This is my version of the inevitable post-ep for "Transition". I've set it in the Bahamas because that just makes more sense to me, and left a little something hanging that I'm hoping to use as a jumping-off point for a Santos admin fic I'm about to start. :)
As always, thanks to coloneljack for keeping me going, and to caz963 for the beta!
Spoilers up to "Transition", obviously, and rated older Teen (I guess).
By the time the cab dropped them at the villa, Josh was virtually sleepwalking. It was testament, Donna thought, to exactly how close to the edge he’d gotten that he’d been able to relax so quickly. Then again, this was the first time she’d ever seen him admit defeat; seen him admit that he needed to stop – to just stop the world and get off for a while.
She figured he must have been so close to the edge he was looking at it over his shoulder. Thank God for Sam.
The roar of the surf provided a mellow background music in the warm night, the air thick with the scent of frangipani as Donna led Josh to the bedroom. He mumbled something about the place looking ‘nice’ before she poured him into bed, stripped off her dress and crawled under the covers with him. She fell asleep holding him close, her own weary body succumbing readily to the velvety softness of the Caribbean night.
By her reckoning it was around midnight when something began to drag her back toward consciousness. Her phone? The doorbell?
“Donna…?” A hand jostled her. “Are you awake?”
She opened an eye, disorientated for a moment. “Josh?”
In the half-light she could see him grin. “Come on, there’s something I want to show you.”
“It’s the middle of the night…”
“No.” His smile was fast as quicksilver. “Come on.”
Taking her hand, he dragged her out of bed. The tiled floor was cool beneath her feet, but not unpleasantly so, and his hand was warm in hers as he led her across the bedroom toward a set of French doors. She smiled, her heart light as air. This was Josh, they were together and— “Oh…wow…”
As she stepped out onto the balcony her breath was quite literally stolen away. Spread out before them, invisible in the dark when they’d arrived, was the most perfectly beautiful beach framed by a tropical garden, the sun just cresting the horizon and casting everything in pastel shades of peach. Her hand was over her mouth, eyes wide as she tried to take it all in. “This is…just gorgeous.”
“Isn’t it?” Josh still held her hand, gazing around him in amazement. And then, with a grin that had recently become all too rare, he turned and took her other hand in his. His eyebrows climbed in amazement. “We’re in Barbados!”
“Yes!” Her own grin spread as wide as his. “Yes, we are.”
“We’re in Barbados together…”
“I’d noticed that.” She took a step backward, tugging him with her. “It’s early you know.”
Josh nodded toward the glorious sunrise. “I didn’t want you to miss this.”
“You’re meant to be resting.”
She took another step backward. “Come back to bed for a little bit.”
“Body clock,” he said, with a shake of his head. “It’s all screwed up. I can’t sleep once I’ve—”
“Who said anything about sleeping?”
It took about half a second for him to understand her meaning, and then she was in his arms, his kiss as fiery as the sunrise, and she knew that she never wanted to be anywhere else, ever again.
The next time she surfaced, the sun was blazing through the open doors and the air conditioning was valiantly cranking out its ineffective response. With a grimace Donna slipped out of bed and shut the windows, casting her eye over the paradise outside and resisting the urge to pinch herself. It was twice as beautiful as she’d imagined and she could hardly wait to feel the hot sand beneath her toes.
She turned back around, the cool air filling the room and raising little bumps along her arms. Josh was still sleeping, flat on his back with a pillow over his face to keep out the light. She had no intention of disturbing him; if he did nothing else on this trip, she was determined that he was going to sleep.
Resisting the urge to sit there watching him like a love-struck teenager, she quietly opened her case and started to unpack. Bikini, sarong, sandals, shorts… Ah, the joy of packing for a beach vacation. Not that she’d ever, you know, actually taken a beach vacation before. She smiled and glanced over at Josh; somehow, she’d always known he’d be the one to bring her here. How strange that she’d known that, right from the start…
With her own things hung up, she glanced over at Josh’s case and tried to decide if unpacking for him was appropriate. She’d done it a hundred times as his assistant, which was kind of the point. She didn’t want to fall back into that pattern. On the other hand, did she really want to spend all week looking at his half unpacked clothes sprawling out of the case? Just then, Josh mumbled something and rolled over. For a moment Donna thought he might be waking up, but his breathing evened out again and he looked so peaceful, so relaxed… Just this once, she told herself. She’d unpack for him just this once.
It didn’t take long; he could probably have packed everything he’d brought in his backpack or, possibly, his pocket. He hadn’t even brought sun block – and God knew he’d need that after not seeing the sun for eight years – but at least he’d remembered his toothbrush. Taking it and her own wash bag with her, she headed into the bathroom. It was, to her, almost as glorious as the beach – all white tiles and soft towels, with the most enormous tub she’d ever seen in her whole life. She grinned. Oh yeah, this was going to be fun.
Righting one of the upended glasses by the sink she dropped Josh’s toothbrush inside, her own joining it a moment later as she unpacked her wash bag. The tinkle of plastic on glass seemed loud in the room, and for a moment she found herself staring at her toothbrush where it rested, leaning against his. It was very silly, ridiculous really, but her stomach was fluttering with frilly romantic notions of ‘forever’ and ‘meant to be’. Toothbrush romance…
But however much she might want it, there were no guarantees. The vacation was a grand gesture, no doubt. But this was still Josh and less than twenty-four hours ago he’d been back-peddling fast enough to win an Olympic gold. Mercurial didn’t even begin to describe his relationships with women; schizophrenic might be closer. She knew better than to take any of this for granted; much better to enjoy the moment and not think too much about what would happen when they got home, because—
A warm pair of arms circled her from behind. “I missed you,” Josh murmured against her neck, and in the bathroom mirror she could see him smile beneath his disheveled hair.
Donna smiled back. “Hungry?”
“Mmmm,” he nodded, looking up and meeting her eyes in the mirror. “Let’s get breakfast.”
“I think we missed breakfast,” she said, wrapping her arms over his and leaning back against him. God, it felt good to be held like this… “Brunch?”
“We missed breakfast?”
“It’s after eleven.”
If it was possible, his eyebrows climbed even further. “You’re kidding?”
“You were tired.”
In a flash, surprise was replaced with a lecherous smirk. “I blame you and your insatiable appetites….”
Donna laughed. “Yeah, right. Me and twelve months on the campaign trail followed by trying to put together a new administration…” And losing Leo, although she didn’t say that out loud, just tightened her hold on his arms.
Josh nodded, but his smile had faded. “Donna…?” Turning her toward him he gazed for a long moment into her eyes, seemingly struggling with an idea. But at last, and with a little shake of his head, all he said was, “Thanks. For coming.”
She touched his face, at once soft and rough and warm, a face so familiar, so beloved. She wanted to tell him that, but those words seemed too dangerous today. Too risky. So instead she leaned over and kissed him softly. “Thanks for asking.”
Josh smiled and pulled her close, his breath warm against her neck as he sighed – happily, she thought. For a long time they just stood there, holding each other. And then Donna’s stomach growled hungrily and Josh laughed.
“Come on,” he said, pulling away from her. “Let’s go feed that insatiable appetite of yours...”
They’d toyed with the idea of going out and finding somewhere for brunch, but the restaurant at the resort had a sweet little deck overlooking the gardens and the beach, and neither of them wanted to make the effort to move much further. The whole point of this vacation was to relax.
No news, no shoes.
The wooden deck was warm beneath her feet as Donna kicked off her sandals and lounged back in the comfortable chair, watching Josh gaze out toward the horizon. Despite looking like he’d worn a shirt and tie from birth, she had to admit he did the relaxed beach-thing remarkably well. At least, he didn’t tuck his t-shirt into his shorts or wear socks with his deck shoes.
“What?” he said, turning to face her with a smile.
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You were staring.”
Donna smiled, she couldn’t help it. “I was thinking you look nice. Not too preppy.”
His eyebrows rose. “Preppy?”
She teased him with another smile. “You know, polo shirt and checked shorts. White socks.”
“I never look preppy,” he insisted, turning back to gaze out over the ocean. “I’m a man of the people.”
Donna snorted a laugh into her freshly pressed pineapple juice. “Right. What was the name of that weird cult you were a member of at Harvard? The one with the red pants?”
Josh looked around for the waitress. “Shouldn’t the food be here by now?”
“Do you still have the pants, Josh? The secret red pants?”
“It’s not secret. And would you stop it?” The humor in his voice was almost as endearing as the lurking dimples.
She lifted a suggestive eyebrow. “You know, I’d kinda like to see those pants…”
“Yeah, well, don’t hold your breath because—”
“Okay!” Their tanned and bubbly waitress had returned in the nick of time. “Who had the pancakes?”
“That would be me.” Josh grinned like a fish swimming away from the hook. “The…fruit thing’s for her.”
The waitress beamed. “The mangos are delicious this morning. Your wife made an excellent choice.”
“She’s not my wife,” Josh blurted. And then his gaze snapped to Donna like a deer caught in headlights. “I mean, not that I think it’s a horrible idea or anything. Not that I’ve thought about it at all.” He grimaced. “I mean, not that I’ve not thought about it, either. It’s just not something that’s been ruled in or ruled out at this stage, it’s not something that’s even on the table. I mean, we have a window and—”
Oh for the love of God. “Could I get another pineapple juice?” Donna asked the bemused waitress, taking the plate of mango from her hand. “He’ll have a coffee, cream and three sugars. Decaf.”
Josh hauled himself out of the hole he was busy digging far enough to complain, “Decaf?”
Donna dismissed the waitress with a smile and eyed the – she had to admit – delicious-looking pile of pancakes and fruit on Josh’s plate. “Your blood is undiluted Red Bull, Josh. You need to detox.” She gave him an arch look. “As that little melt-down just proved.”
He winced. “Me and my silver tongue…”
“Oh, I have no complaints about your tongue.”
He swallowed a laugh and she could see a faint flush steal across his face which delighted her. With a grin she picked up her fork and helped herself to a mouthful of pancake and syrup. It tasted as delicious as it looked.
At last Josh found his voice. “You’re…eating my food.”
“I am. It’s wonderful, you should try some.”
“You always did this.” There was a laugh in his voice that seemed to resonate in her heart; she’d always loved the way he threaded laughter through his words. “You used to order salad and then steal my real food…” She looked up and saw that he’d taken off his sunglasses and was gazing at her with a peculiarly intent expression. “You haven’t done that for a long time.”
“No…” Not since the day their relationship had fractured in two; the memory cut like a sudden chill breeze through the warm air.
But Josh was still smiling, a small intimate smile. “I like that you’re stealing my food again. I…like that. A lot.”
She felt her heart swell. “I like that a lot too.”
Her hand met his beneath the table and stayed there, resting in his lap for the rest of the meal; touching him was becoming as essential to her as drawing breath.
It was as delightful as it was terrifying.
After brunch – which had turned into lunch during the course of the meal – they made their way down to the private beach. It was beyond divine, Donna decided as she settled herself in the shade of a palm tree and squinted out at the sparkling ocean that drifted between turquoise and sapphire beneath a cloudless sky. Perfect, the kind of perfect that could never be recorded with a camera; the kind of perfect that lived on only in your memory.
At her side, Josh sighed. “This is the life,” he said – just a little unconvincingly – as he lay back on the sun bed and glanced at his watch. Donna eyed him for a moment, noting the line of tension in the center of his forehead.
“Are you wearing sun block?”
He glanced at his watch again. “I’m in the shade.”
“You’ll still burn.”
“I’ll put some on later.”
“After you’ve burned red like a lobster?”
With an exaggerated sigh he sat up and swung his legs off the sun bed. “Okay! Where is it?”
Donna handed him the bottle and watched him make a half-assed attempt at rubbing sun cream over his arms. With a roll of her eyes – concealed behind her sunglasses – she sat up and turned to face him, her knees nestled between his. Without a word she took the bottle from his hand, squirted some into her palm and beckoned him closer. He didn’t put up a fight as she slowly began to dab it onto his face and nose, rubbing it in with small, circular motions of her fingers. She paid particular attention to the tension line on his forehead.
“Are you thinking about work?”
Josh blinked, his poker face as hopeless as always. “I, uh—”
"I'm sitting here, practically naked,” Donna said, rubbing both hands along his legs to get rid of the last of the sun block and then leaning back to give him a provocative view of the bikini she’d picked up at the airport. “I’m practically naked, and you're thinking about work?"
He winced, guiltily. “I wasn’t, it’s just I saw— There was copy of yesterday’s Post…”
“That’s a banned substance, Josh. We’ve been through the rules.”
“I know, it’s just there was something in it about the Labor Secretary being appointed, and I told Sam to hold off on—”
Donna silenced him with a quick, deep kiss that left him momentarily stunned. She smiled at the effect. “Take off your shirt.”
His eyebrows rose. “Here?”
“It’s a beach.”
“Shouldn’t we go back to our room or—?”
She couldn’t help smiling at him. “Yeah. Keep that fantasy on ice, Josh.” She picked up the sun block again. “I’ll do your back.”
Understanding dawned with, Donna thought, a little disappointment. But dutifully Josh pulled his t-shirt over his head and lay down. Nice, she thought as she squirted the sun cream onto his back. Very nice.
“Be a man,” she teased, getting to work on rubbing the sun cream in. A lot. Especially around the shoulders. Couldn’t be too careful after all, right?
It didn’t take long for him to relax, and when she peered down at his face she could see his eyes shut and his mouth curved into a sleepy smile; he wasn’t thinking about work, of that Donna was pretty sure. She toyed briefly with the idea of dragging him the few hundred yards to their villa, but in the end thought better of it. Plenty of time for that later on, and they really did need to rest. Finishing her little massage with a kiss on his temple, Donna retreated to her own sun bed and picked up the novel she’d bought a year ago and never had time to read.
Within ten minutes she was fast asleep.
Josh woke with a start, momentarily disorientated and panicking that he was late for a meeting. The blast of sunlight confused him until, half-sitting up, he realized he was on a beach. Memory crashed in, a tidal wave of relief.
Vacation… He was on vacation. With Donna. Oh, thank God…
Rolling onto his back, he took a deep breath and stretched out his cramped muscles. He was hot, he realized; the sun had crept around and was beating down on half his body. Probably needed more sun cream. With a yawn, he looked over at Donna and noticed that her legs were also in the sun.
“You should move,” he said, his sleepy voice sounding like there was sand in his throat. She didn’t answer, and when he looked up toward her face he saw that she was fast asleep, a book sprawled on the sand where she’d dropped it. He picked it up and set it next to her, his hand lingering over the creamy expanse of her stomach. She was so beautiful, he thought. So perfect; like this place. He wanted to touch her, to wake her up and see her smile, but he didn’t; she deserved to rest as much as he did. God knows, they’d all worked themselves to the bone. He felt a momentary flash of shame for leaving the others in the middle of it, for bailing out just when he was most needed, but—
But then he remembered Otto’s face, and how he’d humiliated the guy in front of everyone just because his head felt like it was about to explode. Yeah, he could live with the shame of needing a vacation if it kept him from being that kind of boss. A good leader, Leo had always said, inspires others with confidence in him. A great leader inspires them with confidence in themselves.
So far, Josh figured, he was zero-for-zero on the leadership front.
But maybe now…? His eyes returned to Donna, so beautiful and so there. He remembered how gentle she was, how tenderly she touched him and how strong that made him feel. Like he could do anything if only she was there at the end of the day, soft and warm and sleeping in his arms. Maybe if she was with him he could do this job? Maybe he could be the man he needed to be? Maybe, if this – whatever it was – didn’t derail like every other relationship he’d tried…
And there it was. Even as he watched her doze in the sun, he felt a familiar tension. Right at the center of his chest, there was a pressure that put him on edge. It was unidentifiable, a mystery and yet a constant part of his life; the whetstone that honed the blade and kept him sharp. Whatever it was, he was afraid that if he lost it he’d lose himself. And that scared him more than the idea of Vinick in the White House.
He got to his feet, suddenly too antsy to stay still. The ocean glittered beneath the late afternoon sunshine, inviting him closer. How long since he’d had time to swim in the ocean? He couldn’t even remember. Years, for sure. Decades? Possibly. He didn’t want to think about that, about his life running away like sand between his fingers.
Decades since he’d swum in the ocean. And what was stopping him now?
Donna was still sleeping, her long, beautiful legs looking pale and vulnerable in the sun. He stared down at them, at her, and at all she represented – a life, his life. The life he’d left behind when he started Harvard, meant to pick up when he left Yale, but had never quite managed to find again.
Donna was his life. This, here and now, was his life. And suddenly he knew that if he didn’t seize it, right now, the sand would run so fast through his fingers that next time he paid attention his hands would be empty.
He reached down and picked up his t-shirt, draping it carefully over Donna’s legs. With a deep breath, he pulled off his sunglasses. The sand glared white, the ocean bright as diamonds. He had to squint; real life, he figured, was so much brighter than the life you saw through the office window or the smoked glass of a government car. Nevertheless, he let his sunglasses fall from his fingers as he turned and headed determinedly toward the water.
The only thing stopping him, he realized, was himself. And he was sick of it, sick of denying himself anything beyond ambition, work and achievement. Lou had told him life was overrated, but he was beginning to doubt her words.
He could still feel the ghost of Donna’s loving hands stroking his back and knew that that was life. This was life! This moment.
With a grin of pure exhilaration Josh began to run. The sand was hot and soft beneath his feet at first, then firmer, wetter, cooler. Then he was splashing through the waves until it was too deep to run anymore and he dove beneath the cool, crystal water and began to swim.
He began to swim back to life.
Donna woke slowly, dreamily, and found her feet tangled in something cottony-soft and warm. She blinked, yawned, and sat up. Josh’s faded blue t-shirt lay across her legs, keeping them out of the sun, and she almost melted at the thoughtfulness of the gesture.
It was so un-Josh-like. Only, not really.
Turning to thank him, she realized with a bite of disappointment that he wasn’t there. Gone to get a drink, perhaps? Or an illicit peak at a newspaper? Except that there was a full bottle of water in the sand next to his towel, she had his t-shirt in her hands and his sunglasses lay on the sun bed next to hers.
Her gaze turned to the sea, strangely surprised by the idea that Josh might be in the water. She’d seen him jog – but only if it was the only way to get a meeting – and occasionally play basketball, again more for schmoozing reasons than anything else. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Josh Lyman was no outdoorsman.
Sitting up, Donna lifted a hand to tame the glare and peered out at the ocean. Sure enough, someone was swimming, cutting across the little bay with strong, easy strokes. Josh?
Donna was halfway to her feet when whoever it was stood up and began to wade toward the shore. He was a little further down the beach than where she was sitting, and for a moment she thought it had to be someone else walking with that relaxed, easy stride. But as he slowed at the water’s edge and glanced up and down the beach, getting his bearings, she realized with a little flutter of excitement that it was Josh.
Okay… This was new.
She didn’t move, at sea amid the sudden rush of undiluted, physical attraction. She’d been half in love with him for so long, she’d gone way past the visceral tug in the pit of her belly; that was usually reserved for strangers, new acquaintances. Two-night stands. With Josh, she’d been in love with him before she’d felt a single fluttering butterfly. So this suddenly breathless feeling was new. She felt like a schoolgirl with a crush, and wondered if, perhaps, she’d sublimated the physical for so long it was only now beginning to express itself.
Whatever the cause, she found herself strangely dry-mouthed and self-conscious as she watched Josh walk up the beach toward her. Dripping wet.
She was glad she was wearing her sunglasses; afraid that if he could see the desire in her eyes she’d have surrendered some vital piece of herself.
It didn’t help that he was smiling, wiping the water from his face as he picked his way across the hot sand. “Hi,” he grinned, dimples and all. “You’re awake.”
“So are you,” she agreed, hoping her voice didn’t sound too husky.
Josh grabbed the towel from the sun bed, pressed it against his face and scrubbed it over his hair. “The water’s beautiful,” he said, starting to work on his arms. “Man, I haven’t swum in the ocean since – I worked it out – since I was twenty-four. Can you believe that?”
Donna smiled, and tried not to stare too hard at the little droplets of water glistening on his collarbone. “Funnily enough, I can.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Meaning?”
“Josh, you haven’t done anything since you were twenty-four that didn’t play into your monomaniacal grab for power.”
He paused, a flinch of discomfort touching his face. Blink and you’d miss it. “You…make me sound like Machiavelli.”
“I...” She was breathing a little too fast now. “I don’t think you’re like that.”
Josh eyed her for a moment, his face ambiguous. Water was trickling from the wet hair curling behind his ear, running down his neck toward his chest. Donna swallowed, looked away and was about to speak when Josh said, “You haven’t been for a swim.”
There was a delicate note of threat in his voice that drew her attention instantly back to his face. His eyes were glittering, the corners of his mouth curling toward a smile.
“I’ll swim tomorrow,” Donna said, her heart beginning to race.
“Yeah?” He flicked a drop of water at her; it landed on her shoulder and made her shiver. “Ooops.”
Donna shook her head, trying to school her smile into obedience. It was a recalcitrant pupil. “How old are you?”
Another drip followed. “You’re wet now, might as well take a dip.”
Her eyes narrowed, wondering exactly what he meant by that. “I’m quite comfortable here, thanks.”
“Yeah?” He reached down, oh-so-casually, and picked up his bottle of water. He took a long drink and then, with a truly wicked grin, aimed the bottle at her chest and squirted.
With a shriek of surprise Donna was on her feet, staring at the water dripping down her stomach. “You—!” Retaliation was instant, her own water bottle aimed right at his nose; Donnatella Moss took no prisoners.
Josh laughed like she hadn’t heard him laugh in years, then came after her with his deadly bottle of Dasani. She backed off, giggling, feeling like she was sixteen years old, and then turned tail and ran down the beach toward the ocean. Josh caught up halfway there, grabbed her hand and pulled her along until they were both waist deep in the warm, delicious water.
She was laughing so hard she could hardly breathe as she splashed water at him, screaming when he half-drowned her in return. And then, suddenly, he had her shoulders in his hands and they were face to face, his warm body slick against hers, rocked by the gentle lull of the waves. They were both breathing hard and fast, but laughter fled before something deeper and more powerful. For a long time he gazed at her, as if on the cusp of articulating something profound, and then his hands were on her face and he was kissing her as if his life depended on it.
She was sure hers did.
The shower was warm, the water soft as it washed away the sand and the salt. Donna lifted her face into the jet of water and sighed happily. She felt good all over, inside, outside, everywhere. She couldn’t remember when she’d last felt this good. Perhaps she never had?
They’d been here less than twenty-four hours and already she could feel the stresses of the past few months – years, if she was honest – melting away. They hadn’t had ‘the talk’ yet, and she wasn’t sure they ever would. But maybe it wasn’t even necessary? Josh had never been one to face relationships head on, with a mission objective and a project plan. He was more comfortable approaching it sideways, acting rather than talking – an interesting reversal of the modus operandi of Joshua Lyman, 760 verbal. He might not be able to tell her how he felt, but every time he kissed her she could feel it. So maybe they didn’t need ‘the talk’ after all, maybe they didn’t need to rehash their somewhat awkward past?
It was easier this way; it suited them. Besides, there were ways of talking other than with words.
A knock at the bathroom door interrupted her musings and brought an affectionately amused smile to her lips. “Yes…?”
There was a pause. “You’re still in the shower, right?”
“That’s…thirty minutes now!”
Donna turned around, letting the water stream through her long hair. “Your point?”
Another pause. “I’m bored.”
Ah. “You know… You could go out and see if you can find a newspaper somewhere?”
The door cracked open, letting a draft of air conditioned air inside. Josh’s face appeared through the copious steam. “It’s like a Turkish bath in here!”
“Go buy a newspaper!” she complained. “Quit letting the warm air out.”
“I thought it was against your rules? The newspaper.”
“Well,” she conceded. “You’ve been a good boy today.”
A half-smile twisted his lips. “I have.”
“Go! You’ve got until we go out to dinner to read it, then it goes in the trash.”
He was gone without a goodbye.
Donna smiled again and turned the heat up on the water, building up the steam. This really was utter luxury.
Sometime later – who was timing? – she stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in a thick, white towel and shivered slightly in the cool air of the bedroom. She hadn’t packed all that much, but there were a couple of summery dresses hanging in the closet that would be perfect for sipping cocktails and watching the sun set. She chose her favorite – pretty pastels with spaghetti straps and a skirt that floated when she walked – and set about drying her hair. It was a laborious process, and somewhat futile given that the sea air was humid enough to defy any amount of smoothing serum. In the end she gave up on straight and sleek, and opted for piling it all up in a ramshackle arrangement on the top of her head. She hoped it looked alluring and touchable, rather than scarecrowish.
The final affect, she thought, was pretty good. But perhaps that was because she felt so good; she’d have felt sexy and alive in old sweats and sneakers at this point. She smiled at her reflection, at her ridiculous happiness, and suddenly wished Josh were back.
She suspected he’d found a seat in the sun and was trying to digest the entire Washington Post in half an hour; if anyone could, it was him. With a small sigh, she headed out onto the balcony to wait. The evening air was warm and welcoming after the cool of the villa, and she closed her eyes for a moment and just let herself feel it – the humid caress of the breeze, the scent of the frangipani blossoms in the gardens below, the constant hiss and roar of the waves on the beach.
Opening her eyes, she felt her heart leap a little at the sight of Josh ambling through the gardens on his way back to their villa. He wasn’t watching where he was going, eyes fixed on the folded copy of the newspaper in his hand. His head was shaking a little, she could see his lips moving in disagreement with whatever he was reading, and she wondered if it had been such a good idea to let him reconnect with reality so soon.
She was about to call out to him when he suddenly tripped over a root, yelped, and only managed to keep himself from landing face first in the grass by grabbing hold of a palm tree. The newspaper went flying.
“That was smooth!” Donna called down.
Josh looked up with a self-conscious frown that evaporated the moment he saw her. His whole face changed, softened and for a moment he just stood staring at her as if she were the only thing in the world.
God, he could look at her like that forever…
He didn’t say anything as he peeled himself away from the palm tree, but there was a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth that she recognized as amazement. He still wasn’t speaking though, still not moving and Donna was beginning to wonder if they’d just stand there all night, gazing at each other. Not that she’d object too much, because in the golden evening light he looked quite beautiful; a decade younger than a day ago, his eyes warmer than the sunlight, his hair curling in the humid air.
Her heart swelled and suddenly he was too far away. “Come up,” she said, her voice breaking the spell. “Before I start calling you Romeo and we embarrass the neighbors.”
By the time she heard the door handle turn, Donna found her stomach fluttering like a kid on a first date. It was ridiculous really, but the way he’d been looking at her and the evening sun on his skin… The door opened and he stepped inside. He had one hand behind his back and she wondered if he was trying to sneak the newspaper inside. But there was nothing surreptitious in his expression, in fact his eyes were warm and met hers with a melting smile. “Hey,” he said, closing the door behind him, “you look amazing.”
“So do you.” She smiled at the flicker of surprise and thought that perhaps she hadn’t said that enough over the years.
“I, uh…” He took a step closer, a little self conscious now. “I got you something. It’s not— I mean, it’s not anything really, I just—”
From behind his back he pulled out a frangipani blossom. “I thought it would…look nice in your hair.”
Donna stared; if he’d been holding a diamond necklace she couldn’t have been more touched. “You really…” She had to swallow a swell of emotion. “This is one of those quixotic Josh moments that no one would believe unless they’d witnessed it for themselves.”
“I don’t know how you’d fix it in there…” He gestured vaguely toward her hair. “I mean, maybe you can’t but—”
Taking the blossom carefully from his hand, Donna leaned over and gave him a lingering kiss. Just when it was starting to bubble over into something more she pulled back and smiled. Reaching up, she untied her hair, turning to look in the mirror as she shook it out. The sea air gave it a little wave, somewhere between a frizz and a curl, but once she’d run her fingers through it a couple of times it didn’t look so bad. She tucked the frangipani stem behind her ear and arranged a strand or two in front of it for effect.
When she looked back over at Josh, his eyes were wide. “Wow – you look…beautiful.”
She smiled. “We used to have luaus all the time at school.”
“Luaus?” His eyebrows rose, lips curling into a teasing smile. “You had luaus in Wisconsin? Were your leis made of icicles or—”
She batted him on the arm. “Where I come from, we call it ‘having fun’.”
“Where I come from, we call it ‘freezing your ass off’.”
Donna rolled her eyes, walking past him toward the door. “Obviously we held them indoors in the winter.”
He snagged her hand on the way past and walked with her. “Did you—?” The eyebrows were climbing again. “Did you wear a hula skirt?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
As they stepped outside he was suddenly in front of her, walking backward. “I could get you one, you know. I’m sure they sell them somewhere around here.”
“It’s the Caribbean, Josh.”
“Still…” He grinned. “Donna Moss, hula girl of the Midwest. That’s something I have to—”
She stopped abruptly, pulling him to a halt. The air outside was still warm, but the setting sun had lost all its strength and a delicious breeze was blowing across the beach. “Look where we are,” she said, gazing up at the ochre sky. “Look where we are, Josh…”
His smirk fell away and he came to stand closer. “I could spend the rest of my life here,” he said, reaching down and kissing her lightly on the lips. He wasn’t, Donna noticed with a flutter, looking at the sky. Or the beach. His eyes were fixed entirely on her. “Come on.” He squeezed her hand. “Let’s go eat.”
“There’s always dancing.”
Something about eating outside always made the food taste better, Donna figured, as she sipped her wine and watched a few couples dancing on the deck by the beach. Little twinkling lights decorated the gazebo, a huge yellow moon hung low in the sky and it was altogether the most romantic setting she could imagine.
“So,” Josh said, chin resting on one hand as he picked at the remains of his entrée, “I was wondering—?”
“If I’d like to dance?”
He smiled a little. “Ah…”
“Go on.” Donna leaned back in her chair and studied him. “You were wondering what?”
“Maybe we shouldn’t—”
“Is it about work?”
Josh grimaced. “A little bit.”
Taking another sip of wine, Donna said, “You’re wondering if I took the job with Mrs. Santos.”
“Sorry, I shouldn’t have— We don’t have to talk about this now,” Josh said. “We could…dance. We could dance, or—”
“Actually…” She’d only been half-joking when she’d laid down the ‘no work’ rule, but as it happened this was a subject she’d been hoping to discuss. “Would you mind if we talked about it?”
He looked surprised, but in a good way. “No, that’s fine. I was just… So, did you take the job?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. I said I’d give her an answer when we – I – got back.”
“You have reservations? It’s…an amazing opportunity.”
“I know.” She found herself laughing awkwardly. “It’s just… I just wonder if it’s too much.”
With a sigh she sat forward, hands in her lap and suddenly felt like she’d slipped back in time three years. It wasn’t a comfortable feeling. “I don’t have as much experience as…well, almost anyone else. And I—”
“You’re a quick study.” He flashed her a nervous smile. “And you and Mrs. Santos seem to get on well. That’s important.”
“I know. It’s just…” She sighed, her hands laced tightly together. “Josh, you’ve worked with me longer than anyone. Do you…?” She looked up and met his eyes, doing her best to ignore the discomfort she saw there. “Tell me the truth. Do you think I’m up to the job?”
He stared at her for a long moment and she could practically see the years creep up on him as stress lines appeared out of nowhere. “I do,” he said at last. “Definitely.”
“From a personal assistant to Chief-of-Staff to the First Lady in two years? That’s quite a jump.”
Josh nodded, but he wasn’t looking at her anymore. His eyes were fixed on the table top, his fingers fiddling with anything in range. “Yeah, well, I think we both know— I mean, you were obviously…you know…under-utilized in your, uh, last job. I mean, not your last job, but, you know, when I was…um…”
“My boss?” she supplied.
“Yeah.” He was staring down at his plate now, pushing bits of uneaten salad around with his fork.
A silence fell, charged with unspoken words. It was terrifying, like a black chasm threatening to swallow her whole. This was what they never talked about, those bleak months when they’d been apart. Even now, amid this paradise, the memory had the power to coat them both in ice and pitch them into silence.
She wanted to reach out across the table and take his hand, but she found she couldn’t move. The intimate dinner table felt as intimidating as his oak desk, and in turn she felt small and insignificant. How could he still have the power to make her feel so small? How could he—?
“I think,” Josh said into the gaping silence, “you’re exactly what the First Lady needs. Someone like Lou or – God forbid – Amy would scare the life out of her. She needs someone to organize her life, to shape her image, to protect her and the kids as much as she wants protecting. Someone to…look out for her. To watch her back and to hell with politics.” He looked up at last, an uncertain expression in his eyes. “You were always good at that.”
She couldn’t help smiling; his commendation was all she’d ever wanted. His approval meant more than anything. More than she could tell him, quite literally. “I, uh— I’ll probably have a lot of questions.”
“You know you only have to ask.”
And suddenly the ice was gone, receding back into the dark as the warmth of the Caribbean breeze swept over them. Donna found that she could move again and reached over to take his hand, warm and increasingly familiar in her own. “Let’s dance,” she said.
His smile was pure relief. “I thought you’d never ask.”
It had been Donna’s idea to walk back along the beach, and it was perfect. Moonlight glittered on the black water and burnished her hair pale gold, the sand was cool beneath Josh’s feet and the breeze just enough to make the warmth of her arm around his waist welcome. Beneath his fingers, the skin on her shoulder felt cool and he absently ran his fingers up and down the top of her arm as they walked.
He was, Josh realized, entirely at peace. Even the incessant buzz of responsibility in the back of his mind was quiet tonight. The only sounds were the rush of the waves on the sand and the rustle of the palm trees.
Looking over at her, he caught her eye and smiled. Slowing, not far from their villa now, Donna turned so that she stood in front of him, her arms looping around his neck. She looked so beautiful he could hardly believe she was real. That any of this was real. Part of him thought he’d wake up any minute and find himself asleep at his desk.
Donna cocked her head. “Penny for them?”
“Not worth half that,” he told her. Then, “You’re incredibly beautiful tonight.”
Her instant denial, a shake of her head, eyes averted, was utterly enchanting. “You’ve been drinking.”
With one hand, he tipped her chin up to look at him. “No. If you could see yourself the way I see you...”
She didn’t turn away, although she looked a little skittish. He wondered if he was saying too much, or maybe not enough. Maybe she didn’t want to hear that she was beautiful, maybe that implied he wasn’t serious about her. Maybe she wanted to hear something else…? “I—” He cut himself off with a nervous laugh. “I’m…so…bad at this.”
Donna’s smile was indulgent and sweet and brighter than the moon. “You’re doing fine.”
“I can’t— The thing is, I want to tell you, um… I want to tell you that—” He couldn’t seem to find the words, or rather, he couldn’t seem to bring them to his lips. Putting them out there was as terrifying as skydiving without a parachute. Not that he’d ever been skydiving, but he imagined it would be pretty terrifying with or without a chute, and in this case—
“Josh?” Her head was tipped to one side again, studying him with that mix of affection and exasperation he knew so well.
“Yeah.” The word came out on the crest of a defeated sigh.
She smiled tentatively. “Would it help if I…?” A nervous little laugh escaped and he could feel her hands clasp together behind his neck. “Would it help if I told you that I…that I love you?”
He wasn’t breathing. He wasn’t moving. It was entirely possible he was actually, physically floating on air. “It – uh – might,” he managed at last.
He was fairly sure he spoke the words out loud because Donna’s beautiful face scrunched into a frown. “Josh…!” she batted him lightly on the shoulder.
“I mean— God! I mean, yes. Yes, it…um… Okay.”
She was just staring at him now. “It’s traditional in this situation to say something like—”
“I love you.” It burst out like a champagne cork and to his surprise much more else bubbled over too. “I love you so much. You wouldn’t believe how much I love you, it’s like this whole enormous reservoir of love that’s just been sitting there inside me for years – years! – and now I can just— Oh my God…” He actually felt a little dizzy with it now, a little crazy with the realization. Like a pressure cooker with the lid ripped off, and so high he was actually flying. “I love you! I really, really love you…”
Donna was laughing, shaking her head, and he thought he saw the glitter of tears in her eyes but before he could be sure she pulled him close, burying her face against his neck. “I love you too.”
They stood for a long time like that, and all Josh could hear was the pounding of the surf on the beach and the thudding of his heart. When Donna at last lifted her head from his shoulder she didn’t say a word, she just kissed him softly before pulling back with a slow, inviting smile and taking his hand in hers.
Together they walked toward their villa in silence.
He reached for the light as they stepped inside, but Donna stopped him with a hand on his and a small shake of her head. Without a word, she led him into the bedroom, switched off the buzz of the air conditioner and flung wide the windows. Moonlight flooded the room, drifting in on the ocean breeze and the scent of sea salt and flowers.
Josh’s pulse was racing and all he could see in the whole world was her. In no hurry, she came to stand before him. A gentle gust stirred her hair and her ivory skin was luminous in the pale light of the moon. Josh wasn’t breathing now, spellbound as she reached out and touched his face.
I love you.
She didn’t say the words, but he could see them in her eyes as she slowly unzipped her dress and let it fall from her shoulders. His breath caught; she was like a goddess in the moonlight and he couldn’t believe – he couldn’t begin to understand – how he could deserve her.
His hand shook as he reached out and stroked the silken skin of her shoulder, trailing down to brush the side of her breast, her waist, her hip... She sucked in the smallest of breaths at his touch, her lips curving into a smile as she slipped her hand around his neck and pulled him closer.
“You’re…perfect,” he murmured as his lips met hers. “You’re everything.”
And the tension he’d felt for so long, so deep inside, released as he spoke the words, as he let himself accept the truth for the first time. She was everything to him, and had been for longer than he knew. Forever, perhaps. He felt as though he’d been born loving her.
Coherent thought evaporated as her body melted against him and his whole world became a kaleidoscope of feeling and sensation: the warmth and softness of her skin, her endless sweet kisses, her hands caressing, stroking, loving him, and later, as they tangled together and he moved inside her, an incinerating explosion of emotion left him breathless and shaking in its wake.
Slowly, the embers faded and he found himself hovering on the edge of sleep, wrapped in and around her and never wanting to let go. Not ever. As he breathed in the scent of her, more intoxicating than any perfume, he realized that for the first time in his life he knew what it was to make love, to really make love, and everything that had gone before paled by comparison to that single moment of soul-healing joy.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please ensure that your seats are in the upright position, your hand luggage is securely stowed and that your seatbelts are fastened. We’re anticipating a good flight and with a tail wind expect to be landing in Washington D.C. a little ahead of schedule at twenty-two-hundred hours. From the captain and all the crew, I wish you a pleasant and enjoyable flight. ”
Donna sighed and gazed out the plane window at the airport lights glittering in the darkness. Inside the air was cool and dry, but outside it was warm and humid and part of her longed to be back there on the moonlit beach. It was a fantasy, she knew. The whole week had been a fantasy in a way, so far from the usual stresses of their lives. She wondered how it would be when they got home, back to the remorseless demands of their jobs, and the thought made her heart sink a little.
Josh’s hand closed around hers. She looked over at him and smiled. “I feel like we just got here.”
“I don’t,” he said. “I’m not sure I was actually conscious when we got here.”
She laughed and squeezed his hand. “You were a little zombied.”
“You look better for getting some sun.”
He shrugged. “I feel better, but I don’t think it was the sun.”
“The sea, then?”
He smiled, but only with his eyes. “I’m thinking it was the other thing.”
“Ah.” Donna made a show of nodding seriously. “That.”
Josh didn’t say anymore, but he didn’t look away and kept hold of her hand. An air stewardess passed by, checking their tray tables were folded up, and Donna could tell that Josh was waiting for the woman to move on before he spoke again. When he did, his eyes dipped down to their hands clasped together in her lap. “So…I guess you’ll be throwing that nervous woman out of your apartment when we get back? I mean, now you’ll be working in DC again.”
“I guess.” It was something she’d certainly thought about, but somehow it had worked itself right to the bottom of her to-do list. “I need to give her three months notice though.”
His eyebrows rose. “Oh? That seems long.”
“I’m a generous landlady.”
“Yes you are.” There was a long pause and outside the engines whined as the plane juddered into motion and began to crawl around the edge of the runway. Josh’s hand tightened on hers and he cleared his throat. “This was a great trip, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she agreed, a little thrown by the sudden change of subject. “Sam has all the best ideas.”
Josh smiled. “Yeah. That’s why I hired him.”
“The beach was so beautiful,” she said, her mind drifting back to that magical moonlit night they’d shared. She’d learned what it meant to be loved that night, and what it meant to love in return.
Perhaps his mind had turned in the same direction because his gaze lifted from their hands to her face, and his eyes were as warm and tender as she remembered them being that night. “What I loved most,” he said in a voice so quiet it was almost lost beneath the roar of the engines, “what I loved most was waking up with you every morning.”
“You’re very sweet,” she replied, inching as close to him as the armrest between them allowed.
“Thing is, there are no beaches in D.C.”
“No, and no palm trees either. Unless you go to the spa at—”
He sounded a little pained, so she apologized with a smile and leaned her head against his shoulder. “You’re right,” she said solemnly, “there are no beaches in D.C.”
The engines roared, but she was so close to him now that she could hear his voice despite the noise. “But we could still…you know...”
“Paddle in the Potomac?”
“Wake up together. Every morning.”
Her head snapped up just as the airplane started to accelerate. He was watching her with serious eyes, all but holding his breath. “You mean…? Are you suggesting we…move in together?”
“It’s too soon right? You think it’s too—”
“No.” She silenced him with her fingertips on his lips. “Josh, are you sure? Because this is a pretty…unprecedented step for you.”
“I’m a changed man,” he grinned. “Seriously, I’m like Scrooge on Christmas morning. I’ve seen the light.”
“And you’re ready for this, already? Us living together, Josh?”
His smile faded. “This week, and being with you…? It’s been so— I just feel so… happy. And I don’t want to— I don’t want to date, I don’t want to catch a quick drink so late we can’t think straight, I don’t want to squeeze this in between meetings.” He shifted in his seat until he was facing her. “I want to come home to you every night, I want to listen to you bitch about your day, I want to argue over who used the last of the milk, I want to sleep with you every night. And I don’t ever want to wake up without you next to me. Not ever.”
In the face of so many words, Donna found herself strangely speechless and had to press a hand over her mouth to hold back a sudden flood of emotion.
Gently he took her hand in both of his. “Come home with me tonight?”
Between the engine noise and the tears bunching in her throat, all Donna could manage was a nod. Josh smiled in relief, his whole body suddenly free of tension as he leaned in to kiss her. Their lips met as the plane took flight, its dizzying lilt adding an adrenalin rush to the intensity of the moment.
And then Josh pulled back and grinned at her with all the exuberance of a six year old. “We’re going home,” he said, as if the truth had only just dawned. “We’re going home, Donna.”
“Yes.” She smiled. “Yes, we are.”
It was long overdue. Perhaps they should have done it years ago, but the past was in the past and best left there. They couldn’t go back and smooth out the complicated beginnings of their relationship – Donna knew that – but perhaps they could start from where they were and carve themselves a better future, together.
She was certainly going to try.