Madam President, page 2
* * *
Wayne's jaw sagged. "No?" he repeated incredulously. Dammit, what is wrong with her? It doesn't get any bigger than this! "What do you mean 'no'?"
Arching a pale, slender eyebrow, Lauren crossed her arms over her chest. "It's a simple word, Wayne. Don't make me get out the dictionary." Before Wayne could argue his case further, she turned, picked up the other men's coats and passed them over. Lauren extended her right hand once they had taken the hint and shrugged on the garments she was sure they wore to bed... along with their wing tips.
"Please let President-elect Marlowe know that I'm flattered beyond words that she wants me to do her biography. But that I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline. I'm sorry you had to come all the way to Nashville for nothing. I would have told you that over the phone."
Michael Oaks, one of Devlyn's most trusted aides, and soon-to-be Social Secretary for the new administration, reluctantly shook Lauren's hand, more than a little pissed off that he'd flown from Ohio to New York and then Tennessee, only to have the young woman shoot down his offer in five minutes flat. As far as he was concerned Devlyn could just find herself another writer... they had to be a dime a dozen. And shouldn't they be falling all over themselves to do this for Dev? For the country?
But Michael knew his boss would expect him to give Strayer the full court press, no matter how he personally felt about the task. His dark eyes went serious. "Why, Ms. Strayer? Why won't you consider President-elect Marlowe's request? This is an unparalleled honor. Surely you don't have a better offer pending?" He looked over at Wayne, who wildly shook his head 'no'.
The writer smiled sweetly and did her best to hold her tongue. Honor, my ass. This is one of those jobs where they tell you what to write, and then you slap your name on the book cover. No, thanks... she can find herself another propaganda puppet. "I'm simply not interested." Her tone was polite but cooling quickly.
"The compensation offer is more than generous, but still negotiable. We consulted several major publishing companies who indicated what we are offering is well above what their highest paid historians and biographers command."
"I'm sure it is. But the answer is still 'no'," she insisted. I don't respond well to overly aggressive, buddy. And you've already crossed that line.
The young black man tried again. "But-"
Lauren lifted her hands in forestallment. "First of all, I don't specialize in politicians."
"If I'm not mistaken, your last biography was of Cardinal James O'Roarke. Are you going to stand here and tell me that the Catholic Church isn't a political institution?" His voice was rising in volume and had taken on a slightly sarcastic edge.
Lauren felt her temper beginning to rise. Who did he think he was? The man next to him, who might as well have had 'Secret Service' tattooed on his forehead, stepped closer to her, invading her private space and looking at her with disapproving eyes. But she refused to back down. Am I supposed to be intimidated by 'no neck'? I think not. I can see how you operate, Devlyn Marlowe! "I've only been home for a few months after spending nearly two years in Ireland and the Vatican, writing Cardinal O'Roarke's story. I'm simply not ready to commit myself to a job that will last for a minimum of four years."
"It's important to the nation that..." Mr. Oaks continued, not stopping when Lauren tried to get a word in edgewise several times.
Wayne noticed the woman's face turning pink, then, finally, a bright red. He crunched down a new mint nervously. Oh, no. Here it comes. The IRS is going to audit Starlight Publishing, and me personally, every single year from now until the end of time! "Lauren, please. I know you had your heart set on Maya Angelou. But this is the President of the United States for God's sake!"
"No means no," Lauren ground out forcefully, her temper snapping. She marched over to the front door and flung it open with a loud bang. She automatically bent over and used one arm to keep her rambunctious Pug, Gremlin, from escaping. "This conversation is over."
Sunday, November 8th
The sedan slowed. Actually, several sedans slowed. To the casual observer, they could've been mistaken for a procession carrying a family mourning the loss of someone it loved. And if it weren't for the identity of one of the people in the third car, that might have been true. Before her car had even come to a complete stop, men in dark suits surrounded it; the men who protected the life of the President-elect. With a quick but thorough check, the area was deemed secure, and two long legs appeared from behind an automobile door as Devlyn Marlowe began to climb out of the car.
She leaned over, spoke to the other occupants, and retrieved a bouquet of roses before slowly walking to the stone that sat some thirty feet way. The men assigned to guard her were dutiful, but extremely respectful of her privacy at this moment, keeping as far away as safety permitted. She adjusted her scarf and tugged on the collar of her coat, raising it over the back of her neck. Dev gripped the roses and brought them to her nose, but most of their sweet, spicy fragrance was swept away by the cold autumn air.
She settled down in front of the gravestone, the damp, leaf-strewn grass soaking the knees of her slacks. Devlyn placed the flowers in a ceramic vase attached to the stone and brushed away a few twigs and leaves that had clustered around the base of the headstone. "Hiya, beautiful. I had to come today because things are going to get very nuts for me very shortly." Dev gave a slight chuckle as she intently studied a bright orange leaf with gloved hands. "Look who I'm trying to kid. Things are already nuts for me."
Dev let go of the leaf and watched the wind carry it away. She leaned forward so her fingers could trace the outline of the letters carved in stone. "I miss you. Sometimes at night, I still wake up and reach for you." She smiled and her hand dropped away. "I've been thinking about you a lot lately. I wouldn't be where I am if it hadn't been for you. I wish we could be together now."
Her smile turned wistful. "You'd make a great First Lady." Dev settled back on her bottom, resting with her legs stretched before her. She crossed her ankles. "Wonder how they would have handled that? At least I think they would have called you First Lady." She sighed, shaking her head. "Doesn't matter. You were, and always will be, my first lady, and that's what is important."
"I don't think I'll be coming back, Samantha. I'll bring the kids, of course. Anytime they want," she quickly added. "But I think... for me... I need to try and focus on the future for a while." She was silent for a long moment, listening to the faint howl of the wind and the sound of passing cars in the distance. "Yeah." She sighed and nodded a little. "I knew you'd understand."
Dev glanced back to the caravan and signaled. One of the agents opened the door to Dev's car, and three, small children climbed out. Ashley, the dark-haired seven-year-old, patiently waited for her little brothers to make their way out of the back seat before carefully taking their hands.
The tall woman smiled affectionately as the children walked toward her. She turned back to face the stone. "You'd be so proud of all of them. They're very special. Aaron has a picture of you on his nightstand. He kisses you goodnight before bed." Her voice shook a little as she spoke. "I've made sure they know you. They know both their Moms." She chuckled suddenly. "Ashley, bless her, has learned to roll her eyes at me the same way you used to."
The children joined her, and Aaron, the youngest at four, settled himself into Dev's lap, snuggling round her neck, while the older two placed tiny bouquets of flowers on the grass in front of the grave.
"Hi, Mommy," Ashley greeted easily, taking a seat Indian style. "I got an 'A' in math today. Mom says I'm doing real good in math now."
On impulse, five-year-old Christopher gave the cold stone a little kiss, then joined his brother in Dev's lap. At five, the fair-haired little boy was by far the quietest of the three kids. Ashley and Aaron seemed to take their monthly visits in stride. But Christopher seemed to have as difficult a time as Dev herself. Even though he never complained, she wondered if she should stop bringing him.
The family spent a few more minutes together, then the President-elect sent the children back to the car. She stood, leaning over to leave a soft kiss on the stone just as her son had done. "I love you, Samantha. You'll be in my prayers. Just like always." She took a deep breath and turned for the car. She didn't cry anymore as she walked away, and she knew that was a good thing.
* * *
Devlyn settled down in her padded seat at the head of the dining room table with the children and their nanny. Emma was a godsend. Samantha had hired her right after Devlyn had Ashley. And she had been right there to lend a hand when Samantha had Christopher and Aaron. Dev's career kept her so busy that she never seemed to have as much time to spend with the children as she wanted. Emma had helped take up even more slack after Samantha's death, and Dev wasn't sure whether she or the children would have made it without her.
Emma Drysdale was exactly what you'd want a nanny to be. Dedicated and loving. Her generous smile and heart were appreciated by all who knew her. She was a tiny woman, with a fierce personality, ample hips and a matronly bosom. She had a thick head of golden/gray hair and was as quick with a hug as she was to scold. Emma was more of a grandmother to the Marlowe children than a paid employee. And that suited Devlyn just fine. She was one of the family, and the older woman's wrath was nearly as legendary as her chocolate chip cookies.
"Don't you dare think you're gonna get up from this table until you've eaten every last bite on your plate."
Dev looked at each of the children, wondering which was in trouble. Then she glanced at her own plate, and she knew who was in Dutch. "I'm eating, Emma," she protested uselessly.
"You're too skinny as it is." Emma tsked her and pinched at a broad shoulder that was anything but skinny. "And you're not eating. You're pushing your food around to make it look like you're eating." Emma raised a gray brow, glancing down at the seated woman even as she moved over to Ashley and buttered another roll for the child. "You don't want to make a bad impression on your children now, do you?"
"You know," Dev stabbed a helpless stalk of asparagus, "I hate it when you do that."
"I know." The nanny nodded and refilled Aaron's milk. "That's why I do it."
"Sit down, Emma," she groaned. "The kids are fine. Eat something yourself." Dev shook her head and leaned back in her chair, knowing her protest would go ignored on this night, just as it had on every other night. At least until Emma was ready to sit down.
She wasn't mistaken.
Ashley giggled and turned her large brown eyes on her mother. "Mom?"
"Yes, sweetheart?" Dev decided to make an effort to eat her dinner, even though she was so tired the only thought that really appealed to her was going straight to bed.
"Do I have to take her with me to the zoo tomorrow?"
"Huh?" Dev's forehead creased as she tried to figure out who her was. "Oh, you mean Agent Hamlin?"
Ashley scowled and Dev blinked, startled to see herself so clearly in her daughter's expression.
"I'll take that as a yes. And I'm afraid you will, sweetheart."
With her fork, the little girl angrily smashed into the lava river she had created with her mashed potatoes and gravy. "None of the other kids have to."
"I know, honey. But...I'll tell you what, we'll tell her to wear jeans and a sweatshirt, okay?"
Ashley thought about that for a moment. It couldn't hurt, she figured. "Fine."
Christopher and Aaron stopped eating so they could listen intently to this conversation. They both had new bodyguards as well.
"You might as well get used to Agent Hamlin and try to make friends with her. She's probably going to be with you for the next four years."
"What about Amy?"
"Look, Moppet. Amy was a State Trooper. She took care of you before I was elected President. Now it's going to be a Secret Service agent and it's going to be Agent Hamlin." She patted the girl's hand and noticed that Christopher and Aaron didn't look any more pleased with the prospect than Ashley. Her eyes softened, and she smiled reassuringly. "You'll get to like her as much as you liked Amy. I'm sure of it."
"'Kay," the little girl muttered.
"Mom, can I go too?" Christopher piped up from his spot directly on Dev's right. "I want to go to the zoo."
"I'm sure you do, buddy, but this is a class trip that Moppet is taking." She grasped his small hand in hers. "But I'll tell you what, I'll try to arrange a trip for you and Aaron, okay?"
"Yes," Aaron and Chris cried simultaneously. The brothers gave each other the high five. Unfortunately, Aaron's aim was a little low, and he ended up smacking Chris in the head. Chris immediately struck back, and a mini slapping war ensued with the boys laughing and yelling.
"All right. Time to get ready for bed." Emma moved from her place at the end of the table and began herding the children toward the stairs.
Dev stood up as well, but sat back down like a chastised child when the older woman gave her a disapproving look.
"I am the President-elect you know!" the tall woman protested with a fake pout.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm very impressed, Madam President-elect." Emma pointed to the full plate. "Now eat your dinner."
"Am I ever going to do anything that impresses you?!" Dev called to the retreating form.
"You already have. They're named Ashley, Christopher and Aaron. Now eat."
* * *
It was nearly three more hours before Dev was finally finished for the day and wearily began climbing the stairs toward her bedroom. An aide caught her before her foot landed on the top step.
She let her head drop. "Yes?"
"The Secret Service just brought this file in for you. They said you wanted it immediately."
It's just a file. Thank you, God! I may get to bed yet tonight. "Thanks." She took it and gave the index a quick glance. "Strayer, Lauren Anna. Lauren not Loren, huh?" I figured 'L. Strayer' had to be a woman. The picture she drew in my mind....
"Governor?" The aide looked confused.
"Oh, nothing. Sorry. Good night."
"Good night, ma'am."
Devlyn made her way into Ashley's room first. It was a typical little girl's room. Filled with stuffed animals, doll houses and all the frills. The little canopy bed only served to remind Dev how precious her first born truly was.
"Hey, Moppet," she whispered into the darkness. "You asleep yet?"
"No, ma'am." The little girl rolled over, her soft, dark eyes glinting from the light coming from the hallway.
The tall woman took a seat on the bed, tucking the file under her arm. She studied her little girl, brushing messy bangs that needed trimming. "I know you don't understand everything that's going on right now, and it's kinda scary for you."
"But I need you to trust me, okay? This is all a very good thing."
"My teacher says that you're gonna be the most powerful woman in the world. Is that true?"
Startled pale eyes blinked. "Well..."
"Even more powerful than Wonder Woman?" The little girl popped up in her bed.
Dev looked into her daughter's round, brown eyes. "No. No way. Wonder Woman would kick my butt. Besides she's got that great invisible jet," Dev reminded, giving her daughter a friendly poke in the tummy.
Ashley nodded. "And the golden lasso."
"Right." She gently laid her little girl back down until her shoulders sank into her fluffy pillow. Then she leaned over, and they rubbed noses. "But you trust me... right, Moppet?"
"Always and forever." Little arms tightened
They held each other for a long moment. "Did you tell Mommy good night?"
"Yes, ma'am. Right after my prayers."
"You really miss her, don't you?"
Devlyn frowned. Today at the cemetery had been very hard for her, and her astute daughter had obviously picked up on that fact. She'd been trying to say goodbye to Samantha for over three years, and she was never very good at goodbye. Especially when it came to people she loved. "Sure, I do."
A pensive look crossed Ashley's face. "Maybe sometime you'll find a new mommy for us."
A lump formed in Dev's throat, and it took her several seconds to speak around it. "Maybe, Moppet," she conceded doubtfully. "But your Mommy was very special. And I loved her very much."