The restaurant was busy – as you’d expect on a night like this. Colin was amazed they’d got a table; then again, perhaps he wasn’t. His ‘date’, for want of a better word, had some strings to pull. He liked that. Truth was, he liked a lot of things about her. More, maybe, than he should. Then again, maybe not. Time would tell; this evening, he thought, would tell.
She arrived late, which was unusual. Donna Moss was a stickler for punctuality. But today she arrived late, looking worn-out and beautiful. Always beautiful, because it came from inside – from behind those eyes full of warmth and integrity. He smiled as he stood up to greet her, and it was no word of a lie when he said, “You look amazing.”
A little shake of her head denied it, a little frown dimming her loveliness for a moment. “Don’t say that. I’ve come straight from work, I haven’t even changed.”
“I’m just glad you’re here. And I mean it, you look amazing.”
She managed a, “Thank you,” but it was distracted. She was distracted, very distracted; he could guess why.
“You know, until I got your phone call this afternoon, I was expecting to spend Valentine’s with only a beer for company.”
“Then I’ve saved you.”
“That you have.”
She pulled the elegantly folded napkin from the plate and spread it across her lap. “Josh had to work,” she said, not looking at him as she fiddled with the fabric.
“He’d— If he could have gotten away…” Her voice trailed off huskily.
“Donna…” If the man had been in the room, Colin would have been sorely tempted to knock his lights out. “I’m sorry for this, Donna, but it has to be said. He’s an idiot. He’s a bloody idiot.”
She shook her head. “No. He’s not, it’s just— You don’t know how busy he is.”
“Ah, screw that,” he said softly, outraged by the tremor in her voice. “What’s he doing tonight then? Negotiating world peace single handed? You make room in your life for the woman you love.”
Her lips pressed together for a moment, then she lifted her chin and smiled determinedly. “Can we talk about something else?”
Colin didn’t answer right away; she looked so sad behind her smile, so lonely, he didn’t want to drop the subject. This Lyman character was a right ejit; what kind of fucked-up work ethic put your job before your family? Only in America, as they liked to say… But he bit his tongue – for now. Instead he poured the wine he’d already ordered and smiled at her. “The pictures arrived today. Including yours. It looks… Astonishing. Really astonishing.”
A little life came back into her face. “Really? You’re not just saying that because you took the picture?”
He smiled. “Well, naturally.”
After a pause, she said, “I can’t wait to see it.”
“Come over tomorrow, it’ll be hung by then. It’s fantastic, Donna. It’s so powerful. And you know what? I showed your piece to Michael Shelton, and he told me he was moved to tears. How about that?”
“Really?” She was genuinely astonished; no fake modesty with Donna Moss. “He said that?”
“He did. And I don’t blame him. It’s a beautiful piece Donna. Really beautiful.”
She smiled self consciously. “I had a little help…”
A curious flutter of envy gave Colin’s next words more of an edge than he’d intended. “Josh read it then?”
Donna’s smile fled. “No. No… I asked Lou to take a look.”
“They very much felt like your own words…”
“They were,” she assured him hurriedly. “She just gave it a polish. Is that okay?”
“It’s your piece, Donna. All of it. And the photo. It’s all about you, your decision all the way.” He raised his glass. “To the grand opening, and to finding your voice, Donna Moss.”
She lifted her glass and clinked it against his. “To peace and reconciliation.”
They drank and were silent.
Donna’s gaze turned inward, her eyes drifting aimlessly around the crowded restaurant full of happy couples. Colin let the silence linger, let her drift. Her face was so beautiful, just watching her think was a pleasure. But at length, when Donna’s glass was almost empty, she turned her attention back to him and smiled. “Thanks for coming tonight.”
“My pleasure. And I mean that most sincerely.”
She smiled again, sadly, and let out a heavy sigh. “You must think I’m stupid.”
“I think you’re amazing.”
“You think Josh is an idiot.”
He shrugged. “So he is. If he wasn’t, he’d be sitting here drinking great wine with the most beautiful woman in Washington, D.C.”
“He has to work. The President—”
“Why did you phone me, Donna?”
“Why did you invite me here?”
She looked down at her napkin again, frowning. “Because… I don’t know. Because I didn’t want to be alone, because—”
“Because you’re finding your voice, Donna. That’s why. I can see it every day. You’re finding your voice.”
“I’m… My voice?”
He sat forward. “Three years ago, when we met? You were so…timid. You couldn’t believe anyone would take you seriously, you were so— Forgive me, but you were so much in that man’s shadow. I saw it, right there at the hospital. The way he dominated you, Donna, I swear… He walked in the room and you stopped being the woman I’d met and started being this other person – this snippy little office girl. But that’s not you. You’re not like that; that’s not who you are, Donna. God, when I look at you – when I read what you wrote…? You are so much more than him, more than people like him.”
She was staring at him, astonished. “Colin…”
“Joshua Lyman is all about repression, Donna. You don’t see it, but I do. He represses himself and he represses you; he controls you. There’s no life there, no fun. No joy! Look at you, with your sad eyes and your broken heart. It’s Valentine’s day, Donna. The one day out of a whole year when you should throw open your arms and scream to the world, I love this woman. I love her! And where is he? Shuffling papers, Donna. Shuffling bloody papers.”
“It’s not like that,” she protested. “He’s…” But she couldn’t finish because her eyes were bright and her lip was trembling.
“There’s so much life in you, Donna Moss. I can see it burning inside you, desperate to get out. You feel it, don’t you?”
Her wide eyes blinked and she gave a scant nod.
“Yes. God, Donna, don’t you see?” He reached over and took her hand; her fingers were long and slender and still. “I know why you phoned me, Donna.”
“You can’t live like that anymore.”
She was staring, tears pooling in her eyes ready to fall.
“Don’t you see?” he murmured, squeezing her hand. “Don’t you see that you don’t have to? ” And as he said the words he leaned forward and pressed a kiss against her lips.
She didn’t respond, and when he pulled back she hung her head and stared again at the napkin in her lap. “You’re right,” she whispered brokenly. “I feel like I’m dying inside.”
“I know,” he whispered, running his thumb over the back of her hand. “And I can bring you back to life.”
But she shook her head. “No, you don’t understand. I’m sorry if I’ve—” She looked up, tears on her cheeks now. “I didn’t mean to give the wrong impression, Colin. I’m so sorry if I’ve…” Her voice cracked and she struggled for a moment to compose herself. “I have to go.”
He held onto her hand as she rose to her feet. “Wait—”
“I am dying inside, Colin, but it’s not what you think.” She pulled her hand from his and reached for her purse. “Josh is… He’s the only man I’ve ever loved, the only man I ever want to be with. And I’m— I’m losing him. I’m losing him and I don’t know why, and that’s what’s killing me.”
“Donna—” He was on his feet in an instant. “I’m sorry. If I misread—”
He smiled. “I doubt that. Look, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I kissed you. That was—”
And, sadly, he knew it was; in that moment, he understood that for some reason known only to God it really was okay, because the only man this incredible woman cared for was a pasty-faced, smug, sarcastic civil servant. It was incredible. Yet, apparently, true.
With an awkward smile, she nodded toward the door. “I should probably…”
“I’ll see you at the gallery tomorrow?”
“Good. Do that.”
She hesitated, “No hard feelings, right?”
“No. None at all.”
“Okay, well…” She started to move toward the door, but at the last moment he called out.
“You could always ask him, you know.”
She frowned. “Ask him what?”
“Why you’re losing him.”
Her mouth pressed into a tight line and she shook her head. “That’s not— That’s not how we do things.”
And with that she was gone, back into her walled-in little world. Colin sat back down, poured himself another glass of wine, and wondered how long it would be before she called him again.
She’d woken on Valentine’s morning to a blue sky, unusually warm sunshine, and an empty bed. She’d dressed for spring, because the sun was out and she was tired of her dark suits and heavy winter coat, and she’d hoped… She’d hoped there’d be something on the kitchen counter, or on the dining table, or, perhaps, on her desk at work.
But there’d been no flowers. No chocolates. Not even a card.
It was still hard for Donna to acknowledge the fact, and she’d brushed off Mrs. Santos’s questions with a laugh and a hint of something at home. It had felt too humiliating to confess the truth; that the man she loved had forgotten her entirely. And there had always been the hope that he would surprise her, that the flowers or the card or the chocolates would arrive. But they hadn’t, and by six she felt so let down that she’d exacted her own, passive revenge by calling Colin and asking him to dinner.
It had been a stupid, childish move and Colin Ayres had deserved better; in retrospect she wasn’t surprised that he’d kissed her. What else do you do when someone asks you out on Valentine’s day?
Lying alone in bed now she could still feel his kiss on her lips. It had been passionate, but strange – too different, too uncomfortable – and she didn’t want to remember it because that felt too much like betrayal. Although sometimes she wondered if Josh would even care; if he could forget – or ignore – Valentine’s Day then he could do the same to her. Maybe he already had.
He hadn’t come home that night. Again. The whole administration was consumed by the peacekeeping operation, she knew that, and she knew how deep in it Josh was buried. But before, even on the longest days, he’d crawled home at night, just for a couple of hours. Now he didn’t bother; he’d sooner sleep in the office. Just like last night. And that hurt. It really hurt.
She rolled over and watched the clock ticking toward five-thirty; another half hour before she had to drag herself out of bed. She wondered if she should call Josh on the whole Valentine’s thing, or if that was just petty and juvenile. Did cards and flowers really matter when you loved someone? Probably not. But when you were—
The shrill ring of her phone startled her. Grabbing it from her nightstand she saw the call was a work number – but not one she recognized. “Donna Moss…”
“Donna? It’s Lou.”
“Lou?” Please, not another PR disaster for Helen Santos… “What’s happened?”
There was an uncomfortable pause. “You should come in.”
“You need to come in now. You’re going to want to see this before Josh.”
“Has Mrs. Santos—?”
“Just come in, Donna. Right now.”
She was out of the apartment and on her way in twenty minutes, her hair scraped back into a ponytail and her makeup minimally applied. And the whole time she was wracking her brains, trying to work out what could have gone wrong; had Helen said something? Was it another thong-gate crisis? Had she accidentally endorsed something on behalf of the First Lady that had blown up in their faces? Whatever it was, it was serious enough to involve Josh and his staff, and that was bad news. She only felt a tenuous authority in her post, if she’d let something slip that caused the administration damage…?
Barbie Chief of Staff, her mind whispered. Maybe he was right all along.
The thought of letting down the President, Mrs. Santos – Josh – made her sick to her stomach and she clutched the steering wheel with white fingers as she cruised through the empty streets and into the parking lot. It was all she could do not to run all the way into the West Wing; as it was she arrived in the communications bull pen breathless and discomposed.
No one was there except for Lou, who sat in what Donna still thought of as Toby’s office. Her dark hair spilled through her fingers as she sat, head in hands, reading something on the desk. At Donna’s light knock she lifted her head, but didn’t smile.
“I got here as fast as I could,” Donna said, edging into the room. “Think I ran a couple of red lights.”
Lou sighed. “Let’s hope there were no cameras…” Getting up, she snatched something from her desk and walked over to where Donna hovered nervously near the doorway. “You should close the door.”
Her heart in her throat – with no idea what was about to happen – Donna closed the door and all-but bit her lip. “Lou, what’s—?”
“I got a call this morning from someone I know.” Lou held out half a front page. “The New York Sun’s running this today.”
Donna took it with trembling fingers – and then her heart stopped. Stopped dead. Beneath the headline, ‘White House Love Cheat’ were two grainy photographs of herself and Colin Ayres; in one he was holding her hand across a dinner table, in the other he was kissing her.
All she could hear was the blood pumping through her ears, all she could see was the photograph in her hands. All she could think was, “I have to see Josh.” Her words tumbled out in a jumble, barely coherent. “I have to see him before—”
“He’s still in the sit room,” Lou said, and Donna didn’t miss the cool inflection to her voice. “They’ve been down there all night, more or less.”
“This isn’t what it looks like,” Donna blurted. “We were just—” Just what? “He just kissed me.”
Lou held up her hand. “It’s none of my business, Donna. Except that when this comes across my desk, it is my business. Because now I have to spin it to protect Josh and the administration. This is, literally, the last thing we need.”
“I know. I’m sorry, I don’t know how… How did they get this?”
“Who cares? They got it, and in three hours Bram’s walking into the press room and taking questions. What’s he saying?”
Donna shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“You have to know, Donna.”
“I need to talk to Josh.”
“Well he’s a little busy averting World War Three!”
Donna flinched. Lou and Josh had never exactly been friends, but Donna recognized in her the loyalty he inspired.
After a moment, Lou took a deep breath. “Sorry. This is just– This isn’t what I signed up for.”
“I know,” Donna agreed. “Me neither. But you have to believe me, this is a non-story. There’s nothing going on between me and Colin.”
“Except you’re working on the controversial Peace and Reconciliation project with him – at odds, I might say, with administration policy on Israel.”
“How’s it at odds—?”
“Because we don’t criticize Israel.”
Lou waved her hand. “Whatever. The point is, this is a story. You, Josh, Ayres… It’s a story and we have to spin it.”
Donna’s head was spinning, never mind the story. “I— Can’t you just say we’re friends?”
“Just good friends?” Lou made a face.
“He kissed me. I told him I wasn’t interested and I swear that’s all that happened.”
Lou eyed her for a moment. “You want Bram to take that into the press room?”
“It’s the truth.”
“They won’t believe it.”
“Because the truth is boring. And because it was Valentine’s night, you were out with Ayres, and I’m sorry but that looks like a pretty thorough kiss.”
There was a lead weight in the center of Donna’s chest, her legs buckled and she found herself sitting on Lou’s sofa. “Then what…?”
“I was thinking ‘we don’t comment on tabloid gossip’, ‘the personal lives of White House staff isn’t a legitimate subject for press attention’. Maybe have the First Lady express her confidence in you as Chief of Staff. Something like that.”
Nodding numbly, Donna couldn’t think of an alternative. She could barely think at all beyond the need to see Josh, to explain this before he saw it somewhere else. God, if he saw it first… “I need to see Josh,” she said again. “I need to explain.”
Lou gave a curt nod. “Explain fast.” Her gaze drifted out toward the bullpen. “I see Margaret with coffee and donuts. They’re probably taking a break.”
Getting slowly to her feet, Donna glimpsed Margaret, a high octane breakfast in hand, heading back toward Josh’s office. She could picture him sitting behind his desk, tired and hungry, and her stomach flipped over at the thought of what she was about to land on him; if only she hadn’t called Colin, if only there hadn’t been a photographer – if only Josh had sent her a damn Valentine’s!
“I’ll go now,” she said in a dry whisper. “I’ll talk to him now.”
But as she left Lou’s office and began the long walk through the silent bull pen, Donna couldn’t even imagine how she was going to begin the conversation…
Margaret seemed surprised to see Donna, but she didn’t comment; she knew better than that. Instead, she just waved her through with a weary smile and it occurred to Donna that she had probably been there all night too. Just as Donna would have been in her position – and had been, for all those loyal years. And yet last night…
Her stomach churned, her mouth felt dry as she pushed open the door to Josh’s office and stepped inside. He was behind his desk, looking dog tired, but he dredged up a smile when he saw her.
“Hey, what are you doing here?”
Her lips opened, but no sound came out.
Josh frowned and scrubbed a tired hand through his hair. “Are you okay? You look a little pale.”
“I’m fine. Josh—”
“Sorry I didn’t make it home last night,” he sighed. “Believe me, I wanted to. But there was just no way…”
“It’s fine.” She took a step closer, wishing he didn’t look so tired, so in need of her. “Josh—”
“Oh! Did you find—?”
“Josh, listen to me.” It came out a whole lot sharper than she’d intended.
He frowned at her, puzzled. “What’s going on?”
In her hand the newsprint felt clammy. She didn’t want him to see this, she wanted to burn it and never let him see it. But that wasn’t an option; honesty was all she had left. Swallowing hard she lifted her hand and held out the cutting. “The New York Sun is running this today. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t look down, his eyes stayed fixed on hers with a silent plea that broke her heart. “What is it?”
“I’m so sorry.”
After an eternity he broke her gaze and looked down at the newspaper in his hand. Donna forced herself to watch, so she saw the fleeting look of shock pass over his face, saw the hurt that came in its wake and didn’t leave. She saw the way he turned away from the newspaper, the way he forced himself not to react. “This is…” The words came on the crest of a humorless laugh. “You couldn’t have told me about this before the papers?”
“It’s not what it looks like.” God, that sounded lame. “I swear, Josh. It’s not what it looks like.”
“Isn’t it?” The laughter was still there, all directed inward. “Did one of you need an emergency tonsillectomy or—” He broke off, leaving the joke to wither. “Has Lou seen it?”
“Yes. She called me in.”
He nodded. “She’s spinning it?”
Donna felt her cheeks flush, because it sounded so very inadequate. “We don’t comment on the personal lives of—” She took a step forward, reached for his hand. “Josh…?” But he pulled away, circling around his chair until both that and his desk were between them.
“I, uh, I’m pretty busy,” he said, his gaze dipped. “So…”
“You have to believe me, Josh. It was— He kissed me and I told him I wasn’t interested. I’m not interested, it just happened. It didn’t mean anything.”
Josh nodded, but he still wasn’t looking at her. “Okay.”
“Look, I have China about to— I don’t have time for this right now. None of us do.”
“I know. I’m sorry. It was stupid, and if I could do it again I wouldn’t, but—”
“There were hearts,” he said suddenly. “In the background of the picture, there were little hearts hanging down.” He looked at her at last, his dark eyes bruised. “This was taken last night?”
She could only nod.
“Okay…” His fingers tapped on the back of his chair. “Okay. I have to be back in the sit room in five, and I need to eat, so…”
“You shouldn’t eat donuts,” she said quietly. “They’re bad for your cholesterol, you need—”
“What I need—” His voice cracked and he turned abruptly away to stare out the window.
She knew if she could just touch him, breach the gap, she could make him understand. But he was too far away. Lost, already.
With a deep breath, or maybe a sigh, he straightened his shoulders. After a moment he turned around and fixed her with a look cold enough to freeze stone; the hurt was gone, anger sat in its place. “I need to focus on, you know, important things right now. Tell Lou to spin this however she likes, but I don’t want it in more than one news cycle.”
“Josh, come home tonight. We can talk about it.”
“Yeah.” He moved to sit at his desk, snatching up the nearest batch of papers. “Yeah, okay.”
Then his nose was buried in work and she was dismissed. Just like that.
With a leaden heart she watched him hurting, knowing there was nothing she could do – not yet, not here. But at home, she could explain. She’d make him understand, get past his anger…
Because the alternative was losing him, and she couldn’t live with that. Not again.
On the first day she sat in her office and wished the floor would open beneath her. She endured Mrs. Santos’s kindly meant commiserations about the tabloid press and tried not to notice the slight surprise in her eyes, the slight doubt. She watched Bram take the question in the press room, and watched him rebuff it with a practiced ease she’d never have suspected a year ago. She held her head high when she snatched a coffee in the commissary and tried not to let the aroma remind her of Josh and the hurt she’d caused him.
She spent the day wishing it was the night, and spent the night wishing he’d come home. But he didn’t.
On the second day she made it half way to the West Wing before she changed her mind and scurried back to her office; she’d give him the space he needed. On her way she passed Amy Gardner who nodded the coldest of greetings and looked at her as if she were seeing her afresh.
That evening she tidied the apartment, put a nice bottle of wine into the refrigerator, and waited for Josh. She was still waiting when her alarm went off the next morning, and she wasn’t sure she’d slept a wink.
On the third morning she got a call from Margaret. It was awkward and embarrassed; Josh had hardly left the sit room in days, he needed some things from home. Not much, Margaret said, just the essentials. Would it be okay if she stopped by and collected what he needed?
It was the end. Donna knew that. She knew Josh well enough, had seen him do this to other women, in different ways. She told Margaret not to worry, that she’d bring in what he needed, and, with a heart slowly freezing, she pulled out a fresh suit, packed a few other essentials, and hung them on the closet door. Then she found her suitcase and threw in the basics – enough to live on ad infinitum when living was work and nothing more. Her stomach recoiled at the thought of breakfast, so she didn’t bother eating. Instead she ran the mostly empty dishwasher, made the bed, turned off the lights and left.
By the time she reached the office her day had truncated in her mind to the next half hour; she could think of nothing beyond it. She dropped her case behind her desk, picked up Josh’s suit and walked the familiar route to his office. It was early, so she didn’t see many people. Margaret was there, of course, and smiled as she rose to her feet to take the clothes from Donna.
Donna didn’t let go. “Is he in?” Only now did she think about calling ahead, just to make sure. But she was in luck.
Margaret nodded hesitantly. “He’s— I’ll just see if he’s free…”
Donna knew what that meant, and beat Margaret to the door. “It’s okay,” she said quietly. “You don’t have to—” She smiled bleakly. “It’s okay.”
Without knocking, she opened the door and stepped inside.
Josh didn’t lift his eyes from the briefing he was scanning when the door opened; his focus these past few days had been intense, at the level he usually reserved for election nights or bar exams. And it was good; he was achieving twice as much in half the time now he was free of other distractions. It reminded him of his glory days, of the time when he had lived for this and this alone. He’d thought it gone forever but perhaps—
His heart lurched and his much vaunted focus splintered like glass. He looked up.
“I brought you your things,” Donna said in a cold, distant voice. She wasn’t smiling. Neither was he. “Margaret said you needed them.”
“Oh. Um, yeah.”
She laid the suit carrier over the sofa on which he’d spent the past four nights, and glanced once around his office. He felt rumpled and unkempt and wished she’d leave.
Donna’s eyes rested on him at last, but he couldn’t read what she was thinking. He thought she was angry, which was pretty ballsy given what she’d done – was doing, for all he knew. “Margaret could have got them,” he said, nodding toward the clothes.
“I told her I would.” She took a deep breath, her chin lifting. “You can— You can go home, Josh.”
“You know what I mean,” she said, turning abruptly away. “I’ve known you too long, Josh. I know this game and I don’t want to play. You can go home, it’s safe. I won’t be there.”
And that, right there, was when the other shoe dropped.
He was seized by a horrific panic, a hundred desperate appeals fighting to be heard: don’t go, don’t leave me, I’m sorry! Please. In the name of God, don’t leave me again…But none of them left his frozen lips, none of them left his frozen heart. She was going, and deep down he’d known this was how it would end. He’d always known, because that’s how things always ended. People moved on. People left.
He couldn’t breathe because there was something the weight of a bowling ball resting on his chest, all he could do was watch her as she looked at him sideways, already half turned toward the door. It was as if she was expecting something from him – expecting him to speak. Perhaps she wanted his blessing, wanted to hear that Colin Ayres was a great guy, wanted to know that there were no hard feelings.
But he couldn’t say any of those things, he couldn’t even draw breath. Donna was leaving him, just like she’d done twice before, and the shock left him reeling; he was completely at sea, completely disorientated. Knowing it was coming hadn’t helped; it hurt even more than he’d imagined, so much more profoundly than last time. All he could do was watch as she turned and walked out of his office and out of his life.
Her parting act of mercy was to close the door, because for a full five minutes he couldn’t move an inch. Then, deep inside, something gave way and the tears came, silently and remorselessly, swept along on a despairing wave of grief.
A bullet through the heart had been easier to bear than this. So much easier.