Madam President

Madam President

Chapter VIII

August 2021

 

 

Sunday, August 1st

 

 

Laurenís fingers typed steadily across the keyboard as the kids played on the floor with Gremlin. A quick command had allowed her to disable the voice recognition input system. Now she was doing her work the old-fashioned way. But she didnít want to add to the noise in the room by talking over it. God only knew what the computer would do with the background noise that ranged from quiet giggles to levels just above a jumbo jet, depending on what mood struck the kids and dog.

Right now, Gremlin was bouncing around them, yapping and barking and squirming between their legs as they played. To anyone else, his display would have seemed like that of a truly happy canine. But to Laurenís eyes, it was crystal clear that the pooch still wasnít himself. She was beginning to wonder if Dev wasnít right. Maybe he did need a doggy shrink. But the kids do seem to make him happy. If Lauren was sure of one thing in this life, it was that Grem was completely in love with the Marlowe children. She snorted inwardly. Youíre not the only one, buddy.

Since she and Dev had returned home from her motherís funeral, the writer found herself using any excuse to spend a little extra time with the children, not to mention their mother. Dev had been wonderful. And Lauren was quite certain that if it hadnít been for her constant support and comfort... She shook her head, forcing herself to stop considering the painful thought. Dev had been there for her every step of the way, exceeding the expectations sheíd previously placed on a friendship, much less a romance.

Dev had pulled out all the stops, even managing to make sure that the family wasnít besieged by the Press at the funeral and during the quick burial service in the graveyard. The President of the United Stateís attendance alone was an invitation for chaos. But Dev had made it clear that she would stand by Lauren during this very emotional time. And that no one would Ďsufferí because of her presence. Lauren had felt a pang deep in her chest when she heard the self-recrimination in Devís voice. But the Press had been mostly absent and she wondered what favors Dev had called in just to make it happen.

It wasnít until they were back home in Washington, DC, that a reporter caught Lauren and Dev on their way out of the White House and inquired as to the cause of her motherís death. To her dismay, the writer had burst into tears. Devís growled ĎNo commentí, coupled with a feral glare that would melt steel, had sent the reporter scurrying, and she hadnít been asked a question about it since.

Even with the constant pressure, Dev had been a total rock. When the Presidentís popularity took a five point dive during her trip with Lauren to Tennessee, sheíd brushed it off with her typical graciousness, assuring Lauren that the numbers would rebound as her tax cut package cleared the House.

Lauren felt the beginnings of tears. But they werenít sad ones. This time it was simple awe and appreciation over a relationship and a woman sheíd come to count on and care about deeply that brought them to her eyes. She reached under her glasses and caught the tears on the tip of her finger. With a sniff, she wiped them away before they could fall and allowed a bittersweet smile to cross her lips. Despite the events of the last two weeks, Lauren had never been happier.

She glanced at the children, who were now settling down with Gremlin and arguing over which cartoons to watch. Dev was very careful about what her children where exposed to when she was away from the residence. The television set was firmly locked on channels appropriate to their ages.

The writer also knew that Dev preferred that the children play games or read over watching television. Lauren clicked the off switch, placed her handheld computer on the table, and moved over to the floor with the kids. "Hi, guys."

They immediately stopped fussing when she joined them. "Hiya, Lauren!" Christopher grinned at the writer and scrunched up his nose as his face turned bright red.

Lauren smiled back. Youíre too damned cute for your own good, Christopher. Just like your mama.

Aaron simply scooted over closer to Lauren, slipping his hand into hers, then placing his head in the crook of her arm.

Ashley rolled over on her back, turning soft brown eyes on the writer. "How do you feel?"

Lauren was surprised at the question and blinked a couple of times. "Well, IímÖ Iím okay, I guess."

"Itís okay to be sad."

"Youíre right. It is," Lauren agreed quietly, knowing that Ashley had misunderstood her tears. She forgot sometimes that the children, even when they seemed as though they were off in their own world, were very aware of everything around them.

"Yeah," the little girl breathed. "I was sad for a long time when my Mommy died."

Laurenís smile was bittersweet. "My mama was very sick. There wasnít much-"

Ash put her hand on Laurenís arm. "But itís still okay to be sad. Mom used to be sad all the time." Ashleyís face suddenly brightened, and Lauren could not help but mirror her instant enthusiasm.

"What happened?"

"You came to live here."

"Oh, yeah?" Lauren fought the urge to cry again, knowing that it would only confuse the kids. Besides, she was tired of crying. "That makes me feel really good, Ash. Thank you for telling me."

Ashley shrugged, totally unaware of the significance her simple statement held for Lauren. "It was the truth."

"What was the truth?" Dev asked as she strolled into the room. She wore an enormous grin.

But Ashley was already focused back on the television.

Lauren stood up to greet Dev. "Itís not important." She narrowed her eyes. "Why do you look so happy, and why do I have a feeling Iím not going to like it?"

Dev laughed. "Iíd better watch myself. Youíre getting to know me far too well, Lauren Strayer."

"Uh huh. That doesnít answer my question, Madam President. Spill it."

"I just spoke with Julio, and he gave me the green light to start jogging again. My hip is as healed as itís going to get. Weíre going out right now as a matter of fact. Hence, my lovely outfit." Dev gestured down her body with one hand. She was wearing a navy blue T-shirt, running shoes, and gray gym shorts.

The smile fell from Laurenís face. "Great," she said with a hundred percent false enthusiasm. "You know how much I love to jog."

Devlyn laughed. "Oh, I certainly do. But if youíd rather, I can just tell Michael Oaks that youíre not up to it."

Lauren stepped close enough so that only Dev could hear what she said. "That was such a low blow," she teased. "Do you really think I can be baited so easily?"

"Yes."

"True."

Dev looked down at her shoes. "Actually, I was hoping to invite just you and the number of agents that David will let me get away with."

Devís head was tilted downward, but Lauren could see the contemplative, serious look on her face. "Itís been a couple of months..." she continued, talking about her hip and the physical therapy, and Lauren eventually caught a clue.

Sheís embarrassed about how slow sheís going to be. Before, she could keep up with even the most fit agents. This is an easy one to help you out with, darliní. "You know, Devlyn, for the last couple of months weíve been working out in the gym and walking, but I really havenít been running. Do you think that maybe I could run up in the front with you, but that you could take it easy on me? Just until I get back in shape?"

Devís eyes lit up. "Sure," she agreed enthusiastically. "I mean, if you really want me to, that is."

Devlyn had a healthy ego, but was truly egotistical about precious few things. Her fitness level, however, happened to be one of them. Lauren enjoyed indulging her friend where she could. And was happy to do it here. That, however, didnít stop her from nearly having to bite her lip through to keep from smiling. "If you wouldnít mind too much, it would really help me out if we could go extra slow for a while." Lauren gave Dev a hug and whispered in her ear, "Iím so glad your hip is doing so well, Devlyn." She held Dev a little tighter, the thought of the shooting sending a dull ache to her heart. "I donít know what I would have done if you hadnít been okay. I-"

"Hey." Dev felt a tremor run through the smaller woman, and she tightened her hold, her mind racing to catch up with what had just happened. "Itís okay." She pressed her cheek against the top of Laurenís head, hearing and feeling a series of unexpected sniffles. Dev didnít say anything for a moment so that Lauren would have a little time to get herself together.

"You okay?" Dev finally burred.

Lauren nodded against her shoulder. "I didnít mean to do that. I think itís been building all day."

"It happens," Dev said quietly. "Youíre doing great. Better than I would under the same circumstances." If my mother had hung herself in the living room... Jesus.

Lauren snorted. "Somehow I doubt that." She lifted her head and looked at Devís T-shirt. "I got you all wet."

"Like I give a damn."

Lauren gave Dev a watery smile. "Thank you."

"For what?"

"For everything. For being there when I needed you. For giving me the opportunity of a lifetime with this job. For just... just everything." Lauren exhaled in frustration, unhappy that she wasnít able to articulate what she wanted to say any better than that.

Sheís thanking me? When the mere thought of being without her makes me physically ill? "Donít be silly, Lauren. I didnít do anything anybody else wouldnít have done."

Gray eyes flashed. "Wanna bet?"

"Lauren." Dev drew out the word.

"You dropped everything to be there for me." Lauren shook her head. "NoÖ Nobody-"

"Else is as lucky as I am," Dev finished for her. She lifted Laurenís chin with two fingers. "And I intend to keep it that way."

Lauren surged forward and kissed her soundly, willing Dev to understand every emotion she was feeling, and just how much she cared for her. She broke away giggling when the kids began screaming Ďewwwwí and Ďgrossí, and Ashley broke in with the kissing song.

"Arenít they romantic?" Dev asked drolly. "Little demons." She shot her offspring an evil look that still somehow managed to look smug.

Lauren blinked at Christopher, who was giving his mother a miniature version of her very own challenging, arched eyebrow glare. "Oh, boy." She winced. Dev gets to take care of that little man. "Okay, I need to go get changed if Iím going to let you torture me."

"You donít have to come." Dev smiled. Lauren was going to come, and she damn well knew it. Once she said she was going to do something, she never backed out.

"I know. But I will." She jogged back over to the sofa and picked up her tiny computer.

"We need to get you an office."

"I donít want an office," Lauren insisted. This was about the tenth time she had told Dev that since moving into the White House. "I like the view from the desk in my room. I just wanted to visit the kids today. Besides, the cherry blossoms were fabulous this spring. I looked out at them every day while I was supposed to be working." Her eyes twinkled. Say it. You know itís the truth. "Iím already looking forward to seeing them again next year."

Dev tried to hide the smile on her face by pursing her lips together, which didnít work. So then she bit the inside of her cheek. But that only held it at bay for a second or two. She had the nearly overwhelming urge to jump up and down like a little kid and scream, ĎThank you, Lord!í Instead, she reached out and pulled Lauren closer, kissing the tip of her nose. The relief that flooded through her was almost enough to knock her off her feet. She needed something to hold on to. "Youíre not looking forward to it nearly as much as I am, sweetheart."

 

 

Thursday, August 12th

 

 

Dev knocked on the door with her elbow. She let out a disgusted breath even as she glanced at the heavy crate in her arms. Leaning the box against the wall, she lifted her hand to knock again, but the crate shifted, and she decided she shouldnít risk it. The President set the box down and pounded on the door with her fist. "Come on, Strayer! I know youíre in there. You and that little demon you live with can run but you canít hide!" She narrowed her eyes at a passing staffer whom she swore had sniggered at her.

Lauren pulled the door open and tugged her glasses from her face. "I was on the phone with the Attorney General. Did you know she thinks youíre cute?"

Dev smirked. "I am cute. But would you like to see what is not cute?" She bent over and retrieved the box. "Well? Arenít you going to invite me in?"

"Oh, sure." Lauren stepped aside so Dev could fit past her. She cocked her head and looked at the crate "Whatís up, Devlyn?"

"Whereís that little monster you live with?"

"Grem?" She shrugged. "Iím not sure. Heís around here somewhere." That was a lie, and she knew it. Lauren had seen him scoot his chubby butt under her bed an hour ago. She wasnít one hundred percent certain he was still there. But then again, she hadnít seen him crawl out either. The poor pooch had been so despondent lately, she just didnít think he was up to a showdown with Devlyn. "Why?" she asked warily. What have you done now, Grem?!

"Because I intend to sue him for pupamoney. Or pup support! Or, or, arghhhhh... something!"

Oooo, thereís that little pulsing vein in her forehead again. "What are you talking about?" Lauren chuckled.

Dev flipped the lid off the crate to reveal an enormous, bloated, miserably pregnant Pomeranian. The female lifted her tired head and whimpered softly, before letting it drop to the bottom of the crate in defeat. "You remember my momís prized, pure breed, show dog?" Dev tapped her foot impatiently. "This is all thatís left of her!"

Lauren burst out laughing and backed up a step from a glaring Dev. "Iím sorry! Iím sorry!" She continued to laugh.

"Itís not funny! Iím in trouble with my mom. If she could reach my butt with her wooden spoon, it would be bright red by now!"

Devís comments did nothing to curb Laurenís snorts of laughter. "Your mother will forgive you anything, and you know it. Besides, how do you know he did this?" she challenged uselessly, covering her smile with her hand. "He couldnít have been the only male dog in the area."

Dev lifted an eyebrow. "Look how unhappy she is." She pointed to the dog whose enormous belly forced her to lie on her side like a mutant pig. "Only sleeping with Gremlin could make a dog look that pathetic!"

Lauren rolled her eyes. But when she peeked down at the former champion again, she couldnít help but wince. "Oooooo... thatís why Iím never having children." Time to face the music, buddy. But Iíd be more afraid of facing that Pomeranian than Devlyn. Lauren turned her head and gave a soft whistle. "Gremlin, get your snaggle-toothed little ass out here."

The pudgy beast slowly crawled out from under the bed. Suddenly, he stopped and sniffed the air. His tail began to wag furiously, and he broke into what almost resembled a run. Unfortunately, he wasnít very good at almost running, and hit the crate head on, causing Dev and Lauren to jump back in surprise. But Gremlinís face was already basically flat, so he was completely unaffected. His chunky rear end wiggled wildly as he tried to use stubby back legs to climb into the crate.

The Pomeranian, ĎPrincessí, began to whine, and her tail began to wag too, thumping rhythmically against the bottom of the crate.

"Ah ha!" Dev accused.

"Thatís not proof!" Lauren cringed when the rotund Pom tried to sit up to greet her now howling pet. "Okay," she admitted, "thatís proof."

The writer took pity on Grem and hoisted him up into the crate, setting him gently next to Princess. That wasnít an easy task, considering lifting Gremlin was like lifting a small torpedo, and both dogs were shaking so hard it looked like they were having spasms. "Well, what do ya know?"

The dogs immediately started nuzzling each other, with Gremlin purring like a cat the entire time.

"He looks so happy now! They must have been missing each other." AwwwwÖ Grem you romantic devil, you. You were pining for your sweetheart all this time. "Isnít that sweet, Devlyn?"

"Yeah," Dev agreed flatly. "Real sweet."

"Looks like Gremís gonna be a daddy." Lauren smiled at the President. "I guess that makes you an aunt."

"Wrong! They are all yours." Dev enunciated each word carefully. "Grem is yours, and he got her pregnant. Have fun, Ďgrandmaí. My mother has disowned the little tramp, and I certainly donít want them."

But the sparkle in pale blue eyes gave Dev away. She wasnít too mad, and Lauren knew it. She moved closer to Dev and rose up on tiptoe, giving Dev a tender kiss on the cheek. When she pulled away she could see a definite softening in the Presidentís expression. "Donít be mad." She kissed Dev again, this time on the chin. "How can you be angry at true love? Please."

Dev fought to hold onto her indignation and anger, but they were melting faster than snow cones on the Fourth of July. "Tease," Dev grumbled petulantly. She made one last ditch effort to maintain her angry pose and failed miserably. Again.

"Uh huh." Laurenís expression was unrepentant. She threaded her fingers together at the fine nape hairs of Devís neck and kissed her in earnest.

For a long, breathless moment, both women forgot about the dogs at their feet.

Devlyn licked her lips when they separated. "Nice."

Lauren grinned. "Mmm hmm..."

Gremlinís happy groan drew both womenís attention back to the crate. Lauren scratched her jaw speculatively. "Well, think about this, Devlyn. The kids can finally have their own dog."

"Oh, no!" Dev shook her head vigorously. "Weíre not taking even one of the demon spawn from hell. Cerberus and his mate can just find homes for their evil seed elsewhere."

Lauren glanced down and made a face. "They are going to make someÖ erÖ ugly puppies."

"Youíre being kind."

"I know."

"My mom says any day now, so I hope you know something Ďbout birthiní puppies, Scarlett. Now, if youíll excuse me, I have an appointment with the Secretary of Health and Human Services."

"Thatís great. Will you pick me up a food stamp application?"

Dev laughed and shook her head. "Spoken like a true Democrat. And, no, I will not. But I will gladly pay to get them sterilized."

Gremlin chose that exact moment to start howling even louder. Princess, however, remained conspicuously silent.

"Hush," Lauren scolded her pooch. Then she stuck out her tongue at Dev. "Spoken like a true Emancipationist."

"I prefer Emancipator."

"Oh, is that so?" Lauren grinned and crossed her arms.

"Oh, absolutely. Because, my lovely," Dev reached out for Lauren. Speaking in her deepest, sexiest voice, she said, "I can set you free."

Lauren leaned forward until her forehead was resting against Devís chest. She sucked in a deep breath. "God, I love it when you talk dirty."

Both women began to laugh.

 

Friday, August 13th

 

 

Dev pushed herself away from her desk and tossed her pen down, clearly upset. God, everything about this made her sick.

Special Prosecutor Miller leaned forward eagerly in his chair, causing it to squeak as he braced his forearms on the desk. His eyes took on a predatory glint. "We need to make a statement to the nation."

Devís jaw worked. "How many times do I have to repeat that this isnít about the nation. Itís about a fifteen-year-old boy!"

"A fifteen-year-old who tried to assassinate the President!" David closed his eyes and shook his head. He just knew Dev was going to react this way. "Madam President, Iím sorry, but I agree with Special Prosecutor Miller on this one."

"Better watch out, David. The A.C.L.U. is gonna want your membership card back for that."

Miller squared his shoulders. "This is a serious issue, Madam President."

Devís face went stone cold. "You donít need to remind me of that, Mr. Miller."

David broke in, hoping to forestall an argument. "He was old enough to buy a gun on the street, plan the crime for weeks, sneak in the weapon without being detected by the Secret Service or any other damned security, and shoot you three times. Those arenít the actions of a child, Madam President."

"Our briefs are ready. Our position is strong. Iím certain weíll win," Miller said confidently.

"This shouldnít be about winning and losing. Youíre talking about putting someone who is too young to shave, and spends more money on pimple medication than gasoline, into a maximum security federal penitentiary for the rest of his life."

"With all due respect, Madam President, my job is to prosecute." Miller braced his large hands on Devís desk and stood. Heíd had about all he could take. Every step of the way the President had insisted that he justify not only his officeís investigation methods, but his tactical decisions as Special Prosecutor. If this was how Devlyn Marlowe was acting now, sheíd be testifying for the defense by the time the case went to trial! The man stepped around the side of the desk, and Dev rose to her feet to meet his challenging stance. "My job isnít to do whatís best for Louis Henry. Heís got three attorneys who are safeguarding his rights very nicely, thank you."

"Thatís enough, Bill!" It wasnít that David disagreed with him. But he could see that Dev was about to boil over. And arguing wasnít going to get them anywhere.

"I agree that Louis Henry is dangerous and should be kept in jail for as long as possible. Iím reminded of it every time I look in the mirror." She reached up and traced the fine scare that ran along her left temple. "I just think that a federal penitentiary is the wrong place for him now. Certainly we can find something else."

"Would you excuse us for a minute?" David gestured towards the door with his head. "Iíd like to speak with the President alone for a moment."

"Of course." Miller stepped away and marched angrily out of Devís office.

Dev settled back in her chair, tapping her fingers on the soft leather. "Youíre gonna yell at me arenít you, David? I can tell. The veins in your neck are all bloated, and your voice has that little squeak to it. Beth was right. You are in the heart attack danger years."

David grunted with frustration, not wanting to smile at his friendís joke. He did not want to say what he was going to say next. Sometimes my job just sucks. "It will make you look weak by not going after Henry with both barrels."

Dev drew in a quick breath.

The Chief of Staff held up his hands. "Hold your horses, Devil! And for once let me finish."

Her mouth snapped shut.

"Every political talk show in the nation has already speculated as to why we havenít made this move sooner. The Republicans started grumbling three weeks ago. Now, even the more conservative Democrats are joining in. Youíre pushing a crime bill that includes your DNA legislation right now. Itís not the time to appear soft on crime!"

"David."

"Iím not through. I know you donít like Miller. Heís aggressive and arrogant, and heís very damned good at his job. But this time heís right, Dev. Louis Henry belongs in prison. Not some juvenile detention center. I really believe that, separate and apart from the political implications."

Dev crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her eyebrows. "Can I say something now?"

"Uh, yeah." David rubbed the back of his neck with his palm.

"If this is only about the boy, and not about my crime package, then why the little speech?"

David shrugged. "You pay me to tell you the political reality of things. This time, whatís best for you also happens to be the best thing for the case. You need to trust your people."

Dev couldnít take Davidís brown eyes boring into hers, so she got up from her desk and moved over to the window, gazing out at the clear blue sky. She gave herself a mental kick in the ass and then spoke. "I just hate this, David. I canít stop thinking about my kids. Itís like his prosecution has struck some sort of nerve or something. I can only imagine what Louisí parents must be going through. No, wait. I canít imagine that."

"And you feel guilty for going after him because right now itís going to help you."

"Yes." Dev turned to face her best friend, at a loss as to what to say. She knew that if she pushed matters, she could get her way on this. But she never brushed off Davidís recommendations. They were too valuable and almost never wrong. "You think Iím too close to this, and itís affecting my judgment, right?"

"Yes."

"And that I should back off."

"Yes."

"And to let Miller make his motion, and let the court decide whether Louis Henry should be tried as an adult."

"Yes."

"And enjoy the political benefits without guilt."

"Yes."

Dev sighed heavily. "These conversations are always so enlightening, David. Letís have one again real soon."

David chuckled. "Iím sure we will. Well," David clapped his hands together, "I suppose I should get him."

"I suppose." Dev smiled when, instead of heading for the door, David joined her at the window and put his hand on her shoulder. "You do realize that Liza is probably going to buzz me sometime in the next thirty seconds. Iím already running late for my next appointment."

"True."

"Well, itís not like you to waste even a few seconds when you could be picking my brain. So, what earth-shattering thing do you wanna know?"

A broad grin shaped Davidís lips. "Where exactly is Laurenís tattoo."

 

 

Saturday, August 14th

 

 

Dev was grinning like the Cheshire cat when she offered Lauren her hand and gallantly helped her out of the limousine. "You know itís official now, donít you? The Press will be all over us again." She linked arms with Lauren, and with exaggerated slowness, began walking her towards the White House steps. They stopped often and took a wide path to the house, letting the evening breeze rustle their hair and dresses.

Lauren leaned into Dev, gripping her bicep with her other hand. "After an evening like tonight, Madam President, the Press can go to hell. I donít care what they write about us."

Dev laughed at Laurenís spirited reply. "Donít go giving them carte blanche, or theyíll be relentless."

"And they arenít usually?"

"Good point. When Sharon does a Press recap about tonight, sheíll mention that you were my date for the evening. There wonít be anymore denying it. Are you ready for that?"

The answer came more easily than she thought it would. "Absolutely." Her integrity as Devís biographer would come under heavy fire. But hadnít it already? Devlyn would stand by her, and she knew in her heart that she was up to that challenge. What she felt for Dev, how she felt about herself when they were togetherÖ it was worth the hardship.

Yes! Dev wondered if her cheeks would sustain permanent damage if her grin grew any wider. She was so proud at the moment it nearly hurt. But she tucked the feeling away as one of the most important in her life. "Are you tired? Could I buy you a nightcap?" Dev wiggled her brows. "I happen to have an incredibly expensive brandy hidden in my room."

Lauren looked up at a sky full of a million twinkling stars. But tonight she didnít envy their position in the heavens. Tonight, things right here on Earth were pretty damned magical. Theyíd gone to dinner and the theater. The food had been fabulous, the performance had brought her to tears, and the company had been better still. The Secret Service had been there, as always, but ever since Devís shooting she found it hard to resent their presence. Lauren laughed to herself. Maybe Iím just getting used to this whole crazy life. No Ė not Ďgetting used toí, just doing a better job of accepting the realities.

Despite the fact that this had been Lauren and Devís first public event as a couple, when a normally reclusive rock star had shown up at the performance, to Lauren and Devís delight, heíd received most of the attention. Lauren suddenly wondered if that was really dumb luck, or the machinations of a certain lanky brunette who was known to pull out all the stops when she really wanted something.

"Iím feeling nothing but wonderful right now, Devlyn." She bumped hips with the older woman. "Iím not tired at all. And Iíd love to have a drink with you. But before I do, thereís something terribly important that you should know."

"And that would be what, Ms. Strayer?" Dev removed the silk scarf from around her neck and draped it over Laurenís shoulders, allowing her fingertips to linger. "Donít tell me you have a jealous boyfriend whoís going to show up tonight, and who Iím gonna have to punch in the nose?"

Lauren grasped Devís hand and lifted it, examining her long fingers in the moonlight. "Have you ever actually done that?" she asked curiously. "Punched somebody, I mean?"

"Well, maybe once or twiceÖ but I swear only when that person deserved it."

"Tch." Laurenís gave Devís arm a little pull but didnít let go of her hand. "I donít know whether I believe that or not. Iíve never seen you so much as lift a hand to the kids. And you havenít pummeled the Secretary of Defense senseless, not that he has very far to go." While Devlyn did have the Devilís own temper when provoked, a gentle Ė even sensitive Ė woman lurked underneath. Lauren wondered what it would take for Dev to get mad enough to resort to violence.

Dismissing such serious musings, the writer sucked in a deep breath. The late summer air was still warm and humid. And the aroma of fresh flowers floated on the breeze. She almost regretted taking the last few steps into the White House and out of the evening air. "What I wanted to tell you, was that I hate brandy. Always have. Donít suppose it would be possible to get something complicated, like a perfectly aged, frosty mug of rootbeer?"

"HmmmÖ" Dev pretended to think. She nodded. "Yeah, I think I can handle that order. Or at least the kitchen staff can. Maybe weíll make it two, and Iíll throw in a little ice cream in mine."

"Ooooo... youíve finally hit upon my idea of decadence, Madam President." Lauren smiled her greeting to several cleaning staff members who were polishing the staircase railings with practiced hands and gossiping about their favorite soap opera couples. She lifted the hem of her dress as she ascended the stairs, easily navigating them in high heels but wishing she were in sneakers nonetheless. "Should I change first?"

"Hmm, tell you what. You come with me, and Iíll loan you a set of very baggy, Presidential sweats if youíd like. Thatís what Iím changing into." Dev turned her head and whispered into Laurenís ear. "Thereís only one thing more comfortable."

Lauren shivered at the feeling of Devís hot breath tickling her ear. "If you say something with the word Ďnakedí in it," she paused to fan her cheeks, "Iím going to jump your bones right here in the hallway. I swear I will, Devlyn."

"And this is a deterrent exactly how?" Dev laughed, tightening her grip on Laurenís hand. "You have such a dirty mind. So I guess Iíll just have to make sure I donít say naked until we actually get to my room. Wouldnít want to give anyone a show."

"Liar."

"Now, now, Ms. Strayer." Devís voice held a solemn but teasing note. "Have I done anything to make you think I would be anything but a very private and very passionate lover?" She waited until a lovely, pink blush crept slowly up Laurenís cheeks and greeted her words. Damn, sheís adorable. Wish I knew what she was thinking.

Lauren swallowed hard. Okay, you started this. Donít chicken out now. "Honestly, Devlyn, Iím not sure. You havenít given me any clear signal one way or the other when it comes to..." She bit her tongue, then whispered, "You know." There. That was clear as mud.

Over the past two months the women had kissed. A lot. A whole lot. But things hadnít progressed beyond that. For the most part, Lauren was grateful. It had given her time to come to terms with certain truths about herself, and about what any romantic relationship with Devlyn would really be like. The taller woman was amazingly patient about the whole thing. Or absolutely terrified. Lauren couldnít tell which. But she was never rushed. Never pushed for more. The problem was, Lauren really wasnít nearly as patient as Dev. And as her anxieties about a more intimate, physical relationship with Dev lessened, her libido began to squawk. Loudly.

Then there was that damned book! There were only so many times a woman could read The Joy of Lesbian Sex before needing to try some of those things out. Laurenís mental picture of her and Dev doing what was talked about on page 212 was nearly enough to make her brain explode. Oh, yeah. She especially wanted to try that.

"What does Ďyou knowí mean?" Dev tormented more. "No, no, Iím not sure what youíre referring to at all." She chuckled wickedly as they turned down another corridor. "Skiing, knittingÖ" She opened the door to her private suite and turned a single standing lamp on. It cast the women in long shadows, but was more than enough to see by.

"Bitch."

"Is that any way to address the President of the United States? Tsk, tsk, little girl. I may just have to spank you for that." The door wasnít even shut yet, and Dev was kicking off her high heels. One sailed all the way across the room, hitting the wall with a dull thud. "Yuck. No wonder I never wear those. I donít know how you even stand those short ones youíre always wearing. Ahhh, thatís soooo much better," she moaned throatily as she closed her eyes and wiggled her toes.

The sound of Devís low moan and the sight of her in that black, fitted dress, head thrown back, eyes closed, was more than enough to send every single drop of blood in Laurenís body stampeding south. "Sweet Jesus," she muttered, licking suddenly dry lips. "You really are trying to kill me, arenít you?"

Dev opened her eyes and marched over to the writer, who was now perched on the arm of the couch. She bent down and brushed her lips against Laurenís, teasing the tender skin around her mouth with nips and little licks. When they were both breathing raggedly Dev pulled back and swallowed hard, nearly undone by her own game. "Nope. Iím not teasing you at all," she lied blatantly, walking toward the dresser on slightly wobbly legs.

Lauren whimpered. "I repeat: liar." She smiled at Devís responding chuckle. "I hate to do this to myself, Ms. Tease. But Iím afraid Iím going to need someoneís help with these buttons. Emma was around when I got dressed earlier." Lauren shifted, showing Dev a row of tiny pearl buttons that worked their way from the top of her buttocks to her mid back. "I can reach them all, but theyíre teensy tiny and murder on my nerves. Would you mind giving me a hand?"

It would be my pleasure! "Now whoís teasing whom?" Dev moved in behind Lauren and very slowly began unbuttoning her dress. "But remember, my dear," she swept Laurenís hair off of her neck and leaned in to taste the skin there, "I donít lose gracefully." She gently undid each button, letting the back of her fingers graze over baby soft skin that hadnít been touched that way in far too long.

"Devlyn." Lauren groaned, her eyes growing hooded. Her blood began to pulse hotter in her veins, even though she knew this was Dev exacting her revenge at her request to undo the dress. Unfortunately, her body didnít seem to care. "Be nice," she ground out. "YouÖ umÖ said something about sweats."

"Sure did." Dev nuzzled the writerís neck for just a second more before giving it a little nip and undoing the last button. She ran her hand up Laurenís bare back before turning on her heel and heading for her bathroom. "You know where I keep them. Help yourself." Oh, God, I need a cold drink of waterÖ poured over my head.

Lauren took a deep breath. She cracked open her eyes and watched as Dev disappeared into the bathroom. "Evil. Just plain evil," she whispered.

A big part of Lauren wanted to follow Dev into the bathroom. With the slightest push she suspected theyíd end up in bed together. But Dev seemed content to play and tease, going forward steadily, but very slowly. Lauren could do that. She hoped. A moment of doubt assailed her, and she laughed at herself, certain that once her bodyís blood flow directed itself back towards her brain, sheíd be okay.

The blonde woman was rolling up the sleeves on one of Devís sweatshirts when the President exited the bathroom wearing a navy blue, fleece robe. Gone was her dress, make up and jewelry. The hair around her face was slightly damp, and she looked comfortable and content.

In the time Dev had been in the bathroom, Laurenís body temperature had managed to drop to normal. In fact, that, combined with the White Houseís powerful air conditioner, and Lauren was surprised to find herself fighting off a chill. She dressed, smiling as the soft material warmed her skin. In truth, she plain enjoyed wearing Devís sweats. For one, they were Devís and smelled different than her clothes did, despite the fact that, like Emma and the Marlowe family, she used the White Houseís laundry service. The second reason was it really ticked Michael Oaks off when he saw her sharing things with the President. She smirked inwardly. Bite me, you anal retentive prick.

Dev looked at Lauren and told her with a gesture to turn around as she pulled another set of sweats out of the dresser. The writer dutifully turned and faced the door, but peeked over her shoulder just as Dev disrobed.

"Eyes front, Strayer," Dev teased while pulling on her pants.

Lauren squeaked as her head snapped forward. But sheíd already gotten a nice look at an absolutely marvelous backside. Her mind strayed to their time in the Marlowe cabin in Ohio. OoooÖthis is like a sexy puzzle that I get to put together piece by piece. And at the endÖ oh, my. An enormous smile curled her lips at the delicious thought.

The strong hands on her shoulders startled her out of her thoughts. "Still want that root beer?"

"Uh huh." Lauren nodded, before turning around. Chapter Six was all about how to use foodÖstop it! Just stop it! Youíll drive yourself insane.

Devís bedroom was large and spacious, and they settled in a sitting area on a large, padded sofa, cuddled close together. Theyíd done this many times before, especially when Dev had something on her mind and just needed someone to talk to. Both women were comfortable with it, and it spoke of their growing camaraderie and intimacy as friends. Lauren pulled her legs up and leaned her head against Devís shoulder.

She sighed as the familiar weight of Devís arm settled around her. "The play was wonderful. Thank you for taking me out tonight."

"Oh, it was my pleasure. Trust me. Iím glad weíve gotten to a point where we can go out in public. The Press is going to go nuts. But Iím hoping it will be short lived. The conservatives will be up in arms. Weíll take some heat and be called nasty names. But if we keep our heads down and stay low, the storm will blow over."

"I trust you, Devlyn."

"Glad to hear it, Mighty Mouse."

Laurenís eyes strayed to the mantel where a photograph of the Marlowe children was proudly displayed. She smiled at the sight. They had been so sweet, trying to cheer her up after her motherís suicide. Especially Ashley. Theyíd made her cards and showered her with drawings for her room. But in her heart Lauren didnít really think it was fair of them to equate the loss of their mother with hers. Sheíd had 31 years to get to know her mother and failed. These sweet children were robbed of that chance all too soon. "Tell me about Samantha, Devlyn," Lauren was surprised to hear herself ask. "You donít talk about her much."

Dev tensed briefly and unconsciously pulled Lauren a little closer. "She was a political science major when we met in college, and she was three years older than I was. David and Beth set us up, and we kind of fell for each other right away. We dated for about a year before I proposed. And soon after, we had a commitment ceremony." Dev began stroking Laurenís arm with her fingertips.

She glanced at Lauren, who looked genuinely interested, so she reluctantly continued.

"Eight years after that, as soon as it became legal in Ohio, we had a short civil service. But we were already married in our hearts. We had three kids, and I loved her very much." A bittersweet smiled edged its way onto Devís lips. "You two would have been great friends." She shrugged. "I donít think thereís really anything else to say."

Lauren frowned and shifted in Devís arms until they were facing each other and she could look into Devís eyes when she spoke. "I think youíre wrong. I think there is a lot to say about someone who was obviously so important in your life."

Dev shrugged again, dark brows drawing together. "I guess there is. I just wouldnít know what to say."

Quiet and unseeing, Devlyn stared at the far wall for so long that Lauren decided to change the subject. She opened her mouth to speak when Devís low burr pierced the silence of the room.

"Sam was the only person I ever trusted enough to give myself to completely. She held who I was in the palm of her hand and the core of her heart. She intrigued my mind, challenged my soul, and soothed my body and spirit. When she died, I was sure I had lost those things forever." She looked at the woman in her arms and smiled softly. "But I think I may have found them again."

Soothed her body and spirit? Jesus. I thought you didnít know what to say! Lauren tried to smother the bolt of jealously that lanced through her at those words. You asked her, Lauri. Now suck it up and live with her answer. You knew she loved her like that. But somehow, it was different hearing it from Devís own lips.

The smaller woman unconsciously pulled away from Dev.

"Oh, God, Iím so sorry." She closed her eyes. Too much, fool! That was too much! "I didnít mean... I mean... I didnít want you to be hurt or upset." Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Dev moved forward as Lauren retreated, not wanting to let her get away. "How can I make it right, Lauren? I donít want you to be jealous of Sam. She was a part of my life, yes. But a part that is now over and long," she paused, feeling the beginnings of tears, "dead." She wiped her face. "I know I need to get on with my life, and I want to get on with my life with you."

Lauren moved her hands through the shadows and wiped away Devís tears with gentle fingers. "I didnít mean to upset you. Iím the one who should be sorry, not you. I want to know about her." She turned painfully open, gray eyes on her friend. "That was just a little hard to hear. It caught me off guard. But it was beautiful, and Iím so glad you had that... and have the kids." She smiled weakly and cupped Devís cheeks. "Iím the one who asked you about her, right? So itís okay. I promise," she whispered. Lauren leaned forward and softly kissed Devís wet cheeks, tasting the salty remnants of tears.

Thank God. "I donít want to make you feel any less special or important in my life. And I certainly donít want you to feel like youíre competing with her, because youíre not." Dev took a deep breath. In for a dollar... Since weíre already talking about Samantha, I might as well go all the way. If sheís going to think Iím a complete idiot, she might as well have all the facts. "Okay, Iím going to confess something that very few people know about me. Remember when Beth asked me that sex question during our game at the cabin?"

Lauren blinked, trying to follow what appeared to be a radical change in subject. She gave a slow nod. "Of course."

Dev shrugged, a little embarrassed. "Well, I told you that Iíd only been with one person. So that was obviously Samantha."

Lauren nodded again, still confused. "I assumed that."

"Well, not only was she my one and only. Umm... we waited."

The writer looked at Dev questioningly. "For permission?" she hazarded wildly, not having a clue as to what Dev was trying to say.

Dev frowned. "Permission? Why would we need permission from anyone? We were both grown women. No, we waited until we were married. Well, I was waiting; she was complaining to mom," Dev tried to joke. I have never felt so incredibly ridiculous in all my life. She rubbed her hands on her sweats, wishing she didnít sound so backward. So old-fashioned. Lauren was outgoing and adventurous. There was no way in hell she could find this attractive in a potential partner. "I donít know why. I was young, and itís something I didnít Ė I still donít Ė take lightly." Dev stopped and braced herself, praying Lauren wouldnít laugh.

She didnít. Instead, her mouth formed a tiny ĎOí. "Wow," she finally muttered. Dev had just made several things very clear to Lauren, although she still wanted to shine a light on a few fuzzy parts. "So is it like a religious or a moral thing? I-"

"No. Just a ĎDev is a nutí thing. I donít just want sex, Lauren. I want it all. I want to make love and be in love with the person Iím with. I donít think I could fully enjoy the physical side thinking that there was nothing more to it."

Lauren sudden straightened. "Is that how you feel about us?" She blinked stupidly. "Like thereís nothing more to it?"

"No!" Dev blurted out a little louder than she intended. "Thatís not it at all. I just wanted to explain. You know I like to tease and play and all. And I love that we can have fun that way, without pressure or expectations. But that doesnít mean there isnít more behind it. Especially when it comes to you, Lauren."

Lauren smiled tentatively, enjoying the fire behind Devís words.

"My mother, of course, thinks Iíve lost my mind and all but told me to take you and ravish you." She smiled back at Lauren reflexively. "And donít think I havenít thought about it." Dev groaned, "Because I have. A lot. More than a lot." She swallowed hard. "I havenít tried anything more because my emotions for you run so deep that I canít bear the thought of taking advantage of you. Does that make any sense to you at all?"

Pale brows shot skyward. "No! What in Godís name are you talking about? Taking advantage of me?"

Dev sighed. Of course it doesnít. "Sweetheart, I just wanted you to know that you mean so much to me that I want to be really careful. You and the kids are the most important things in my life, and I donít want to rush or take chances with any of you." She dropped her hands into her lap. "My mom says I need to lighten up." She smiled self-deprecatingly. "Iím just not sure I know how. I want to go slow. I want to be careful. I care about you too much to do anything else. This is the way Iíve always been."

"Thereís nothing wrong that way, Devlyn." Lauren gently reached out for Devís hand and smoothly intertwined their fingers. "Itís really very sweet." And I am hopelessly in love you.

"Face it. Itís old-fashioned, and I know I sound like a complete fool. But I want you to know how much you mean to me." Devlyn gathered her courage and looked Lauren squarely in the eye. She drew in a deep breath. "Lauren, the reason Iím saying these things to you is that I want you to understand how important you are in my life." Dev swallowed hard. "I care for you very, very much. Over the course of the last few months Iíve definitely realized that Iím totally in lo-"

An alarm rang out, causing both women to nearly jump out of their skins. "Madam President," a rapid, unfamiliar male voice spoke over the rarely used intercom system, "we need you in the Situation Room. Code One."

"Damn!" Dev leaned forward and kissed Lauren quickly. "Iíve got to go. Weíll finish this as soon as I can, I promise." Dev was off the couch and to the front door before Lauren could say a word. As the door closed she could see Dev being surrounded by advisors and heard the word Ďbombingí.

 

* * *

 

The Situation Room was buzzing when Dev pushed open the heavy door. The men and women in the room were in various states of dress that ranged from Michael Oakís khaki pants and pressed polo shirt to the director of the FBIís jogging shorts and academy sweatshirt. Everyone who was seated immediately jumped to his feet. "At ease." God that was annoying, especially when she knew there were far more important things to deal with.

"When did the last one go off?" Blue eyes flickered to a large screen displaying a map of the Unites States with five areas lit up in bright red. To the left of the screen, were five live holographic images of the sites with a city name hovering directly above them.

The Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor entered the room with David hot on their heels. Dev turned to face them. "Buckle up, ladies and gentlemen, itís going to be a wild night." She shook her head and pointed to the map. "Five bombings from coast to coast, all within the last hour."

"Military or terrorist?"

"My guess is terrorist," Secretary of Defense Brendwell jumped in. "Our military checks are already coming back negative. Though weíve still got about 20% to go."

David ran a hand through his short, disheveled hair. "Foreign or domestic?"

"We donít know yet."

David glanced around the room. "How and why?" He tossed his briefcase on the table and began rolling up his sleeves. When no one answered his question he barked, "Anyone?"

The Director of the FBI cleared her throat. "We donít know, sir. No one has come forward to claim responsibility."

"Yet," David clarified. "You donít know yet."

"Yes, sir."

Dev winced at the live image shots of several firefighters heading straight into the billowing flames of one of the buildings. "Get Press Secretary Allen out of bed and get her over here. Weíre going to need a lot of damage control on this. And where in the hell are the Directors of the DEA and ATF and the Secretary of the Treasury!" Dev yelled as another paper listing the exact bombing times and locations was placed in her hands. "And somebody find me a pair of socks or something!"

"Everyone is on their way, Madam President," came the answer from the back of the room.

"Okay, what do we have here?" Dev pointed to the screen, but looked at a young man to her left. He wore a U.S. Army uniform.

"In reverse order of attack; a post office in New York City, an IRS building in Atlanta, a federal courthouse in Dallas, a junior high school in Portland, and a shopping mall in San Diego."

She glanced up at the clocks on the wall, looking until she found the one telling her it was just after 11:00 P.M. on the West Coast. She cursed to herself; the stores would have just been closing about the same time as the explosion. "Injuries in the mall?"

"Weíre just starting to get casualty reports now, maíam. But there are reports of dead or wounded coming in from each of the sites or adjacent buildings." The young man reached over and picked up the ringing phone next to him.

"David!" Dev whirled around to find her Chief of Staff in the jostling crowd. "Not good enough! We need this contained now!"

"Weíre on it, Dev!" his voice called back even though she never saw his face.

"Wake up every damned staffer we have if you need to. I want every piece of information available. Get me the mayors of the cities in question, and the governor of each state, on the phone."

Dev headed for the small room at the side of the larger one that was her own personal command center. Just before she entered she felt something being pressed into her hands. She looked down to see a fresh pair of white socks. Before she had a chance to even utter a small thanks, the person whoíd handed them to her was swallowed up by the crowded room.

 

 

Monday, August 16th

 

 

The President rubbed her temples and took another sip of coffee. She eyed the omelet that had been placed before her. Dev wasnít hungry, but she could hear Emmaís scolding voice blaring in her brain, ĎEat! You wonít be any good to anyone if you donít eat.í She picked up the fork and cut away a small bite, placing it in her mouth and chewing slowly as she scanned one of the reports in front of her.

She wasnít a hundred percent sure, but she believed it had been at least thirty-six hours since she had stepped into the Situation Room. Sheíd only been out once; to give a brief prepared statement to the Press. Since then, sheíd been hunkered down at her desk, working like a dog, making sure the world knew what a safe place the United States was, and how she would most certainly bring to justice the bastards that had called the nationís safety into question.

Among a million and one other things, this required phone call after phone call, video conference after video conference, sitting in on strategy sessions with her advisors and department heads, and continuing to deal with just as many of her normal duties as was possible. God, there arenít enough hours in the day. She was grateful, at least, that the children had Emma and Lauren, who she knew would spend a little extra time with them, just because she couldnít. That was one thing she wouldnít have to worry about.

"Donít," she grumbled to the staffer who was about to place a glass of orange juice in front of her. "Please. I hate the stuff. It gives me heartburn. Milk. A large glass of milk."

The young man nodded quickly. "Yes, Madam President."

Theyíd been lucky so far. Although Dev never thought the word Ďluckí was an appropriate one when it came to a situation like this one. Five bombs had gone off and only six people had been killed and twenty injured. Only. Itís not Ďonlyí when one of those people is someone you love. By all accounts, it should have been so much worse in San Diego, but part of the explosive device had failed to go off. The junior high school in Portland had been nearly flattened, but even the janitorial staff had all gone home by the time the bomb had detonated. The community, however, was reeling.

While still wholly unjustifiable, Dev could almost understand the bombings in New York City, Atlanta, and Dallas. Those were all government buildings; always a favorite of terrorists. The two civilian targets, however, made no sense whatsoever, and this pissed her off more than anything.

When the door opened again, the Attorney General entered the room. She looked as tired as Dev felt. "Coffeeís fresh." Dev pointed to the carafe in front of her.

"If I take another drink of coffee, itíll be oozing out my pores, and my husband wonít come near me for weeks."

Dev chuckled and rested her chin on her fist. "Nah, thatís just a nasty rumor started by people who sell tea." Her good humor faded quickly, and she blew out a frustrated breath. "I need good news. Please tell me you have some good news."

"Thereís very little good news in a situation like this. But we have our top people deployed at every scene."

Dev nodded. "Do we know anything yet? Are they connected? If you feel the need to lie just so that I feel better, I wonít resent it in the least."

"Well, that at least, is something we do know. Preliminary reports show that the explosive devices in Atlanta, San Diego and New York were nearly identical. Weíre still waiting on the results from the other two cities. But, for now at least, it looks like the same person, or group, is responsible."

"Is that good news?"

"Most definitely. One group is easier to round up than two or three."

Dev leaned back and sighed heavily. "This is true. Well thereís some progress at least."

"Yes, maíam. Weíll get there. "

Dev met the Attorney Generalís gaze head on. "Yes. We will." She laid her palms flat on her desk. "In your professional opinion, is this an all right time for me to get out of here for a little while, so that I can take a shower and see my family?"

"Yes, Madam President. It would be a fine time." The older woman gave Dev a bittersweet smile. "Youíve had more challenges in your first eight months than most Presidents face in four years. Youíre facing these challenges in a way that makes me proud to be an American, a woman, and a member of your team. A lot of people think of you as a hero. I just wanted to take a moment to let you know that Iím one of them. Itís an honor to work with you, Madam President."

For a moment Dev was speechless. "Wow," she finally mumbled. "That was one helluva pep talk. My kidsí nanny could learn a lesson from you." Devís expression turned serious. "You know I feel the same way about you, Evelyn."

Evelyn squared her shoulders proudly as her cheeks took on a slightly pink tint. "Thatís just because I kick ass and take names."

Dev chuckled. "Why do you think I appointed you? Thatís my version of kicking ass."

Evelyn lowered voice. "Weíll get them, Dev. I know it."

Dev nodded as she rose to her feet. She stretched, rolling her head in a slow circle to get out the kinks. "Iíll be back in a few hours." Dev made a show of sniffing the air. "I think I tend to offend."

The Attorney General snorted. "Have you smelled the air in the Situation Room? Why the hell do you think Iím in here with you?"

 

* * *

 

Heading into the residence, the first things Dev heard were the faint, but delighted squeals of two children; her brow creased as she wondered what had happened to her youngest child, whose voice was missing from the mix.

As she made her way farther down the hall, she realized the sounds were coming from Laurenís room. She stopped and listened outside the ajar door.

"Is she okay?" Ashley asked worriedly.

"I think sheís fine," Lauren answered with more confidence than she felt.

Dev rapped on the door. "Anyone home?" She pushed the door open a little further and stepped inside. "Is this a private party, or can anyone join the fun?"

"Mom!" Christopher jumped up and ran over to his mother, flinging himself into her arms.

"Hiya, pal." She groaned quietly as she picked him up. Damned shoulder. Blue eyes flickered around the room, landing on Aaron, who was on Laurenís bed fast asleep. She turned back to Ashley and Christopher. "Now, whatís causing all this ruckus? I could hear you half a mile way."

"Puppies!" Ash grinned. "Princess is having her puppies!"

The tall woman leveled her gaze at Lauren, who was looking slightly green around the gills but otherwise in good spirits. "Oh, joy. How many so far?"

Lauren stepped out of the way to reveal Princessí bed. If Dev strained she could hear the faint whimpering sound of the mutant baby dogs. "Do you guys need a vet?"

"I donít think so. Then again, Princess has been silent on the subject." The writer stepped closer to Dev, leaving Christopher and Ashley leaning over the box Lauren had placed Princess in.

The little boy and girl cooed at the squirming puppies and gently stroked their longish, wiry hair.

Princess grunted and then let out a long-suffering groan.

"Sheís had two so far." Lauren winced. "But I donít think sheís finished."

Dev couldnít disagree. Judging by the sounds coming out of the box, Princess still had a way to go. "Sucks to be Princess today."

"Oh, yeah." The shorter woman wrinkled her nose. "But on the bright side, I havenít thrown up or passed out yet."

A genuine grin stretched Devís cheeks. "Wow. Iím impressed."

"You should be," Lauren teased back.

Dev peeked over Laurenís head and caught a glimpse of the puppies. "Oh, my God," she muttered.

"I know," Lauren giggled. "Poor things. They didnít inherit all of Gremís good looks. They look at least part Pomeranian." She mulled that statement over in her mind for a moment and then amended herself. "Or maybe part alien. One of the two."

"Gremís good looks?" Dev flicked Lauren a disgusted look, but chuckled when the tip of a pink tongue was the blondeís reply.

Of their own accord, Laurenís arms found their way around Devís waist, and she placed a gentle kiss on waiting lips. "How goes it?"

"Not so well," Dev admitted quietly. "But weíre handling it and starting to make some progress."

"Of course you are." Lauren cupped Devís cheek with her palm, and the President leaned into the comforting touch. "Anything I can do to help?"

Dev glanced at Aaron who was curled in a tight ball, snoring happily with a thin blanket draped over him. "Youíre already doing it, sweetheart. Thank you."

Slate gray eyes went round and innocent. "Well, I thought they should be here when the puppies were born."

Devlyn chuckled and lifted a well-defined eyebrow. "Very sneaky. But we are not taking even a single one of Gremís babies. Speaking of my arch nemesis..." Devís gaze narrowed as it crisscrossed the floor.

Lauren burst out laughing. "Heís hiding under the bed. I tried to get him to come out earlier, but heís not budging."

Princess whimpered pitifully as another portly part Pug shifted within her.

Dev shook her head, cringing at the piteous sound. "Maybe heís smarter than I gave him credit for." Dev captured the writerís hand and gave it a kiss. "Iím on my way to get a shower and a changes of clothes. Iíll be back in a few minutes. I donít have a lot of time, but Iíd love to spend what I have with the four of you. How about I meet you in the dining room for a snack in about twenty minutes?"

Lauren drew the tip of her finger down Devís throat, lingering almost imperceptibly at her pulse point, then coming to rest on her collarbone. "What would you like?" She looked up at Dev from behind pale lashes.

Dev swallowed hard as a warm wave of desire washed over her. Damn, she can flirt. She growled and ducked her head for another quick kiss. "There are lots of things Iíd like. But I guess Iíll have to settle for food and good company." She winked at Lauren before heading towards the kids. Dev gave Christopher and Ashley a quick kiss on the tops of their heads, trying not to look into the crate again and risk traumatic blindness. Again. Werenít all puppies supposed to be cute? "See you guys in a few minutes."

 

* * *

 

After a snack of fresh fruit and milk, they returned to Laurenís room to do a puppy check. Dev was dismayed to find that Princess had delivered not only a third, but a fourth puppy. "Holy cow!" she exclaimed, fending off Laurenís playful slaps. "They are so, soÖ" she searched her mind for an appropriate word.

"Cute!" Aaron provided helpfully, still a little dazed from his nap. He positioned himself in his motherís lap so that they could peer into the puppy crate together. "Now thereís enough for us each to have our very own!"

And so it beginsÖ "Aaron, we are not keeping these puppies."

Aaronís bottom lip immediately poked out. "Awww, MomÖ"

"Aw, MomÖ" Lauren echoed him cheekily.

"No." Dev glared at the writer. She put Aaron down and tried to look firm about her decision. "No. And thatís final." She ignored Laurenís muffled snort.

Gremlin had finally gathered his courage and was standing on his hind legs, his front paws hanging over the edge of the crate as he peered down at his growing family. He looked at Dev and growled in warning, protectively baring his teeth.

Dev only laughed. "Oh, donít worry about it, buddy. They are all yours." She started herding the children away from Princess and the squirming puppies so that the detachment process could begin.

All three kids began whining and dragging their feet.

Just as Dev was about to lose control of her brood, Emma poked her head inside Laurenís room. Upon seeing the impending disaster, she took charge, reining in the Marlowe children and escorting them out of Laurenís room.

"Thank you, Emma!" Dev called out to the nanny as the door shut.

When they were alone, Dev opened her arms and Lauren stepped into them without hesitation. She hummed her delight at having the smaller woman wrapped tightly in her embrace. They both stood in total silence. Devlyn needed the wordless comfort, and Lauren was more than happy to oblige. "Donít suppose we can spend all day like this," she finally sighed.

The blonde woman tightened her grip on Dev. "Iím game if you are, darliní."

Dev smiled into Laurenís hair, enjoying the light scent of her shampoo and the closeness of a friendship sheíd come to cherish. "I need to get back there."

Lauren let out an unhappy breath. "I know. I havenít been able to keep up with much thatís been happening. Between the puppies and the kids itís been crazy. I tried not to have the television going when we were together." She shrugged. "Ashley heard some people talking and had some questions that I thought youíd want to answer yourself." She stopped and rubbed her cheek against Devís shoulder. "Were very many people hurt and killed?"

"One is too many. But, yeah, several people were killed. I checked the numbers one more time before I left the Situation Room, and deaths had gone up to ten and forty-six injured. Initial numbers werenít as high as we suspected they would be, but theyíve been slowly climbing because of injuries in nearby buildings that werenít initially included in our figures or werenít reported. And some of the more seriously injured didnít make it." Dev stared at the far wall as she thought. "Iím going to be pretty busy over the next couple of weeks. Iíll be doing a lot of traveling, meeting with governors, mayors, and community groups."

"I know." Laurenís voice took on a no-nonsense tone. "Iím coming with you. Itís important for me to be there for you too, Devlyn. Like you were there for me at my momís funeral. Not to mention that itís critical for the book."

Silence.

Lauren frowned, an uneasy feeling blossoming in the pit of her stomach. "Dev?" Lauren frowned.

Dev cursed under her breath and braced herself. "Iím sorry, sweetheart. But itís not safe for you to come on this trip."

"Oh, no! No, you donít!" Lauren tried to pull away, but Dev held her tight.

"No." She set her jaw. "I mean it, so there is no sense in arguing with me on this." Even though you usually win our arguments. "Iím not going to clear you for this trip, Lauren. Itís too dangerous right now. Lots of people are scared and upset. And people who are scared and upset do stupid things. I wonít risk your getting hurt."

Laurenís temper began to rise, and an angry flush started working its way up her neck. "I wonít be coddled! And if itís too dangerous for me, then itís too dangerous for you."

"I donít have a choice. I canít appear to be afraid to be seen in public. One of the points in going is to make sure that people see that this administration wonít be bullied." Devís eyes flashed with anger. "That I wonít be bullied. This is my job."

"And what about my job?" Lauren snapped back. "The book-"

"Is not worth risking you over!" Dev consciously lowered her voice and grabbed hold of her emotions. She knew she was being overly cautious. But she kept thinking of what sheíd already lost and what she wasnít willing to risk. The rational part of her mind told her that the Secret Service could keep Lauren as safe as they could keep her. Then again, sheíd been shot three times.

"What happened to unlimited access?" Lauren demanded.

"This is not about that, and you know it."

Lauren finally pried herself loose from Devís embrace. She couldnít get good and pissed off when the older woman held her in her arms. Lauren needed distance. Even if it was only a foot or two. She crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her chin defiantly. "After the assassination attempt we still went places together. Why is this so different?"

"Because this is hot on the heels of something that has the public in an uproar. And half of them are insane on a good day! But when things like this happen, the crazy ones get even crazier and the extremists more extreme. And that anger is directed at the piss poor government that they didnít like to begin with. People protest, people riot. And since yesterday there have been several credible threats made against me, the Vice President, and Air Force One." Dev threw her hands in the air. "Now is just not a good time! Itís not forever, Lauren. I promise. God, with everything else thatís going on right now, I just canít handle worrying about you. I couldnít stand losing you too. Please."

Lauren went stone still. "How credible?"

"Even David is worried."

"Then you should stay!"

"I canít. But you can." Devís eyes begged her to agree.

The Presidentís words were soft but fierce, and the biographer felt herself caving in without wanting to. For Godís sake, not the Ďsad eyesí. Thatís not fair!

"Please, just this once give in. For me. Please," Dev whispered. This was far more than just business. She was playing on Laurenís affections, and she knew it. But this wasnít a game, and if Dev had to fight dirty, she would.

The writer could see real fear in Devís eyes, and she exhaled explosively, running a slightly shaky hand through her pale hair. She looked away from Devlyn and bit her tongue to keep from continuing to protest. Damn, you fight dirty. She scowled at her options, and when she turned back, intense, gray eyes bore so deeply into the President that she sucked in a surprised breath. "Swear to me that youíll do everything David says when it comes to security."

Dev blinked a few times. She wasnít expecting that. "Uh..."

"Promise, Devlyn! Or, so help me, Iíll follow you around on a commercial plane if I have to, like some sort of damned groupie!"

Dev nodded, letting out a long, relieved breath. Yes. Thank you. "I promise."

"I canít believe Iím letting you get away with this." Lauren shook her head, then pushed her glasses higher up on her nose. "Iím going to worry about you the entire time youíre gone."

Dev stepped forward, and, seeing no resistance in Laurenís face, put her arms back around the smaller woman. "Thank you, Lauren. I know you think this is silly. But I swear to you itís not."

A pale eyebrow lifted.

"Okay," Dev conceded, "not completely silly."

"Just this once, Devlyn." Lauren sighed. "Next time Iím not letting you off the hook so easily. Weíll duke it out like always."

Dev crossed her heart. "Next time you can pitch a fit for a long as you wantÖ and then give in."

"Donít push it." But Lauren couldnít help but crack a tiny smile.

Dev smiled back and lifted Laurenís chin so that she was looking deeply into her eyes. She didnít stop to think about what she was saying, or the fact that she hadnít ever said it out loud to Lauren before. "I love you so much it hurts," she whispered fervently. The words dropped effortlessly from her lips. And in that instant, she wondered why in the hell she had waited so long to say them.

Lauren closed her eyes and buried her face in the crook of Devís neck. Hot tears pricked her eyes, and she let them come. Devís arms tightened around her, and she sighed, absorbing the sweet pleasure of the moment. "You-" Lauren stopped and swallowed hard, collecting herself. "You are shameless and will say anything to win an argument," she teased weakly. She squeezed Dev hard and dropped a tender kiss in the hollow of her throat, pulling back to meet glistening blue eyes. Her heart swelled, and she promised, "I love you too."

 

* * *

 

David handed Dev the report as soon as she walked into the room. "Weíve got them, Madam President." He smiled triumphantly. "A militia group out of Oregon. They claimed responsibility about twenty minutes ago, and what specifics they let slip about the bombings were enough to confirm that their claim is legitimate. Weíve already got a bead on their location. Theyíve been under minimal surveillance for months. Although, obviously, we didnít know they were planning anything like this."

"Everyone involved in the decision making process, in the Oval Office now," Dev ordered, already heading for the room herself. She wanted to be comfortable when she heard this.

She settled in behind her desk, while everyone else filed in and remained standing. They all stood, waiting for David, who took a seat across from Dev. The next twenty minutes were spent briefing Dev about the militia group and the FBIís plan to go in and Ďneutralizeí them. She asked every question she could think of and soaked up the intelligence information like a sponge. There were several minor clashes between agencies over exactly how this Ďneutralizationí should take place, but Dev felt those disagreements helped to flesh out important considerations that shouldnít be ignored.

When the last briefing was over, Dev remained silent for several moments, absorbing what sheíd been told, her mind running through the several scenarios that had been laid on the table for her consideration. Finally, she took a deep breath and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I need you to step outside for a moment while I consult with the Chief of Staff." Devís request was met with murmurs of agreement, and the room cleared in a matter of seconds.

David studied the President attentively. "You know what has to be done, Dev." He sighed, and his gaze dropped to his hands. "We need to take them out before they do more damage."

"Women and children?"

The red-haired man chewed the inside of his cheek. "Yes." David looked at his hands again. "The Director of the FBI confirmed that there will very likely be women and children in the compound. Dev, they brought them in months ago as a Ďfuck youí to you. The families are there to act as human shields against government invasion."

"We were just kids, David, but do you remember Waco?"

"I do, Madam President, but this is entirely different." His mind flashed to the television in his parentsí living room, filled with images of flames, explosions, and body bags. "These people have struck out against the nation as a whole. Theyíve already killed. They are large and organized. We got very lucky in tracing their location to this Oregon compound. They have Ďhiddení camps all over the country."

Dev scrubbed her face with her hands. "Jesus Christ." She covered her eyes with her palms for a moment and then let her hands drop to the tabletop. "Can you call everyone back in?"

David nodded and moved quickly. He opened the door and motioned for the group to reenter the room.

Devís expression was firm and grim as she waited for the last man to shut the door behind him before beginning. "So, are we operating under the theory that if we cut off the head of the snake, the body will die?"

The Attorney General set a new file in front of Dev. "Yes, maíam, that is the current theory."

Dev pushed away from the table, rolling her shoulder to alleviate the slight ache that had developed. Her eyes flickered to each person as she spoke. "Is anyone here a student of Greek mythology? Does the word Hydra mean anything to you?"

The Director of the FBI nodded. "Yes, Madam President. The mythical creature had nine heads. Problem was, if you cut one of them, two grew back."

"Exactly." Dev waited and let that statement sink into the gathering of men and women. "One moment please." She turned her attention to the new file, carefully reading it over and processing. The best choice was clear. But it made her stomach roil all the same. She closed the manila folder and tossed it back on the table.

Every set of expectant eyes trained themselves firmly on her, and she met them head on. "Go get them, ladies and gentlemen. The first plan was the best. Go with that, but first incorporate the changes proposed by the ATF. And letís pray that we get every head of this particular Hydra, so we donít have to worry about any growing back."

"Thatís it!" David announced quickly getting to his feet. "I want the new plan, with those changes added in, ready for final review by the President in fifteen minutes. Letís call it," his eyes darted to Dev, then back to his audience, "Operation: Hydra."

The room emptied quickly, leaving Dev and David alone. "You okay?" he asked in a low, concerned voice.

"I may have just ordered the deaths of innocent women and children. No, Iím not okay," Dev ground out harshly. She stood and gathered the files sheíd asked be left for her review. "But it was my call to make, and I made it. Three hundred and ten million people expect me to keep them safe. I had no choice. We have to move right now, before these assholes dig in deeper or bomb somebody elseís building."

David didnít say a word. He knew this tone. This was her I-hated-every-minute-of-it-but-I-did-what-I-had-to-do tone. Her speech was quick, and it was rough. This was a bitter pill for his friend to swallow. But he knew her well enough to know sheíd take her medicine. Now Dev just had to live with her decision. Right or wrong.

"Tell them to get Air Force One ready to fly, David. And then call Beth and-"

"Tell her I wonít be home for dinner?"

"For probably the next couple of weeks. Weíre going to Oregon first; I want to be there for the fallout. Then to the bombing sites. Jane and Liza will have a heart attack that Iím moving this trip up at the last moment." Dev shrugged. "But the time is right, and theyíll live. That reminds me, based on the reports you showed me this morning, only absolutely crucial personnel are going with us this time. I donít want to risk anyoneís safety unnecessarily." She moved for the door, but looked back over her shoulder before juggling the files and opening the door. "By the way, congratulations."

"For what?"

"You are now the proud owner of the ugliest puppy you will ever lay eyes on."

 

* * *

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Press, The President of the United States."

They had worked on her speech on Air Force One. And by the time her plane landed in Oregon, Operation: Hydra was over, and it was time to brief the nation. You could hear a pin drop as Dev took a deep breath and slowly walked to the podium. She looked directly at the camera and reminded herself to stay cool. "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today. As Press Secretary Allen said, Iíll be making a short statement about the actions that were taken a few hours ago. At this time, I wonít be taking questions; weíll set that up at a later date."

She paused for a moment, taking a sip of water. To the viewing audience her expression appeared concerned, but mild. But those who knew her well could tell she was troubled. "Early this morning, special tactical units of the DEA, FBI, and ATF, in conjunction with state and local law enforcement agencies, made an early morning entry into the fortified structures of the compound of the Brothers of Freedom militia group Ė group that had been under observation."

She looked at the faces before her, making sure her eye contact conveyed that she had nothing to hide. "The entry into the compound was quick and decisive. It was well planned and timed to take place when the least number of people were expected to be awake and moving about. By timing the entrance for the very early morning, we hoped to limit the number of potential casualties, both for the people fortified inside this heavily armed encampment, and our own duly sworn law enforcement and military personnel."

Devlyn glanced at her notes very briefly, not wanting to lose an ounce of the trust and leadership she was trying to communicate by her statement and confident demeanor. "While, overall, the entrance was a successful one, and many members of the organization were taken into custody, there were, unfortunately, casualties on both sides. Twenty-two members of the militia were killed, and fourteen wounded. Our own agencies sustained losses and injuries to their personnel as well. Combined figures show losses to law enforcement organizations in this operation to be ten dead and five wounded."

She gripped the edge of the podium and increased the intensity of her voice to finish on a strong note. "The people responsible for the five terrorist attacks within our own borders, which took the lives of several innocent citizens and did millions of dollars in damage to government and civilian targets, have been placed under arrest and will be duly charged. A full investigation continues, and I assure you that everyone involved will be brought to justice. Everything that has happened over the course of this operation happened only after I had been briefed and had given my full consent. I am the only person who should be held responsible for finding the answers to any questions that might arise out of the actions taken under my direction today. As one of my predecessors said, ĎThe buck stops hereí. I am your President, and I will be held accountable."

Dev knew that last bit was going to drive her entire staff right up the wall. It hadnít been a part of the original speech, but she didnít want there to be any doubt about who had made the decisions in this matter, and who would take the blame for any missteps. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen."

She took the time to unbutton her blazer and collect her notes, then she turned and left the room. As she knew they would be, David and Sharon were waiting for her with both their mouths open. "Not a word right now. You can both yell at me later." Dev followed her Secret Service agents through the passages that led back to her hotel room. She did so silently, rereading a list of dead and wounded from the compound raid. She had highlighted the fourth and fifth names on the list; Lisa Lindsay, age eight, and Brian Lindsay, age six. Seeing the words made her sick to her stomach. These were two names she would never forget.

God help me, I got them killed. And now I get to live with that for the rest of my life.

Chapter 9

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