As winter thawed into a mild spring, the atmosphere in the West Wing stayed icy. Not that it wasn’t efficient, Sam thought, but it was a cold efficiency. Work was done, changes were made, bills were passed; it was an effective, dynamic administration. But it wasn’t a warm one. There wasn’t much laughter, not a lot of frivolity, and perhaps that was how it should be in such hallowed halls. Except Sam could remember turkeys in CJ’s office, late night poker games, and arguing about the ERA with Ainsley Hayes until three in the morning. And those things didn’t happen in Josh Lyman’s White House.
If Josh had been hard-line before his split with Donna, in the weeks immediately afterward he was positively stony. Oh, he was smiling again now – two months on – but the smiles were perfunctory, designed to keep concern at arms length. He’d say he was fine, if anyone asked. But very few were that brave. Sam Seaborn, of course, was one of those brave few…
On this day, with a strengthening sun casting warm light into Josh’s office, Sam was on what he’d come to consider ‘go-between’ duty. If the President’s CoS needed to talk to the First Lady’s, then Sam was the guy; from state dinners to school functions, Sam had de facto taken over all liaison with the First Lady’s office. And he wouldn’t have minded that so much if it hadn’t been for the subtext. The subtext was driving him to the point of insanity, and quite possibly beyond; at times he felt as though he’d been dumped into a bad high school drama. And, frankly, he’d had enough.
“Donna said to remind you that she’ll be attending the Breast Cancer Awareness dinner,” Sam said as he walked into Josh’s office. “And – to make myself perfectly clear about this – I’d just like to say that is the last of those adolescent messages I’m passing on.”
Josh glanced up from his reading. “Did she say if she was staying for the whole thing, or just—”
“You think I’m joking about this, but you’ll realize later that I’m not, and that’ll be when I hand you my resignation and get on a plane back to California.”
“You…wouldn’t do that.”
“In a New York minute, Josh.”
He sighed and pushed away the papers he’d been reading. “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. I’d do the same for you, if—”
“No. You wouldn’t. And I’ll tell you why. Because I’m an adult, and I’m capable of having adult conversations with women, even after they’ve ripped my still-beating heart from my chest and trampled it to dust with their spiked heels.”
Josh blinked. “That’s… Are you talking about—?”
“I’m talking about you!” Sam sighed and sank onto the sofa. “Josh… You have to sort this out, it’s getting…well, to be frank, embarrassing. You can’t not talk to her.”
“I talk to her.”
“I…” He fumbled for a moment. “Uh…last week…at the thing. She asked me if the President was wearing a blue tie for the Daughters of the American Revolution fund raiser, and I said she should go find someone who gave a damn.”
“I’m very impressed.”
“Yes. So, what’s your point?”
“My point is that you look like an idiot.”
And that got his attention; the sarcastic smile slipped into a glare. “What?”
“You look like an idiot, Josh.”
“I look like an idiot? She’s the one making out on the front of the National Enquirer!”
For a moment there, the hurt lashed out. Sam could see it in his friend’s eyes, see it in the angry twist of his lips. And as much as he liked Donna, Sam couldn’t help feeling a little of that anger himself; Josh hadn’t deserved this. “I know,” he said more quietly. “And if that had been Laura… It was unforgivable.”
Josh looked sharply down, his fingers toying with a pen, tapping it anxiously against the desk. “Unforgivable?”
The confusion of hope and despair in his voice twisted Sam’s sympathy until it hurt. “Not unforgivable. Not if you— Josh, why don’t you just talk to her?”
“About what? Colin?”
“She says she’s not seeing him.”
“Yeah, I bought that one too. The first time.”
“I don’t think she’s lying. She seems… She seems upset. She always asks after you.”
A sour smile touched Josh’s lips. “And you tell her I’m having lots of sex, right? With brunettes. I like brunettes.”
Sam just shook his head. “You still love her. You can work this out.”
Josh’s face went perfectly still. After a silent moment he carefully stood and went the window, hands in pockets as he stared out. “You love Laura, right?”
“You love her a lot?”
He nodded. “Is there—? Are there any circumstances under which you would ever take another woman out – let’s say, on Valentine’s Day – and kiss her the way…” His voice grew husky and he cleared his throat. “Because I’ve thought about it – a lot – and I can’t think of one. I can’t even imagine...”
Sam didn’t really have an answer. At least, not one Josh would like. “Unless you talk to her, you’ll never—”
“I don’t want to hear her excuses.”
“So don’t ask for them, ask for the truth.”
Josh turned back around, his sardonic smile drooping into misery. “I don’t want to hear that either.”
“So you’re just going to walk away from this? From Donna?”
“I’m not the one who walked away.”
Sam sighed. “I don’t know what to say to you. I hate seeing you like this, Josh.”
“No, you’re not.”
“No.” He sighed. “I’m not.”
“You should come over, have dinner with us. We’ll get drunk.”
Josh smiled, a little more convincingly. “The getting drunk part sounds good, but I’m not sure I can handle the domestic bliss right now.”
“Then we’ll just get drunk. In a bar, as men do.”
“Will there be post-grads? Cute ones?”
Sam rose to his feet and headed for the door. “Josh – at this point in life, I think it’s time to start looking at the faculty.”
Leaving Josh with a barely-there smile on his lips, Sam headed back toward his own office and tried not to blame Donna. But Josh was his friend and he was hurting, and Sam had always been loyal.
By Amy Gardner’s reckoning, it had been at least three months since Josh had split from the Nordic Ice Queen. She’d been watching the whole debacle from afar, trying to keep her distance. Trying not to let herself feel too much. After all, she and Josh had had their chance – several of them – and it hadn’t worked out. Wrong time, wrong place; she’d been too green and he’d been in love with his assistant. They’d fought like cats and dogs, and screwed like bunny rabbits. Good times, good times indeed…
It was in the past now, and should probably stay there. She had a real relationship, a grown-up lets-grow-old-together relationship, with a guy who didn’t want to challenge every word that came out of her mouth. And she liked it, in the way she liked comfortable sweatshirts. But Josh… Never comfortable, always too hot or too cold, always unpredictable. She’d loved – liked – that about him. And she still carried a warm place in her heart for him, and he knew it. Just like he carried a warm place in his heart for her. So it hurt to see him stalking angrily through the corridors he’d fought so hard to claim, hurt to see the cloud hanging over him in these, his glory days.
And for that, she hated Donnatella Moss.
That she could exchange Josh Lyman, one of the most brilliant political minds of his generation, for some two-bit photo journalist was inconceivable. It was like swapping Chateauneuf du Pape for Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay, but then she’d never thought Donna Moss was all that smart. Sure, she had the milk-fed, butter-wouldn’t-melt looks, but behind those cold blue eyes there was no fire, no passion. No spark.
Her betrayal only confirmed what Amy had long believed; Donna Moss didn’t deserve Josh Lyman. He was better off without her, although he didn’t seem to know it. Ever since those photos had been published, Josh had been another person; the humor was gone, or was so twisted it was barely recognizable, and the only light in his eyes came from the anger he kept locked up inside.
If things had been different, if she’d been single – or had it been five years earlier – Amy might have tried to…distract him. As it was, she was old and wise enough to see the Dead End sign strung across that particular route. With her usual modus operandi denied to her, Amy found herself at something of a loss. As a friend, which she was, she wanted to cheer him up, to point out why he was better off without Miss Midwest clinging to his coat tails. But she had no idea where to start, and so she had done nothing.
A few months earlier, before the split but when things had seemed rocky, she’d suggested take-out and a beer. She never thought he’d accept it, not then. And she’d imagined the invite long since forgotten on his side, which was why it was so surprising when, looking up in response to a knock on her office door late one evening, she saw Josh standing there holding two bags of Chinese with a bottle of red tucked under his arm.
“Are you gonna help me with this, or not?”
Amy smiled – grinned really. “Did you get a new job, or something?”
“I saw your light on,” he said as she took one of the bags from him. “And I remembered you offered…?”
She cast him a sly look. “I did.”
He smiled back, edgily, and started unloading food. “I got chicken in black bean sauce…”
“No. No, I didn’t get that.”
Amy smiled. “For the wine.”
“Oh. It’s…a screw cap.”
“Only the best for you…”
She smiled again, unscrewed the wine, and went in search of glasses. All she could find were plastic cups, but it was good enough. They spread the food out over her desk and Josh sank into one of the guest chairs and started eating. Amy watched him as she sipped her wine, noting lines that hadn’t been there five years ago when she’d know that face so intimately. The years sat heavily on his shoulders, and she wondered if they’d had the same effect on herself. She didn’t think so; there was something heavier than time dragging Josh down.
They talked a little about work, and then fell silent. Josh, she noticed, finished most of the wine himself but there was no sign of his usual mania. If anything, he became quieter still as he poked the chopsticks around the bottom of the carton. She wondered why he was here, what he wanted from her now. Sex? A rebound fling? In other circumstances she’d have considered it, but—
“Do you ever think about doing something else?” he asked suddenly, draining the last of the wine from his plastic cup.
“Something else? Like what?”
He shrugged. “Dunno. Teach. Write. Travel the world.”
“I’ve considered Tahiti.”
He smiled at that, a regretful little smile. “Yeah.” He tipped the rest of the wine into his cup, then looked over at her. “Did you want…?”
“No, I’m driving. Which, by the way, you’re not.”
“Nope,” he agreed, stretching out and putting his feet up on her desk. “I have a comfy sofa. I live here now.”
“In your office?”
“You never have to make the bed, shop, cook…”
“God, J, can you hear yourself?”
His smile faded. “Yeah.” He took a drink. “So, how about you? The woodcutter still keeping you happy?”
“Sculptor. And yes.” Although right now, with his collar unbuttoned and tie at half mast, Josh had that rumpled take-me-now look that had always driven her nuts.
“Shame,” he said, swallowing the word along with another mouthful of wine.
Amy felt an unexpected flutter, and firmly repressed it. “Since when did you get so bold?”
He raised an eyebrow and flung his devastating smile at her. “Are you turning me down?”
“I’m seeing someone.”
“Since when has that stopped you?”
Her attention was suddenly caught by a glint of stark light on blonde hair, and through the window of her office Amy saw the Ice Queen herself stalling in the middle of the bull pen. Her wide eyes were fixed on the sight of Josh and herself, and Amy couldn’t resist exacting a little revenge on Josh’s behalf.
Reaching over her desk, she slowly undid one of the laces on Josh’s shoe. Then pulled on the other one. “I could sue you for slander,” she said, smiling for Donna’s benefit.
“I’m just speaking from experience,” Josh said, his eyes fixed on the shoelaces she was toying with.
“That was a long time ago. I’m different now. I’m…what’s the word? Oh yes, happy.” Carefully she started tying his laces together. “I know what you think you want, Josh. I know why, and I know you don’t really want it.”
“You know a lot of things.”
Amy flicked a quick glance at Donna. The woman had moved on, almost reaching the edge of the bull pen, but her eyes still lingered. Just to put on a show, Amy ran her fingers along Josh’s leg, up toward his knee. Donna fled, pale as snow. And good riddance.
“Amy?” Josh’s voice had changed, his gaze darting between her hand on his leg and her face. He seemed suddenly panicked, or lost, or – God – on the verge of tears. She couldn’t tell.
Amy pulled her hand away and patted a foot. “You don’t want this, Josh. You’d hate yourself. You’d hate me. And we’re not the ones you should be hating.”
He blinked at her, ran a hand through his hair and sank his head down onto the back of his chair. “I… Don’t say it, Amy.”
“Say what? Tell you what no one else will? Isn’t that why you hired me?”
“I didn’t hire you.”
She laughed and tightened his laces, making sure his feet were well and truly tied together. “You’re a good man, Josh Lyman. You’re smart, you’re funny, you have too much integrity for politics, and yet you’re a brilliant politician.”
Josh lifted his head and cast her an amused smile. “Are you really Amy Gardner?”
“I am. And you’re all those things. Donna Moss, however—”
“Donna Moss is a conniving, ungrateful little—”
“She’s half the person you are, Josh. You can do better.”
He sighed, his head lolling back. “Not tonight, apparently.”
Getting to her feet, Amy moved around the desk and came to crouch next to his chair. “You’re a good man, Josh. This’ll pass. Eat ice cream.”
His head turned to face her. “Ice cream?”
“So the plan is I…get really fat? That’ll help?”
With a smile, Amy reached over and kissed him softly on the lips. “Thanks for dinner.”
Before she could move away, he’d caught her face with one hand. He was drunk, she could see it more clearly this close, and he was miserable; she could see that too. “You’re a nice person, Amy. A really nice person.”
She took his fingers from her face, kissed them lightly, and set his hand back on his chest. “Don’t tell anyone, or I’ll never be able to wrangle another vote.”
“Secret’s safe,” he said with a sleepy smile; a smile it was hard to resist.
Amy got to her feet while her resolve held. “I’m going home.”
“Yeah,” Josh agreed, his eyes drifting shut. “Good idea.”
“You sleeping here?”
Literally, by the looks of things. “Don’t get up too fast, okay?”
For a moment she watched him slump into sleep, worn and tired, and she wondered how the holier than thou Donna Moss could sleep at night. With a sigh, Amy turned off the light and left Josh to his uneasy rest.
When Sam walked into his office, the phone was ringing. Which was par for the course. He picked up, but before he could say a word a familiar voice snapped,
“What the hell’s going on?”
He blinked in surprise. “CJ?”
“What the hell’s going on, Sam?”
“Well, our new education plan is—”
“With Josh?” Sam shrugged out of his coat, swapping the phone from ear to ear. “I don’t know, what is going on with Josh?”
“He said something about banging his head.”
“What?” Sam sat down. “CJ, what are you talking about?”
“I phoned him, to ask if he and Donna were coming to the wedding – because I hadn’t gotten a reply to the invitation – and he mumbled something about banging his head and hung up.”
That took a moment to process. “He… Wait. This morning? You called him this morning?”
“No, last month.”
“Of course this morning! Is he okay?”
“I just got here. He banged his head?”
“That’s what he said.”
“And that’s why he can’t come to your wedding?”
There was a pause. “I don’t think they’re connected, no.”
“Find out if he’s damaged and call me back? No, wait, I’ll just call Donna and—”
“No!” Sam was on his feet again, and probably shouted the word louder than he’d intended.
“You haven’t heard?”
“Obviously not. Heard what?”
“Josh and Donna… They broke up.”
CJ laughed, that wonderful, rich laugh he hadn’t known he missed until it came barreling down the telephone. “Is it April 1st again?”
“I’m serious,” Sam said, resuming his seat. “There was a thing, in the New York Sun.”
She was still chuckling. “They announced it in the Sun?”
“No… No, a photo. Donna with some guy… Look, it’s really sordid. Josh is pretty cut up about it.”
A long, long pause drifted down the line from California. “Donna cheated? On Josh?”
“She says it was innocent.”
“She says? This is Donna Moss we’re talking about? Donna ‘I worship the ground Josh Lyman walks on’ Moss?”
Taking a deep breath, Sam let it out in a long sigh. “I’m not kidding. I wish I were.”
There was another, serious pause, then, “Okay, leave it with me. Make sure Josh hasn’t brained himself. I’ll sort out the rest.”
Sam smiled. “Sort out what?”
“The village idiots. Leave it with me. Oh, and make sure they come to my wedding. I don’t want to have to send Danny over there to strong arm them.”
“No. No you don’t.” He paused. “How’s his back, by the way?”
“Getting better, thanks. Go to work.”
Sam found himself listening to the buzz of the disconnected line before he had time to say goodbye, and that made him smile. God, how they missed CJ in this place.
Without even bothering to check his messages, Sam made his way through the empty bull pen to Josh’s office. Margaret was hovering in the doorway with a damp towel, and met Sam with a roll of her eyes. “I think he’s avoided major trauma,” she confided. “But I still think he needs an X-Ray – just to be sure.”
Without comment, Sam moved past her and into Josh’s office. Josh himself sat behind his desk, lolling back in his chair and holding an ice pack to the side of his head. Sam paused, taking it all in, before he asked, “What happened?”
Josh opened a pained eye. “Amy.”
“Amy? Did she—? Did she punch you?”
“No! She tied my shoelaces together and I hit my head on her desk.”
For a moment, Sam said nothing. But he couldn’t help himself, he just had to laugh. A lot.
“I’m going to get her,” Josh vowed, sitting up and pulling the ice from the rather large welt on his head.
“Are you going to pull her pigtails?”
“She just left me there, asleep in her office, and tied my damn shoes together! What’s the matter with the woman?”
Sam heard a distant alarm bell ring. “You were asleep in Amy’s office?”
“I was—” Josh frowned and winced. “I was confiding in her. So I thought.”
Josh eyed him again. “So, what do you need? Senior staff’s not until seven-thirty.”
“I’m here on an errand,” Sam said, allowing himself a brief smile. “From our late, great predecessor.”
“I know. You haven’t replied to her wedding invitation.”
Josh looked shifty. “Ah… I haven’t?”
“I thought Margaret—”
“CJ didn’t know about you and Donna.”
Josh’s lips pressed together as he picked up the ice pack and pressed it to the side of his head again. “No.”
“You need to sort it out, Josh. Go and tell Donna, decide how you’re going to handle it.” When Josh opened his mouth to protest, Sam talked right over him. “It’s CJ, Josh. It’s her wedding and you can’t not go. I won’t let you. So you and Donna have to act like actual grown ups and figure this out. For CJ’s sake. She deserves it, and you know it.”
Josh nodded. “Yeah.”
“Go talk to Donna.”
“But, you know, check your laces first…”
Alisa hadn’t seen Josh for a couple of months, but today she’d received a classic Lyman phone call; Do you have some time today? No, it’s not urgent. But if you have some time this afternoon…
He’d arrived five minutes late for the appointment though, which struck Alisa as less about his being busy and more about his being reluctant. The drooping shoulders and wan face confirmed her initial assumption as he slumped down onto the sofa, still in his raincoat, and stared out the window in silence.
Alisa didn’t say anything right away, gave him space to begin in his own way. But this was unusual for Josh. His usual style was to jump right in with whatever had been bugging him that day. Usually, she’d discovered, the minor irritation was a foil for the real bone of contention and he’d gamely allow her to lead him to the nub of the question. But today there was no pretence, and it was obvious to Alisa that something had happened. Something with which his usual defense mechanisms were unable to cope.
After what had to have been at least five minutes, Alisa felt she had no choice but to speak. “Looks like you’re having a hard time.”
Still he didn’t answer, but she could see the emotions working across his face as he struggled to stay in control. His jaw tightened and he blinked rapidly. When he first attempted to talk, his voice cracked and he had to clear his throat. “She’s… Donna’s gone.”
Alisa’s heart sank at the sadness in his voice, the grief written on his face. “That must be very painful for you.”
He didn’t answer; she suspected he couldn’t.
She let the silence ride again, giving him time. Eventually, she said quietly, “What happened, Josh?”
He shook his head and sniffed. His voice was so low, she could hardly make out the words. “There was a— There was something in the papers. The New York Sun.”
“Something about Donna?”
He glanced over at her, briefly. “Colin Ayres,” he said. “There was a photo of— Of them. Together.”
She winced slightly. “I’m sorry…”
His head sank back against the sofa and in a quieter voice he said, “I feel like I saw this coming, but I still can’t believe it’s true. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and she’ll be— Stupid, I guess.”
Alisa shrugged. “Perfectly natural, Josh.”
He nodded slightly, but didn’t seem engaged. He didn’t seem to care.
“What does Donna have to say about it?”
“What do you mean?”
“What does she have to say about it? About what happened.”
His response was curious; he almost looked guilty as he folded his arms across his chest and sank deeper into the sofa.
He frowned and shook his head.
Carefully, she kept any note of surprise out of her voice. “Have you talked to her about it?”
Alisa couldn’t keep a small, incredulous smile from her lips. “About the fact that she left you, Josh. Have you talked to her about it?”
“What’s to talk about? She’s moved out.”
The man was as stubborn as a— “So you didn’t confront her about it at all? You just let her walk away?”
He laughed. It was a bleak sound. “I didn’t throw myself in front of the door and beg her to stay, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not exactly what I meant,” she conceded. “I think there’s a midway point. Did you ask her why?”
He fidgeted. “I don’t want to know why.”
“Why does everyone think—? How could a list of my many faults possibly help this situation?”
“It’s about having your say, Josh. It’s about telling her how you feel.”
“Are you talking about ‘closure’?” He imbued the word with complete disdain.
“I’m talking about being heard. It seems to me that, in this relationship, both of you have trouble making yourselves heard. I think, for most people in your situation, the first reaction to their partner leaving would be to ask ‘why’? Why did you do it? How can you do this to me?”
“I’m not most people.”
“We all have a desire – a need – to be heard, Josh. To say ‘this hurts’ and to be consoled. If you don’t express that, if you don’t ask Donna ‘why’ and demand that she hears you – demand that she listens to how she has hurt you – then you’re going to hold onto that anger and carry it around with you.”
He was silent again, but this time he was thinking. Eventually he said, “What if I want to carry it around with me? What if that’s easier than feeling nothing?”
For Josh, it was a surprisingly self-aware statement. “It’s natural,” Alisa said, “when a relationship ends, to want to maintain it in some way – even if all that’s left is anger.”
He frowned out the window. “That’s…quite pathetic.”
“It’s completely normal, Josh. But it holds you in one place, it doesn’t let you move on. And that anger can sometimes express itself in other ways – unhealthy ways.” After a pause, she said, “What happened to your head?”
He looked at her, his expression shrewd and displeased. “I hit it.”
“You hit it…?”
“I didn’t— I wasn’t trying to break a window with my head, if that’s what you think.”
“I’m not— God, you people always think…” His jaw snapped shut. “I’m not crazy.”
“No, you’re not. I’m concerned about your head, that’s all.”
“I hit it… I fell over and hit it on a desk. And, no, I wasn’t drunk or under the influence of any other mood altering substance.”
She thought she believed him, although Josh wasn’t always easy to read. Either way, he wasn’t comfortable with the topic so she switched direction. “You haven’t been to see me for a while.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“Of course.” She paused. “Was it the break-up with Donna that prompted you to make an appointment today?”
He half shrugged. “There’s a…wedding. I have to ask her about the damn wedding. I haven’t— It’s a joint invitation, so…”
“You don’t want to discuss it with her.”
“Whose wedding is it?”
“A friend of ours. A good friend.” He sighed. “She didn’t know we’d broken up.”
“So you had to tell her?”
“Someone else did, in the end.” His gaze slid away from her. “It’s been a couple of months.”
“Ah.” Which explained why he hadn’t been to see her.
“The thing is,” he said, sinking deeper into the sofa, “CJ and Danny – they’re the ones getting married – they… They were always kind of like me and Donna. They had this thing; they couldn’t get involved until after we left office, just like me and Donna, and now they’re getting married and we’re…” He trailed off into a sigh.
“Yeah.” His head sank wearily against the back of the sofa. “I guess I’d always assumed…”
“Did you ever tell Donna that?”
He shook his head.
“Could you tell her now?”
The look he gave her could have wilted rock. “Now? She’s— She’s shacked up with Ayres somewhere.”
“It’s never too late to talk.”
“What, in the name of God, would be the point?”
“Donna hurt you,” Alisa said. “You had a…a hope for the future, and she betrayed that. She hurt you and you deserve to have that acknowledged. There can still be reparation if you feel that you’ve been heard – if you feel that Donna understands how much she hurt you and, perhaps, that she feels sorry. That’ll help resolve the anger you’re carrying. It’ll set you free.”
His lips curved into a sliver of a smile. “I thought that was the truth.”
“What do you think we’re talking about?” Alisa said softly. “Just try it, Josh. Just try talking to her.”
The morning had dawned gray, and chill for the beginning of May. It had rained all day and now the evening was crowding in darkly. It suited Donna’s mood perfectly; gray and chill. She’d looked at her reflection in the mirror that morning and seen it in her skin and her eyes – she’d felt it in her heart all day long.
Life was gray these days, had been since the morning she’d left Josh’s warm apartment and not planned on returning. But until last night the grayness had been masked by a veneer of hope – she’d kidded herself that she hadn’t really left, that because most of her stuff was still there she was only temporarily absent. She pretended that he must miss her as much as she missed him, that somehow the gulf between them could be crossed. Like they’d crossed it before.
She’d held onto that, kept that hope alive despite the evidence of her eyes; Josh had barely spoken a word to her since that day, he avoided her at events and sent Sam to any meeting where they were likely to meet. When they did see each other, when it was unavoidable, he was politely civil. But he never looked her in the eye, never stood close, and never smiled. She’d never known him so angry, not even after she left the White House; then he’d just looked hurt and ill-used, but not really angry.
Until last night, she hadn’t understood the significance of that. But as she’d strolled through the bull pen en route to Sam’s office her ears had caught the unmistakable timbre of his voice, and her gaze had slid irresistibly to CJ’s old office and through the windows…
Sitting at her desk, Donna let her eyes close as if that small gesture could blot the image from her mind. Josh, comfortable and relaxed with his feet up on Amy Gardner’s desk, her predatory smile as dangerous as ever as she’d run lascivious fingers along his leg. Donna’s stomach turned, anger and bile making her nauseous.
Amy Gardner. Donna didn’t even know why she was surprised; that woman had never wanted to let go. She’d lingered like the smell of day old fish, and now she saw her chance… None of which explained how, not even three months after their split, Josh could—
There was a sharp rap on the door, breaking her out of her painful thoughts. Wishing Ella was still there to run interference, Donna called out a reluctant, “Come in.”
The last person she expected to see opened the door and stepped inside. Josh looked disheveled – definitely wearing the same suit he’d been in the previous day – and paler than usual. Donna’s heart didn’t seem to know how to respond; it thundered in her chest, half in anger and half in hope. This was the first time he’d come to see her since they’d split. “Hey,” she said, getting nervously to her feet.
“Hey.” Josh was holding something in his hands, a letter by the look of it. “We have to… There’s a thing.” He held out the letter, barely getting close enough for her to reach it over the desk.
The envelope was the palest gold and shimmering; obviously nothing to do with work. Inside was a simple card, inviting her and Josh to CJ’s wedding. Donna had to press her lips together to keep them from trembling. CJ and Danny… They’d done it right; held out for the duration, then decamped to the other side of the country and got themselves lives in the sunshine. She looked up at Josh. “That’s nice,” she said, her voice throaty with emotion.
“Yeah,” Josh agreed. He wasn’t looking at her, of course, and as he spoke he turned away.
Donna’s eyes widened. “Oh my God, Josh, what happened to your head?”
“It’s…” He touched the swelling briefly. “Nothing.”
“Have you seen a doctor?”
“I don’t need a doctor.”
“What happened to your head?”
“I hit it.”
“Amy’s desk. Now would you—”
Amy’s desk. The blood seemed to flee from Donna’s head, leaving her suddenly woozy at the thought of how he might have— She had the sudden desire to both sob and punch him.
“—listen, because we have to decide how we’re going to handle this,” Josh was saying. “If we’re, you know, going to go together or…” His hands were in his pockets, he was staring at the floor, his voice rough-edged. “Or bring someone else.”
Somehow, Donna found her voice. “Are you bringing someone else?”
He glanced up, and for the first time in forever met her eyes. “Are you?”
“Who would I bring?”
He laughed, bitterly. “Is that meant to be funny?”
Josh shook his head, chewed at his lower lip. “I don’t get— I don’t get how you expect me to believe you.”
“Maybe if you’d ever trusted or respected me, you—”
“Trusted you? You had your tongue down his damn throat! You—”
“Keep your voice down!” she hissed.
“Yeah, because I’d hate to humiliate you!”
“I trusted you,” he spat. “I trusted you with— God, Donna.” He stared at her, looking torn in half. “How could you do that?”
And maybe if she hadn’t seen Amy Gardner crawling all over him the previous night she might have let him convince her it was all her fault. But she wasn’t the little girl he’d first known – she had a voice now and she knew how to use it. “It was Valentine’s day, Josh,” she said, surprised at her own cool. “And maybe if you’d sent a card, or a flower, or even a Hershey’s Kiss, I might not have called—”
“You…?” He stared at her incredulously. “You called </i>him</i>?”
Her chin lifted. “You didn’t even bother to—”
“Because you didn’t get a card? They could’ve put a gun to my head, Donna, and I’d never have— ” And suddenly his eyes went deathly cold, like chips of dark ice.
She felt a chill creep around her heart, into her blood. “Josh…”
“No. Doesn’t matter anymore. It’s done now.”
And with that he was gone, leaving her alone with CJ’s wedding invitation hanging from her frozen fingers. Somehow, impossibly, things had gotten worse.
It was Claudia Jean, so of course it was elegant, and extravagant, and exquisite. The hotel opened out onto the beach and in the warm air millions of tiny lights glittered like a dream against the water and the pale golden sand. Donna ghosted between the exclusive guests, watching their smiles and excitement as if through glass. She could see the party, but she couldn’t share it; she was there, but this had no part of her.
In her mind’s eye things were different, she could see an alternative life where she laughed with old friends and her hand was in Josh’s as they stood close together and celebrated the happiness of two of the most wonderful people they knew. Someone would tease her about being next down the aisle, and Josh would play at looking horror struck and then smile that private smile she so loved and her heart would melt a little more and… She sighed; Burns had it right about best laid plans.
The beach was too beautiful – it reminded her too much of their hotel in the Bahamas. She swore she could smell the heady scent of vanilla flowers, and that made her think of the way they’d danced under the stars and how she’d thought it was the beginning of everything, but it had just been the start of the final chapter. So she left the beach and headed into the air-conditioned hotel. CJ and Danny were still welcoming their guests, and Donna stayed well clear. Her own brief encounter with CJ had been…awkward. After Donna had smiled her congratulations and hugged her friend, CJ had held her tight for a moment and whispered, “I’m going to be talking to you later.”
Donna didn’t doubt what it was about, although she doubted even CJ could solve this. Nothing was irreparable if you wanted it fixed; the problem was, Josh didn’t. He’d made that clear. And she wasn’t entirely sure that he was wrong. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be; he clearly didn’t trust her now, and she wondered if he ever had. Peacemaker Barbie… How could he ever trust someone he believed to be that stupid and superficial? How could he ever love someone he so despised? Maybe he never had. Maybe that was why he could sleep with Amy Gardner, just three months after their split. Three months!
Donna doubted she’d ever look at a man again. What would be the point? It had only ever been Josh, and if things hadn’t worked with him then they wouldn’t work with anyone. She’d loved him for a decade, and she loved him still.
It was her curse.
The tables were laid out in a large, low-ceilinged room and there were flowers everywhere. There was a plan somewhere, to tell you where to sit, but Donna hadn’t consulted it yet; she didn’t feel like making small-talk and was avoiding sitting down. A number of people had already taken their seats however, and it occurred to her that her uncharacteristic disorganization might trip her up if she ended up having to walk past Josh’s table en route to her own, rather than being safely ensconced before he arrived.
If he was coming.
She hadn’t seen him at the church, but the place had been huge and she hadn’t been looking. Well, not intentionally. But every dark suit drew her eye, and at a wedding – even in Southern California – that was a lot of suits. She hadn’t seen him however, and wondered if he’d made some excuse to duck out. It seemed mean, but then she remembered his lame avoidance of her family Christmas and told herself it was entirely too believable. She just hoped CJ wouldn’t be hurt.
Deep in thought, Donna strolled among the tables, making her way toward the discretely placed seating plan. She couldn’t help but smile at the thought of CJ strategically placing each and every guest, as if it were a state dinner; compared to those, this must have been a walk in the park. Her biggest fear was that CJ had tried to set her up with some young hopeful; the last thing she needed right now was—
He was there, not ten feet away, on the other side of the table she was passing. He was standing chatting to someone Donna didn’t recognize, a half-empty glass of champagne in his hand. Her feet, she slowly realized, had stopped walking and she was gawping like a teenager. She would have forced herself to carry on if she hadn’t seen her name, written in elegant calligraphy, on a little place card on that very table.
Part of her wanted to run – she couldn’t just sit down with Josh standing right there! But the other part, the adult part, refused to let her hide in the bathroom until he’d gone. They were both adults and they could both—
Without looking around, Josh put his glass down on the table. Opposite her. Directly opposite her. His hand moved to the back of the chair and she barely had time to think CJ, I’m going to kill you! before he turned around and began to sit down.
As soon as he saw her, he froze.
Dimly, she thought it must have been a comical scene, both of them stock still and staring like deer in headlights. But it wasn’t remotely funny, it was exquisitely painful.
Swallowing dryly, she rested her hand on her own chair. “CJ’s idea of a joke?”
“Or something,” he said roughly. Then he frowned suddenly, yanked out the chair and sat down; daring her to be the one to move.
She pulled out her own chair, laid her purse on the table and sat down. The silk of her dress sighed softly as it moved, and she wondered if he’d noticed she’d worn red. Not that it had been for him. But it hadn’t been for anyone else, either.
“When did you get in?” she asked, wishing she’d picked up another glass of champagne herself. This was definitely a night to be drunk. She turned her head and tried to find a waiter.
“Couple of hours ago,” came the curt reply. “There was… I had a thing.”
“Yes,” she agreed, smiling as a waiter bearing a tray of drinks approached. “You always do.”
“And you’re as understanding as always.”
Donna took the proffered champagne with a grateful smile. “Let’s not do this here.”
“I’m not doing anything.” He downed the rest of his own drink and turned to stare doggedly across the filling room. After a moment his eyes dipped to the place name next to him and he grimaced. “Jim Kendall?”
AKA the most boring man in politics, but a lovely guy nonetheless. CJ had always had a soft spot for him; Josh loathed him. “Try and be an adult,” Donna said mildly.
Josh didn’t answer, but she could hear his foot waggling nervously under the table and wondered if he felt as trapped as she did. There was no escape; the plan had CJs finger prints all over it, but if she thought this would help build bridges she couldn’t have been more wrong.
It didn’t take long for the hall to fill, and soon they were surrounded by chatter and laughter. Donna talked amiably to everyone on the table – no one she knew well, no one she didn’t know. She suspected CJ hadn’t wanted anything to distract her from talking to Josh, but she’d miscalculated drastically. Jim Kendall might be a bore, but tonight Josh seemed captivated by every word that left his mouth – and there were a lot of words. He ignored Donna entirely, and she’d have been fine with that if only it hadn’t hurt so much. Not talking to Josh was a little like not breathing; completely unnatural and liable to make her desperate. But she held her ground, she refused to make the first move again (would that be the second move?), and kept her eyes on her plate and her ears on the conversation around her. And so it was that she heard Jim Kendall say,
“Talking of innovative, I saw your exhibition, Donna.”
Her head snapped up.
“Down at the Zenith Gallery?” Kendall continued. “It was very…very…” He turned to Josh. “What’s the word?”
Josh froze with his fork halfway to his mouth. Despite herself, Donna found her gaze locked on him. It was the perfect moment to cut her down, to dash her self-esteem against the razor sharp rocks of his wit. He was perfectly capable, it was the kind of revenge he enjoyed the best. “I, uh,” he said, stuffing his fork into his mouth, “I haven’t seen it.”
Kendall looked surprised. “You haven’t? Man, Josh, it’s amazing. But you’ve seen Donna’s contribution of course? Very brave, I thought. Very brave. And eloquent. What you wrote? Very eloquent.”
Donna felt herself grow a little taller. “Thank you,” she said, genuinely touched. “I’m really— It means a lot to me that you saw it. That it…had an effect.”
“Oh, it definitely did. To look at you now, when I remember that photograph and what you wrote about reshaping your life… What was the phrase you used? ‘In the shadow of the tragedy?’ Very moving, very moving…” He carried on, but Donna’s attention had slipped to Josh who was doggedly eating, although she could practically see his ears twitching. His expression was indecipherable however. It almost looked…ashamed. But that couldn’t be possible. It was Josh, after all. And she knew exactly what he thought about her attempts at peace and reconciliation n.
Not long after that little exchange, the music began in earnest. There was a band, and CJ and Danny started off the dancing in their own inimitable – and hilarious – way. Other couples followed, including Jim Kendall and his wife, leaving Donna and Josh alone in the crowded room. Much might have been said, but neither of them spoke and so the silence grew like a bubble beneath the music and laughter and cut them off from both.
As she stared through the silence, out into the joyful party all around her, words began to penetrate Donna’s mind. Words of a song she knew too well, words that had once delighted her and now cut to the quick. And suddenly she was back there, in his apartment, on a dark February evening not long after she’d moved in.
It was late, and she’d been exhausted. She’d just kicked off her shoes and sprawled on the sofa, trying to summon the energy to either find some dinner or call for take out. And then, like an unexpected squall, Josh had burst into the apartment, alight with something that made his eyes shine.
“You’re here!” he’d grinned. “Are you tired? Doesn’t matter. You have to hear this. It’s been running through my head all day, I swear, it’s been driving me insane!” He’d grinned again, as if the prospect of this kind of insanity was very welcome. Checking his pockets, he’d pulled out a CD and then stabbed a finger at his stereo and discarded the disk already inside. “Okay, okay,” he’d said, pushing shut the drawer and turning to her. “You have to listen to this.”
Despite her fatigue, Donna couldn’t help but smile. “You still have your coat on,” she’d said as the music started.
“Shhh…” But he’d shrugged out of his coat, and held out his hand to her. “Come here, listen. It’s perfect. This is perfect…”
And so they’d danced, slowly, sweetly to the music he’d found. And it had been perfect, and the words had made her cry and he’d held her so tight and told her they were all true, that they were meant for her – that they must have been written for him to say to her. And although they weren’t the type to have a song, it had become their song and whenever she’d missed him, she’d listened to it and heard his voice in the voice of the singer and closed her eyes and…
A tear escaped, running hotly down her cheek. She didn’t want to draw attention by swiping it away, so she sat very still and let the words drift through her. Empty now, their promise already broken, they still had power. And as she listened to them it was hard to remember why she’d called Colin that night, why she hadn’t gone into the office to find Josh instead. It was hard to remember why she’d ever thought he didn’t trust her, or love her, when she could remember him murmuring those words in her ear… I am… I am… I am the luckiest…
And it was hard to remember why she didn’t just reach over the table now, take his hand and lead him to the dance floor, hold him in her arms and— “Josh...”
But he was gone. His place at the table was empty and through her blurred vision Donna saw him pushing past a crowd of people to disappear through the wide doors leading onto the beach.
She almost knocked her chair over in her haste to follow, but had only taken two steps when a hand on her arm stopped her. “Leave him alone,” a familiar, nasal voice said. “Haven’t you done enough, already?”
Donna stared at Amy in shock. “What?”
“I said leave him alone.” Amy dropped her hand from Donna’s arm and peered at her over the rim of her wine glass. “Stop twisting the knife.”
“I’m not, I’m— This is none of your business.”
She shrugged, as if Donna’s words didn’t really matter. “Josh is a friend.”
“A friend? Yeah. Don’t think I don’t know what you—”
“Oh, grow up. You don’t know anything about me, Donna. You never did.”
“I know enough.”
“Really?” Amy took another sip of her wine. “Like how I don’t ‘get’ Josh, because I don’t understand why he walks so fast?” She smiled, wickedly. “I seemed to get him okay the other night.”
Donna felt sick. Maybe it was the champagne, but the room was spinning and her throat was so tight she could barely force her furious words out. “You— I can’t believe you’d—”
“And I can’t believe you’d cheat on him!” There was fire in her dark eyes now, real spitting fire. “God, Donna. Josh and I went ten rounds every time, but I never did that.”
“You don’t like me,” Amy said, turning away. “And I’m more than fine with that. But you don’t get to judge me, not when you’re the one who broke his heart.” She threw a disdainful glance over her shoulder. “Leave him alone, Donna. He’s a good man, he deserves better.”
With that she left, making her way elegantly through the guests until she reached the door to the beach and was swallowed by the twinkling darkness beyond.
Donna could only watch; movement and thought were beyond her and the only sounds in her head were Amy’s words, endlessly repeating.
You’re the one who broke his heart. You’re the one…
The air felt unnaturally warm and humid for late spring. And it was weird being on the beach in a suit; Josh swore he could already feel sand creeping into his socks. He didn’t really like beaches. Not unless…
His eyes shut in a grimace; the last time he’d stood on a beach had been in some far off life that might once have been his but would never be again. How had he not known at the time it was all to be so fleeting? Although perhaps he had; he’d learned early that happiness was simply a transient state.
Tipping his head back, Josh looked for stars but the sky glowed a dyspeptic orange and there were none to be seen. For some reason he found himself missing the snapping cold of his childhood backyard and those winter nights when he’d try to count all the stars in the sky, just to prove it could be done. Seemed he’d had a taste for beating the odds even back then…
“I’d offer you a penny for them, but I don’t have any change.” The warm, rich voice behind him made him smile.
“Shouldn’t you be inside, dancing with your husband?” he said as he turned around.
CJ shrugged, beautiful in her ivory dress, even with the hem lifted and her shoes in one hand. “He’s not as young as he looks, he needs to save his energy.”
Taking a step closer, Josh leaned in to kiss her cheek. “I’m really happy for you,” he said. “You look amazing.”
Her smile was broad and open. “Thank you. You’re very sweet.” She cocked her head. “You’re also very stupid.”
“Sam gave me some garbled message about Donna and the New York Sun, but he can barely tie his own shoelaces so I thought I’d better ask you. Because, from what I could make out, Sam seemed to be saying that you think Donna cheated on you. Which, obviously, is ridiculous.”
“CJ…” It was, quite literally, the last thing he wanted to talk about. In fact, judging by the humiliating lump in his throat, talking about it simply wasn’t going to happen.
CJ’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me it’s not true.”
He looked away, because there was a hot prickling sensation behind his eyes that had become all too familiar in the past weeks. “Can we not—?”
“Joshua…” CJ’s warm hand squeezed his arm. “I don’t know what you saw in the paper but, trust me, newspapers lie. I spent eight years dealing with these people. I’m married to the worst of them. Whatever you saw… It wasn’t what you think it is.”
“She moved out,” he said in a voice that wavered awkwardly. He cleared his throat and silently cursed himself. “You should be talking to her.”
“I tried,” CJ said. “She’s already left.”
There was no reason why that should make his heart sink, yet it did. Just that little bit further, that little bit closer to rock bottom. He sucked in a deep breath. “It was…Colin Ayres. The guy from Gaza? The IRA guy.”
CJ shook her head. “I can’t believe… Donna was nuts about you from day one. Everyone knew it.”
He gave her a puzzled look.
“Well, everyone except you, of course. What the hell did you do to make her leave?”
Something that was almost a laugh escaped from his throat. “She thinks I forgot Valentine’s Day.”
CJ cast him a skeptical look. “Okay, that’s bullshit.”
“It’s what she said.”
“She did not.”
“Were you there?”
“She did not leave the man to whom she’s been utterly devoted for ten years because he forgot Valentine’s Day! Especially, idiot boy, when that man is you, and she knows better than anyone that you can’t find your way to the bathroom without asking her to print off directions.”
His eyebrows rose. “Your…support is overwhelming.”
“If I hadn’t had my nails done this morning, I’d smack you.”
“Have you considered a career in marriage counseling? Because, I’m serious, with this technique—”
“Josh,” CJ interrupted, “listen to me.” She tugged him around until he was face to face with her. “I don’t know what happened, of course I don’t, but I know this; Donna loves you.”
He shook his head, the words too painful to hear. “Don’t—”
“She loves you, Josh. It’s a universal constant. But what I’ve never been quite so sure about – what I’ve sometimes doubted – was whether you loved her quite as much.”
The prickling sensation behind his eyes changed into a liquid heat, and all he could do was stare at her because he didn’t trust his voice. How can she doubt that? Can’t she see I’m dying without her?
CJ softened, her lips pressing into an emotional smile as she squeezed his arm again. “Then take some advice from an old married woman,” she said. “Sort out this mess, Josh, or you’ll spend the rest of your life regretting it.”
He forced a watery laugh. “Are you going to tell me to talk to her? ”
“Do a tap dance, if it works. But for once in your life, do something.”
And perhaps it was the confidence and warmth in CJ’s eyes, or the strength of her hand on his arm, but for the first time since Donna had walked out of his life, Josh felt a beat of hope. “Yeah,” he said, still husky. “Maybe I will. Maybe I will do something.”
The question was, what?