Madam President, page 8
Dev immediately knew she had misspoken, and it wasn't just because the room exploded with questions.
"Where did you meet Ms. Strayer?
"How long have you known her?"
"What's it like trying to go out on a date as the President of the United States?"
"Is she a real blonde?"
Two pale eyebrows disappeared into Lauren's hairline. "You'll never have the pleasure of knowing, buddy," she answered tartly.
Dev silently endured the barrage of questions. She did consider what happened in her private residence to be private, despite the fact that Lauren was there on a professional basis. But why do I think the press isn't going to take it that way? Shit!
"How do your children like her, and how do they feel about her living with you?"
With that question, the color rose to Dev's cheeks, and she drew in a deep, calming breath before speaking. "Ladies and gentleman, I know Press Secretary Allen came out here and gave you a full briefing about five very important pieces of legislation I'm working on. I came here to answer questions about those and other important issues facing our nation."
Lauren's eyes were drawn to Dev's white-knuckled grip on the podium.
"I did not come here to answer questions about something that is of no significance at all."
"No significance?" Lauren sprang to her feet, knocking her glasses onto the carpet. "I've just been crucified in every major newspaper in the country, and it's not significant?!" she shouted at Dev's hologram. "Thanks so much!"
A chorus of voices protested, and Dev raised her hands to silence them. "I'm sure, overall, that the American public is far more interested in how I intend to make sure every child has adequate health care, and whether or not there will be a social security program at the end of my time in office."
Press Secretary Allen and David looked at each other, rolling knowing eyes simultaneously.
"And when you're ready to talk about those, you let Press Secretary Allen know, and I'll be back. Your current line of questioning is a waste of my time, and, therefore, the public's money. Good day, ladies and gentlemen."
And with that, she left the room. I need to see Lauren.
* * *
Lauren sat on her bed with her head in her hands. Her career was dying on the vine. What good was an historian and biographer who couldn't be trusted to be objective and honest? None. Jesus, I'm going to end up doing Ricky Martin's life story. I know it.
The blonde woman heard a light rapping on her door. "Go away."
Devlyn pressed her forehead against Lauren's door, not caring who saw her. "Lauren, please give me a moment."
"You had your moment. And, if I recall, you decided to go with 'no comment'." But, despite herself, she was drawn to the door. She took several steps toward it, but decided she wasn't ready to see Devlyn yet. Instead, she gracelessly plopped down on the coffee table, only to have it collapse under her weight.
Devlyn pounded on the door several more times, but waved away a Secret Service agent who had jumped to her assistance. When he was back at his post she called softly, "Are you all right?" God, she's stubborn. "C'mon, please let me in. At least let me apologize to you face to face."
Lauren pushed up from the rubble. Great. There go my next ten pay checks. I hope Gremlin can learn to appreciate generic dog food. Her gaze traveled to the door. Dev sounded sincere enough. Brushing off her pants, she reluctantly crossed the room and pulled the door open just a crack. "Yes?"
Now that they were face-to-face Dev found herself a little tongue-tied. But one look into flashing gray eyes and she got over it quickly. "I'm sorry."
Lauren felt a pang in her chest at the look of regret etched across Dev's face and fought the urge to accept Devlyn's apology on the spot. But the words from the press conference were still too fresh in the writer's mind. She turned her back on the President and moved deeper into her room with Dev trailing behind her, the door left open just a crack. "Why are you sorry about such an insignificant little thing as the career I've worked my ass off for, President Marlowe?"
Devlyn flinched at Lauren's icy tone and the use of her title. Not to mention that she didn't particularly enjoy having her own words thrown back at her. Patience. "Yeah." She sighed. "I know that came out wrong. Lauren, I didn't mean to say, or even imply, that you or your career were insignificant. I just meant that this was something the public didn't need to concern itself with. I am sorry."
Lauren shook her head. Apologies were all well and good, but Devlyn didn't seem to grasp what this meant for both of them. "I record. I observe. I can't be the subject of speculation!" How blind am I, that I didn't even see this coming? "You had one chance to nip this in the bud, and you didn't do it. You promised you'd go to bat for me, and you didn't. If I'm not credible, I'm worthless as your biographer." And anyone else's.
The President straightened as Lauren's accusations hit home. "You are not worthless, and you never will be! Lauren, if I take the time to address this issue, it won't just go away. The best thing to do is let it run its course, and let it die a slow, quiet death. Trust me. Tomorrow," she paused. "Okay, maybe not tomorrow, but next week or next month, this will just be a memory, and the world will move on to other pieces of gossip."
Devlyn ignored the slumped set of Lauren's shoulders and pressed on when all she really wanted to do was give the woman a hug. "Haven't you been paying attention these last few weeks? Haven't you watched me jump from one issue to the next so quickly that sometimes I feel like a trick pony? If you haven't, then maybe you aren't the person for the job after all."
The dark-haired woman's jaw worked for a few seconds, and she let out an explosive breath. She didn't want to say the next part, but she knew she had to. She stared at the wall beyond Lauren with unseeing eyes. "We're not involved and... well... of course... you're not a prisoner. You're free to leave anytime you like with the highest recommendation I can offer."
Lauren's shoulders dropped further, and Devlyn felt her guts twist into a solid knot with the knowledge that she was the cause. This was all her idea. "Just know that I'm sorry for what happened. I would never intentionally cause you pain, Lauren." Please believe me.
The shorter woman closed her eyes at Devlyn's words. She never blamed Dev for this happening, only for not handling it differently. Or am I just upset that she didn't handle it my way? "Leave?" she whispered weakly. Did she want to leave? No. She wanted the day to start itself over again and to not have a stack of newspapers, and a room full of reporters, questioning her morals and professionalism and Devlyn's good sense.
Her anger began to drain away, and when she turned around and peered up into concerned blue eyes, her own filled with tears. "But we didn't do anything wrong. It's not fair!" She knew how naive that sounded. But at that moment, she didn't care. It was the truth.
Devlyn's lips curved into a sad smile. "I know what's true, and so do you. That's all that matters today, because tomorrow we're old news," she cocked her head to the side, "remember?" Then her forehead creased. She bit her lip, but couldn't stop the question that was on the tip of her tongue. "Would it be so horrible? People thinking that there was something between us. If it weren't for the job, I mean." That was smooth, Marlowe. Even I'm confused about what I just asked.
Lauren shook her head as a few unshed tears spilled over. She wiped them away angrily, hating that when she was upset her first reaction was to yell, her temper boiling over. Her second was to cry. And, to her embarrassment, Devlyn had just been treated to both. "I... um...." Her brows furrowed. Was Devlyn asking if it bothered her because they were both women? She wasn't quite sure so she guessed. "It's not that."
Devlyn's voice was softer now, and she crossed the final steps to Lauren, not stopping until she was close enough to get a good look at the crystal scattering of tears in pale lashes. "It's hard to have everything you are put under a microscope. Trust me, I know. I just need you to believe that I'm sorry."
She swallowed hard, morbidly picking at wh
Their eyes locked, and Lauren found herself unable to break Dev's intense gaze. "Is that... I mean... do you want me to resign?" She had never stood quite this close to Dev before and she felt a slight, inexplicable yearning to move even closer.
Dev shook her head gravely. "No. That's the last thing I want. What I want is for you to be happy and comfortable here."
Lauren nodded. She didn't know if that was still possible. But she was bound and determined to try. The writer lifted her chin. "I'm no quitter, Devlyn." She blinked away her remaining tears, splashing a salty drop on her cheek.
Dev reached out tentatively, her hand moving so slowly that Lauren could detect its faint trembling. "I know you're not." Devlyn chuckled softly. "Why do you think I wanted you in the first place?"
Lauren smiled when soft fingertips grazed her cheeks, gently brushing away her tears. She laughed nervously, unconsciously leaning into Dev's touch.
"Are we done arguing?"
A quick bob of the head.
"Good. Because I just discovered that I really hate arguing with you." Dev smiled, the relief coursing through her nearly enough to make her dizzy.
They stood there awkwardly for a moment, and Dev dropped her hand from Lauren's cheek. "Sometimes, after fussing with a friend, a hug can feel really nice," she offered gingerly, still not sure she was on solid footing with the biographer.
Lauren needed no further invitation. She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Dev's solid, lanky form, sighing with relief when Dev mirrored her actions and squeezed her gently but firmly. Her face was pressed against Dev's shirt, and her heart was thumping double time, she realized. But she could feel Devlyn's pounding pulse in return. She pulled in a deep, comforting breath, catching the faintest whiff of the President's perfume.
Oh, God. Devlyn pressed her face into Lauren's soft, wavy hair, praying – hoping – that the smaller woman couldn't feel her heart, which was about ready to pound out of her chest. She squeezed a little tighter, then realized that her friendly two or three seconds were up, and she'd have to release Lauren. Dev was about to speak when Lauren's door opened, and she looked up to find Christopher and Aaron staring back at her.
Lauren's gaze flicked to the door, and she affected a deer in the headlights look as the boys watched on, oblivious to the room's mounting tension.
"The dog," Dev whispered in Lauren's ear, her warm breath causing a slight tremor in the writer. "They're here for him."
Lauren suddenly whistled, and Gremlin poked his head out from under the bed where he was hiding. He saw Devlyn and immediately growled, baring tiny crooked teeth.
"Gremlin!" the boys shouted happily.
The dog bounded across the room. But not before stopping in front of Devlyn and offering another short growl. Then he ran over to the boys, who immediately began playing with him, forgetting all about the fact that their mother and Lauren were still wrapped in a loose embrace.
Lauren stared for a moment. "That's amazing. Gremlin hypnotizes them."
"It's true. My children are slaves to the cult of Gremlin."
They both burst out laughing and reluctantly disentangled themselves from each other.
Dev spied the broken coffee table. "Next time you get mad at me, you might want to hit me. I doubt I'm worth as much as that table."
"Sweet Jesus," Lauren drawled, her Southern accent popping out in full force. She examined the shards of wood scattered on the carpet and gulped. "How much was it worth?" Not that I really want to know. But I'm sure Michael Oaks is running me a tab, so I might as well hear it now.
Devlyn crossed her arms. "Dunno. It was made for Andrew Jackson. It's a one of a kind historical piece. Completely irreplaceable." I will not laugh. I will not.
Lauren's eyes grew wide as her voice grew weak. "It was," she uttered glumly. I so should have stayed in bed this morning. Well, except for that hug. I'd get out of bed for one of those any day of the week.
"Yeah. It was," Dev commiserated. "I heard they had appraisals done on it last year, from both Christie's and Lloyds of London. It was too expensive to insure."
Lauren could hear the smile in Dev's voice, and she glanced up from the coffee table to see twinkling eyes. "Lloyds of London, huh?" Her tone was skeptical.
Dev laughed. "Okay, would it make you feel any better to know that I bought it at a yard sale in college, paid four bucks for it, and refinished it myself? It came with me from Ohio."
"You rat!" She made a mock angry face, but still said a small prayer of thanks. "Does this mean I don't have to sell a kidney?"
"No kidney." Dev arched a droll brow. "But you owe me four bucks."
* * *
"C'mon in." Lauren opened the door to her quarters, a soft, yellow light from the lamp she'd left on spilling into the hallway. "You're going to love this picture. I just developed it over lunch. She was giving a speech to Congress."
Dev's eyebrows hiked up behind her bangs. "Ashley?" Please tell me she wasn't a Republican.
The women stopped in front of Lauren's desk. The shorter woman grinned and handed Devlyn the picture. "Uh huh."
Dev chuckled and held the photo at eye level. "So that's why she's wearing my blazer." The navy jacket hung nearly to the floor on the seven-year-old, its broad shoulders making her head appear tiny. "She's so cute."
"She looks just like you."
Devlyn felt a flush working its way up her neck. "I suppose so," she admitted sheepishly, although Lauren could still hear the pride in her voice. "Samantha always told me the same thing." Dev suddenly paused as though she'd said something wrong. She felt a twinge of guilt, and her throat began to close. With a start, she realized that she hadn't thought of Samantha in days... hadn't said her name in weeks. Tears filled her eyes, coming so fast she couldn't stop them.
Lauren laid a gentle hand on Devlyn's arm. "You miss her a lot, I'm sure." She smiled sympathetically, at a total loss as to what else she could say.
By the time Lauren had divorced her ex-husband, there were no tears of grief for her; not that there had been many to begin with. She had been more upset by her own failure to make the marriage work than by losing him. And, by the bitter end, she was more than ready for it to all be over and to let go. Looking at the older woman, Lauren felt a little ashamed that she hadn't ever mirrored the stinging loss that was so evident in Dev's face.
Dev nodded weakly. "She was a very special person. But the world does keep spinning." Even if it took me a long time to really believe it. Her eyes fastened on Lauren's. "I don't think I was meant to walk through life alone." A wistful smile touched her face. "It's much more fun with somebody else."
"Depends on the somebody," Lauren said seriously.
Dev's voice was just as serious. "I guess it does."
A smooth, female voice interrupted the room's silence, and Lauren tore her gaze away from the riveting blue. "Incoming call from (865) 555-9537. Call forwarded from cell phone. Status: emergency."
Lauren sucked in a breath. Calls designated as emergencies didn't ring on the phone. An automated voice system kicked in instead. And she'd had her cell phone off all day. While she called home once a month, she had never, ever received a long distance phone call from her parents. Not caring that Devlyn was still in the room, she took the call. "Call accepted."
"Lauri?" a deep, male voice boomed in an accent that was far more pronounced than Lauren's.
"What's wrong, Daddy? Is it Mama?"
Dev wrapped her arm around Lauren's waist, bracing them both for bad news. Don't let someone be dead, Dev thought hastily.
There was a long pause and then a sigh. "She's been in bed all week. You know her."
Lauren looked concerned, and Devlyn wanted to ask about her mother, but Lauren's father spok
"Holy hell, girl! I've been trying to get a hold of you since this morning. Do you know what time it is?"
"I know it's late. I just got back to my bedroom."
"Doesn't that lady President let you sleep?"
This, coming from a man who got up every morning at 4:30 A.M. for work. "Never mind about that. Daddy, what's wrong?"
"I'll tell you what's wrong." He quoted The Revealer at length, and both women cringed. That was the tabloid rag that had used the phrase 'brainy sex kitten'. "Everybody is talking about it! Our phone has been ringing off the hook. I had to unplug the damned thing. And now there are a bunch of news people parked on our front lawn, and they won't leave!"