Disclaimers

Copyright: These characters originated in the deep dark recesses of TN and Advocate’s overworked brains. Copyright 2001 by T. Novan, Advocate. All Rights Reserved.

Sexual Content: It’s in there and it involves two women. If you’re under 18 or this type of fiction is illegal in your neck of the woods, please move on. This story is intended for an adult audience only.

Violence: Mild

Language: Mild profanity

Acknowledgements: To our beta readers, Barbara Davies and Maggie Sheridan – your assistance was invaluable! And, of course, we had a blast working together. But we won’t bore you with our mutual admiration. While we’ve got your attention, we’d like to offer a special ‘I love you’ to our respective spouses <G>.

The Book: We are very pleased to announce that ‘Madam President’ is under contract for print publication by a brand new publishing house called Jane Doe Press (www.janedoepress.com). An announcement concerning preordering should hit the web very soon. Also, you should know that the print version will contain addition scenes not included in the online version. Don’t worry, the online version is a complete story. Consider the print version a ‘directors’ cut’ <G>.

Comments/Feedback: Tnovan@aol.com and advocate8704@yahoo.com

Madam President

By

T. Novan and Advocate (Blayne Cooper)

 

Prologue

November 2020

 

Friday, November 6th

 

Her iron, slightly sweaty grip on the chair’s armrests clamped down even harder, causing white knuckles to stand out in vivid relief against the dark blue vinyl. She would have chewed her lower lip in consternation if she could have. But she couldn’t. Right now all she could do was pray. I’m gonna be okay. I am. I can do this. Children do this, for Christ’s sake! Her head snapped to one side, wrinkling the white, paper bib tied round her neck, and gray eyes went impossibly wide at the sound of footsteps. Oh, no. Someone’s coming. It’ll be him!

"Hello? Anybody home?" A cheerful voice chuckled for just a split second before a balding head, wreathed with white hair, peeked around the slightly open door. "Hi there!" The man smiled amiably at the frightened woman and marched happily into the room. "I’m Doctor Cardozo. So that means you must be…" He discreetly peeked at his patient’s chart, having forgotten the name already, as he slipped into a pair of rubber gloves. Snapping the second glove loudly, he scanned for the pertinent information that his assistant had emphasized with hot pink highlighter.

Lauren Strayer

Blood diseases: None reported

Last checkup: 12/12/14

Patient Assessment: Complains of chronic pain in....

He glanced up from the chart and at Lauren. "Ms. Strayer, I think when you were here the last time you must have misunderstood one of my colleague’s instructions. Checkup time comes around every six months. Not every six years." He shook his head sadly.

His voice was mildly chastising, and Lauren nodded but rolled her eyes. Asshole, she thought tartly. I only come here because you’re close to my apartment. One more snotty comment, and I’m moving.

Dr. Cardozo scanned the small diagram of the human mouth where an ‘X’ was placed on the lower left wisdom tooth. He pursed his lips for a moment then set the chart down, pulling up a stool next to Lauren.

"Well now, let’s see what we have." He grabbed a shiny silver pick from a tray full of instruments and pointed it at Lauren’s mouth, which was already being held open by the jaw spreader that had been inserted by the dental assistant who had prepped her. One look, and the assistant had known that tooth was coming out… today.

Round, apprehensive eyes followed the instrument as it moved closer to its target. When it got within an inch or two of Lauren’s mouth, she jerked her head away in pure reaction.

The dentist exhaled tiredly. "Come on now, Ms. Strayer. This is just a probe." He held out the pick for her to see. "I know you must be hurting. Your cheek is all pink and swollen." A cold finger poked the body part in question and Lauren winced, grunting her agreement.

She glared at him evilly, but, knowing he was right, dutifully turned her head and presented him with her wide-open mouth. Not that I have a choice with this thing holding my mouth open like the catch of the day. He immediately made a hissing noise that she correctly assumed meant something bad. Very bad.

"Needs to come out," he informed her bluntly. And, while he didn’t do what he was about to do very often, he thought with this patient he’d make an exception. It was the reason he still kept the old machine around. "This will help." He reached over and turned a nozzle, then fiddled with a mask for a moment before placing it over Lauren’s nose and mouth. "Just breathe normally."

She looked startled for a second, but then remembered getting laughing gas once as a child. Nice bedside manner. You could have at least explained what you were doing first. Lauren thought hard. Would they need to use the… she gulped… laser to extract a tooth? She couldn’t imagine why. And with that self-serving conclusion, the woman felt her painfully ridged body begin to relax.

"You hold this." The dentist pried Lauren’s fingers from one of the armrests and moved her hand to the mask. "I’ll be back in a minute, and we’ll fix you right up. Would you like to watch television while you wait?"

Lauren nodded gratefully. She would do anything to keep her mind off what was about to happen.

"TV on," he commanded. Three tiny, flat, gray boxes, each mounted strategically on a different wall, shot angled beams that, when combined, formed a stunning, three- dimensional picture whose edges simply fuzzed away into reality. Filling the space in the corner of the room there was now a handsome anchorman and his large paper-covered desk. ‘Election 2020’ was written in red, white and blue block letters and hovered over his left shoulder.

Lauren groaned loudly, but it was too late. Dr. Cardozo had already scuttled out of the room, presumably to attend to his next victim. Irritably, she pulled the mask away from her face and tried to give the voice command ‘change channel’ but the current state of her mouth made it impossible, her efforts serving only to drip saliva down her chin. Then she tried to curse, but that didn’t work either. Which only made her want to curse some more. Finally, she simply gave up and pressed the gas mask tightly against her face. Inhaling deeply, she prayed she’d be so stoned in a few seconds that she would miss the Ken doll-like anchorman droning on and on about President-elect Marlowe.

The election music cued up and, in the blink of an eye, Devlyn Marlowe, at her podium on the steps of the Governor’s mansion in Columbus, Ohio, was standing at Lauren’s feet. The late autumn breeze was tossing around the President-elect’s dark hair, and her bright blue eyes were clear and intense as she gazed out into the cheering crowd.

"Oh, God!" Not her again! Every day. Day after day after day after day… The buzzing from the room’s fluorescent lights began to grow louder and louder, and Lauren felt her body began to magically sink into the chair as a lovely sense of dislocation overtook her. She stared at the charismatic woman dressed in a long, black trench coat who appeared oblivious to the light drizzle dampening her head and coat.

"How are you feeling, Ms. Strayer?" Dr. Cardozo reappeared at her side, and she blinked dazedly at him, not having heard him come in. He looked at her and grinned knowingly, quite certain she was feeling no pain at the moment. "I think we’re finished with this now." The man gently pulled away Lauren’s mask. "Don’t you just love her?" He motioned over his shoulder with an instrument.

Lauren furrowed her brow. Love her? Nooooooo. I’m sick of her and this entire election. She allowed President-elect Marlowe’s acceptance speech to roll right over her, the low tone of the dark-haired woman’s voice soothing her further. But even so, her gaze remained focused on Marlowe’s image. She’s sure easy on the eyes. Nice hair, tall, her mind rambled as the dentist began rooting around in her mouth.

After a few moments, the dentist began flushing Lauren’s mouth with water and suctioning it back out, the noise preventing him from hearing the television. "Volume up two," he ordered absently.

Lauren jumped a little, shocked back to the moment when Marlowe’s voice suddenly grew too loud to ignore.

Devlyn Marlowe leaned forward on the podium, her hands resting on its edges. Although she was physically exhausted from what had been a grueling campaign, one whose final numbers were the closest since the Gore/Bush fiasco twenty years prior, she fed off the crowd’s energy, soaking up their excitement, the palpable charge in the air reinvigorating frazzled nerves. "We did it!" She raised a fist in victory, and the crowd roared.

The President-elect laughed warmly, then raised her palms to quiet them so she could continue speaking. Devlyn looked up and flashed a charismatic, heart-stopping smile at someone in the crowd. And Lauren sucked in a breath; her drug-induced stupor further adding to the feeling that Devlyn was smiling directly at her. Wow.

Marlowe’s gaze dropped from Lauren’s, and she stuck her wet hands in her coat pockets, stepping down several stairs so she could speak more directly to the crowd. A flurry of activity around her made it clear that that move wasn’t expected by the Secret Service agents flanking the edge of the steps. And several of them moved smoothly into new positions before disappearing from view. "As one of my favorite authors wrote, ‘When faced with what seems like an insurmountable challenge, you have but one choice… to dig deeper within yourself than you ever believed possible… to question the dedication and worthiness of your very soul… and then to throw caution to the winds and take your fate in your own two hands.’ "

Lauren began choking wildly, gasping for air, her flailing arms knocking into the instrument tray and sending several tools onto her lap. Oh, my God!

The crowd had gone respectfully silent, but exploded once again when Devlyn added, "We did that, folks… and we made history in the process!" Her voice was drowned out by the cheering masses, and the anchorman broke in to add his own commentary.

"Dammit!" Dr. Cardozo clumsily yanked his hand out of the convulsing woman’s mouth, her tooth trapped between the bloody tips of his shaking forceps. Thank God she didn’t swallow it. My malpractice insurance is already hell. "What’s wrong? Are you hurt?"

"Cu… Cu… Cu…!!!"

"What? What?" he asked desperately, beginning to panic over Lauren’s agitated state. Maybe she’d sue him anyway. He practically threw down the forceps onto the askew tray, sending Lauren’s wisdom tooth bouncing across the carpet.

Without warning, the woman leaned over to a small porcelain basin and carelessly ripped the jaw spreader from her mouth, spitting and hacking several times in the process. Her lips were numb, and she could barely form the words. "Cu… Cu…" She swallowed and smacked her unresponsive cheeks and lips with her hands.

"Lord have mercy, girl. What is it?"

Lauren extended her finger toward the image of the anchorman who was still chatting away happily. A still head shot of Devlyn’s was floating disembodied above him as election result percentages ran in a continuous stream just below her neck, disappearing into the area where Dr. Cardozo’s coat rack stood.

"She cu… cu…"

Dr. Cardozo stared at her expectantly.

"She quoted me!" Lauren was finally able to blurt out. She frowned and wiped away a long string of saliva that was dangling freely from her chin.

The man rubbed his forehead, starting to suspect that Lauren’s revelation didn’t have anything to do with dentistry. "Huh?"

Lauren blinked in confusion, the laughing gas making her tongue feel thick, and her senses dull. "I’m the… the author." She ran a hand through wavy, shoulder-length, blonde hair. "Sweet Jesus," she drawled, the words taking on a slur at the end. "I didn’t even vote for the Yankee!"

A glimpse of color caught her eye, and Lauren suddenly peered down at her paper bib, which was speckled with red dots and several good sized crimson smears. Her eyes widened, and the color drained from her face. "Is that blo… bloo?"

"Blood," Dr. Cardozo finished, looking down at Lauren’s limp form which was lying peacefully in the dental chair. "Shit." Stepping around the unconscious woman’s feet, he walked over to the doorway and motioned over the receptionist. "I need a phone number."

The receptionist peered inside the exam room. "Your lawyer?"

"My lawyer," he confirmed with a scowl.

* * *

Lauren pulled into her designated parking space outside her apartment complex, shutting down the engine with the voice command ‘engine off’ followed by ‘4213’ which happened to be the last four digits of her social security number. In an effort to make her life simple, she used the same four numbers for every code she had, knowing full well that any thief with minimal brainstem activity could wipe her out financially in a heartbeat. Then again, she never got locked out of her apartment or accidentally routed her grocery bill to the phone company. Simple was good, she decided.

The fair-haired woman slipped off small, silver, wire-framed glasses and leaned over, resting her forehead against the steering wheel. After she had woken up at the dentist’s office, it had taken nearly thirty minutes to convince the man that she wasn’t going to sue him. She explained that passing out or throwing up was her typical reaction to the sight of her own blood. Nothing like making a total and complete fool of myself to start the day off right.

Lauren groaned slightly, her jaw feeling like she’d been hit in the face with a two-by-four. She plucked a small bottle of prescription pain pills she’d picked up on the way home out of her jacket pocket. Squinting, she studied the label, then shook her head and relented, sliding her glasses back into place. Three more hours until I can take another one. Just great. Her head felt like it was going to explode this very minute.

Stuffing the bottle back in her pocket, she exited her car and slowly made her way up the outdoor staircase to her second floor apartment. With one hand, she closed the lapels of her suede jacket to ward off the chill. November in Nashville was always unpredictable. Most of the time it rained; sometimes there were even flurries. Last week it had been a balmy 65 degrees and she’d pounded away on her computer out on her balcony in the warm afternoon sun. In contrast, today it was in the low 40s, and rain clouds loomed above, the cold wind seeming to intensify the pain in her jaw.

She rounded a blind corner to her apartment, digging in her purse for the keys she’d already put away without thinking. When she glanced up, she stopped dead in her tracks. Three slightly shivering men, two dressed in suits and one in khakis and a sport coat, appeared to be waiting for her outside her apartment door.

The oldest of the trio, a heavy-set man in his late fifties with a slightly graying goatee, caught sight of Lauren and visibly relaxed. "Lauren! I’m glad we caught you. I tried to call you, but I kept getting your service."

Lauren scrunched up her face as she narrowed her eyes. "Wayne?" My publishing agent? From New York City? Here? While they had seen each other a hundred times via satellite video feeds, they’d never, in the seven years they’d been business associates and, finally, dear friends, met face-to-face. He was shorter than she’d imagined, but his virtual image had accurately portrayed his chubby, bland face, deeply-creased cheeks and overall fatherly persona.

"Damn, I need to adjust the color on my machine. You’re much more of a blonde than a redhead." His eyes twinkled happily. "Hiya, sweetheart. Oooo… how does the other guy look?" He grazed her slightly black and blue cheek with his fingertips.

Lauren didn’t bother to answer his question. Instead, she grinned as much as her mouth packed with cotton swabs would allow. His rapid speech and nasal, New York accent seemed much more pronounced in person.

He smiled back in response and felt himself pulled into a tight, heartfelt hug, wishing, as he had many times over the years, that he were young enough to turn this pretty woman’s head.

Lauren caught a whiff of peppermint, and a light crunching sound near her ear confirmed that he was chewing a piece of hard candy. "What are you doing here?" she asked curiously, her hands grasping his biceps so she could push back and look him over again. "I sent you those contract revisions three days ago. There was no need to come all the way out here for that." She smacked his arm lightly.

Remembering that there were two strangers standing only a few feet away, Lauren’s gaze traveled to the other men who were both wearing navy blue, three-piece suits, and gray overcoats. She frowned and stopped talking, pressing her lips against Wayne’s cold ear so she could whisper, "I told you I’m not doing a biography for Vinnie Lagulia! I don’t care if he’s sitting in a federal penitentiary with nothing but time on his hands. I don’t do the mob!"

At the word ‘mob’ the two other men’s ears seemed to perk up like a curious German Shepherd’s.

"Kidding," Wayne exclaimed, looking back at the men. "She’s kidding, of course!" He gently grabbed Lauren’s elbow and somewhat nervously guided her the few remaining steps to the door. "If you let us all in I’ll make the introductions. I’ve got wonderful news!"

* * *

"No."

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.

But Devlyn knew it was important to make these wonderful children understand that they had, indeed, had two parents who loved them very much. Even if one had been cruelly ripped away from them by a drunk driver just a few weeks after Aaron was born. It hurt Devlyn’s soul that none of them could really remember much about Samantha. Only Ashley even had the smallest hint of remembrance. And Dev wasn’t sure if those were genuine or a product of their many family photos.

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.

"Governor?"

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."

Ashley nodded.

"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 around her neck.

They held each other for a long moment. "Did you tell Mommy good night?"

"Yes, ma’am. Right after my prayers."

"Good girl."

"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."

"So did I… I… I think."

She tucked her daughter in, smoothing the covers underneath her chin. "I know you did. And Mommy knows you did, too. I’m sure of it."

Ashley yawned. "Do you think she’s lonely, like you?"

The innocent words pierced Dev’s heart, and she felt the beginnings of tears. "No, sweetie. She’s happy up in heaven with grandma and grandpa. She’s never lonely."

"‘Kay." Sleepy eyes slipped shut.

Dev placed a kiss on her forehead. "Love you, Ash," she said softly, watching as the girl’s breathing grew deep and even. "Sweet dreams." On her way out of the room she clicked on a tiny night-light that cast the space in a muted blue glow.

Next, Dev quietly padded to the room the boys shared where they lay asleep, tucked down in matching racecar beds. She knelt between the beds and felt the tears come in earnest. These boys, with their blond hair and blue eyes, were the spitting image of the woman who had given birth to them. And neither would ever know the mother who loved them so much.

"Dammit, Samantha," she growled under her breath. Dev angrily sprang to her feet. "How could you just leave us?" She covered her face with trembling hands, immediately ashamed of her outburst. She wiped away the tears. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it." The tired woman forced the tears to stop, wiping the last of them away with the sleeve of her shirt. "I love you. I didn’t mean it."

She bent over and gave each boy a soft kiss on the cheek. "Great adventures to you both tonight. I love you."

Closing the door gently behind her, she made her way to her own room. She tossed the file down on a desk near the stone fireplace. Where, true to Mrs. Drysdale’s mothering nature, there was a sandwich and a glass of milk, waiting for the President-elect.

She snorted and threw herself into a large recliner. She hoisted the milk to her lips, then paused to take a moment and offer a toast. "To Emma Drysdale, I wouldn’t get through the days or nights without you." She leaned over, flipping open the file as she sipped the creamy beverage.

"Well, well, Lauren Strayer. Aren’t you just the cutest thing?" There were several pictures of the young woman, and she held up a 5" X 7" candid shot of Lauren in the park with her dog. The blonde was wearing a baseball cap, and a short, wavy ponytail was poking out the back. She had on gray sweats and a bright orange and white, University of Tennessee sweatshirt. She was laughing, her arm fully extended by the taut leash as the hideous little beast appeared to be walking her.

Dev examined the date on the back of the picture and confirmed it was taken only two weeks ago. She flipped to the next photograph. In this one, Lauren was wearing a linen suit with a fitted skirt that stopped a few inches above her knees. The more sophisticated clothing made the writer look older, Dev considered. Lauren’s suit jacket was draped over her shoulder and tanned arms peeked out from beneath a sleeveless, pale blue silk blouse. She was descending the steps of some office building and talking to a woman alongside her. The writer’s hand had been caught in mid-air as she gestured. A smile edged its way across Devlyn’s lips as she took a good long moment to enjoy Lauren’s youthful good looks, devastating gray eyes and a smile that she was sure would melt butter.

The President-elect lifted the last picture, which was obviously Lauren’s drivers’ license photo. Making a face, she shivered and pushed a button on the edge of her desk. The silent room was suddenly filled with a quiet hum. With one last grimace, she slid the enlarged photo into a paper-thin slot that ran along the corner of the desk, nodding happily as her shredder obliterated the unflattering shot.

She retrieved the picture of Lauren in the park and spoke to it. "They’ll retake it if you ask them nicely, Lauren," she chuckled. Tossing down the photo, she picked up the neatly typed report and glanced at the bio coversheet, but the words began to blur. She rubbed her eyes, knowing she still had several hours of pressing work ahead of her. Hell, they told you she passed the security check last week, Dev. The rest can wait until tomorrow.

"Well, Lauren Strayer, I don't need this file to tell me I want your help. I already knew that."

Dev finished her milk, ate her sandwich, and dug into a report on Chinese trade negotiations. She finally dropped into bed shortly after midnight.

 

Monday, November 9th

 

"No? What do you mean ‘no’?" Dev scrawled her name at the bottom of a piece of paper and handed it to one aide while another was briefing her about her next three appointments.

Michael Oaks shook his head, wishing he could say to President-elect Marlowe what Lauren had told her publisher the day before. "She doesn’t want the job, Dev." He shrugged. "It’s as simple as that."

Dev shot him a look. "Nothing is ever ‘as simple as that’. And you know it." She nodded absently to her secretary, who was going around the room and taking coffee orders from her staff. "Why doesn’t she want it? No…" she told her secretary. "That day is bad. Can we push it up to the twenty-first?"

Michael took a seat next to the tall woman. "Strayer gave me a few lame reasons, but I think it comes down to the fact that she just wasn’t interested in writing your biography."

"Then we need to get her interested."

"Dev, what does it matter? We can get someone else. Someone better. I know you love her work, but the woman didn’t even vote for you, for God’s sake!"

Now that got Dev’s attention, and she looked up from her electronic organizer.

Her customary smile slid from her face. "What do you mean she didn’t vote for me? Why not?"

Michael nodded his thanks when a pot of coffee was set down in front of him and Dev, then moved his elbows to make room for a mammoth stack of papers. "Didn’t you read the report on her?" He poured Dev a cup, then one for himself, drawing in a deep, appreciative sniff of the strong aroma.

"I looked at it," Dev said, her brow furrowing. Okay, I looked at her picture. Shit.. "Jane?" Blue eyes scanned the crowded room.

"Here it is, Dev." Jane, Dev’s personal secretary, thrust a manila folder into Dev’s hand.

Twin eyebrows rose. "You frighten me sometimes, Jane. You do realize this, don’t you?"

The plump woman smiled and winked. "After fifteen years, I know you better than you know yourself, Devlyn Marlowe." Her grin broadened. "And I can’t wait to be President of the United States!"

The room exploded in laughter, with Dev joining in. "And a wonderful President you’ll make, too. Just give a me a little bump if I ever get in your way."

Dev took a sip of hot coffee and plucked a blueberry bagel from a loaded tray that was now circling the room. She opened the file. Who are you, Lauren Strayer? And why did you turn me down? The room faded away as she began to concentrate on the words before her. She speed read the coversheet bio before tackling the report in toto.

Subject: Lauren Anna Strayer

D.O.B.: 7/4/1990

Ht.: 5’6" Wt.: 124 Eyes: Gray Hair: Blonde

Dev’s eyes scanned beyond the address, non-remarkable medical history, lack of criminal history and employment information.

Marital Status: Divorced (dates of marriage 1/24/14 – 10/16/17)

Family: No children, no siblings, no significant other, parents: still living

Her thoughts stopped there for a moment. Sounds lonely.

Education: BA in History, minor in English Literature, University of Tennessee, Magna Cum Laude, graduation date: 5/5/11

Devlyn laughed as she read about the eleven outstanding parking tickets the City of Nashville had against the woman. Her gaze drifted back to the photo that had caught her attention the night before, and she smiled again. I wonder what the ugly little dog’s name is?

She flipped to the back of the file for the supplemental information she knew would be there, quickly examining a photograph of Lauren’s ex-husband, Judd Radison, an architect living in Chicago who had remarried two months after his divorce from Lauren. He now had a two-and-a-half-year-old-son. Dev did the math and stifled a curse. Cheating rat bastard. She decided to shred his picture later, too.

She frowned when there were no photographs of Lauren’s parents, but the brief report indicated Howard Strayer was a retired plumber and 45-year member, and former Union Steward, for the American Plumbers’ Union. Blue collar background. I wouldn’t have guessed that. Interesting. Anna Strayer was a homemaker, who had been hospitalized for depression several times over the past ten years.

When Dev looked up from her reading, ten minutes later, she was alone in the conference room. Empty cups were everywhere, paper plates were strewn around the room and for the first time she noticed the ticking beeping of an alarm that had been set to remind her of her first appointment. Her coffee was cold, and she pushed the cup away with distaste.

Devlyn shuffled back to the first page of the file and, taking a large bite of her bagel, she picked up her phone.

* * *

Lauren began rooting around in her purse, finally finding a small mirror. "Auto drive on. Preset destination number 12. 4213." Lauren dropped her hand from the wheel and pushed her seat back as the car signaled and made a smooth lane change. She glanced at her watch. She was already late. "Increase speed by 10 miles per hour. 4213." She waited for the expected warning beep, then overrode the automatic speed control system with a voice command. "Speed override approved. 4213."

Holding up a small hand mirror, she applied a light coat of pale lipstick. She jumped when her phone rang, causing her to smear her chin with a streak of pink. "Uck." She snagged a tissue from a holder between the seats, and let the phone continue to ring as she wiped her face. On the fifth ring she answered, "Hello."

"Hello," a strong but decidedly female voice burred. "Is this Ms. Lauren Strayer?"

Lauren held the phone away from her face and stared at it as though she’d never seen it before. I know that voice.

"Hello? Ms. Strayer?"

Lauren pressed the receiver back to her ear, impressed, despite the fact that she truly didn’t want to be. "This…" She cleared her throat gently. "This is Lauren Strayer."

Dev smiled, easily picking up on the younger woman’s surprise and instantly loving the sweet, Southern drawl. "I’m glad to be talking with you myself. Oh, I’m sorry. I’m…"

"The President of the United States," Lauren finished at a total loss. My God! She’s calling me about the biography? Herself?

"President-elect, actually." Devlyn kicked her feet up on the table, wishing that her always-ravenous staff hadn’t scarfed down all the bagels. She found herself wanting another. "You spoke with my aide, Michael Oaks, yesterday?"

Lauren nodded. "I did." Her shock began to give way to remembered anger. "And I don’t appreciate being strong-armed," she said, her tone suddenly cool.

Dev sat up straight, her feet sliding from the table and striking the ground with a loud thud. "What do you mean ‘strong-armed’?" What did you do, Michael?!

"Why else was Mr. Oaks accompanied by Mighty Joe Young?"

Mighty Joe Young? Dev closed her eyes. Oh, God. Tell me he didn’t bring Francis. "Could you be referring to Francis Davies? The very intense and unfortunate Secret Service agent, whose head happens to grow directly out of his shoulders?"

A laugh escaped Lauren, and she clamped down on it with the palm of her hand. A politician with a genuine sense of humor? It’s snowing in hell. "That name sounds familiar," she offered noncommittally, not bothering to wipe the smile off her face.

"Then please allow me to immediately apologize. I’m certain that Francis’ presence wasn’t intended to intimidate." Please don’t ask me why else he was there then.

Lauren held the phone out again and looked at it, wishing could see Devlyn Marlowe’s face. She sounded sincere enough. "Perhaps I misunderstood then," she heard herself say.

"Ms. Strayer, your work is both intelligent and insightful. I’m a huge fan."

Lauren was surprised again by Dev’s enthusiastic praise and felt her cheeks growing warm. "Th… Thank you." What she didn’t know was that Dev was sporting a matching blush on the other end of the phone.

The President-elect mentally scolded herself for sounding like a star-struck teenager. "I need your help. I’m in a very unique position, Ms. Strayer. One that needs to be skillfully and, more importantly, accurately recorded." Dev’s alarm went off, and she swatted at it with an irritated hand.

"I couldn’t agree more."

Dark eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Then you’ll do it?" People started filing into the conference room.

"I didn’t say that."

Devlyn sighed in frustration. "Please, Ms. Strayer, help me out here. I’ve got a meeting in two minutes. Tell me what I need to do to get you to say yes."

Lauren’s car came to a stop outside the public library and waited dutifully for her to give the command to kill the ignition. "I don’t think there is anything you could say," she replied honestly. "I’m flattered. Really, I am." And curious as hell. "But I don’t want to have my copy ghost written by the Emancipation Party President. That’s not the type of work I do. I’d be happy to recommend someone…"

"What are you talking about?"

Lauren could hear the puzzlement in Devlyn’s voice.

"That’s not what I want." What did Michael say to you?

The writer blew out a breath, wanting to believe the other woman, but knowing better. "You say that now. But…"

"But nothing! I don’t want a ‘yes man’ for the party. The party is paying you because I couldn’t see asking the taxpayers to do it. And if I paid you myself it would call your professionalism into question, would it not?"

Lauren leaned forward, listening intently. "Yes, it would."

"I want someone with honesty and integrity and real talent. I want you, Ms Strayer. You’d have free rein to write whatever you see fit." Dev waved in the woman who she hoped would be the next head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Cursing the time, she spoke rapidly. "I’m giving you full access to everything and complete editorial control of the content. You’re only constraint will be working within the bounds of reasonable National Security." Dev laughed. "And keeping up with me."

Lauren stared at the phone for the third time, not believing what she was hearing.

Dev held up a single finger, indicating to her people in the room she’d be just one more minute, as the last person sat down at the table and Jane closed the conference room door. The dark-haired woman turned her back to her guests and crossed her fingers. "Was that what you needed to hear, Ms. Strayer?"

Lauren nodded dumbly. Full access? Editorial control? And a ‘subject’ who is making history with every thing she does? "Yeah." She swallowed hard. "That was what I needed to hear."

Chapter I

January 2021

Thursday, January 21st

 

Dev took a deep breath and looked at David McMillian, her oldest and most trusted friend, and the new White House Chief of Staff. She’d known him since her undergraduate days at Harvard. They’d studied and even roomed together for a semester, before Dev meet Samantha. Their time together cemented a friendship that had become a permanent fixture in both their lives.

While Devlyn’s political aspirations put her squarely in the spotlight, David was more than content to play behind the scenes, where he often, and only half-jokingly, reminded Dev, the realpower lay.

Dev reached out and grasped the cool metal knob, an astonished smile playing on her lips. "We did it."

"Yes, we did, Madam President."

"Cut that out." She scoffed at the title coming from him. They were beyond things like that, at least in private. And David knew it. But still, she was fun to tweak. "Or I’ll make you call me Wonder Woman."

The tall, red-haired man scratched his jaw, and his tobacco brown eyes went slightly round. "Huh?"

"Never mind."

It was just after dawn, and the offices were empty, an almost haunting quiet surrounding them. This was just the way Dev had wanted it to be the first time she and David entered the Oval Office as the President and the Chief of Staff. It had taken a horde of people to get her here. But without the support of her best friend she never would have made it. It was only appropriate that they should savor this moment alone together.

She pushed the door open but didn’t step inside. David smiled broadly and gestured. "After you, Wonder Woman."

"Smartass."

She stepped into the office and took a deep breath, stopping in the middle of the room to enjoy every crazy emotion, soaking in the pure thrill of it all. An almost giddy laugh worked its way up from her chest. She turned around and found David standing behind ‘the chair’.

He gave her a grin and patted the soft leather. "Come on. Try it out."

"I’m almost afraid to," she admitted. "It’s like, if I try to sit in that chair, I’ll wake up from the dream, and it’ll all be gone."

"Nah. It’s real. You’re here. And it’s never gonna be the same again. You’ve already made history, Madam President. Now let’s give ‘em four years they’ll never forget."

Devlyn took another slightly shaky breath and made her way to the chair, sinking into the soft leather with an inaudible sigh. She spread her hands over the desk in front of her, feeling the cool, smooth surface under her palms. "I am the President of the United States," she whispered, looking up to her Chief of Staff.

"Yes, you are." David sucked in a breath, biting the edge of his thick red mustache, fully aware of the power of the moment.

She blinked and stared across the room with unseeing eyes. "I’ve lost my mind."

"Yes, you have." David cleared his throat. "I’ll leave you now, so that you can get your personal things out." He gestured as he moved back to the door. "They’re in those two white boxes in the corner."

"Thanks, David." She looked up. "Hey, if we don’t hate this too much, are we going for eight?"

"Ask me in two years. Have a good day, Madam President."

"David!" she called after him.

He poked his head back around the door. "Yes?"

"Thank you for getting me here."

"We did it together, Dev." Her friend gave her a smile and left the office.

 

 

Monday, January 25th

 

Dev had quickly adjusted to the flock of people that always seemed to be on her heels no matter where she was going. It was a lot like being Governor only to the nth degree. Luckily, she had long ago learned to listen to everyone at once. Now, if someone could scare me up a good corned beef on rye without my having to fly back to Ohio, I’d be a happy woman.

"You have a meeting with the Secretary of Energy at three thirty," Liza Dennis, her new assistant told her, slipping another folder into her hands. Liza was young and every bit as tall as Dev’s 71 inches. She was rail thin with tightly curled brown hair and gums that showed just a little too much when she smiled. She was also saving Dev’s life by getting her everywhere she needed to be with at least some semblance of punctuality.

Dev had learned early in her political career never to wear a watch. People read way too much into the gesture of glancing at the timepiece, which she tended to do often if she wore one. "What time is it now?" Dev eyed the door to the Oval Office, which was growing larger and larger with every step. She hoped to make it inside before someone declared war.

"One fifteen, Madam President."

"Remind me about the meeting at three fifteen."

"Yes, ma’am. You have an appointment now as well. With Lauren Strayer."

The President stopped dead in her tracks, turning to the young woman on her heels who nearly crashed into her. "Is that today?"

"Yes, ma’am. It was set for one o’clock."

Dev winced, and then suddenly became very aware of her appearance. "Damn." She gave herself a quick once over, straightening her jacket and smoothing back long, ebony locks. "Do I look all right?"

The young woman’s mind derailed at the sudden change of topic. "Umm... of course," she stammered. "I mean... yes, ma’am. You look fine."

"Good." She handed all the files back to Liza, then wiped her palms on her slacks, chiding herself for her nervousness. "How long is this scheduled to go?"

"Half an hour, ma’am."

Dev pursed her lips. That simply wouldn’t do. "Push everything back and give me an hour here. I’m gonna need it."

"Yes, ma’am." Liza opened her notebook. This was only her second day, and she’d already figured out that the President was always going to need some wiggle room in her schedule. "That means you won’t get back to the residence until sometime after seven thirty."

"If I’m lucky," Dev grumbled as she stood in front of the door to her office and waited for an immaculately dressed man to let her in. She wondered if she’d ever become accustomed to people whose sole purpose appeared to be to open doors for her. Okay. There’s nothing to be nervous about. You respect her work. All right... you love her work. So what? You’ve met accomplished people before. Dev drew in a deep breath. She was an expert at burying how she felt. "I’ll be ready to move on in an hour." She reached over and tugged on Liza’s sleeve. "Do me a favor and find me a corned beef sandwich, huh? The food they served at the luncheon wasn’t even close to edible."

"Right away. What about…?" Liza gestured to the door.

"Oh, yeah." Where are my manners? "Hold on." Dev squared her shoulders and walked into the Oval Office, pushing aside the immediate thrill she felt just from entering the room. That’s when the dark-haired woman got her first real life glimpse of Lauren Strayer. Wow. Not just cute. Dev mentally amended her assessment of Lauren’s looks, based on her photograph. Beautiful. Dev cleared her throat gently, and the writer’s head turned, slate gray eyes fastening on Dev’s face. Dev’s lips immediately curled into a smile, and she greeted Lauren warmly while remaining at the door. "Hi. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. I’ll be right with you, I promise. I’m just making sure I get enough sustenance to keep from passing out." She stopped and took a breath. Okay, I usually don’t talk that quickly. "Would you like a sandwich?"

Lauren practically jumped to her feet. She hadn’t even heard President Marlowe come in. It had taken her all of two seconds to commit her first breach of White House etiquette. "Hi." God, television does not do her justice.

Devlyn was wearing fashionably wide-legged, worsted wool trousers in the darkest of greens. Underneath a jacket that matched the slacks was a sleek-looking metallic silver turtleneck that complemented Dev’s lightly tanned complexion and glossy black hair. She had the body of a track star, long and lean, with endless legs. Lauren’s eyes widened as she realized she hadn’t heard a word past ‘Hi.’ Her mind raced frantically. Shit! I know her lips were moving!

Devlyn wondered at the sudden look of confusion coloring the younger woman’s face. "Sandwich?" she prompted hesitantly.

 

Right. That was it. "No, thank you, Madam President. I already had lunch." The few bites that the bat-sized butterflies in my stomach would allow, that is.

Sweet Southern accent. "Do you mind if I indulge? The NRA failed in its attempt to poison me over lunch. And I’m…"

"Of course, Madam President." Lauren smiled and tucked a strand of pale behind her ear. She slid off her glasses and began absently gnawing on the tip of one earpiece as Dev turned around.

 

Just like Christopher wears, the President mused. The boy was always fiddling with his glasses. Dev smiled again. He’d like knowing someone else who wore them too. A lot. Glasses were unusual nowadays, and she knew Chris hated wearing them, despite the fact that the lenses would actually correct his near-sightedness, so that he wouldn’t have to wear them at all in a few years.

"Thanks," Dev said over her shoulder, breathing a slight sigh of relief. Yes! She’s not mad that I’m late. "I swear, I’ll be right back." With that, Dev pulled the door closed and stepped back out into the outer office. "One sandwich and one hour," she told Liza, who was now explaining some White House protocol to Jane Shultz, Dev’s longtime secretary. The President gave Jane a small wave and received a sympathetic smile in return.

"One sandwich, fifty-six minutes." Liza grinned tentatively and tapped her large-faced, gold watch.

Dev raised an eyebrow, glad, and a little surprised, that the young woman was already growing more at ease with her. Everyone had begun this new administration in a way that was almost painfully formal, and although it was to be expected, and wholly appropriate, it wasn’t making her own adjustment any easier.

"Right. Thanks." Dev re-entered her office. Leaning her shoulders against the door to close it, her eyes slid shut and she exhaled a long, slow breath. The breath turned into a happy whimper when the heavy door clicked shut, effectively locking away the rest of a very demanding world for another fifty-five minutes.

Lauren, who stood behind one of the rich leather chairs that sat in the center of the room, looked appropriately amused. Her hands restlessly rubbed at the back of the chair, and it looked as though she was trying very hard to stifle a laugh.

Dev stood up straight, intent on recovering at least a shred of her Presidential demeanor. But one look into understanding, even slightly indulgent eyes, and she gave up instantly, grinning as she slumped back against the door. "Tell you what, let’s make a deal right now. You let me be myself when we’re alone, and we both might make it through the next few years without going insane." She smiled at Lauren’s intently interested look. "Besides, if I have to be the President of the United States all of the time, the book’s gonna be crap, and we both know it."

"Deal." Lauren was grinning now, but her smile quickly faded. "Does ‘you’ being ‘you’ equal ‘off the record’?" Oh, boy. Here it comes. The biographer instantly chastised herself for not listening to her first instincts and turning down this assignment.

Dev pushed away from the door. Padding over to the leather sofa across from Lauren, she gracelessly dropped into it, sighing with satisfaction. "Nope," she replied blithely, gesturing for Lauren to retake her seat. "The good, the bad, and the ugly of my life are an open book to you, Ms. Strayer." Unexpectedly, the President’s voice grew serious, and she leveled a frank stare at the writer; one that caused her to lean forward as she listened. "My children, however..."

"You don’t have to be concerned about that, Madam President," Lauren interrupted urgently. "I would never invade their privacy. As far as your biography is concerned, they are only relevant in the ways that they directly affect you."

Dev looked at her curiously and barked out a tiny laugh. "Well, that would be in just about every way, wouldn’t it?"

Lauren was about to disagree, but stopped herself. Shut up, Lauren. It’s not like you have kids. Well, at least ones that don’t occasionally drink from the toilet. No assumptions, remember?

The writer’s first biography had been of Karina Jacobs, the star of the 2016 Olympics who had been born in Harlem, addicted to crack cocaine. She was immediately touted as a 21st Century Wilma Rudolph and ended up winning seven gold medals, despite several physical disabilities she’d been born with. Karina was single with no children.

Lauren’s second biography had been of Peter Orlosky, the mega-nerd who had brought down the Microsoft empire with his single, non-proprietary operating system. It could handle everything from the desktop computer to the largest global networks – instantly resolving the problems of interoperability that had plagued computer and network operations people for years. Not only was he unmarried and childless, but Lauren was pretty damned sure he’d never even had sex. With another human being, that is. But ultimately that tidbit didn’t make it into his biography because she figured everyone could figure that out just by looking at or listening to Peter. She certainly didn’t need to tell them.

And, finally, her most recent biographical subject had been Cardinal O’Roarke. While she was certain that he and his long time male secretary, Andre Ricardo, had a very up-close and personal relationship... as far as she could tell, he had never, literally, fathered any children. So how exactly could she know how President Marlowe’s children affected her?

"Let me rephrase that…" Lauren tried again, her tone every bit as serious as Devlyn’s. But unconsciously her gaze had softened. "You can trust me to know what’s private in your children’s lives... and what could hurt them. I promise," she swore intently.

Dev nodded. "If I weren’t already certain of that, you wouldn’t be here, Ms. Strayer. I don’t take chances with the well being of my babies."

Lauren smiled engagingly, slightly taken aback by the President’s choice of words. ‘My babies’… so personal. Maternal. For some reason, I didn’t think she’d be that way. "But I’d be pleased if you felt like you could be relaxed and be yourself around me, despite my job." She raised a playful eyebrow at the woman who was comfortably reclining in front of her, with pleasure so complete it bordered on sensual... "I can see how hard that will be for you," Lauren teased gently.

Dev laughed, glad that her genuine nervousness didn’t appear to be showing. "Good. Because this," she laid her hand on her abdomen and, as if on cue, it growled ferociously, "is me... tired, hungry," she glanced at one of the several clocks mounted on the wall, her eyes quickly finding the one showing the correct time zone, "and a little late."

 

She’s a talker. Thank you, God!

"I really wanted to make a good first impression. But being late kinda blew that, didn’t it?" Dev inquired sheepishly.

 

She wanted to impress me? Lauren cocked her head slightly to the side as she regarded the leader of the free world with ever-growing curiosity. "Some would say so." But I wouldn’t happen to be among them. You make a charming first impression, President Devlyn Marlowe. But I’ll bet you already knew that.

"Then I guess all I can do is say I’m sorry, and hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me." A flash of white teeth brought Dev’s face to life.

The writer’s mind was already spinning, weaving a tapestry with words that would eventually form a picture of Devlyn herself. And there was one word that Lauren could already see was going to pop up again and again when it came to President Devlyn Marlowe. Charisma… in spades. It fairly oozed from the tall woman’s pores. But it was in an understated kind of way that was both compelling and alluring. "I think under the circumstances, I can forgive you, Madam President."

"Thanks." The tall woman scooted forward a little on the sofa and leaned forward, her arms resting on her thighs with her fingers interlaced. What she really wanted to do was ask the writer about some of her work... especially a few pieces that had been written under the pseudonym Lauren Gallager.

But now wasn’t the time to be a goofy fan. There was still one major wrinkle to iron out that Dev had saved for a face to face discussion. Something she hoped would give this biography a sense of intimacy and candor that she found lacking in so many others. Just ask her Dev. The worst she can say is ‘no’. Well, that’s not quite true. She could laugh, accuse you of being insane and wanting to micromanage her work, and then say ‘no’. "You just arrived in town this morning?" the Dev began casually.

Lauren shook her head. "Last night. The Emancipation Party is putting me up at the Hay-Adams Hotel."

"And your room is nice? You like it there, I mean?"

A wry smile wanted to twitch at Lauren’s lips, but she felt a tiny kernel of worry germinate in her belly. Where is she going with this? "Well, it’s Italian Renaissance. Not exactly the Motel-6, but somehowI’m making do," she said drolly.

"Good… good." Dev missed the joke. She was too wrapped up in what she was about to ask. "I, um... well, actually, I had something a little closer in mind. I mean, if you’re going to follow me around on anything like a regular basis, you’ll need to be close." That was brilliant. Duh.

Pale eyebrows lifted. "The Hay-Adams is less than 3 blocks away. Any closer and I’d be residing in your back pocket."

"Hmm... true..." Shut up, Dev. God, don’t scare her off now. "Okay, maybe not my back pocket, but how about in residence with me and my family?"

Lauren’s jaw sagged. "Inside the White House?"

Dev grinned. "I’ve found inside the White House to be far more comfortable than outside the White House. The park benches around here suck." When Lauren didn’t answer Dev pressed on. "Look, if you really want to get to know me and understand what I do, you’re going to have to tag along after me. And you can’t very well do that from the Hay-Adams Hotel. I don’t exactly keep regular hours, and there simply isn’t enough time in the day for a lot of one-on-one research discussions." And, while that was true, Dev knew instantly that if Lauren Strayer asked, she’d make time for her anytime she wanted.

"I, umm... Madam President, I don’t know what to say," she admitted honestly. Sure it would make things interesting, but Lauren knew she needed her privacy. She wasn’t at all sure that she could stand living in more of a fish bowl than she was already subjecting herself to.

"Living here is the only way to really know what I do," she said reasonably. "It doesn’t have to be for the entire term. Just until you feel like you’ve got a good handle on my day-to-day life." C’mon, Lauren, say yes. Lauren’s head began to sway slightly, and Dev knew she was considering it. She went in for the kill. "I want a totally honest and accurate accounting of the first term of office for the first female, American President. I don’t take my legacy lightly, Ms. Strayer. The easiest way for me to give you full access is to have you nearby. I don’t want to pull any punches."

"Do you really want that?" Lauren asked curiously. Giving her editorial control of the book was an enormous risk, and she knew it.

Sky blue eyes fastened on Lauren’s with an almost painful honesty. "Yes. I really do."

Lauren found it nearly impossible to disbelieve the President’s words. Damn, I’ll bet that comes in handy in her profession. But a tiny part of the writer still found this opportunity too good to be true. "And no one is going to be whispering in my ear, telling me what to write?"

The President smiled. Don’t even go there, Dev. Keep your mouth shut. "I promise you I won’t censure you in any way. And once the book is done, as long as nothing concerning national security is revealed, I won’t ask you to make any changes. There may be a few others that make requests of you... but you can take them on as you see fit."

"You’ll back me up?"

"One hundred percent." It wasn’t lost on Devlyn that Lauren hadn’t agreed to move into residence yet. But she was thinking about it. And something inside the President told her that this was a woman who didn’t respond well to being pushed.

There was a gentle knock on the door, and Dev dragged her gaze away from her guest.

"Come in."

A lunch table for two was rolled in and quickly set up. "Anything else, Madam President?" a young blond waiter asked, managing to sneak a peek at Lauren while he prepared the table.

"No. I think we’re all set." Dev looked over at Liza, who was grinning. It was obvious the assistant had ordered lunch for two. The President gave her a smile and a wink. She nodded, and the small group left the room, once again leaving the two women alone. "Are you sure you won’t join me? I can see that my first executive order for one sandwich was completely ignored." She laughed. "There’s plenty. Everyone around here has been trying to feed me for days."

Dev took a large bite and groaned with undisguised ecstasy.

Lauren swallowed hastily. "Well, if you insist."

Devlyn waved toward the other sandwich and took another bite, the smell of corned beef and horseradish wafting up to her nose. She drew in a deep, satisfied sniff. Liza is getting a raise already. I’m in heaven.

The writer took a bite, and immediately mimicked Dev’s reaction with a happy groan. "Oh, god," she mumbled, licking the corners of her lips. "This is so good."

Lauren’s mind firmly told her living in the White House would give her fabulous access to the President, but would wreak havoc on her ability to keep a professional distance from her subject. She firmly told her mind to shut up. She held up half a sandwich. "Will I get more of these if I say yes?"

Dev suddenly stopped chewing and glanced up from her plate. "As many as you want," she promised seriously.

Lauren picked up her napkin and slid it over her knees. "Then set me up with a room, Madam President. It’s looks like you’ll be having a guest for a while."

"Excellent!" Dev’s honest pleasure was written all over her face. "And my name is Devlyn or Dev, not Madam President."

Unaccountably, the blonde woman felt a blush rising to her cheeks. "Then please call me Lauren."

Dev extended her hand and when Lauren’s found hers, she squeezed firmly, absorbing its warmth with idle pleasure. "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lauren."

"The pleasure is mine, Devlyn." Lauren exhaled and refocused on her sandwich as a knot that she didn’t even know existed, unraveled in her guts. "So... I know you must have nearly as many questions for me as I do for you."

Dev smirked and picked up a crunchy, cold pickle. "Yeah. How does someone rack up eleven parking tickets in two days?"

This time Lauren’s blush was pronounced. "How... how did you know about that?" she mumbled in embarrassment.

Twin dark eyebrows lifted. Dev took a bite of pickle, enjoying its salty, tart flavor. "Do I really need to answer that?"

Lauren scratched just above her brow. "No, I guess you really don’t. Let’s just say it started with a really bad day."

"That ended two days later?"

Lauren chuckled. "Something like that." She picked up the bottle of spring water that was resting in a small bucket of ice and poured it into a crystal glass.

"I had a day like that once. It lasted for almost a week." Dev reached for a coffee carafe that was much closer to Lauren than her, and the smaller woman immediately intercepted Dev’s hands with her own.

"Let me do that." She picked up the carafe and poured two cups, deciding she could probably use some as well. "How do you take it?"

"Black. And I’m praying it’s strong. Thank you," Dev said as she took the cup from Lauren’s outstretched hand. "How about you? How do you take your coffee? I want to know in case I need to get you a cup sometime."

"Cream and two sugars." Lauren poured in a little cream and began hunting for a teaspoon, which magically appeared right in front of her face. "Thanks." She smiled and plucked the spoon from Dev’s fingers. "But somehow I can’t see the President of the United States fetching my coffee."

"Hmm..." Dev begrudgingly nodded. "You’re right, the President probably wouldn’t. But Dev Marlowe will."

 

 

Tuesday, January 26th

 

The early morning meeting with her staff was just about ready to break up when Devlyn remembered something very important. "By the way," she straightened in her wingback, "I met with Lauren Strayer yesterday afternoon, and from now on she’ll be attending these meetings. For those of you who don’t know already…" Every set of eyes in the room turned downward, and Dev sighed loudly, mildly annoyed but not surprised. "Okay, you gossip hounds already know this, but I’m announcing it anyway. Ms. Strayer is going to be chronicling this term in office and will be moving into the residence today. Isn’t that right, Michael?" Dev arched a challenging eyebrow in the direction of Michael Oaks, who nodded resignedly.

He’d tried to talk the President out of it. But the stubborn woman wasn’t budging. There was something about Lauren Strayer he simply didn’t like. Not only had she arrogantly refused his offer in Tennessee, but she’d said something to Dev that had made the President especially cross with him and had called his judgement into question. Not only that, whatever Lauren had told her had gotten Dev so angry that she’d had Secret Service agent Francis ‘No Neck’ Davis transferred away from the White House. Permanently.

Dev took her last sip of coffee and carefully sat her cup back on its china saucer. "Ms. Strayer will be starting her assignment today. She has full privileges and complete access. Please be kind to her." This last part was delivered with a joking tone, but no one in the room doubted the sincerity of the request. The President looked around at the staff. "Anything else?"

The Chief of Staff glanced around the various faces in the room. Some were new to both him and Dev, but a few were loyal friends.

"We should do an announcement about Ms. Strayer being hired to write your memoirs," Press Secretary Sharon Allen stated firmly, opening her notebook and jotting down a few preliminary ideas. The fact that she didn’t look thrilled about the prospect wasn’t lost on Dev. It wasn’t that Lauren wasn’t qualified. True, she was God awful young. Her work, however, was well respected. But that didn’t mean she had to live in the residence. Press Secretary Allen began to get slightly dizzy from the horrific scenarios that were playing out in her head. Someone older and fatter would have been a much safer choice.

"Ooo... I’m thirty-eight, not eighty-eight. And that makes me sound as old as the hills." Dev shifted in her chair, regretting the fact that she’d chosen a skirt instead of slacks today. "Biography has a less ancient ring to it, don’t you think?" She gave Press Secretary Allen a pleading look.

The room filled with easy laughter, and Jane, who was standing against the back wall, shook her head. Dev was such a pain in the butt sometimes. God love her.

"Let’s just call it a biography, Sharon. I’m not ready for a cane just yet."

Everyone stood up when the President did and began to file out of the room, ready to start their incredibly busy days. The door closed, leaving behind Dev, Liza and the Chief of Staff. David looked at the young woman and silently asked for a moment alone with the boss.

David smiled when she tapped her watch. Dev had a breakfast meeting with several members of the Democratic and Republican Parties, including the ultra-conservative Speaker of the House, this morning. He almost felt sorry for her. She had the unparalleled pleasure of facing two parties that resented and distrusted her. But that’s the price she paid when she willingly joined a third party. David had always thought life would have been much easier if Dev had just stayed a Democrat.

Liza slipped out of the office quietly.

"Madam President?"

"Yes, David." Dev sighed, resting her head in her hand.

"I’ve got to tell you, I think Ms. Strayer being in residence is going to cause problems for you, Dev. Once the press gets wind of it, she’s going to become more than an employee hired to write a book."

"You sound like Michael now. And I don’t intend to tell the press she’s in residence here. If it becomes an issue, we’ll deal with it then."

David rolled his eyes. "It’ll take the press all of one or two days to figure it out. If that," he snorted. "And trust me, it will be an issue. A single, openly lesbian President moves in an attractive, single, female biographer…"

"You forgot very ‘straight’, single, well-respected biographer."

David put his hands on his hips. "And just how do you know she’s straight? Did you ask her?"

"Uhh... buu... ahh..." Dev’s mouth worked, but no words came out. "What?!"

"Because I read that report, Dev. And I don’t recall it mentioning any particular sexual orientation."

"But she was married to a man!" Dev blurted out a millisecond before covering her eyes with the palms of both hands. She shook her head furiously. "God, I can’t believe I just said that."

David laughed. "Dev, whether Ms. Strayer is, in actuality, straight or gay isn’t really the issue. Assumptions will be made. And you’re both single, and you’ve got three kids. You know what the conservatives will do when they..."

"Fuck the conservatives!" Dev hissed, suddenly angry. She had long ago grown tired of their painting her as the worst mother since Joan Crawford. "You know I don’t give a shit about them."

"But you should," David insisted. He’d lost this argument a hundred times, but he never stopped trying. "They’re out there, and they’re not going away."

Dev leaned back against the edge of the table. "Besides, I may be single, but I’m also still in mourning over my murdered spouse..."

David’s brown eyes softened. "I know, Dev. But we’re talking about perceptions, not reality." He swallowed, wondering if he should go further. "Umm... you know Samantha wouldn’t want you to mourn her forever."

Dev’s shoulders slumped, and her voice dropped to an anguished whisper. "I know."

David moved over to the tall woman and sat alongside her. "Look, I don’t want to argue. I know how important it is to you that this book be done right... but when this comes back to bite you in the ass... and it will," he smirked a little, "I’m going to be right here to say ‘I told you so’."

"Like always?" Dev teased weakly.

"Exactly." He patted her thigh, a little surprised to feel skin. Why is she wearing a skirt? She hates skirts.

"Well, if moving Lauren into the residence, so she can work, is the worst thing to come back and bite me in the ass, I’ll consider this a very successful month."

"It won’t take a month."

Dev ignored David’s pessimism and turned around, pulling over a couple of documents Liza had set in front of her earlier. She felt around in her blazer pockets, and David deftly handed her a shiny, metal pen. "We’re talking legitimate press. The Inquisitor and the other scandal sheets don’t count, David."

"The legit press will pick it up if it’s hot enough. And we all know that if three of the scandal sheets pick up the story of Lauren living in the residence at the same time, it must be true. It’s a law... like gravity or Murphy’s."

Dev laughed to herself and stuffed David’s pen into her pocket, rubbing her thumb along the warm metal. "It is true, Mr. Smarty Pants. Try to remember that."

 

* * *

Lauren sat down on her new bed, in her new room, in her new house... the White House. "Wow." She shook her head in amazement, allowing herself to absorb where she was and what she had gotten herself into.

Since November, she’d been on a continuous, whirlwind publicity tour for her last biography, making the big push to drive up holiday sales and keep her publisher very, very happy. That had left her with no time to even scratch the surface of who Devlyn Marlowe was. And it left her feeling unusually insecure, slightly disconcerted even, like the college student who had blown off studying for the big exam and was now getting ready to pay the piper.

Lauren chided herself for her worries. It’s not like you don’t know anything about her… Hell, her face and those annoying, endless sound bites have been plastered all over your TV for the past six months. But the writer did admit to herself that the President was a lot more palatable when she wasn’t being crammed down your throat. Okay, more than palatable. Nice, really.

She exhaled slowly. Lauren had finally been left alone for more than ten seconds at a stretch, her curious gaze unhampered by Secret Service agents and the milling, ever-present White House staff. It gave her a moment to order the mental snapshots she’d been taking since she met Devlyn. Although she itched to get her hands on her camera.

The thrill here, in this place, was the same she’d gotten when she was permitted inside some of the most private, holy areas of the Vatican while doing Cardinal O’Roarke’s biography. Her stomach fluttered in a cross between nervousness and raw excitement, her palms moist and cool even as her keen intellect began cataloging information. But her tour of the Vatican had been a brief, escorted visit. She was actually going to live here. At least for a while. Lauren didn’t think her penchant for privacy would allow her to stay here too long. But she was going to make the most of it while it lasted.

Her gaze glided across gleaming, Colonial style, cherry wood furnishings and the rich oil paintings of previous Presidents in heavy wooden frames that adorned the walls. The room was nearly as big as her entire apartment back home. And while it didn’t have a kitchen or laundry room, it did have what amounted to a full bedroom, a well-stocked bar, and sitting area, complete with two small sofas that faced each other across a short, delicate-looking coffee table.

The bed was so tall that Lauren’s feet barely touched the floor when she sat on the edge of the firm mattress. Predictably, it was a four-poster model made from the same cherry wood that dominated the room. Its deep, rich shine was so brilliant that Lauren could see her distorted reflection winking back at her when she looked at it. She immediately lifted her hand and ran her finger across it, smudging it with the same weird delight a kid gets when he rolls around in a pristine bank of even, white snow, happily making his mark by destroying its almost unnatural perfection.

A slender, matching dresser, nightstand with brass handles, and massive armoire flanked the bed. On the nightstand, in a cut crystal vase, sat two dozen long-stemmed, yellow roses, their gentle fragrance filling the room and mingling with the scent of wood polish. Long, cream-colored curtains that matched the impossibly soft comforter had been pulled open a few feet and tied with a gold sash, allowing the early evening’s moonlight to spill in through the frosty glass.

Her few boxes had been unpacked by White House staffers, after, of course, everything had been properly inspected, X-rayed, sniffed and scanned... and that included her Pug, Gremlin, who was scampering around her feet, trying furiously to jump up onto the too tall bed. Lauren was actually surprised the little dog didn’t glow by now.

"I must be dreaming, Gremlin." But, God, talk about pressure. "I hope I’m this good." Lauren blew pale golden hair off her forehead with a puff of warm air. An incredulous laugh bubbled up from inside her. "This is totally surreal." The fingertips of one hand idly grazed the satiny-soft top of the bed’s comforter, while she leaned over and scratched Gremlin behind the ears as the dog growled in pleasure.

Slate gray eyes flecked with blue and green widened when the woman peered down at her watch and realized that it was already time to meet Devlyn and be introduced to the President’s children. She wondered if they’d all be lined up like the Von Trapp family, awaiting inspection from their Commander in Chief. Ewww… I hope not. Lauren cringed. Plus, I can’t sing for crap.

She was a little nervous. Life as an only child hadn’t prepared her for dealing with kids. And always having your nose in a book when you were a child yourself, didn’t help make you Miss Popularity. Then again, she was pretty sure she wouldn’t do something embarrassing like lift up her shirt and show her boobies in exchange for two Hershey bars and the window seat on the school bus. Again. A grin tugged at her lips... of course that might depend on who was asking, and how good the candy was. She decided not to rule anything out for the time being.

The writer stood up and straightened the belt to her russet-colored slacks, sparing a wistful thought for the blue jeans she didn’t think she’d be seeing a lot of in the next four years. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she saw it. Should I? She thought for a moment then nodded. "I think we’ve got a minute, Grem. Let’s call him, huh?" Lauren chuckled. "Let’s just hope this doesn’t give Wayne that heart attack he’s been worrying over for the past five years. Because he is going to die when I tell him where I ended up staying."

The second shelf of the dark nightstand slid out, forming a small table, making the phone easily accessible from the bed, but still keeping it mostly hidden from view, so as not to spoil the decor of the room.

The blonde woman opened her mouth to give the voice command to ‘call’, but stopped when she got a good look at the smooth machine. It didn’t have a voice box on the top. "Huh." Must be a genuine old phone. Next she picked up the receiver and stared at the cord, pulling at it a few times and looking slightly annoyed. "Pain in the... okay, I can do it the hard way." She lifted the receiver and flipped it over to press the button pad, but there wasn’t one. In fact, there was no visible way to call anyone.

Suddenly, a genuine smile lit up Lauren’s face. "Hot damn, Gremlin." The dog finally took a running jump and was able to make it onto the bed. His tail wiggled furiously in victory, and his beady, black eyes fixed on the object in his mistress’ hand. "It’s the Bat Phone!"

A light knocking sound drew Lauren and Gremlin’s attention to the door. "Time to go meet the miniature humans. Wish me luck, boy." She waggled her finger at the mutt. "No… you can’t come." She almost ordered him off the beautiful comforter but shrugged instead. If she was going to live here, this would be Grem’s home too. And he’d be up there for bed tonight anyway. "Just be careful," she pleaded, straightening the pillow Gremlin had mashed in his excitement. "Martha Washington or somebody probably made that. And I don’t want to have to take out a loan to replace it."

The dog jumped to the edge of the bed to follow her, but hesitated when he looked down at the floor. He whined softly.

"Uh huh. Now you’re stuck, aren’t you?" Lauren laughed as she made her way to the door. "Serves you right."

She opened the door to find Michael Oaks standing there. Lauren was vaguely disappointed. Why was I expecting Devlyn? She looked over the slender black man’s shoulder. "What? No reinforcements this time?"

Michael stiffened at her reference to his visit to Nashville. "The Secret Service agent assigned to this hall is properly positioned at his post, Ms. Strayer. I assure you. I saw no reason to bring him to the door." He tucked his purple necktie deeper behind his suit coat. "You’re ready, I assume?"

"Yes…. err… no… just one minute." Lauren dashed back to the desk perched against the wall opposite the bed. Digging into a bag, she pulled out a camera and quickly slid in a fresh roll of film. She waited to click the cover closed before she spoke. "Now I’m ready."

"You can’t…" He pointed toward the camera. "That’s not…" he began to sputter.

Lauren arched an eyebrow. "Full access, Mr. Oaks. These will be for my own research purposes, not for publication. And I already have David McMillian’s full permission. Do you outrank him?" she asked innocently, inwardly chuckling.

"Well, umm… of course not." Michael’s frustration began to mount. "But…"

"Get over it." She looked back down at her watch. "We’re going to be late. Shall we continue to stand here and discuss it?" Lauren was fully aware of how much she was annoying the aide, and she was loving every minute of it.

He gave her a thin-lipped smile. Bitch. "So we are." He extended his arm, and Lauren brushed past him, closing the door behind her. She hadn’t taken two steps when a surprisingly loud, prolonged howl rang out from inside her room.

Gray eyes slid closed. Not now, Grem! Lauren bit her lip and turned back around to face Michael, who looked appalled. "I’m sorry," she apologized sincerely. "He’s not used to his surroundings yet. Let me go calm him down. Or I could bring him? We’re only going a few doors down to see the kids, right?"

"I’ll have a cage and muzzle delivered immediately."

Lauren stopped dead in her tracks and turned icy eyes on the well-dressed man. "You can order those things if you’d like. But they certainly won’t be for Gremlin," she ground out harshly.

"He can’t continue to howl like that."

Lauren’s hands moved to her hips. "Actually, he can."

"That’s unacceptable."

"I agree. I should go get him."

"No," Michael said flatly.

Lauren sighed. God, she was already tired of this person, and she’d only been living here for three hours! "The apartment I had all picked out before my plans changed, permitted pets. Gremlin is doing the best he can here."

"This isn’t an apartment complex."

"No, it’s not. And I don’t have a problem with calling the apartment manager and seeing if the place is still available," she shot back. "Look, Mr. Oaks, it isn’t as though there are a lot of options here. Either I leave him alone, and he howls. Or I bring him with me, and he’s quiet. Or I stay in the room with him for a little while and get him settled down, and he’s quiet. " Lauren crossed her arms over her chest defiantly. "Your call."

"Do you expect that… that thing is going to have the run of the White House?!" Michael was almost yelling now, his anger getting the best of him.

"No," Lauren answered evenly. "He’ll calm down soon. He’s used to traveling, but he’s only been here a few hours. Gremlin’s also been poked, scanned, prodded, and don’t even get me started on that glowing, bright green liquid they made him drink. Then they X-rayed him several times as though I had hidden a nuclear bomb in his Dog Chow! He’s only an animal. He can’t be expected to endure endless disruption and not react." With that, she marched back into the room and sat down next to Gremlin.

"I thought we had an appointment?" Dev poked her head into the room, acting as though she hadn’t heard the voices raised in anger. She had been waiting impatiently for Lauren and finally came to seek her out. Michael scampered out of Devlyn’s way.

Lauren jumped to her feet. "We did... I... I’m sorry..."

"No problem," the tall woman said casually, feeling a little guilty for her childish impatience. But all throughout the day her mind kept drifting to tonight. Well, tonight was here, dammit! She tilted her head toward the inside of the room. "Can we come in?"

Lauren nodded dumbly as Ashley, Christopher and Aaron raced in past their mother without giving the writer a second glance. They headed straight to Gremlin, who managed to jump to the floor with no problem whatsoever and began basking in their attention. "Faker," the blonde woman mumbled.

"I told you I heard a dog, Ash!" Aaron exclaimed excitedly, his hands fighting with the other children’s as Gremlin lay on his back, enjoying his belly scratching with orgasmic delight. He even groaned.

"I hope he didn’t disturb you." Lauren approached Dev, relieved beyond measure that she didn’t seem to be angry. "He’s only been here a couple of hours and wasn’t too happy about me leaving him so soon."

Dev smiled at her kids and spoke to Lauren without turning her head. "Why didn’t you just bring him along then?" God, I know they’re going to want their own dog now. Maybe I am the meanest mother since ‘Mommy Dearest’.

Lauren almost laughed. She looked past Dev to Michael, who was still hovering in the doorway. "Gee, what a great idea."

Michael turned on his heel and left in a huff, but by that time no one was paying any attention to him anyway.

"You look like you’re settling in," Dev commented. Actually, the room looked exactly the same as it always did, except for a few boxes sitting on the desk.

Lauren glanced around the room and gave a slight nod. "I am." She extended her hand toward the sofas. "Won’t you sit down?"

"Absolutely." Dev flashed Lauren a smile. "You know how much I love to relax. But I believe introductions are in order first." Both women looked down to find the children on the floor with the dog, giggling as he licked their fingers.

Without thinking, Lauren lifted her camera and crouched down, effortlessly snapping off several quick shots.

"I’m sorry." Dev sighed. "They were supposed to wait by me and be introduced."

"Please." Lauren waved a dismissive hand and chuckled, setting the camera on the coffee table. "If I were them, I’d be far more interested in Gremlin, too."

 

Oh, I don’t know about that. You seem pretty interesting to me. "Kids?" Dev raised her voice just a hair, and three sets of little eyes immediately snapped up.

"Uh oh," Ashley mumbled, pushing up to her feet. Christopher and Aaron quickly followed, although the youngest boy’s attention remained firmly divided between his mother and the dog.

"We forgot to wait at the door, Mom," Ashley admitted honestly, her toe twisting its way into the carpet.

"I know you did. We’ll work on that later," Dev promised, but the words were tempered by an indulgent smile. "Kids, this is Lauren Strayer. Ms. Strayer is going to be writing a book about my time as President. We talked about how she’s going to be staying with us for a while."

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Strayer," Ashley said politely, hoping she could make up for her earlier mistake. Her brothers just nodded.

Lauren smiled. "It’s nice to meet you, too." She’s a carbon copy of her mother, except for the brown eyes. She gestured toward the floor. "And you’ve already met Gremlin."

Christopher was smiling so broadly that Dev feared he would fracture his cheeks. He unconsciously pulled at the stems of his glasses, his gaze riveted to Lauren’s glasses.

Lauren caught his obnoxiously pleased look and laughed gently, moving over to the children. Gray eyes twinkled. "Yours are just like mine," she needlessly informed Chris.

Chris nodded, mesmerized.

Lauren chuckled again and ruffled hair the same color as her own.

The little boy’s face turned brick red, and he suddenly ran for Devlyn, burying his head in her legs.

Lauren blinked. "What did I…?"

"He’s just a little shy." Dev patted the boy’s back. "No worries," she assured, amused by the startled look that flickered across Lauren’s face. She hasn’t been around children. Oh, boy. This is going to be interesting.

Aaron walked over to Lauren and tugged on her pant leg, causing Lauren to drop to one knee so she was level with his bright blue eyes. "I have a very important question to ask you."

Lauren swallowed, suddenly apprehensive. "You do?"

He nodded solemnly. "Can we pet the dog again?"

Lauren burst out laughing. "Umm..." She had barely dipped her head into a nod when the kids, including Christopher, threw themselves down to the floor to pet Gremlin. Bemused, the blonde woman stared at her pet. She stuck out a tongue at the lounging dog. "Spoiled."

"I’d pay good money to any PR firm that could get me a greeting like that," Dev commented wryly.

"Oh, yeah."

Dev knelt down alongside Lauren. She held her hand out to the dog. "Why, hello... Jesus Christ!" She snatched her hand away when Gremlin growled unexpectedly, showing two rows of tiny, uneven teeth.

"No. That name was already taken," Lauren deadpanned.

Then, as though Gremlin didn’t have a care in the world, he yawned widely. His mouth clicked shut, and he innocently resumed playing with the children.

Lauren’s voice turned scolding as she glared at her four-legged friend. "Gremlin!" You are in so much trouble, you little shit. "I’m so sorry, Madam President."

"Devlyn, remember?"

Lauren ducked her head. "Right. And I am sorry. That’s so strange." Pale brows furrowed. "Grem loves everybody." Seeing Dev’s scowl, she realized how that must have sounded and added, "But he has had a really stressful day. But he’s totally, one hundred percent safe, I swear. He’s usually afraid of his own shadow."

Dev suddenly growled back at the dog and he jumped, scooting under the bed with a loud yelp just as fast as his tiny legs would take him. "Okay, I’ll buy that," Dev agreed amiably, quite pleased with herself. Mental note: consult David about finding the best dog bribes for dogs more chicken than canine, who obviously hate me.

Dev pushed herself to her feet, groaning. It had been a long day. And she’d been looking forward to relaxing. Reluctantly, she roused the kids. "I think we should give Ms. Strayer her privacy now."

"Don’t go," Lauren heard herself say, a little bewildered by the urgency in her own voice. She could feel her cheeks tingling with heat.

"Okay," Dev replied immediately, a grin forming. "Wanna chat while the kids play?"

Lauren nodded, and the women moved to the sofas. The younger woman sat down first, and Dev fought the urge to plop down next to her, moving to the opposite couch instead.

"That’s a pretty skirt." Lauren’s gaze swept down Dev’s legs. She should wear them more often. Fantastic legs. The thought might have been startling, but for the fact that it was so undeniably true.

Dev’s voice called her back to the moment, and now it was the President’s turn to blush as she picked nervously at the material. "Thanks." Devlyn rooted around in her pocket until her hand emerged holding a foil wrapper. A sweet aroma drifted toward the writer.

"Wanna share my Hershey Bar?" Dev passed over a piece of chocolate.

"Sure!" Lauren reached out happily. A Hershey Bar? Oh, boy. Thank God we’re not on a bus.

Continued - Chapter 2

 


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