Donna's voice ambushed him two steps inside the bedroom. "Josh, we need to talk."
"Oh, God. Already?" Josh's hands paused over a button of his Oxford as he raised his head to find Donna in bed, the covers pulled to her waist and a book opened across her lap. He squinted at her as he waded against the flood of panic in his brain. "I couldn't make it three months? Is this because of the other night, because, let me tell you, I can't even remember taking my shoes off never mind where I put the toothpaste cap. It was the first full day in office, and I was half asleep before I even walked through the door."
"No. It's not that." Donna closed her book and set it on the bedside table. "I just-"
"What?" A too-warm flush prickled over his chest. His eyebrows rose as he snapped into motion and wrestled with the rest of his buttons.
"I just wanted to ask you a question."
"Oh," Josh said and peeled his sleeves away from his arms. Heat still rolled from beneath his cotton undershirt as he tossed his Oxford into an empty laundry basket. He cleared his throat to loosen a thick, sticky layer of dread and forced a simple chain of words out of his mouth. "Uh, okay. What's up?"
"Do you-" Donna paused to glance down at her hands-her first outward sign of anxiety. She plucked several pills of fabric from the comforter before she lifted her head. "Do you take me seriously?"
Donna's question circled his head as alarm bells blared in his ears. His voice fluttered with nervous laughter, and he shifted his weight, his eyes locked on her face. "What?"
"Do you take me seriously?" Donna sat up, her back straight against the headboard. "You know, feel that my opinions and ideas are worthy of serious consideration? Value my professional input?"
Josh shook his head at the carpet as he busied himself with his belt buckle. He watched his hands to avoid her steady, calm stare; he swore that he could feel it as it bore into every niche, every recess of his brain. "Donna," he said, stepping out of his pants. If he were lucky, Donna would abandon this bizarre inquisition by the time he shed his socks and climbed into bed. "If this is about the First Lady's proposals for the education plan, I already told you that the President is open to new-"
"It's not about that."
Josh released a blustery sigh as he fired his pants toward the basket. "Then-" He sank onto the mattress at the foot of the bed and leaned forward to strip away his socks. "What are we talking about?" He threw Donna a sideways glance before he cocked his arm and hurled his socks at the basket. Both of them banked off the wall and landed with a soft, satisfying thud on top of his pants. "Oh, yeah! Did you see that?"
Donna frowned at him. She hadn't seen it. "I asked you if you take me seriously."
Josh leaned back on his hands, studying her face; he couldn't see past the serious lines, the frown that still pulled at her mouth. "This isn't a trap, right? Or some kind of test? I give you the right answer, and you kiss me, but I give you the wrong answer, and you break up with me? It's not one of those, right?"
"No, Josh, I'm trying-" She swept her bangs away from her forehead. "I'm trying to ask you a serious question."
"Do I take you seriously?"
"Of course I take you seriously, Donna. Yes," he said, his voice edged with frustration as he reached for the covers to join Donna in bed. Truth exposed. Case closed. "Now can we move on and have a nice-"
She slapped the covers down to the mattress. "No."
"No, Josh," she said, her hand still pressed to the covers. "I want to talk about this. I finally have a chance to talk about it, and I want to talk about it."
"Talk about what? You asked a question. I answered it. It doesn't require a discussion," he insisted, his voice jumping in volume and pitch. "There's no need for a discussion. And-" Josh narrowed his eyes at her, his mind and suspicions focused on one particular word of her response. "What do you mean, finally? I didn't know you wanted to talk about"-He pushed himself off the bed and waved his hand through the air-"whatever this is before. You never mentioned-"
Josh-his body and his voice-slammed to a stop as memories surfaced in his head. Echoes of Donna's voice, her tone, her mood. I only have one career and I want it to matter. You have to sit down and talk to me. That's what you have to do. Talk about where my job was going. Grunt level servitude. A soft, bitter laugh sneaked past his lips as he stretched his neck, trying to prepare himself for-what he imagined would be-an onslaught of old, exaggerated grievances. "This is about that lunch-the meeting-we couldn't have-"
"That you avoided. Yes."
He faced Donna squarely, his shoulders high and bunched with tension. "This is about the interview we never finished."
"During the campaign." He shifted from foot to foot, one hand curling around his hip with a tight, pulsating hold. "Wherever it was. In, uh. Wait-was it here?"
"Here in Washington?"
"No, here in our bedroom, Donna," Josh deadpanned. "Yes, in Washington."
"Where was it?" Josh skimmed a mental collection of blurry snapshots from the campaign-images of muted walls, the backs of airplane seats, faceless crowds of people. After his fourteenth hop-scotch across the country, lines and borders-cities and countrysides-had blended together. He had reached a point, near the end of October, where he had trouble differentiating between the industrial towns of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, the airplane hangers in the Southwest, the flat, endless amber waves of God damned grain in Oklahoma and Iowa. The travel itinerary had saved him from insanity more than once. Josh shook his head; he couldn't remember. "Ohio?"
"Michigan," Donna supplied. "Lou hired me to do Mid-West press. She asked me to fly to meet the campaign in Michigan after you snapped at her about my statement."
"I didn't snap at her."
"She described you as-and these were her exact words-an over-caffeinated snapping turtle."
"You're sure it was Michigan?" he asked, still searching his memory, still coming up short.
Josh sniffed and pushed his campaign memories aside. "Doesn't matter."
"It matters to-"
"Come on, Donna! You're the First Lady's Chief of Staff!" He bounced on the balls of his feet, sweeping his arm through the air to gesture toward her. "Yes, I value your input. Now why in God's name do we have to talk about this? This is about months ago-years ago-"
"I want to talk about it, Josh. I want to talk about it," Donna said, pressing her palm to her chest. "I need to know that you'll-"
"Donna," he said-nearly pleaded-as he bowed his head and closed his eyes, massaging his eyelids with the pads of his fingers.
"That you'll listen to what I have to say, and that it won't change just because-" Donna drew a full breath and squared her shoulders as she turned a fiery gaze on him. "Because we're sleeping together!"
Before Josh could right himself, Donna's words-practically an accusation-burrowed through his breastbone and wound around his heart, his lungs, like a python. Air rocketed up his windpipe and out of his mouth before he snapped his jaw shut. He blinked dumbly at her, hardly able to move-to breathe-while anger, sharp and thorny, bloomed in his chest. "Wow. God, Donna. I'm-" Josh stammered between uneven breaths. "I'm not a frat boy. I'm not-this isn't a-a meaningless roll in the hay for a few months." Josh wet his lips and forced a scratchy, dry swallow. "Is it?"
Donna's eyes softened and her shoulders slumped as she shifted in bed. "No," she answered. "No. Of course not. You're right. It's not. I'm sorry. I just-"
"You just what?" Josh demanded, unable to accept her speedy apology. "You just weren't paying attention for the last eight years? I-I could understand if you missed it while you were still an assistant, but all during the campaign? If I didn't take you seriously, I would have made you update contributor databases and-"
"And-and-passed you off to one of the-"
"Josh, I just need to know if you respect me."
"Yes! Yes, I respect you! When-the hell did you get the idea that I didn't? I've respected you from day one, Donna." He paced a straight path from one corner of the bed to the other. "It's hard not to respect someone who has the audacity to create a position for herself."
"Stop it. I'm serious."
He stopped abruptly and braced himself against the foot-board. "You think I'm jokin' around?"
"I think," Donna said, "you're trying to avoid a conversation you never wanted to have."
"Donna," he gritted out through clenched teeth. "It was months ago-"
"It was months ago, Josh, and it shouldn't be this hard for you to talk about it. It's over. There's nothing to do but give me a recap. Tell me what was going on. What happened with our lunch? What happened with that interview?"
"It's over. Exactly. It's over. Why does it still matter?" Josh pushed away from the foot-board, his arms flopping limply to his sides.
"It doesn't," she said. "Except-"
"That's right, so-"
"Except I'd like to think that you can force yourself to work through your discomfort and juvenile instinct to flee and talk to me when it matters, Josh," she said, throwing off the covers and propelling herself out of bed to stand within inches of him. "Even if you don't know why it matters. Or if it doesn't matter to you. If you can't talk to me about something that happened months ago, then how are you going to be able to talk to me when-God forbid, Josh-we're faced with a real problem?"
Josh met her gaze, holding steady. "I think I can tell the difference between a real problem and a pretend problem," he sniped before he turned and headed toward the window. He pushed a hand through his hair as he fought to tame the frustration clawing its way up his throat.
Donna's voice struck at him from behind, simple but too fast to dodge. "You couldn't then."
The reins of his restraint snapped as he processed her thinly-veiled implication, her expectations of history repeated. The words twisted through his ears, her tone definitive and firm, as if she had known for all those months what had rushed through his brain, what had driven his decisions, what he had experienced. Josh planted his heel into the carpet and pivoted before he closed the distance between them, compelled to set the record straight, prove her undeniably and conclusively wrong. "Yes, I did," he hissed, the force of his words blowing Donna's hair away from her face. "Yes, I did. I-I knew what you wanted to talk to me about. I knew what you were planning to do. I knew you wanted to leave. CJ mentioned something to me. She'd mentioned something about encouraging you to quit. Something about limited opportunities. Or more opportunities. Something-" He absently waved his hand. "Something about opportunities."
"And I-when you-when you started, you practically crawled onto the first campaign. You showed up. Out of nowhere. You were like a-" He floundered for words, squeezing his eyes shut as he tried to think. "A caterpillar. A little-"
Donna offered him a smile, the first since he'd stepped through the door. "If you think you're going to get anywhere by comparing me to insects-"
"-stubborn caterpillar that could. You knew less about professional politics than the interns, and one day you're answering my phone, and the next you're assisting in international summits, and I-I couldn't for the life of me, Donna, remember when you transformed into this bold, focused butterfly, but suddenly you wanted more or-" He faltered again, breathing a frantic, frustrated sigh as he rubbed his forehead. "Something else. Something new. And I tried to give you what you wanted, Donna. I did, but I sent you to the God damn Gaza strip with bombs and photographers and-and-"
"-and I thought everything would get better. I thought it would blow over, but you left before the dust settled, and I couldn't hire you when we were still-when-when you still hated me, or blamed me, whatever you-"
"I didn't. Josh, I never-"
"And I couldn't hear you say it, Donna. I didn't want to hear you say it, not when I was-" Josh stopped abruptly, pressing his lips together as panic raced through every nerve in his body. He averted his eyes and turned away from her. His heart crashed inside his chest, and he mentally slapped himself, desperate to derail his own train of thought and distract her, silently telling himself to move on. Quickly. "You know, we both have an early day tomorrow. We should probably-"
"When you were what?" Donna asked, approaching him-cornering him-with slow, light steps.
He shifted uncomfortably, his eyes darting to her face. "When I was-in the middle of a hard campaign."
"That's not what you were going to say."
"Yes it was," he said, straightening his spine to stand taller.
"When you were what, Josh?"
"We'd just won the nomination with a Hail Mary play. I was trying to staff the campaign, and there was a lot of-"
"Josh," she said, her voice soft, just above a whisper as she slowed to a stop in front of him, less than an arm's length away.
"When you were what?"
"When-" he sputtered, glancing toward the floor, the door, the walls-anywhere but Donna. "When I was-"
"Oh, for God's sake, Josh, spit it out!"
"In love with you!" Josh snapped his attention to her face as the words tumbled out of his mouth with a hasty exhale. "When I was-God, Donna, when I was already in love with you!" He let his head fall as soon as his own voice reached his ears. Dread swirled in the pit of his stomach. His tongue felt like a wad of dry cotton in his mouth. Silence stretched on between them like a dark desert road, and Josh itched to reach for her. He found his voice and spoke instead, raspy and quiet. "I didn't"-he raised his hand, only to let it fall with a slap against his thigh-"want to tell you like that."
Donna stared at him, wide-eyed and open-mouthed. "You're-"
He heaved a weak, listless laugh as he slouched, both hands perched on his hips and his head bowed. "It would appear so."
"I-I don't know," he stammered. "It's hard to-"
"Before the campaign? Before we-in the hotel?"
He opened his mouth, but closed it a second later, buying a moment to wet the inside and make one simple word easier to push past his lips.
"Was it?" she pressed.
Josh drew a deep breath before he met her eyes. "Yes."
"Before I even joined the campaign?"
"Yes." He squirmed, his hands flexing on his hips. Details-exactly, he assumed, what Donna wanted to know-swam in his head, slowly trickled down to pool on the back of his tongue.
"I didn't keep a calendar, Donna."
"I thought you might have remembered."
"I do," he admitted, a series of moments passing behind his eyelids when he closed his eyes briefly. "It was-before the campaign. Before the primaries. Before you left the White House. Before I sent you off on that damn CODEL, and around Thanksgiving-the-not the one right before that, but the one before that-"
"After the President won reelection."
Josh blinked, thrown off by her interruption. "Right. Uh, you asked me to talk to-" Jack Reese, he nearly said before he pressed his lips together and swallowed thickly. "To talk you up, and I remembered all these stories about you and-" He breathed a rueful laugh. "It was the worst possible time."
He fell silent and watched as Donna stepped forward. She offered him a faint half-smile-finally quiet for a moment-as her hands fanned out and curved around his sides. Tension dissolved under the warmth of her palms, and he breathed deeper and easier despite the powerful, frenzied thud-boom of his heart. Donna must have felt it, Josh thought, as she drew her hand up his body to rest over the center of his chest.
He focused on her face as she spoke, relieved to hear a hint of familiar, easy playfulness in her voice. "I'm pretty sure," she said, "that I know the answer to this question since you're-well-you and are generally predictable, but did it ever occur to you to mention this when it wasn't the worst possible time?"
"I tried." Josh recalled a spontaneous, unstoppable confession outside of her apartment as he stood nearly ankle-deep in the snow. A bouquet of roses that he'd bought half-way around the world, but had never been able to give her; he had lost them between her room and the nurse's station. Her closed door and his raised hand in Iowa before fear had seized him and pushed him back into his own room. Missed opportunities, but he'd tried. He had never exactly encountered an ideal moment.
"You mean you dropped hints in secret Josh-code and hoped I'd follow the occasional breadcrumb?" Donna wrapped one arm around his waist and inched closer to him-hip-to-hip. She slid her hand up his chest until she reached his collar, her fingertips shifting the fabric to trace his collarbone.
"Well, it seemed like a-" Josh closed his eyes for a moment, distracted by her touch and the sudden swell of desire for her in his chest. He drew a deep, deliberate breath in an effort to refocus. "It seemed like a wiser course of action than busting into Russell's campaign suite to publicly and explicitly declare my-no, you know what?" He shook his head. "I don't want to do this. I just told you that I love you. I don't want to bicker about this. Do you?"
Donna shook her head, and, when she answered, the playfulness had vanished from her voice. "No," she whispered as her hand curved around the side of his neck and drew him into a kiss.
Josh's emotions flared as Donna pressed her lips against his, soft and slow, her fingers threading through the hair behind his ear. He blindly reached for her and pressed his hands to the curve of her waist. His thumbs rubbed absently against the warm fabric of her camisole top and across her ribs as he gathered her nearer to him. A breath hitched in the back of his throat when Donna coaxed his mouth open and trailed her tongue over his bottom lip, light and unhurried. Relief, desire, and a dull ache of disappointment burned behind his breastbone and accompanied the realization that she had never echoed the words that he had finally spoken out loud. Her voice-a hum in her throat-sounded like a taunt and it caused Josh to pull her flush against him, his hands spread wide across her back as he slanted his mouth over hers and won control of the kiss. He wanted to draw those words out of her, hear them whispered against his lips while she arched beneath him and held him inside her. He wanted to hear the weight of lost years in her voice. God, he wanted to hear her, the words real in his ears; he was tired of trying to imagine how she would sound with those words on her lips, for him, finally. Josh started to backpedal toward the bed as he kissed her, his mouth closing around her top lip and sucking fervidly before he slipped his tongue inside her mouth to taste her.
He tried to keep her close as he neared the bed, but she pulled away before he reached it to look at him intently. She traced his cheekbone with her thumb, her hand still curved along his jaw, and Josh wrapped his hand loosely around her wrist to stop her from moving away completely. When her hand slid down his neck and over his shoulder, he shifted his hand to press her palm to his chest, his fingers curled around hers.
"I wish you'd talked to me, Josh," she said. "I wish I'd-" She cut herself off and upturned her hand to squeeze his fingers. "I wish you'd talked to me."
"Yeah," he whispered and lowered his head to drop a kiss on her knuckle. "It won't happen again. The not talking-the avoidance thing."
Donna smiled, a full, bright smile as she tilted her head and peeked at him through her lashes. "Okay," she said, her voice light and girlish as she leaned into him for a kiss. Josh hadn't opened his eyes, and her lips still brushed his when she asked, "What kind of butterfly?"
"Hmm?" he asked as he chased her mouth for another kiss.
"What kind of butterfly?"
"Donna, I'm kind of busy here," he said, shuffling backwards before sinking onto the bed, still holding her hand and trying-again-to take her with him.
"You said I turned into a butterfly," she pressed as she followed him-thank God, Josh thought-and crawled after him onto the mattress. "There are hundreds of species of butterflies, Josh. I want to know what kind of butterfly you thought I turned into."
"I don't know, Donna," he answered, his mouth quirked with an exasperated smile as he wound an arm around her waist and stretched out beside her. "A butterfly. The kind with wings and, you know, colors."
He dropped a kiss on her shoulder before he pushed his hand under the hem of her top and across her stomach. When Donna took the hint and worked out of her clothes, Josh used the opportunity to strip down to his shorts, driven by the need to feel her against his body and not just his hands. His eyes trailed over her-from her legs, one coyly crossed over the other, to her face, framed by her hair spread over her pillow-before he settled next to her, half-draped over her. He pressed himself to her side, his face tucked into the curve or her neck and his erection firm against her hip.
Donna curled her arm around his shoulder as he traced her jaw with kisses. She squeezed him gently, waiting until his kisses moved down to her collarbone to speak. "You know," she said. "Butterflies can hear with their wings."
Josh's hands slid ahead of his mouth. He drew a sharp, satisfying gasp out of her when he cupped her breast and closed his lips over her nipple, circling it with his tongue.
She spread her legs apart as she arched into his touch, her mouth open around a quiet sigh. "Maybe not hear in a"-she sunk her fingertips into the muscle of his shoulder as he sucked harder-"conventional sense, so much as detect vibrations. Like bats."
Josh lifted his head for a moment to glance at her, amazed but somehow not surprised that she continued to talk. Talk about butterflies. "Donna," he said, pushing himself to his hands and knees to crawl over her and settle between her legs. He leaned down and kissed her deeply, determined to make her focus. When he broke away, he let his mouth hover above hers as he whispered, "I promise you that this-is absolutely fascinating, but, seriously, enough with the butterflies."
She breathed a shaky laugh as her hands slid down his back and under the waistband of his boxers. "Later, Josh, I'm going to teach you about butterflies," she said, meeting his eyes as she eased his boxers past his hips.
Josh's hips jerked forward and his erection twitched as Donna squeezed his ass. He smirked at her. "Donna, I don't care if you"-he paused to twist out of his shorts-"prepare a slide show later. Just-"
"Right," he answered, already a little breathless.
She flashed him a smile as she spread her hands over his shoulder blades and drew him down to her. "Okay," she breathed, a husky tickle in his ear, as she lifted her hips, her calves pressed to the back of his thighs. She arched into his body, opening her legs wider as the head of his erection slipped inside her. "Josh. Oh."
Josh grunted with a short, hard breath, his eyelids fluttering closed, and slid fully inside her. He trailed a line of wet, open-mouthed kisses over her neck and rocked backward, withdrawing almost completely before he pushed forward to build a steady rhythm. As he moved, his mind clouded with the warm scent of her skin, the cocoon of her arms, her hands, her legs, keeping him close, the soft contours of her body.
It only seemed like a moment-too fast, too soon-before her voice streamed into his ear. "Faster, Josh. Harder," she panted, her breath hot on his skin, her moan loud as she pulled him deeper and clenched down on him.
Under normal circumstances, Donna's plea would have incited him to push ahead, follow her demand to the letter until she writhed-a yes, Josh, yes breathy in his ear-but he had just confessed his best-kept secret of the last four years and he desperately wanted to act on it-prove it. But Donna gathered a fistful of his hair and squeezed as she clasped her ankles behind his back. His control dissolved and his voice cracked with a sharp groan when she licked a thin line over his jaw and gasped. "There. There, Josh."
With a broken whimper, her body tensed, her head thrown back and neck exposed as she grasped at his back, his shoulders. Her legs quivered and tightened around him, her arms crisscrossing over his back to hold him close as she trembled beneath him. Josh heard-felt-her fast, uneven breaths and shuddered, his rhythm faltering. He scattered kisses over her face and laced his fingers through her hair, easing her down from her orgasm with touches and soft kisses.
Mounting pressure and urgency drove him forward as Donna relaxed under him. He pushed deeply with fast, powerful strokes. His muscles strained with effort and exertion. His erection throbbed, almost hurt, and a raw, gritty moan rasped in his throat. He had only just reestablished a rhythm when Donna cupped his jaw and turned his face, her lips brushing the corner of mouth as she whispered, "I love you. Josh, I love you."
Donna's voice-her voice, her tone, her words-swept him into his orgasm like a weaving current before the sound faded from his ears. He sputtered and gasped into her hair as he tumbled, his eyes squeezed shut and his body bowed over her, his hands twisted in the sheets above her shoulders. Pulses of hot, fierce waves roared and corkscrewed up his spine, through his hips, and he helplessly rode their crests until he collapsed into her arms, heavy and breathless.
As his orgasm ebbed, a low, smooth hum rolled off his lips, and Josh grazed Donna's temple with a sleepy kiss, his chest full and warm with comfort and relief. Donna brushed airy patterns across his back, and he shivered under her touch. He nuzzled her neck, his heart rate slowing and his body melding, relaxing around her curves, when her voice floated into his ears. "Josh?"
"Hmm?" He shifted weakly but made no serious effort to move off her, too comfortable, too warm and not ready to pull away from her.
"Did you know that some butterflies are poisonous in order to protect-"
Josh summoned the energy to lift his head to peer at her. "Donna, you know, this is what we should talk about," he said. "We should have a talk about this."
Her hands lazily traced the breadth of his shoulders as she asked, "About what?"
"This. You. Your bizarre tendency to store more useless information than a box of Trivial Pursuit and then feel the need to spread this information to others, who, quite frankly, would rather occupy their brain cells with more important things."
"You know, Trivial Pursuit's a good game."
"No, it's really not."
"Yes, it is," she said and paused to curl her arms loosely around his neck. She grinned, as if she possessed a juicy, heady secret. "And you don't actually want to have that talk."
Josh cocked his head. "What makes you say that?"
"No matter what you say, Josh, you like it," she said, absently stroking the hair behind his ears. "You like that I have a wide and varied pool of common knowledge, and you like that I share it with you. It's a quirk. You find it endearing."
Josh blinked at her and pressed his lips together, drawing a slow breath through his nose. 'Endearing' had landed him in trouble years ago, when personal thoughts of Donna had raised a swell of affection in his heart and enormous red flags in his head. If she had made the same remark then, he would have swallowed his gut-response and covered himself, distanced her with a retort about his lack of appreciation for any of her quirks.
But now Josh breathed a soft laugh, smiling at her. "Yeah," he admitted, and met her mouth for a slow, tender kiss. "I do."