It was a rainy Friday night back in DC, a far cry from the sunny shores of Los Angeles. Shaking out her umbrella, Donna stepped into the quiet gallery and looked around. There was no one there, which wasn’t a surprise given the time. They’d be closed in half an hour anyway, and the peace was welcome.
Walking slowly through the room, she took a moment to glance around at the black and white photos decking the walls; faces of pain and suffering accompanied by words of hope and forgiveness. It was powerful, whatever Josh might think, and she was proud of her involvement. The many notes and comments she’d received from visitors, all assiduously passed on by Colin, felt like a balm spreading over the old wounds and she began to think that, perhaps, the scars on her leg and her chest hadn’t been for nothing. If one person could be inspired to reject hatred and embrace tolerance…
She sighed, stopping in front of her own photograph, now as familiar as her reflection. The SUV was upside down, her head squashed at an awkward angle against the ceiling, blood trickling from the gash on her temple. It hardly looked like her, she thought; it was difficult to imagine that it had been her. And yet if she lifted her fingers to her forehead, beneath her hair, she could feel the raised line of the scar the wound had left behind.
So many scars, and the deepest not even visible. Sometimes she wondered if all her troubles were anchored to Gaza. Josh’s inability to trust, or even respect her stemmed from the way she’d left her job, and that, she knew, had been a direct result of this – of her sense of suffocation in an old world that couldn’t adapt to the changes happening inside of her. And perhaps her own frustration with Josh had stemmed from his inability to see how she’d changed, or to listen when she told him what she needed. All of it, she thought, came back to this cataclysm.
Even Colin. If it hadn’t been for the bombing he wouldn’t have sought her out for this exhibition, they’d never have had that dinner, the photograph would never have been taken…
Stupid. Stupid thinking. If it hadn’t been for Gaza, she’d probably have Margaret’s job right now and Josh would still be sleeping with Amy Gardner. Some things never changed.
Turning on her heel, Donna walked smartly across the gallery toward the small white door that almost blended into the wall. She pushed it open and was greeted by a wide grin from Colin Ayres.
“Hello there,” he said, getting up from behind the small desk. “Thanks for coming down.”
“It’s not a problem. What’s so urgent?”
His grin grew wider still. “Good news, Donna Moss.” Picking up a letter, he waved it under her nose. “The exhibition is going to London.”
“Really?” She couldn’t help but smile herself. “Where?”
“A visiting exhibit at the National Gallery.”
Her eyes widened. “Wow.”
“I know,” he beamed. “This is high profile stuff; there’s even talk of some exposure on the BBC. An interview with me, or something.”
Despite herself, Donna couldn’t silence Josh’s voice in her head. It won’t change anything. Except Colin Ayres bank balance. “That’s nice,” she said. “I mean, it’s good.”
Colin nodded, coming out from behind the desk. “And I was thinking… Would it be possible? I mean, could you find the time to perhaps come over to London for a day or two? I know the media would be interested in you, given your position. I think it would be really great for our profile if we set up some interviews for you.”
“Of the exhibition,” he corrected. “I mean the profile of the exhibition – bring in more people, spread the word.”
Donna shook her head. “I don’t know. Mrs. Santos is pretty busy the next few months, I’m not sure I’d be able to get away.”
“We’ll talk about it,” Colin insisted, flashing his most charming smile. “We’ll talk about it over a celebratory bottle of champagne. How about that, eh? Tonight. I just have a couple of calls to return, then we’ll go out and drink to our success.”
“I don’t know…”
“Ah, come on,” he chided. “The night is yet young, and we’re talking about the big time here, Donna. This is a big thing, trust me. It’s a big thing.”
“For the exhibition?” she asked. “Or for you?”
His smile became puzzled. “For both. This is my job, Donna. My career. It’s…The higher my profile, the higher the profile of the message. It’s not about ego.”
“No,” she nodded, suddenly awkward at channeling Josh’s dour message. “I know. I didn’t mean—” She smiled. “Let’s go get that drink.”
“Okay.” His smile returned. “I just have a couple of calls to make. I’ll be about ten minutes, okay?”
She nodded. “I’ll be in the gallery.”
Closing the office door behind her, Donna looked around and found a seat against one of the walls. She sat, resting her head against the cold stone, and let her mind drift. London? Interviews? Press interviews about her experiences?
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.
Josh’s words were as fresh as the day he’d spoken them, and the killer was that she knew he was right. She hadn’t gone into this for publicity; it was the last thing she wanted. The story wasn’t about her anyway, it was about the whole screwed up situation and the hope for some tolerance and understanding. But Josh had been right about one thing – Mrs. Santos and the President came first. She’d just have to make Colin understand why she couldn’t parade herself in front of the press.
From beyond the gallery she heard the outside door open. Checking her watch she saw that there were still a few minutes before they closed, but she was a little uncomfortable with the idea of sitting there while random strangers studied her picture and read her intimate thoughts. She rose to her feet, about to retreat back into the office, when she saw a familiar man walk into the gallery.
Her first thought was that it was strange that Mike, one of Josh’s security detail, would be interested in the exhibition. But then she saw his earpiece, noted the way he scanned the room, and realized with a heart-stopping lurch that he was on duty. Shock kept her rooted to the spot as Mike turned, agonizingly slowly, in her direction; he barely batted an eyelid when he noticed her, although she thought she detected a slight moment of surprise. She offered a faint smile and then, because it just felt right, she shook her head slightly in a gentle warning. Mike acknowledged the request with a barely-there nod before he stepped back outside.
A moment later Josh appeared in the doorway, oblivious to her presence. His hair was damp from the rain, droplets of water glistening on his coat and on the bag slung over his shoulder. He hesitated as he entered, but he didn’t spot her standing breathlessly in the shadows. Donna watched as he turned his head, looking at the pictures on the wall, until he stopped dead – and she knew he’d found hers. He didn’t move right away, but she had a good view of his face and was startled to see the flinch in his eyes. Hands digging into his pockets, he appeared to grit his teeth before walking resolutely across the room to stand in front of her photograph.
Quietly, unobtrusively, Donna moved around the edge of the gallery until she could see his face again. He was staring at the picture intently, motionless. After a while his head dropped and he scrubbed a hand across his face and through his hair. Then, ignoring the photo, he moved closer to read what she’d written.
Donna felt her pulse quicken. Until that moment she hadn’t realized how much she’d wanted him to read her words. She hadn’t realized that she’d written every single one with him in mind, to try and explain it all to him. And now she found herself praying that he understood.
He didn’t move for a long time. He must have read it several times, she figured, because Josh read fast. And the expression on his face… Confusion? Surprise? Pain? All of them, perhaps. And more. It was too hard to tell, because he was holding everything back. With Mike there, and in such a public space, he’d never let his guard down. But she knew him better than anyone, and she could see it in his eyes. His expressive, beautiful eyes…
Involuntarily, Donna took a step forward and her heel scuffed on the wooden floor, sending echoes dancing around the gallery. Josh turned and for an instant she saw utter shock in his face, before he scrambled to hide it. “What the—?”
“Hey,” she smiled feebly.
“Do you—? Do you live here now?”
She laughed awkwardly. “No, I was just… Some business.”
The silence rang loud as bells in the empty room until, at length, Josh cleared his throat. “I, uh, was just… I thought I should— I mean, not ‘should’… I wanted to see…you know…the thing.”
Donna found herself smiling at his awkwardness, her heart thundering in her chest and threatening to overturn all her composure. “Did you like it?”
“Like it?” He looked incredulous. “It’s a picture of you—” He waved, but didn’t look, at the photograph. “It’s you… No. I didn’t like it. But, uh, what you wrote…”
“I meant that. I meant what I wrote.”
He looked at her and she realized it was the first time he’d met her eyes in weeks. “It was, um, very…” His gaze darted to Mike, determinedly unobservant at the doorway. “I didn’t know… You never said anything about…” For a moment he closed his eyes, as if screwing up his courage, and then very softly he said, “Donna, I wish I—”
“Hey, Donna, you ready?” Colin Ayres’ voice ricocheted around the gallery and Josh started as if he’d been shot. “Sorry that took so long, I was—”
He stopped when he saw Josh and trailed to a halt at Donna’s side. “Well, hello,” he said carefully.
Josh’s face was studiously blank, even his eyes had lost all expression. “Ayres,” he said.
“I didn’t think we’d see you down here,” Colin said. “I heard you didn’t approve.”
“I don’t,” Josh replied, a snide smile breaking his blank expression. “So…how’s the search for world peace going? Had any luck? Should we expect universal love to break out at any moment?”
Colin shrugged. “You know, where I come from, we call that the lowest form of wit.”
“Where you come from, you call petrol bombs political debate.”
“Josh…” Donna protested, taking a step forward.
She was stopped by Colin taking her hand. “It’s okay,” he said, wrapping his fingers around hers. “Don’t worry about it.”
Josh’s attention slipped, his gaze dropping to their joined hands and moving swiftly away. Donna felt sick, cringed at Colin’s touch, and tugged her hand free. She wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. Every avenue of conversation was blocked; with both of them there, and Mike unobtrusively not-watching, it seemed impossible to speak at all. Even if she’d known what to say.
After what felt like an eternity of tense silence, Josh turned away. “I have to go,” he said coldly. “I’ll see you later.”
No! Donna stepped forward, as if to chase after him, but indecision stopped her and all she managed to do was half-heartedly call his name.
He turned and glared. “What?”
“I… Thank you. For coming. It means a lot.”
The cynical smile that curved his lips was sharp as a blade, and directed entirely inward. “Yeah, I’m sure it does.” He looked away and she could see him swallowing hard, could see thoughts chasing through his mind. When he turned back toward her, his expression was heated. “You, uh, you left a lot of stuff at my place,” he said. “If you want—” His voice cracked a little, he cleared his throat and when he spoke again there was more anger than anything else. “I’m in meetings all weekend, so if you want to come get it that would be a good time.”
It hit like a slap and sent the blood buzzing through her ears. “Okay,” she heard herself say.
Josh nodded, scowling at nothing and everything. “Just, you know, let yourself in. I won’t be there.”
“Okay…” It was barely a whisper; she felt as insubstantial as a ghost.
And then he turned and strode out of the gallery, Mike falling in behind him as he left.
Into the aching silence, Colin said, “He’s a son-of-a-bitch, treating you like that in front of people.” His hand landed heavily on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”
No, she wanted to sob. No. Oh God no… But the words weren’t there; her broken heart had robbed her of the power of speech.
Josh had had a plan. Not much of a plan, admittedly, but a start. It had involved going down to the damn gallery to see the exhibit so that he could then go see her to tell her how much he’d liked it and then – perhaps – they’d have something to talk about.
As plans went, he thought in retrospect, it had been pretty lame. And it had gone wrong right from the start. First off, the exhibit had taken him by surprise and had actually been moving, and poignant, and not the voyeuristic self-indulgence he’d anticipated. More than that, what Donna had written had melted his heart all over again, and stirred into it a good dollop of self-recrimination. Of all people, he shouldn’t have been surprised by what he read. He should have known all of it, he should have been with her through all of it. And he hadn’t.
Then, of course, he hadn’t in a million years expected Donna to actually be at the gallery. And seeing her eager for his approval, her beautiful, familiar face lighting up with a nervous smile, had been enough to make him want to forgive her anything. And he’d been about to throw himself at her feet when that bastard Ayres had turned up to claim her for himself.
Lying in bed, ignoring the clock ticking relentlessly onward, Josh tried not to remember the way they’d held hands, the way Donna had leaped to his defense. It made him sick with envy, wild with jealousy, and catatonic with despair. Do something, CJ had said, but her hopes had been groundless. Donna was with Ayres, of course she was. He’d known it all along, but for a day or two he’d allowed CJ’s faith to offer false hope.
But the truth was, why shouldn’t she be with Ayres? What claim did Josh have on her? For all that he felt wounded by her betrayal, he was beginning to believe that he’d betrayed her first. Not with another woman, but with neglect. He couldn’t comprehend how he hadn’t known how she’d felt, how the bombing had shattered her life, how she’d felt trapped in a world that didn’t understand her. It was incomprehensible that he could have been part of that world, that he could have failed her so badly when she’d always – without exception – been there for him.
The thought brought treacherous tears to his eyes, and he only let them slide out because he was alone in bed and there was no one to see. His anger had been misplaced, as always. He’d blamed her for his own mistakes, trampled on her sweet nature with his unfeeling hobnail boots. How was it any surprise that she’d left him for a man who at least pretended to understand her?
He sniffed and wiped at his face. “You’re pathetic,” he told himself, too lethargic to even turn his head and look at the clock. But Vinick would be waiting in his office at ten, and if Josh was late he’d be staked out for the vultures. Life went on, so they said. Only it wasn’t life, it was something else. It was existence. Work. Work went on. There was always work…
Rolling over he studied the clock, surprised that it was only seven. He felt like he’d been awake for hours, and perhaps he had. Perhaps he hadn’t slept at all. It didn’t really matter. It wasn’t as if a good night’s sleep would have changed anything.
Hauling himself out of bed, Josh traipsed into the bathroom and tried not to feel emotional at the sight of Donna’s bathrobe still hanging behind the door. It would be gone soon enough; perhaps today, when he got home from work, all evidence of her would be gone from his apartment.
The thought was crushing. He rested his head against the bathroom mirror and forced himself to keep going. Just get through the morning, the morning meeting. Just keep going. But he seemed to have forgotten the point of it all. Or maybe he just didn’t care anymore.
Mechanically, he showered and shaved. He dressed, but couldn’t face CNN so made coffee in silence. Coffee for one. Even that hurt; it was as if she’d peeled off his skin, and now everything he touched was its own special kind of agony. He stood in the kitchen and sipped at the tasteless coffee, staring out the window and seeing nothing. Was this the rest of his life? Was this how he was going to—
A key turned in the lock, and he almost spilled his coffee in shock as he spun around to see Donna pushing open the front door.
She stared at him in equal horror. “I thought— I’m sorry, you said you’d be out.”
“I—” Oh God, this was it. This was it. “It’s seven thirty,” he said weakly.
“It…doesn’t matter. It…” She was leaving him. In one hand she carried a cheap, empty suitcase and in the other a couple of nested cardboard boxes. All that was left of his life, he thought, would be taken away inside them. “You might as well…”
She nodded, no trace of a smile on her pale face. Her eyes seemed as tired as his own, her hair pulled back into a ponytail that might have been unattractive if she hadn’t been so utterly beautiful. “I can…maybe I should start in the bedroom, if you’re…?”
Mutely he nodded.
“Okay.” Awkwardly she maneuvered the case and boxes into the bedroom, and he would probably have helped her but for the fact he couldn’t move from the spot. He heard the case hit the floor, and a moment later the door swung shut and he could hear no more. But his imagination was active; he saw her dragging out her clothes, folding them neatly into the case. He wondered if she’d take the picture of them that she’d kept by the bed, the one they’d taken during that dreamlike week in the Bahamas. He hadn’t moved it and he doubted she’d want it; he hoped she left it. There’d be another one by her bed now, he supposed. One of her and—
He dashed a surreptitious hand over his eyes and tipped the rest of his coffee into the sink. The last thing he was going to do was fall apart here; in fact, the last thing he was going to do was stay to watch this final evisceration of his happiness. With a determination that bordered on panic he put on his shoes and jacket, stuffed every file he could find into his bag, and eventually located his car keys. He could have been out the door in half a minute, but hesitated on the threshold.
If he left it like this, the next time he saw her would be in a meeting and all he’d be able to think about was this moment. Better, he figured, to speak now. Say something, at least, not just run out like the coward he was. Swinging his bag over his shoulder, and gritting his teeth against the pain in his chest, he forced himself to walk over to the bedroom and open the door. He knew exactly what he’d say – I’m leaving now. Just put the key on the table when you’re done. Hope it doesn’t take you too long – but he didn’t manage to start speaking before he stopped dead.
Donna was sitting on the bed. Beside her was her heavy winter coat, and in her hand was a flutter of paper. He knew exactly what it was. She had one of his pillows clutched to her chest, her face buried in it, and she was sobbing like there was no tomorrow.
In the whole time they’d known each other, he’d never seen her cry like this. He’d rarely seen her cry at all, but never like this. The impact was devastating and he gripped the door until his fingers turned white to keep from running to her side. He was short of breath and without a word in his head, but he had to do something.
“Donna…?” Her name came out harsh and rasping, and she jerked her head up in surprise.
“Oh…” was all she could muster, turning away and wiping a hand over her face.
“I’m… I was just…” Leaving? “I was going to, uh, make some fresh coffee. Do you…? Would you like one?”
She nodded, but kept her face averted as she pulled a wad of Kleenex from her pocket.
“Okay,” he said, backing out of the room. “I’ll just, you know, do that.”
He managed to close the door before he sank back against the wall and let out a shaky breath. Never, in his darkest imaginings, had he thought it would be this bad.
Donna’s hands were trembling and the tears wouldn’t stop. They just would not stop. The moment she’d walked into the apartment and seen him standing there in his socks, she’d known she wouldn’t be able to do this. She’d hoped the bedroom would steel her to it, that some evidence of Amy would harden her heart, but there was none. Instead, it was exactly – exactly – as she’d left it. He’d moved nothing; even her old sweatshirt was still strewn on the chair by the bed.
Not knowing where to start, she’d opened her closet door and seen all her things hanging there. And as if to taunt her – as if to expose her vanity and weakness – fate had made her reach for the coat she hadn’t worn since the dog days of winter. She’d pulled it down, and out of habit checked the pockets.
Her fingers had found something immediately; a letter? She’d pulled it out and, for a moment, her heart had stopped beating. The envelope was red, and on the front, in Josh’s writing, was her name with a little heart drawn underneath.
She’d felt sick and a little faint, her knees collapsing beneath her as she’d sunk onto the bed and opened the envelope with trembling hands. She’d known what was inside, she’d known it the moment she’d seen it, and it had horrified her. Numbly she’d taken in the picture on the card – hearts, of course – and opened it up, forcing herself to read the words inside.
I probably don’t always show it, but never doubt that I know it; ‘I am the luckiest’.
PS Dinner at Citronelle on Saturday. I’m thinking the red dress…
And that was when the floodgates had opened. Anger, regret, misery – they all flooded out. Her own pettiness lay exposed and vile; that she could have hurt him over something this stupid, that she could have called Colin that night because she thought Josh had forgotten something as insipid and inconsequential as Valentine’s Day. What was it anyway? Nothing but an excuse for the greetings card industry to make a fortune out of tat and sentimentality. And she’d used that – used his apparent forgetfulness of that tackiest of all holidays – to blame him for their problems, and to go running to Colin and—
And he hadn’t even forgotten. He hadn’t forgotten, she’d just worn the wrong stupid coat. A sob escaped, and afraid he’d hear she’d reached for a pillow to stifle the sound. But that had only made it worse, because it smelled like him and everything she’d lost because of her own, stupid, stupid—
She jerked her head up, glimpsed him staring at her in astonishment, and turned hurriedly away. “Oh…” Oh God.
“I’m… I was just…” He didn’t seem to know what to say. “I was going to, uh, make some fresh coffee. Do you…? Would you like one?”
She nodded, another wave of tears looming at the kindness in his voice, so little did she deserve it. She tugged at the Kleenex she’d stuffed into her pockets in anticipation of her tears. She doubted she’d brought enough, as it turned out.
“Okay,” Josh said quietly. “I’ll just, you know, do that.” And then he was gone, and she was alone again and the tears wouldn’t let up.
At last, after who knew how long, she managed to get herself under control. She went to the mirror and wiped at her streaked, puffy face with a tissue but couldn’t make much of an improvement. Not that it mattered. Not that anything mattered anymore.
Sniffing and wiping her nose one last time, she headed for the door and stepped out into the hallway.
Josh was in the kitchen, pacing. He stopped when he saw her and offered a hesitant smile. “I gave you extra cream,” he said. “You know. Just because.”
Because she liked extra cream as a treat. Tears threatened again and she wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand. “Thanks.” He’d left her mug on the counter and as she moved to pick it up he drew closer and started fiddling with the coffee machine.
“Are you…?” He cleared his throat. “Are you okay?”
She felt a bizarre urge to laugh. “No.” Taking a sip of coffee to steady herself, she said, “I’m sorry. This is— It’s harder than I thought.”
Out the corner of her eye, she could see Josh frown. His fingers tapped lightly on the counter for a long moment, and then in a quiet voice he said, “I thought this was what you wanted.”
His frown deepened and he turned his head to look at her. “I thought you and Colin—?”
“There is no me and Colin. There never was. You’re the only one I—” She tried to smile, but it turned into a hoarse whisper. “This is the last thing I want to do.”
“Then don’t.” His voice was urgent, his whole body tense as he turned to stare down at the counter again. “Just…don’t.”
“Don’t…go. Don’t leave. Don’t leave me.” He looked startled, almost terrified, but it didn’t stop him. “God, Donna, just don’t leave.”
“But I thought…?” Her voice gave way, she could hardly speak around the tears. “I thought you wanted me to.”
“What…?” The word was little more than an incredulous breath. “How could you think that?”
“Because you…” She faltered. “You didn’t come home, you wouldn’t come home, Josh. You were so angry and I thought… I thought you must hate me, and I didn’t know… I didn’t know how to…to…” She lost it at the end, her words drowned by another flood of tears as she hung her head and wiped at her eyes. All she could hear were her own jagged breaths and the slow drip, drip of the coffee percolator. Josh was still and silent next to her; she desperately wanted to look up at him, to see his face, but she couldn’t lift her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Josh.”
“Donna…” He said her name like it was an ache, like he could hardly bear to utter the word.
She looked up, at last. “If I hurt you…”
The pain in his eyes was too much and she crumpled beneath the weight of her guilt. Her hands covered her face, trying vainly to stifle the guttural sobs threatening to tear her apart. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t know he’d moved until she felt herself gathered into his arms, felt his solid warmth against her cold skin, felt herself held and comforted and safe.
It was like a miracle; like coming home on a bitter winter’s night, like a thousand Christmas mornings all rolled into one. It was forgiveness, and bliss, and joy and too much, too much of everything.
He was stroking her hair, murmuring soft, sweet words that pierced her soul, and all she could do was throw her arms around his neck and cling to him, as though he alone kept her from the abyss. And perhaps he did. Perhaps he really did… But then, as she hugged him tight, Josh abruptly buried his face against her neck. She felt his shoulders start to shake, heard his breathing stagger until it was ragged, and her soaring heart ached with an exquisite pain.
“I love you,” she whispered, over and over, running comforting fingers through his hair. “I’m so sorry, I’m so, so sorry.”
He didn’t answer, perhaps he couldn’t, and so she did what seemed best. Her lips found his neck, his face, his mouth and she kissed him, wanting to kiss away all the hurt and misunderstanding, all her stupid vanities, all his pig-headed stubbornness. And he responded like he always did, with a sweet passion, a tenderness that could leave her spinning, and—
Suddenly his hands were on her shoulders, gently pushing himself away from her. “Wait,” he said brokenly. “Stop.”
She blinked, breathless and confused. “Josh…?”
“Wait,” he said, taking a step back and dropping a hand from her shoulder to wipe across his face, steadying himself. “We can’t— Don’t you see? This is what we always do.”
“What?” She didn’t understand. Her heart had yearned for this for months, her body craved his touch – craved the closeness that only love making could bring. Craved him. “What do we always do?”
“This…” He had one hand on her shoulder, as if to keep her at arms length. “Sex.”
“Josh… I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please…”
“No.” He took another step back, losing touch with her completely. “No, Donna. Wait. Let me think.”
She was shaking with emotion, so wild she felt possessed. “Please…” she begged. “Whatever this is, can’t it—?”
“We have to talk,” he blurted suddenly. “We have to talk about everything.”
“Yes. Right now. Because this is what we always do. We fight, and then we have incredible sex, and we never talk. And I used to think that was okay, because I thought we understood each other, but we don’t. We really don’t, because we never talk. And if we don’t talk now, we’ll just go through this whole nightmare again. Don’t you see?”
She didn’t. What she saw was Josh, almost on the other side of the kitchen now, with his shirt un-tucked and his hair chaotic, and all she wanted was to feel the strength of his arms around her, feel the warmth of his body next to hers, and—
“I’m serious,” he said. “When I read— God, Donna, when I read your testimony about Gaza…? I didn’t recognize any of it. Because you never told me, and I never asked. And we never talked. We’ve never— In the whole history of our relationship we’ve never actually talked about anything important.”
“That’s not true…”
“It is!” he insisted. “Think about it, Donna. We never talked about us, about either of us.”
“I don’t want—” The prospect was terrifying. “I don’t think we need to… I mean, talk about what?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Anything! Everything. Like, um, okay. Like…” He was pacing the kitchen now, as if it was his office, “Like – why did you leave?”
“The White House.”
No, no, no… She swallowed, and shook her head. “Josh—”
“I’m serious.” He crossed the kitchen toward her, and perhaps he saw the disquiet in her face because he reached out a hand to touch her cheek. “It’s okay. It won’t change anything. It’s just talking, just…” He laughed self-consciously. “It’s about ‘being heard’. For both of us. I think it’ll be good.”
Her stomach twisted queasily. “What if you don’t like what you hear?”
“I’ll still love you.”
There was a long pause, filled only with the intense look they shared. When she spoke, she said, “Do you? Still love me?”
“God, yes.” He meant it; there was nothing but honesty in his eyes.
It took a couple of attempts for Donna to swallow the lump in her throat; his sincerity touched her soul, touched her as deeply as the prospect of raking over so many painful feelings terrified her. But she trusted Josh, and if this was what he wanted…
“Okay,” she said, taking his hand and leading him to the sofa. “Why did I leave the White House?”
“Me,” he said, following her. “I mean, it was really me you were leaving.”
She sat and tugged him down next to her. Keeping hold of his hand, she squeezed it tight but didn’t look at him as she said, “I left because I hated you.”
There was a pause. “Okay,” he sighed. “That’s a start.”
It was almost nine o’clock on the first Saturday morning Sam Seaborn had taken off in a month. Laura had gone for a run, and he was just considering the possibility of getting out of bed when his cell rang.
With a sigh he rolled over and flipped open his phone. “You gave me the day off.”
Sam was bolt upright in the space between two heartbeats. “What kind of something?”
“It’s okay, it’s not World War Three or anything.” Josh paused, and Sam felt his heart rate begin to slow. Then, in a slightly disbelieving voice, and quietly, as if trying not to be heard, Josh said, “Donna’s here.”
“In your apartment?”
“And you’re calling me because her company is tedious?”
“What? No— No, it’s…”
Sam smiled, but did his best to keep it out of his voice. “You realize this is the first Saturday I’ve had off in weeks, right?”
“I do,” Josh admitted. “But here’s the thing…” His voice dropped and Sam had the distinct impression he was hiding in the bathroom to make the call. “We’re doing this talking thing, and it’s taking forever. Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s actually… It’s quite amazing.” He laughed slightly, and Sam’s smile broadened. “Uh, anyway, I have a meeting with Vinick and he’ll flay me alive if I cancel.”
“He can do that?”
“He’s Arnie Vinick – he can probably walk on water.”
“I’m not sure those two things are synonymous.”
“The meeting’s about the OSAC Annual Briefing, it’s at ten o’clock in his office, and I’ll be there.”
A little breath of relief drifted down the line. “Thank you. Thank you, I just… I couldn’t…” Josh sighed, his tone suddenly confessional. “Sam, I don’t think I could have taken that meeting.”
Sam flopped back on the bed. “You, my friend, are suffering from shifting priorities.”
“Is it fatal?” There was humor in his voice, but it was shaky.
“You just have to go with it,” Sam advised, “let it take you where it will.”
There was a pause. “This has happened to you?”
“To me, CJ, Toby…”
“It’s…terrifying. I mean, I knew I didn’t have a life, and then I thought I did have a life, but it turned out it wasn’t really a life, and then I—”
“Okay, you need to not freak out,” Sam said, swinging his legs out of bed and getting up. “I’m pleased beyond measure that Donna is there with you, and I think you should be telling her this, not hiding in the bathroom calling me. Go talk to her, forget about work, and sort out your life.”
“I’m not— How did you know I was in the bathroom?”
There was a pause. “That’s…a joke. Right?”
Sam smiled. “Call me tomorrow.” He snapped shut his phone and had just tossed it onto the bed when he heard the front door open. He winced; this was going to be a hard one to explain. He hoped the romantic subplot might earn him points, but he doubted Laura was going to buy it.
She hated romances.
Dusk was fading into evening. Coffee, beer and the remains of take-out pizza littered the living room, and Josh’s throat was raw from overuse. They’d been over everything, again and again, each time getting a little closer to the unspoken truths they both harbored. And still they were talking; the proverbial floodgates showed no sign of closing. “Wait!” Josh said, swallowing the last mouthful of pizza. “You’re saying you’d have come back if I’d called?”
“What did you think?”
“Well, not that. Obviously.”
She stared at him as if he were an idiot; he knew the look well. “I thought you didn’t call just to be mean.”
“Not…entirely. I mean, you’re the one who left. I wasn’t going to grovel. I couldn’t let you stamp all over me with your stilettos…”
“I wouldn’t have,” she said quietly. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you, Josh. I just wanted you to see me.”
Her sober tone deflated him. “I saw you.”
“Yes. God, Donna…” The memory of that day dug into his chest with a sharp, hollow pain. Instinctively he shied away from it: from the memory, from talking about it, from laying it at her door. But Alisa’s advice had settled somewhere deep and it must have taken root because Josh heard himself saying, “I didn’t sleep for days. I felt sick. Angry. I couldn’t believe—”
“I couldn’t believe you’d left me. I was in some kind of shock, some kind of—”
Her voice was taut, tremulous. She wanted him to stop; she didn’t want to hear it but he had to speak. He had to speak at last. “I needed you so much, Donna. I trusted you. I thought you felt the same, I thought—”
“I loved you!” Donna exclaimed suddenly. “How could you not have known that? How could you have been so blind, Josh? I’d loved you for years. Everyone knew it! I was this pathetic laughingstock people used to snigger at in the corridors – ‘Poor Donna Moss, hopelessly in love with her boss. Man, he exploits her. Can’t she see he’s just using her? No promotion, no career development. She’ll be following him around until she’s sixty and he’ll never notice her. Never once see—’”
“No one thought that,” he objected. “No one laughed.”
“Who? Some brainless intern with—”
The name echoed in the sudden silence. “What?”
“CJ,” Donna said bitterly. She sat on the edge of the sofa now, hunched over her knees. Trying to make herself disappear, perhaps. “CJ knew.”
“She did…?” This didn’t sound possible. “Did CJ… say something to you?”
Donna nodded. He could only see her face in profile, but her jaw was tight and her large eyes were glistening. Again. She was crying a decade’s worth of tears today. “You remember that evening they simulated a biochemical attack?” she said in a whisper. “You were stuck in your office with Kate Harper?”
“It was right before I went to Gaza.”
“Okay...” The word tightened a knot in his gut. “Yeah, I remember.”
“She told me—” Donna’s head dipped and she swiped at her eyes, struggling to keep her voice even. “CJ told me you’d sold me a bill of goods with the trip, that I’d bumped off one of the communications people. It was a make-work job, Josh.”
“No. It absolutely was not that.”
She skewered him with a look that demanded the truth. “Josh…”
“I just…” He crumpled under the intensity of her gaze. “I wanted to give you something. I wanted to make you feel useful.”
After a pause she said, “I didn’t want to feel useful, Josh. I wanted to be useful.”
“I know. I know that now…”
She took a deep breath and turned away. “CJ told me that you were ruining my career, she said I had to get away from you. I had to do something with my life that didn’t revolve around Josh Lyman.” In a shaky voice she added, “So that’s what I did.”
It took a moment for him to process her meaning. “CJ?” he said at last. “CJ said that?”
Donna just nodded, too emotional to speak.
“She said I was ruining your career?”
“Something like that.” It was a choking whisper. “She knew why I’d stayed in the job so long.”
He felt suddenly dizzy, as if his heart had maybe stopped in shock. “Why— Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you?” Donna laughed. Or cried – he couldn’t tell anymore. “How could I have told you? What could I have said?”
“She was right, Josh. That was the point. She was just telling me what no one else had the guts to say.”
The dizziness hadn’t subsided; he was feeling nauseous now, too. “I wasn’t ruining your career, I was—”
“No,” she agreed, turning to face him at last. “No, I was doing that myself, Josh. I was staying in a job that was driving me insane with boredom because I couldn’t bear—” She cut herself off, a thin-lipped smile failing to hide more tears. “I just— I didn’t know how to be without you.”
“But if you’d said something,” he insisted, “if you’d told me why you were leaving…?”
This time she really laughed, albeit bleakly. “What would you have done? What would you have done if I’d stood in the middle of the bullpen and told you I was leaving because I was in love with you and it was making me insane?”
“I’d have… I’d have…” What?
“You’d have run a mile,” she said. “You’d have totally freaked out.”
Josh closed his eyes, but all he could see in the darkness was her face the day she left. Looking back now, he saw nothing but sadness and regret in her features and it was devastating. How could he have been so blind, to her feelings and his own? “I didn’t know,” he mumbled, in lame self-defense. “I didn’t know how I felt. I’d been ignoring it for years, because— I don’t know why. Because it seemed so complicated, probably. I tried not to feel it, not to think about it.”
Donna was silent. After a while she said, “When you visited me in hospital? In Germany. Did you…?”
He looked up and found her eyes, wide with questions.
“Did you know then? Because for a while I thought… I mean, you stayed so long and you seemed… I thought, maybe you felt something then.”
“Something?” He shook his head, struggling to get the words out. “I was terrified. I’d never been more terrified in my life.”
Her brow creased. “But did you…? I mean, did you love me then?”
“Did I love you then?”
“Are you—? Are you serious?”
“No, Josh. I’m practicing my stand up routine.”
“I spent a week praying to a God I don’t even believe in, begging him to let you be okay. I think I even offered up the next election in exchange.”
She smiled at that, a small, watery smile. “But you didn’t say anything. I thought— When I got back, you just handed me a stack of files and that was it. I thought… I was hoping that you’d say something, or do something, or—”
“I gave you a pen!”
“Yes.” She almost smiled. “Yes, you did.”
“And…” He blew out a short breath. “And you were with Colin, so...”
She blinked. “I wasn’t.”
“He was at the hospital. He came all the way from Gaza. And you were …intimate.”
“I was in traction!”
“You know what I mean.” He paused and silence descended again. There was a question in the back of his mind that had been there for years, one he’d never asked because it seemed juvenile and irrelevant. Yet it had lingered there all these years and he figured it was now or never. “Did you…?” he began. “Did you sleep with him?”
Her eyes fluttered in a self-conscious little blink that he knew meant ‘yes’. “In Gaza, one time,” she said. There was a faint flush to her cheeks, but no shame. “Not since.”
“A one night stand?”
She shrugged and looked away. “As it turned out.” After a moment she added, “CJ suggested it…”
“She…suggested you sleep with Colin Ayres?”
“Yes, Josh, that’s exactly what she suggested.” Donna sighed. “With anyone who wasn’t you.”
“But you hadn’t slept with me at all back then!”
Donna smiled that little smile again. “That was kind of the point. I was supposed to be moving on. Or something.”
He sighed. “Her timing’s possibly the worst in history.”
“Really?” She eyed him dubiously. “You’d have said something, if Colin hadn’t been on the scene?”
“Maybe. I brought you roses.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I don’t know what I’d have done if— When I got there, they were prepping you for surgery.”
“I wish you had,” she said softly. “I wish you’d said something.”
“Me too… I nearly did, once,” he remembered. “Later. When you were working for Russell.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Really? When?”
“You remember—? One night we were in the same hotel, our rooms were almost opposite.”
“Yeah.” She made a grim face. “I remember that – we rode up in the elevator together.” Then she frowned. “You nearly said something then?”
“I was this close,” he said. “I went over to knock on your door, and I… didn’t. Knock.”
A strange expression drifted across her face, he wasn’t sure if it was disbelief or astonishment. “You were going to knock on my door? In Iowa? That night in Iowa?”
“This close,” he repeated, his fingers an inch apart.
“Oh my God.” One hand pressed over her mouth. “Josh…”
She shook her head, battling tears again. “Why didn’t you?”
“Because I— I didn’t know what to say. I thought you hated me.”
“No,” she whispered. “I didn’t, not then.”
“So if I’d…?”
“Seeing you that night… It was so awkward, and I felt so sad. I think that night was the first time I’d ever looked back with…with regret. I hadn’t let myself miss you, I’d tried to stay angry because that way it didn’t hurt so much. But that night… You couldn’t open your door and you were so flustered with the key card, and it was so much like it had been and it just hurt so much.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she opened them again she looked straight at him and said, “You have no idea how much I wanted you to knock on that door.”
Josh let his head fall into his hands, mind spinning. How much pain could he have saved them both if he’d only been able to get over his fears, his ego – and his willful blindness to the truth? “I’ve been such an idiot.”
And then, to the surprise of his suddenly thumping heart, he felt her hand on his back, rubbing gently. “We both have.”
Her touch, her comfort… God, her forgiveness? “We never talked,” he said quietly. “This whole time, we never talked about any of it.”
“No. No we didn’t.”
“I wish I’d said something when you left. I wish I’d called. Toby kept telling me to call, and I was just so angry, and…and—”
“Hurt,” she said, her hand coming to rest on his shoulder, the weight of her arm across his back. It felt so good to be close again. “You were hurt.”
“So were you,” he said, turning his head to look at her. “I should have known you wouldn’t leave without good reason. I can’t believe I just let you walk away.”
She smiled slightly. “Twice.”
“Yeah.” He hung his head again. “I should have— Alisa was right, I should have tried to explain why I— Why this whole Gaza thing bothered me so much…”
After a moment, Donna said, “Who’s Alisa?”
“She’s…” He glanced at her out the corner of his eye. “She’s my therapist.”
Donna’s surprise was evident, but well controlled. “Oh.”
He sighed again and rubbed his hands over his face. “The project? The photos… Alisa said— She made me realize… The image of that SUV is burned into my brain, Donna; for weeks after, it was all I saw when I closed my eyes. It was all I dreamed about. Because we saw it on TV, Donna. I was staring at it on TV and I knew you were inside and Toby was on the phone to Andi and I thought you were dead and—”
“— no one knew anything. I thought you were gone. I thought you were dead and it was my fault. It was my fault...”
Her hand on his shoulder started moving again, a reassuring massage across his back. “Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Why not?” she pressed. “I had no idea, Josh. I thought you were just being— Well, you. You were so dismissive of the whole project, you said I was stupid and—”
“Don’t...” His words were muffled through his hands, but he didn’t want to look at her just then; he was afraid of the contempt he knew must be written across her face. “I was a jackass.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid,” he said, letting his hands drop and his elbows rest on his knees. He was staring at the floor, though, still not managing to meet her eyes. “I’ve never thought that, even when you knew nothing about politics. And now… You’re at the top of the big league, Donna. You know you are.”
She laughed a wry laugh. “That’s the thing, Josh. I don’t know that. When I look in the mirror I still see the stupid, naïve Donna Moss who dropped out to pay for her free-riding boyfriend to get through medical school. The Donna Moss who perjured herself. The Donna Moss who went to work for Bob Russell…”
“All I ever wanted was your respect, Josh. That’s all. And when you demean me like that…”
“Demean you? It was Colin Ayres I—”
“You called me ‘Peacemaker Barbie’, Josh.”
He felt queasy. “I said that?”
“In my office. Within earshot of my staff.”
“God…” He closed his eyes, feeling the blood drain from his face. “You must hate me.”
“I did then.”
Forcing himself to look at her, Josh said, “I’m an idiot. There’s no excuse. I was angry, I was upset and I just— I have so much respect for you, Donna. You amaze me. Everything about you. Your intelligence, your integrity, your compassion.”
“But those pictures? They made me sick. Looking at them. Looking at you, with your head all—? It makes me feel physically sick. And the idea that he could just stand there taking photos while I— All I wanted to do was rip the damn door off the SUV and haul you out, but I couldn’t, because I wasn’t there, and he was and he was just taking photos. He was taking goddamn photos, Donna!”
His emotions were slipping through his grasp because he could feel hot, choking tears in the back of his throat and they weren’t even stemming the flood of words. “I hated – hated! – the idea of that whole damn project, of using those pictures… God. But I didn’t know how to tell you because…because…” His breath came short and sharp and he pressed his hands over his mouth, trying to remember why Alisa had said this would be a good idea. It felt terrifying.
“Why not?” She was bemused. “Why couldn’t you tell me?”
“Because…” He blew out a deep breath and didn’t look at her as he said, “Because I didn’t want you to feel like you had to put me first – you know, take care of me again. I know how much that…bothers you.”
There was a charged silence, and then, “What are you talking about?”
“You…” He glanced up. “You spent seven years chasing after me at work, supporting me, putting me first and I—”
“I don’t blame you for not wanting to—”
“Josh!” He stopped, swallowing the rest of his words. Donna was staring at him incredulously. “You flew halfway around the world and sat by my bedside for a week. Do you think I wouldn’t do the same for you? And more?”
He stared, wordless; the only sound in his ears, the thudding of his heart.
“It’s got nothing to do with finding your airplane tickets, or scheduling your meetings. I love you. Don’t you understand that?” Her face softened and she reached for his hand. “I should have guessed. I should have thought about how this would affect you…”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Without me telling you?”
“I do know you, Josh. I just hadn’t put it together before.”
“Put what together…?”
“Rosslyn. That’s what happened, isn’t it?” She sighed, stroking her thumb over his hand. “After Gaza you had some kind of… I don’t know. Relapse. Is that the right word? And then when I started working on the peace project it must have brought back…” She squeezed his hand and spoke his name on a regretful little breath, “Joshua.”
“It’s—” For some reason he wasn’t expecting this, wasn’t expecting to talk about it, wasn’t expecting her to get to this so fast. But he wasn’t afraid, either. “It’s called a recurrence.”
“You didn’t tell me.”
“No.” He smiled at the inevitability of that. “You had enough to deal with.”
“We’d have dealt with it better together.”
Josh nodded. “If I’d said something…”
“Or if I had.”
With a sigh he sank back into the sofa, bringing her with him. Her head snuggled against his chest, his cheek resting on the top of her head. She smelled wonderful; familiar, warm, adorable. Like home. His arms were around her and as he held her tight he felt a wave of exhaustion crash over him with irresistible force. So much emotion, so much talking… Suddenly he couldn’t keep his eyes open.
Donna yawned. “I’m so tired…”
“It’s not even ten,” he said, peering at the clock in the kitchen.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” she sighed, drawing closer. “Thinking about today.”
He tightened his hold on her. “Me neither.” And it suddenly occurred to him that here they were, warm and at ease in each others arms. He wasn’t entirely sure how they’d done it, but somehow – miraculously – they were together again. He kissed her soft hair. “I never imagined this…”
“You always did have a terrible imagination.”
He smiled and yawned. “We should go to bed.”
The words hung there and suddenly Josh was wide awake.
Donna thought there was something unbearably sweet about the way he stammered, “Uh, to sleep. I meant we should go to sleep…”
“Are you asking me to leave?” she asked, hiding a smile. He was fun to toy with at times.
“No! No, I’m absolutely definitely not suggesting that. At all.” He grinned suddenly, that boyish grin that had melted her heart a decade ago. “The sofa’s pretty comfortable though....”
Touché. Her smile escaped and to hide it she dropped her head against his chest again. Truth was, she felt exhausted. She’d been up for thirty-six hours, on the back end of a long week, and felt like she’d spent the whole day in tears. Or laughter. Both, at times. “Sleep sounds good,” she said quietly, reaching across to hug him tight. “I don’t think I’ve had a proper night’s sleep since I’ve been at the motel.”
He started slightly. “The…motel?”
Donna lifted her head, then sat up and yawned. “Where did you think I’d been staying?”
“I—” He looked startled, then grimaced. “I guess I… I’d just assumed you were at…Colin’s.”
Even after everything they’d talked about he had the power to astonish her. “You thought I was living with him? Why?”
“Because… I thought that’s why you left. I thought that’s where you’d— Wait. Wait a minute.” He sat up. “You’ve been living in a motel?”
She shrugged. This time she was the one who looked away. “I didn’t know where else to go, and… I just thought it would be for a few days.”
“It must have cost you a fortune.”
“They do a monthly rate.”
His mouth clamped shut. “Yeah. Sorry. Okay… Well, you’re not going back to that seedy fleapit, so—”
“It’s a Motel 6.”
“I rest my case.”
With a sigh, Donna got to her feet and held out her hand to him. “Come on, Romeo, take me to bed. You can fight the motel dragon in the morning.”
He blinked at her. “I think I missed the bit where Romeo slayed a dragon.”
“It was in the sequel.”
He grinned again and took her hand, yawning as he stood up. “That was a big hit in Wisconsin, huh?”
“What’s tragic is that you actually think you’re funny.”
As they headed toward the bedroom he hit the switch to turn off the lights. She’d seen him do it a hundred times – it was a completely unremarkable domestic moment, but it filled her with so much warmth… She stopped.
“Hey…” In the half-light she could only see the angles of his face, no details. “Okay?”
Donna nodded, sniffing away the threat of more tears. There’d been too many already. “It’s just…” She tried for a smile. “It’s nice to be home.”
He pulled her abruptly into his arms, his breath warm against her neck as he whispered, “It’s not home without you here.”
After a while they walked quietly into the bedroom. It felt so strange to be back there, everything at once familiar and new. She searched for something to sleep in while Josh brushed his teeth, then she disappeared into the bathroom to change. When she got back he was already in bed, watching her with a slightly nervous smile on his tired face.
She crawled under the covers and lay next to him, reminded suddenly of their first, awkward night together. There’d been so much heat, but neither of them had been willing to risk any real warmth; they’d both felt too much to reveal it so soon. But this wasn’t their first night and she’d learned how to talk – they both had. So she rolled over, as she’d always done, with her back to him. After a moment he moved too, touching her tentatively at first as he snuggled up behind her; this was how they always slept, with his arm around her waist and his fingers tucked between her ribs and the mattress. She sighed in utter contentment and he answered with a gentle squeeze, a kiss on her shoulder, and then blissful sleep carried them both into dreams.
Donna didn’t know how much later she woke, or who woke first. A very pale light was filtering through the curtains, casting everything in shades of gray, and as she drifted from dreams into reality she found that her lips were on his, softly, sleepily kissing.
There were no words; after a day of talking, there was nothing left to say. Now there was only sensation. His hands on her bare skin, her mouth on his collarbone, his breath hot against her neck as she gasped his name, the muscles in his back moving beneath her clutching fingers; no fumbling first night, this, each touch was consummate. But transcending the physical was a joining beyond anything she’d ever experienced; a connection so profound and eternal that it left her breathless, dizzy. Wordless.
This, oh yes, this was love.
Hot, sweaty and tangled together, tender kisses lulled them gently back to sleep. And when Donna woke again, Josh told her his plan.