I'd come home from the office last Saturday to find Sam's clothes missing from my closet and his toothbrush and towel gone from the bathroom. He'd left behind a bag of navel oranges in the fridge and the July 16th New Yorker on the nightstand -- the one with a cover shot of a spiky haired guy looking into a mirror as somebody walked out of the room behind him.
Now, the same issue was hanging partway off the table in Stanley's waiting room. The cartoon figure stared up at me, the lines across his forehead making him look almost wistful. All the muscles in my chest tensed, and I narrowed my eyes at him. I grabbed the magazine and shoved it underneath a coffee-stained copy of People.
I looked up.
Stanley's secretary smiled that fake smile everybody around a shrink's office seemed to feel obligated to wear. "Dr. Stone can see you now."
I shoved my hands into the pockets of my coat as I stood. Tension stabbed into my neck, and I tilted my head to one side to release it. I stopped just short of the open door to Stanley's office and drew in a long breath.
The back of Stanley's head greeted me as I walked in, sandy hair streaked with gray. I painted on a grin. "Hey."
He swiveled his chair around to face me. "Hello, Josh."
My gaze bounced off his. I turned away. "Did you move things around in here?"
"I turned my desk toward the window."
"It looks different. It looks good." The wooden paneling on the wall was rough against my fingers. A plant I couldn't remember seeing before was perched on a low table, stalks poking out at odd angles. "Was this plant here last week?"
"You didn't come in last week." His voice was level.
"Yeah. Right." The pressure on the back of my neck increased, and I reached up to rub at it. "I-- it's been crazy, with everybody trying to get ready. You know, for the hearings. You probably read about it the in the Post."
"You told me about it on the phone."
"Actually, I don't even know if you read the Post." I
steadied myself against the bookshelf, my
eyes scanning the titles.
Persuasion and Healing. On Becoming a Person. Man's Search
Meaning. "I've known you for, like, ten years, and I have no idea
whether you keep up with
current events outside of a fifty-minute hour
with me once a week. Isn't that a little weird?"
There was a conspicuous lack of response from behind me, and I swallowed. The hum of the radiator ground to a halt and sputtered into silence.
I turned around and met his gaze. "I really didn't have fifty minutes free last week."
Stanley nodded slowly and folded his hands against his lap.
My eyes narrowed. "I mean, it's not as if I've never missed a session because of something that came up at the office."
He shrugged. "Of course."
I looked him over. I couldn't tell whether he was playing with me. I walked over and sat down on the edge of the couch, my back rigid. "So, I've been thinking. I started coming in again because the other Stanley said I had to see somebody. You know, as a condition of keeping my job."
Stanley raised an eyebrow.
"What is it with you guys all being named Stanley, anyway?" I curled my lip into a smirk. "It's like, if I'm sitting on somebody's couch, he must be a Stanley."
I waited for his reaction, but his expression remained neutral.
The smirk drained from my face, and I coughed. "Anyway, I know it started out like that, but I've been here every week since then. It's been almost a year." I leaned forward and gripped my legs near my knees. "And I guess I'm-- I think I'm done. I'm really-- I feel fine. I mean, you said yourself you thought I was doing better."
He gave me a long look. "That's right, I did."
I waved a hand. "No offense, but I just think I should be spending that extra hour at the office. If I don't, you know, need this anymore. And I don't," I added quickly. I gripped the arm of the couch and jumped up, not looking at him. "We've been over the shooting a thousand times," I said, pacing. "We've gone through the anniversary, we've talked about what happened to Joanie. And it just feels like there's nothing left to say."
My fingers twitched, and I spun around to look at him.
"Isn't that supposed to be a good thing? I mean, you weren't thinking I was gonna be doing this forever, right? 'Cause you're a nice guy and all, but if we're just going to keep going over the same old stuff, I can do that on my own time."
He sat back in his chair, eyebrows raised.
I scowled at him. A fist clenched at my side. "I'm doing better. I don't even think about this stuff anymore except when I'm in here. There's nothing left for me to work on."
"There's nothing left for you to work on."
His voice was calm. It was one of those patented shrink statements where he sounded like he was agreeing with you, but you just knew there was more to it than that. My jaw jutted forward. "Damn right there's not!"
I drew in a breath. Stanley continued to watch me, letting the sharp edges of my words hang in the air between us. I felt my shoulders sag and shoved my hands into my pockets again.
He tilted his head toward the couch, his fingers folded against each other. "Why don't you sit back down, Josh? You've got at least forty-five minutes left of that fifty-minute hour."
I let myself sink against the couch, and my fingers wrapped around fake leather. "I really have been thinking for a while now that we were wrapping things up," I said, my voice quieter this time.
"I've thought so, too," he admitted.
I threw my arms out to my sides. "Then what are we arguing about?"
He held up a cautioning hand. "I *have* thought so, Josh, but today I'm not as sure. Has something happened?"
I rolled my eyes. "We're preparing the President for a Congressional ambush that's supposed to start in just over two weeks. My former roommate's old girlfriend -- who, incidentally is now working for the Women's Leadership Coalition -- is on our asses about some prostitution clause in a UN treaty. We're looking at a potential agricultural disaster in Nebraska that would make the Florida wildfires look like my grandmother's garden in a dry summer. I work at the White House, Stanley, something's always happening."
"I meant something personal, Josh. Has something happened to you?"
"You know, if the President gets impeached, it's going to be personal for everybody in this whole country."
"I'm talking about--"
"What makes you think guys in my position even get to have a personal life, anyway?" My voice cracked, caught on the knot of guilt trapped somewhere between my throat and my chest. I looked away and tried to swallow it down. My throat was raw. I forced my gaze back.
Stanley tilted his head, staring at me as if he could see clear through to the wall behind me. He pressed his lips together and leaned in closer. Just enough. "Josh, we've worked through a lot of things that have been extremely difficult for you to talk about. What is it that you can't say now?"
I froze. It was literally impossible for me to tell some shrink who kept written records that I'd been sleeping with a guy. Especially now that it was over. Absolutely over. The Soviet Union wasn't as over as this. Nausea welled in my stomach, and nerves pricked like pins at the back of my eyes.
"There's-- you know there are things I can't tell you," I said, keeping my voice even. Stanley lifted his chin, and I shook my head. "I know, I know, but your-- your confidentiality thing doesn't mean jack when it comes to the White House. There are certain things I just can't say. To anyone." I gave him a long, earnest look. "I swear I'm not hiding anything. I mean, I'm not hiding anything you need to know to, like, do your job."
His gaze didn't waver, and his lips were pressed together in a thin, resigned line. He didn't believe me. I balled two fists against my legs. I leaned back.
The lines around his eyes finally softened. "Okay, Josh." He looked away. "You have my number. If you find that things aren't as wrapped up as all that, give me a call." He swiveled his chair back to face his desk.
My knees buckled slightly as I stood. I hovered for a moment too long by the couch, but he didn't turn back around. I buttoned my coat and walked toward the door, shooting one last look back at him. He was sorting through a stack of pink phone message slips.
Leaving the door open a crack, I stepped into the hall and glanced at my watch. Forty extra minutes. I let out a breath and pointed myself toward the elevator.
In the forty-five minutes since I'd
left Stanley's office, the sky had turned from pale blue to black.
street lights were dim enough that I could barely make out the letters on
silver plaque off to
the side of the glass door: Women's Leadership
Coalition. I spread my hand flat against the door
and pushed it open.
"Eleanor Roosevelt," I tried again, turning to face Amy.
She tossed her head back, and her hair spread across her shoulders. "I heard you the first time." The door swung closed behind her, silencing the stream of Dupont Circle traffic.
"Between redefining the role of the First Lady and drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, she made time to speak to the United Nations about what?" I stopped walking and leaned toward her, trying to catch her eye. "Decriminalizing prostitution."
She lifted her bag to her shoulder and barreled past me to the elevator, her heels clicking against the tile floor. "Are you telling me you're in favor of decriminalizing prostitution? Because I have a hunch that might not go over too well with your boss." She pressed the button.
"I'm just saying this issue isn't as black and white as you people want to make it out to be," I said to the side of her head. She untied her scarf and glanced at me in the mirrored elevator doors. "You know, Dutch prostitutes pay income tax and collect social security. And in Amsterdam they have to apply to city council for an operating license."
"In Amsterdam they eat raw herring with onions," she said, her voice level as she looked away.
I resisted a smile. "Amy--"
"Look, you want to talk about the Dutch situation with me?" She spun around, her nostrils flaring. "In four of their major cities, including Amsterdam, at least eighty percent of the prostitutes are foreigners. Seventy percent of those have no immigration papers. You know what that means?"
"They were probably trafficked," I admitted. She was quick. Quicker than I remembered.
"So much for a ban on pimping," she said, throwing up her hands. Her coat fell open, and there was a flash of silver at her neck. "Trafficking from Central and Eastern European countries to the Netherlands has tripled since 1990. Tripled. Do you know what it suggests about a job if the majority of the people doing it are illegal immigrants?"
"You can say the same thing about garbage collectors," I said. "I haven't heard about any Dutch women crying foul when big burly Moroccan guys come to their houses with trucks."
Spots of red splashed across her cheekbones. "These women sit in shop windows that look out onto the street, and they pose on threadbare couches while they wait for buyers to come along. They have sex with their johns in the same beds they sleep in at night. Many of them don't have access to showers or kitchens. They work between twelve and seventeen hours a day, sometimes granting their 'favors' to more than twenty guys one right after the other, just to make what amounts to a few hundred dollars."
I raised an eyebrow. "That last part sounds an awful lot like my job, actually."
She gave me a dismissive snort, but I could see a glint of amusement in her eyes. "Have you ever been to the Netherlands, J?"
A memory flashed across my mind. A younger and somewhat rounder Amy Gardner stood in the kitchen of the Yale apartment I'd shared with Chris, one hand planted on her hip. Long brown hair was piled high on her head with one of those clip things they had back in the eighties. When I'd known her back then, I'd never worked on a national campaign. I hadn't even met Sam. Amy was all angles now, but no less arrogant. And apparently waiting for me to say something. "What?" I stammered.
"Have you ever been to the Netherlands?"
"I changed planes at Schiphol once on my way home from ..." My forehead creased. "Why are you calling me that?"
"What? Special J?" Her shoulders raised in a shrug, but the corner of her mouth turned up, and her eyes crinkled around the edges. "I've always called you that."
A tingle raced down my spine. She was flirting with me. "It's a little distracting."
"Distracting." She smirked.
"Yeah. It makes me feel like-- like I should be cramming for a torts midterm."
"Is that why you haven't managed to come up with a decent argument in more than twenty minutes?"
The elevator doors slid open, and I followed her inside. I reached across her and pushed the button for the third floor, my arm grazing hers. A stray hair slid down across her cheek, and the spice of her perfume floated up to my nose. "I'm sorry I disappointed you," I said. My voice was low, with just the slightest edge of sarcasm.
"I just expect better from my favorite late-night sparring partner." Her smile was playful. She didn't step back.
I cocked my head at her. "I'd have thought that would have been Chris."
"Chris was too busy trying to get me in bed to argue about anything."
"If I remember correctly, he succeeded. Frequently." For almost a year, I'd come home from the library every night to find my roommate's bedroom door closed and muffled moans emerging from behind it. I swallowed. It occurred to me that I was staring at her. She was grinning, and I grinned back.
"So. You're going to look at some alternate language."
"Yeah. Our guys are gonna talk to the Undersecretary for Global Affairs. And Regina Pierce."
"Good." She shook her head. "Tell me again why we're still talking about this?"
I raised my eyebrows at her. "Because that doesn't mean you're right."
The elevator doors opened. Amy tugged at both ends of her scarf as she stepped into the lobby. "J--"
"Forget, for a second, that it's a women's issue." I shoved my hands in my pockets. "The law isn't a deterrent. Prostitutes advertise in the yellow pages."
The woman behind the front desk held Amy's mail out, and she grabbed it as she passed. "J."
"Aren't we just serving to create more criminals in a criminal environment?"
She marched ahead of me, paging through the stack of letters. "Josh?"
"Why did you come here?" She turned a piece of junk mail over in her hand and kept walking.
I just got back from dumping my shrink, and your office was on the way back to the White House. No, not quite. "To tell you about the thing," I said, following her down the hall that led to her office. A tall, scary-looking woman brushed past me.
Amy looked back at me. "The UN?"
"I didn't know that." I ran my tongue along the inside of my cheek.
"Why didn't you call?"
"Why didn't you call me on the phone?"
Amy handed the stack of mail to her secretary and headed into her office. I followed her. "Your office is on the way home."
"It's five o'clock." She set her bag down on a chair and turned around to look at me.
She pulled her coat over her shoulders and tossed it on top of the bag. Her eyes met mine and held them. I tried not to squirm. "You go home at five o'clock?"
The flimsy black fabric of her sweater clung to the edges of her figure. I swallowed. "I just stopped by."
Her chin turned up slightly as if to challenge me, and she walked over to her desk and flicked on a light. She picked up a piece of paper and turned her back to me. A sliver of white skin peeked out between her sweater and the top of her pants. "Are you dating your assistant?"
I blinked. "No."
She turned around and sat back against the corner of her desk. "I heard you might be."
Two weeks ago I probably would have let her think that. These days, there was no reason to. My chest muscles twisted into a knot. "I'm not."
"She's my assistant," I said quickly.
"Are you dating Joey Lucas?"
"No." That was all of the truth I needed to tell her.
Amy tilted her head at me. "She's not your assistant."
"I know." I smiled.
Her forehead wrinkled. She gave me one of those long looks people give you when they're trying to size you up and not even bothering to hide it. I kept smiling. "You know the thing?" she said finally, shaking the piece of paper at me. "With guys like you?"
Guys like me. That was just the sort of thing Sam would have said, his eyes flashing with righteous anger and his mouth set in a disapproving line. The knot of guilt tightened in my chest, and I shook my head. "Why are we talking about this?"
Amy lowered herself into her chair. "'Cause you stopped by."
A smile teased the corner of her mouth, and suddenly I knew this was anything but righteous anger. She was perched there behind her desk, her eyes toying with me like she was some kind of panther ready to pounce. I could feel the goosebumps pimpling across my arms underneath my coat. "I'm a visible guy," I tried. "People say things about me. People write things. And what I do reflects on the President."
Her face spread wide in a Cheshire-cat grin. "Nice save."
"I didn't make that up."
She tapped the edge of the piece of paper against her desk. "Okay," she said, her voice laced with skepticism. Her eyes fixed on me with a mixture of challenge and curiosity. My heart stuttered.
"What's the thing about guys like me?" I sat down in the chair behind her desk.
"What's the thing with guys like me?"
An echo of my own smile danced across her lips. "You wanna get hit over the head?"
A wave of excitement rose in my chest. "I have to go," I said, scrambling to my feet.
Watching Amy over my shoulder, I headed for the door, but her gaze never wavered. Her secretary peered over the edge of her computer monitor at me as I walked out. "Have a good night," I said, unable to suppress a grin.
The elevator was packed with people heading home, and I squeezed in between a tall black guy and a girl with a tight ponytail and thick glasses. My cell phone buzzed against my leg. I wrestled it loose from my pocket, raising my voice over the hiss of static. "Josh Lyman."
"You're coming back in, right?" Donna's voice was pinched with tension.
"Yeah." I trapped the phone between my chin and my shoulder and buttoned my coat, stabbing the glasses-wearing girl in the ribs with my elbow. "Excuse me," I mumbled.
"Colleen needs your signature on that thing she was waving in your face earlier, but she wants you to look over some of the language first. Becky Reeseman's sending an aide by with those files on the welfare reform bill. You got a call from Senator Burford's office. He wants to push back your 8:00 tomorrow morning to 8:30. Oh, and Sam wants to talk to you."
A breath caught somewhere between my mouth and my lungs. "Sam wants to talk to me?"
"Something to do with seat belts, and how it's going to play on the campaign trail."
The elevator opened. I rubbed the back of my neck as I stepped into the lobby. "If-- if he's worried about the campaign, you should send him to Bruno."
"Is that what you want me to tell Sam?"
"Yeah," I said automatically, and then held up a hand. "Wait, no. No. I'll talk to him." The hand balled into a fist.
"Is somebody really suing the President? Sam says somebody's suing the President." A muffled voice on the other end said something to Donna, and she murmured a response.
"Sam didn't make it sound like nothing," Donna insisted. "Sam says that with the hearings in just a couple of weeks, this isn't the time to be inviting negative press attention." My stomach jolted. Why did she keep saying his name? I pushed the door open and walked outside. A bus squealed to a stop just in time to avoid hitting a pedestrian, and the driver honked his horn. "Where are you, anyway?"
My hand was still on the door. The silver plaque off to the side of it read Women's Leadership Coalition. "I'm standing outside the-- I'm, ah, at Connecticut and Dupont Circle."
"Well, get back in here, you've got stuff to do."
I let the door swing closed behind me and stuffed the stray edges of my scarf into my coat. "You know, I know plenty of guys who would fire their assistants for talking to them like that."
"Lucky for me you're not one of those guys." The phone went dead with a click, and I slid it into the pocket of my coat.
I lifted my chin and scanned the street. A navy blue Buick, a silver Pontiac, a yellow cab. "Taxi!" I yelled, holding up a hand, and my step quickened.
A loud splat against the sidewalk next to me sent my heart pounding, and I jumped to the side to dodge a large falling object. Droplets of water splashed across my shoes. "What the hell?" I turned around and stared at the pavement. Tiny blue scraps of rubber cringed against themselves, curling into tiny loops at the center of a widening stain.
"It was a water balloon," Amy's voice called out, and my head jerked up. She was standing on a balcony on the second floor, her hands resting against the railing.
This woman was clearly insane. "What are you, fifteen years old? You almost hit me in the head!"
She grinned, her eyes dancing. You wanna get hit over the head?
A guy in a bomber jacket glanced first at the sidewalk as he walked past, then up at me, then twisted his neck around to glance up at Amy. He shot me a grin of approval and looped his arm through the arm of the girl next to him. She looked me up and down with puzzled amusement.
I tilted my head up at Amy again. Apparently, this was the difference between playing with somebody who went strictly by the rules, and playing with somebody who tossed the rulebook out the car window and ran over it on her way to the game. She took a step back toward the sliding glass door behind her, waving.
The steady ticking of the clock on my office wall cut straight through the silence. Tomorrow the halls of the West Wing would be full of White House staffers trying to pack two days' worth of work into one, but right now they were empty, and my head filled with all the things I didn't normally let myself dwell on. Like the fact that I had no idea what city Sam was in. I tapped a pen against my desk, frowning. I knew where he was whenever he traveled for work; somebody always brought it up in a meeting even if he didn't mention it to me. But now it was Christmas morning, and I had no idea whether he'd gone home to L.A., stayed in the District, or was spending the holiday in Bermuda.
I shifted in my seat. Last year he'd stayed in Washington. Last year he'd been with me. He'd burned scrambled eggs in my kitchen and pretended he wasn't watching me out of the corner of his eye as I passed out from the medication they'd given me at the hospital. The frantic look on his face had been awful, but even that was better than the disillusionment that had been there lately. I swallowed, tracing the ridge of my eyebrows with my thumb and forefinger.
Amy Gardner was the type to be sitting in her office on Christmas morning. She wouldn't let the whole holiday thing keep her from getting that extra edge on everybody else. I eyed the black telephone perched on the front edge of my desk, and suddenly my hand was wrapped around the receiver, my finger dialing the number I'd memorized more than two weeks ago.
Her cell phone rang three times before she picked up. "Okay, there's only one guy from the White House who's crazy enough to call me at 9:30 on Christmas morning."
"Good morning, Ms. Gardner, this is President Bartlet," I said, booming out a greeting.
"Special J." Her voice hovered somewhere between pleased and amused.
"You know, this caller ID thing has got to go," I grumbled. "It wasn't all that long ago that you could still surprise somebody with a phone call."
"Well, I have to say that of all the people who I expected to hear from today, you weren't exactly at the top of my list."
It was a question, but not a challenge. Behind the sharp tone was something softer. She was happy to hear from me. I grabbed the phone off my desk, tugging at the cord until I could set the base on my lap. "I just wanted to say Merry Christmas."
My mouth quirked, and I swiveled my chair around to face the window. "Yeah, but I approve of any holiday that's about free cookies."
"Hey, I heard about what happened at the hearings. Congratulations on getting some time to breathe."
"Thanks," I said, rubbing the back of my neck. Leo'd really been backed into a corner, but in a turn of events that had surprised everybody, the chairman of Government Oversight had called a holiday recess just as Congressman Gibson had been about to ask about Leo's tumble off the wagon the night of the third debate. "We've got two weeks. They start up again on January fifth."
"Bet Leo's relieved."
My head jerked up. Nobody knew what was behind Gibson's line of questioning besides the Congressman, me, the President, and of course Leo himself. Amy may have been up on the latest Washington gossip, but this was one story she hadn't heard. "It's been pretty brutal," I said carefully. "But Leo can handle it."
"Well, this way he gets to put it out of his mind until after the holidays."
"Yeah," I said, and almost laughed in spite of myself. If I could still remember the rancid mix of mouthwash and alcohol on his breath almost three years later, Leo was probably incapable of thinking about anything else right now. A sudden thump sounded on the other end of the line, followed by the rush of water. "Ah, what was that?"
"What was what?"
"It sounded like-- like running water."
"That was my dishwasher."
So she wasn't in the office. I closed my eyes, but the only apartment I could picture was the place back in New Haven. The ugly green countertops had been stacked high with pizza boxes, and the built-in dishwasher had mostly gone unused. "Doesn't dirtying enough dishes to use your dishwasher require cooking? You used to set off the smoke alarm by boiling water."
She snorted. "I'll have you know I made dinner for eight people last night."
"Yeah? What kind of people?"
"Important people," she said, her voice defiant.
I chuckled. "So you spent Christmas Eve eating a home-cooked meal with a bunch of important people, but you're sitting at home alone on Christmas morning."
"I'm *working* from home on Christmas morning, J. At least give me some credit."
I twisted the phone cord around my finger. "Do you at least have, like, a Yule log or something?"
"No, do you?" she shot back.
A grin spread wide across my face. "That's a pretty personal question, don't you think?"
A quiet cough from behind me sent me straight out of the chair, and the phone clattered to the floor. I gripped the back of my chair and spun around. Sam was standing in the doorway, wearing a gray woolen coat and a blank expression. "Ah, hi," I managed, my heart racing.
"Hi." He ducked his head down, pressing his chin to his chest. "Um. I didn't want you to assume you were alone."
I felt my face flush. "Yeah." Keeping my eyes on him, I felt around on the floor for the phone and curled my hand around the receiver. I raised it to my ear again.
"Hello?" Amy was saying. "J?"
"I'm here," I said, my voice weak with embarrassment.
"You dropped the phone." She was laughing.
"Ah, yeah," I stammered, still watching Sam. He pointed at himself and then behind him into the hallway, his face questioning. I shook my head, holding up a hand. "Listen, I've got to go."
"Don't tell me you called on Christmas morning just to mock my cooking," Amy said.
I rubbed my forehead. "I'll call you back. I've really got to--"
"Later," she said, and hung up.
I replaced the receiver in its cradle and set it back on my desk. The ticking of the clock grew louder in the sudden silence, and Sam shifted his weight from one leg to the other. I opened my mouth to say something, but my thoughts were so thick in my mind that I couldn't pick out a single one.
His eyes fell to the floor. "I didn't mean to interrupt anything."
"You didn't," I said quickly. Too quickly.
He looked up again. "I actually just wanted to ask you if you had the transcript from Sunday's testimony."
"I think Donna's got a copy." I scrambled to my feet and pointed at the door. "You need me to break into her office?"
"I'll get it from Bonnie tomorrow," he said, shaking his head. "Thanks." He turned to leave.
My fingers itched with the frantic impulse to reach out and grab him by the shoulders, to tell him not to leave yet. "You didn't go home," I blurted.
"What?" he asked, catching the doorframe and pulling himself back into view.
I sat back down. "For Christmas. You didn't go to California."
He shrugged. "My mom decided that sitting on a beach in the Caribbean was an improvement over staring at her living room walls and a plastic Christmas tree."
"There's a lot of that going around this year," I said, relaxing my shoulders a little. "Leo stayed in town, too."
I cracked a smile. "Though from what Donna says, he didn't exactly spend last night alone. She seems to think he's got a thing with his lawyer."
"I heard that, too," he said, throwing a quick glance into the hallway. Like he was planning an escape route.
Another silence settled over the room, a weight pressing against my chest. We had to find a way to at least talk to each other. "What did you want with the transcript?" I attempted.
He shrugged. "I just thought I'd have a look at it. I guess I figured somebody should try to figure out why they called a recess in the middle of Gibson's testimony." The corners of his eyes twitched. "Unless ..."
His gaze probed mine. "Unless you know."
"You think I've got some secret insight into the psychological makeup of Congressional Republicans?" I tried to sound playful, but it came out defensive.
His mouth set. "Well, I know you know something. You sent me to find somebody. You wanted Gibson out of that room. And you refused to tell me why."
"It's not my story to tell, Sam." My fingers clutched at the arms of my chair. "Yes. Okay. I know something about Leo that you don't know. No, I'm not going to tell you what it is. But I don't know why Joe Bruno cut Gibson off before he could bring it up at the hearing, and if I did, I wouldn't have any reason to keep that from you." His cheeks hollowed in that weird, pinched way that made him look about ten years older, and I winced. This was so much harder than arguing with Amy. "Why do you care why they did it, anyway? Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes the good guys win."
He gestured in the air with an open palm. "We didn't *win*, Josh. Whatever they've got on Leo isn't going to go away over a two-week recess. What if they're planning some bombshell and just needed some time to regroup? We should be ready for that. And if you know something that--"
"I don't know anything!" I threw up my arms and sprang to my feet again. "I have absolutely no idea why the recess was called. Okay?"
"I don't even know why I asked," he said. His words were staccato, almost robotic in their precision. "I mean, it's not like I expect you to tell me things."
"I tell you things!" I yelled.
He let out a chuckle so cynical that it sent a shudder down my spine. "Right."
I stared at him. When we'd kept the drop-in on the GDC speech from him, Sam had raged for two days. When he'd found out about his father's infidelity, it had put a rift between the two of them that their relationship would probably never recover from. When he'd been the last to know about the President's condition, he'd almost quit on the spot. Today, though, he just looked tired. Tired and jaded. And nobody was more responsible for that than me.
I sat down again, grabbing the edge of my desk for support. Say something. Say something, dammit. "I, ah. I kind of met somebody," I blurted.
Sam winced almost too quickly for me to catch it, but a second later his face was tight again. I caught a breath. Definitely the wrong thing to say, there. He raised a questioning eyebrow, and I knew I couldn't back out now.
I swallowed and went on. "I mean, I didn't-- I've actually known her a long time. She went out with Chris Wick back when we were roommates. It's Amy Gardner."
I nodded. "From the WLC."
"I thought Amy Gardner was engaged to some Congressman. Tandy."
"What?" John Tandy was the kind of guy who didn't talk to his drycleaner without calculating how it would play in the polls. Amy wouldn't have gone anywhere near him. "Wait, who told you that?"
He shrugged. "I hear things."
"If she is seeing Tandy, it's not serious," I said. "And there's no way they're engaged."
I searched his expression for any sort of reaction, but it was still wooden. "I really like her," I insisted.
I leaned toward him. "I guess I kind of-- I wanted to know what you thought."
He laughed. It was the empty laugh of somebody like Leo or Toby, somebody who'd already made several all-expenses-paid trips to hell and back. It didn't sound a thing like Sam. "You don't want to know what I think," he said.
I swallowed. "Yeah, I do."
"No, you really don't." When his eyes met mine, they were steel. "I think that even though Leo hasn't dated in thirty years, of the two guys around here spending Christmas morning flirting with a woman, he's still the one who's more likely to make it work."
Nausea gripped my stomach, as if he'd punched me. My jaw slid forward. "Are you saying you don't think I know how to have a good relationship?"
He tilted his head at me. "I think you *think* you know how to have a good relationship."
"But you don't think I do." My voice was brittle. I hated it.
There was no hostility on his face, just a layer of sadness so thick I couldn't even begin to cut through it. "The evidence pretty much speaks for itself, doesn't it?"
His words were quiet, but they hit me like a fist. I flinched, and my gaze fell to the desk, landing on the phone. By the time I could make myself look back up, he was gone.
I glanced at my watch, calculating. I'd last seen Amy over by the bar a little after midnight. Tandy had still been engaged in a very public discussion with Leo half an hour later, so chances were she hadn't gone home with him. My footsteps echoed against the concrete walls as I stepped into the White House parking garage, and I let my mind flash back to the moment when Tandy had dragged her off to pose as his trophy girlfriend in a picture with the President. The look she'd given me had been positively sizzling. Yeah, she was wavering.
I stopped just short of my car and pulled out my keys. "Hey, Josh," came Ed's voice from behind me. "Heading out?"
I turned around. Ed and Larry were standing just behind my car, dressed in identical brown trench coats. "Yep. You too?"
"Toby sent us home early," Larry explained.
I peered at him. "It's almost two in the morning."
A tired smile crossed his face. "These days that feels like a night off."
"It was a great speech," I said, pointing at them. "Chuck Wheeler from the Associated Press said that was the kind of State of the Union they make you read in rhetoric classes."
"Thanks," Ed said with a nod.
Larry shoved his hands into his pockets. "It was all Sam and Toby."
My gaze jumped between them. They'd both been there all night, and Larry had exchanged a few words with Amy at one point. Right after she'd told me not to talk to her for the thousandth time. "Hey, ah." I propped myself up casually against the hood of my car. "You guys don't happen to know when Amy Gardner left the party, did you?"
Larry looked at me blankly. "Amy Gardner?"
I held up a level hand to indicate her height. "About this tall, dark hair, little black dress."
"You just described half the women in the room tonight," he said, shrugging.
Ed cocked his head at me. "But if you mean the woman from the WLC you were shadowing all evening, she left with Congressman Tandy about an hour ago."
My fingers curled around the metal rim along the car door. I looked down at the car, feeling my teeth clench. So much for wavering.
"You know who must have left really early, though?" he continued, pointing at Larry. "Sam. He disappeared right after we got the numbers. With that woman."
I dropped my arm, and my hand closed into a fist at my side. Larry gave Ed an uncomprehending look. "What woman?" he asked.
Ed waved his finger in the air. "That New York lawyer. Pretty. Lisa somebody."
My shoulders slumped, and I let out a sigh. "Lisa Seppala."
"That's it," Ed said, turning back toward me.
"You think she's pretty?" The words were out of my mouth before I could bite them back.
His eyebrows rose slightly. "You don't?"
I gave him what I hoped was a casual shrug. "I guess if you like that type."
Ed let out a laugh. "What's not to like about skinny, blonde, and rich?"
I slid the key into the lock and swung the car door open, trying to echo his smile around gritted teeth. "See you guys tomorrow."
"Bye," Larry said with a wave and continued on toward his car.
Ed followed him. "See you."
I settled into the driver's seat. Even I had to admit that Lisa had looked pretty terrific tonight. Sam hadn't left her side once; he'd even brought her into the back room with him to hear Joey's announcement about the numbers. I swallowed and started the car. Van Morrison came blasting through the speakers. "It's all in the game, all in the wonderful game that we know as love," he sang, and a sour laugh flew off my lips. I flicked off the CD player and drove out onto the street in silence.
Snowflakes pelted against my windshield, and I flicked on the wipers to clear them. Lisa may have looked pretty terrific, but for once in his life, Sam hadn't. I frowned. He'd actually looked like somebody had ground him into the carpet along with the White House dust bunnies.
"He was tired," I said aloud to the empty car. He'd worked his ass off, and he'd finally managed to dig us out of the hole the MS thing had left us in. Of course he'd been tired.
I stopped at a red light and clutched the bottom of the wheel. After the last two States of the Union, he'd been just as exhausted, but his triumphant smile had always won out over two months of fourteen-hour days. This time he'd looked completely defeated. Like he couldn't believe his own words anymore. I pushed a sigh out through pinched lips.
There was about an inch of snow on the ground by the time I pulled into the parking space half a block from my apartment. I locked my car and walked slowly along the sidewalk, my feet tracing their outlines over somebody else's footprints. If Sam gave up, the rest of us were probably tobogganing in hell. I shoved my hands deep into my pockets and kicked at the snow, watching it scatter across the high-heeled prints in the snow that turned and led up to my door.
I stopped. The footprints led up to my door.
I looked up. Huddled against the concrete, her legs pressed tightly to her chest to block the wind, was Amy Gardner. Thick snowflakes had settled on her coat and sent specks of white across her hair. She ran her hands along her legs. A brief look of uncertainty crossed her face.
I felt myself start to grin. This was twice now that I'd come home to find her on my steps. Definitely wavering.
Careful not to look at her again, I pushed past her up the steps and shoved my key into the lock. Behind me her coat rustled as she pulled herself to her feet and brushed herself off. "Aren't you even going to say hello?" she said, her voice dark with annoyance.
I turned around. Damp strands of hair hung in her eyes. "I thought I wasn't supposed to talk to you," I said.
She snorted. I turned back toward the door, holding it open for her. She hesitated, and I tilted my head toward it, insisting. She glared at me as she stepped into the entryway.
"So how was the photo-op with Tandy and the President?" I taunted.
"It's Congressman Tandy." She shuffled along beside me. "And he was very apologetic. It was short and sweet and over in five minutes."
I turned toward her, smirking, as we reached the door to my apartment. "Are you describing a photo shoot in the Mural Room or--"
"I asked him about it," she said, cutting me off. She leaned in closer, and her coat fell open, exposing a patch of bare skin at her chest. "I asked him why he wanted me there."
"I suppose you're probably going to tell me what his answer was." I opened the door and stepped inside.
She closed the door behind us. "He said he thinks of us as a team."
I could just see him saying that, all mock sincerity. I cackled, prying off my wet shoes with the ball of my foot.
Amy's eyes narrowed. "He said he was bewildered that I might assume his motivations were political."
"Bewildered." I tossed my coat across the back of the couch.
Amy slipped out of her own coat and spread it across mine, covering it completely. Her dress clung to her chest. "Not that it's any of your business, but he couldn't stop looking at me when he was driving me home. He almost ran a red light."
I swallowed back the smile that had crossed my lips, and traced the outline of her figure with my eyes. "I'm sure he did," I said earnestly.
"The man adores me, J. He's not using me."
"Okay." I nodded. "He's not using you. But you know, I can't help but notice that you didn't invite him inside when he dropped you at home."
She raised her eyebrows. "What would you say if I told you I was using him?"
I blinked. "Ah, I'd say you had the wrong tool for the job."
She let out a long laugh and planted both hands on her hips. Turning around slowly, she let her eyes roam around the room, surveying her surroundings as if to stake out territory. She reached up and shook her wet hair with one hand. Her dress was pulled up almost to the line of her panties in the back, and there was a stain where she'd been sitting on the wet steps.
She turned back toward me. "You think you're so smart."
"You have to admit, I'm not exactly the village idiot."
"Yeah, well, your ass is a lot smarter than the rest of you," she said, and a grin spread across my face. She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and it sprang back out and settled against her cheek. She shook her head. "I don't even know what I'm doing here."
I took a step toward her. "I think I do."
She shot me a coy smile and turned away. She escaped into the kitchen, and a moment later I could hear a trickle of water splattering against the metal in the sink.
"It was a good speech tonight," she called out.
I followed her, pausing where the hardwood floor turned to tile. Amy was leaning over the sink, running her hands under the water. "Yeah, it was," I said. She turned off the faucet and shook her hands dry.
"C.J. told me about Joey Lucas's numbers." She opened the door to the fridge, glanced inside, and then closed it again. "So soon after the censure, that's pretty impressive. It's got to be a real boost for Sam and Toby."
I leaned against the counter. "It's a real boost for the President."
Peering at me out of the corner of one eye, she opened the drawer next to the fridge and rummaged through it. "Sam wrote a lot of this one, right?" She grabbed a bottle opener and held it up.
Tension stabbed into my shoulders. "What makes you say that?"
"Are you saying he didn't?" Her eyes were still on me. She opened the fridge again.
"I don't usually pay much attention to what goes on in Communications," I said carefully.
Amy set the a beer bottle on the counter and pried the cap off. "Well, he did. That speech was vintage Seaborn."
The bottle was tall and brown, and the label had the wrinkled face of a dog on the front. It was the Lagunitas Pale Ale Sam had brought back from California that night. That night.
Amy raised the bottle to her lips and took a sip, and my stomach twisted. "Hey." I stepped toward her. "Don't-- don't drink that, okay?"
"Afraid I'll accuse you of trying to get me drunk?" Licking her lips, she boosted herself up onto the counter and waved the bottle at me.
I planted a hand next to her on the counter and reached for it. "I mean it."
She turned away, jerking the bottle just out of my reach, and glanced at the label. "Six point five percent. No, sorry, I can't leave something this potent in your fridge. You could hurt yourself."
"How many beers did you have that night you almost fell out of the living room window?" She shook the bottle, and a few drops splattered onto my arm and her lap. "Three?"
I stepped back. "Ah, the night I did what?"
"That night after first-term finals were over? Chris took the screen out and you guys spent half the night leaning out onto the street singing 'We Are the Champions.' Almost got us all arrested." She stared at me, smirking. "You don't remember that." She shook her head. "Yeah, see, this is definitely too strong for you." Lifting the bottle to her mouth again, she took another swig.
My chest clenched. "No, really. Don't-- I've got a couple of Coronas in here." I walked over to the fridge and pulled out a pair of clear glass bottles. I held them up, one in each hand.
She lifted the bottle of Lagunitas in the air as if to make a toast, and touched it to her lips again. Eyes closed, she drained it, her throat bobbing up and down as she swallowed. She smacked the empty bottle against the counter, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and trained her eyes on me. My heart jumped.
She pushed herself off the counter, landing lightly on the floor, and leaned in close. Her lips were moist with beer and saliva, and her breath was hot on my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. "I finish what I start," she whispered against my cheek.
I shoved the pair of Coronas onto the counter, and barely heard them as they rolled down and clattered into the sink. And then my hands were on her bare shoulders, on her back, following her zipper down to her waist. Her own hands gripped my arms, pulling me closer, and arousal spread through me in greedy waves.
I closed my eyes. "You called me Hit-and-Run Josh." My voice was hoarse.
"Hmm?" she breathed, shivering as I traced a line between her earlobe and the hollow of her neck.
"That night at the bar a couple of weeks ago. You called me Hit-and-Run Josh."
She pulled back slightly. "Yeah. So?"
I curled a finger under the seam of her dress, following it down the side of her breast. "I want you to notice that I'm not running."
The bitter taste of Lagunitas on somebody else's lips startled me like a blow between my shoulder blades, but then her tongue was in my mouth and her fingers were at my belt buckle, and I made myself stop thinking.
I walked through the doorway that led from Margaret's office into Leo's, my hand clutching the biggest coffee mug Donna had been able to dig up. My eyes were heavy with exhaustion, but for once it made me feel more like a college kid than an old man.
C.J. looked up at me from the couch. "You know, if you drink that whole thing, you'll be able to bottle and sell your blood as Jolt cola."
I sat down in the armchair next to her and pointed at the mug. "Unless you can hook me up to an IV drip of caffeine, this is the only way I'll be staying awake through this meeting."
C.J. tossed her head back. "That's the price of saving the world, mi amor. Or, too much of the time, the cost of not losing too badly. Still cleaning up the Viequez thing?"
"Nah, that's done."
I glanced at Sam out of the corner of my eye, but he was jotting
down on the legal pad on his lap. "Actually, I left early last
night." I took a sip of coffee and let
my eyes flick over to Toby. He
raised an eyebrow at me, a slight smirk pulling at the corner of
mouth. I tried to suppress a grin, but it spread across my face
C.J. peered down at both of us. "You know, you guys need to be a lot more subtle when you use the secret eye code to communicate classified information." She leaned toward me. "Spill."
Toby leaned toward her on the couch. "I think her name is Amy Gardner."
C.J. blinked. "From the WLC?"
I stretched out against the chair. "The very same." Sam's head didn't move, but his hand froze, his pen hovering over the page. My stomach tightened, and I sat up straight again. None of this was news to him; we'd already had several conversations about Amy, and he'd always listened calmly. But the blank expression he'd maintained for the last several weeks made me want to choke back every word.
C.J.'s gaze bounced over to Sam and then back to me. "Wasn't she seeing somebody?"
I pointed at C.J. "Was. Past tense." I raised the mug to my mouth again. "He's out of the picture."
"Did you round up a posse and run him out of town?" Toby asked. "Because Dodge City ain't big enough for the both of you?"
I shrugged. "Tandy asked her to marry him, and she said no." I stole another look at Sam. He still hadn't moved. "And then she said they should stop seeing each other for a while."
"All right, let's keep this one short," Leo said, pushing his way into the room. He set a stack of files on the corner of his desk and turned toward us. "What have we got?" He looked at Sam and Toby. "How's the UN speech?"
Sam clicked his pen closed and looked up. "It's more or less done. He's authorizing $926 million in dues over three years. We're just polishing it now. We'll have something for the President by this afternoon."
"What are they offering us?" Leo asked, leaning forward.
"A reduction in bureaucracy, as well as peacekeeping assessments by the General Assembly," Sam said.
Leo glanced at Toby. "You've got somebody looking at it?"
"A couple of guys from House and Senate Foreign Relations," Toby said. "And the State Department."
"And Ainsley Hayes," added Sam. His voice was light, but lines had formed near his eyes.
Leo nodded. "Good. What's next? Anybody touched base with Bruno since last night?"
"I talked to him this morning," I said. "He';s going on about some new internal numbers. Supposedly, moderates think the President made too many promises he didn't manage to keep."
Leo glowered at the floor. "Of course. Because the only thing moderate Democrats are sure of is that they're not happy with whatever the President's doing."
I stretched my legs, crossing them at the ankles. "Bruno's saying that if we can prove we can keep our promises, it would make him look more trustworthy. He's not wrong."
"Did you tell him that a little help from Congress might go a long way toward making that happen?" Leo's forehead wrinkled.
I smirked. "I would've, but that would have reminded him that he doesn't control Congress, and I didn't want to piss him off any more than absolutely necessary."
Leo sighed. "So what do you think?"
"I say we pick a piece of legislation we promised to push through, something that's been dead in committee forever. Light a fire under it. Let the administration claim it as a success."
"How about the Public Health Services Act?" Sam suggested.
I shook my head. "Healthcare's the last thing we want to be talking about right now."
Toby pointed at Leo. "There's the Working Toward Independence Act."
Sam nodded slowly. "That one's got bipartisan support, so the GOP wouldn't try to kill it on principle."
"Hasn't Appropriations had it for more than a year?" C.J. asked, turning to face Leo. "Can we really get it back onto the floor?"
"We can try," Leo said. He leaned against the back of his desk. "Who's standing in our way?"
"The first thing is that Brace wants to tack on an amendment that forces welfare recipients to work at least thirty hours a week," Toby said. "It's the only way the bill will make it through. From what I hear, somebody else on the committee has been blocking it."
Leo leaned in closer. "Do we know who?"
The corner of Toby's mouth turned up. "Rumor says it's John Tandy." I glanced down at my lap and laughed. That was irony for you.
C.J. raised an eyebrow. "Don't tell me. This is the same Tandy."
"He's following me around." I drained my coffee mug, bent down, and set it on the ground.
"What can we offer him?" Leo asked.
"Well." My eyes shifted over to Toby. "We know he's been courting the women's vote. Nan Lieberman's running against him in the primary."
Sam tapped his pen against his legal pad. "Can we maybe get him a co-sponsor on H.R. 142? I could talk to Baxley."
I frowned. H.R. 142 was healthcare again, a breast cancer bill. Besides, Tandy would want something showier. My eyebrows flew up as it occurred to me. "We could give him the First Lady."
Toby sniffed. "Do you have a list of women you're auctioning off?" he said, and Leo shot him a glare.
"No, listen, this is good." I leaned forward, my elbows on my legs. "Send her to Philly for a campaign appearance. Have her say a few words, maybe take some pictures with him. I'm telling you, he'll totally go for that."
"He might, but she wouldn't," Leo said sharply, looking back at me.
"Why not?" I sat up straight, throwing my arms out to my sides. "Tandy's strong enough on women's issues. It's a day trip, so it won't eat into her schedule. And the Working Toward Independence Act is a good bill." I shook my head. "I swear, she'll do it."
The frown at the corner of Leo's mouth relaxed a little. "You'll talk to her?"
"You won't promise him anything without talking to the First Lady first," Leo said, dropping his chin.
"Of course not," I said, shrugging.
Leo clasped his hands together. "All right, let's do it. Anything else?" He looked around at the rest of us. "No? Good."
Toby stood. I grabbed my mug and followed him, and everyone but Leo walked out through the door leading into the hallway. I turned to head back past Margaret's office, but Sam stopped me with a hand on my arm. I willed myself not to jerk away, like holding a finger in a candle flame. "Can I talk to you for a minute?" he asked.
"Sure." His arm dropped back to his side, and I followed him past the Oval. "You think you guys'll be done with the UN thing by this afternoon?"
He tucked his legal pad under his arm as we headed into the Communications bullpen. "Yeah, Ainsley's got it now. We just wanted to run it by a set of friendly Republican eyes before turning it over to the President." He grabbed a manila envelope from Ginger's outbox. "Did you want to take a look at it?"
"Nah." I shrugged. "No policy changes?"
"Nothing you don't already know about," he said, stepping into his office.
"Then I don't need to see it."
"Okay." He closed his office door. "I think you should let me talk to Tandy."
I stepped back. I didn't know what I'd expected him to say, but it wasn't that. "Why you?"
He set the legal pad and the envelope on the edge of his desk. "I don't know if you can do it without making it personal."
His voice was level, but there was an edge of something else behind it, something I couldn't quite place. "I won't make it personal," I said.
He stared at me. "You stole his girlfriend, Josh. You have to admit that might have an impact on your normally impeccable techniques for persuasion."
"I didn't steal his ..." My voice trailed off. He had a point. "Okay, I guess you could look at it that way." I set my mug down on top of his file cabinet. "I can handle him."
Sam folded his arms. "You're sure you're not just going in there to play with him. You're not just trying to shake him up."
I pushed out a laugh. "I don't need to shake him up. He asked Amy to marry him. She said no. I wasn't even there when it happened. I think that's pretty final."
"It's just that this has to be about the bill, not about this other thing."
"It's not," I insisted.
"And we both know that sometimes you enjoy this part just a little too much."
My eyes narrowed. "Which part do I enjoy a little too much?"
"You know. The chase." His face clouded with annoyance, and he took a step toward me. "And then everything's completely different once you catch them."
He was standing at least a foot away, but his posture was threatening, crowding me back. This was so far from being his business. My jaw slid forward. "Are you still talking about me bringing Tandy around, or do you mean my thing with Amy?"
A crack cut through his anger, exposing the pain underneath. He dropped his gaze, the corner of his eye quivering. He pressed his lips together and stared at the corner of his desk.
My heart faltered. "Wait a minute. Are you talking about--"
"Of course not." He grabbed a pen from the top of a stack of files and rolled it between his fingers.
He wouldn't look at me, but his mouth was pinched, and the same old knot of guilt caught in my throat. Slowly, I reached for his arm, my fingers barely grazing the sleeve of his suit. His hand balled into a fist around the pen. It was never like that, I wanted to say. I knew how much I'd screwed up, but it had never been because I didn't care enough.
I leveled my gaze at him. "I'm going to talk to Tandy." My voice was rough, almost hoarse.
He jerked his arm back and let it drop to his side. "Okay."
"About the bill," I said, more strongly.
"The rest-- it's not gonna matter," I insisted. "This is Tandy. Once I've talked to him, he'll let it off the floor."
"Oh, I'm sure he will." His voice was cold.
Ice shot through my veins. His eyelashes fluttered, and his eyes fell shut. I stood frozen. He looked hollow, like he might disappear if I moved. If I breathed.
When he looked back up at me, his face was dark with defeat. "You know, blocking this amendment is one of the first things John Tandy has done in six years that he truly believes in. The guy may not stand for much, but this time he's doing what he thinks is right, and you're going to waltz in there and talk him into selling out for a handful of extra votes. All to keep it from costing *us* a handful of extra votes. I'm sorry, but you've got to forgive me if I can't see that as some great triumph."
I stepped back. In Sam's mouth it always sounded like success came at a price not worth paying. And nine times out of ten I was the one sending that disappointment across his face. "If we don't get this done, it could cost us the election," I protested. Even I thought it sounded cynical.
Sam shrugged. "Sure." He turned toward the window, a dark outline against the sun.
The back of my throat was stinging. I took a step backward, wrapped my hand around the doorknob, and forced myself out the door.
Sleep tugged at my eyelids, but I shifted just enough to shove the pillow underneath my shoulders. "Okay, you're, like, really good at that."
Amy didn't move. "Mmm."
"I think every muscle in my stomach has been transformed into some kind of gelatinous goo." I sat up further, pressing my shoulders flat against the headboard. Amy's hair spread across my chest. "If sex were an Olympic sport, even the East German judge would have given you a ten."
"If sex were an Olympic sport, millions of viewers around the world would have been watching us on television," she mumbled against my stomach.
I raised an eyebrow. "Are you telling me you'd, ah, enjoy that?"
She lifted her head just enough to glare at me.
"Because I'm sure I could arrange a--"
Her hand curled around my chin, fingers spread across my mouth. "You never shut up, do you?"
I twisted myself loose from her grip and slid my arm around her back. "It's one of those annoying yet completely appealing things about me," I said with a grin.
"Don't push it." Amy rolled off me and propped herself up by her elbow. The blue comforter draped across her breasts, gapping at her cleavage.
"A great ending to a great day." The meeting with Tandy had gone even more smoothly than expected. I'd just had to dangle the First Lady in front of him, and he'd been right with us.
"Hey, did I tell you I had lunch with April Lovett today?" She shifted again, and the covers fell to the bed, exposing her left nipple.
I forced my eyes above her neck. "Is that a name, or a feminine hygiene product?"
She smirked. "You don't know who April Lovett is."
I wove my fingers together and trapped them between my head and the pillow. "I'm sure she's an extremely important woman whose significance to the country will come back to me as soon as you remind me of it."
"She used to work in White House Communications. She was on the speechwriting team."
I pulled the covers up to my chest. "Why were you having lunch with a former White House speechwriter?"
"She's thinking about applying for our PR position. We had a class together at Harvard, so I was giving her the inside scoop on the job. It came up." Her finger was tracing absent circles on my forearm. "You know why she left the White House?"
"It sounds like you're going to tell me."
"She said everybody went a little crazy after the MS, and they never really pulled things back together." She leaned closer. "She also said Sam's been unhappy. People think he's going to quit."
I sat up straight, jerking away from her. "Sam Seaborn?"
"No, Sam Donaldson," she said, rolling her eyes.
I brought my arm down against the covers, a wall between us. "Good, 'cause I'd rather Cokie Roberts have to put out a 'help wanted' ad than us," I tried to joke, but we could both hear the edge in my voice.
She wove her fingers through her hair and propped herself up by her elbow. "Aren't you even a little bit concerned?"
My eyes darted away. "Nah." I squinted at the painting on her wall, a dark blue seascape encased in a silver frame. This was the last subject I wanted to bring with me into Amy's bed, but I had to know. I flicked my gaze back at her, my fingers fiddling with the edge of the down comforter. "Who's saying he's going to quit?"
She shrugged. "People. April Lovett, for one."
"Well, they're wrong." My voice came out in a squeak, and I coughed into a fist. "Would you leave the White House if you were Sam?"
"He might be finding it hard to trust people. After everything that's happened," she said, studying me.
"You mean the MS?"
Her eyebrow inched up. "What else would I mean?"
"That story broke almost a year ago. You think Sam's been carrying around a secret grudge for a whole year?" I scooted down again under the covers and glanced away. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear her answer to that.
Sam had wanted to quit after the drop-in on the DNC speech, and he'd thought about it again when the President had told him about the MS. He hadn't. Either time. I slid one arm between the sheet and the blanket.
"The thing about Sam." His name felt heavy on my tongue, like I was invoking his presence. I forced a smile. "He takes a hit, but eventually he's always back in the game. He always bounces back."
Amy shot me a skeptical look.
I felt my smile disappear, and my forehead wrinkled. "Hey, why are we talking about this?"
"It came up."
"You brought it up." My voice was sharp.
"I mean it came up at lunch, Josh. I was talking to April Lovett about her work history, and it came up."
"Well, I don't want to talk about April Lovett."
She made a sound that came out somewhere between a laugh and a scoff. "Okay."
Her brows flattened into a line, and she sat up straight, her back against the headboard. All at once I realized what she'd been warming up to. Tandy.
"How did your meeting on the Hill go?" she said slyly.
"What meeting?" I asked, keeping my face blank. I wasn't about to let her see how relieved I was that she'd changed the subject.
"You did have a meeting on the Hill today. With my ex? Don't tell me you've forgotten already."
"All right." I shook my head. "How did you know about that?"
"People tell me things." She shot me a mysterious look.
"Tandy told you."
She rolled her eyes. "Donna told me. We were making conversation while I was waiting for you. Don't have a nutty." She tugged the covers up to her neck. "You were trying to get him to let Brace's amendment stand."
"Remind me to dock Donna's pay by ten percent," I grumbled.
"Because taking responsibility for so-called charity money is more important than making sure single mothers get to spend time with their kids."
"Make that twenty." My hands tightened into fists around the edge of the sheet, and I let out a sigh. I couldn't believe we had to do this in bed. I sat up. "Work requirements create jobs, and they help welfare recipients transition to full-time employment."
She threw her hands in the air. "And you wondered how I could say John was more feminist than the White House?"
"Look, Amy. If by some miracle the bill gets put back on the floor without that amendment, it'll lose Rick Pintero as a co-sponsor."
"Funny you should mention him, because I was starting to wonder if maybe I had the esteemed Congressman in my bed instead of you."
"Without his support, the bill can't pass. I don't have to remind you that it's a Republican-controlled Congress--"
"Yeah, well, you're not going to get that far. There's no way John's going to let it out of committee with that amendment attached."
I pointed a finger at her. "See, here's where you're *really* wrong. Because he *is* gonna let it out of committee."
Her forehead creased. "What?"
"Today, in our meeting." I couldn't resist a triumphant smile. "He agreed to do what he could to put it back on the floor."
She stared at me. "What did you offer him?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't play dumb with me." She shook her head. "I spent six months with that man, and I sure as hell know how he feels about work requirements for welfare recipients. There's no way he'd let this amendment stand unless you guys were willing to give him something pretty huge."
"We're going to try to get him a co-sponsor on H.R. 142." I paused for effect. "And the First Lady's gonna fly up to Philadelphia and do a campaign appearance with him."
"Oh, well, isn't that precious," Amy sneered. "That was yours, wasn't it? Of course it was. He's worried about the Nan Lieberman threat, he's courting the women's vote." Her tone mocked the words I'd said to her just a month ago. "This has your fingerprints all over it."
"Right, and Tandy was just doing what he thought was best until I waltzed in there and talked him into selling out for a handful of extra votes." I turned my back to her, staring at the glass on the nightstand through narrowed eyes. "I suppose you're going to tell me that in my position, you would have tried to find a compromise solution."
She snorted. "No."
I blinked. "What?" I twisted my neck around to look back at her.
"There is no compromise solution." She shrugged. "You guys needed the bill back on the floor yesterday. Any revisions that might have made it more palatable to people like John Tandy would have tied it up for at least another three months. You did what had to be done."
I turned to face her. "What happened to welfare mothers getting to spend time with their kids?"
She sank back down under the covers. Her foot snaked around my leg. "I work for the Women's Leadership Coalition, J. Of course I'm going to fight you on this." She poked me gently in the chest. "But if I worked at the White House, I would have done exactly the same thing."
I swallowed. Amy tilted her head at me, and in that flash of an instant, looking into her eyes was like looking into a mirror. The faint scent of her perfume mixed with the smell of sweat and sex still clinging to our bodies. I reached for her, running a thumb along the side of her face.
Her eyes fell closed, and a shiver spread across her skin, the renewed desire on her face an exact reflection of my own. I pushed her back against the pillow. I didn't want to think about the last time I'd felt this kind of hunger for somebody. I pressed the entire length of my body against her, but it wasn't enough of her, not nearly enough.
"Congressman Pimento got you to agree to three hundred million for marriage incentives." Donna's voice was dull, as if I'd stunned the life out of it.
I trapped the cell phone between my shoulder and the side of my face, and planted both hands on the wheel of the car. "It's *Pintero*, I haven't agreed to *anything* yet, and it's not as bad as it sounds."
I could see Donna's little smirk as easily as if she'd been sitting in front of me. "What?" I demanded.
"Nothing." The phone crackled with static. "It's just that I thought I was remembering a conversation where you lectured me on the evils of marriage incentives. It must have been some other mop-topped Deputy Chief of Staff with cavernous dimples."
I glanced in my rearview mirror. "It's the only way this bill can pass, Donna. It's the only way it'll make it out of committee." I gave the wheel a sharp turn and backed the car into the empty spot.
"I thought you said the work requirements were the only way it would make it out of committee."
"Well, this is the other only way." I wasn't about to mention the fact that they also upped the work-hour requirement. I slid my key out of the ignition, and the engine ground to a halt.
"Tell me we're not losing this one."
I grabbed the phone and swung the car door open. "We're not--"
"Because it sure sounds like we're losing this one," Donna repeated.
"The Republicans are giving us a *billion* more on childcare," I said, slamming the door and pressing the button on my keychain to lock it. The air was heavy with humidity, and storm clouds were looming just past the row of trees on the other side of the street. "The bill has bipartisan sponsorship and widespread support. It goes on the floor, it passes both the House and the Senate easily, the President looks like a hero. And it's still a good bill, even with the marriage incentives. Trust me, we're not losing this one."
"What's Amy going to say?" A hint of amusement crept into her voice.
A muscle jumped in my neck. I rubbed at it. "I think she'll be okay with it," I said, shoving my hand into my pants pocket.
"You think Amy Gardner's going to be okay with you guys adding in three hundred million dollars for marriage incentives?" She sounded incredulous.
A sigh trickled out of my lungs, and I kicked at a stone on the sidewalk. I could already see the righteous anger on her face. "No, but it seemed like the thing to say just then."
"Okay, let me tell you something." Donna's voice was firm. "I'm sitting in the back seat of a taxi in Bismarck, North Dakota. The driver's going to take me to my nice, quiet hotel room, and then I'm going to put my feet up for the first time on my day off."
"Do you know *why* I haven't had a chance to put my feet up on my day off? Because after coming in at seven in the morning to put together a bunch of stuff for your thing with Pintero, I flew several *million* miles on two hours' notice. To read your statement at a DNC platform meeting. In North Dakota."
I grabbed onto the metal railing and took the steps up to Amy's building. "And did I happen to mention just how grateful I was for all that?"
"I'm not flying back tonight. I'm just saying."
The front door opened easily. "I'm not gonna make you fly back tonight." The doorman was seated behind the desk in the foyer, his gray head bowed over the log book. I gave him a halfhearted wave, and he waved back, nodding.
"Sure, you say that now. But as soon as you walk into Amy's apartment, she's going to yell at you. And that's going to get you all fired up, and then before I know it, you'll be canceling my hotel reservation and describing the best route to take between the airport and the White House on a Sunday evening."
"I swear, I'm not gonna make you fly back tonight," I said, pressing the button for the elevator.
"Promise?" Her voice turned up at the end, like a smile on the corner of a mouth.
The elevator door slid open. I stepped inside and pressed fourteen. "I promise."
"I don't believe you, you know," she grumbled.
"Call me before you leave tomorrow morning."
"I will." The connection died on a click.
I shoved the phone into my pocket. As the elevator opened onto Amy's floor, the faint smell of dinner reached my nose. My stomach grumbled, and I pushed past the jungle of plants she had in the hallway and rapped on the glass door that led into her apartment. Tilting my head, I peered inside. Amy's hair was pulled back, and a blue tank top hugged her breasts. She smiled as she opened the door.
The smell of food cooking poured into the hall. "Hey," I said, leaning forward to kiss her. Van Morrison's 'Moondance' was playing quietly in the background. "Something smells great." I stepped inside and closed the door behind me.
She turned and walked back over to the island. A makeshift desk was set up next to the simmering pot: a laptop, her phone, and a thick stack of files. "There's going to be stew." She sat down.
"It's ready? We can eat it?" I headed into Amy's bedroom. The lights were low, and I could feel the tension in my neck start to relax.
"I'm cooking it for the fourth time," she called out from the kitchen.
I slid my jacket off and tossed it onto her comforter. "The beef is well done?"
I glanced into the mirror above her wardrobe, loosened my tie, and slid it off. "Carrots?"
"Potatoes?" I ran a hand through the hair on top of my head, balled up the tie, and threw it on top of the suit jacket.
"Gravy?" I stepped back into the living room.
Amy was typing. "Well spiced, much like myself."
"Oh, this is going to be a good night." My feet gave an involuntary skip as I headed toward her. "My woman, a fine stew, and a Mets game on national TV." I pushed my hand into my pocket, grabbed my cell phone and keys, and emptied them onto the counter. "You see how I slipped that last one in?"
"I saw." She didn't look up.
I opened the fridge. "You listening to Van Morrison again?" My fingers wrapped around a bottle of beer.
"It's the radio," Amy said. The refrigerator door swung closed as I turned around. Amy took a sip of wine. "You never said how the meeting with Pintero went," she said, peering at me over her glass.
A ripple of tension shot down my neck and into my shoulders. "Well, ah ... good." I glanced at the floor, twisting off the cap on the bottle.
"They're going to vote it out of committee?"
The cap fell out of my hand onto the counter. I leaned back against the cupboard. "Yeah, in fact, we're getting another billion for childcare."
"What do you have to give Republicans for a billion dollars?" She fixed her eyes on me, and a sour taste formed at the back of my throat.
Sam had looked at me like that a thousand times, his eyes piercing mine with a mixture of challenge and disappointment. I looked down again, washing down the sour taste with a sip of beer. "Three hundred million for marriage incentives." I said, attempting a smile.
For a long moment
the music was the only sound in the whole apartment. Amy's eyes
budge from me, and I shifted against the counter. "You mean like
subscriptions to Bride and
Groom Magazine?" she said
I ran a fingernail underneath the label on the bottle. "No, the marriage incentives are a series of--"
"I know what the marriage incentives are."
I flinched and forced myself to meet her eyes. "Let's not do this now."
Her face set in a glare. "Cash bonuses to moms on welfare who marry the child's father, canceling out child support debts if the parents--"
"You know what?" Defensiveness bubbled up inside of me, and my words were almost a shout. I leaned in toward her. "Every single study, every one shows that kids do better in two-parent houses."
"Kids are better off if they're raised by parents who love them. Your solution is loveless."
My jaw slid forward. "It's not my solution!"
"Does my government really believe that the law can create a family?" Amy shook her head. I pressed my lips together and retreated to the fridge. "Do these old fat-ass men really believe that if they just pay people to act like Leave it to Beaver, everything'll be fine?" She tossed her hands in the air. I looked down at the beer bottle in my hand and took a long drink. "Did you really think the person in my job was going to sit? This is about collecting votes from white men."
I spread a hand across my chest and stepped toward her. "Amy, if we don't get elected, I promise you, President Ritchie is gonna have a lot less sympathy for your agenda."
She stood, picking up the cordless phone on the island next to her. "This bill isn't going to pass."
"Yes, it is," I said. "It's locked up. I have the American Children's Alliance behind it."
"Not for long." She gave me a sweet smile, but her eyes were glinting with a fresh wave of competitive energy.
My fingers gripped the other side of the island. She wasn't disappointed. This wasn't outrage. She was going to fight back. I felt my eyes widen.
"It's me, Scott," Amy said. "Everyone who's in the office should stay there. I need Legislative Affairs to put together a meeting with Regina King."
Frustration battled with exhilaration in my chest, and I exhaled a sigh so rough that it was almost a growl. "And we're back to work."
I reached across Amy's computer for my cell phone. Her hand slipped across the island, grabbed it from under my fingers, and plunked it into the stew. I stared at the ripples in the thick brown gravy as the phone disappeared beneath it. Amy went on talking.
I slapped a hand down on her toaster. She wasn't about to outplay me at my own game. Glaring at her, I stalked across into the living room and grabbed the other phone from its cradle.
"The marriage incentives are in the welfare reauthorization and its committee," Amy explained. I leaned down and punched the number for Legislative Affairs. Turning my back on Amy, I tried to rub the lines out of my forehead. "Hold on," she said. "Can you call Robinson?"
The phone rang twice. First a call to Leg. Affairs, then Pintero, then probably Watkins. "Legislative Affairs, this is Sharon."
"Yeah, it's Josh." I ran a finger down the side of my nose. "The Secretary of Labor is in Chicago. I need--" A sharp slicing sound killed the connection, and the phone cord snapped up and hit me in the face.
I spun around. Amy had one hand on the cordless phone, and the other was wrapped around a pair of scissors. Gritting my teeth, I stretched the phone cord as far as it would go. Damn, she was good. I wondered if I could claim self-defense if the cord just happened to coil its way around her bare neck.
"Tell him I'm calling in the I.O.U. on prenatal healthcare. Hold on." She tilted the phone so that the mouthpiece was at her neck. "I'm sorry, honey, that was an accident." I narrowed my eyes and slammed the receiver back down. "There's a payphone on the corner. Although it's been out of order for a little while."
I stormed into her bedroom. My jacket and tie hung off the edge of her bed, and I grabbed them, and I felt my lip curl. Ten minutes ago, I'd been winning this one. I headed back into the living room. Amy was huddled on the couch between two pillows, babbling into the phone about the Society of Business Women. I threw the door open, clenching a fist around my jacket and tie. This wasn't over.
She glanced up at me, a moment's hesitation replaced immediately by challenge. She looked back away. "Janeane, it's me," she said. "Let's suit up."
The glass rattled in the doorframe as the door slammed closed. I shoved my way past her plants and pressed the button on the elevator. The digital numbers over the door displayed a large red '1'. I slid my teeth against each other. I wasn't about to wait.
I took the stairs two at a time, pulling on my jacket as I went. My lungs were pressed tightly against my ribs by the time I hit the third floor, but I barely felt it through my determination. I pushed open the door onto the foyer and sprinted past the doorman, draping my tie around my shoulders as I hit the front door.
The door cast me out into daylight, and my eyes darted around, searching for the payphone. The dark clouds from earlier had multiplied, taking over the sky, and the first drops of a spring rain spattered against the sidewalk. I made a beeline for the phone booth on the corner, threw the door open, and reached into my pocket for a quarter. As my fingers sifted loosely through coins, I realized I'd left my keys on the island where my cell phone had been.
"God damn it," I swore, planting a fist in the middle of the glass wall.
I shoved a quarter into the phone, picked up the receiver, and dialed Donna's cell. "Hello?" she said, her voice guarded. "Who is this?"
"You still in the car?" I growled.
"Josh? Where are you calling from? My phone is blocking your number."
"I'm at a pay phone." I pressed my back against the wall. "You still in the car?"
"Why are you calling me from a pay phone?"
My teeth slid against each other. "My cell phone isn't working. Are you still in the car?"
"Yes, I'm still in the car. What's going on?"
"Tell the driver to turn around and take you to the airport." I glanced at my watch. Most of the afternoon was shot. "I'm rebooking you on the 4:30."
Raindrops spattered against the phone booth, blurring my view through the glass. I pulled my jacket tightly around myself. "I know, I know."
"You said you weren't going to make me fly back tonight." Her voice was a whine.
I wove my fingers through the hair on the top of my head. "I'll make it up to you."
"What happened? And why isn't your cell phone working?"
I let out an exasperated sigh. "Amy threw it in the stew."
"She did *what*?"
"Just tell the driver to take you to the airport, okay?" I said, spreading my hand flat against the wall of the phone booth.
There was a stream of stifled mumbling on Donna's end, and I glanced at my watch again. If I made it back upstairs within the next five minutes, I could pick up my keys and head straight into the office within another ten. I'd need to call Legislative Affairs back, but that could wait until I got to the White House.
"You promised I'd get to catch my breath," Donna accused, coming back on the line.
I ran a thumb and forefinger along my eyebrows. "I'll let you come in late tomorrow morning."
"You will?" Her voice brightened.
"Okay, maybe next Monday."
"Your girlfriend couldn't have waited until tomorrow to stab you in the back?" she grumbled.
"By tomorrow she'll be weeping tears of defeat," I said with a snarl.
"You don't think this is going to throw a wrench into your domestic bliss?"
"It's all in the game, Donna." I stretched the phone cord as far as it would reach and opened the door to the phone booth. Rain bounced off the pavement and splattered against my shoes. "All in the wonderful game we know as love."
"It's a Van-- never mind. Just meet me at the office, okay?" I turned my collar up and tucked my chin inside my jacket.
"Okay." Her pout was audible.
"You'll get there faster if you tell the cab driver to take 395 into the city, and then follow 14th St. north," I said, one foot already out the door.
A low hum of activity buzzed through the hallway outside my office, more hectic even than usual. Two guys I didn't recognize rushed past me, White House guest passes dangling around their necks, and I craned my own neck to follow them down the hall with my eyes. C.J. walked past in a dark blue coat. I caught her by the elbow. "Hey. I thought you guys had already left for New York ?"
She turned around. "The show starts at 7:30. We're leaving at five."
I shook my head. "I thought you were leaving at four."
"The President's meeting with--"
"The Qumari Defense Minister. Right." I nodded. "I forgot."
"They're just finishing up."
"Where's your shadow?" I asked, throwing a glance over her shoulder. It had been strange at first to have somebody down at this end of the building with a Secret Service detail, but now it was weirder not to see him right there.
"Ten paces behind, just like all good shadows." C.J. turned around completely and smiled, giving Simon Donovan a little wave. His face was solemn, but he nodded at us, waving back.
"I take it they haven't caught the guy yet," I said as we rounded the corner.
"Well, he's about twenty feet behind me in the hallway, Josh." C.J. gestured over her shoulder with a thumb. "I can't imagine he'd be that hard to catch."
I stopped in the doorway to my office. "I meant the bad guy."
She pressed her lips together in a half-smile. "They say they're following a couple of leads, but for the time being, the status quo is still both status and quo."
"You doing okay?" I asked, stepping the rest of the way into my office.
"Yeah." She shrugged. "I'm kind of getting used to it, you know? Between the President's regular detail and my people, it'll be like having a whole army with us in the theater tonight. I couldn't be safer." She folded her arms and leaned against my doorframe. "How's the vote coming?"
"Good," I said automatically. The afternoon sun streamed in through the blinds, hitting my eyes at just the wrong angle. I winced and let the blinds down.
A sigh trickled out of my lungs, and I placed both hands flat on the windowsill. I'd spent five days trying to pull the bill back from the brink of oblivion. Part of me wanted to give up, kick it to the curb, and enjoy watching Amy do her victory dance. Most of me wanted to line up members of Congress and go all Al Capone on their asses until they voted the way we wanted.
I turned around. "Amy's got Burnett and Bristol. And probably Keith." I stepped forward and grabbed the back of my chair.
"You've got to be kidding me." C.J. tossed her head back. "Joyce Keith is going to vote no on the Working Toward Independence Act?"
I laughed. It sounded hollow. "Yeah."
Her eyes widened. "Ms. 'I'm A Humanist, Not A Feminist' is objecting to the marriage incentives?"
"Actually, I think Amy promised her her firstborn." I rolled my chair back and sank into it.
"So you were lying when you said it looked good."
"Yeah." I reached up, rubbing halfheartedly at the back of my neck.
"You do know I was kidding when I told the Press Corps the future of the entire world depended on this vote, right?"
I met her eyes. "This was supposed to make us look strong going into the summer. That's the whole reason we got the bill out of committee in the first place. If we lose this thing now, how's that gonna look?" I grimaced. I knew exactly how it would look. Come this fall, everybody would be talking about how Josh Lyman had gotten President Ritchie elected.
"A lot can happen in seven months," she said, reading my mind.
"Yeah." I sighed. "Sure."
C.J. squinted at me. "Hey. What's this about?"
"What's what about?"
She placed a hand on her hip. "This wouldn't be the first time we lost a vote. The building's never collapsed into rubble at our feet. We've always lived to serve another day." She let her arm fall to her side. "Is this about the President taking a piece out of you last week?"
I lay my hand flat against the desk. "Who told you about that?"
She tilted her head to one side in a half-shrug. "Toby mentioned it."
The President's angry voice echoed in my mind: Why is it that for every good thing you do around here, we've got to endure three screwy ones? I let my gaze fall to my desk. These files would be useless by the end of the night. I looked back up at C.J. "He told me his life would be easier if Amy and I swapped jobs."
"You know he didn't mean that." Her voice was low.
"Yeah." I sniffed. "But I don't blame him for saying it." I nudged the files aside with my elbows and rested my forehead on the backs of two fists. I closed my eyes. "I can't tell you how many times this week I've wished Amy worked anywhere in this town but the WLC."
Anywhere but the WLC. My eyes flew open. Slowly, I lifted my head. C.J. shot me a questioning look. "What?"
"What can you tell me about Brenda Logan?" I said carefully.
She lifted an eyebrow. "What do you want to know?"
"What did she do before she took over as head of the WLC? Wasn't she campaign manager for Julia Nugent? Back in 2000?"
"Yeah. In the Indiana 6th. She took over after Decker resigned."
"Right." I pointed at her with an outstretched finger. "He leaked that memo."
She tilted her head to one side. "Actually, *she* leaked the memo. He took the fall."
"Really?" This was better than good.
"That's what people say."
"And you believe it."
She shrugged. "Sure."
I pressed my chin to my chest and peered up at her. "Sure as in 'Yes, Josh, I completely buy this rumor'," or sure as in 'Whatever you say, Josh, I know I need to humor you when you get like this'?"
"I'm saying I believe it. It fits everything else I know about her."
"So she's ambitious." The corner of my mouth quirked.
C.J. chuckled. "Is the President Catholic?" Her eyes widened, and the smile flew away from her face. "No."
I rolled my chair closer to the desk, slapping both hands down on it. "Yes."
She stepped up to my desk. "Because-- because it's lousy!"
I threw my arms out to my sides. "It's all lousy, C.J. Right now the difference is between lousy and losing and lousy and winning. And frankly, I'd rather win."
I leaned back in my chair, ideas nipping at the edges of my thoughts. "If Amy gets booted out of the WLC, then all the promises she's made don't mean squat. The vote goes the way it was going to go before she wormed her way into this. We get our 218. All from one little phone call."
"Joshua." Her voice was firm.
"Listen to me. Don't do this." She placed two hands on the other side of my desk, leaning in toward me. "You can hold carrots out to Congressmen, you can call in favors, you can make threats, but you can't bribe Brenda Logan into firing your girlfriend."
"Are you telling me it's not gonna work?"
"Of course it'll work. But are you really going to play that game with somebody you're going home to tonight?" Her eyes were flashing.
I dropped my eyes to the desk. There was nothing Amy was more passionate about than women's issues. She was terrific at her job. "Can you think of something better?" I said quietly.
"This can't be the way to go."
I looked back up. C.J.'s face was tense. "We've got three hours, C.J. Last count, we were ten votes down. I've personally talked to every guy on the fence, and nobody's budging." I stood, holding her gaze. "Can you think of anything else that's gonna work at this point? Because you just say the word, and I'll do it."
Her expression relaxed into something that looked more sad than firm. "No."
I reached for the phone. "Have a good time in New York."
C.J. pressed her lips together and turned toward the door. I felt my forehead wrinkle. I knew the flicker of disappointment across her face was more about the system than it was about me, but the knot of guilt still tightened in my throat. "Hey, wait," I said.
She turned back around. Her face was still frozen in that same resigned frown.
"Don't-- don't tell Sam, okay?"
She shook her head. "If you make this happen, he's going to find out how you did it."
"Right now we still don't know for sure that it's gonna work. I just ..." I looked up at the ceiling, my eyes focusing on speckled drywall. I inhaled a long breath and let it back out through my nose. I brought my head back down. "I'll talk to him myself tomorrow, okay? Just don't tell him tonight. Let him enjoy the play."
C.J.'s eyes flew over me. She nodded. "Okay." She smiled. "Because if anybody other than President Bartlet has the capacity to enjoy six hours of Shakespeare's Henrys, it's Sam."
I smiled through pinched lips and picked up the receiver.
"Hey," she said suddenly. I depressed the phone hook with a finger, and she took another tentative step into my office. She looked suddenly awkward, like she didn't quite know what to say. "You know, I don't know what happened there ... and I don't need to know," she said quickly. "But I just wanted to say ... I'm sorry it didn't work out."
My gaze fell to the desk. I swallowed. "Yeah."
I didn't watch her walk out of my office. Instead, I took my finger off the hook, put the phone to my ear and hit the third button on my list of speed dial numbers. "Women's Leadership Coalition," the receptionist droned.
I turned my back on the door and leaned against my desk. The metal edge pressed into the backs of my thighs. "This is Josh Lyman from the White House. Could I speak to Brenda Logan, please?"
The elevator doors slid open onto Amy's garden of potted plants. My eyes slid over to her door. She was already standing there, her figure blurry through the glass. Her limp hair hung in her eyes, and her hand was wrapped around a tumbler of amber liquid. Probably something stronger than her usual red wine. My stomach knotted. I took a step toward her.
She slid the door open a crack. "Do I look like one of those victimized women who welcomes the boyfriend back when he shows up with flowers and says he's sorry?"
I splayed my empty palms in front of me. "I'm not here to apologize."
"No, of course not." She gave me an angry sniff and opened the door the rest of the way, blocking my passage with a hand on the doorframe. "Remind me again why I should even bother letting you into my apartment?"
I just stood there, ducking my head just enough to look contrite. She rolled her eyes and dropped her arm.
I stepped inside, letting the door fall closed behind me. Her back was turned, her shoulder slumped. A red strap fell down onto her arm, and she pushed it back up. "So, ah." I scratched the back of my neck. "How are you doing?"
"How am I *doing*?" She spun around toward me, her eyes flashing bright with anger. She took a long gulp of her drink, draining it. "Well, let's see. How about you start by asking me about my meeting with Brenda?"
She shook her head. "You made my boss Chairman of the Platform Committee on the condition that she call me off. Did you really think I was going to thank you for that?"
"You said we should be able to talk about these things," I said weakly.
She put a hand on her hip. "I'm not stopping you from talking." She turned her back to me again and headed into the living room.
"What'd you think I was gonna do?" I asked, defensiveness edging out the sympathy in my voice.
She walked into the living room. "I thought you were going to do this."
"And?" I said, following her.
She breathed out a laugh. "And I didn't think it was going to work."
"Are you fired?"
She walked into the kitchen and set her glass down on the island next to a tall bottle of whiskey. She grabbed it, refilling the glass with a wobbly hand. "I'm resigning on Monday."
I glanced at the floor. My chest felt heavy. I leaned forward, resting my arms against the island. "You have to," I said quietly.
"I had an entire policy initiative reversed in an hour." She opened the freezer and plunked an ice cube into her glass. It landed with a splash. She turned around, shooting me an accusing glare. "Weren't you given the chance to get the votes you needed by setting up a meeting with Ritchie?"
She had to know that had never been an option. Ritchie wasn't the President's equal on any playing field, and we weren't about to pretend he was. "I'm not a dating service."
She slammed the fridge. "What is wrong with you?"
Her shriek was piercing, and I couldn't hold back a shout. "Every serious Democrat is gonna unite behind this President, and I'm not kidding around."
She grabbed a nut from the bowl on the counter and turned to face me. "Every serious Democrat should be thinking about leading and not following."
I lifted my head and gave her an incredulous look. Amy's idea of leadership would lead nowhere but straight out of the White House. "Yeah? How's it going so far?"
She popped the nut in her mouth. "Matter of fact, it's going all right, and I'd do it again."
"That's what's scaring the hell out of me."
"Good." She turned her back again. "It's about time."
I stared at her. I couldn't believe she didn't realize what was at stake. "You can't win the White House while the middle class thinks you disdain work and responsibility!"
"I would hope not!" Her voice was almost loud enough to drown out the ringing of the phone. "And I congratulate you for punishing poor women as the symbol of the strength of mainstream values."
I clenched two fists at my sides. "That's *not* what we did."
Amy stalked into the living room and picked up the phone. "Hello?"
I followed her. "Do you not consider it relevant that it would be worse with Rob Ritchie in the White House?" The shriek in my voice rubbed my vocal cords raw. "Why is that not part of the equation?"
She turned around. Her face was suddenly white, her eyes wide. She brought the receiver down to her chest. "Honey. Simon Donovan was shot and killed."
The words barely registered in my brain. All the anger fled from my body and was replaced by cold fear. I stepped toward her and grabbed the phone. "Donna?"
For a long moment, all I could hear was the low hum of traffic on the other end of the line. I held my breath. "It's, uh, me," Sam finally said. His voice was shaking, and my heart dropped into my stomach. "I'm sorry to call you at Amy's, but your cell was turned off, and I didn't want you to hear about this on the--"
"C.J.'s fine," Sam said quickly. "She was still back at the theater when it happened. It wasn't the stalker. Donovan walked in on a robbery in a convenience store. I guess he had the one guy immobilized, but there was another guy outside, and he didn't see him in time. He was shot through the window and died instantly."
A New York convenience store. Aisles of floor cleaner and canned soup and ramen noodles. Simon Donovan standing in line, walking up to the counter. Maybe there had been two guys behind it. Maybe he'd seen the fear in the one guy's eyes and known something was up. Maybe he'd leaped across the counter and wrestled the guy to the ground. Maybe he'd been shot in the head, maybe he'd never felt the bullet at all. I rubbed at my chest.
"Josh. Josh, are you there?"
I lowered myself against the couch, dragging the base of the phone from the table to my lap. Donovan was a good guy. I tried to remember what we'd ever talked about. He'd been with the Secret Service for about ten years. He was from Chicago. Or was it Detroit? Somewhere in the Midwest. I drew in a breath and held it, a fist around my lungs. I hardly knew a thing about the guy.
"Okay, you know what?" Sam's voice was shrill. "I'm coming home."
"The last commercial flight is at 11:10. United, I think. From LaGuardia. If I catch a cab right now, I can still make it." With each word he sounded more and more panicked, and he was panting as he ran. "That'll get me to National a little after midnight."
A horn sounded in my ear, drowning out Sam's voice. "Wait," I protested.
"I can be at Amy's before one AM if the streets are clear. Just hold--"
"No, Sam. Don't-- I'm fine." The words were automatic, and it was another five seconds before I realized they were true. I turned my hand over, my eyes following the pink scar that cut across the lines of my palm. My hand was steady. "I'm okay."
I could almost hear him stop running. "You sure?"
My chest was tight, but my heart was beating a steady rhythm, and air was flowing freely in and out of my lungs. I was okay. I was okay. "I'm fine," I repeated, more strongly this time.
"I can come home."
"I don't..." My head was swimming, and I stopped and rubbed my forehead. "Thanks." Amy put a firm hand on my leg, right near my knee. "You don't need to. Really."
"You were pretty quiet for a minute there," Sam said.
"And after all, me shutting up is the third sign of the apocalypse." I stole a glance at Amy, and her mouth quirked at one corner.
Sam sputtered out a laugh, and I could hear his relief clear from New York. "Okay." He took in a breath. "Okay."
"How was, ah, the show?" I attempted.
"The-- oh, right. The show." His voice was distant, as if my words were gradually pulling him back to earth. "It was fine. I mean, it was good." He exhaled a hiss of breath. "I heard we won the welfare vote."
"Ah. I guess you could say that." My eyes flicked back over to Amy. Her face was lined with concern. "It sounds like Amy's going to be leaving the WLC." I waited, but her expression didn't change.
"You-- seriously? Wow." Sam fell silent, and I could hear a bus pull up close to him on the street. "Don't you think that was a little harsh?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes. "She seemed to think so."
"I'm surprised she's still speaking to you."
Amy's hand tightened around my knee. She scooted closer to me on the couch, her shoulder against mine. I glanced at her again, giving her a weak smile. "She'll be all right," I said.
"I can't imagine ..." Sam's voice caught. "I wouldn't've ..."
I blinked. "What?"
"Maybe that's why it couldn't work."
I withdrew from Amy, turning my back, and curled myself around the receiver. The phone cord pulled taut underneath my arm. My heart sped up. "What do you-- what couldn't work?"
"Maybe we-- maybe I spent too much time trying to punish you. When all the time you were just ... being you."
words bordered on nonsensical, but the despair in his tone splintered me
into a thousand
pieces. My chest muscles twisted into a knot. You
didn't, I tried to say, but my throat closed
over and the words
bottlenecked somewhere near my Adam's apple. It wasn't you, I told
silently. It was me. And I'm sorry. I'm sorry for
"God." Sam gasped out a breath. "I don't know what I'm-- it's been a crazy day. There was the whole thing with Ritchie, and this trip, and now--"
"Hey." I wrapped a hand around the arm of the couch. "Are *you* okay?"
"Yeah." He pushed out a dry, throaty laugh. "I mean, no. It's just-- C.J.'s pretty broken up. And the look on her face, it just-- it made me think-- it was just about two years ago..." His voice broke, and my heart shuddered. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't be-- and you-- and I'm interrupting."
My fingers dug into the upholstery. "It's okay."
"No. No, it's not." A car on the other end of the line screeched past him, and I could see him standing there, alone on a New York street corner. "You know what? I'm going to hang up now."
I squeezed my eyes shut. "No, Sam, you don't--"
"I'm glad you're okay. Really glad. I'll see you at the office." Click.
The receiver was heavy in my hand. Still clutching it, I let it fall to my lap. Thoughts whirled in my head, blending into a sharp pain that cut straight down the center of my chest. This Secret Service agent none of us would ever really get to know. Two angry white guys who'd missed Charlie and hit the President and me. The crash of my hand against a window.
There was a clink against the end table, and I opened my eyes. A glass of water had appeared in front of me, and slowly I became aware of a recorded voice telling me to hang up and try my call again. Amy unwrapped my fingers from the phone and replaced it in its cradle, silencing the voice. She set it on the table. I looked up at her.
She nudged the glass into my hand, and cool condensation mixed with the sweat on my palm. I drew in a long breath and tried to smile. "Just so you know, I make it a general rule not to drink anything offered to me by somebody I just had fired."
She smirked, but wrinkles of concern were stretched across her forehead. "What, you think if I were going to kill you, you'd see it coming?" she joked back. Her voice was pinched. She settled in next to me, draping an arm behind me along the back of the couch.
"You know, the first couple of times you said that sort of thing, it was cute." I shifted against the couch pillow and took a sip of water. "Eventually, though, I really have to start thinking about whether I should close my eyes whenever you're sleeping over."
"Well, you're the one sleeping here tonight, so you'd better watch your back." The playfulness in her expression drained slowly from her face, leaving only the worry. "C.J.'s okay?"
"Yeah." I looked down at my lap. "She wasn't anywhere near the-- where it happened."
"That's good. So it's just--"
"Yeah." My eyes unfocused. Just Donovan. Just one dead Secret Service agent. I pushed a breath out through my nose.
Amy scooted down, leaning her head back against the couch. She placed a finger on my chest and drew a circle around the button on my shirt. "You know, you hardly ever talk about it."
"About what happened at Rosslyn." Her finger dipped lower, tracing a line along my scar. "About getting shot."
I reached up and wrapped my hand around hers, holding it still. "It's not exactly high comedy."
"I'm not expecting high comedy." Her voice was low, almost gentle.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. I couldn't separate what had happened to me from what had happened with Sam. I let go of her hand.
Her fingers spread flat against my chest. "You want to talk about it now?"
Her eyes flicked up at me, and as soon as they met mine, brown on brown, I knew I could tell her anything. My heart swelled with a feeling I couldn't put a name to if I had a decade and a thousand poetry books. I reached for her hand again.
"Yeah," I said, weaving my
fingers through hers. "I do."