"Sam, don't go in there!" Josh called down the hall to his best friend before he could reach his office.
"I can't go in my own office?" Sam asked the exhaustion and strain evident in his voice. The hearings were well underway and he had spent the last five hours on the stand. He didn't think his day could get much worse. He was wrong.
Sam followed Josh into the latter's office and but they neglected to shut the door. It remained slightly open. Josh looked apologetically at his friend. "Lisa's in there."
"The barracuda, she's waiting in your office."
"Oh for the love of . . . what does she want?"
"To see you. She made such a huge scene at security that Donna didn't think she had a choice but to let her through."
Magically Donna appeared in the doorway. "I gave her a cup of coffee and parked her in your office. Now what?"
"What am I supposed to do? It's been three years - I have nothing to say to her. She left me remember? And she was so broken up about it that three weeks later she was living with Greg Whitney and from what I hear through the grapevine they've been married and divorced since. What could she possibly have to say to me?"
"I dunno and I don't care but we can't throw her out like trash - Leo and CJ would be spitting nails if this made the news." Josh never liked the woman Sam had been a hair's breath from marrying. "Question is: how do we get rid of her?"
Ainsley's voice sounded from the doorway, "get rid of whom?" She looked up at Josh suspiciously and seeing his guarded statement turned to Sam. She shook her head at his choirboy countenance and sighed deeply. "On second thought, I don't care who you get rid of, Josh, as long as you don't expect me to defend the senior staff at a murder trial - I have my hands full now. Sam, I need you - I'd like to go over what went on today."
"I know. Look, can I catch you in say - half an hour - maybe?"
"Sam, we need to do this." Her voice had a warning tone to it.
"Ainsley, please." Sam looked really tired and obviously something else was going on.
"What's wrong?" Her voice was barely above a whisper. She put a hand on his shoulder trying to comfort him. "Honestly, it didn't go that badly today. It would help me a lot if we could review a few things before I prepare my closing."
Sam looked at her (almost) tenderly for a moment and Donna flashed Josh a knowing look. "I wish it was just the hearing. But this is ancient history. One particularly nasty dragon that you can't slay for me. But thanks, I know you would if you could."
Donna shook her head ever so slightly and Josh was sure he could hear her thinking, "when are you two going to wise up and admit you've got a thing for one another?" She cleared her throat. Donna looked like the proverbial Cheshire Cat. "Sam, Ainsley is the perfect person to slay the dragon-lady! And she can do it tonight - with a little help from your friends." Sam looked at her very confused. "Look, I need you to take Lisa to the Hotel Washington for a drink. Josh and I will join you in an hour. Less if we can manage it. Once we get there, go along with whatever we say and do." At his questioning look she nodded encouragingly. "It'll be okay - I promise. We'll meet you there once we're set up. GO, trust me."
Josh and Sam trusted Donna implicitly so left the room to do her bidding. After all, she was the closest person in their lives to a 'She Who Must Be Obeyed'. They complied. "Remember Brookline and Joyce?" she said turning to Ainsley who nodded.
"Sam stood up for you, right?"
"I owe Sam big for that one." Ainsley said ruefully.
"Well, it's payback time. Follow me."
Sam took a deep breath before entering his office. Lisa stood as soon as he came in and wrapped her arms around him in a smothering embrace. He patted her back dutifully and pulled away. Strange, five minutes ago it was all he could do not to grab Ainsley and hang on for dear life. But the thought of seeking any comfort or even companionship from Lisa was completely unappealing. "Sam, I saw you on TV last night and well, I just had to come." Lisa was perennial - her make-up, her hair, her manicure, they were perfect - but he realized instantly he'd give anything to be with a certain delightfully dishevelled bathrobe clad southern belle who'd been klutzy enough to get paint on her suit. Not to mention the fact that Lisa was no doubt still on her rabbit food diet as opposed to Ainsley - who'd never met a calorie she didn't like. The rabbit prattled on, "you looked so . . . forlorn - I just had to come."
"Yeah," Sam said neutrally, praying Donna knew what she was doing.
Donna stopped at Kathy and Ginger's desks, "dry-cleaning claim stubs . . . I want everything from everybody who could possibly look Ainsley's size. I need them in five minutes," she turned to Ainsley "we're going to Sam's to do a little renovating." Donna looked incredibly pleased with herself. She called back to Kathy and Ginger. "Tell the girls I want all the spare clothes from cars and lockers too. I don't have time to explain except it's for Sam. Lisa's back. And Josh, Ainsley and I are going to make damn sure she's on the next shuttle to New York."
"It'll be a pleasure." Kathy declared venomously. "Sam's too sweet a guy for his own good sometimes - but just this once, I would have loved to see him toss her out on her ear."
"Me too." Donna smiled and continued, "But that wouldn't be Sam we all know and love."
Kathy nodded. "Donna, Ainsley, just make sure you get her out of his life for good."
Without hesitation all over the West Wing petite women's purses came out and at least half a dozen claim checks from nearby drycleaners were produced in very short order. "Ainsley, go down to your office grab some personal pictures and stuff. Don't argue with me, GO." Ainsley, realizing whatever they were up to was time sensitive, did as she was told. Donna continued her mission with glee, "Carol, you know that good shot of Sam and Kathy taken the day of the State of the Union, I want you to scan it and splice a photo of Ainsley's face over Kathy's."
"On it." Carol smiled and began pulling files up on the computer. It was printing on Kodak paper when C.J. appeared at her assistant's desk. Carol brought CJ up to speed.
When Donna swung by with Ainsley to pick it up CJ grinned at Donna. "Women like Lisa are a disgrace to the sisterhood. How can I help?"
Josh, the dry cleaning already safely stowed in his trunk, met Ainsley and Donna at the entrance. When the trio was all settled in Josh's car on the way to Sam's apartment, Donna filled Ainsley in. "He got home from a campaign trip, we'd been to nine states in four days and he was wiped and had the mother of all migraines. He also had the flu - so Dr. Bartlett wrote him a script and sent him home to bed for forty-eight hours. Except, when he got there, his bed was already full. His fiancé and his former senior partner's son were already using it."
"Ouch." Ainsley couldn't fathom why anyone would sleep around on Sam. "He must have been devastated."
"He was." Donna said simply. "It took months before we got the real Sam back. The first few weeks - it was like working with a ghost. He never talked about it. When he got back from New York he just told us his wedding was off - case closed. Josh and I finally got him drunk one night and got the story out in miserable detail. She gloated about her ability to pick a winner - unlike him. We were still trailing Hoynes at that point and they were pretty tense days. I wanted to kill her."
Josh was even more straightforward. "She's a bitch Ainsley. Plain and simple. She always was and forever will be. She liked his monogram, his Park Avenue address and bi-coastal living. I'd suspected she was sleeping around once or twice but always figured she'd get caught and he'd wise up and send her packing. But she and I well, let's put it this way, I didn't want to lose my best friend by being the one to break them up. But uh, . . . I didn't want him to see the slut live and in person, either. Later, I wished I'd said something before it was too late."
"And all Sam's women friends vowed if we ever got a chance . . ." Donna chimed back in.
Ainsley said quietly. "So how can I help?"
"It has to be you. Lisa knows everybody else from the campaign so you're the only one who can pull this off."
"Pull what off?"
"Make it look like you and Sam are living together."
"Ohmigod." Ainsley rode the rest of the way to Sam's in silence. "You want me to pretend Sam and I are lovers?"
To which Donna cheerfully replied, "I knew you graduated Harvard Law School sum cum laud for a reason. Josh pull up in front of the drug store over there. If this is going to look authentic we need some stuff. And Josh, bring your Visa Card."
Fifty seven minutes after he left the West Wing, Sam looked up and saw Josh and Donna enter the hotel bar. He had been 'chatting' with his former fiancé about nothing. She was going on and on about how she'd take care of him now, how he didn't need to be alone anymore. He'd tried telling her that he was fine and she needn't have worried but she clucked something about him not needing to be brave around her. He couldn't seem to get away from her and she wouldn't take the hint that he wasn't happy to see her. But, Sam being Sam, couldn't bring himself to be rude (though he wasn't sure why the hell not!). He really wanted to tell her to climb back on her broomstick and head back to New York but he was afraid if something like that happened it would appear in the gossip pages. The senior staff didn't need to be creating scandals right now. Sam hoped Donna had come up with a way to drive Lisa out of town. He was relieved when Josh put a finger to the side of his nose reminiscent of the scene from the Sting . . . their mutual favourite movie. Josh liked to think he Sam were a lot like Paul Newman and Robert Redford. They were definitely up to something. But what?
"So, Lisa, what are your plans?" Donna inquired politely when their drinks arrived.
"I'm free to stay in DC for as long as Sam needs me," the other woman replied placing a hand over Sam's.
Josh had to fight not to throw up. "Hey buddy, you look like hell. Why don't you go home and grab some sleep? You have to testify tomorrow too."
Sam rolled his eyes - one of the first things Lisa had made clear was that she hadn't bothered booking into a hotel. She was expecting to stay at his place. Sam tried to stall hoping to get a private word with Josh to fill him in on that little fact. "Was Ainsley mad that I skipped out without saying good night? No, let me rephrase that, how mad was Ainsley?"
"She'll get over it. She said she didn't want a drink with us though - she was going straight home to polish her summation." Josh said it very casually. Too casually - Ainsley must be in on this sting too. The list of people he was going to have to pay back was getting longer. Oh well, he'd buy her a muffin before the hearings tomorrow morning - small price to pay.
"Sam, Josh is right. You do look like you need some rest." Lisa had interpreted Josh's comments as a sign he approved of her return to Sam's life. Having Josh as an unexpected ally was good news to her. "We should go."
"Sam," Donna smiled over the rim of her glass. "I really think you should home."
Sam remembered her earlier instructions. "What have you done?" he thought silently as he got up from the table. Lisa followed suit.
"Goodbye Lisa," Donna said sweetly as the other couple departed and as soon as she was out of ear shot: "Hello Ainsley!" She and Josh clinked their beer classes.
"I wish I could be a fly on the wall for this." Josh grinned at Donna. "You are an evil woman Donnatella Moss."
"Thank you, Joshua."
"You realize there could be major fall out from this."
"Ya think?" Donna said all wide eyed and innocent as Josh reached for his cell phone to initiate phase two.
Sam unlocked the door to his apartment and Lisa followed him inside. The first thing she noticed: three pair of ladies' shoes were arranged neatly on the mat inside the front door. He took Lisa's coat and hung it up in the closet beside a jean jacket, windbreaker and long coat that he didn't recognize. "Donna, you're good," he thought deciding a prudent silence was in order. Lisa delicately slipped into the powder room and Sam thought he caught a glimpse of makeup and hair fasteners in a dainty little wicker basket on the vanity. "Donna, you're really good."
Sam realized Lisa was working at keeping her statement neutral when she joined him in the living room. She was nobody's fool and she had to have noticed a woman's things in his apartment. Lisa also knew him well enough to know that he didn't have a sister and his mother, who was 5'10 with short grey hair, lived in San Diego. The offending articles of clothing definitely belonged to a petite woman who used barrettes and bobby pins. Lisa silently surveyed the living room which had acquired a few photographs since Sam had last been there - the one of him hugging Ainsley was on the end table beside his leather sofa. He'd have to remember to ask how they'd done it on such short notice and he would have to up her payment to a slice or two of cheesecake for letting them use her image. Then, he realized the en suite shower was running and thought, "OH NO!!" A second later Sam stifled a gasp as Ainsley appeared in the living room wearing the silk bath robe Lisa was bound to recognize as her final Christmas gift to him. Ainsley was still towel drying her long hair seemingly oblivious to the other woman's presence. Lisa stood alternating her gaze between the man she'd expected to still be broken hearted and the petite blonde who was now on her tip toes greeting Sam with a kiss on the cheek.
"Hi Honey! I thought you and your old girlfriend would have had dinner out?" Ainsley appeared to just have realized they weren't alone. She turned to greet 'their' guest. "Oh, hi I'm Ainsley Hayes. You must be Sam's friend from New York. Lisa Whitney, right?"
"Lisa Phillips . . ." She sounded stunned but dutifully took the outstretched hand. "Greg Whitney and I were divorced almost six months ago."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." Ainsley sounded genuinely contrite. "It was so good of you to come to check up on Sam - it's been really comforting to have so many of his old friends rally around his defence like this." She swatted his arm derisively and directed her next phrase at him, "I really wasn't expecting you back so soon or with company. Oh well. Give me five and I'll get dressed." This whole speech was just so natural that Sam was shaken by the sincerity of her performance. He knew she'd done some Gilbert and Sullivan in school but he had no idea she was such a good actress. No wonder she was such a good defence attorney. She'd had the senators eating out of her hand earlier today and judging by the stunned look on Lisa's face Ainsley had bewitched the Wicked Witch of Park Avenue. He hoped he could keep his end up. The doorbell sounded. "Sam, that'll be the Pizza guy! Gosh, I hope there'll be enough. Can you grab it, hon? There's beer in the fridge too. I picked you up a six pack of Coors Lite on my way home from the West Wing. Pour me a real beer though please - not that watered down 'lite' slop you drink."
Sam had to work not to laugh. He couldn't help but watch her appreciatively as Ainsley's hips swayed sexily down the hall toward his room. She looked much better in that robe than he (or Lisa) ever had. Sam and Donna had prepped her really well on such short notice but she was playing this perfectly. Right down to the pizza. Lisa loathed pizza claiming the cheese made it too high in fat and therefore it was just empty calories. When they lived together in New York he only ever had it whenever Josh would drop in unexpectedly. The two guys would scarf it down with too much beer - a beverage also reviled for being just empty calories. Until that moment, Sam used to think Josh only ever bought Pizza and beer because, well, Josh was cheap, but now he realized it also served a dual purpose: it pissed Lisa off. Sam gave the pizza guy an outrageous tip and accepted the extra large double pepperoni with mushrooms. He chuckled again. Lisa hated mushrooms whether they were on pizza or not. She simply refused to eat 'fungus'. Damn, Josh and Donna had prepped Ainsley really well.
Lisa coughed and raised her eyebrows. "I thought she was expecting to be alone?" she said dryly inclining her head to the huge box.
"Sh, she's trying to pretend she's not too ticked that we came home early - no cold leftovers for breakfast tomorrow. This'ill cost me a couple of cinnamon Danish at Star Buck's on our way to the Capitol." He smiled like only a 'whipped but loving it' guy can. He grabbed plates and beer and led her back out to the living room.
"Where does she put it?" she muttered under her breath.
Ainsley chose that moment to return. "The same place the planes and boats from the Bermuda Triangle go . . . At least that's the latest theory," she laughed. Lisa looked disdainfully at her attire. Ainsley was dressed in a pair of stretch gym shorts and had bunched one of Sam's old Duke T-shirts into a knot at her narrow waist. Sam stopped for a second to admire her legs and he winked at her approvingly. "Behave yourself - we have company!" Ainsley teased him when she caught his eye. Her hair was still slightly damp but she'd gathered it into a scrunchie to tame it slightly and had just applied mascara and eye liner. She looked incredibly relaxed - the absolute opposite of the perfectly coiffed Lisa in her mauve silk blouse and white linen slacks. Sam wondered what he'd ever seen in the woman. The phone rang a minute later.
"Ainsley, it's CJ.?" he held the phone out to her. He tried to make it sound like a statement but his voice had risen at the end. He hoped he hadn't given them away.
"Hi CJ . . . Sorry, I keep forgetting to leave my cell on when I get to Sam's place. But you just proved it - anybody who really wants either one of us just calls both homes, right? . . . Okay, I'll get a pager . . . yes, tomorrow! What's up? . . .Yeah, the standard comments should still be okay, we weren't surprised with the questions and Mr. Seaborn's answers were forthright yada yada. . . . I'll make sure our closing statement toes the same line. His testimony went really well. I was proud of him. I thought he was going to snap Senator Wills head off but he reigned it in. We're just breaking for dinner and then I'll be hard at it. . . " She took a few steps away from them and turned her back, "Very funny! Besides CJ, Sam's dessert! . . . " Lisa blanched at that and Sam blushed. Lisa and CJ Cregg had never girl talked. Obviously she was in on this little game too. The list of people due a payback was getting longer by the minute. Ainsley continued, her back still to them, "right, back to business. Do you need Sam back?. . . Okay, I'll tell him. G'night." She passed the receiver back to him and opened the Pizza box. "She wanted to check that she was using the right vulture feed at the morning briefing, oh and she said to tell you Staff was bumped up to 7 and Leo wants the president's speech to be ready then."
"Like I'll forget the ACLU." He rubbed his temples absently. "They're one of our few allies at the moment."
"I thought Toby liked the draft?" Ainsley said, starting to pass the plates around.
"He did. All he said it needed was . . ."
Without missing a beat she finished the sentence for him, "verbs, punctuation and a visit from the ending elf? Typical Toby. Is he ever going to appreciate you?" She turned to Lisa. "Sorry about all the shop talk - it's a hazzard of working side by side, I guess. You'll be staying with us through the weekend, I hope. I . . . I really am sorry but after dinner I've got to work on my arguments for the committee - I want you to know I'm well, I'm usually - I'm usually a much more gracious hostess than I can be tonight." She sighed deeply. "Sam be a doll and put Lisa suitcase in the study?" He looked like he was about to lose it again. She covered perfectly. "Don't look at me like that! I know I keep a fair amount of stuff here now, but there should still be room in that closet fo her. I'll get out sheets for the sofa bed after we eat."
"That won't be necessary, Ainsley, as I told Sam earlier, I'll only be in Washington tonight but I did really want to meet you and see his place. I have to be in New York for a meeting tomorrow afternoon. I may even try to get the late night shuttle now that I've seen for myself that Sam's all right. I should leave you two work-a-holics alone." Lisa was mortified to hear her voice shake. "Sam will you hail me a cab?"
He followed her out preparing for the worst. She rounded on him. "You could have warned me Sam! Or was it fun watching me squirm in front of your little Georgia Peach?"
"She's North Carolinian." Sam's voice was calm and tolerant. "And, they don't grow peaches there. Actually Lisa, your embarrassment was the last thing on my mind this evening when I saw you in my office. I was worried more about creating a scene in front of the White House press corps by throwing you out on your ass." Then he remembered the charade, "And to be honest, I was worried about Ainsley's feelings - which clearly I shouldn't have been. She handled your unexpected, and unwelcome arrival like the lady she is." Then he added honestly, "A lady I don't think I fully appreciated until this evening. Goodbye Lisa. Oh, the next time you get lonely and decide to run away from your failures in life, leave me out of it, okay?" With that he opened the cab door for her and didn't even pause to watch it pull away.
Feeling better than he had in a long time, he climbed the stairs to find Ainsley gathering her things to head home. "Stay for pizza, at least?"
"Sam, I have a one hour commute and about three hours work to do tonight! I should get outta here."
"Come on, we can go over my testimony now and your lap top is here so you can write up your closing when we're done. You can't tell me you're not hungry - you can't have eaten in at least an hour! This pizza's hot and it smells sooo good . . ." he waved the box under her nose. "Let me twist your arm?"
"Ugh. Pass me a plate. And a beer. It must be a crime somewhere in this country to throw out perfectly good pizza."
"If not, I know a few Congressmen who owe me a favour or two. We'll call it the Hayes bill." After his third pieces of pizza (she'd downed five by then) Sam tossed her yet another beer. "I have to know . . . what should I expect tomorrow. And, just how many people do I owe for this."
"Nobody. Well, just me, Donna, CJ, Carol, Bonnie, Ginger, Margaret, Kathy, Susan Dianne, Brenda Daphne in the travel office and your corner dry cleaner's clerk who donated her penny loafers." Sam moaned. This evening could wind up costing him so much chocolate that he should buy stock in Hershey. Ainsley went on, "and don't forget Josh. Donna made him buy about two hundred bucks worth of toiletries and perfume which to add insult to injury she ordered him to pour half of down the bathroom drain. She called it a sacrifice on the authenticity alter. He'll expect a refund and you'll probably have to listen to him complain about it for a few weeks."
"Time and money well spent!" He laughed.
Her voice dropped to a teasing whisper, "I realize I probably don't have clearance for this but. . . Donna's CIA right?"
"Probably...:" he laughed.
"Sam, can I ask you a personal question?"
"Ainsley, you wore my bathrobe tonight. I think we've long since crossed into 'personal' from 'colleagues'. Don't you?" He passed her another beer. She took a swig and smiled.
"You were going to marry that?" She slurred 'you' and 'that' almost distastefully.
"Yeah. I wanted to be married."
"But to her?"
"Ainsley, I don't know if you'll understand this but . . . I wanted to be married and Lisa was the person I was seeing. I wanted kids, a home, somebody to be with, to belong to."
"Sam, I mean this sincerely, you'd have been better off with a Golden Retreiver - at least that's a bitch who you'd have been able to trust."
"Yeah." But she'd touched a nerve.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize that it meant so much to you."
"I wanted, I still want those things. I want to do it once. And only once. I'm a nerd Ainsley. I was the smart kid at school everybody picked on. I still feel like the lonely geek sometimes. I actually went into politics to help a good man get elected President. I'm not just chasing the American dream for the newspapers. I want the real thing. And I intend to grab on when I find it and nothing will ever make me let go. When I give someone my word - I keep it. "
She was silent for a moment then covered his hand with hers. "For the record Sam, I know you're one of the good guys. You'll find her. And she'll be smart enough to know she's a very lucky lady."
They sat in a companionable silence for a while. He watched as she polished off the pizza and her fourth beer. For somebody so tiny she could really knock it back. He'd seen frat boys eat and drink less.. Time to lighten the mood. "As for you, you've been holding out on me. You deserve an Emmy for that performance."
"My minor was in theatre," she bowed slightly. "But that's a state secret." She was definitely tipsy.
"My lips are sealed."
"Too bad," was out there before she could stop it but she'd spoken so softly he couldn't have heard her, right?
"Too bad?" Sam closed the space between them gently turning her face up to meet his eye. He'd been fighting his attraction to this woman for months fearing that if he did he'd be in over his head.
"Who says payback HAS to be a bitch, Sam?" She looked up into his eyes.
"Not me." He lowered his lips to hers. Their first kiss was very light, a gentle brush with ample opportunity for either one to pull back. Neither did. Maybe they could negotiate their way to a real relationship if they tried. As their lips met for a second time his hands found her waist and hers wrapped around his neck as her mouth opened to allow him to taste her. When that second kiss broke he stood holding her gently while her head rested on his shoulder. Sam came to the realization that holding and being held by Ainsley Hayes was the perfect way to end a day. And that sometimes payback wasn't a bitch - sometimes payback was a very good thing.