Josh had perfected the art of unlocking the front door while carrying a sleeping child, but not silently, and so by the time he’d refastened the latch, he could hear soft footsteps padding through the apartment towards him. He smiled. Donna needed as much sleep as she could manage, but selfishly he was happy she was up. He adored their startlingly different moppets, inquisitive Noah and already markedly self-possessed little Evie, but life was chaotic with a toddler and an infant, not to mention one of the most demanding jobs in the world, and he missed his wife.
She kissed him carefully, anxious not to disturb the rumpled little boy draped over his shoulder.
“Did he behave?”
“He was perfect. He’d probably have sealed re-election for us if we were eligible.”
Donna smiled fondly. Her boy had learned all his charm and confidence at his father’s knee, and with his dimples, buttery curls and babyish lisp, he was a force to be reckoned with in the persuasion game.
“C’mon, let’s go put him down.”
They settled Noah on his big boy bed, which he had graduated to when the cot had become Evie’s. Donna paused before removing the tiny tuxedo, smiling down at his undone bowtie and twirling the ends of Josh’s between her fingers. He caught her fingers and stepped closer, kissing her deeply.
“So, are you going to let him wear the suit to daycare now?”
Every day since the custom-made outfit had been delivered and tried on, the little man had begged to be allowed to wear it to “school”. When Donna asked him why, the irrepressible toddler had given her a look of condescension so haughty she’d actually had to bite her fingers to keep from laughing.
“Because I need it to dance, Mama.”
Obviously. She’d phoned Josh at the earliest opportunity, and giggled so much it had taken her five minutes to explain what had happened, by which time the baby had woken up.
When the First Lady had heard the story, she’d asked Noah to save her a dance at the ball. He’d acquitted himself better than anyone had any right to expect from a Lyman offspring, especially one who had known how to walk for barely a year, his face a picture of solemn concentration throughout. It was only a pre-emptive threat of dire consequences, made by Lou on Josh’s behalf, that would keep the resulting photos off the front pages the following morning.
Peering down at his sleeping son, Josh smiled affectionately.
“He’s going to outgrow that thing in about a week. I think you should let him.” He flashed her a rakish grin. “I bet all the girls will think he looks really cute in a suit.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. Josh was long gone by the time the morning wardrobe negotiation took place, and she was reluctant to cede what little ground she’d managed to hang onto.
“I’ll think about it. But for now, he looks really cute in PJs too.”
Working together, they gently freed the little boy from the tailored jacket and shirt. Donna slipped off his shoes and laughed again when she saw his socks.
“Are those new?”
“They came yesterday. They’re from Jed and Abbey.”
Noah’s tiny feet were encased in a colourful tribute to the American flag, stars on the left, stripes on the right.
“It’s a good thing he’s asleep, he’d never let me take these off.”
Just then, there was a whimper from the next room. Donna sighed.
“She just went down 20 minutes ago.”
Josh laid a hand on her back. “I’ll go.”
Donna quickly finished changing her son into his favourite Batman pyjamas, and then tiptoed into the master bedroom, where she found Evie and Daddy engaged in a staring contest. Oddly, Josh didn’t look at all incongruous in his tux with a swaddled infant in his arms. She crept up to them and softly kissed each of their foreheads.
“She’s not hungry, is she?”
Josh shook his head.
“I just think she wants to hear about the party. Go to bed, OK? I’ll be right there.”
She nodded gratefully and crawled back under the covers as Josh gently carried his tiny daughter through to the living room for a quick heart to heart. He settled her safely in a careful construction of cushions and then, murmuring softly to her about how much fun she’d have a the next inaugural, especially because Daddy wouldn’t be working so he could dance with her all night, he quickly shrugged off his jacket and shirt, so he could hold her with his bare arms – a trick he’d learned from the President himself. She watched him, huge blue eyes never straying from his face, and drooled contentedly when he settled her against his chest.
“So, principesa,” he whispered, “what do you think? Are you going to let Mama sleep for a bit?”
She waved her hand in the air and he gave her a finger to hold, which she regarded gravely for a moment before letting her eyes drift shut. Josh heaved a sigh of relief.
“That’s my girl.”
He rocked her for a few minutes, watching for any sign of her waking up yet again, and when he felt reasonably confident she was out he walked her back to her cot, taking a detour through the apartment for good measure. She made a snuffling noise against his undershirt that made him want to never put her down at all, but the huge bed where Donna was already fast asleep in a nest of pillows was too inviting to pass up, even at this shockingly early hour for him. He moved as carefully as he could to transfer Evie into the crib, wincing slightly as he straightened up, and then padded through to Noah’s room for a quick peek at his sleeping son. Standing in the hallway between the two bedroom doors, from where he could see the crib and Donna’s feet in one room and Noah’s blonde curls in a tangle of Spiderman sheets in the other, he took a deep, contented breath, and smiled to himself.
This night marked the beginning of a new term, and then end of a four-year period in which Josh’s life had changed in more ways than he could possibly fathom. His exhausting, exhilarating job had proved both more difficult and more rewarding than he had ever imagined, and a single day didn’t pass that he didn’t wish, desperately, for Leo’s counsel. Jed had proven a more than competent substitute, and the unwavering close friendship and support of the former President and his family, offered now out of sheer affection rather than any professional reliance, had been one of the many unexpected blessings of this new life.
Donna shifted in her sleep and he lifted a hand to his heart as he watched her. He still couldn’t quite believe he’d finally managed to earn a place by her side, nevermind that she’d pledged herself to him forever and borne him two perfect miniatures. He felt that his life was far richer than he could possibly deserve, but he believed he was finally learning to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop, and to strive instead to enjoy every moment, and bring as much joy as he could to the ones he loved – his little family here at home and his bigger, no less beloved extended and honorary family, now scattered across the country. He sometimes tried to summon his former self, the reckless, driven young man who had barely anything to lose and would risk it all to be proven right, and found that he couldn’t even fake it – and that he was all the better a politician, and person, for it.
Running a hand through his ever-thinning hair, he walked back through the bedroom, his fingertips trailing lightly over his wife’s sleeping form, and stepped into the bathroom. Shedding the remnants of his suit, he stepped into the shower, already savoring the rare opportunity of a whole night at home.
He wasn’t terribly surprised when, a few minutes later, the curtain twitched and a rumpled blonde head appeared. Donna just blinked at him for a moment, and then stifled a yawn before giving herself a little shake and stepping in to join him. She didn’t say anything, just tucked herself behind him, wrapping her arms around his waist and leaning against his back. He chuckled, tilting his head to kiss her temple, and then slowly turning them so she was under the spray of water. When she eventually disentangled herself and reached for the shampoo he shook his head.
“Uh huh, let me.”
She smiled sleepily at him and cooperated placidly as he gently washed and smoothed her tangled locks, sighing contentedly as he rubbed her scalp. When he went for the sponge to start cleaning the rest of her, she took over and lathered up his what little was left of his curls. They tended to each other quietly, lingering, communicating in murmured noises of appreciation and the occasional nudge for better access. Too soon, they were done, and Josh shut the shower off before the water could run cold.
They shared a towel, and Josh guiltily retrieved his carelessly discarded clothes while Donna combed her hair. He rummaged in their dresser for favourite sleepwear, old and frayed and soft, but when he brought Donna his Harvard t-shirt and the threadbare plaid boxers she’d originally stolen before they even started at the White House, she shook her head.
“Where’s your shirt?”
“In the living room, but I was wearing it for hours and you’re all clean.”
“I don’t care.”
She padded naked through the apartment and he followed, wearing nothing but a t-shirt, his shorts in one hand and her rejected pyjamas in the other, like a moth drawn to a flame.
Donna was twirling, the shirt hanging from her forearms, casting him a heated glance over her shoulder, when a familiar wail sounded from their bedroom. Donna giggled. Josh ran a hand over his face.
“You have to admit, she’s got good comic timing for eight weeks.”
He chuckled weakly, slumped against the wall. She snagged the plaid boxers as she sauntered past, the tails of his dress shirt now tied neatly around her waist, and swatted him on the backside with them before slipping them on.
“Hey there little one… shhhh, it’s OK, Mama’s here…”
Josh pushed himself off the wall and finished dressing, listening to Donna coo at their daughter. With a quick look to make sure Noah hadn’t woken up, he joined his girls on the big bed, snuggling close, smiling at the way Evie’s toes curled and flexed.
“Oh, I almost forgot.”
He slid back off the mattress and cast about for his backpack, rummaging through a bizarre combination of vitally important documents and toddler paraphernalia until his fingers closed on a brightly coloured package with a large cutout of the letter E attached to it with purple ribbon. He held it up.
“I have a feeling I know what’s in here.”
Shuffling back to his spot next to Donna, he carefully unwrapped the delicate package, revealing, as he had expected, a tiny pair of socks in the same pattern as Noah’s. They were so small there was barely room for a handful of stars and a trio of bold stripes. Donna beamed.
“Those are so sweet. I’ll call and thank them in the morning.”
“They’ll demand photos.”
“Of course they will. I’ll send them the one of you and Noah from tonight, they’ll get a kick out of that.”
Donna had managed to capture the little boy in midair, carefully tossed by his obliging father who would do almost anything to provoke a torrent of giggles. She’d converted the image to black and white on her laptop, and with them both clad in formal evening wear, the effect was quite something.
Evie had evidently had enough, and Josh scooped her up, rubbing her tiny back with practiced precision. She promptly obliged with a ladylike burp.
“She’s well trained, this one.”
Donna made a face at him.
“If we could just slow her down a bit. Sleep longer, feed longer…”
He nodded sympathetically.
“We’ll get there.”
He lifted the baby off his shoulder, holding her up and giving her a mock stern look.
“You need to start getting more sleep, young lady.”
She drooled noncommittally. He sighed.
“It’s good practice for when you’re President, though.”
Donna rolled her eyes.
“Come along then madam, let’s get you a clean diaper and then back to bed with you.”
Donna watched as he, as usual, eschewed the changing table and settled on the floor.
“One of these days I’m going to trip over you doing that and you’re going to have to do all the parenting while I recover from horrifying injuries.”
For a split second his face was a study in pain and grief, but it passed almost instantly, and he chuckled.
“This way I don’t need a magical third hand to stop her from rolling off the thing.”
“Josh, she’s not even two months old yet, she can’t roll anywhere.”
“When Noah was three weeks he kicked so violently he bruised his head crashing into the edge of the cot. I’m not taking any chances.”
She moved across the bed, turning on to her stomach to watch them, settling slowly as she adjusted to the still-uncomfortable pressure against her abdomen and chest with a quiet hiss of discomfort. Josh raised his eyebrows at her but she waved her hand dismissively and after a moment’s hesitation he nodded and went back to making faces at the baby. It had taken two pregnancies, births and recoveries, but he was finally learning not to freak out at every twinge and ache.
Josh taped the diaper into place and looked down at his daughter for a long moment, stroking the soft skin of her tiny belly with one crooked finger. She yawned theatrically and he smiled at Donna.
“Maybe we’ll get our romantic moment after all.”
She sighed dramatically.
“I think the moment’s passed.”
He made an “aw shucks” face at her and hauled himself to his feet before scooping the almost sleeping infant off the carpet. Bringing her up to his face, he stared intently into her drooping eyes.
“Are you trying to hypnotize her?”
“Do you think that would work?”
“Not on this one. Noah, maybe.”
He grinned and turned back to his daughter.
“Listen here, kiddo. In about thirty years, I’m going to start collecting dues, and you just added a big one to your ledger. A real big one. I’m thinking you’re going to be in charge of—“
He trailed off. Evie was asleep.
“No one in this house listens to me anymore.”
“It’s tough to be you, pumpkin patch.”
He gently settled the baby into her crib and then bent low, whispering to her. Donna recognized his mantra from both her pregnancies and giggled as Josh attempted some subliminal coercion.
“This is the voice of authority. This voice is always right. You’re very, very tired. So tired that you’re going to sleep for at least four hours. It’s going to be great, you’ll see. You’ll feel like a whole new baby.”
“She’s already a pretty new baby.”
“Come to bed, Joshua.”
He turned and scrambled in next to her so fast she burst out laughing, and he grumbled in her ear as he wrapped himself around her and found a spot on her neck to nuzzle.
“Happy anniversary, my love.”
“Amazingly, this isn’t actually one of our anniversaries, Josh.”
“It feels like it should be.”
“I think we have enough anniversaries.”
She was tempted to ask what else they could possibly find to celebrate, other than possibly one more birthday – just the one, she was quite determined, surprised that less than two months after her daughter’s arrival she’d even contemplate a third baby – but Josh sounded drowsy and she didn’t want to keep him awake. She hated that they both spent more time worrying about each other and their kids not getting enough sleep than they actually spent sleeping, but she’d found time and time again that even an extra half hour made a difference on the most difficult days, and there was no knowing when one of those would happen – even the day after Inauguration. She shifted onto her side so she could rub her husband’s chronically sore and stiff back, and caught sight of his bowtie, abandoned in a heap on the nightstand.
She cast her mind back two inaugurations, to another time he’d gone to the first Ball without her. Leaning in, she found that his eyes had drifted shut and his breathing evened out. She smiled, but whispered in his ear anyway.
“Happy anniversary, my love.”