It was past three before the Chinese maneuvers were proven to be largely innocuous saber rattling, and by the time Josh emerged from the sit room and crawled back to his office he figured there was no point in going home. Although he hated doing it, this wasn’t the first time he’d slept at work since he and Donna had been together. So he kicked off his shoes and collapsed on the sofa in h is office, falling into a restless sleep until the whine of vacuum cleaners woke him up a couple of hours later.
A sleep deprived headache pounded behind his gritty eyes, and as he hauled himself up from the sofa he had a sudden desire to say ‘screw it!’ and go home. Ten years ago it would never have crossed his mind, but this whole getting a life thing was playing havoc with his sense of commitment. Or something.
Yawning, he ambled out of the office. No one was around yet, bar the cleaning staff, and he nodded to a couple of nameless faces as he made his way toward the mess in the hope it would be open. Today, he thought grimly, would be powered by caffeine and adrenaline. Again. He was halfway toward the stairs when someone called his name, clearing the clouds away like a spring breeze.
Josh turned and felt a smile ease the tension from his face. “Hey,” he said as Donna walked toward him. In her hands, he noticed, were two large coffees and a bag that could, maybe, contain donuts… “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”
She smiled that affectionate, worried smile he knew so well. “You didn’t come home,” she said as they fell into step, heading back to his office.
“Sit room,” he yawned.
“’Til three. I crashed on the sofa.”
“You look terrible.”
He smiled at her. “You look beautiful.”
Donna shouldered open his office door. “I’m serious,” she said as she placed breakfast on the coffee table and sat down on his sofa. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
“Tell that to China,” he yawned, slumping down next to her. “Did you bring donuts?”
Donna rolled her eyes. “I brought bagels. Toasted, with cream cheese. And juice.”
“And coffee? Tell me you brought coffee.”
“If you’re going to stay up working all night, you can at least eat right,” she said, mercifully handing over his coffee. “Junk food and Red Bull won’t cut it.”
He smiled over the rim of his coffee. “I know. Thank you.”
Donna sighed, one hand rubbing his shoulder. “You look so tired,” she said more gently.
“I’m okay,” he assured her, although in truth he didn’t feel it; what the body could handle at thirty-five took a heavier toll at forty-five.
For a moment it looked as though she wanted to say more, but then her lips pressed together and she just nodded. After a moment she opened her own coffee and took a sip, then pulled out a couple of still-warm bagels and started spreading Philadelphia Lite over half of one. “So… I wanted to run something past you,” she said, handing him the bagel.
Josh smiled. “And here I was thinking this was strictly a social call.”
Her smile didn’t quite reach her nervous lips. “I got a call yesterday. Out of the blue.”
“Yeah?” He took a huge bite of bagel, surprised at how hungry he suddenly felt.
“Yes. From…” She glanced at him, then looked away. “From Colin Ayres.”
Josh frowned. “Who?”
“Colin Ayres?” She was spreading the other half of the bagel now, concentrating so hard you’d have thought she was being tested on the evenness of the cream cheese. “You know, you met him in… At the hospital.”
White hot liquid flared in the center of his chest. “The…IRA guy?”
“Josh…” It was a gentle reprimand.
He took another, aggressive bite of bagel. “What did he want?”
“To meet up for lunch,” Donna said, nibbling daintily at her own breakfast.
Something was congealing in the pit of Josh’s stomach and he put the bagel down on the table. “He’s in DC?”
Donna laughed, although it sounded false. “No. No, he’s doing some work for an organization called the Trans-border Peace Fellowship. They’re putting on some kind of exhibition – photos and things – about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It’s, uh, trying to break down barriers and prejudice, I guess.”
Josh couldn’t have cared less. “What’s that got to do with you?”
“Nothing. But that’s why he’s in DC, and since he was here he just, you know, looked me up.”
The coffee did nothing to wash the bitter taste from Josh’s mouth. “So, you’re going to meet up with him?”
“For lunch.” She looked over at him, her eyes meeting his for the first time since she’d started talking. “Do you mind?”
“Mind?” He laughed, although he knew it sounded a little forced. “What am I, your mother? Have lunch with who you like.”
“I just didn’t want you to, you know, think it was a thing.”
“Yeah…” She shrugged, and he couldn’t tell if she was self-conscious or irritated. “I didn’t want you to feel jealous or anything.”
“I don’t think it’s a thing. He’s a jerk. Why would it be a thing?”
“Okay…” She got to her feet. “He’s not a jerk, Josh, he’s a nice guy. I’m going to have lunch with him, and you’re are going to be polite about him.”
She pinned him with a sharp look. “Have I ever been rude about any of your ex-girlfriends?”
He squirmed, but couldn’t get out of it. “No.”
“But he was hardly a boyfriend! He was like a…a…one-night—”
“You know nothing about it!” she snapped suddenly, a shocking flash of cold fire in her eyes. “You weren’t there, you—” Cutting herself off, she turned away and strode to the door. “Just try not to be jerk for once.”
“Donna, wait,” he followed her, but although she’d stopped she was still staring at the door and not him. “I’m sorry. I’m not being a jerk, I was just…kidding.”
Her head hung. “Okay.”
She looked suddenly vulnerable and lost and Josh had no idea what to do or say; of the two of them, Donna was always the one in control in these situations. “Are you…okay?”
“Yeah.” Sucking in a deep breath, she lifted her chin and glanced over at him. “Make sure you drink your juice. And no junk today.”
Then she reached out and touched his face with her soft, delicate fingers. “Come home tonight.”
“I will,” he whispered, leaning in to steal a gentle kiss. “I promise.” Then he smiled, the expression shaky atop the emotional squall raging inside. “Tell Colin I said ‘hi’.”
Donna smiled too, nodded, and was gone. Closing his office door, Josh flopped back down on the sofa and forced himself to drink what looked like a gallon of OJ Donna had brought him. Maybe it was the juice, maybe it was the thought of Colin, or maybe it was just the memory of that goddamn hospital room with its tubes and disinfectant and blood… Whatever it was, he felt nauseous. Adrenaline flared like a steady barrage of whiz-bangs in his chest and he wondered how he could feel simultaneously so exhausted and so painfully restless.
More than that, he wondered how he’d make it through the day without chewing Otto’s head off.
The café was small and casual and, most importantly, out of the way. Not that Donna was of huge interest to the media, but Josh had taught her long ago that they kept their profiles as low as possible. If the story – any story – was about them, then it wasn’t about the President and that was A Bad Thing. Besides, she had very mixed feelings about seeing Colin again, and the cozy atmosphere of Louis’s helped her relax.
She toyed with her glass of white wine and wished she hadn’t been the one to arrive first. Not that it really mattered, it wasn’t a date, but sitting there waiting gave her time to think, and thoughts of Colin inevitably led to thoughts of Gaza and all that had followed. The fallout had spread further than she could possibly have imagined; sometimes she thought it had changed her life entirely. For the better, in the end, but the transition had been painful and nothing about it made her nostalgic. It wasn’t his fault, but somehow she saw Colin at the head of the fault-line that had fractured her life and she couldn’t help feeling wary at seeing him again.
Josh’s reaction, while predictable, hadn’t helped. She’d so wanted him to be supportive, to understand the ghosts she was facing, but of course he’d been his usual obtuse self. In his mind, Colin was a threat and he couldn’t see beyond that. It was typical of his tunnel vision.
She sighed and took another sip of wine, just as the door opened and let in a blast of chill December air. Donna looked up and there he was, exactly as she remembered from three years ago. Bundled up against the weather, with a small portfolio under one arm, Colin Ayres smiled a wide, open greeting and hurried over to meet her. “Donna Moss,” he beamed, laying the portfolio on the table so he could sweep her into a hug, “I can’t tell you how good it is to see you. It’s been far too long.”
She smiled at his enthusiasm and hugged him back. “It really has,” she agreed as she pulled away. “You look good.”
“So do you,” Colin said, with real approval in his voice. “When I think of when I last saw you…”
Donna looked away and sat down with a small shake of her head. “Yeah, well…”
“Ah, I’m sorry,” Colin said, joining her at the table and pulling his chair closer to hers. “You don’t want to talk about all that, do you?” He smiled. “You look lovely.”
“Thank you,” she said, casting a cautious eye over his face. It struck her now that he looked a little like Josh and she wondered that she’d never noticed it before. “So how do you like Washington?”
Colin laughed broadly. “It’s cold! But the coffee’s great.”
“We have museums too.”
“You do? Ah, yes,” he smiled. “Smith-something, am I right?”
Donna laughed and felt herself relax as Colin struggled out of his coat and flagged down a waiter. After they’d ordered, he settled back in his chair and studied her face. It was an intent scrutiny that he didn’t bother to hide.
Self-conscious, Donna tucked her hair behind her ear and said, “What?”
“You look different,” Colin said. “Still beautiful, to be sure. But…I don’t know. More yourself, if you get what I’m saying.”
It was an astute observation and it surprised her. “I guess I’ve changed in the last couple of years. A lot’s changed.”
“That it has,” Colin agreed. Then he smiled, “So this is where I ask if you’re seeing anyone...”
Donna smiled and felt herself blush. “Yeah, I… I’m sorry, I’m with someone.”
“Of course you are.” He sounded disappointed, and didn’t seem to mind that she knew it. And that surprised her too. “I hope he treats you well, Donna Moss.”
She laughed at that. “Treats me well?”
“Ah, you know what I mean,” Colin grinned.
“He’s… He works a lot, but when he’s around he’s very sweet.”
“It’s not…?” Colin leaned forward over the table, his eyes suddenly bright with curiosity. “It’s not that guy you worked with? What was his name? He was at the hospital… Jacob? Jack?”
“Josh,” Donna corrected. “Yeah, it’s Josh.”
Colin laughed out loud. “Really? Well... I guess I was out gunned from the start, eh?”
“We weren’t… I was his assistant back then.”
“His assistant?” Colin chuckled again. “He didn’t tell me that.”
“Well, that’s Josh for you, he’s very—”
“Oh, now, don’t blame the guy. He didn’t punch me on the nose, and for that I’m grateful.”
“It wasn’t like that between us then,” Donna assured him, “our relationship was strictly professional.”
Colin’s mouth stretched into an easy grin. “For sure, most bosses would fly halfway around the world in only the clothes they’re standing up in, to sit for a week at the bedside of their assistant. It’s quite common.”
“It really wasn’t like that, trust me.” She felt a tug of guilt at her mild betrayal, but carried on regardless. “He’d probably lost his schedule and was waiting for me to tell him where he had to be.”
Colin smiled, although there was a speculative look in his dark eyes. After a moment he turned to the portfolio on the table. “So, since I’m not going to get a date, I guess I should get down to business.”
“We have business?”
Before he could answer, the waiter arrived with their food and Colin was forced to pick up the portfolio and rest it on the floor between them. When they were alone again, he said, “I have a proposition for you, Donna. I think – I hope – it’s something you’re going to want to be involved with. It’s a chance, if you like, to add your unique voice to the call for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.”
“Peace and reconciliation?” she repeated, taking a bite of her tuna salad. “I’m listening…”
“It sounds fascinating,” Helen Santos said, gazing over the vastness of her desk at her Chief of Staff. “And you certainly seem enthused by the idea.”
Donna smiled. “I am. It’s… It feels like, for the first time, something positive could come out of that whole mess. You know? Like a silver lining.”
Helen nodded, although there was something bright in Donna’s eyes – almost an anger – that gave her pause. “You’re sure this won’t be too difficult? I mean, it won’t bring back too many difficult memories?”
“No. No, I’m fine about all that. It was years ago now, and it didn’t— I didn’t react too badly, all things considered. And this…I guess it feels like closure. Does that make sense?”
“Makes sense to me,” Helen agreed. “If you’re happy with it, then I’d say go for it.”
Donna smiled her wide, radiant smile. “Then you don’t have a problem with me getting involved with the project?”
“Absolutely not – it’s a private matter. You’re not doing this as my representative.”
“Of course not.”
“Then, frankly, I don’t think it has anything to do with me. It’s your life Donna; you have precious little free time and I’m not about to start telling you what to do with it.”
Donna rose to her feet. “Thank you Mrs. Santos, I really appreciate your support.”
“Of course, Donna.” After a moment she added, “What does Josh think?”
A flicker of doubt crossed the other woman’s face. “I— I wanted to discuss it with you first, to make sure you didn’t have any objections. I’ll talk to him about it tonight.”
Helen frowned. “You think he’ll have a problem with it?”
“It’s…complicated. There are some issues.” She shrugged and forced a bright smile. “I’ll talk him round.”
“Just don’t let him talk you out of it.”
Donna laughed without a lot of humor. “Oh, I don’t think there’s much chance of that, Ma’am.”
He’d done everything he could to get out of work at a decent time, and so when he got home and found the apartment dark and empty Josh couldn’t help feeling disappointed – and a little irritated, if he was honest. Not that he’d ever expected Donna to be waiting with his pipe and slippers, but it was the first time he’d been home by nine in forever and—
Her key turned in the lock. In reality, only ten minutes later than himself. He smiled and swallowed his initial disappointment. She was home and they had the rest of the evening to themselves.
As she pushed open the front door, her eyes widened in surprise. “You’re home!”
“By hell or high water,” he smiled. “You’re late.”
She raised an arch eyebrow and kicked shut the door. “If my dinner isn’t on the table, I’m gonna be mad.”
Donna was loaded down with stuff, so Josh moved in to help – and to steal a kiss. “What is all this?” he asked, taking a large portfolio out of her arms.
“Just something,” she said vaguely, dropping her briefcase and shucking out of her coat. “God, it’s cold out tonight.”
“’Tis the season,” he agreed, taking her coat and hanging it up. “You fancy Chinese?”
She gave him a quick, sharp look. “I had that yesterday.”
“Oh.” If her look had been intended to impart something, he didn’t get it and decided to press on instead. “Pizza?”
Donna made a face. “Sakana?”
“And that’s different from Chinese, how?”
“It’s Japanese, Josh.”
“Just order will you? I’ll have the Chilli Chicken Ramen.”
Picking up the portfolio she disappeared into the bedroom, remerging as he finished giving the order. He’d spent almost a decade working with her, he was used to her looking sharp and neatly pressed, and so he still found it oddly exciting to see her in a sweatshirt and plaid pajama bottoms with her hair pulled up into an untidy ponytail.
The broad grin that spread across his face was entirely involuntary, and if she hadn’t still been clutching her mysterious blue portfolio he’d have pulled her into a warm hug. Instead he flopped onto the sofa and patted the cushion next to him, inviting her to sit. “They said twenty minutes,” he said as she sat down and he draped his arm around her shoulders, relishing the warmth of her presence. He smiled again. “You smell nice.”
Donna cocked her head. “I doubt it. I’ve been running around all day; I feel grimy.”
“You feel great,” Josh insisted, pulling her closer. “You smell like you. And I like you.”
She smiled at that and let her head come to rest against his shoulder. “I like you too.”
“That’s good then.”
Josh yawned. “So, what you got in the portfolio? The…First Lady’s Vogue cover shots?”
“Not exactly,” Donna said, sitting up and pulling away from him a little. She hugged the folder closer to her chest and cast him a sideways look. “I need you not to freak out.”
Another yawn died in his throat, cut by a sudden tension. He tried to break it with a laugh, but didn’t really succeed. “Why? What’s in there?”
“You remember I saw Colin for lunch today?”
The fact had blazed in letters of fire across his psyche all day. Not that he was about to admit it. “That was today?”
Her eyes narrowed, guessing his game. “It was. And he had a proposition for me—”
“I bet he did,” Josh grumbled, a little louder than intended.
Donna’s eyes went, for a moment, extremely cold. Like shards of blue ice. Josh felt himself slapped wide awake and had almost summoned an apology when Donna began talking again. “He wants me to be involved in a peace and reconciliation project.”
“It’s… It’s trying to illustrate… It’s going to use photographs and first hand accounts of violence in the Middle East to try and foster better understanding – of all sides in the conflict.”
Josh frowned and the aborted yawn finally escaped. He scratched a hand through his hair. “So… What? He wants you to pimp his project to the First Lady? It doesn’t sound like her kind of—”
“No. Josh…” Donna’s lips pressed together and she sat forward, both her arms wrapped around the folder. “He… There are some…photos. He took some photos. After the explosion in Gaza.”
Josh felt his mind go blank; the sense of disconnection was almost physical. Like hitting a switch. “Pictures of what?” he heard himself say, even though he knew the answer somewhere far away.
She didn’t look at him. “Of me,” she said in a quiet voice. “He said the police wouldn’t let him help, so he took photos. It’s what he does.”
There was a strange swirling sensation in the pit of his stomach; if he’d felt more connected to his body he thought he might have recognized it as rage. “He took photos? You were bleeding to death and he took your photo?”
“The police wouldn’t let him help.”
And with a horrible, sick sensation he was back there, staring at those god-awful images on the TV, listening to Toby yelling down the phone and knowing – knowing – Donna was in the smoldering wreckage. Dead, dying. Gone. Just gone.
He felt sick, physically sick, and too wired to sit still. “The bastard took your photo?” he said, fingers curling into fists. “Sonofa—” And suddenly he got it, felt his jaw drop in revulsion. “He wants to use the photos, doesn’t he? He wants to use them in his pseudo-political exercise in self-promotion, the ground-feeding—”
“I can’t believe it!” He jumped to his feet and began to pace. “This… This is what gives journalism a bad name. This voyeuristic, prurient—”
He turned and saw that Donna was standing too. Her chin was lifted, her eyes alight with a defiance he hadn’t seen in over a year. A chill crept over his skin, a cold flush of foreboding.
“I want to be involved, Josh. It’s not voyeuristic or anything like that. It’s about telling my story, about sharing what happened to me in the hope that – maybe – we can all just…I don’t know…learn not to hate each other anymore.”
“Learn not to hate each other?” He laughed, he couldn’t help himself. “Are you kidding me? Generations of hatred in the Middle East is going to be washed away because some tree-hugging lefty puts your photo up in a DC gallery? That’s just—”
“It’s not just DC,” Donna cut in. “It going to tour – cities in the States, Europe, even Jerusalem if—”
“Who cares? It’s meaningless posturing, Donna. It’s the worst example of artsy, pointless— It won’t change anything. Except Colin Ayres bank balance.”
“He’s not getting paid, he’s—”
“Yeah… this is just going to kill his career.”
“That’s not why he’s doing it.”
Josh snorted. “Did he tell you that?”
She was silent for a moment. “At least he’s trying to do something – to reach out.”
“And we’re not? Is that what you think? You think we’re—”
“You have no idea what goes on, Donna. You don’t know what I— Just… Look, I’m sorry to rain on your parade, but this isn’t going to fly. It’s not going to happen.”
A humorless smile twisted one corner of her mouth. “It’s not going to happen?”
“No,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
For a moment she just stared at him, then she picked up the blue folder and walked into the kitchen. Leaving it on the counter she began to get out plates and glasses, pulled a half full bottle of wine from the refrigerator and poured herself a generous glass. A brittle silence hung between them; she looked as far away as she’d used to look, back in the terrible time when her eyes had always been cold and her words had been sharp as cracked ice. Josh felt a strange pressure on his chest, an incipient sense of panic. The sword about to fall, the other shoe about to drop. He opened his mouth to speak, but his throat was dry and when he said her name the sound was drowned by the sound of the buzzer announcing the arrival of dinner.
Donna answered the door in silence, heavily tipped the delivery guy, and carried the bag to the table. Without a word she began dishing out the food, sat down and started to eat. Josh had the odd sensation that he’d become invisible – redundant, cast-off.
He hated it when she was angry with him. He hated it with a passion.
Fumbling for something – anything – to say, he approached the table and ran his fingers across the back of an empty chair. “Looks like I over ordered…” His smile was watery, but it didn’t matter because Donna didn’t look up.
“I’m pretty hungry,” was all she said, her attention fixed on the noodles in her bowl.
Cautiously, Josh sat down. He wasn’t hungry at all, not when she was like this. He couldn’t stand it. “Look, Donna? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
“Be a jackass?”
He smiled slightly. “I guess. It’s just— It’s a bad idea, Donna. People like us – we can’t court publicity. We can’t put ourselves out there, you know that. It’s not about us, it’s about the President and the First Lady. If you let Colin use those photos… Well, then the story’s about you, not Mrs. Santos. Not the President.”
She still didn’t look up. “What if Mrs. Santos thinks it’s okay?”
He felt his eyebrows climb. “You…asked her already?”
“Of course.” Donna looked up at last, her eyes still chilly. “She’s my boss, Josh. Not you. Of course I ran it past her.”
The pressure in the center of his chest was growing now, compressing his breathing into tense puffs of irritation. “Due respect, Donna, Mrs. Santos has less political savvy than—”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it’s what you meant.”
“No, it’s not.” He leaned forward across the table, trying to breach the chasm. More quietly he said, “Donna, you have to see that this…this stunt isn’t going to achieve anything more than increasing your public profile. It’s not going to help the Administration and its certainly not going to bring peace to the Middle East, whatever Colin told you.”
Her head was turned, eyes gazing out at the city lights. “What if it brings some peace to me?”
“By putting up pictures of…” God, he could hardly imagine. “Of you…in that SUV… How would that—? How could that possibly help you?”
“Because it’s doing something with it, Josh. It’s using the…the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in a positive way. It’s…” Her eyes met his, wider now and warmer. Thank God. “Maybe something good can come out of it?”
“You survived,” he said quietly, taking her hand. “That’s something good. You survived and you’re here.”
She didn’t smile, but she did squeeze his hand. “I’m sorry you don’t like the idea.”
“It’s a terrible idea,” he assured her.
Donna didn’t answer, just pulled her hand from his. “You should eat before it gets cold,” she said. “I’m going to take a shower and have an early night. I’m exhausted.”
“An early night sounds good,” he said with a smile.
“I meant to sleep.”
“I can do that too.”
Donna didn’t answer, just carried her half-full plate into the kitchen, scraped the content into the trash, then picked up the folder and headed into the bedroom. The door shut with an ominous clunk and Josh was reminded of Alisa’s words a couple of days ago.
You don’t like being left behind.
It was true, but even worse than being left behind was being left out of the room. That, he thought as he stared at the closed bedroom door, was worse than anything.
Amy Gardner arrived early at work, which wasn’t unusual. Although, a couple of years back – before she’d developed what Lou dismissively called ‘a life’ – she’d have been in earlier. Nonetheless, Josh had already beaten her into the office and as she sauntered up to Margaret’s desk she glimpsed him, head down and hard at work. The aroma of coffee drifted through his door – cream, three sugars. She’d never known how he could stomach the stuff.
“Hey,” she called from the doorway, since Margaret wasn’t around to play gatekeeper. “You in?”
Josh glanced up, blinking a little. Amy wondered if he’d been there all night. “What do you need?”
A lesser woman might have been intimidated by the curt response, but there was absolutely nothing Josh Lyman could do that would intimidate Amy Gardner. She’d seen him with his pants down, after all. Frequently. “You look like you slept in the park,” she observed, strolling into his office and taking in the haggard face and disheveled hair.
“It’s your obvious respect for me and my position that I love most about you Amy.”
“Really? And here I was, thinking it was my a—”
“What do you need?”
She smiled. “Five minutes of your time.”
“Is it Hawsley?”
“Yeah. And Adriano.”
“You’re kidding me? Adriano? He practically camped out on our coattails! He owes us big time, the little—”
Amy held up a hand, cutting off his rant. “Relax, J. Adriano’s in the bag; I’ve got more balls than that little runt. But Hawsley...”
With a sigh, Josh flopped back in his chair and rubbed a hand over his eyes. He looked tired. “We need to sling him some pork?”
“I was thinking the McKenzie-Reid contract.”
He winced. “Didn’t we already offer that to Bertram?”
“No, that was the freight thing.”
“Right. Okay.” He stood up, glanced at his watch and yelled. “Margaret!” There was no answer. Without missing a beat he added, “Okay, offer him McKenzie-Reid, but make it clear—” He fixed her with a killer look . “Make sure he knows that we own him now, lock, stock and smoking barrel.”
Amy smiled, feeling that old, familiar thrill. “We’re singing from the same hymn sheet, Josh.”
“We always did.”
He shrugged and cast her a fleeting smile. “Most of the time.”
Except when it really mattered. She surprised herself with a flash of regret and felt a sudden, unbidden surge of affection. Maybe because he looked so much like he used to, or maybe because he looked immeasurably more burdened than the firebrand she’d taken to her bed. Either way, she felt something stir that had been dormant for a long while. Her gaze wandered over him until he frowned, but before he could speak she said, “What’s going on, Josh?” He feigned innocence, but she saw right through it. She knew him better than some people might think. “You look like crap.”
“I get that a lot.”
“Yeah? You should work on that.” Slowly, she stood up. Once upon a time his gaze would have been fixed on her legs. Not today. Instead he was watching her face, and if she hadn’t know him – or herself – better, she’d have suspected he wanted to…talk. About real life. It freaked her a little bit, because the Josh she knew would rather vote Republican than discuss anything as messy as his personal life. Especially with her. She pretty much shared that sentiment; talking had never been their thing. “Listen,” she said, busying herself with her own papers, “we should go out and get drunk some night. For old time’s sake.”
He laughed a little. “Yeah… That would make for great coverage. I’ll tell Lou to get some press in the bar.”
“There’s always my office,” she offered, only half-joking. “We could buy beer and order take out.”
He laughed again, but there was something more in his eyes. For a heartbeat she thought he’d take her up on the offer, but then the smirk was back and everything else was hidden. “I think you’re confusing me with the Josh Lyman who’s a twenty-one year old grad student, rather than the one who – you know – runs the country.”
“Did we have a coup while I was asleep, Josh?” The deep voice boomed from the doorway to the Oval. “Because last time I looked, I ran the country.”
Josh turned, eyebrows climbing. “Mr. President! Ah, what I meant—”
“I know what you meant,” the President smiled. “Morning Amy. Any luck with Hawsley?”
“I’ll have him on a plate with an apple in his mouth by the end of the day, sir.”
Santos looked a little surprised, but Josh just shrugged. “You hired her, sir.”
“Guess I did. ” He retreated into his office. “Now get in here, will you, Josh? One of us, at least, has a country to run.”
As Josh strode after the President, Amy turned to leave. She’d just reached the door when he called her name. “I, uh—” he said awkwardly. “Thanks for…before. Maybe we should do that – get drunk sometime.”
“Yeah. Sure. Anytime, J.”
He nodded and was gone, but Amy lingered for a moment and pondered the tragic fact that she probably meant exactly what she’d just said. Anytime.
Josh Lyman, it seemed, was a difficult man to get out of your system.
By lunchtime the caffeine buzz was making Josh jittery and threatening to build up into a migraine behind his left eye; either a sign of age, or of his body becoming too used to Donna’s health regime and inciting rebellion at his unexpected abuse. Time was – not so long ago, either – when he could live for days at a time on nothing but coffee and sugar. But today, it seemed, was not one of those days.
“Margaret?” he called – quietly, as a concession to the headache. “Have you been for lunch yet?”
She peered around the door, a hint of irritation on her narrowed lips. “Not yet. I can go now, if you need something…?”
“Yeah, get me a…” What the hell was the world coming to? “Get some kind of salad thing, would you? And juice.”
Her sculpted eyebrows sketched a perfect arc of surprise. “For you?”
“No, for my invisible friend.”
The chin lifted, but she’d been in her job a decade longer than Josh and knew better than to comment. Instead she said, “Blue cheese, Ranch, Italian vinaigrette or—”
“I don’t care!”
“It’s just that, if you were on a diet, the vinaigrette has—”
“I’m not on a diet!” He glared. Sudden visions of Colin Ayres sweeping Donna into Schwarzenegger style arms filled his aching head. “Do I look like I should be on a diet?”
Margaret shook her head. “No.”
“I work out. Twice a week.” Sometimes. Maybe.
“Actually, the last time you went to the gym was—”
“Just get me the salad!”
With a nod, she was gone. In the brief moment of silence that followed, Josh found his eye caught by the phone. He hadn’t spoken to Donna all morning; she’d still been asleep when he left, at least she hadn’t stirred when he’d whispered goodbye from the bedroom door. Their argument of the night before still hung silently between them and he didn’t know how to get past it. She was leaving for Christmas in a couple of days, and the last thing he wanted was for it to be awkward between them when she left. Maybe if he called her and—
“Josh?” It was the President, beckoning toward the Oval with a nod of his head. “You got a moment?”
“Sure,” he smiled as he hauled himself to his feet. That never got old, not once. To be this close to the center of the world; to be the guy the President of the United States came to when he needed to get things done. That was something. That was really something.
“I just had Wilkins in here,” Santos was saying, circling around his desk the way he did when he was nervous.
Josh felt his adrenaline spike. “Trouble? Did the Chinese—”
“No,” the President smiled. “No. He said they made a breakthrough today on the troop reduction schedule.”
“Yes. For a change.”
Except that he wasn’t acting like it was good news, he was acting like the proverbial cat on hot bricks. Josh was getting dizzy from watching him circle the room, his fingers touching this, that and everything as he passed. “Sir?” he said at last. “Was there something else?”
Santos stopped pacing, turned and for a brief instant Josh felt their roles reverse; he was the principle and Matthew Santos was about to confess to peeking into the girls’ locker room. “Ah…maybe. This is…” Santos laughed nervously, “a little awkward.”
Josh wasn’t sure whether to yell for Lou or throttle the truth out of Santos on the spot. In a very quiet voice he said, “Tell me what happened.”
“Nothing,” the President assured him with that big, winning smile. “Don’t panic, Josh. I don’t have a harem of interns lining up to talk to the press.” The smile fell away and the President was back to pacing, his voice deceptively innocent. “Actually,” he said, “this is a little bit about you.”
Santos grimaced and sighed. “Okay, I’m sorry. I’m making a big deal out of this. It’s just… What do you know about someone called Colin Ayres and a peace and reconciliation—”
“What?” Josh’s first thought was, ‘how the hell did Ayres get access to the President?’ His second thought spat out like venom. “Donna.”
Santos held up his hand. “Now, don’t be too mad, she—”
“She brought him here?” He was finding it oddly hard to breathe, as if his lungs had shrunk to a tenth their capacity. “She brought that—”
“No,” the President assured him, moving around to at last take a seat on one of the sofas. He motioned for Josh to join him. “Of course she didn’t. Helen mentioned it to me last night. She said Donna was pretty excited about it, but this morning she said you— Josh? Are you okay, you look a little…strange.”
“I’m fine.” His words clawed their way past gritted teeth. “Sir, I’m sorry this got within a hundred yards of you. I already told Donna that it was a no-go, she should never have taken it to Mrs. Santos in the first place and I—”
“I think it’s a great idea, Josh. I think the more open we are, the more we share these experiences on all sides, the closer we’ll get to a real possibility of reconciliation.”
Something vicious and painful was welling up inside and it escaped as a harsh laugh. “It’s a publicity stunt! Some two-bit photo journalist wants to raise his profile and—”
“Helen said that Admiral Fitzwallace’s widow has contributed a passage.”
Josh slammed into a brick wall, losing preconceptions like teeth. “Mrs. Fitzwallace?”
Santos nodded. “Apparently the text will go alongside the images – testimonials from the victims, their families. Including Donna, of course.”
His jaw worked, but Josh could find no words. His stomach was churning, but all he could really feel was outrage. He wanted to yell, but this was the Oval and you didn’t raise your voice to the President. Not ever. “I don’t think it’s—”
“Obviously it’s up to Donna,” Santos said. “But I told Helen – and I’m telling you – that I’d support her if she wanted to do this. I think it’s brave, and frankly I don’t give a damn if it raises her public profile. The issue – the victims – deserve that.”
“Sir, you need to understand that if she’s the story – for a day, a week – that knocks the education bill off the front page, it knocks welfare reform out the window, it—”
“Josh…” Santos was on his feet, heading back to his desk. “You know, some things are more important.”
He was incredulous. “Mr. President, if you think this exercise in liberal chest beating will do anything more than line Colin Ayres’s pockets, then—”
“Maybe it will,” the President said, sitting carefully behind his desk. The symbolism wasn’t lost on Josh; the tables had turned again and Santos wanted him to know it. “Maybe it won’t, but God knows anything’s worth a shot at the moment. My point was, some things are more important than getting the education bill on the front page every morning.”
“Sir, the Middle East—”
“I was talking about Donna, Josh.”
Josh stopped dead and suddenly found himself glowering at the pattern in the carpet. Blood was rushing through his ears in time with his furiously racing heart; mortification and anger vied for the upper hand. “Sir…”
“I’ve told her she has my blessing, Josh. Why don’t you forget politics – just this once – and do the same?”
Jaw clenched, Josh lifted his head and gave a curt nod. “I’ll bear that in mind, sir.”
Santos smiled. “Okay. Now, go get back to running the country.”
“Yes, sir.” Turning on his heel, Josh stalked out of the Oval and quietly closed the door behind him. But he didn’t stop at his desk and barely slowed as he passed Margaret. If he stopped, he was afraid that his thin veneer of composure would fall away entirely. And that would be catastrophic. “Call Donna ’s office,” he growled as he stalked past Margaret, “tell her I’m coming over – and tell her she better damn well clear her diary.”
He was so furious he could barely see. Or think. Or breathe.
No one went over his head to the President. No one. Not ever.
And not her.
Especially not her.