, needing a few moments with the Prince. She did her best to maintain her calm demeanor, but she could already feel the sneer forming on her lips.
"Your Highness." She stopped and cleared her throat. "I appreciate the fact that you saw Ms. Strayer today on television. And I also appreciate the fact that you find her an attractive, desirable woman." Devís nostrils flared. "But let me make something perfectly clear to you. She is not approachable. And she is most certainly not interested in remaining behind in your lovely country upon my departure." Devís heart clenched at the very thought.
The manís eyes narrowed, and he ran the back of his hand over his dark, closely cropped beard. "I was under the impression that there was no romantic involvement between you and Ms. Strayer," he said in perfect, though slightly accented, English. "My people were assured by your people that your press was simply looking for a sensational story, and that Ms. Strayer was free to be, shall we say, pursued."
When I find out who said that, heís walking back to the United States! So what if itís true! Devís teeth actually ground together when he looked at her with eyes daring her to say differently, which she immediately did. "You were misinformed," Dev answered flatly. "Iím sure that you understand I must deny our involvement to the press for appearancesí sake. But I assure you, Ms. Strayer is very much taken. She will be accompanying me to the reception tonight."
The Prince looked Dev directly in the eye. "She is your lover then?"
"Absolutely," she practically snarled, startled by the proprietary ring to her voice.
"But she is not your wife," he clarified smugly. He tilted his head to the side, waiting for Devís response. With a quick jerk of his chin, he kept his own approaching entourage at bay.
Devís jaw clenched. Asswipe isnít getting the picture. "That changes nothing." Except for the fact that if she were my wife, and you were saying these things, Iíd wring your scrawny neck on the spot. "The fact remains that Ms. Strayer is unavailable to you, Your Highness." She straightened to her full height and looked down at the Prince with barely contained rage. How dare he? "I trust, Your Highness, that this is a closed issue?"
"This discussion is over," he agreed amiably, flashing Dev a smile that was anything but reassuring. "Madam President."
Dev could see that the Prince was used to getting his way in every matter. Too bad thatís not going to happen with this, junior. Dev stiffened, her body unconsciously responding to the challenge that was flashing in his eyes. To him, Lauren was still a prize to be won, and sheíd just made things worse by tossing the gauntlet at his feet. God, Lauren, I hope you trust me this much. Because heís gonna be watching us like a hawk tonight.
* * *
Dev knocked on Laurenís door. She nervously ran her hands over her long, white jacket, tugging on its hem and smoothing it against her wide-legged silk trousers. It wasnít what she normally would have worn for such an occasion, but it was still formal attire and she wasnít about to put on a stitch of clothing that would detract from Lauren tonight.
Despite Devís loosely worn hair, elegant jewelry and modest makeup, her outfit would help Prince Hassan see her as Laurenís escort and his peer, not just a woman. In this male dominated region of the world, Devís trousers were more than a fashion statement. Besides, Iím the President of the United States, Iíll wear whatever I damn well please.
Devlynís mind was a whirl with tomorrowís likely headlines. She sighed. There was no choice now. If the Prince found out that sheíd outright lied to him about her relationship with Lauren, the entire trip could be in jeopardy. She had put Laurenís feelings ahead of a summit that had actually been in the works for more than ten years. But she wouldnít see Lauren harassed as though she were an object to be owned.
The door suddenly swung open, and Devís breath was simply stolen from her body. "Stunning," she whispered reverently as wide blue eyes eagerly absorbed every detail of Laurenís appearance.
Her pale hair had been swept up into a low knot that rested snuggly on her neck. Several fair tendrils had already worked their way free and served to frame Laurenís youthful face in a quietly graceful way. The black sequin dress was strapless, showing off a slender, succulent neck and slightly muscular shoulders that were covered with creamy, white skin and dotted with faint freckles. The snug cloth clung to every curve of the writerís body, outlining firm breasts, a trim waist and the womanly flair of her hips. Dev found herself wishing it were shorter, say mid thigh, but this was an evening event, so the floor length gown was already pushing the limits of propriety by showing so much of those incredible shoulders.
Dev sucked in a breath, very conscious of the low burn that had ignited deep in her belly.
"Can I take your staring at me as though I had sprouted a tail as a good sign?" Lauren asked a little insecurely. She felt her heat rise to her cheeks. Devís eyes raked over her body in a way that was making her pulse flutter happily. Unfortunately, it was also making her even more nervous than she already was. Which was pretty damned nervous.
"Wow," Dev mumbled. "You lookÖ" She shook her head, unable to form the words. Fabulous, her mind screamed. She looks fabulous! Uh oh. Too fabulous. Prince Whatís-his-name is gonna drop dead at first sight.
Lauren tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, and her earrings glittered in the light. Her hand dropped to her throat. "Thank you. And for these especially. I feel like some sort of princess." Her fingers shifted and grazed the sparkling diamonds wreathing her neck, then moved down to the matching bracelet that hung loosely around her wrist. She smiled warmly. "Iím a little concerned about turning into a pumpkin at midnight." Lauren spoke without paying much attention to her words. Her gaze was firmly fixed on Devlyn, and the mere sight of the President tonight threatened to seize up her brain entirely.
"You umÖ" Lauren laughed helplessly, finding herself tongue-tied and with the inexplicable urge to run her hands up and down Devís body. And kiss the hollow of her throat? Okay, thatís new.
"Clean up pretty good?" No, you cannot lean in and nuzzle that soft- looking cheek.
"MmmÖ" Lauren agreed. "Thatís an understatement, Devlyn."
"Shall we?" Dev offered the smaller woman her elbow.
"Wait a second." Dev frowned a little and pointed back toward the room. "Donít you need your glasses?"
"Will I have to read or write?"
"Well, we were all going to sit around and retake our SATs for fun." Dev slapped her forehead. "But so much for that. Now what will we do after drinks?" I have a few suggestions. One of them includes whipped cream andÖSTOP IT!
Lauren laughed. "Weíd better get going, President Marlowe." Lauren spied Devís Secret Service men lurking down the hall. "Iím sure Liza is stroking out someplace, waiting for you." Lauren tucked her arm around Devís as they made their way down the hall.
"UmmÖ Lauren?" Time to face the music, Marlowe.
"Do you trust me?"
* * *
"You did what?!" Lauren stopped dead in her tracks just as the couple entered the reception hall. She stared at Dev in disbelief.
The room went dead silent, and every set of eyes turned to the two women.
"Donít make me say it again," Dev pleaded under her breath as she grinned at the crowd and gave a quick wave. "I know by the way your jaw just hit the carpet that you heard me the first time."
"Devlyn!" Lauren huffed through her plastered on smile. She was temporarily blinded by a dozen quick flashes from the pressí cameras. "The gossip just started to die down back home." She spoke without moving her lips. "If we put on some show tonight, so we can convince Prince Hassan, itís just going to start all over again."
David rushed to Devís side, pushing down his irritation. Dev knew the drill. Why was she being difficult? Sheíd been in an unusually foul mood ever since the photo op that afternoon. "Good evening, Madam President," was what he said.
Devlyn, however, heard exactly what David meant, which was, ĎWhy didnít you wait for your introduction, bozo?!í "Sorry, David. I was distracted. Besides, I was already introduced to everyone this afternoon. This is just a little reception. Relax." She glanced sideways at her Chief of Staff and elbowed him in the ribs affectionately. "Nice tux. Your tie is crooked, by the way."
"Thanks." He fussed with the tie until it was straight. "And you know we have to follow protocol, Madam President."
Prince Hassan made a bee line for the women, and Dev immediately wrapped her arm around Laurenís waist, tugging her closer and surprising the hell out of both David and Lauren. A flurry of camera flashes lit up the room, and the press hounds began to murmur among themselves. "Letís just skip it and say we didnít, David. Iíve got something else I need to take care of right now anyway. If youíll excuse us?"
David turned round eyes on Lauren who could only shrug helplessly. "Fine," he mumbled. "Iíll be back in a few moments. Iíll handle it."
Dev nodded absently, her eyes tracking the Prince and the advisors that flanked him like bookends.
Prince Hassan stopped right in front of Devlyn and Lauren. He motioned his men back a few feet. "Madam President, itís a pleasure to see you again." But somehow Dev just couldnít believe him. It might have been the fact that he was looking at Lauren the entire time he spoke. "I donít believe Iíve been introduced to your lovely biographer."
Dev remained stubbornly silent until Lauren nudged her. "Your Highness, Prince Hassan, may I present Ms. Lauren Strayer?"
"Itís a true pleasure." Prince Hassan bowed deeply at the waist and grasped Laurenís hands. He kissed her knuckles, lingering for several seconds too long.
"Hello," Lauren replied cordially, wanting her hands back.
Dev fought not to roll her eyes. If I strangled him, I wonder if it would start a war? Dev knew she wasnít acting very Presidential. But she couldnít seem to help herself.
"What a lovely necklace, Ms. Strayer." The Prince gestured to the glittering stones then let go of one of Laurenís hands to reach out and touch them. Using the grip on the hand he still held, he tugged Lauren closer.
"Thank you." Lauren pulled her hand away and discreetly moved out of his reach, trying not to appear as repulsed as she felt. Okay, now I know why Dev didnít want him to feel like I was fair game. Yuck. "It was a gift fromÖ MadÖ Devlyn." Her lover would say her name, she admonished herself. Lauren smiled up at Dev, who glanced back down at her with apologetic eyes.
Prince Hassan retracted his hand casually, although he felt stung by her actions. "I trust that you are enjoying all that my lovely nation has to offer."
"Unfortunately, this is a business trip, Your Highness," Dev interrupted. "Weíve had no free time for sight seeing. Perhaps another time." Like ten minutes after never.
He frowned. "Perhaps." Then his frown shifted into a smile that the women were sure only he found charming. "I believe then that I need to make the most out of our short time together." The man handed a full glass of champagne to Dev, who took the glass without thinking. Then he turned to Lauren and smiled broadly. "It seems that I need some more champagne. Would you care to join me, Ms. Strayer?"
Dev stepped in between Lauren and the Prince, her temper flaring. "No, she would not, you son-"
"Why, yes." Lauren laid a calming hand against Devís back, then moved around her. "Thank you, Your Highness. I would be delighted."
The manís chest immediately puffed out, and he tossed Devlyn a conceited grin.
No unmarried woman would refuse him. And that a woman could be chosen over him? That was unthinkable.
"One moment please, Your Highness. I need to speak with Devlyn." Lauren immediately grasped Devís hand and walked them several feet away. She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Let me handle this, Devlyn."
"I will not!" Dev whispered back angrily. "Heís making a play for you right in front of me! Of all the arrogant pieces ofÖ"
"I know." Lauren made a face. "Heís a pig. But Iíve got the sneaking suspicion that you punching him in the nose wouldnít do anything for our two countryís relations." A pale brow lifted. "Right?"
Devís expression turned sulky. "I wasnít going to punch him." Yes, I was. Shit. Iím going insane.
"Uh huh." Lauren smiled gently. "I know you were only trying to get him to leave me alone by telling him we were lovers. And for most men, I think that would do it. But Prince Hassan is apparently the over eager type who needs a little extra convincing." She patted Devís arm reassuringly. "Trust me."
Devlyn exhaled unhappily. "Do I have a choice?"
Lauren pretended to think for a moment before she smiled sassily. "Ummm... not really."
Blue eyes took on a dangerous glint as Dev peeked over her shoulder at the Prince. "Iím going to be watching him. And if he gets even the tiniest bit out of handÖ"
"I know. I know. Now go greet your other guests before you get a reputation for being a horrible hostess." Lauren squared her shoulders, realizing that sheíd never even had the chance to be nervous in her surroundings. Things had just happened too quickly. "Iíll be fine."
Dev flashed her a gleaming smile full of admiration and affection. But there was a serious edge to her voice that garnered the younger womanís complete attention. Piercing eyes bore straight into Lauren, and they stopped speaking for a long moment as the rest of the world faded away. "Just donít forget who your escort is tonight," Dev finally whispered softly, her heart thundering in her ears. This should be for real. Not some stupid ruse.
Lauren swallowed. "I wonít." Several more seconds passed before their surroundings seeped back into their consciousness. Lauren closed her eyes for a moment to clear her head. Time to get this fixed. She purposefully strode over to Prince Hassan, who had been waiting, stealing furtive glances at the women and wondering if his bed might be warmed by more than just Lauren tonight. Lauren wrapped her arm around his and headed them in the general direction of the bar. "We need to have a little talk."
"I was hoping you would see me alone."
"I... um... I wanted to make something clear to you, Your Highness. I thought it best if we spoke privately. Thatís all."
"But a woman as beautiful as you should not be required to think."
Lord, help me. Maybe Iíll be the one to punch him. Prudently, Lauren decided to plow ahead, ignoring his last remark. "Iím flattered by your attentions, Your Highness." Gag. "But Iím perfectly happy with Devlyn."
"Obviously, President Marlowe values you, or you would not be attending a function such as this. But you are merely a lover and not her wife, correct? I have four wives and several lovers. And it is you that I am interested in tonight."
Lucky them. "Be that as it may, I only have one lover, and Iím not interested in any others." Lauren was running out of patience quickly. What was it going to take to put off Romeo? Her imaginary status as Devlynís lover was apparently far enough below that of a spouse that Prince Hormones felt free to try his luck. A server finally passed them, and she snatched a flute of champagne from the tray, tossing it back in one deep swallow. "Your Highness, Iím trying to be discreet here. But youíve left me no choice but to be rather explicit."
He leaned closer, obviously extremely interested.
"I am completely satisfied." Lauren wriggled pale brows, and her voice dropped to a sexual purr that did an excellent job of conveying in exactly what way Dev satisfied her. "I wouldnít trade Devlyn for ten men." She licked her lips slowly and tried not to burst out laughing at the look of surprise, then arousal, that swept across his face. "No offense."
The Prince cleared his throat, suddenly embarrassed. His respect for the tall American jumped several notches. "None taken, Ms. Strayer. Iím glad that you are so," he paused and smiled with open appreciation, "satisfied." Lauren was a beauty. But he wasnít foolish enough to chase after a lost cause.
"Thank you. I am a very lucky woman." Relief flooded her. Finally. Just then David joined them. Perfect timing. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. I hope your meetings tomorrow go very smoothly."
"Iím sure they will. It seems that President Marlowe is a master at getting and keeping what she desires most."
Lauren ducked her head and smiled. "I agree. Good night." She turned to David. "I believe there was someone you wanted to introduce me to?"
David stared at her blankly.
"Across the room," she prompted, tilting her head in a direction sheís chosen randomly, hoping it would put her as far away from Prince Dipshit as she could get.
Davidís eyes widened slightly with recognition. "Oh, yes, of course." He quickly scanned the crowd and threw out a name. "If youíll excuse us, Your Highness?"
The Prince nodded and insisted on taking Laurenís hand and giving it another little kiss.
"Youíre a lifesaver, David," Lauren said softly as soon as they were out of the Princeís earshot.
He stopped walking and looked at her curiously. "Howíd you know my Secret Service name?"
* * *
The Prince smiled at Dev. He had managed to avoid her for the past two hours but he was about ready to retire and decided a quick goodbye was in order. "It seems that your Ms. Strayer is very much taken," he conceded.
Dev spun around at the sound of the Princeís voice, and another glass of champagne was thrust into her hand.
She had downed hers in one swallow when Lauren and the Prince left in search of a server or the bar. And even as she tried to mingle, she found her attention drifting across to Lauren. It was only after Lauren had finally broken away with David, that she felt comfortable enough to begin mixing with her guests. "I told you that this afternoon," Dev stated flatly. "What finally convinced you?"
The young man burst out laughing. "Ms. Strayerís declaration of her Ďsatisfactioní in your Ďarrangementí."
Dev blinked. What? Oooooo... Well, thank you, Lauren! She grinned rakishly at the Prince, who looked as though he would high-five her if he were familiar with the gesture.
Instead, he slapped her between the shoulders with gusto. Apparently, Dev had been accepted as Ďone of the boysí. "I have no hard feelings, Madam President." His brow furrowed a little, not quite understanding why this whole thing seemed to bother the American President so. Lauren was merely her lover. President Marlowe was a beautiful and powerful woman, and her nation obviously accepted her sinful ways. Surely she had dozens of lovers. "Sheís just a woman," he finally said, still puzzled but willing to let it go. He waved a hand dismissively. "Nothing that we should allow to interfere in our negotiations tomorrow."
"Until tomorrow then," Dev ground out, needing to make a hasty retreat before she did something stupid. Itíll only make Lauren mad if I go ahead and punch him in the nose.
"Anxious to get back to your beautiful blonde?" he laughed. "Ahh... I cannot blame you a bit. Lucky for me, she can easily be replaced with another beautiful blonde."
Devís eyes darkened with unspent anger, and she moved to shake Prince Hassanís hand. She grasped it firmly and leaned forward, placing her lips near his ear. "That, Your Highness, is where you are dead wrong."
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