Madam President

Madam President

Chapter VII

July 2021

 

 

Thursday, July 1st

 

 

Dev rubbed her temples. The men and women in the cabinet meeting waited for her to say something. Finally, she looked up and smiled. Even in a few months, this group had learned that this particular smile was not a good thing. "Fine," she said on a low and determined breath. "Since we donít seem to be getting anywhere talking to each other, letís try it the old fashioned way."

"With a lot of screaming and yelling?" Secretary of Agriculture Montgomery joked, trying to relieve some of the tension.

"Thatís definitely another option." Dev smirked. "But Iím thinking more in the line of progress reports. These should be simple summaries of what youíre currently working on. I want them from your sub-committees too. And do me a favor?" Dev pinned Transportation Secretary Diovanni with annoyed eyes. "Read over what your assistants are going to prepare for me to see, before you send it. Iím holding you to the contents of these reports, ladies and gentlemen. Iím tired of trying to pry information out of you people. Itís like trying to brush a tigerís teeth. Iíve already been shot; Iím not gonna lose an arm too."

David smirked, nearly choking on his juice. He raised a fist to his lips, coughing slightly as Dev turned her head to give him the Ďlookí.

Dev continued speaking as she glanced at her agenda. "Now that the peanut gallery has been heard from, are there any questions?" She looked at each face around the long table. "Comments, concerns? Criticism can be left with the woman who runs the shredder," she said wryly as she stood up.

"Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, weíre doing good work here. But we need to open the lines of communication a little more. Iím not trying to purposely torpedo all your programs. But without the proper information, I canít make an informed decision. Iím assuming that our next meeting will be more fruitful?" She tilted her head and waited until her question was answered with a round of affirmative, if slightly grumpy, murmurs. "Good." She buttoned her blazer and handed her notebook to Liza.

The room cleared quickly, leaving behind the President, David and Liza. Dev shook her head. "I swear," she mumbled, "youíd think I was working against them instead of with them. I canít believe I actually gave those people their jobs." She turned to her personal assistant. "How does my schedule look?"

"Youíre fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, Madam President."

"Youíre kidding? Letís fly to Paris for lunch!"

David laughed. "Madam President, are you always so sarcastic?" Translation: do you have to be a smartass every second of the day?

Dev smiled sweetly. "Is that a rhetorical question? Those are so annoying." Dev pushed in her chair and headed for the door.

Liza hurried after her. "The gift you ordered for Ms. Strayerís birthday arrived, Madam President. Itís in your office if youíd like to go inspect it."

"Oh, good! God, I hope itís something sheís going to like." Dev tugged on the sleeves of her blazer. "Not like I have time to return it and get something else."

"Sheís going to love it," Liza confirmed. "Theyíre beautiful texts. First editions of Dickens arenít easy to come by these days."

"Tell me about it." Dev rolled her eyes as they turned the corner and headed down the corridor towards the executive offices. "Took me weeks to find mint quality and put these together. Letís just hope she likes them."

"Sheíll be fond of them because theyíre from you. Not just anyone gets birthday gifts from the President of the United States."

"The President isnít giving them to her." Dev looked at her assistant and wiggled her brows. "You coming to the party?"

Liza chewed her lip nervously. "Are you sure Ms. Strayer wonít throw me off the balcony?"

"Nah. Sheís over that whole Casey thing."

"Really?" Liza asked hopefully.

"UmmÖ nope." Dev laughed. "But Iíll keep her occupied." She suddenly stopped walking and glanced around conspiratorially. She leaned close to Liza. "Why did you set her up with a woman? How did you know she wouldnít freak out? Lauren hadnít ever mentioned a sexual preference that Iím aware of."

It was all Liza could do not to laugh. "Have you ever seen the way she looks at you, Madam President?"

 

 

Friday, July 2nd

 

 

Dev stood in front of the full-length mirror. She studied her reflection critically. "So what do you think?" The tall woman turned to face the four pairs of eyes that had watched her through the last three changes of clothing.

Emma clucked approvingly. "Devlyn, you look fine. Of course, you looked fine in the blazer, the skirt, the sweater and the blue jeans."

"Yeah, but I think the slacks are the best. Not too formal, not too informal." She smoothed the sleeves of her silk, rust-colored blouse.

Emma snorted and rolled her eyes. "Youíre going to a movie in the private theater. You could go in your bathrobe if you wanted."

Blue eyes full of affection and exasperation glared at the nanny. "Do you mind if I want to impress her?"

Emma glared back. "I hate to break this to you, Devlyn, but if you havenít impressed her yetÖ what you wear tonight isnít going to make any difference at all."

"I didnít need to hear that! Youíre supposed to be giving me an inspirational pep talk!"

"Okay, look back at that mirror."

Dev dutifully complied.

"Now repeat after me: Iím good enough. Iím smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me!"

Dev whipped her head around and narrowed her eyes at the older woman. "Why do I put up with you again, Emma?"

"Because you love her," the children chorused the familiar answer.

"Oh, yeah," Dev mumbled. She noticed Ashley had moved from her sitting position and was now lying on her bed with her head on her arms. Her posture was undeniably dejected.

The President walked over and sat down next to her daughter, rubbing her back. "Hey, Moppet?"

"Yeah?" Slightly sad eyes looked up at her.

"Whatís the matter?"

"Nothiní."

"Aww, címon. I know my girl better than that." She straightened her daughterís bright blue T-shirt. "Whatís wrong?"

"Does this mean you donít love mommy anymore?" the little girl asked earnestly.

Devís chest constricted painfully at the unexpected, blunt question. For a moment she had to remind herself to breathe. "No, I-" She swallowed hard and started again. "You know better than that. Iíll always love mommy, no matter what. And that doesnít mean I canít be very fond of Lauren. I want to see how she feels about me."

Christopher popped up next to Dev. "She likes you, Mom."

"Oh, she does, huh?" Dev asked, kneeling down to her sonís level.

"Uh huh." The boy nodded. "A whole lot."

"How do you know this, pal?"

He just shrugged one shoulder. "Dunno. She always wonít let Gremlin eat you, and she smiles at you."

Dev snorted. "I may just eat him!"

"Nooooo!" the kids cried, laughing hysterically when their mother turned her hands into claws and began licking her lips in an exaggerated fashion. "Maybe Lauren just thinks Iím silly. Besides, she smiles at you guys too."

Christopher grinned broadly and stuck out his little chest. "I know. She likes me a lot too."

"Chris is right, Mom!" Aaron climbed up on the bed next to his sister, propping his chin on his fists and adding his voice to the choir. "She likes you."

"Are you just buttering me up because you want me to ask Lauren about letting Grem sleep with you?" Dev teased, tweaking the nose of her youngest.

"Nuh uh!" Aaron laughed as he rolled away from Devís pinching fingers.

Dev turned serious eyes back to Ash. "So, you donít like the idea of me and Lauren maybe seeing each other?" Címon, Ashley. Please donít be that way. This is hard enough for me without having to worry about how you guys feel about her. I know youíre crazy about her!

Ashley shrugged noncommittally.

Dev pushed off her knees and perched on the bed alongside the dark-haired girl. "Wasnít it you who said that I shouldnít be lonely?"

Ashley sighed. "Yeah."

"Well, what if Lauren could keep me from being lonely? That would be good wouldnít it?"

The girlís brows furrowed. "I guess it would."

"Ashley, your mommy wouldnít want me to spend the rest of my life alone. And I really think that sheíd like Lauren."

"Really?" Ashley seemed to brighten with this news.

"Oh, yeah." Dev nodded enthusiastically, knowing it was the truth. Sam would definitely approve of Lauren. She was an intelligent, beautiful woman, who seemed to love her kids, and she wasnít afraid to challenge or support Dev, depending on what she needed. Whatís not to love? "Donít you agree, Emma?" Dev turned slightly pleading eyes on the nanny.

Emma smiled. "Most definitely." The older woman knew she was confirming this for Dev as much as she was for her daughter.

 

* * *

 

Lauren pulled her hair back. She had finally settled on the fourth outfit sheíd tried on: a pair of loose-fitting, brown trousers, flats, and a sheer, crŤme-colored blouse. She inserted two small, silver, hooped earrings into her ears and set her glasses on the table. Then she dusted her cheeks with a light coating of earth-toned makeup and carefully applied her lipstick. Now it was time to argue with the hair. "Up or down?" She turned to Gremlin, who was lying on the bed.

He lifted his head and looked, then flopped it back down on the comforter and closed his eyes.

"Thanks so much for that invaluable input, buddy."

The writer turned back to the mirror and let her hair fall free around her shoulders. "Down. Definitely down." She pulled it back once again and grinned. "Of course, up has its advantages too." Lauren turned back to the dog and presented her neck. "Does this say, ĎIím a toy; chew on meí?"

Gremlin yawned.

Lauren dropped her hair again and used her fingers to try and give some order to the wavy, fair locks.

She glanced down at the clock, knowing Dev was due at any moment. I wonder what weíre going to do. Lauren laid her hand on her belly and chuckled as what had to be thousands of butterflies danced in her belly. "Why am I nervous?" she asked her reflection as she dabbed a touch of perfume behind her ears. "Itís just Devlyn. I see her every day."

The blonde woman knew they wouldnít be leaving the White House, but she also knew Dev was a romantic at heart and would make their first official date together something special. "Now, as long as no one declares war anywhere, weíll be all set."

The knock on the door sent her stomach jumping, and she sucked in a deep breath. Calm down! Youíve seen her nearly every day for the past seven months. Youíve even seen her half-naked. A slightly lecherous grin twitched at the corner of her lips. Okay, thatís not what I should think about if I want to be calm.

Setting her perfume back down on her dresser, Lauren took one last look in the mirror, reluctantly admitting to herself she really didnít have time to try a different outfit. "Okay." She nodded to herself. Iím ready. Better answer the door before she leaves. Then again, itís not like I couldnít track her down. She only lives down the hall.

Lauren opened the door, and Dev stood before her. She held a single, pale rose, which appeared even more pristinely white as it stood out against her dark blouse. She held the flower out, and gave Lauren a gentle smile. "Ms. Strayer? Iím Devlyn Marlowe, your date for the evening. By the way, I do not work in the morgue."

A million things ran through Laurenís mind at that moment, but the only thing she could think to say was, "Thatís the best damned pick up line Iíve ever heard." She took the rose and pressed the fragrant petals to her nose as she looked into Devís eyes. "Hi," she said softly.

Effortlessly charmed, Dev smiled back. "Hi."

Dev fought the urge to nervously shove her hands into her pockets. "I believe weíre supposed to drop your furry little companion off with my children. They told me theyíre supposed to dog sit tonight. For some reason they donít think that little... I mean, Gremlin, can spend anytime alone now."

Lauren grinned knowingly.

"I think there may even be a petition to officially adopt him in the works. Sorry, itís out of my hands now."

The biographer laughed. Sheíd resigned herself to losing Gremlin to Devís kids months ago. Not that she could blame him. She snapped her fingers, and Grem jumped off the bed. But he walked over to her at a snailís pace, and when he looked at Dev and bared his crooked, little teeth, he couldnít even muster a growl.

Dev looked at the dog and pointed. "Whatís wrong with him? I should be fearing for the skin on my ankles right now."

Pale brows drew together. "I donít know. Ever since we came home from Ohio, Gremís been acting weird. Almost depressed." She held up the flower and smiled warmly. "Thanks. Itís beautiful. You... um... you look beautiful."

"Thanks." Dev tried to act nonchalant, but knew her cheeks were tinged pink. "Just something I tossed on. You look," her own sigh interrupted her, "absolutely wonderful." Dev held out her hand and felt the warmth of Laurenís palm as she wrapped her fingers around the writerís. "Shall we?"

Gremlin followed slowly behind them as they moved down the hallway. The President glanced back at the midget canine and frowned. "I almost feel cheated because he didnít growl at me. And I didnít get to growl back." Iíve been practicing, beastie. "If he doesnít seem any better the first of the week, letís call in a vet." She glanced back again. "Or maybe a little doggie therapist."

"I think a vet would be best. Somehow I just donít see Gremlin responding well to therapy." She looked back at the ugly little dog. "Isnít that right, Grem?"

He grumbled in response, his head hanging low.

As they entered the family room, Grem seemed to perk up a little. He trotted over to the kids who were playing Chutes and Ladders on the coffee table.

Lauren looked at Dev again and let out a slightly nervous breath. She had wondered if going out with a woman would be much different than dating a man. With Casey, she had determined they could both be equally disappointing. With Dev, however, she was looking forward to their evening with a heady mixture of excitement and arousal. "So where are we going, Madam President? Are you my partner for Chutes and Ladders?" she teased, pointing at the game. "Frankly, I could use the help. Aaron kicks my butt every time."

Dev chuckled. "No, letís leave the kiddie games to the kiddies, shall we?" She opened the door and ushered Lauren out. "I have something entirely different planned for us."

They walked down the hall and were greeted by smiling faces every few paces. "Wow. I donít believe this." Lauren smiled back, a little confused. "I didnít even know that agents had teeth! Does every member of the Secret Service know that weíre on a date tonight?"

Dev looked embarrassed. "Umm, I may have mentioned it once."

"Once?"

"Maybe twice."

"Uh huh," Lauren drawled skeptically. "Twice?"

"Or a few hundred times."

"Lord."

Dev ducked a swat as they continued through a series of hallways, stopping outside the private theater. Dev looked down at Lauren and smiled. "You know that new movie thatís coming out next week? The one by that director youíre so wild about?"

"Yeah." Lauren sighed. She knew she probably wouldnít get a chance to see it while it was still in theaters.

Dev pulled the doors open and the lights automatically came up. "Well, since I happen to have a house with a theater, I thought you might enjoy a sneak preview. But if it totally stinks, youíre not allowed to leak it to the press. The director would come kill me herself," Dev joked.

Laurenís jaw dropped. "You got a copy of the movie before it was released?" She instantly held up a hand. "Wait. Youíre the leader of the free world. Sometimes I forget." She gazed at Dev in pure adoration. "This is so sweet." Lauren gently pulled the taller women into a hug, still mindful of her shoulder. "Thank you."

Dev returned the embrace, not giving a damn about her shoulder. In her opinion, this was the best therapy she could get. "Well, itís the least I could do since I canít really take you out on a proper date." Very slowly she released Lauren and led her to the front of the room. "And whatís a movie without dinner?" A blanket had been spread on the carpet, and various chafing-dishes had been set out on a low table.

Lauren hummed appreciatively; her belly grumbled when the spicy scent of hot tamales, Spanish rice and black beans invaded her senses. "I guess Iím just a little hungry," she admitted sheepishly.

Dev refrained from commenting about Laurenís grumbling stomach. "So, shall we eat and chat or would you like to just cut straight to the chase?" She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I mean, would you like to watch the movie first or have dinner orÖ" She stopped, drawing a deep breath. "Iím babbling now. Iíll just shut up and let you tell me what you want to do."

Lauren chuckled softly and took Devís hand. "I do believe, Madam President," she drawled, "that you are even more nervous than I am." She regarded Dev seriously for a moment. "Why is that?"

"Umm... well." Dev moved them to the blanket and began fiddling with the food. She prepared a couple of small plates and poured two glasses of wine. "You see, Iíve not been a veryÖGod, this is awkward. Iíve only had one real experience with this whole dating thingÖ" She sipped her wine, gesturing for Lauren to join her. "Samantha was the only woman in my life. And since she died, I havenítÖ I mean there hasnít been anyone elseÖ" She finally stopped when she realized she sounded totally stupid.

Oh, Devlyn. Laurenís gaze softened, her heart going out to her friend. They needed to have a talk about Samantha soon. But tonight was for them alone. "Donít be embarrassed by that. Maybe we can learn how to do this together." She looked into her wineglass. "I havenít been overly successful in the dating department myself. But... um..." The blonde woman lifted her head and looked into Devlynís eyes. "Iím pretty sure weíll be able to muddle through if we really put our minds to it."

"I think we could muddle through anything if we put our minds to it." Dev leaned over and placed a delicate kiss on the smaller womanís cheek. She allowed her lips to linger for a moment before pulling away. "I think part of my nervousness comes from the fact that Iíve never been out with someone who already knows everything about me." She sipped her wine and closed her eyes tight. "Including some things Iím going to get my father for when he least expects it." She looked up again. "But if those didnít send you screaming into the night, then Iím damned lucky, and Iím really glad I met you."

Lauren suspected sheíd barely scratched the surface of this complicated, sweet, beautiful woman. But she wasnít going to waste the chance. Her gaze dropped to Devís lips as the urge to kiss the tall woman welled up within her. She leaned forward, smiling when Dev immediately leaned in to meet her. "Iím glad I met you too," she whispered, and let her lips brush lightly against the Presidentís.

 

 

Sunday, July 4th

 

 

Dev hung up the phone, looking to the clock on the wall. "Do people not realize itís 3:00 A.M. here?" She looked to David who was slumped in the chair across from her desk.

"With all due respect, Madam President, they donít care."

"Ironic, isnít it? Itís Independence Day here in the States, and Iím up in the middle of the night handling a possible missile crisis in China."

"And thatís why you get the big bucks and the cool toys."

Dev snorted. "Yeah, right."

"Do we need to call in the Secretary of Defense?"

"No, not yet. But I suggest we haul the Chinese Ambassadorís ass over here. His input will be very insightful."

"Lemme guess." David arched a rust-colored eyebrow and slid his tie completely off. "Just because you can?"

Dev picked up the phone. "Pretty much. If I canít sleep, no one can." She reached across her desk and picked up a picture of Lauren and the kids that had been taken when they went on vacation. "Tell you what, just for grins and giggles, get the Secretary of Defense over here too."

David pushed himself out of the chair. "Yes, maíam. Iíll get the latest intel from the situation room too."

 

* * *

 

After several hours of tense negotiations, Dev had managed to get a satisfactory resolution to a problem that could have gotten completely out of hand with the simplest of missteps. "God, I need a shower and a nap. Weíve got the barbecue tonight andÖ" Her eyes went wide. "Oh, shit!"

"What?"

"Itís Laurenís birthday. I ordered breakfast and flowers delivered to her room with a note saying Iíd be joining her," she glanced at the clock again, "an hour and a half ago. Aw, sheís gonna kill me." Devlyn opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a brightly wrapped box. "Letís hope she likes this."

She bolted out of her office and headed for the residence, and a houseguest turned very potential girlfriend, who she was sure was going to be supremely annoyed. "I should never have had breakfast delivered so early! She hates getting up early!"

"Itís okay, guys." David called off the alarmed Secret Service agents who saw Dev sprint past them. "Sheís just... sheís late, sheís lateÖ" Awww... go ahead and say it. "For a very important date."

A few minutes later she stood in front of Laurenís door, running her hand through her hair. She took a deep breath and held it as she knocked on the door. "God, please donít let her be mad."

Lauren opened her door, and pale brows lifted at the sight of a very disheveled Dev. She would have said something except for the fact that her mouth was full of an enormous bite of sweet roll. Instead, she grabbed Dev by the front of her shirt and tugged her into her room, kicking the door shut behind her.

"Iím soooo sorry," Dev began quickly. "I meant to be here when they woke you, but I had to deal with something thatís kept me busy half the night. If Iíd had time I would have called and told them not to do it. Or called you and told you to go back to bed or... umm... just called you, I guess."

Lauren waved a dismissive hand. "Síokay, Devlyn. Relax, Iím not angry." She motioned to the couch. "Can you stay for a minute?" She held out her roll, and Dev ducked her head and took a bite.

"Umm... are there more of these?"

Lauren nodded and motioned her to the couch as she went to retrieve the plate of rolls and a pot of coffee. "So, what happened?" She hunted quickly for a second cup. "If you can talk about it, that is."

"I helped deter World War III this morning, and I need a break. Thatís what happened." The dark-haired woman settled on the couch with a groan. She kicked long legs out in front of her. "Looks to me like they brought you a nice breakfast." Suddenly she remembered she had Laurenís birthday present. "Happy birthday!"

Laurenís face paled. "Oh, my God, Devlyn. Did you really stop World War III this morning?"

"Actually, pretty close." She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "Iíve been up all night."

Lauren joined Dev on the sofa and patted her knee. "Iím sorry." She looked down at the present that was thrust into her hands. "Wow, it is my birthday again. I swear they come quicker every year." She shook the package, trying to guess what was inside as she folded one leg beneath her. "Can I have a hint?"

Dev didnít answer. Instead, she jumped up and grabbed Laurenís glasses off the nightstand.

Lauren reached out and took them, wordlessly wrapping the wire frames around each ear. She stared down at the gift, trying to remember the last time sheíd gotten a birthday gift. Her parents always sent a card. But they stopped giving presents when Lauren turned eighteen and became too old for such foolishness. Judd always gave her a gift on her birthday, but he was the only one. Ever. The writer pushed aside the bittersweet memories and held the box up to her ear, giving it another gentle shake. "Do you want me to open it now?"

"Please." Dev sat back down. "Iím afraid Iím going to have to go lie down before the barbecue tonight, so we wonít get a lot of time together until then. I wanted a quiet moment to give it to you. I hope you like it."

"Okay, if you insist." But Lauren was eagerly ripping open the paper and box even as she said the words. Out of the box she pulled three small, brown, leather-bound novels. "ĎA Tale of Two Citiesí. ĎOliver Twistí. ĎGreat Expectationsí! Thatís one of my..." Lauren paused and studied the books more closely, flipping open the first few pages. "My God, are these first editions?" she whispered reverently. Dev released a very tense breath. "Yeah, they are. Do you like them?" she asked hopefully.

Lauren looked up at her with teary eyes. "I..." She had to stop for a moment. "I love them." She smiled, and her chin quivered a little. "Thank you."

"Hey!" Dev reached out and caught a tear just as it fell from the corner of Laurenís eye. "My gift wasnít supposed to make you cry. No crying allowed!" She grinned. "Wait until you see what I ordered for you for tonight."

Lauren sniffed, only mildly embarrassed. She gave Dev a watery smile. "Will it make me cry too?"

"Gee, I hope not. Youíll just have to wait and see." Dev suddenly felt an unexpected, stabbing pain at the base of her skull. "I just canít win. Iíve got a headache like you wouldnít believe. Iím going to go grab a couple of aspirin, call for a massage, and try to get some sleep." Suddenly she sat up straight. "Itís Sunday, isnít it?"

"It sure is, Madam President." Laurenís expression sobered. "You work too hard sometimes, Devlyn. And you get headaches way too often. You need more sleep."

Dev grunted her agreement. "When I took the job, I knew what it meant." She sighed. "I guess sleep is out of the question. The kids will be up soon. Maybe I have time for a massage."

Lauren carefully set down her books on the coffee table. "Umm. Devlyn, you know, I could give you a massage." She slid around behind the couch and began digging her hands into Devís tense shoulder muscles, kneading them firmly. "Or, I could call someone for you?" she offered innocently, nearly laughing at Devís deep moan of pleasure.

"Yeeeeesssss." Devís head dropped forward, giving Lauren more room to work her tired, aching muscles. "Iíll give you an hour to stop that. Okay, two hours. But thatís my final offer."

Lauren chuckled and continued, feeling Dev relax even more. Abused muscles began to loosen, and before long the Presidentís head fell to the side, and she began snoring softly. Lauren enjoyed touching Dev for a few more moments before she began to slowly cease her massage. She gently helped the exhausted woman to lie down, easing her onto the cushions and allowing her to stretch out. Lauren retrieved a blanket and tucked Dev in. She leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, absently wiping the faint lipstick smudge away with her thumb. "Sleep well, darliní. Grem and I will be with the munchkins."

The biographer had just stepped out of her room when Emma met her in the hall. "If youíre looking for Devlyn, sheís in there taking a nap on the sofa. She was-"

"Up all night. I know." Emma shook her head and smiled. "Iím glad sheís getting a little rest. Here," she thrust a heavy package into Laurenís hands, "this came in Devís personal mail this morning, but itís addressed to you. Looks like an early birthday gift to me."

Lauren examined the brown paper wrapping. The return address just said Ďhomeí, but there was a Columbus, Ohio postmark. "Must be from Devís folks."

Emma nodded. "Iím sure thatís Janetís handwriting. But the only way to know for sure is to open it and see."

Lauren chuckled and tore into the paper. "Exactly." It was a book, and when she finally pulled away the last of the brown wrapper both she and Emma turned as red as lobsters. "Oh, my God," Lauren whispered, feeling the heat in her cheeks.

Emma began laughing so hard that she had to step away from Laurenís door for fear sheíd wake up Dev. "Oh, yes," she laughed. "That is most definitely from Janet Marlowe. Only she would do that, God bless her liberal soul. Dev certainly took after her traditional father, but youíll see a little of Janet peek out in her every now and then." Emma poked the white cover, tilting her head and seeing the darker pages at the end of the text. "At least she got you the paper and not the electronic version. I just donít think the illustrations would be the same on screen. Do you?"

"How would I know?" Lauren squeaked.

Emma rolled her eyes. "Thatís why she sent you the book, Lauren."

"Oh, yeah." Lauren shook her head and cracked open the cover. There was an inscription.

 

Lauren:

 

"You and Devil make a beautiful couple. I know you both insist that youíre not sleeping together. But I still thought this would come in handy. SOMEDAY. Since you already appear to know what a nipple is, Iím quite certain you can skip all the way to chapter two.

 

Happy birthday,

Janet

 

Lauren closed the book. What kind of mother sends the woman her daughter is seeing a copy of ĎThe Joy of Lesbian Sexí?! A smirk overtook her face. A pretty damned good one.

 

* * *

 

Dev rolled up the sleeves on her denim shirt so they stopped just below the elbow. Tucking her shirt into her jeans, she looked around the room for her sneakers. She happened to be on her hands and knees looking under the bed when Lauren entered the room.

"Devlyn, the kids and IÖwell, thatís an interesting view." She chuckled, crossing her arms, taking the time to appreciate the denim-clad backside. In her hand was her camera, and Lauren smirked as she clicked off a few photographs. Dev reached under the bed for her sneaker, grabbing it and banging her head on the way out. ĎOuch! Damn!" She sat on the floor rubbing the back of her head. "Hey! America does not need a close-up of my butt!"

"America might notÖ" Lauren wriggled her eyebrows, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "But these are going in my personal collection."

"Pervert."

Lauren only laughed.

"Okay, what is it you and the kids want?" Dev winked at the trio as they marched into the room together.

"Weíre wondering if we have time for a movie with you before the barbecue?"

"Donít see why not." She continued to rub her head. "That hurt," she whimpered, hoping to get a little sympathetic TLC from the writer.

Lauren had to give Dev an ĎAí for effort. She was being treated to puppy dog eyes and Devís most pitiful, pouty lower lip. The shorter woman laughed and gently stroked the back of Devís head. "Poor, wittle baby," she teased.

"Oh, okayÖI see. Thatís how it isÖ" Dev huffed playfully, pulling on her shoes. "Youíd think Iíd get more sympathy than thatÖbut nooooooÖ"

"I can call in some staff members to coo over you, if youíd like." Lauren winked at Ashley, and the little girl laughed.

"No, no, thatís all right. Iíll just sit here and be unloved," she paused for a melodramatic sniff. Then she started singing a song Ash recognized immediately "Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. Going in the garden and eat wormsÖ"

Lauren and Ash burst out laughing at Devís little song. Ashley walked over and planted herself in her motherís lap, kissing her nose. "I love yaí, worm breath." She hugged her mother tight around the neck and received a tight squeeze in return.

"I love you too, Moppet. Now, why donít you go back into the living room with your brothers and pick out a movie for us to watch? Lauren and I will be in in a minute or two."

"ĎKay!" Ashley jumped up and ran back into the living room. "Mom said I get to pick the movie!"

"I did not!" Dev contradicted as she got to her feet. She turned to Lauren and opened her arms for a hug. "What about you? Can you love someone with worm breath?"

Lauren wrapped her arms around Dev and squeezed gently. She took the opportunity to nuzzle Devís throat and sniff. "Ash is right. Definitely worms." And I think I could easily fall in love with someone exactly like you. Lauren exhaled loudly when Dev squeezed her hard for her comment. "Okay, okay. Lucky for you I like worms," she choked out.

"Guess itís just my lucky day then." Dev wrapped her arm around Laurenís shoulder, wincing slightly at the movement. Sheíd recently been taken down from three physical therapy sessions to two, because of the progress sheíd made with her shoulder and arm. The pain, however, seemed to be a constant she was going to have to live with for some time to come. Then the sounds of children most definitely not behaving themselves drifted into the room. Dev closed her eyes as she propped her chin on Laurenís head. "Can I go back to bed?"

Lauren bit her lip to keep from saying ĎOnly if I can join you!í. She couldnít, however, stop the light blush that colored her cheeks from the mere thought. "UmmÖ maybe we should make sure the kids donít kill each other." The writer grabbed Devís hand and tugged her towards the family room. "Can I ask you something?"

"You know you can. My life is an open book to you. No pun intended."

"Like Iíve never heard that before." She made a face. "Even Cardinal OíRoarke hit on that joke in the first six months." Lauren pinched Dev on the butt as they walked.

"Hey!" Dev protested, knowing full well that she was loving every minute of the teasing and banter.

"What I wanted to ask you was how you got to be so good with kids? Your kids, I guess. I know you donít have any brothers or sisters." They made their way to the sofa, casually stepping over Christopher and Aaron who were sprawled out on the floor, wrestling each other. "Half the time they terrify me, and the other half Iím worried for them. And theyíre not even mine."

"Hold that thought." Dev clapped her hands together, and the childrenís squeals came to an abrupt halt. "Why are we fussing?"

"Ashley is a stupid head!" Christopher offered, glaring at his sister, who had teamed up with Aaron against him.

"Am not!" Ash shouted back.

"Knock it off, or I know three midget humans who will not be attending the barbecue tonight."

"Mom!" the kids moaned together. "The fireworks!"

"I mean it." Devís tone was firm. "Now, find a movie and agree on it, and weíll watch it together as a family. Otherwise, you can all go to your rooms and stay there for the rest of the day."

"Yes, maíam," they grumbled with varying degrees of sincerity. Aaron led the way to the cabinet to claim his favorite disc and begin making his case to his brother and sister.

"You were asking?" Dev said wryly.

Lauren shook her head. "You solved the problem." She pointed to the kids. "No more fighting."

"Until the next time."

"I said you were good with the kids, not a miracle worker."

"True." Dev leaned back and faced Lauren. "I guess Iíve just had lots of practice." She grinned. "And as far as how you feel about them, your reaction sounds like a typical mom reaction to me. They terrify me half the time too."

Laurenís eyes widened. "Mom?" Sure, she occasionally spent time with the kids. With or without Dev. But that was mostly for the book. Sort of.

Uh oh. Iím scaring her. "Hey, itís okay. I didnít mean to implyÖ I meant that Ö well, I just think that being a mom will come naturally to you." She paused, a slightly sick feeling washing over her. She still had the niggling fear in the back of her mind that Lauren was planning on leaving the residence soon.

Dev was frankly surprised Lauren had lasted this long. And she was giving strong consideration to firing Michael Oaks outright. He and Lauren mixed like oil and water, and she knew that his presence, in what was supposed to be Laurenís home too, was a continuously aggravating factor for the writer. After all these months he was still angry that Dev had invited Lauren to stay in the residence over his objections. He made a special point of showing Lauren any bad press her presence drew, once even going as far as trying to attribute a drop in opinion polls to the fact that Lauren had accompanied Dev to a very public function.

"Iím not so sure about that, Devlyn," Lauren answered, breaking Dev out her wandering thoughts.

"I am." Dev smiled reassuringly. "When youíre ready, you can be fond of my kids without being tied down to them or anything. And someday, when youíre good and ready, youíre gonna be a great mom yourself."

Lauren felt confused and suddenly unsure of herself. She could hear the disappointment in Devís voice. "UmmÖ thanks. But I doubt Iíll have kids."

Dev thought about that for a moment. Lauren always chose her words very carefully. She hadnít said she didnít want children. Just that she didnít think sheíd have them herself. "You never know. I have it on good authority that stranger things have actually happened."

"Brat."

"Am not!"

"Are too!"

Dev and Lauren suddenly stopped to find all three of the children staring at them in shock.

"Uh oh," Lauren mumbled. "Was that bad?"

"Nah," Dev whispered back. "They already know Iím a brat." The President reached out and tugged Christopher closer by the elastic of his shorts. "Isnít that right, buddy?"

"Yup," he giggled.

Aaron stepped forward. "But sheís very, very sorry, Lauren. And sheíll try to do better in the future." The little boy knew this speech by heart, having heard it applied to him on a nearly daily basis.

Dev shot Lauren a smug look. "Weíre a team."

Gray eyes rolled. "A team of troublemakers!"

The children cheered at this very accurate pronouncement.

Dev lifted her arm to the back of the sofa, and, with a significant look at the small expanse of cushion between them, she invited Lauren to snuggle. "Even if you decide never to have kids, I still have three I can rent out from time to time."

"Do I get an employee discount?"

Dev mulled that over for a moment. "Absolutely! I am a President sympathetic to the plight of the little people, you know."

Lauren narrowed her eyes. "Was that a commoner or short person joke?" she demanded with mock fury.

"Yes."

The kids finally decided on "Stuart Little," and all three of them plopped down on the floor to enjoy the show.

Devís mind relentlessly probed the sore spot that was never very far from her thoughts. "Weíd really miss you if you left." Dev whispered. She just couldnít go on wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. It was making her crazy. Realistically, she knew Lauren would leave at some point. But her heart was firmly entrenched in its state of denial.

Lauren felt a pang in her chest at Devís words. "Iím not planning on going anywhere for a while, Devlyn. We had a deal right?"

"Right." She drew a deep breath and smiled. Dev wanted to question her further, but that Ďmotherí comment had already spooked Lauren a bit. Now wasnít the time to press her. "Iím really glad to know youíre gonna be here for a while longer." She grinned and poked Lauren playfully. "Itís nice to have someone to argue with."

Lauren smiled at Dev. "You argue with everyone, Madam President. Iím just one of the few people who will argue back."

"Yeah, you do, and I loveÖ that. Sometimes itís the most intelligent conversation and spirited debate I get all day."

Dev yelled for the kids to turn the TV down. "So, I, uh, know itís kinda last minute, Ms. Strayer. But do you happen to have a date for the barbecue tonight?"

Gray eyes twinkled. "What if I said yes?"

Dev hummed a little, tapping her chin as she thought. "Well, then Iíd say whoever gets to take you is very lucky indeed."

The writer batted her eyelashes and drew out the already drawled words. "You mean you wouldnít have the CIA take him?"

"Him?"

Lauren smirked, not taking the bait. "Or her."

"No. Youíre an adult. Free to make your own decisions. Free to date whomever youíd like. Even if it might be the wrong person. The totally wrong person! Which is, of course, everyone but me. Does the name Casey ring any bells with you?"

Lauren made a face. "You Yankees always did fight dirty!"

"Madam, might I remind you I am only half Yankee?"

Lauren slapped Dev in the belly with the back of her hand. "Yankee is Yankee," she pronounced firmly.

"Yeah, yeah. Youíre not answering my question. Do you have a date for tonight?" Dev turned a slightly predatory stare Laurenís way. "Hmmmmm?" She drew her brows together as her body language suggested that maybe, if she didnít get the answer she wanted, Lauren might find herself being tickled senseless.

Lauren giggled. "Fine. Fine. I donít have a date. Iím completely dateless." She nudged her companion. "How about you, Devlyn?"

Dev laughed and pulled back. "No. I have a date. I just wanted to see if you did."

Lauren suddenly went very still. "If David set you up again, Iím going to-"

"Yeeees? Youíre going to what?" A dark brow arched. Really, now? Well, well, feeling a little possessive, are we, Ms. Strayer?

The blonde womanís eyes narrowed. "Why, Iíll..." she paused, realizing that she was being tweaked. Oooo, Devlyn! Not nice. She consciously lowered her voice, and her body took on an air of unconcern. "Why, Iíll graciously make myself scarce. In fact, now that I know about it, Iíll see if I canít find an escort as well. That agent who always sits outside the Green Room is a cutie. And I didnít see a wedding ring."

"You donít have to go that far!" Dev held up her hand and wiggled her finger. "No ring here either. Iíd love it if youíd let me take you tonight."

"I was counting on it."

 

* * *

 

Evening settled in as most of the senior staff joined the President and her family on the balcony of the White House, overlooking the Washington Monument and the Mall. Tens of thousands had gathered for the Fourth of July celebration, totally unaware of the fact that a party was going on at the White House.

Lauren watched as Dev made the rounds, shaking hands and taking a moment to visit with each person. This didnít seem at all like the tired, slightly frazzled woman who had shown up at her door early this morning, after having been up all night. Dev never ceased to amaze her. The more she found out, the more she wanted to know. One of these days I swear Iím going to get Beth McMillian alone.

Eager eyes were looking over the beautiful spread of food that had been prepared, when she felt a certain tall, dark presence move in behind her. "Boy, that looks good," Dev whispered in her ear.

Lauren ran her finger across the piece of BBQ chicken sheíd just placed on her plate. She brought the tip of her finger to her mouth and then licked off a speck of zesty barbecue sauce. "Ummm... it is." She looked over her shoulder and into the clearest, most beautiful blue eyes sheíd ever seen. For a moment she was speechless. Lauren gave her head a small shake. "Did... did you get a plate yet?"

"Iíve just been sneaking little bites of the most delicious things."

Pale eyebrows disappeared behind windblown bangs. "Really?" She glanced at the Presidentís empty hands.

"Umm hmm." Dev leaned in, placing her mouth a hairsbreadth from Laurenís ear. "A nibble here. And a nibble there. You know how it is." She gave her earlobe a nip.

Lauren pulled away. She turned around to face Dev, painfully aware of the interested faces watching them. "What do you think youíre doing?" she whispered harshly.

Dev stood up straight. She mentally kicked herself for making Lauren feel uncomfortable. "Iím sorry," she said quietly. "I forgot for a second that that weirds some people out."

There was a moment of almost painful silence, and it was Dev who awkwardly sought to fill the gap. "Are you having a good time?"

Lauren lowered her eyes and blew out a frustrated breath. "Iím sorry, Devlyn. I just..." She rocked her head back and forth and lowered her voice. "Iíve spent months denying that you and I were more than friends to nearly every person at this party. Now, I guess I feel... I..." She hesitated. "I donít know how I feel." Lauren grabbed Devís hand and squeezed, hoping it would give her a physical reassurance her words obviously lacked.

"I know. I didnít mean to make you uncomfortable on your birthday. But... um... make sure you save room for dessert. Itís something special. And itíll be here in about ten minutes." Dev took the time to make sure Lauren was looking right at her when she said, "I donít ever want to do anything that hurts or embarrasses you, Lauren. I mean that. If youíre not ready for me to touch you in public, thatís okay. You just let me know when and if you are, all right? Iíll be here."

Devís words were delivered in a calm, even voice. But Lauren could see pain lurking behind her eyes. "Damn, Iím sorry." She squeezed the hand she was holding again. "Itís not like that, Devlyn. Really." With a gentle tug Lauren pulled Dev behind a large table and into the corner of the balcony, the most private spot she could find without going inside. She set down her plate. "Itís not that Iím not ready," Lauren whispered. "Itís that I feel like Iíve been lying to these people, and now Iím rubbing their noses in it."

"Lying?" Now Dev was totally confused. " Sweetheart, you havenít lied to anyone. What are you talking about?"

Lauren winced. "Thatís not true. At least, not completely." She turned and braced her arms on the railing, gazing out at the crowds in the distance who had packed the Mall area to wait for the fireworks. The view was truly breathtaking. "Iíve been thinking about you for months," she muttered cryptically.

"Thinking about me how?" Dev nudged her, starting to understand what Lauren meant. "Thinking about me, dating me, and sleeping with me are three separate things. All we have said to this point is that we werenít sleeping together, and weíre still not doing that. And weíve just started dating. You donít need to feel guilty or uncomfortable. And if you think Beth McMillian doesnít know that, and hasnít passed that fact along to every person she can think of, you are a seriously deluded person. I love Beth dearly, but if you look up the word Ďgossipí in the dictionary, youíll find an autographed 8" X 10" of her, smiling."

Lauren couldnít help but laugh. "Youíre right about that. Once I corner Beth alone, youíre done for, Madam President. Iíll be able to retire on the Ďtell allí book." A bird caught her eye, and she followed it high into the early evening sky. "I know it sounds silly. But for the last few months every time I denied the rumor that we were a couple, it felt like a lie." She shrugged one shoulder. "I guess itís all just catching up with me. I canít believe so much of what is happening." The writer turned to face Dev. "And who itís happening with." Her eyes conveyed true regret. "Iím sorry if I hurt your feelings. I didnít expect you to be so," she searched for a word, "demonstrative, I guess. At least not in public."

"No. Iím the one who should be, and is, truly sorry. Iíve just always been Ďoutí. I figure that people know my preferences, and Iím just being me. But youíre not exactly Ďoutí. I mean youíre not even exactlyÖ are you? Wait, it doesnít matter... I mean... okay, Iím gonna shut up now. Let me just say that Iíve been thinking about you for months too. And this relationship is a two way street. I care for you a lot; more than a lot."

Before Dev could say another word a dessert cart that carried two huge sheet cakes on it was rolled out. One was decorated for the Fourth of July. The second was a special cake, done for Laurenís birthday.

Lauren tried to peer around Dev to get a good look, but the taller woman clamped her hand firmly over Laurenís eyes. "I told you I ordered something special for you. You ready?"

Lauren nodded excitedly. "Totally!"

"ĎKay." Dev guided Lauren away from the railing and around the table, careful to make sure the blonde woman didnít trip. When the candles were lit, she peeled her hand away, showing Lauren the beautiful cake that had been crafted and prepared just for her by one of the top pastry chefs in the world, who also happened to work for the White House. Around the outside of the cake was a ring of Dottieís special Devil cookies. "Had those shipped in from Ohio just for you, Mighty Mouse. Happy birthday."

Lauren grinned as she looked down at the cake. "Itís beautiful! Iím gaining weight just looking at all those Devil cookies."

The crowd that had gathered around them laughed.

Laurenís eyes suddenly widened, and a slightly astonished look overtook her face. "Please tell me that isnít the correct amount of candles."

 

 

Sunday, July 11th

 

 

Lauren was heading for the library when she spotted a very tired President slowly padding down the hall towards her. An enormous smile lit up her face. "Welcome back!" Jogging the last steps until they met, she wrapped her arms around Dev and pulled her into a heartfelt hug. "How was Camp David?" God, itís great to see you again. Itís just not the same on video link.

"It was rotten because you werenít there," Dev whispered into a pink ear. She pulled away, groaning at her own exhausted state. "Itís great to be back." Her smile at Lauren was weary, but genuine. "Címon, I need to make it to the living room before I drop dead right here in the hallway." Dev grabbed Laurenís hand and determinedly steered her in the opposite direction of the Clinton Library. "Iím sorry I didnít get a chance to call more often. It was pretty crazy."

"Well, seeing as how it was all part of the continuing process to stop World War III, I donít see how I can really complain."

Dev snorted. "Well, I can complain. I missed you!" God, I hate being called away at the last moment. Especially when you canít come with me.

Hand in hand, they turned the corner and nearly ran into two agents.

"Welcome home, Madam President." The man straightened his tie and stood a little straighter.

"Thank you, Jack."

Amy nodded at Lauren, then addressed the President. "Good to see you again, Madam President."

"Good to see you too, Amy. I havenít made it back to the apartment yet. Howís Ashley? Did you manage to keep her out of trouble while I was away?"

"All the kids are in bed early tonight, maíam. They had a pool party at the Vice Presidentís house and were wiped out. And Ashley is hardly ever any trouble."

"Do you get paid enough to tell a mother sweet lies like that?" Blue eyes twinkled.

"Nope," Amy answered confidently. "The kids will be sorry they missed you tonight."

"Not as sorry as I am." A frown marred Devís face. "Thanks, Amy." She tugged on Laurenís hand again to get them moving. She needed to kiss Lauren, and she wanted to do it in private. "Good night."

The agents both nodded. "Good night, maíam," they called after her retreating figure. "Night, Lauren."

Lauren smiled and waved.

Dev picked up the pace.

"Youíre sure moving quickly for someone whoís dead on her feet!" Lauren was having to jog every other step to keep up with Devís longer, powerful strides. "I can see first hand that your hip has completely healed."

Dev guided her around a small, antique table that held a vase of dried flowers. Side by side portraits of Teddy Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland, both on horseback, hung above it. "When Iím motivated I can do amazing things."

Laurenís eyebrows shot up. "Really, Wonder Woman?" she purred playfully.

Dev chuckled. "Oh, yeah." Merely waving hello to the agent posted outside the living room, Dev pulled open the door and yanked Lauren inside, nearly pulling her off her feet.

"Devlyn!" Lauren exclaimed. Is it wrong that this is kind of turning me on?

Dev kicked the door shut and pulled Lauren into her arms, forcing the smaller woman to tilt her head way back in order to look at her face. She didnít bother to say a word. Instead, she captured Lauren in a surprise, passionate kiss them left them both breathless.

"Hi," Dev said softly when their lips finally separated. Her heart was pounding so loudly she couldnít even hear the words when she muttered earnestly, "I really missed you."

Lauren sucked in a deep lungful of air, and her eyelids fluttered open. She snuggled deeper into Devís embrace, savoring her own bodyís reaction to her friendís closeness, and enjoying the solid, warm feeling of Devís lanky form pressed tightly against hers. Wow. Lauren gazed deeply into Devís eyes and sighed dreamily. "Hi. And I really missed you too."

"Ahem..." From across the room, Emma cleared her throat. "I missed you tooooooooo, Dev," she teased. Emma laughed so hard at Laurenís instant blush that her ample bosom threatened to take out one of her own eyes.

"Very funny, Emma. How is everyone?"

"Well, Iím fine. And the children are all in bed. Too much sun and fun at Vice President Vincentís did them in early, Iím afraid."

"Letís all have breakfast together tomorrow though, okay? Iíll make sure Liza gets me back to the residence around 8:30 A.M."

"Weíll be ready." The older woman shuttled past Dev and Lauren on her way out. "Iíll see you two tomorrow."

"Good night, Emma." Lauren smiled.

Dev shed her jacket, tossing it on a nearby chair. Next she began untucking her blouse from her slacks. "Night."

Lauren plopped down on the couch and gazed at Dev affectionately as the dark-haired woman puttered around, quickly made herself as comfortable as possible, and put in a call for dinner. With a nod of the writerís head, dinner for one was turned into dinner for two.

Devlyn sat down next to Lauren and closed her eyes. "Iím so tired." She sighed and leaned towards the small fingers that began gently stroking her hair.

"Then you should rest."

"Iím hungry."

"Then eat, Devlyn," came the simple reply.

Dev smiled. "Iím so glad youíre here with me tonight."

"Mmmm... then you should definitely kiss me again."

Before Dev could comply, there was a light knock at her door. "No," she whimpered, grabbing a throw pillow and burying her face in it. "That canít be dinner this quickly. Whoever it is can just go away! I donít want to be the President any more tonight."

Lauren chuckled at Devís minor tantrum. "You rest. Iíll take care of it."

A dark head shook. "No," Dev sighed egregiously. "If theyíre knocking here, theyíre after me. Iíll tell them to buzz off." She stood and gave Lauren a quick peck on the tip of the nose. "Save my seat."

Dev rolled her shoulder as she slowly moved to the door. It ached tonight. "This had better be good," she mumbled, pulling the door open. She was surprised to see Michael Oaks.

"Yes, Michael?" Dev inquired in a bored tone. Didnít the man have any life? Theyíd only been off Marine One for an hour. Didnít he have a home or girlfriend or pet rock somewhere? "And why are you still here?"

Michael blinked. "I had work to do, Madam President. But thatís not why Iím your door. Security is holding a man downstairs who wants to see Ms. Strayer. He claims to be her husband."

"What?!" Lauren exclaimed from across the room. "Ex-husband!"

"I see that she is here and not in her room." Michaelís displeasure was clearly written across his face.

Lauren joined Dev at the door. "Judd is here?" She felt a dread building in the pit of her stomach. Why would he be here?

"Shall I bring your husband up to your room, Ms. Strayer?" Michael couldnít think of a single thing heíd like more than to throw a wrench into Devlyn and Laurenís budding romance. Lauren was an unmanageable annoyance that had somehow, and most certainly unjustly, gained the Presidentís ear. It wasnít smart, it wasnít safe, and his dislike for the writer was only rivaled by the resentment he felt because his opinion on the subject had been completely ignored by the President.

"Ex-husband," Dev growled. She turned to Lauren. "You want me to have him tossed out on his butt? I can do that you know."

"Michael?" she asked innocently, smirking as the black manís face darkened.

Dev wrestled the grin from her face. "No. Mr. Radison."

Lauren chewed her lip, sorely tempted to say yes and spend a few moments alone with her favorite person. But Judd hadnít contacted her in years. He wouldnít come here for nothing.

The writer laid her hand on the small of Devís back. "Iíd better talk to him in case itís something important." She turned to Michael. "You can have an agent bring him up to my room."

"Bring him here instead," Dev interjected. "If thatís all right." She looked down at Lauren who nodded.

Michael quickly disappeared, ordering two agents to bring Mr. Radison inside the residence. He would personally escort him the rest of way.

Dev pushed her door, leaving it open just a crack.

Lauren crossed her arms over her chest. "I know how tired you are, Devlyn. Judd and I can go to my room and talk. Iím sure it will only take a few moments."

Devís jaw worked. "I donít trust him."

"You donít know him."

A well drawn eyebrow arched.

"I know that he was married to you, and lost you. Therefore, he is an idiot. I donít trust idiots."

"Dev." Lauren shook her head and sighed. "It wasnít like that. Judd and I just grew apart. Actually," she hesitated as she gathered her thoughts, "we were never really together, if you know what I mean. I thought I loved him. It was a mistake."

Dev clapped Laurenís shoulder, squeezing gently. "Iím sorry."

Lauren reached up at patted Devís hand. "Donít be sorry. It just wasnít meant to be. Iím not even sorry," she admitted. "He wanted a wife. And I wanted to have a career and a playmate, and we just couldnít make it all work. Juddís not a bad guy. We just werenít good for each other."

Lauren was leaving out a lot, and she knew it. But what little anger or frustration she had over her failed marriage was long since gone. And, in truth, it had mostly been directed towards herself anyway. There was no reason to dig up old bones now.

The blonde woman nervously tugged on her glasses, glad to have Devís close, supportive presence. "I just have no idea why heís here. Juddís not a social kind of guy. He wouldnít just drop by the White House at eight in the evening on a Sunday night to say hello."

"You donít know for certain-"

Another knock indicated Judd and Michael were back. "Come in," Dev called.

Michael marched into the room with Judd Radison following somewhat reluctantly behind him. He quickly introduced Devlyn, who gave Judd a firm handshake, hoping her frank appraisal of the man wasnít as obvious as it felt.

Dev had to give him credit, he was a more handsome man than his photograph had made him seem. Judd was dressed in slacks with a neatly pressed crease down the front, and a navy sport coat. He had short, curly, brown hair and dark blue eyes that constantly flickered around the room as he walked, taking in the wonderful architecture and beautiful furnishings that characterized the White House.

Dev quietly dismissed Michael, making sure he left two agents immediately outside the living room, so that Mr. Radison would have an escort ready whenever he left. Which, despite his harmless demeanor, she hoped would be soon.

"Hello, Lauri." Judd smiled weakly at his ex-wife and gave her a tentative hug, which she returned just as awkwardly.

Dev blinked. The unease between the former couple was palpable. They were married to each other? Iím less standoffish with my hair stylist!

"Hello, Judd." The embrace loosened enough for Lauren to look at his face. She regarded him silently for a moment, and tears began to well in both their eyes.

Something was happening; Dev could see it. She felt confused and anxious at the same time. I guess they do know each other.

Lauren finally pulled away from Judd, the familiar scent of his after-shave lingering in the air. "Letís sit." She left her hand on his forearm as she directed him to the couch. "Tell me whatís the matter," she said gently, feeling sick to her stomach. Oh, God. Something was very wrong. Juddís eyes never lied. Despite the fact that his lips could be significantly less reliable.

The man sat down and studied his shoes for a moment.

Lauren perched on the coffee table in front of the sofa and, with pleading eyes, wordlessly held out her hand to Dev.

Dev wouldnít have moved faster if she were on fire. With an enormous sense of relief she stepped forward and took Laurenís hand.

Judd glanced up, surprised by the scene in front of him. His thick brows drew together as he focused on the womenís linked fingers and the positions of their bodies. There was no space between them. "Are you two... um...?" He gestured vaguely, and Lauren nodded. "Wow," he breathed, clearly in awe. "Not according to your dad."

The writer had always suspected that Judd and her father remained friends after the divorce. Sheíd just never had confirmation before now. And frankly, she hadnít been interested enough to ever ask. "Itís a sort of recent development, Judd. Now, tell me whatís wrong. I can see that something is. Are you in some sort of trouble?"

"No! Itís not that. I... um... I moved to Falls Church, Virginia, last month. Took a job at a small architectural firm there. I guess weíre sort of neighbors."

"Okay." Lauren drew out the word, rapidly losing patience. Sheíd forgotten about Juddís penchant for beating around the bush. "And you showed up at the White House to tell me that? Címon, Judd."

"Your father called me an hour ago. I came right over." He looked at Dev, a little unnerved by her presence. But not enough that he wanted to drag this out any longer. "He wanted me to come and tell you in person, Lauri, so he wouldnít have to tell you on the phone." A deep breath. "Your mo-"

"She finally did it, right?" The color drained from her face as she said the words. "Oh, God," she whispered to herself. She finally got what she wanted. Her stomach threatened to rebel, and she wasnít sure whether she should feel relieved for her mother or appalled by what sheíd done. At the moment all she could feel was sick.

Judd nodded quickly, glad for the moment not to have to say the actual words. His forehead was sweaty and his hands were shaped in fists. "Iím so sorry, Lauri. Your dad, he... um... he wants you to call him as soon as you can. She died a couple of hours ago. He didnít want you to be alone."

"Sheís not alone!" Dev interrupted, her voice cracking with emotion. "Sheís not."

Lauren pulled her hand from the older womanís, despite the death grip Dev had on her fingers. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms around her stomach in mute comfort. Her chin quivered slightly, and Devís chest constricted at the sight. "I donít... donít feel so well."

Laurenís complexion was taking on a slightly green tinge, and tears swam in her soft gray eyes.

"Címon, sweetheart. I think we need to get you to the bathroom." Dev put her arm around Lauren and began to help her up.

"Iím fine," Lauren insisted unconvincingly, but she didnít stop Dev from guiding her to her feet. "I need to call daddy." Just then her stomach lurched harder, and she bent at the waist and groaned quietly. "God, I think Iím going to be sick." Sheíd forgotten all about Judd, who was still sitting on the sofa, wishing he were somewhere else, and her legs felt shaky.

"I know." Dev took charge of the situation, trying not to think about how sheíd felt when Jane had told her about Samantha. "Let me help you." I need to help you. As soon as Lauren was far enough away from the coffee table for Dev to get a good grip on her, the older woman held her around the waist and quickly started walking them to the bathroom. "Please wait," she called back to Judd without looking over her shoulder. "Iíll be out in a moment."

Her tone of voice made it clear that it would be wise for him to do as she asked. Judd nodded reluctantly.

When the bathroom door opened Lauren rushed forward and fell to her knees, retching violently into the toilet.

Dev grabbed her glasses just before Lauren lost them. Quickly shoving them into her pocket, she held back Laurenís fair hair with one hand and stroked her back with the other, offering quiet words of comfort.

When she was finished, Lauren sat back on her heels. She was shivering a little, but she did feel much better. Dev handed her a cool glass of water and she rinsed her mouth out with the first sip, spitting it into the toilet and flushing it. Lauren greedily drank the rest of the glass down in one long swallow.

"Better?"

Devís fingers were massaging her neck. She sighed at the coolness against her clammy skin. "Yeah. Much." Lauren grabbed a tissue and wiped her mouth. "Thank you so much." She exhaled raggedly. "This... it would be worse alone." Reaching behind her, she hugged Devís legs.

"You donít have to thank me, honey. This is what friends do." And you wonít ever face anything like this alone Ė not if I can help it.

Chapter 8

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