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Egypt, September 2010 

 

She couldn’t remember the last time making love was this slow; unfurling like the gentle ebb and flow of the waves buffeting the moonlit Sharm el-Sheikh beach below. 

She felt like she was moving underwater - weightless… breathless… falling… His fingertips feathered across the skin just below her navel. Her stomach trembled as tension at her core built and built. It was too much yet not enough. He held her a hair’s breadth from the brink of ecstasy, refusing to let her tumble precariously over the edge. There was nothing haphazard in anything he did. His long, dexterous fingers trained for precision. His hands were everywhere. No sooner was she able to register his touch on one patch of skin before he caught her off guard by digging his fingers into her flesh where she least expected.

Her mind was fuzzy. She felt drunk, giddy almost. It had been too long since she last felt so serene, so rooted in her body despite feeling like she might float away at any moment. Her chest ached and she wondered, not for the first time, whether her heart would rupture. She struggled to find her next breath. She’d long ago given up any pretense that she didn't need him.

He always did this to her; was the only one who could draw her attention to herself, to the instincts and needs she kept safely guarded and concealed from the world. But not with him. In his hands she was safe, supple, exposed, free. Free from the masks and never ending pressure of who she was to the world, of what she was expected to be. He lulled the relentless whirr of her mind, focused her attention to a single pulsing point of life.

Her thighs began to burn. She wound her legs more tightly around his hips and he pushed deeper into her. She gasped, her head rolling back into her pillow. Her nails bit into his soft, dark skin stretched taut over the bulging, lean muscles of his long back. Her hands followed his spine down to his ass, grasping, pulling him deeper, deeper, deeper still. She couldn’t get enough. It was never enough. She arched up to meet his next thrust, a frustrated growl escaping her when he pulled back, out of reach.

His breath puffed warm against the skin of her neck, answering her throaty moans with muffled grunts of his own. He trailed soft kisses from below her ear along her jawline, teasing the corner of her mouth with his tongue, again just beyond reach. A sharp rush of pleasure seared across her nerve endings, lapping at her core like wildfire. She was hot… so hot. He knew exactly what he was doing to her and she almost hated him for it, felt powerless to stop him, though she never would. Her muscles clamped around his thick length. It’s going to take forever to come like this, she thought.

He wrapped his arms under her shoulders, drew her to him, cradling her while keeping his strokes long and steady. He cupped her head in his hands, fingers twining with her tangled blonde hair, caressing her shoulders as he caught her next sigh in his mouth, unwilling to let it flow away from him. His kiss was slow, wet and heavy, lips soft and more insistent. He scraped his teeth over the notch at the base of her throat. Her heart skipped a beat, buoyed by a euphoria she hadn’t felt in months. Resting on his elbows, the corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled down at her.

They had been cocooned in the soft candlelit bedroom for hours, every moment more precious than the one before. Finding opportunities to see him had been difficult enough before she had become Secretary of State and coordinating their schedules had become something of an art form. She was profoundly grateful to Huma for her discretion, of course. Not only had she been with her long enough to anticipate her every need, she was always a step ahead in knowing when and where their paths would intersect. Arrangements were made quietly and with little fuss and she was back on her plane before anyone thought to miss her. 

She smiled back at him, reached up to cup his cheek. He was beautiful. It was that simple. She had thought so from the moment she first laid eyes on him. Her taste in men had been rather unadventurous for most of her life but she’d been blown sideways by the young Indian surgeon with thick, shaggy hair and captivating green eyes when they were first introduced in New Delhi fifteen years before. Now, she watched as the light from the candles cast a soft glow over his sweat slicked skin, flickered in depths of his warm eyes. Her nostrils flared. She loved the way he smelled, would often soothe herself to sleep by conjuring his scent, wrapping herself in it on lonely nights spent in faraway hotel suites while on state business. She threaded her fingers through the curls at the nape of his neck and pulled him down to her, captured his lower lip in a tender kiss. The connection tugged at her heart.

“I don’t think I can take much more,” she whispered against his mouth, her voice hoarse, trembling. She felt on the verge of breaking, wanted desperately to surrender herself until nothing remained but the connection she’d been deprived of for too many months.

He rested his forehead against hers, grinning as he hiked her leg higher around his waist, surprising her with his deepest thrust yet. Her fingers dug into his shoulders. 

“So, I should just hurry up and make you come,” he teased.

God she loved his voice; the sultry blend of velvet and gravel had seduced her long before he had ever laid a finger on her. 

She giggled, lifted her pelvis and ground her hips into his. “God, yes.” 

His eyebrow arched even higher, his lips curling a tad smugly. 

“Please.” She hated how breathy her voice sounded but was beyond caring, would beg if that’s what he wanted. “Please…”

He caught her chin with his teeth, nipped it sharply, then soothed her with his tongue. His eyes closed, his brow furrowed in concentration. She stopped breathing, her attention focused on the firm, silky path of his tongue has he moved down her throat, his teeth sinking into the tender spot where her neck met her shoulder, down, down, down… His tongue lapped the underside of her breast, circled her pert nipple. Pleasure sliced through her from the tender pebble straight to her clit.

“Fuck!” 

She felt his smile pressed into her breast as he suckled her. His fingers plumped and squeezed her soft mounds, moulding her to his lips. She felt a wet rush seeping from deep inside her, a wet spot pooling on the sheet beneath her when he slipped from her body. Hands circling tight around her waist, his tongue dipped into her navel and nipped the skin of her quivering abdomen. He lingered for only a moment before he caught a whiff of her scent. “Shit, you’re wet…”

Words… They had abandoned her. Leaving her incoherent save the most primal sounds escaping from her kiss-swollen lips. 

He was not gentle. His patience had run its’ course. He shoved her legs up and apart then pushed himself onto his stomach between them. Grabbing her by the hips he pulled her to him, wrapping her thighs around his shoulders. His hands burrowed under her ass and lifted her to his mouth as if she were an offering to his gods to feast on. She spread her legs as wide as they would go for him, more than willing to be his sacrifice. A sob erupted from the back of her throat when he dragged his flat tongue from her puckered rose bud all the way to her already oversensitive clit. He did it again and her toes curled.

"Fuck..." She could barely form the sound. Tendrils of pleasure swirled and climbed up her spine when he teased her opening with the tip of his tongue then pushed into her.

“Oh god,” he hummed against her. “I love your taste.” He lapped at her tender folds then latched onto her clit and sucked her into his hot mouth. His tongue licked and fluttered against her raw bundle. She was panting now. Her heart thumping in her chest. Blood rushing in her ears. Skin drenched with her own sweat mingled with his. She reached for him, fistfuls of hair as she pulled him into her, hips swinging up to meet his greedy mouth, relishing the slight chafing of his stubble on her thighs. “Yes… that’s it… come in my mouth, baby.”

Her breath hitched when his teeth scraped against her clit. He slid two fingers into her, bent firmly toward the distended patch right beneath her clit on her inner wall. She melted into his touch. He knew her body better than anyone ever had, knew exactly how and where to touch her to render her insensible. He bit down on her clit again, fingers pumping, pulsing, scissoring inside her, pushing her toward exquisite delirium. Her eyes caught his over the slight swell of her belly a split second before her orgasm erupted, her spine arching to a near breakable curve, warm light bursting behind her eyelids and in her chest. 

She was floating, flying away from him when the calming heaviness of his hard body anchored her to their bed, mooring her to him once more. He surged into her again, thrusts deeper and more urgent than he’d been all evening. She struggled to keep her eyes open as he moved above her, inside her. She vaguely registered his pleas for her to come again. For him, only for him and she did. Harder and deeper than before, with tears streaming from her eyes and sobs of unrepentant joy. She felt him swell inside her, folded his gruff cries of release into her heart as he gathered her against him and collapsed into her arms. She clung to him as the warmth of her orgasms seeped into her bones. Time stood still.

She drifted, somnolent, uncertain of how long. He rolled onto his side taking her with him, resuscitating her with deep, languid kisses that explored every crevice of her mouth. He brushed his lips along the tear soaked creases at the corners of her eyes. She breathed him in, basked in his attentiveness as he combed his fingers through her tousled hair.

“Your hair is longer,” he whispered in the space between them. “I like it.”

“Not you, too,” she groaned. “I don’t get the preoccupation with my hair.” She settled her head against his chest. He massaged her scalp. 

“It’s sexy,” he chuckled. Burying his nose in her hair, he inhaled deeply. “It was one of the first things I noticed when we meet. Your thick blonde mane that smelled of wild sage and warm honey.” He turned pensive, drawn in by a distant memory. “I’d wake in cold sweat from dreams of your hair ghosting across my skin. The hunger for what your mouth would taste like so vivid, so real… The most beautiful woman I’d ever met.”  

It was her turn to laugh. She swung her leg across his body and rested her chin on his wide chest. “You fell for my hair?”

His grin was deliciously mischievous. “Yup. You caught me, it’s always been about your hair.” 

She pinched his nipple, “Asshole!” 

“Aw!” His hand met her ass with a loud smack and before she knew it he’d flipped her onto her back again. “That, and the fact you were married to the most powerful man in the world and I couldn’t have you.” He gripped her hips and wrapped her legs around his waist again. He pushed into her, forcing the air from her lungs.  

“Oh my god, already?” she gasped, amazed that he was already half hard. 

His gaze softened as he peered into her eyes. “I love you, Hillary.”

The tenderness in her heart sprung to life again, shook her. He was hers. Hers alone. She’d never had that with a man. Until him. She owned him; body, heart and soul. 

“I love you, Dr. Varma,” she whispered. 

“Good,” he began to rock into her gently. “Because I’m going to fuck your brains out.”

Laughter bubbled up from her toes. “I thought that’s what you’ve been doing for the last three hours.” 

“That was foreplay, Madam Secretary. Now I’m going to make you forget your name.” 

“Oh God, you’re going to kill me.”

He frowned playfully. “You said you love me.”

“I do,” she giggled.

He grinned and pressed a soft kiss to her nose. “Then prove it…”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

New Delhi, March 1995

 

Heat swirled up from the dirt in nausea inducing waves as she emerged from the backseat of her car. The air was dry with the scent of jasmine and the laundered cotton of the nuns’ white saris. Her throat felt dry and raw when she swallowed. 

She had barely slept a wink all night. After they settled into their hotel and Chelsea had gone to sleep, she’d been restless, excited and a little anxious about her visit to the orphanage the next day. 

She had always wanted to visit India. She had romanticized the subcontinent and culture since her teens. She’d dreamt of visiting the ancient temples and tombs. Years later, in college, she’d had the most peculiar experience with a flea market clairvoyant in New Haven who’d told her that she would one day visit the country and that her life would be forever changed. Once she and Bill had settled in Arkansas, she’d tried to convince him that it would be the perfect honeymoon getaway but it hadn’t been possible at the time and she had resigned herself to someday

In all honesty, she’d run away. Washington had become a hellhole after the healthcare fiasco. She needed time to catch her breath, find her footing again and deal in her own quiet way with the overwhelming sense of failure in private, without the constant glare and taunts of the media and bloodlusting Republicans. India had been the perfect opportunity to change the subject. To find what solace she could claim and to get away from Bill. There’d been tension between them for months now. Sure, they fought - as most married couples do when under extreme pressure - but something was off with him of late and she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. There were familiar hints in his behavior of previous, more distressing times in their marriage but she couldn’t think about that. She didn’t want to trigger the pain and trauma she’d worked so hard to leave behind. She couldn’t go there, not after everything they’d been through and how far they’d come. So she walled herself off from it. Chelsea needed her now more than ever, and as soon as she’d broken for the semester, Hillary packed her up and brought her to India to share in her adventure. When she thought about it, sharing India with her daughter was more deeply meaningful in almost every way. India would be theirs to treasure for the rest of their lives. 

“Welcome, Mrs Clinton.”

She was met with the warm smile and Gujarati lilt of Sister Mary Varma of the Jeevna Jyoti Home. She immediately felt an affinity for the diminutive woman looking up at her through thick Coke-bottle glasses. “I’m Sister Mary Varma.”

“Thank you for having me, Sister Varma. It’s an honor to be here,” Hillary smiled and shook the nuns hand. 

Behind Sister Mary, a gaggle of excited nuns greeted her with a customary bow, hands pressed together deferentially. Hillary returned their greeting in kind as she made her way down the receiving line, “Thank you all for having me. I’m very happy to be here.” 

Sister Mary lead her into a small, walled off courtyard where they had gathered the children who called Jeevna Jyoti home to meet the American First Lady and her daughter. There were almost a hundred children, mostly girls, all staring at her with curious, dark eyes. Her heart sank. All these children were orphans. Not because their parents had died, but because they’d been abandoned, thrown away by a society that saw little value in them merely because of their sex. Her thoughts were interrupted by two small girls carrying welcome garlands. She had to stop herself from latching onto the spunky little one named Amma when the she draped the garland around her neck and kissed her on the cheek. 

They followed Sister Mary into the building, through a small reception area that felt more like a waiting room where three young girls in saris briefly refrained from stocking cupboards and sweeping to acknowledge her presence with shy smiles.  Their faces lit up when they locked eyes on Chelsea who was right behind her. Hillary smiled. There was no difference between these young women and her daughter other than the countries and circumstances into which they had been born. They were all just teenage girls excited to encounter an exotic peer.   

“Are these girls from the town?” she asked Sister Mary. 

The spry nun swung on her heel to answer. “No, they grew up here. They’ve been with us since before they could walk.”

“They were never adopted, then?” 

“Not all our children find homes, Mrs Clinton. There are too many. So we are their home, their family. They stay until they are old enough to leave.” She nodded toward the girls. “Some stay to help care for the children that come after them. We can not pay them, but they have food and clothes and a safe place to sleep. Some join the order. That is how I came to the home many years ago.” Her expression turned wistful then. “Some girls run away as fast as their legs can carry them and end up in bad places.” 

Hillary understood her implicit meaning. They had passed more brothels than she wanted to count on the drive from the hotel.

The nun perked up. “This is better, yes?”

She bit down on the apprehension that had knotted in her stomach and nodded. “Yes, much better.” 

With a final glance at the girls, they slipped through a weathered door into what looked like a cramped dormitory. The room, she quickly realized, was not much bigger than Chelsea’s bedroom in the Residence, but instead of her daughter’s clutter of ‘organized chaos’ as she liked to call it, this room was packed with about sixty beds. Rickety metal bunks lined the walls and smaller cots running head to toe, were arranged in four neat lines down the center of the room. There was barely enough room around each bed to make your way from one end of the room to the other. The humid air wafting through the open windows added to the stifling heat in the room and did little to dissipate the antiseptic smell of the bleached floors. 

“This is our Flora room,” the nun announced proudly. “Ages four to twelve.”

The name struck her as odd. She had expected a more authentically Indian epithet like Lotus or Peacock room. “Flora?”

“Saint Flora,” the nun said. “She’s the patron saint of the Abandoned.” 

Hillary blushed, admonished herself for not knowing that. Though as a Methodist, she couldn’t claim to be up to par with the various Catholic saints. Nor was there any mention of it in her briefing book. 

“How many children sleep in this room?”

“We have seventy-three in this room. A little crowded,” the nun chirped. 

Hillary scanned the room in disbelief. “But there can’t be more than sixty beds in here.”

“The smaller ones double up.” Sister Mary turned to her with a serious squint. “Boys with boys, and girls with girls. No mixing.” 

Hillary was glad she had mentioned the boys in the orphanage. “What happens to the boys when they come of age?” 

“It is much easier to find families for the boys. Very few stay with us until they’re old enough to leave. For those that do, it is easier for them to find respectable work.”

The reality of the world she had stepped into was difficult to absorb. She knew the insurmountable challenges girls and women faced on a daily basis around the world. But to be standing in the middle of a culture that had all but institutionalized the disenfranchisement of its female population was deeply demoralizing. For herself, Hillary found it impossible to process her experiences without considering how that same experience might affect Chelsea. The very thought that her daughter could be diminished to the status of a burden, or mere nuisance, evoked anger in her. She had to do something. After all, Chelsea was her responsibility, and Chelsea, at the very least, had a mother to protect and love her. These girls had no one to look to. It was her responsibility to champion them.

Sister Mary lead her through a side door into another dorm identical to the previous room but with fewer beds. 

“We call this the Joan of Arc room. Thirteen to eighteen. The girls move into this room when they become women,” the nun said. Hillary quickly deduced why the nuns had chosen that particular saint as benefactor for the girls who lived there. Many would soon make their way out into the world, and needed all the resilience and courage they could muster to survive. 

As they moved toward another beaten door on the far side of the room, she could hear the wails and laughter of the occupants on the other side and her heart lightened a bit. There was something undeniably joyous about the sound of a baby’s squeals. Her anticipation quickly left her when they walked into a small nursery that housed too many cribs to count. 

Her heart ached as reached out to stroke the small mangled foot of a baby girl who seemed none the wiser of what had been done to crush her future. She knew the stories, had seen the pictures, of girls who’d had their legs broken by their fathers as babies so that they could be put out on the streets to beg for their families. She had never, however, been close enough to touch one of these children. She blinked back tears. 

So innocent. So trusting, she thought and placed a gentle kiss on the baby’s head.  

A gleeful gurgle behind her drew her attention. Her eyes fell on another baby in a crib not far from her; kicking and squirming for attention. Hillary reached for the child who instantly elicited the laughter of the adults around her with her wide eyes and chatter. Hillary cradled her to her heart. 

“This is Jhumpa!” Sister Mary cooed, sidling up to her side. “She’s our class clown.”

“Hello, Jhumpa. I’m Hillary. It’s so very nice to meet you.”

The baby bounced in Hillary’s arms and gave her a gummy grin. Chelsea joined them then, bouncing another baby on her hip.

“Isn’t she beautiful, Mom? Her name Pravati.” 

Her heart swelled with pride as she looked at her daughter’s glowing face. She had always wanted more children, felt that Chelsea deserved siblings, but she had let that dream die years ago. It had been difficult enough to conceive in the first place, and with their lives now under a microscope, stripped of almost all privacy, the idea of adopting and subjecting an already delicate child to the intense public scrutiny seemed selfish. 

“Yes, she is beautiful, Chels, “she answered with a twinge of regret.

“She likes you,” the nun said. “And perhaps you’ve come at just the right time. Jhumpa is about to have her inoculations. Perhaps you can take her to see Dr. Varma.”  

She smiled at the nun, happy to help however she could. “I’d love that.”

“I warn you, she loves Anand, but not when he’s about to stick her with a needle.” 

She turned to Chelsea who’s face suddenly turned grave. “Mom!”

A wave a queasiness washed over her and she felt the twinge of pressure in her nasal passage a second before she felt the trickle on her upper lip. From the corner of her eye she saw her security detail spring into action when her fingers came away from her nose smeared with blood. 

“I’m fine,” she all but yelled to stay them. Her nose chose that exact moment to unleash a gush of warm, sticky blood. “I’m fine Chels. It’s just a nosebleed.” She cupped a hand over her nose to stem the flow and shot a stern look at her agents. “Don’t frighten the children.”

“Ma’am, protocol dic —“ Bennet, the head of her detail, began. 

“I’m fine!” Hillary insisted. 

Sister Mary shoved a plain linen handkerchief into her hand and took Jhumpa from her. “Perhaps you should see the doctor first,” she suggested. 

Hillary looked around. Everyone was staring at her. She was used to being watched but this was embarrassing. 

“Yes. Thank you, Sister,” she answered indignantly. “Chels, stay here with the babies. Bennet, please stay with Chelsea.” She turned and followed the nun through a door leading out to an adjacent courtyard. 

By the time she entered the small, cool room across the courtyard, the linen handkerchief was soaked. Her head was spinning.

“Whoa!” 

She could just make out the concern in a deep, gravelly voice before a pair of large hands clamped around the shoulders. The lights in the room faded. Her knees gave and her head rolled back as she felt herself being lifted by strong arms… then, nothing. 

The scratch of a cold, wet cloth against her forehead was the first thing that registered. She struggled to open her eyes. She was laying down. The blades of a ceiling fan swished above her. The pressure in her head had eased to a dull ache that thrummed with her heartbeat. Her mouth felt like a desert and she was having trouble breathing. The blurry shape of a man faded into and out of focus to her right like a mirage. She tried to swallow.

“You’re dehydrated.” 

Again… that warm, gravelly voice; British with a slight Indian clip. It burrowed beneath her skin and soothed the trembling in her stomach. He walked over to a small icebox in a corner of the room and returned with a kidney dish. “Do you often have nosebleeds?” 

She shook her head. He dropped shards of ice into a nearby basin of water and turned to her, “Open.” 

Hillary opened her mouth and he popped a piece of ice into her mouth. It melted on her  tongue, a welcome relief as the cold water slid down her parched throat. 

She squinted. Two green eyes, of a shade she’d never before seen, stared down at her from under wild, expressive brows. She focused on the gold hallow rimming each pupil. 

“And your blood sugar dropped,” he said, eyes flickering over her face. He sat down beside her on the gurney and pulled her sluggish body to his chest. 

“What are you doing?” she managed as his arms wrapped around her waist.

“You’re overheating. If we’re going to stop the bleeding we need to cool your body down.” 

Her head settled on his shoulder and her hands clasped his hard upper arms to steady herself. She felt him gathering her hair to one side and sighed when she felt the cool wetness of the cloth he draped across her nape. It was then that she realized she’d lost her blazer and blouse and sat clad only in her bra and skirt. She didn’t care. The sharp, coldness of the ice he began running over her skin between her shoulders soothed her into compliance. She let her eyes drift close.

“Have you eaten today?” 

She shook her head. “It’s too hot. I can’t keep anything down.” 

She nestled in closer to his neck. His hair tickled her nose. He smelled of clean, sun dried linen with a hint of sweat and… Is that Old Spice? she thought. She’d always loved the smell of the inexpensive drug store deodorant. 

Minutes ticked by. 

Her breathing began to even out. 

“You’re Dr. Varma, I assume?” she slurred around her ice cube. 

“Dr. Varma is so formal,” he chuckled. He replaced the cold cloth at her nape with a fresh one and eased her back onto the gurney. “Why would you skip breakfast in this heat?” 

Hillary’s breath caught as his face finally slid into relief. His skin was tawny, the color of hazelnuts, and glistened with an afternoon sheen brought on by the heat. He hadn’t shaved in three or four days and his closely cropped, black beard was peppered with specs of gray. His long, pronounced nose was close to perfect except for a slight bump about halfway down where she could tell it had been broken. His fleshy, bow-shaped lips pursed as he waited for her answer, and the unruly curls framing his face curled just above his broad shoulders. Her eyes traced the thick sinewy muscles of his arms from under rolled shirt sleeves to wide palms and long tapered fingers. She was staring at one of the most beautiful men she’d ever laid eyes on.

Hillary tried to sit up. “I have to get back to my daughter.”

“Easy,” he warned and pushed her back into the gurney. “You fainted. Stay still for a moment.” He began dabbing her nose with a wet cloth. 

“She’s fine.” Sister Mary popped into view over his shoulder. “Completely absorbed with the babies. I told them Anand ordered you to drink a glass of cold water and that you’d be up and about in a minute.” 

She relented, suddenly acutely aware of his fingers feathering against her cheek and nose and the tension it was creating in her muscles. 

“Thank you, Sister.”

The nun smiled, then ducked out of the room closing the door behind her. Hillary snickered when she thought about how pleased Bennet would be about being shut out.

“What’s so funny?” the doctor asked. 

She cleared her throat, “Nothing.”

He smiled, but his eyes told her he didn't believe her.

“My agents,” she conceded. “They’re worse than mother hens. The head of my detail is likely running through every scenario in which I’m at risk of being kidnapped from an orphanage in India and held for ransom.”

He chuckled. “Sounds like he cares about you.”

She rolled her eyes, “He’s paid very handsomely to care.” 

She knew how ungracious that sounded, but it was true. She’d caught the biting sneers her agents made when they thought she couldn’t hear them. They knew nothing about her yet all had opinions about how ‘frigid’ the First Lady was compared to Mrs. Bush or Mrs. Carter. She suddenly felt very guilty when she considered how privileged she was to live the life she led at all.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful.”

He shrugged. “I didn’t think you did. It’s good to know who your friends are.” He reached for her neck and found her carotid artery. 

“Any history of excessive bleeding, high blood pressure, clotting?”  

“No.”

“Is there any chance you might be pregnant, Mrs. Clinton?” he asked. 

If ever there was a conversation stopper. Her eyes darted from his to her abdomen and back again. She considered his question. Was it possible? She and Bill had made love a week before she’d left, but in the months leading up to that it had been sporadic to say the least. How could she be? She honestly didn’t know and her wide-eyed look told him so. 

He smiled warmly, “It’s best to know. Especially if you’re going to go around fainting in India.” He gestured toward her stomach. “May I?”

She nodded, dumbstruck, pushed herself up onto her elbows and watched as he laid his hands on her bare skin right above the binding of her skirt. The warmth of his fingers seeped into her as he palpated her lower abdomen. Goosebumps rippled out across her skin.

“Relax,” he instructed, brow furrowed in concentration. 

… God. What’s happening?… she flopped down on the gurney and squeezed her eyes shut. She was forty-seven years old for god sakes! A pregnancy wasn’t possible even under the best of circumstances. The heat was definitely getting to her.

“Doesn’t seem like you have anything to worry about,” he said after a minute or so.

She let out a shuddering breath. When she opened her eyes his gaze was skimming up her body, over the plump swells of her breasts that peaked out from the edge of her lace bra. The hairs on her back of her neck rose when his eyes locked with hers, raw, brazen hunger burning deep within them as he stared at her. She stared back, felt her cheeks flush. She couldn’t remember the last time a man had looked at her that way and desire flared beneath her skin. 

“The bleeding has stopped,” he said softly, eyes locked with her’s as he handed her blouse to her. “You should put this back on.”

She fumbled with her top as she sat up, forced her eyes away from his as unbidden guilt overwhelmed her abruptly.

“Dr. Varma,” she said, her voice thick in her mouth as he jumped up and busied himself with clearing away the basin and used clothes. “Any relation to Sister Varma?” 

He emptied the basin into a sink near the door. Taking deep breaths, he steadied his hands by wringing out the cloths. “You’re very perceptive, Mrs Clinton.”

Hillary hopped off the gurney and retreated to the opposite end of the room, struggling to get her blazer back on and into place. 

“She’s my mother,” he said, turning to her again. Again, they stared, unable it seemed to escape whatever had passed between them just moments before and was determined to unfold further. 

“Your mother?” she swallowed, determined to keep her voice even. 

He forced himself to look away, anywhere, at anything but the fidgeting woman in front of him. “Well, the closest thing I have to one. Sister Mary took me under her wing when I first came to the orphanage. She never formally adopted me, but I took her surname because…well, I didn’t have one and it was a requirement for med school.”

Hillary’s heart clenched. “You were an orphan? Here?”

He nodded. “I was brought to the orphanage in 1960 by a woman from the village I was born in. My mother was very young and died shortly after giving birth to me. There was no one to take care of me.” 

“What about her family, your father?”

His eyes flicked back to her, as if trying to decide whether to continue. “My mother was a Devadasi, Mrs. Clinton.”

She’d heard the word before but was unclear about its meaning. 

“A Devadasi?” 

“She was born into prostitution. There was no family. And I don’t expect she would have known who my father was.”

His forthrightness was disarming. Hillary was taken aback by the courage he displayed in revealing something so personal, shocking even, to her. She saw no shame or pretense as he stood looking at her. He was calm and dignified, seeking neither approval, nor paltry praise. She would not insult him by offering either.

He turned back to his work and she watched as he began to reset the medical tray beside the gurney. 

She briefly considered that her absence was likely beginning to raise concern. Yet the peaceful simplicity of the cool room provided a respite she hadn’t known she craved until that very moment. She drew in a deep breath, felt the air in her lungs buoy her in a way she hadn’t felt in months. Whether it was lightheadedness from the recent loss of blood, or the rush of adrenaline from the realization that she was actually there, in India, a life long dream come true, finally sinking in, she didn’t know. It didn’t matter. She didn’t care. She was happy; felt alive in a way she hadn’t since before she’d set foot in Washington after Bill’s victory. 

And the doctor… 

The inexplicable sensations coursing through her body keep her rooted as she studied the young Indian man who had conjured them. She knew she should leave. That what had flared to life between them only moments before was inappropriate, dangerous. She was a married woman; common sense would have her thank him for his assistance, walk out the door and forget what had happened here.

He continued to unearth supplies from cabinets, seemingly unbothered by her presence. She had no idea how hard he was working to focus his thoughts, keep his eyes from finding her again. He could smell the sage shampoo in her hair, could still feel the warmth of her skin against his as he’d cradled her small body to his chest, cleaned the blood from her face. His heart thudded in his chest as the image of rapid pulsing beneath her creamy breasts flashed through his mind. He bit his lip as he remembered the outline of her small, pert nipples through the white lace of her bra. He had seen countless partially naked, women in the field, breathtakingly beautiful women, but never before had he been struck by intense yearning she had aroused in him, until today. She was transcendent. She was trouble. He wanted her more than his next breath. 

Hillary’s eyes wandered around the makeshift surgery, cataloguing the rudimentary equipment and supplies. A familiar MSF monogram on a jacket hanging behind the door caught her attention. 

“How long have you been with Doctors without Borders?” she asked making her way back to the gurney and hoisted herself back onto it.

His groin throbbed at the sound of her voice. “I joined as soon as I completed my housemanship. I hated England back then. Not enough sunshine.” He tried to laugh, dispel the tension. 

“So you work from India?” she prodded.

“No. I’m not based in India.” He paused, thought for a moment. “I’m not based anywhere really. I have an insatiable need to wander. Being in one place for too long makes me restless. I do try to make it back every six months or so to make sure the children get their immunizations.” He cast a playful smirk at her, “And there’s a lot to do in the brothels.”

Hillary’s eyebrows shot up.

“The girls and women often don’t have access to proper healthcare,” he smiled. “I try to do want I can to help. Birth control. Pregnancy testing and monitoring. Treatment for STDs. Antivirals are hard to come by, but I salvage what I can through MSF.” 

“Antivirals?”

“Yes. HIV is spreading faster than the Indian government wants to acknowledge. Women and girls, especially prostitutes, are the most vulnerable to infection and dissemination.” He glanced at her, eyes incensed. “I see girls who won’t live to see their twentieth birthday. Wives who dread having another child while coping with diseases their husbands bring home to them. This is India’s greatest crime, Mrs Clinton, the marginalization of our women, our mothers.”

Hillary studied the surprisingly attractive man in front of her, felt her heart leap with the prospect at having collided with a kindred spirit. And to think that she might not have met him if not for an inopportune nosebleed. 

He continued working and her eyes were drawn to his long, slender hands as they laid out syringes, vials, rubbing alcohol, tape and cotton swabs. His movements were sensual, hypnotic… distracting.

“I wanted to join the Peace Corps,” she blurted before she could stop herself. “When I was in college. I never did have the chance.” Though she was content with the choices she’d made and the life she’d built with Bill, it was a far cry from what she’d imagined for herself all those years ago. 

“I imagine there are perks to being a First Lady,” he smiled. 

“Some,” she smiled wistfully. “For which I’m very grateful.” 

“And others for which you’re not,” he chuckled. “I read about your health care plan.”

Her smile faded and her stomach twisted into a tight knot.

“I’m sorry it didn’t go as you’d hoped.” His eyes softened, drew her in with unguarded sincerity. “At some point they’re going to realize the mistake they’ve made.” 

Hillary felt her eyes prick but refused to allow the tears to come. She cleared her throat. “Until then, what can I do to help here? I’m thinking of ways our countries can make the best of working together. The orphanage needs more beds, but what other essentials are needed? What do you need?”

In a heartbeat she had reined in the naked vulnerability in her eyes and transformed it into determined resolve. She was mesmerizing. Her skin, still pink and dewy from the heat, was flawless. He watched as a lock of her hair broke free from behind her ear and settled on her cheek. His fingers twitched, itched to breach the distance between them and tuck the curl back behind her ear.

“Yes. Definitely beds.” He had to move, stop himself from doing something stupid. He went to lean against the sink. “And water heaters. The nuns need water heaters. It gets cold here during the winter and they spend an inordinate amount of time heating water for baths. Some basic medicines would help too.” 

She nodded just as a bit of dust lodged in the back of her throat. Hillary began to cough. A dry metallic tang spread across her tongue. She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. “Ice,” she choked out. 

“Try to lift your arms above you head.” He instructed and darted for the icebox.

Chest burning, she doubled over and managed to suppress the violent heaving. When she came up for air a moment later, he was right in front of her, rubbing her back, a piece of ice melting between his fingers.  

“Open.” He brushed the ice across her bottom lip and her eyes shot up to meet his. 

His eyes burned into her. She parted her lips to accept his offering, watched his gaze glaze over as he drew it back and forth across her lips. A droplet of water trickled down her chin and Hillary forgot to breath. He stared at her plump, lower lip. He wanted to suck that lip between his own, kiss it tenderly. Hillary couldn’t stop herself from wondering what it would feel like if he did, what his tongue would taste like against her own. The moment stretched, taut with anticipation. Blood rushed to his head when her hot, pink tongue brushed the tip of his finger, sending a spike of arousal shooting up his spine. She leaned forward and sucked the ice into her mouth. Her stomach fluttered, heat searing through her veins even as the ice melted on her tongue and settled heavy in the pit of her stomach. She needed to stop this, before she did something she would regret. 

“Thank you,” she murmured. 

“Anand,” he said, the gravel in his voice like velvet against her skin. 

“Thank you…” A smile tug at the corner of her mouth. “Anand.”

It was too late. He was too far gone. He reached for the curl that had settled on her cheek and tucked it behind her ear. “You’re welcome, Mrs Clinton.” 

“Hillary,” she answered, the tilt of her face toward his touch almost imperceptible. 

“Hillary,” he echoed, relishing her name as it rolled around his mouth. 

His face lit up with the most beautiful smile she had ever seen. Hillary smiled back; a demure, girlish smile that felt giddy and was decidedly unbecoming of a First Lady. 

“I should get back,” she cocked her head toward the door. 

“Yes, you should,” he agreed. 

She slid off the gurney and headed for the door then stopped suddenly. “I’d like to go with you sometime. When you visit the brothels. I’d like to meet the women you take care of.”

Anand’s eyes swept over her face, down along the curves of her body. “I’ll find you,” he said. 

Hillary nodded and slipped through the door. 

 

Chapter Text

Mid-Atlantic, September 2010

 

2:47am. It was a long flight home. She was looking forward to touching down in Washington and having a few quiet days to decompress at Whitehaven after what had been an exhausting couple of weeks.  Talks between the Palestinians and Israelis proved trying to say the least. If it hadn’t been for the few stolen evenings with him, she was sure she might have lost her mind. 

Hillary stretched out on the pullout couch of her private cabin. Setting aside the report she had been trying to bore herself to sleep with since they’d cleared the Mediterranean, she found her iPad and opened her private email. A new message popped up in the feed.

Miss you already… Flight about to take off for The Rickshaw Capital. I’m overcome with memories. Do you remember?… A

Warmth spread through her bone-weary body. She would never forget Dhaka. 

She had saved every note, every picture, every newspaper clipping, every memento. In the chaos of transitioning from the White House to Chappaqua, sorting through documents that would eventually end up in the Library and setting up her Senate office, Huma had uncovered the small hand carved box of keepsakes she kept tucked at the back of her closet. Without her knowledge, the young woman had held onto it, discreetly preserving every item in it. Once everything had settled down, Hillary had found the box on her nightstand at Whitehaven along with a small flash drive and a simple note: Use on private computers only - H

Hillary scrolled through contents of that drive and found his very first note. It had been pressed into her hand by a chambermaid in her hotel suite in Dhaka.  

 

Bangladesh, April 1995.

… Midnight. Back kitchen entrance. Drink more water! … A 

Hillary couldn’t suppress the smile that spread across her face. Chelsea had been exhausted by the heat and a long day of travel and activities and had fallen into bed almost as soon as they’d returned to their suite. By 11:30pm she’d been on edge as she waited for the last of her staff to retire. Then she pulled on the pair of jeans she had tucked into her luggage at the last moment before leaving the White House. She always packed them for emergencies even though she rarely got the opportunity to wear them on official visits. The press would excoriate her if she turned up anywhere in something so plebeian as a simple pair of blue jeans given their endless critique of every detail of her personal style. The jeans were her secret; her small, personal rebellion. She pulled her hair into a ponytail, draped the colorful pashmina she’d received as a gift from a local woman in New Delhi around her shoulders, and at 11:56pm gave Bennet and the rest her security detail the slip and made her way down to the hotel kitchens. 

She was nervous as she let herself out into the small alleyway behind the hotel. She glanced up and down the dark, shadowy passage. “Oh, Hillary,” she whispered to herself and pulled the shawl tighter around her face. “What are you doing?”

A moment later the rattling buzz of an old motorcycle engine echoed off the walls of the alley and he screeched to a halt in front of her.

“You’ve got to be kidding.” 

Anand grinned. He shrugged off the backpack he was wearing and handed it to her. “You’ll have to wear it if you don’t want to fall off.” 

Hillary gaped at the man on the rusty Yamaha dirt bike. 

“Jump on, we don’t have all night,” he shoved the backpack at her. 

“This is not quite what I had in mind,” she bit back. 

“Well sorry, my Rolls Royce is in the shop.” 

Hillary shot him a withering glare. 

“Unless you’ve changed your mind,” he frowned.

Her heart rate kicked up a notch. She grabbed the backpack and slung it onto her shoulders. “This is insane,” she mumbled. It was also thrilling. She hadn’t been on a motorcycle in decades and this one looked as though it would come apart beneath them at any moment.

Again, she was met with his irrepressible smile. Anand revved the engine. “Hold on.” 

She clasped her hands tightly around his waist and they took off down the alley and turned into the flow of rickshaws. Adrenaline spiked through Hillary’s blood as he wove through the lively streets of Dhaka. The cool evening air was invigorating as it ruffled her hair.

“What are you doing in Bangladesh?” she called to him as they ventured into the poorer, more heavily populated slums of the city. 

“Same as you,” he shouted over the roar of the engine. “Dr. Yunus is an old friend. I’m helping him with his social clinic project.”

Hillary smiled at the mention of Yunus’ latest endeavor to expand the Grameen Healthcare initiative. They had been discussing the idea for years. A small thrill ran up her spine knowing that Anand was involved in the cause too. 

“I’m talking to Mohammed about it tomorrow. I have a few ideas.”

“Of course you do!” he teased. She felt, more than heard his laughter resonating through her where her chest was pressed to his back.

They rode in silence for a long while and Hillary took in the sights and sounds of the old city. She never knew exactly what compelled her to climb onto that motorcycle that night, but she was happy she had.  She felt exhilarated, more alive, than she had in a long time. She had know him for only a few short days yet felt a rare, comfortable familiarity with him. She felt safe. Safer than she had in a years. Washington was a ruthless town and she’d quickly learned not to allow her defenses to be breeched. Familiarity in Washington led only to betrayal. But in that moment, in a foreign country, with a foreign man, she felt more herself than she had in a decades. 

As he’d promised days before, he took her to brothel. Hillary watched as he tended the women who traded their bodies for meager stipends in the ramshackle shanties that lined the shady red light district. She was moved by his gracious affection for the women, treating them with the respect and dignity they deserved. He served as her interpreter when she struck up conversations with them and they talked. Talked and talked and talked, about their lives, their challenges, and their children. 

As they rode back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning she realized she’d discovered something she hadn’t expected to find in the gutters of Dhaka, the indomitable spirit of hope. As dire as their circumstances were, the women bore no resentment toward those more fortunate than themselves. Instead, they shared the hopes and dreams they held for their futures, and despite the gut-wrenching despair she felt for them, her heart blossomed with admiration and humility. Not only for them, but for the man who had become an unexpected the link between her heart and theirs. 

Anand. 

When the outline of the Regency Hotel came into view at the end of the street, Hillary wished that they could keep going… pass the hotel, on down the road and beyond the reach of her security detail, on to the next village, leaving behind the stringent obligations of a life she felt increasing disconnected from. She tightened her arms around his waist and rested her chin on his shoulder, her lips inches from his ear. His thick dark curls tickled her nose. He smelled of cedar wood soap. 

“How did you know where I was staying?” she asked, unsure that he had heard her over the engine when he didn’t respond. 

He turned down the alley and cut the lights of the motorcycle as they rolled to a stop at the kitchen door. Anand found her eyes over his shoulder. “I told you I’d find you.”

Her breath hitched when she caught the desire in his eyes. His lips hovered close to hers and his gaze dropped to her mouth. She bit her bottom lip. 

“Goodnight, Hillary,” he said. 

Her limbs felt heavy as she unwound her arms from his body and climbed off the bike. She handed his pack back to him. “Thank you, Anand. Tonight meant more to me than you can know.” 

He nodded, unable to meet her eyes as he shrugged the pack onto his back and fussed with the straps. Hillary swallowed hard. She suddenly felt inexplicably bereft. She wasn’t ready to say goodbye.

“When will I see you again?” 

Anand revved the engine of his motorcycle and smiled. “I’ll find you.”

“You’ll stay in touch?” she asked, but his rickety Yamaha was already sputtering away down the alley. Hillary watched him disappear around a corner and then he was gone…

 

Almost a year passed before he found her again. Or had she found him?

Hillary traced the outline of his face in the grainy black and white photograph. She had almost skipped over the London Times article over her Sunday morning breakfast. The headline jumped out in bold relief. “Srebrenica MSF camp attacked

 

Bosnia, March 1996.

They’d heard the commotion almost as soon as the emergency vehicles sped into the camp. Four severely injured men were being unloaded onto stretchers. Hillary was thankful that Chelsea had taken an interest in the Black Hawk they had flown in on and was currently quizzing the pilots on the function of every switch in the cockpit on the opposite side of the  busy camp.

“What happened?” she asked the officer serving as her guide.

“Looks like a sniper attack, Ma’am,” he answered. “The hills around us are littered with Serbs.”

She stopped breathing when she saw what was left of one man’s leg. The stump ended mid-way down his thigh and was wrapped in blood-soaked rags.

“And landmines,” he added grimly. 

They followed the stretcher into the med tent which had quickly transformed into a triage centre. It was chaos. The sounds and faces of the medics who scurried to attend the wounded were a blur amid clothes being torn from bodies to access bullet wounds and shredded flesh. Her eyes stayed riveted on the man with the stump leg. He was a boy really, no more than eighteen she guessed. She watched in horror as his makeshift bandages were unwound, blood spurting from his leg like a geyser, spraying the medics who stood over him. 

“Pressure! More pressure. Get a tourniquet on his leg now!”

She recognized his voice before her eyes landed on him. His cheek was splattered with blood. His green eyes intensely focused as his hands worked with hypnotic dexterity. He looked up to find her staring at him from the entrance of the tent. His brow furrowed and for a moment his concentration faltered. He glared at her. Her heart leapt into her throat. 

“Essential personnel only,” he barked over the ruckus. “Everyone else, get out!”

Hillary jumped where she stood.

“Mrs. Clinton, please,” the officer beside her said and pulled her back across the threshold. Then the tent flap fell shut, cutting off her view of the last person in the world she’d expected to see that day. 

As the day rolled on, she put on a brave face for the soldiers in the mess hall where she sat down to share a meal with them. She smiled, making cordial conversation but her mind was on him, replaying the fleeting seconds in which their eyes connected. He had looked right through her. She kept her eyes trained on the exits, hoping he would wander in at some point. He didn’t.

That night, while the troops were distracted by the entertainers that had accompanied her on the trip, Hillary made her way through the dark camp back to the med tent. She found him perched on a stack of military crates beside the entrance, staring blankly ahead as he smoked a cigarette. The rolled cuffs of his shirt where stained with blood. He looked exhausted. 

“I didn’t know you smoked.” Hillary smiled, doing her best to tamp down the nervous fluttering in her stomach.

Anand’s heart skipped a beat. He took a deep pull on his cigarette as he watched her approach him from the shadows. 

After their midnight adventure in Dhaka, he had tried to put her out of his mind. But it was impossible. She was everywhere. Every time he turned on the TV. Every newspaper and magazine, in every language, in every country. Wherever he went, there she was, filling his mind with regrets. He had wanted to kiss her that night, wanted it more than his next breath. He should have kissed her. The warmth of her body had seeped beneath his skin as she sat wrapped around him on his bike. He could have leaned back, closed the scant inches between their mouths. But he didn’t. He ran. He ran because he couldn’t have her. And not a day had passed that he hadn’t thought about her. The woman danced through his mind as though she were native to it. Then, today of all days, he looked up to find her standing in his triage, more distractingly beautiful than he remembered, more beautiful than any photographer was able to capture.

“Occasionally. After a long day,” he answered cooly.

Hillary smiled as she inched closer to him. “I didn’t expect to find you here. It’s good to see you.”

“Where else would I be,” he replied, an edge of agitation in his voice. “There’s a war going on, Mrs. Clinton.”

Mrs. Clinton’… Hillary winced. That stung. She knew it was illogical, but it stung. It also riled her up a bit. “I wasn’t aware that MSF was stationed with our troops.”

“We’re not. We’ve set up a camp in Srebrenica. Our supplies are routed through Tuzla. We’re about to head back.” He flicked his cigarette into a nearby butt can and jumped off the crate. 

This was not how she remembered him. He was aloof and distant. He barely looked at her, hadn’t even spared a smile. Had she imagined what had seemed so effortless in India? Had she gotten so caught up in the illusion of a connection when in fact there wasn’t one?

Anand struggled to rein in his annoyance, unfounded as it was. She couldn’t just drop into the middle of his life without warning only to vanish again. 

“I should go,” he said. 

Hillary nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Anger flared in the pit of her stomach as she watched him turn to leave. She couldn’t let him simply walk away. Wouldn’t. 

“Have I done something to piss you off, Dr. Varma?” she called after him. 

“What?” He turned back to look at her, found it impossible to miss the vulnerability beneath her irritation. He should have kissed her when he had the chance.

“Have I done something to piss you off?” she repeated.

His eyes flashed. “I don’t know what you mean.”

They stared at each other, tension stretched taut between them. Movement from beyond the flaps of the tent drew her attention and she remembered the other reason she had gone looking for him. 

“How’s your patient?”

“He’s dead,” he replied flatly. “We’re in the middle of a war zone, Hillary. You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”

She watched his retreating form disappear into the darkness. 

She was exhausted by the time they piled into the Black Hawk later that night. She knew the anger she felt was irrational. But her dismay blindsided her. She barely knew him yet her mind kept pulling her back to India, to the day she had fainted at the orphanage and the moment she had emerged from her haze, enveloped safely in his arms, his cool fingers feathering over her skin and the spike of desire that had lanced through her. And then Dhaka. Had she imagined the intimacy of that night? Had she, in the emotionally arduous months that followed the her healthcare humiliation romanticized what had otherwise been an innocent kindness on his part? She felt like a fool. 

Hillary shook herself free of the memories. It was all in her head and he’d just confirmed that. The helicopter was just about to lift off the ground to take them back to Tuzla when a young solider popped into the cabin and handed her the folded note. She waited until she was alone in bed to open it.

… Forgive me. My brusqueness was undue. You deserve better… A 

His words brought no comfort. Sleep eluded her that night. All she could think about was if their paths would ever cross again. 

 

Budapest, July 1996. 

The morning had been filled with meetings and conferences but Hillary found the skyline view of the old twin cities beyond the wide windows of the Boscolo more than a little distracting. It was a crisp, clear day and the Danube glistened enticingly in the distance. She yearned to shirk her diplomatic mantle and lose herself in the busy labyrinth of winding streets. When she returned to her suite after a late lunch she found simple bouquet of white roses and a note.

… Cafe Oscar. Budapest Old Town. 4pm … A

She hadn’t expected to hear from him ever again. She glanced at her watch. It was 3:57pm and she had no idea how far the cafe was from the hotel. She pulled on a pair of jeans, a t-shirt, a baseball cap, instructed Bennet and company to stay put, and after a quick stop at the Concierge desk for directions, darted out the hotel and headed toward the river.

Hillary loved Budapest. Rich in culture and history, she found it both interesting and seductive. But the best part was that she could roam the streets without being recognized. Her lungs burned as she hurried along the cobbled streets. 

Almost thirty minutes had passed since she’d read his note, and when she found the small, quaint coffee shop down a quiet side street and ducked inside, it was crowded. She scanned the room once, twice, three times… The aroma of freshly ground coffee set her stomach churning with disappointment when she didn’t find him. 

“You came.”

His warm breath puffed against her neck and his deep voice sent goosebumps tingling down her back. Hillary swung around, wobbly on her feet.  

“What the fuck, Anand!”

“Hello, Hillary, ” he chuckled, gaze fixed on hers. He squeezed her shoulders lightly, as he steadied her. 

Her heart was thumping. She wanted to deck him. She’d developed a knee-jerk reaction to being snuck up on over the years and nobody ever got this close to her without her security detail interceding. She tried her damnedest to muster a disapproving glare but instead found herself mesmerized by his dancing green eyes and returning his roguish grin.

“Hi,” she heard herself whisper. 

“Hi,” he whispered back, eyes flickering over her face, losing himself in her vibrant cerulean eyes. 

Moments ticked by as she stood in the middle of a coffee shop in Budapest, held by a man she was sure she would never see again and was still a little peeved at given their last encounter. 

For a brief moment, Anand’s smile faded and he seemed to feel the minuscule shift in her mood. His chest constricted around the secret he had been harboring since their very first meeting. For a time it had seemed that he could escape its’ hold by simply pretending it didn’t exist. He knew he was wrong the instant he felt her small body lean into his, and they stood, staring at each other, in a coffee shop, in Budapest of all places.

“Sea buckthorn is in season. Would you like a slice of torte with your cappuccino?” he asked, making sure she was firmly planted on her feet before he forced himself to step away from her.  

“Yes, please,” she nodded and they settled at a small table in a corner of the shop. 

“I didn’t think you’d come,” he smiled, wiping his sweaty palms down his jeans below the table. 

She hoped he wasn’t expecting a response because she wasn’t sure she could give him one. She didn’t understand what had brought her to this place. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t seem to stop herself from what was beginning to feel like a reckless infatuation with a man thirteen years younger than her. The air around her suddenly felt very thick. 

She cleared her throat. “Why would you think that?”

“I behaved very badly the last time I saw you. Treated you unkindly.” 

She stared at him and swallowed the lump forming in her throat. She fidgeted with her coffee cup. “That’s very sweet, Anand, but I got your note, there’s not need —

“No,” he interrupted. “I hurt you. Let me apologize.”

She watched as he reached across the table and folded his long, warm fingers around her small hand.

“I’m sorry, Hillary.” 

“It was a rough day. I understand.”

“There’s no excuse. Please forgive me?” 

His voice was soft and tender, an unexpected balm that soothed more deeply than his perceived slight. His simple gesture, his unassuming touch, seemed to reach deep into her, permeating that well hidden part of her heart where she kept the most delicate and fragile parts of herself protected. Her eyes prickled with tears and she blinked them back furiously. She didn’t trust herself to speak, could barely manage a smile. She nodded instead. 

“I can’t imagine what you must have felt like,” she said when she was sure she wouldn’t embarrass herself further. 

He gave her a baffled look.

“Losing a patient, I mean. He was so young.” 

The face of the boy whose leg and life he’d been unable to save flashed before him. He never forgot a face. He’d never gotten used to losing people. Anand shook his head, forcing the memory from his mind and looked up at with her smile. He knew his time with her was limited. 

“Are you enjoying Budapest?” he asked.

“Yes,” she smiled. “I wish I had more time here.” Just the few minutes she’d had racing through the streets to get to the coffee shop had done her the world of good. The randomness of Anand being in the city at the same suddenly occurred to her. “Why are you here? In Budapest, I mean.” 

He turned grim for a moment. “I’m here for a rape crisis training. I’m going back to Bosnia tomorrow.”

She’d kept up to date on the crisis unfolding in the rape camps, was aware that as soon as security forces thought they had a handle on the atrocity, more women and girls would come forward. That Anand was there, working with the survivors, touched her deeply. 

“I couldn’t leave without saying hello,” he winked. 

Her heart fluttered where she sat.   

“How are you, Hillary?”

How was she?… She couldn’t remember the last time someone had inquired about her wellbeing as more than a passing gesture. When was the last time anyone genuinely cared enough to wait for her answer? In fact, she wasn’t even sure she knew how to give an honest answer anymore she was so accustomed to smiling politely in response while keeping a firm hold on her emotions no matter what they were.

She had her confidants, of course, but over the years her close friendships had withered under the pressures of the White House and devolved into backbiting and backstabbing she hadn’t been prepared for. There was Diane, but for reasons she couldn’t quite name she had begun to withhold her innermost thoughts and feelings from her old friend. There was Betsy, who had always been like a sister, and of whom she was fiercely protective and thus kept her away from the sordid political chaos. There was her mother, whom she loved deeply, but Hillary had never been able to delve into her personal demons and the wounds she’d accumulated over the years with her for fear it would sound as though she was complaining. If anything, Dorothy had schooled Hillary not to complain or reveal her vulnerabilities; people would invariably exploit and twist them against you. Hillary never complained.  

And then there was Bill. He had been her best friend for more than half her life, the person who knew her better than anybody in the world. The person she trusted with her life and more importantly, the life of her child. But he was also the President, and while she remained his closest confidant, the country had usurped his attention and energy. While they could spend hours, days, every waking moment, going back and forth on issues of policy and governance, he had little left at the end of the day for her, for them. Of late, it seemed that the only way to reach him was via the Oval, and after the healthcare disaster, that left her on the outside, both literally and emotionally. Truth be told, Hillary felt utterly alone, sequestered from her husband and herself, and for the first time in her life, she didn’t know how to dig herself out of the chasm she felt widening between her and the rest of her life. Still, they had one more re-election campaign to win and four more years to go. Collapsing now was not an option.  

“I’m exhausted. I’ve never been so tired in my life,” she sighed. As soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth she caught herself and stopped. She had revealed too much. She forced a dazzling smile into place and feigned a nonchalant shrug. It was a technique in deflection she had mastered over the years.   

“Don’t do that,” he said. His piercing gaze bore into her from across the table. “I don’t care about who you have to be out there,” he nodded toward the door. “But here, right here, in this moment, can we just be two people in a coffeeshop, in Budapest, having an honest, human conversation that no one will ever know about?”

Hillary had never felt more exposed in her life. From the moment she had sat down he seemed to burrow beneath her defenses, peeling away her carefully constructed armor layer by layer. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat, folding her arms across her body. 

“What’s in it for you?” she asked, her caution evident. 

Her defenses where up and if he pushed too far he’d blow it. Anand knew that whether she walked out of that coffeeshop and he ever got to see her again depended on how he responded.

“Honestly?” He paused for a second. “An interesting conversation with someone I’ve come to like and respect. Why? How do you make friends in America?”

Hillary laughed, rolling her eyes. “I have more friends than I know what to do with.” 

He leaned across the table and whispered, “And yet here you are.”

“Yes,” her smile softened. “Here I am.” 

 

The magnitude of her statement eluded her at the time. The course of her life, at least the most personal parts of her life, heading in a direction she could not in her wildest dreams have imagined. A well earned course correction some might argue. A world of joy and sorrow and grief. 

 

Chapter Text

She was quickly drawn back into the relentless fray that was her husband’s presidency and re-election campaign when she returned from Europe. Amid commitments to family, official visits with Bill, finishing her book, holiday festivities, and the slog of new cabinet appointments and planning the inauguration, an all too familiar thrum began to buzz in the background. 

There were rumors. 

Over the years she had grown accustomed the ceaseless undertow. She had willfully ignored the whispers of her husband’s indiscretions, honing what some had pointed to as a finely tuned ability for selective denial. Hillary saw it as self-preservation.

She knew Bill. Knew who he was before she’d chosen to marry him. As a naive young bride she had bought into the myth that marriage would curtail his libidinous proclivities. But now, after years of the perpetual power struggle that their marriage had played out to be, she knew better.

Her friends wondered why she stayed. She understood their concerns, their curiosity even. All she knew was that the life they had built together was the only life she knew. It was by no stretch of the imagination perfect, but she was yet to come across a perfect marriage. Despite their problems, she loved him and believed in him, and he in her, like no one else. Yes, he had not always been faithful, and yes, he had lied to her repeatedly about his cheating, but Hillary alone remembered the one time that he had told her the truth. The truth that he had fallen in love with one of those women. It had almost killed her and destroyed both their lives. She had loved Bill enough to not allow him to self-destruct and throw away everything they had worked so hard to build. If there was a metric by which to measure love, then for her it was that in the end, Bill always came home to her.

In testament to that love, she had learned to bifurcate herself and their relationship from his weaknesses. Over time she had fortified her boundaries, shored up her reserves and weathered storm after bruising storm, emerging from each humiliation scarred but just a little more resilient.

That was the story Hillary told herself, the one that helped mitigate a much deeper and more profoundly felt sense of failure from which she could not seem to escape. Failure to change him. Failure that neither she, nor her love, had ever been enough to keep him from straying. Failure that even after giving him the only child her imperfect body could, she was still not enough. So she gave him everything else, all of her, because worse than the failure were the raw, open wounds of shame. An unforgiving sense of unworthiness she couldn’t seem to out-achieve in the privacy of her marriage or out in the world. Those wounds never quite seemed to heal. Those wounds were a deeply embedded vulnerability, a part of Hillary that no one, not even Bill, ever got to see. And what couldn't be seen could never be used to wreak more devastation.

But there was something different about the rumors this time. Hillary sensed something volatile adrift, an albatross circling in, heralding a storm just beyond the horizon. What she was uncertain of was whether the maelstrom would come from the familiar cesspools of Washington, or from her own preoccupation with Anand who had rooted himself firmly in the quiet recesses of her mind. The ground beneath her was shifting. 

On rare occasions when she had night to herself, with Bill away on state business or sequestered in the Oval with some impending crisis from which she’d been excluded, she’d find herself on the Truman balcony at midnight. Staring out across the South Lawn at the Washington Monument she’d quietly sip a glass of cabernet, the rich, dark juice rolling across her tongue as she allowed herself the indulgence of wondering where Anand was and what he might be doing at that very moment. 

She loved her husband. But it was her husband who had so painfully taught her that marriage did not render one deaf, dumb or numb. That it was unreasonable, humanly impossible even, to assume that one wouldn’t, or couldn’t, find yourself drawn to another human being.

There had been men who had captured her attention through the years. What she had come to understand was that it wasn’t necessarily the pursuit, or even the possibility of something illicit that enticed. No. It was the eroticism of awakened desire that titillated. It was the intrigue of imagining who you might be, or what you might do, if you were able to step into a part of yourself that was braver, more audacious, and explore a different version of yourself, a version that no one else was entitled to. It was the feverish delight of having such a secret that was the ultimate seduction. And there was no harm in having a secret if you never acted on it, if you never allowed the illusion to become reality, if you never crossed that line. This was one more secret Hillary kept to herself, that she too had thoughts and desires that were not about her husband. The difference between her and Bill was that she never crossed nor allowed anyone else to cross that line. It was a choice. Until now…

He wrote to her from Bosnia. Despite the horrific situation on the ground, he remained optimistic, his tone upbeat and resonant with his distinct bent of humor. She laughed when he teased her about the ‘Dragon Lady’ coat she’d worn to her congressional hearing fiasco. 

… In more enlightened Hindu circles, the Naga (dragon) is a divine and benevolent force of nature - not a creature you want to fuck with!.. A

She found herself scanning headlines on a daily basis for what was happening in his part of the world, keenly aware of the anxious knot that had formed in the pit of her stomach, a dread that she’d open a newspaper and read that something had happened to him. 

On a late evening in November, Hillary found herself curled up on a balcony in Thailand recounting to him her visit to the Golden Triangle and of one 12-year-old girl in particular.

… The skin hung limp on her small frame, she could barely speak. I was told that she would die in the next few days. When I held her hand, I felt such innocence, such purity. I felt unworthy of my privilege. It’s people like you who are out there making a real difference… H

Anand was awed by her humility. An unfortunate component of his job meant that he often found himself at medical conferences and fundraisers around the world, hobnobbing with obscenely wealthy people who were oblivious to the crises those outside their bubbles contended with on a daily basis. As a first-hand witness to the calamities he dealt with everyday, MSF often deployed him to beg for money in support of the mission. He obliged with gritted teeth. Hillary however had made it her life’s work. He wrote to her from London.

… It’s like chewing glass. I feel dirty after every one of these insufferable, ass-kissing fundraisers. How do you stand it; the smug superiority and convenient ignorance? If ever we find ourselves at the same event, will you sneak off and get drunk with me on their Veuve Cliquot? … A

In late December she described her despair at losing Maggie and her excitement at urging Bill to appoint Madeleine who she knew would bring more focus to women’s issues in state diplomacy. 

… I feel as though I’m losing a limb; losing Maggie is like losing a sister. I am however elated at the prospect of Madeleine taking the reins at State. I want to work closely with her on bringing more attention to the issues we care so deeply about. Your compassion inspires me to keep at it. I feel I’m entering this next chapter of my life stronger than I was, like steel tempered in fire, more durable and flexible… H

A few days after the inauguration she received a short note from Paris.

… A vision in gold. You were breathtaking. But then you always are. Congratulations, Mrs Clinton!… A

She wondered how it was possible that one line could give her butterflies while the next left her feeling dejected. ‘Mrs Clinton’. She remembered their encounter in Tuzla, the way he had looked at her, or rather refused to look at her. In her letter back to him she stayed away from any allusions to life in Washington or the abrupt succinctness of his note. She kept her tone light and cheerful. 

… Vital Voices has been a life long dream. A network to help women and girls around the world gain autonomy over their own lives. There’s so much to do. I can’t wait to get started… H

There was no response. For months Hillary tried to ignore the disappointment of sorting through her mail and finding nothing from him. 

Whether it was the gnawing impulse that she visit the small clinic on the outskirts of Harare, or serendipity, she was glad that she insisted her entourage make the detour. Her heart leapt into her throat when she walked into the nursery used to administer vaccinations to abandoned babies and saw Anand bouncing a screaming baby on his knee. 

“I thought you were in Paris?” she said to him later while Bennet escorted Chelsea and Melanne to their waiting motorcade. They’d barely had a moment to connect as her staff pushed to get her through the visit as quickly as possible.

“I was,” he answered, somewhat evasively. “I have friends here,” he nodded toward the clinic behind them. “They always need help. I go where I’m needed.”

Hillary couldn’t help but notice his short, pointed sentences or the way he shoved his hands into his pockets and avoided making eye contact. There seemed to be a rhythm emerging between them; advance-retreat-advance retreat. She knew she’d be lying if she said she didn’t know why. It was, after all, right there in the last words he’d written to her: …Mrs. Clinton.

“Why didn’t you answer my last letter?” She asked softly.

“I’ve been busy,” he said with a sad smile. Hillary knew it was a lie. What surprised her was the potency of the impulse she had to reach out and strike him. Strike him for being yet another man who would lie to her. 

Anand watched the inner conflict play out on her face. “You can’t be angry at me,” he said. 

Hillary drew in a deep breath, trying to soothe the roiling that had erupted in her stomach. He was right. She knew he was right. The moment hung heavy between them.

“Where to next, trailblazer ?” Anand asked, the cheer in his voice brittle. 

“Victoria Falls,” she smiled weakly, catching Bennet approaching over his shoulder. 

Anand nodded. “It’s beautiful. You’ll like it.” 

“I’m sure I will,” she answered, irritated by the flip remark. “And you?”

“Dunno,” he shrugged. She looked up to find his familiar grin and bright, warm eyes. Bennet cleared his throat. 

“We’re ready for you, Ma’am.” 

Hillary tore her eyes from Anand, pushed by him and started toward the motorcade. “Goodbye, Dr. Varma,” she called over her shoulder without a backward glance. “Take care.” 

Anand watched as she walked away. Bennet remained, glaring at him.

“Some friendly advice, Dr. Varma.” 

Anand turned to the man who now stood stone-faced and glowering at him. 

“Keep your distance.” Bennet turned and followed Hillary. 

 

Her vision blurred. Her right temple was throbbing. She’d read and re-read the same paragraph at least seven times now. Hillary closed her book and dropped her head into the pillows. Her muscles ached for sleep but she couldn’t seem to quiet her mind. It had been a lousy day.

He can go fuck himself!… she repeated to herself for the umpteenth time that day. She would not play cat and mouse with him. She would not seek him out or try to talk to him or apologize or whatever… Apologize for what exactly? Fuck him!… He was young, good looking, accomplished, and was likely used to having women chase after him. Arrogant too… How had she missed that?… Who was she kidding, if she had a type, it was arrogant with a capital-fucking-‘A’!  He probably has a woman in every port… so to speak. What if he did? What if she was just another conquest, a potential notch in his belt? The wife of the most powerful man in the world; the ultimate trophy. An older woman who was hopelessly infatuated with him… The realization crushed her. He’s been playing me. Right from the start… Her chest contracted painfully. Hillary stopped her thoughts from racing any further. What are you doing, Hillary? It didn’t matter anyhow. Whatever had happened between them had run it’s course. Nothing had happened between them… He can go fuck himself!!! 

The knock on her door jolted her from her mental tirade. Hillary found the clock on her nightstand. It was almost one in the morning. She jumped out of bed and hurried to the door, her first thought of Chelsea and for her safety. She was committed to killing anyone else who dared to knock on her door at 1:00am for any other reason. She swung the door open to find a mischievous pair of green eyes blinking back at her. 

“Hi,” Anand whispered. He glanced up and down the hallway nervously.

“Oh, fuck you!” Hillary squinted at him, piqued. “Fuck off!!” She was about slam the door in his face when his hand shot out and grabbed hers. 

“Come with me. I want to show you something.”

She wrest her hand from his. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Shh!!!” he said, pressing a finger to his lips. “Hurry up and throw some clothes on before he gets back.”

Hillary stuck her head out of the door and noticed that the agent who was supposed to be posted outside her door wasn’t there. “How did you…?”

Anand was growing impatient. “Would you just hurry up before your Minotaur gets back. I don’t think he likes me much and I don’t want to get eaten.”  

Hillary stood rooted to the spot. 

“Un-fucking-believable,” Hillary huffed as she followed him down a narrow path winding through the thick underbrush. 

They’d been walking for about twenty minutes and it was getting darker by the second. A thin mist hung in the balmy air. She didn't know what had possessed her to follow him. That certainly accounted for half of her annoyance, that and the fact that her jeans and shirt were becoming uncomfortably damp. The thunderous deluge of the great waterfall was getting louder the farther they went. She was wearing the wrong goddamn shoes for this.  

“Watch your step,” Anand said, hoping up onto a rock. Something skittered across the path in front of her and vanished into the brush. 

“Oh my god!” Hillary shrieked. “Are there snakes? There’d better not be snakes!”

“Only long green ones,” he teased, adjusting his now familiar MSF backpack. “But don’t worry, they glow in the dark so you’ll see them coming at you.”

Her face blanched. She leapt onto the rock beside him. Anand burst out laughing and took her small hand in his. 

“Asshole,” she mumbled, as he continued leading her down the path.

“Your potty mouth may be my favorite thing about you,” he chuckled.

“Where are you taking me?” Hillary snapped, keeping as close to him as possible.

“Keep your voice down,” he whispered. “You’ll wake the bats.”

“What fucking bats?!”

She was about to demand he take her back to the hotel when they ducked through a dense crop of giant ferns and Hillary found herself on a low stone ledge looking out across an iridescent swimming hole with a small waterfall cascading into it at the far end.

She gasped, transfixed by the almost otherworldly beauty in front of her. The water was so clear that she could see all the way to the rocky bottom, and in the moonlight the pool gave off an aqua luminesce as if lit from below.

Anand sighed in relief as her eyes lit up. He hadn’t been entirely sure of his plan, it was impulsive at the very least. It had been years since he’d last been there and he hadn’t even been sure he could find the pool in the dark. The wonder on her face sent a rush of pride through him. He had given her something that no one else ever had.

“That’s the best spot.” He pointed to a smooth, flat rock across the water close to the waterfall. 

Hillary eagerly took his hand this time, allowing him to guide her over the boulders that circled the pool. No sooner had they arrived and she was kicking off her Keds and rolling up her jeans. She lowered herself onto the edge, giggling as she dipped her feet into the cold water. 

He kicked off his shoes and plopped down next to her. Hillary threw her head back and closed her eyes, allowing the cool mist from the waterfall to settle on her face in dewy droplets at clung to her lashes. Anand gazed at her. Her creamy skin and toothy smile glowed in the moonlight. She was beautiful. He could spend the rest of the night looking at her, ignoring the waterfall, and die a happy man. 

He dug into his pack and pulled out a bottle and two plastic glasses. “Care for a drink?” He nudged her knee and handed her a glass. “It’s cheap, but it’s good.” 

She watched him closely as he filled her glass, then his. He was the most confounding person she’d ever meet. She’d always had an almost preternatural ability for reading people, but not him. She was never sure of what he was thinking or feeling, what he would say, or what he would do from one moment to the next. The more he perplexed her, the more she seemed to crave. 

“Cheers,” he bumped his glass against hers. Hillary’s eyes stayed fixed on him as she took a careful sip. It was good.

Anand could feel her eyes on him as he looked out across the water. It sent a pleasant tingle of arousal down his spine and he swore he could feel a change in pressure on his skin when she eventually looked away. 

“It’s so quiet,” she said after a few minutes.

“It’s almost two in the morning on a school night. Everyone is asleep,” he answered.

“Are we allowed to be down here?” There was a naughty twinkle in her eye. 

“Nobody’s looking. I won’t tell on you if you don’t tell.” 

Hillary breathed in the beauty of her surroundings and swirled her feet in the water below. Everything that had happened throughout the day, her frustration, her anger, faded away. Everything beyond the towering walls of the cliff that hid the pool, faded away. Being with Anand, in that moment, felt right. Sitting side-by-side, neither saying a word while they shared a bottle of wine to the gentle thrum of a waterfall and singing cicadas, felt right.

“This is magical,” she sighed. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You really pissed me off this morning.”

He grinned behind his glass and cocked his head toward the waterfall, “Hence the apology.”

“Not that I don’t appreciated this, but words would have sufficed.” 

Anand topped up their glasses, his brow knit in thought. Hillary watched the cogs in his head turn.  “This is better. I’m not that good with words. I prefer to show people how I feel about them.” 

She didn’t know what to say to that. She wasn’t sure if she could handle knowing what, or if, he felt anything in particular about her. Her contradicting thoughts and feelings concerning him were no less troubling. 

She definitely enjoyed his company. Having grown up with brothers, she enjoyed his teasing and forthrightness. He wasn't in anyway intimidated by her, nor did he try to ingratiate himself to her. She was intrigued by his intellect and they shared deep core values when it came to being of service. He was the first true friend she’d made in a very long time. He was attentive when listening, droll and naturally flirtatious. And while she enjoyed a bit of harmless flirting herself, that’s where things got complicated with him. She couldn’t ignore that she was attracted to him. He aroused and provoked her physically and mentally. But there was something more. Just beneath the surface, crackling in the space between them, was the stir of something unknown and volatile. When she was with him, Hillary felt like anything might happen. It was deeply unsettling.

“Do you want to go in?” Anand asked. 

“I didn’t bring a swimsuit.” Not that she would dare let him see her in one. She was in the best shape she’d been in years but she was almost fifty and still wrestling with her bottom and thighs, areas she’d always been a little self-conscious about. 

Anand jumped up. He pulled his t-shirt over his head and shucked his cargo shorts off. He was left in nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs. He dove into the pool and she watched his long, lean body slice through the water.

“Woohoo!” His voice echoed off the cliff walls. Hillary laughed, his delight contagious. “Come on,” he waved. “Live a little.” 

Hillary hesitated. It was tempting. She loved to swim. When would she ever have an opportunity like this again? 

“I won’t look,” he teased. 

The sweet, expectant look on his face had her clambering to her feet. Anand grinned, turned and disappeared below the surface. Hillary striped down to her navy satin panties and bra and dove in. The water was cold and sent an icy shock through her body. “It’s cold!” she laughed. Adrenaline surged through her and she swam the length of the pool and looped back. 

Try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from staring. He wasn’t sure this had been such a good idea. She was a strong, graceful swimmer, and even though the water hid much of her body from view, his imagination compensated with vivid images of soft curves and creamy skin which sent blood rushing away from his brain and straight to his groin.

They laughed and splashed in the waterfall. Anand had never seen her happier or more effusive. 

“Race you to the other side,” Hillary shouted over the thrum of the cascade. She pushed off the wall of the pool and dove before Anand could catch up. When he surfaced on the other side, there was no sign of Hillary. 

“Hillary?” he called. It was deathly quiet except for the waterfall. “Hillary?!” He waded to the middle of the pool and scanned the perimeter. He couldn't see anything beyond the few feet in front of him. Anand began to panic. He dove, searching the area around him. She still hadn’t surfaced when he came up for air. “Hillary!” He dove down deeper.  It was dark and he couldn’t see much. Then he collided with her in a tangle of arms and legs. Anand wrapped his arms around her small frame and propelled them toward the surface. 

“What?! What’s wrong?” she sputtered, pushing hair and water from her eyes. 

“I thought you hit your head on a rock,” he panicked, gently patting her hair. “When you didn’t come up, I thought you hurt yourself or something. ” 

“I’m fine,” she panted, clutching his shoulders. “See? I’m ok.”

They stared at each other, trying to catch their breath, amused by the absurdity of the moment. The realization that they were locked in an  embrace slowly set in when she felt his arms tightened around her. His heart was thudding in his chest where it was pressed against hers. His warm breath puffed against her face. She watched his eyes trace the lines of her face, her mouth, her neck, down to her breasts. Her nipples pebbled beneath the fabric of her bra and she felt a flush rising from her chest to her cheeks. Her body seemed to move of its accord, pressing in closer to him until her skin was sliding against his.

Hillary trembled when his fingers skimmed over her ribs and stopped at her waist leaving behind a trail of goosebumps. His touch was tentative, seeking permission. She wanted him to touch her, had never wanted anything more. Her eyes fluttered when his large hands circled her waist, moulding themselves to her skin as he caressed the curve of her hips, skimming along the seams of her underwear.  Their faces were inches apart now, sharing the humid air between them, closer than they’d ever been. She whimpered, rested her head against his chin. His touch grew more instant, hands hot, searing her flesh despite the coolness of the water. 

“Beautiful,” he murmured into her hair. 

Her control was slipping. One hand wound its way around his shoulders while the other skimmed over his collarbone, down his sternum to rest over his heart. She pressed her nails into his skin, raking through the thick hair covering his sculpted chest, following a soft black trail down across his stomach to where it disappeared into the waistband of his pants. Anand swallowed hard when he felt himself hardening against her thigh.

He wanted her more desperately than his next breath. All of her. He was hopelessly in love with her and absolutely certain of the fact now. The prospect that she might not feel the same way about him terrified him. He couldn’t bare the possibility of losing Hillary. Not now. He didn’t know how he was going to keep her, but he wouldn’t lose her. The risk of rushing into something they couldn’t take back, potentially ruining everything between them, was too great. Hillary felt his hand on her shoulder as he gently pushed her away. 

“Hillary,” he warned, breathing hard. He cupped her face in his palms. His eyes burned into her. She chewed her bottom lip. 

“Don’t,” he whispered, soothing a thumb over her lip. But they’d long passed the point of lucidity. Her eyes drifted close as he closed the space between them. 

She gasped when at last his lips met hers. She opened up to him immediately, teasing his soft tongue to swirl against her own, moaning into his mouth. She had longed for this kiss, had fantasized about what it would taste like, how his lips would feel against hers. It stole her breath. The heat of his mouth flooded her body and pooled heavy and viscous at her core. 

Anand suckled her lips, tasted her tongue. She tasted like black cherries and cloves and something uniquely her own. He deepened the kiss and his penis throbbed when his mind skipped ahead greedily to imagine what other flavors he might find between her soft thighs. Instinct kicked in and he reached for those thighs, pulling her closer. Hillary met his urgency with her own, hands weaving through his wet hair as she wound her legs around his waist. He hissed when his erection pressed into her soft folds. She rolled her hips against him and pleasure rippled up her spine. It was sublime. It was hopeless. He couldn’t stop himself even if he wanted to now. He reached for her ass and flexed into her body, kneading her flesh, finding a slow, primal rhythm that had Hillary whimpering, devouring his mouth, sucking the air from his lungs and pushing back life. 

“Oh, God!” she gasped, tearing her mouth away when the need for air become too much. She threw her head back and he latched onto the sensitive skin of her neck. He licked and kissed his way down her throat and she ground against him. She was swollen with desire, burning to release the tension building at her core. 

He kept her anchored to him with an arm wound tightly around her waist. His other hand plumped the soft roundness of her breasts. Hillary sighed. She loved having her breasts caressed. A pinch to her nipple through her bra sent a hot rush of pleasure straight to her clitoris where his hard penis rubbed against her through their underwear.

He wanted to be inside her, wanted to taste her, devour her, seep into her skin. He wanted all this at once. It was too much and not enough. He pulled her bra aside and groaned at the sight of her dusky, pert nipple. Anand latched onto her, suckling the distended nub until he felt a gentle shudder begin in her thighs. It travelled though her hips and up her back until her entire body was trembling against him. 

“Anand!” Hillary’s breath hitched as the pressure at her core peaked. She squeezed her eyes shut and it rushed through her with an intensity she wasn’t sure she’d ever experienced before. She wrapped herself around Anand tighter. He looked up just in time to see wave after wave of pleasure wash over her face. She was coming in his arms and he’d never seen anything more beautiful. He folded his arms around her and kissed her tenderly as she rode out her orgasm. 

Hillary dropped her head onto his shoulder, limp, sated. She clung to him and they drifted, buoyed by the water and the early morning song of the waterfall. When he felt her body stiffen against his, he knew what was coming. 

“I’m sorry,” she whispered against his neck. She pushed away from him, her eyes welling up as a blistering flush of shame washed over her. 

Anand reached for her. “Hillary —“  

“I’m sorry.” She backed out of his reach. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“I’m not,” Anand said softly.

“I shouldn’t have done that.” She was panicking. “I’m sorry. I’ve never done that before. I shouldn’t have done that.” She covered her face with her hands to hide her guilt as tears began streaming down her face. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault,” he said. “It’s mine. It was me.”

“No. You didn’t make me —“ She couldn’t finish the thought. Distress and confusion took hold. “Why? Why did I do this?” 

Anand gently grabbed her wrist and pulled her toward him. “We didn’t do anything wrong,” he soothed. “This isn’t wrong.”

Hillary shook her head in disbelief. “What do you mean?”

“This is beautiful. It’s good.”

“How could this possibly be good,” she sobbed. This was anything but good. She’d crossed her own line.

“Because I’m in love with you.” There. He’d said it. He hadn’t intended to. He hadn’t intended for anything that had happened between them but he’d been powerless to stop it once it began. Just like he couldn’t stop now. “I’m in love with you, and I think,” he drew in a shaky breath. “I hope you’re in love with me, too.”

Hillary froze. “I can’t be in love with you.” She shook her head, refusing to believe it.

This was wrong. What she’d done was wrong. Hillary’s heart was racing. “I’m married. I love my husband.” She did love Bill. “Oh my god, Bill!” she cried.

“You didn’t betray him, Hillary,” Anand murmured. “I pursued you. I brought you here. I seduced you.” 

Hillary stared at him, knew what he was doing. He was taking the blame for want they’d done, the weight of her shame. He was giving her an out. 

“We kissed. That’s all,” he said. “It happens when two people…” he trailed off. “It doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

She couldn’t breathe. It was too much. He was too close. She was hurting Anand and it was the last thing she wanted. She had betrayed Bill, his faith in her, their marriage. In that moment she didn’t know which was worse. 

“I have to go.” 

She shoved him away, swam to the bank and climbed out of the pool. Anand followed, helpless as she struggled into her shirt and shoes. She was sobbing now, moving toward the path before he could catch up. 

“Hillary, wait!” he called after her.

Hillary stopped, turned to look at him one last time. 

“Goodbye, Anand.” 

She disappeared through the ferns, ripping out his heart and taking it with her.

 

Chapter Text

DC, Summer 1997.

 

“… they're undercutting our agenda, everything we’re trying to do,” Bill mumbled around his toothbrush. “We’ve got some smart kids and they’re working their asses off but they miss things. And they’re fucking us on the Hill!” He spat into the sink. “I thought that our people would have our backs, that the party would back us up, but they can’t even stand up to D’Amato and his clowns. I’ve bent over backwards to accommodate…” 

Bill glanced up at her reflection in the mirror. It was after midnight. Hillary was in the bathtub behind him, an open book face down on the rim. She was staring out of the window, a million miles away.

She had walked into a shit storm upon her return from Africa. The Jones woman was pursuing a civil case against Bill, determined to humiliate him in front of the whole country and the world. This was not what she imagined when she sat down for that 60 Minutes interview years before to pull Bill from a fire of his own making. She had not expected the years of venom and malicious determination for her evisceration that ensued. 

The night the Jones news broke, Hillary waited until they’d both settled into bed to reprise a conversation she thought she’d never again have to have.

“Is it true?” she'd asked him quietly as she lay beside him, studying his profile in the dark.

“No,” Bill sighed. He didn’t blame her. He’d put her through this too many times to expect her not to be suspicious. 

Her stomach knotted up and she took a deep breath. “I want the truth, Bill. Because if you lie to me again — ”

“Hill, I swear to you,” he interrupted, reaching for her hand in the dark and lacing his fingers through hers, “I didn’t do what she said I did. I really didn’t.”

She believed him. She had no choice. He was her husband and for better or worse, they were in it together. They always had been. 

The next morning Bill had woken her before dawn with wet, feather soft kisses to the back of her neck. 

“I love you,” he’d murmured softly against her lips. 

Hillary looked deep into his crystal blue eyes. He was worried. She could see it. She could feel it. He’d kept a lot from her throughout their marriage but he’d never been able to hide his fear from her. 

Her heart ached for him, this brilliant man who had never believed that he was good enough. This man who as a child had endured such cruelty but had survived and given her a lifetime of love and joy and pain. This man who, when in company, joked that he’d married far above him, but whom she knew believed it. He’d placed her on a pedestal from the beginning, extolling her perfection to whoever would listen. Hillary, his paragon; his smart, witty, feisty, independent, perfect wife. No woman could hold a candle to his Hillary. What smitten young woman wouldn’t relish that kind of adoration? But over time she’d come to resent him for it. He’d laid her garlanded virtues at her feet then resented her when he felt he didn’t or couldn’t measure up. Her irreproachability become his motive and justification for punishing her with women who were more like him, and nothing like her. Women who were enthralled by his stature and prestige and would indulge him when his ego needed stroking.

She’d wanted to tell him about Anand, that she had done what for years she dreaded he would do to her. That she’d been disloyal and allowed someone into her heart when her heart belonged to him. She’d rehearsed her confession in her mind over and over again on her way home to him, trying to find the right words. Words that would soften the blow, convince him finally that she was as human and fallible as he was, that she hadn’t meant for any of it to get as far as it had. Every scenario ended the same way, not with Bill’s rage and condemnation - she deserved those - but with his utter devastation at having her, the one person he thought he could trust and rely on, wound him more deeply than anyone ever had. And then there was Chelsea. What would her daughter think if she ever found out? Hillary would do anything in her power to protect Chelsea, no matter the cost. No, the guilt was her’s alone and she would bear it. She had no right to hurt them just to make herself feel better. She would purge Anand from her mind and recommit herself to her husband and her daughter. She didn’t tell Bill. She was a coward. 

“I love you too, Bill,” she’d smiled. Hillary pulled him to her and kissed him softly. She open her heart to him, gave him her body and made love to him, providing him the sanctuary and tenderness she knew he so desperately craved. He needed her. Now more than ever. She loved him. They were in it together. They always had been. 

It wasn’t working. 

She couldn’t stop thinking about him. She could smell him, taste him. Memories of Anand’s warm skin, his soft lips caressing her, haunted her dreams. A dull, aching void had ruptured in her chest, and the more she tried to ignore it, the deeper it seemed to burrow.

The guilt was eating her alive. She was having trouble keeping anything down. A few nights before, Bill had given her a confused look when she cupped her hand over her mouth and ran to the bathroom. She’d told him it was something she’d eaten that day. In truth, she barely had an appetite to speak of. She probed the tender purple bruise on her left knee where she’d hit the tile hard that morning emptying her stomach into the toilet. It was stiff and ached bone deep, but the pain seemed muted, far away, like her knee wasn’t really connected to the rest of her body. 

“Hillary!”

The annoyance in Bill’s voice jolted her from her brooding. “What? What is it?” 

“Did you hear anything I said?” Bill stood at the washbasin, staring at her.

Hillary leaned forward in the tub. The water was tepid and her fingertips had begun to shrivel. Bill limped over to her and sat down. His knee wasn’t fully healed from his surgery but he loathed using his crutches and was trying to get around without them.

“Do you want to tell me what’s going on in that brilliant little head of yours?” He asked, his eyes filled with concern. He reached for the sea sponge floating in the water and found her foot under the bubbles. She watched as he kissed her ankle and ran the sponge up and down her shin. 

He was wearing the silk pajama bottoms she’d bought him for Christmas. Her eyes traced the planes of his chest, down over his rounded belly, then back up to his face. There were bags under his gentle eyes. When had that happened?

“Come on,” he insisted. “Out with it.”

Hillary wriggled her foot from his grasp and stood. “I don’t want to talk, Bill. I don’t want to think.” Soapy water slid down her body and sloshed over the side of the tub. “I want you to fuck me.” 

Bills eyes glazed over and he reached for her hips. He buried his face against her warm body, pressing slow sensual kisses to the skin around her navel. Hillary combed her fingers through his soft wavy hair. He was greying far too quickly for a man his age. 

Her neck arched as his mouth worked its way down to her neat trim of curls where he swiped his hot tongue between her folds. He didn’t linger. She moaned when he licked and nipped his way back up her body to her breasts. Her chest pushed forward to meet his tongue as he lapped and suckled her nipples. Bill rose, continuing a path up her neck, along her jaw and to her mouth. Hillary wound her arms around his neck as he wrapped his arms around her slippery waist. She kissed him back, pouring everything she had into the languid swirl of lips and tongues. He pulled her up onto the rim of the tub and took her weight as he guided her legs around his waist. 

Hillary broke the kiss, “Bill, your knee.” 

“My knee is fine.” He fused his mouth to her’s and limped toward the door. She was losing weight, he’d noticed. Nothing to be concerned about, yet.

By the time he dropped her in the middle of their bed his knee was the furthest thing from her mind. Her body ached for him. Hillary whimpered, as he once again kissed his way down her body. He grabbed a pillow, tossed it to the floor and sank down at the side of the bed. She was reminded of how strong and persuasive his hands could be when he gripped her hips and pulled her toward him. She draped her legs over his shoulders and lifting her head, caught Bill’s gaze softening as he spread her, took her in and pressed a soft, open-mouthed kiss to her vulva. Each kiss that followed was a dagger to her heart. She wasn’t worthy of his tenderness. She reached for him, grabbed a fist full of his hair and pulled him to her roughly. She wanted to feel his teeth. 

Bill grunted but quickly caught on. Hillary was passionate and energetic in bed, demanding even, the most sensual and playful lover he’d ever known. But it wasn’t often that she wanted rough sex. When she acquiesced, Bill knew it was more for his pleasure than her own. As with all things, she met him halfway. He adored her for it. He sucked her clit into his mouth hard and Hillary hissed above him. Tonight she seemed to want rough and hard, and he would give her what she needed. 

She whimpered and ground herself into his mouth as he nipped her folds. The ridge of his teeth pressed hard into her delicate flesh. The mixture of pain and pleasure was doing exactly what she hoped it would. She could focus on nothing but Bill and what he was doing to her. Soon, she was writhing beneath him, crying out every time he surprised her with stinging bites to her lips, thighs and mons. But the torment she was trying to quash hung just out of reach and the harder she reached, the further it slipped away.   

“Bill,” she panted. “I need you.”

He paused, looked up at her. Hillary sat up, gripped the back of his neck and pulled him toward her. Bill struggled to his feet and she shoved his pants to his knees. She wrapped her small hand around his erection and pumped him a couples of times, then dug her heels into the edge of the mattress and offered herself to him. Bill groaned. He pressed into her but she was dry, the moisture he’d coated her with not nearly enough. He tried to slow things down but she was having none of it. Hillary locked her legs around his waist and pulled him into her. Pain seared across her synapses as he stretched her. She deserved it. She wanted more.

“Deeper!” she gasped, rolling her hips into his, trying to set a rhythm. The angle was awkward. The bed was too low and she could tell Bill was having trouble with his knee. Impatient, she pressed her foot to his chest and pushed him away. She crawled onto her hands and knees and backed up until her ass was pressed firmly against his groin. 

“Oh fuck,” Bill gulped. He fanned his fingers out over her cheeks and squeezed. He loved her ass, the roundness of her, her flawless skin. 

“Less talking, more fucking,” she urged.  

Her jaw clenched and she bit down on the pain that tore through her when he surged into her again. Her walls clamped down on him and Bill set a punishing pace, pounding into her. The sound of skin slapping against skin filled the room. Hillary meet him thrust for painful thrust. Her gasps began to mingle with sobs and she felt Bill falter. 

“You alright, baby?” He asked, concerned.

She didn’t want his concern. She slammed her hips back into him. “Harder,” she pleaded. “Harder!”

Bill redoubled his efforts, sure that he had never, in all their years together been as forceful with her. It bordered on brutal, a little violent even, but Hillary seemed insatiable, desperate. She had him careening toward release and he couldn’t pull back if he wanted to. 

She would be sore tomorrow. She would be sore for days. She wanted that. She wanted the burning reminder of her husband’s cock deep inside her, not the aching need that Anand had awakened. What she didn’t want was the orgasm building at her core. She didn’t deserve it. She was getting tired, could barely handle Bill’s weight when he leaned in over her and cupped her sex.

“Come with me, baby,” Bill rasped in her ear, circling her clit. 

She was too worn out to resist. He flicked her clit once, twice and by the third flick her body was convulsing, her vision darkening and blurred around the edges. Hillary let out a pained, guttural cry that seemed to rip up from the depths of her soul. Her limbs gave out and she slumped forward onto the bed, numb, tears stinging her eyes, her throat and sex burning raw. Bill gathered her to him. She trembled in his arms. 

“Well that was unexpected,” he panted into her hair. “You ok?”

She wanted to cry. Wanted to tell him everything, lay bare her soul and beg for forgiveness. She couldn’t. She leaned up instead and kissed him more tenderly than she ever had. “I love you, Bill,” she whispered against his lips.

Bill smiled when they parted. “I love you too, darlin’.” He pulled the comforter around them and Hillary settled her head on his chest. Bill listened to her breathing even out as she drifted to sleep. The guilt was eating him alive. 

Something had shifted that desolate night in June. A spark, an excitement, that had been beaten into submission by the strain they contended with, re-animated. She woke to a more attentive Bill, a more protective Bill. A Bill whose eyes would hunt for her in crowded rooms and furtively undress her in the middle of conversations with aides, cabinet members, heads of state. For the first time in years Hillary felt they were growing closer, more connected. They laughed, sparred and shared private jokes. She grew more flirtatious, more brazen in her seductions. His hands grew more tender, more reverential when he touched her. She wanted him with an intensity she hadn’t felt since before Chelsea was born. 

They made love in the shower, on the floor in front of the fireplace in the Library, in the Treaty Room, against the wall beside a portrait of George Washington in the East Room after guests attending the state dinner had left. They fucked in the Executive Bathroom, on the conference table in her office suite, in the linen room, the Red Room, the screening room, the Solarium, and to both their and Chelsea’s great horror late one night, on the kitchen island where she sometimes ate breakfast.  

On one particularly memorable afternoon, Bill summoned her to the Oval. He was in the middle of meeting with a group of ambassadors posted to African countries and as Hillary made her way through the Wing West, her excitement grew at the thought that Bill wanted her input on US programs that could help address the growing health, poverty and education issues of Africa’s developing nations. She was just outside Betty Currie’s office when she collided with a raven-haired young woman with a big hazel eyes. 

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Hillary laughed, recovering her balance. 

The girl was flustered. “No, it’s my fault. I should pay more attention to what I’m doing.”

Hillary smiled. She knew this girl. She was one of the interns short-listed for the Social Office.  Melissa, Marcia, Monica… That was it: Monica. Hillary’s eyes dropped to her skirt. It was shorter than was appropriate for the office. She smiled, amused. Chelsea had taken to wearing rather short skirts of late as well. A ‘new fashion trend’ and ‘very chic’, her daughter had argued the morning of the inauguration when it was too late to send her back up to her room to change. 

“Well, sorry again, Mrs Clinton,” Monica said demurely and gave Hillary a toothy smile. “Have a good day.”

“You too, Monica,” Hillary smiled. She’d be good with people. She was friendly and congenial, and seemed quite intelligent too. “I’m looking forward to having you join us in the East Wing,” Hillary added and watched her saunter away down the hall. There was something about that girl, something in the way she smiled at her before she turned the corner.  

Hillary stepped into the Oval ready to tackle any question the ambassadors threw at her. Bill’s eyes lit up as soon as she walked into the room. 

“Gentlemen,” he said, standing when she was barely halfway across the room. “Thank you all for your time.” 

Hillary’s heart sank when he pushed the emissaries toward the door, eager for them to leave as quickly as possible. She had really wanted to talk with them, contribute her ideas, learn from theirs. But she could tell Bill was agitated and distracted.

“What was that about?” She asked once the door closed, annoyed and more than a little mystified. “I thought you called me down here because you wanted me to talk about Vital Voices.”  

When he turned around his eyes were smoldering. He strode toward her, grabbed the back of her head and pulled her into a deep, all-consuming kiss. She emerged breathless and dizzy. He was anxious, impatient even.

“What’s going on?” She asked as he pulled her with him behind his desk. 

He dropped into his chair and immediately slid his hands up under her skirt. He looked up and smiled at her for the first time since she’d entered the room. Hillary felt herself getting wet when he bit his bottom lip and pulled her panties down her thighs. Her eyes darted to the windows behind him. It was a sunny afternoon and there were agents all over the grounds outside the office. 

“Bill, we can’t do this here,” she giggled. 

Bill shoved the contents of his desk out of the way and hoisted her onto it. He opened a drawer and dropped her damp panties into it. “Mine,” he announced and shut the drawer with a definitive thud.

“Bill, we really shouldn’t,” Hillary tried to sound stern but couldn’t keep the excitement out of her voice.

“We’ve done it before,” he drawled in a sing-song voice and licked his lips. 

“Anybody could walk in,” Hillary protested as he propped her knees on his shoulders and pushed her skirt up to her waist.

“I’m the President, I can do anything I want,” he said, adjusting her on the edge of the desk so that he could lean in comfortably. “And right now, I’m going to eat my wife's pussy until she screams.”  

“Oh, God!” Hillary yelped when he ran his hot, wet tongue up her slit. She leaned back on the desk and thrust her hips toward his greedy mouth. Movement outside one of the windows drew her attention and her eyes locked with one of Bill’s Secret Service agents. The man turned bright red. Hillary smirked. 

…Go on… She thought, a challenge in her eyes… Go tell the others what we’re doing. Go give them something new to chew on for a while…

The agent quickly averted his gaze and disappeared. Bill pushed two fingers into her, latched onto her clit and began to suck. Hillary moaned as her eyes squeezed close. 

Perhaps it was their shared bereavement about Chelsea’s impending flight from them. Perhaps it was the mounting viciousness of the ceaseless investigations that were beginning to feel more dangerous with each passing day. Perhaps it was constant hostility of the press. Perhaps it was the feeling that they were being backed further and further into a corner. Perhaps it was her own sense of guilt. But as the summer progressed, one fundamental truth reasserted itself with razor-like acuity in Hillary’s mind. She and Bill were a team, two halves of a whole, each incomplete without the other. They thrived when it was them against the world. Nothing and no one would ever come between them. 

They were in it together. They always had been.

 

 

Chapter Text

Vienna, July 1997 

 

The lights in the ballroom were blinding. Hillary’s voice hitched. His was the last face she expected to pick out of the crowd. She steadied her voice and continued. 

“… There cannot be true democracy unless women's voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives.”

Her back was killing her. She hadn’t sat down since getting off the plane almost twelve hours before. She wanted nothing more than to go back to the hotel and toss the three inch heels currently chewing her feet out of the window. Vital Voices was launched and off to an auspicious start but there was so much work to do. The steady stream of people wanting to talk to her seemed never-ending, but her attention was split. She nodded absently as a woman from South Africa explained how the group she’d formed was employing SEWA’s model of micro financing to improve daily life in their township, but her gaze kept drifting to the bar near the back of the room. 

Crisp, midnight blue silk shirt. His hair was longer, curlier. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the woman perched on the stool next to him. Hillary watched her lean toward him and pluck something from his beard. They giggled like teenagers in a movie theatre. There was something in his gaze, something in the ease of his body language and the protective way his hand rested on her shoulder. Hillary dug her nails into her palms. She felt nauseous, dizzy. The air in the room felt humid and sticky, making it difficult to breathe. Just when she thought she couldn’t endure another moment, his eyes met hers from across the room. He stared at her. Her heart constricted painfully in her chest. 

Anand had tried to avoid this. He had hoped that with time, the throbbing void she’d ripped open in the middle of his chest would begin to heal. It hadn’t. He dreamt about her. Woke in cold sweats with the scent of wild sage and honey tickling his nose. The taste of her mouth lingered in his. His palms tingled with the sensation of her full, warm curves pressed to his skin. He missed the sound of her laugh, the feistiness in her voice, the warmth in her eyes. He’d sat down to write letter after letter to her. Apologizing. Explaining. Accusing. Bargaining. Pleading. There was so much to say but he didn’t know where, or even how, to begin. In the end, he’d set a match to every attempt, watching his words and heart go up in flames. She didn’t want him. She didn’t need him. Yet here he was, a moth to her flame. There was little free will involved. 

It was too late for a graceful escape by the time Hillary realized that his companion was dragging him across the room. He was coming toward her. Her hands began to tremble. She wanted to run. As fast and furiously as her legs would carry her. 

“Hello, Hillary.” The sound of her name rolling off his tongue was like a cool salve on an inflamed wound.

“Hello, Anand,” she replied hoarsely.

“It’s good to see you,” he smiled, but she could tell he was lying. “That was a great speech.”

“Yes, very inspiring,” the woman beside him chimed in, her unfamiliar accent drew Hillary’s attention. She was striking. Tall and lithe with long blonde hair. Perfect teeth. Perfectly bronzed skin. Dazzling blue eyes.

“Hillary, this is my friend Satu Järvi,” Anand said.

The woman held her hand out to Hillary. “It’s an honor, Mrs. Clinton. I’m a little embarrassed but I made Anand bring me over because I wanted to meet you.” 

Satu Järvi was refined, poised, and carried herself with a graceful confidence that piqued Hillary.

Anand watched Hillary’s spine stiffen, her smile and eyes hardened imperceptibly. “Satu is with Women for Women International,” Anand said. “She’s based in Washington DC.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Satu.” She didn’t trust herself to look at Anand. She quickly shook Satu’s hand. Her palm prickled. “Järvi? Is that Norwegian?”

“Finnish actually,” Satu smiled sweetly. 

“And how do you know Anand?” She watched Satu turn to Anand with what could only be described as adoration.

“We were at Cambridge together,” he interrupted in an effort to diffuse the tension he sensed was mounting.

“Ah, college sweethearts,” Hillary smirked. It was snide. She knew it was. She didn’t care. That Anand would introduce her to his old college girlfriend after everything that had happened between them chafed. 

“A long time ago,” Anand said.

“He was a terrible student,” Satu teased. “But he’s turned out to be a pretty decent doctor.” She patted his arm with a familiarity that made the hairs on the back of Hillary’s neck stand up.

She knew the icy sensation crawling across her skin. She’d been subjected to it too many times over the years when women who had bedded her husband sought her out with flattery and feigned admiration. They were always sweet, always decorous, but hidden in their graciousness was something scornful in their eyes, in their voices, in the brazenness with which they shook her hand that let Hillary know their hands had been all over her husband. That they owned a part of him despite her, in spite of her, and that they would take as much as they wanted. With every woman, every encounter, Hillary quickly learned that beneath the pretext of affability lay the cruel miasma of malice and disdain. It was an intuition that had developed over time. She could smell it a mile away. Anand was sleeping with this woman. 

The nausea she’d been feeling only moments before turned acidic and bitter in her gut. Her eyes locked on Anand, searching for something, anything to contradict her sickening suspicion. Instead, he drew in a deep, strained breath, eyes darting around the room, unable to meet hers. She tried, and failed miserably, to mask the distress and resentment rising to the surface. Anand’s eyes finally settled on her trembling lower lip. His worst nightmare was unfolding front of him and it was all his fault. He should never have allowed Satu to talk him into coming to the event. He should never have allowed himself to get dragged across the room. Not without having a chance to talk to Hillary first.

“Hillary,” he began. 

She ignored him, her warm cerulean eyes turning aloof and glacial. “Zainab is doing important work,” she said to Satu. “I’m sure we can accomplish a lot together.” 

“Perhaps you‘d like to visit our offices when you get back to Washington?” Satu asked, oblivious to the tension around her. “If you have time, of course. We’d love to host you.” 

Hillary’s stomach lurched. “Feel free to reach out to Melanne if you need anything. Speaking of Melanne, I need to find her. It was good to meet you, Satu,” she said and shot a withering glare at Anand. 

“Hillary, I was hoping to have a word,” Anand tried again. He couldn’t let her walk away. 

Hillary’s sad smile didn’t reach her eyes. ‘There’s nothing to say’ they seemed to say. “It was good to see you, Dr Varma,” she mumbled instead. 

She blinked back tears and beelined for the closest exit. She needed to pull herself together, couldn’t afford to let anyone see how upset she was. Of more immediate concern was the pungent tartness forcing its way up her throat. She ran down a quiet corridor and was beyond grateful to find a small deserted bathroom. 

When she finally made it into a stall and heaved up the meager contents of her stomach, it was a burning mixture of bile, tears and utter devastation. The suffocating implosion happening in her chest was the last thing Hillary expected to feel. There was no rationale for it and yet she couldn’t seem to get a handle on her tangled emotions and thoughts. The idea of Anand with another woman, something that until meeting Satu she hadn't ever imagined a possibility, was simultaneously surprising and unbearable. A fresh round of retching and tears began; went on for what felt like hours. When she was sure there was nothing left, she pulled herself to her feet and wobbled toward the sinks. She rinsed her mouth and held her wrists under the cold water. Hillary stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her body ached. Her eyes were puffy and red. She felt raw and depleted. 

She had no right to feel this way. What had happened between them in Zimbabwe was a mistake. It would never happen again. She was a married woman. Anand was young, single, available. He could date whomever he chose to and it was none of her business. She had no claim on him. That she was even having these thoughts and considering their predicament a ‘predicament’ at all, evoked a sense of panic. The entire situation was insane. Yet seeing him again, feeling his eyes on her… The desire was agonizing. 

She hadn’t felt a yearning this intense since that long, lonely summer after law school when she was in Washington and Bill was hundreds of miles away in Arkansas. She was head over heels in love with him by then and their separation had left her disoriented. She couldn’t remember loving anyone more deeply than she had loved Bill at the time. She had never wanted or needed another person the way she’d wanted and needed him. In fact, she had convinced herself, as confirmation of how right and how deep their love was, that she could never feel for another human being what she felt for him all those years ago. Yet here she stood, barely able to breath, feeling like her heart had been ripped out by a man she had fallen for without knowing when or exactly how it had happened. 

Her eyes welled up again. She had to pull it together. She couldn’t go on like this. She splashed water on her face. The water was soothing and rinsed her tears down the drain. She heard the door open and close behind her, then the click of the lock. When she looked up, Anand was standing behind her, his gentle gaze rueful and anxious. Hillary stared at his reflection in the mirror as he slowly moved toward her. 

She reached for a hand towel and patted her face. “You can’t be in here.” 

“We need to talk,” he said softly. 

She launched her crumpled towel at the waste basket with more force than needed. “There’s nothing to talk about, Anand.” She pushed by him and headed for the door. Anand grabbed her arm and swung her toward him.

“Five minutes,” he pleaded. “That’s all I ask. Just hear me out.” 

“Let go of me,” Hillary hissed and shrugged him off. 

“Okay,” Anand soothed, hands raised. “Please calm down.” 

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Hillary said, pinning him with a glare. “Why are you here? Why do you show up everywhere I go? Why can’t you just leave me alone?”

“Because I wanted to talk to you and I didn’t know how to reach you. It’s not like I can just pick up the phone, or show up at the White House.”

“So you’ve taken to stalking me,” she said, backing away from him. The room was small and there wasn’t much she could do to put a comfortable distance between them.  

“I am not stalking you,” Anand growled, eyes flashing dangerously. He was towering over her now.

“Ah,” Hillary smirked. “Cornering me in a bathroom in Vienna is merely a coincidence then.” 

Anand gave her a mischievous grin. “Well you’re here and you’re listening. Whatever works, right?” 

“Fuck you!” She tried to push passed him but Anand held her in place. The swiftness with which her rage surfaced surprised even Hillary. “Get your hands off me!” she cried, her hand stinging as it connected with his cheek.    

Anand stumbled back, stunned.

“You’re fucking her, aren’t you?” Hillary spat, her eyes blurry with angry tears. 

She watched him shrink. Watched him cower as her words tore through his insouciant charm and composure. 

“It’s not what you think, Hillary,” he said gently. 

“Oh, of course! It’s not what I think. How stupid of me,” Hillary laughed sarcastically, her tears bursting free. “It’s never what I think. What exactly is it then, Anand?” It felt like the seal kept on decades of grief she had managed to wall away had been ripped wide open and she was in danger of being sucked into a vortex she’d work so hard to detach herself off from. “Please, explain it to me. Because introducing me to the woman you’re sleeping with feels a little bit like you’ve come all this way just to rub my nose in it.” 

Anand was appalled. “No —“ 

“Don’t lie to me,” she warned. “I’ve been lied to more than you can imagine. Don’t be yet another asshole who uses me and then lies to me.”

He’d heard and read the rumors. The whole world had heard and read about Bill Clinton’s numerous affairs while sneering about how guileless, and more vile, complicit, his brilliant, ambitious, power hungry wife was. He hadn’t placed much stock in the stories, but here it was, playing out in front of him. She was neither guileless nor complicit. She was battered and damaged, humiliated and deeply scarred. His heart ached for her. If he was ever going to get Hillary to trust him again then he couldn’t be, as she had said, yet another man who lied to her. 

He took a deep breath. “I’ve known Satu for a long time,” he began. “With the work we do, the lives we lead, all the travel, it’s hard to have normal, stable relationships. I trust her. We’ve… It’s something we fall into from time to time. It’s a comfort to us both.”

Hillary’s face transformed. “Please stop,” her voice was barely a whisper. She turned away from him, taking deep breaths as she leaned on the counter to hold herself up. He’d never seen her so distraught. “And you’re with her now?” she finally asked, shoulders trembling.

Anand’s eyes fell. “It’s not something we plan. And it never goes anywhere. It just happens.”

“Are you in love with her?” she asked. It was sadistic, but she wanted to know, even if she didn’t understand why. 

Anand frowned. “Are you jealous?” 

“Excuse me?” Hillary bristled.

“Why do you care who I sleep with?”

“I don’t care who you sleep with.” She snapped. She felt like the walls were closing in on her. She hadn’t considered that she was jealous until he’d said it. The realization made her nauseous all over again. “Oh my god, I can’t do this with you. I shouldn’t be having this conversation with you.” She ducked around him and darted for the door. 

“I lied,” Anand said. Hillary froze with her hand on the lock. “That night, when I said it didn’t mean anything. I lied.” Anand took a small step toward her. “Being with you… I’ve never felt this way with anyone, Hillary. That means something to me. And I don’t know how to stay away from you.” 

“Of course,” she glared at him. “That’s why you jumped into bed with your old girlfriend the first chance you got. Makes total sense.” 

Anand struggled to stay calm despite the jab. “This is not about Satu and you know it.”

“No, you’re right,” Hillary scoffed. “This is about you thinking I’d be just another notch in your belt.” 

Anand’s temper flared. “That’s what you think happened between was about? That’s what you think of me?”

Hillary wasn’t listening to him. “Is that your game? Traveling the globe, pursuing and seducing women far and wide for your amusement. Taking what you want and then off to your next adventure.”  

“Oh, come off it, Hillary. You ran away!” he shouted, his pain catching Hillary off-guard. “You ran away! This wouldn’t be happening if you didn’t want it. Zimbabwe wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t want it. You wouldn’t be jealous of Satu if you didn’t feel— ”

“Don’t tell me how I feel,” Hillary warned. “You don’t know me.”

He stalked toward her. “Don’t you dare stand there and turn what we shared into something sordid and ugly because you’re too afraid to admit that it wasn’t a casual mishap.”

His words left her dumbstruck. 

Anand reined in his fury. “The way you kissed me. The way you touched me. That wasn’t salacious or dirty or lewd.” He reached for her tentatively, afraid that she might shy away again. When she didn’t, he cupped her face gently in his hands. “My whole life, I’ve waited to feel the way I do when I’m with you. Awake. Alive. Unimaginably happy,” he laughed, unable to suppress his joy at finally being able to tell her what was in his heart. But the joy was mingled with enormous torment. “I love you. I want you. And I don’t know what to do. You’re driving me out of my mind.”  

A small sob escaped her as she looked up at him. Her heart fluttered in her chest. He’d put a name to the thing she been unable to wrap her mind around since she’d met him, the thing she feared acknowledging because she didn’t know where it would lead. Nowhere. Better to pretend it didn’t exist at all. But he’d just bypassed her, giving everything that had been unfolding between them context, giving it life and gravity, bringing it out into the open where it could be seen. It was pointless to keep fighting what was so obvious and irrefutable: She’d fallen love with Anand. It scared the shit out of her, and she didn’t know what to do about it. 

His lips found hers in a tender kiss. She let him. She melted into his arms and welcomed his mouth as he gently reclaimed every inch of hers. She let him. It was divine and sweet and rapidly evolved into something rapturous and dangerously arousing. It was wrong. Hillary tore her mouth away from his. 

“I can’t,” she sobbed.

“Say it,” Anand’s arms tightening around her so that she didn’t slip away again.

She shook her head. She couldn’t give in, couldn’t give him what he wanted.

“Just say it, Hillary,” he implored. 

“I can’t. Let me go, Anand.” She tried to extricate herself from his embrace.

He only held on tighter, his eyes glistening with tears now. “I can feel it. Tell me I’m not losing my mind here.”

Hillary knew that the kindest, the most responsible, thing to do would be to walk out of that bathroom and forget that she’d ever met Anand Varma. She had to let him go, for both their sakes.

“I’m married,” she cried and pushed him away with all her strength.

Anand recoiled. It was like a blow to the gut. His back hit the wall and he crumbled to the floor, head in his hands. Hillary’s heart shattered where she stood.

“I’m married,” she whispered, almost as if to remind herself of the fact. “I have a life. I have responsibilities. I have people who depend on me. I have a daughter, and she’s young and impressionable and I need to protect her. What difference would saying it make.”

“Being honest about how you feel makes all the difference in the world, Hillary,” he murmured. His beautiful, sad eyes bore through her and Hillary found the misery she was feeling mirrored back to her in them. 

“And then what?” She swiped at the fresh tears streaming down her face. “You don’t know what it means to be married. You have no idea what that is. I’m not going to leave my husband for you. I barely know you.” 

“I would never ask you to.”

A chill ran up her spine. She did not like where this was going. Anand saw the pain in her eyes before the words left her mouth.  

“I will not cheat with you,” Hillary said, each word dripping with disdain and the devastation of knowing that particular betrayal. “That is not who I am.” 

“Then what do we do?” Anand jumped up, his frustration palpable.

“I’m too fucking old for you!” she sobbed angrily, another piece of this entire ridiculous mess she had been self-consciously avoiding asserting itself. “I’m too old for you!” 

That stopped Anand cold. He stared at her in disbelief. “That’s the stupidest reason I’ve ever heard to not love someone.”

Hillary leaned back against the sink, exhausted. “You’re young,” she said with a watery smile. “You have your whole life ahead of you. You need someone you trust and can build a life with. Someone who can give you a home and children. Someone who can share everyday with you and make you happy. That’s not me, Anand.” 

“Forgive me,” he snapped. “But you don’t get to write my future and decide want I need, or what’s good for me.”

“She loves you, you know?”

“Who?”

“Satu,” Hillary smiled. It hurt to say it, but it was obvious when she’d met the younger woman. “She’ll make you happy if you let her. Don’t you want that?”

“I want you, Hillary. I love you. And everything that’s happened here to tonight tells me that you love me too.”

“I can’t love you.“ 

“I’ll wait,” he said, eyes filled with a determination she hadn’t seen in him before. “And if and when the time comes that you do want me, you just come to me. I’ll take you on whatever terms you ask.”

Her heart was pounding in her chest. “There won’t be any terms, Anand.”

He caught the back of her head and pulled her into a searing kiss. She let him. 

“I’ll wait,” he said when the kiss ended, then turned and walked out of the bathroom taking part of her heart with him.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 Martha’s Vineyard, August 1998 

 

Years later, Hillary would admit to herself that she had known. She hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it at the time. She couldn’t bring herself to face it, didn’t have the strength nor the courage to. It hurt too much. But deep down she’d known from the moment Bill had woken her on that chilly Wednesday morning in January. There was something the newspapers that day… She had to brace herself… The Lewinsky girl was lying… None of it was true… He loved her… She had wanted to believe him, desperately. 

Her first thought had been for Chelsea and what her daughter would learn about her father. If she couldn’t protect herself, then she had to protect Chelsea. If she had to lie to herself to do it, then so be it. So she stood by Bill, defended him to the world and took on anyone who lobbed mud and insults at him. She staked her credibility and dignity  alongside his honor. They had built a life together. She had made sacrifices she never imagined she’d have to make. To attack him was to attack her. But the doubts lingered, grew with each passing day, and week, and month, that followed. So did the isolation. 

He’d woken her early again that Saturday morning. She stopped breathing even before he opened his mouth… He hadn’t slept with the girl… He had been reckless and stupid… He had been too ashamed and scared to tell her everything in January… They hadn’t had sex… It had been briefHe’d tried to break it off… Deep down she’d known. He had lied to her from the beginning. Exactly which beginning, however, was turning out to be a riptide dragging her under. 

Hillary pressed her fingers into the wall as the scolding water from the shower head sluiced down her back. She clenched her teeth and pushed deeper into the sting. She’d been here before. She’d developed a prodigious threshold for pain. There was always a point at which the agony would morph into numbness, a moment when her mind would disconnect from her body and it would seem like the pain was happening to someone else, faraway. A moment of transcendence. She hadn’t reached her threshold yet. It had been three days since Bill had brought her world crashing down around her. Three days since the man she had devoted her life to had betrayed and humiliated her yet again. She hadn’t slept. She couldn’t eat. She couldn’t seem to stop crying.

One thought spun around her like an insidious, inescapable web. She'd lied. She’d lied to hold on to an illusion. She’d lied because the very thought of losing Bill was devastating beyond anything she could imagine; she‘d lied to keep him. She’d lied to deny the anguish of losing a new love that had blindsided her; she’d lied to him, to keep him away. She’d lied because it was the easy thing to do, not because it was the right thing to do. She’d lied so that she could retain some semblance of sanity and order; to keep putting one foot in front of the other. She’d lied for no other reason than that the truth was too hard to reconcile. In the end, if Bill was a master of lies, then to love him, and to survive his love, she had had to become one too. Where his lies ended and her’s began had spun into an existential maelstrom that was swallowing her whole now. She wanted to hate Bill for turning her into something she detested, but she had allowed him to do it. 

The silk of her camisole felt like sandpaper against her raw skin as she made her way to the Solarium. She’d retreated to the quiet solitude of the sun-drenched room after the dreadful revelations of that Saturday morning. She couldn’t look at Bill, let along be in that same room as him. In the Solarium she didn’t have to deal with the awful pity she saw in the eyes of their staff when they looked at her. It was peaceful and warm, and provided an impression of normalcy. She could function there. She could hide while she tried to sort out what she was going to do. She’d watched his televised admission to the nation alone there the previous night. The staff knew to stay away, not to enter or encroach on the safe space she’d claimed for herself unless she sent for them. She found the room exactly as she’d left it the night before except for the simple vase of white roses set on the coffee table. She knew who it was from without having to look at the card. There had been an identical arrangement on her birthday. 

“The timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness. And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.”

Kahlil Gibran

You are timeless. Happy Birthday… Love, A

Bill had assumed the roses were from her staff. She hadn’t seen any reason to correct him once she’d tucked the note into the hand carved jewelry box she’d brought back from India almost three years before.

In the months after the scandal first broke, she had gotten more referrals to psychiatrists than she felt comfortable with. Her friends and family were kind and polite, going out of their way to avoid mentioning it at all but the inference was clear. She understood. It was an awkward situation and no one wanted to embarrass her. But the withdrawal of those closest to her, the assumption that ‘Hillary can handle anything you throw at her’ as if she was somehow anything but mortal, hurt deeply. She felt utterly alone. A second bouquet had been delivered to her bedroom the morning after Bill had gone on national television to deny the allegations against him.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing 

and rightdoing there is a field.

I'll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass 

the world is too full to talk about.” 

Rumi

When you need me, I’ll meet you there… Love, A

He’d stepped into the emptiness around her, that was opening up inside her. The one person whose support she couldn’t accept. She couldn’t be his friend, yet he soothed her when she most needed comfort and tenderness. And on 28 March, the day she had met him three years before, he reached out again, bridging months of distance to touch and break her heart just a little bit more.   

“The minute I heard my first love story,

I started looking for you, not knowing

how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.

They're in each other all along.” 

Rumi

You’re in my heart and mind, always… Love, A

She couldn’t be his lover, yet she felt his love over oceans and mountains and the continents between them. She hadn’t seen him since Vienna, and didn’t responded to any of his entreaties, but she dreaded the day the messages, his small and unknowing little life lines, would stop coming.

Hillary sat down on the sofa and reached for the new card. Her finger traced the simple ‘H’ he’d inscribed on the envelope. She loved his handwriting, had memorized the long, tidy lines of his script from every message he’d sent. It was all she could have of him. 

“Dance, when you're broken open. Dance, if you've torn the bandage off. 

Dance in the middle of the fighting. Dance in your blood. 

Dance when you're perfectly free.” 

Rumi

If I knew the words to say, I would sing them to you, I would dance with you.

I can’t mend your heart, but know that you are loved… A  

The tears came and came. By the time Chelsea came in to tell her they were ready to leave for Martha’s Vineyard, she was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to crawl under the covers and not come out until Bill’s term was over and they had to leave the White House and Washington for good. 

No sooner had they settled into their borrowed vacation home and Chelsea was out the door with her friends. Hillary couldn’t blame her daughter for wanting to escape the stifling tension that hung heavy between her and Bill. Again, the guilt stung. Chelsea’s childhood hadn’t been anything remotely resembling normal. She’d had to contend with the endless scrutiny her parents were subjected to on a daily basis.  She’d proudly defended her father, lurid accusation after lurid accusation. And now this. 

Something had changed in Chelsea’s eyes the night Bill had told her the truth. Hillary watched her disappointment hardened and take root. But worse than the disgust she’d seen in her daughter’s eyes, was the distrust. For years Hillary had reassured her that there where people and forces out to destroy her father for their own political gain. That much was true. But not entirely the this time. This time the deepest wound had been delivered by the one person Chelsea adored more than any other, her father himself. Hillary’s heart ached for her. It was a dreadful way to learn that your Colossus had feet of clay.

Alone with Bill for the first time in days, she didn’t see the need to hold up pretenses when their daughter wasn’t around. Hillary claimed the master bedroom upstairs, relegating Bill and Buddy to the couch in the den. But she could feel his eyes on her as she moved around the farm house. She didn’t want him there. Once everything was put in it’s place, she grabbed a bottle of Chardonnay and a bag of potato chips and retreated to her room. She pulled on pajama bottoms and a tank top and hopped onto the big fluffy bed. About three quarters of the way through the bottle of wine, she wondered as she was dozing off how it was possible that one person could produce so much tears. She was woken a little after ten that night when Bill knocked on her door and poked his head in.

“Hill,” he called softly to rouse her. 

Hillary sat up, sightly disoriented as she turned on the lamp. She’d been asleep for hours. Bill noticed the faint pink imprint her pillow had left on her cheek. She looked tousled and adorable. She looked grief stricken and devastated. She looked like a woman he’d broken a thousand times over.  

“Chelsea called,” he said, pushing the door open a little wider so he could lean against the door jamb. “She’s staying with Jill and Ken tonight.”  

“Ok,” Hillary nodded. She hated the idea that her child felt safer away from her.

“Hill,” he said so quietly that she almost didn’t hear him. “Can we talk? Please.” 

His eyes were drawn, his nose puffy and red. He’d been crying. He looked like a frightened little boy. Nothing tore at Hillary’s heart worse than when Bill was in pain. From the moment she’d realized she was in love with him all those years ago in New Haven, she’d felt an overwhelming need to protect him, to give him unconditional love and acceptance, to nurture him as he’d never been cared for as a child. She had paid dearly for that privilege. She’d given everything. But now there was nothing left to give. She was tapped out. Empty.

“I’m not ready to talk, Bill,” she croaked, her throat dry and raw. She honestly didn’t know were to begin.

“Ok.” Bill swallowed hard and crept carefully into the room. “You don’t have to say anything then.” He sat down at end of the bed and laid a gentle hand on her foot. “Just listen.”

“Don’t.” Hillary snarled. She pulled away from his touch and glared at him. His touch made her skin crawl. It made her nauseous. She drew her knees to her chest and pushed as far away from him as the headboard would allow her to go. 

Bill’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m sorry, Hill,” he said thickly, “… so, so sorry I hurt you.”

“You’ve said that about hundred times already, Bill. It hasn’t made me feel any better.”

“I know. Nothing can change what I’ve done. To you and to Chelsea. But please believe me. I never wanted to hurt you. I never wanted any of this to —”

“You lied to me,” she interrupted, her eyes boring into him. “After everything…” Hillary choked back a sob. “After everything we’ve been through.” He tucked his hands between his knees, unable to meet her gaze. “I thought we were a team. I believed in us.”

“We are.” A tear rolled down his cheek. “God, I love you. And I need you,” he sobbed.

“Last year, I begged you to tell me the truth and you swore, swore to me that you weren’t lying. And I believed you. I trusted you. I thought those days were behind us.”

“I wasn’t lying,” Bill sniffed as he looked up. “I didn’t do what the Jones woman said I did.”

“Fine,” Hillary snapped. “But all those months, at that very time, you were fucking around with that girl and lying to me everyday.” 

“I tried to break it off, Hill,” he protested. “I tried over and over but she wouldn’t let go. She was so fragile, and I was worried. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to her —”

“For chrissakes, she’s a kid, Bill!” she cried in disgust. “What were you thinking!” She threw the covers off and jumped up. She had to move, she didn’t trust herself not to gouge his eyes out. She paced back and forth in front of him. “She’s barely older than your daughter. Or was that it? That she was young, and pretty, and naive, and too besotted to know what a sonofabitch you are!” She stopped in front of him. “What was she like? With her plump little ass and her big, perky tits. Was she so good at sucking you off that you just couldn’t resist her. Just couldn’t say no to one more mind-bending, blow job. Was her young pussy so tight, so sweet, so delicious, that you just had to stick your dick in her one more time and fuck the rest, fuck everyone else.”

“I never did that!” Bill yelled. “I never had sex with her.”

“Tell me,” she cried, tears streaming down her face. “I wanna know! I want you to tell me what her mouth felt like on your cock. What her pussy tasted like. You loved it, didn’t you?” 

Bill cringed where he sat. “Hillary, please darlin’, don’t do this.”

“Tell me!” she screamed, trembling with rage. “Tell me why I’m not good enough for you? Am I such a shitty lover, have I been such a disappointment as a wife, that you have to climb any pair of legs that will open for you?” 

Hearing Hillary describe his weaknesses, how he had betrayed her more times than he wanted to remember, made him sick to his stomach. But worse than that, seeing the utter devastation on her face ripped him to shreds.

“God, Hillary, no,” Bill stood and reached for her. Hillary recoiled. “Please don’t think that. I love you. Only you. Always you. You’re a wonderful wife and partner, and oh god! You’re the most beautiful and passionate lover I’ve ever known. You’re kind, and generous and loving, and so fucking sexy. You’re more, so much more, than I’ve ever deserved.”

“Then why am I not enough?” she wept. “Why have I never been enough?”

“You are, darlin’! Oh god, you are. I am the luckiest man alive to have you in my life. I know it. I’ve always know it. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am, who I am today, if it weren’t for you. If it weren’t for your love and support.” Bill said. “It’s not you, Hill. You’re not the problem. I am!” 

Hillary squinted at him. “It’s so easy for you to lie, isn't it? How do you do that? How did lie to me day after day after day? How did you sleep next to me, look into my eyes, make love to me like nothing was going on? Was that all a lie too?”

“No!” Bill said. He was getting angry now. “I never lied about that. What we have, what we share, that is not a lie.”

Hillary stared at him. He’d become a stranger to her. “Fuck you, Bill. I don’t believe a word that comes out of your mouth anymore,” she said. She sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for a box of Kleenex. “And I don’t think I ever will ever again.”

That crushed him. No matter what was happening around them, or to them, Hillary had always been the one person he could depend on, the one person who’d always had his back. She was his best friend, his home, his conscience. She’d also been the prime victim and casualty of his selfishness. If he’d succeeded in accomplishing anything at all on his own, then it was that he’d finally become that self-fulfilling prophecy his step-father had forged him into as a boy; the man who destroyed the woman he worshipped and was completely devoted to. Bill sank to his knees in front of her, his entire body shaking as he buried his face in her lap. Hillary was too drained to push him away. 

“Hill,” he wept. “Please. I know I’ve hurt you. I know that nothing I say can undo what I’ve done. And I know I don’t deserve you or your forgiveness. But please. Please…” he implored.

“Please what, Bill?” She didn’t want to fight with him anymore even though her rage still roiled beneath the surface. “What do you want from me?” 

Bill looked up at her, ashamed but hopeful. “Please give me another chance. I want to fix this. I want to be the man you deserve.”  

Her eyes burned as she looked at him. “There’s something really broken between us. Has been for a long time. And I don’t think I can keep pretending it’s not there any more. How did we get here?”

“It’s me, Hillary,” Bill said. “I’m broken. I need help. Let me fix this. Let me try. Just don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.”

Hillary’s brow creased. Life without Bill. The thought had never occurred to her. She was hurt, deeply confused and didn’t know what she was going to do to move forward. She didn’t even know what forward was, or meant, or was supposed to mean. All she knew was that if she didn’t do something, she would suffocate under the crushing weight of their collapsing life.

“I love you with my whole heart, Bill. I always have.”

“I know that, Hill,” he nodded emphatically with a watery smile. “I know that.” He cupped her face in his large, warm hands, hands she’d loved dearly, and smoothed her tears away with his long thumbs. “Tell me what to do,” he said looking deep into her eyes. “Tell me what you need. I’ll do anything you ask. Just tell me what I have to do to keep you in this marriage.” 

“What marriage?” Hillary whispered, her heart in ruin and bleeding beyond repair. “I’m not sure there is a marriage anymore.” 

She felt the tremble as it began in his hands. It travelled up his arms and through his entire body. Bill sank back onto his haunches, horrified. “Don’t say that, Hillary. Don’t say that to me.”

“It’s the truth. I don’t know what else to say to you, Bill.”

“No.” He jumped up and raked his hands through his hair, then rose to his full height. “I don’t accept that. I won’t.”

She’d seen him do this before, this posturing. Where he’d use his height and size to intimidate people into giving him what he wanted. It never worked on her. Hillary rose and stood toe-to-toe with him. 

“I don’t give a fuck whether you accept it, or not,” she said. “You don’t get to make any demands here. We’re in this situation because of you. Do you think I want to be stuck here with you?” 

Bill stepped back. Hillary was a small woman but she could be fierce when provoked. The words came seething out of her before she knew she was going to say them. “Do you think that through all these years, you’re the only one who’s ever been tempted? That you’re the only one who’s ever been frustrated, or felt unappreciated, or felt trapped? Did it ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe, there were men that appreciated and wanted me exactly as I am? That maybe, just maybe, I’ve wanted other men too?”

Bill gaped, stunned. “What are you saying?”

Hillary smirked. She had his attention now. “Your arrogance is astounding, Bill Clinton. Your arrogance is what brought us to this place. Your arrogance will be your undoing.”

Bill moved toward her. “What are you saying, Hillary?” he growled, glaring at her.  

“I’m saying that I always chose you,” she said sadly. “You were my husband and I always put you first. I put you above everything and everyone. Even above my child when I should have left you ages ago to protect her. To save her from what she’s going though now.” It gave her no pleasure to watch her words lance through him, to watch his possessive, masculine pride and indignation wither and crumble. “But not this time. You’ve told your last lie. It’s taken me all this time to realize that you care more about yourself than you’ve ever cared about me. Well it’s over, Bill. I won’t be your fool anymore. I’m done.” 

“Oh, you’re done,” Bill retorted irritably. “What do you mean, ‘You’re done’?”

“I mean I’m done saving you from yourself. I’m going to do what’s right for me this time. I don’t know what that is yet, and I don’t know if it will include you.” 

“No!” Bill shook his head stubbornly, tears dripping from his chin. “I can fix this. We can fix this. Help me fix this.” 

Hillary stared at him - she’d reached her threshold. She got back into bed. “Good night, Bill,” she said. “Shut the door on your way out.” She flicked the lamp off, turned her back to him and pulled the covers around her shoulders.

Bill stood watching her in the dark for a long time. Hillary listened to his breath hitch as he sniffled behind her. Eventually he turned and walked out of the room. She heard something crash downstairs moments later. She didn’t care. Bill could take care of himself. She needed to start taking care of herself. 

As Hillary drifted toward sleep upstairs, Bill carefully picked up the slivers of glass from the bar cart he’d upended. His chest was tight, he was struggling to catch his breath. He wandered around the quiet farmhouse feeling unmoored, and for the first time since he’d met Hillary Rodham, completely abandoned. He knew he had no right to feel that way. If anything, he had abandoned her, over and over and over again throughout their marriage.

At some point he found himself standing in front of an old bookshelf, scanning titles, looking for a way to distract himself. His eyes landed on a book of poetry by an author Hillary loved and had read to him countless times over the years. Reaching for it, he opened to a random page:-

“One day you will ask me which is more important? My life or yours? I will say mine and you will walk away not knowing that you are my life.” 

Kahlil Gibran

Bill’s hands trembled. Fresh tears trickled down his cheeks. He’d gone too far this time. He was losing her. He felt it in the pit of his stomach. He’d seen it when he’d looked into her eyes earlier. She was slipping away from him and he didn’t know how to stop it.

 

 

Chapter Text

London, September 1998

 

Hillary ran her thumb across the velvety petal of a wild orchid and closed her eyes. It was softer than she’d imagined, and she could almost taste the sunshine flowing through its veins. Her nose twitched. The air was thick with pollen but she was determined to linger for as long as she could get away with. 

The press had dogged their every move on their state visits to Russia and Ireland; scrutinizing every look, every gesture, every small insignificant detail between her and Bill, trying to decipher the state of their marriage now that his lies had caught up to him and she had been thoroughly humiliated. The narrative they’d spun so far was so spectacular and sensational that had she been in better spirits, she might have found the absurdity of it all amusing. In reality, the unrelenting attention only intensified the already suffocating strain between them. 

She resented Bill deeply; for betraying her trust, and for the first time ever, for being President and all that came with it. She had never been more aware of her lack of privacy or longed more deeply for the privilege to grieve, or rage, or cry the way most any other woman would need to under the circumstances. While on the Vineyard, she remembered something Jackie Kenndey had once told her: “Being married to powerful men comes at a cost.” HIllary was married to the most powerful man of them all, and she had played a huge role in installing him to that position of power. She was not unaware that her feelings were a tiny bit irrational.

They had reached a precarious détente in their last few days on the Vineyard due more to her fatigue than his absolute refusal to give up on winning her forgiveness. They had little choice but to fulfill their respective responsibilities. But pretending that it was business as usual, and that she wasn’t hemorrhaging inside, was exhausting. Behind closed doors, the air had been sucked out of the space between them where their partnership had once been their fortress and safe haven. They were barely speaking. Moscow had been stressful, lonely and difficult. Ireland even more so.

She’d decided not to return to Washington with Bill the previous day and flew to London instead. There had been great concern about the optics of having the President return to Washington alone. She didn’t give a damn about the optics. She needed some time and space so she could catch her breath, a few days alone to find her footing again. Although she would have preferred somewhere warmer, London was big and busy enough to offer the distraction she craved. She could blend seamlessly into the winding streets and bustle of the city with minimal effort. Nobody would expect to find America’s First Lady riding the Piccadilly Line, or meandering the stacks of old bookstores in Charing Cross, or wandering through the Tate. And if they did manage to spot her, or someone they thought looked an awful lot like her, the English were far too polite to ask any questions.

Bill had of course demanded that a full security detail accompany her to London. She’d sniped that it defeated the entire purpose of having time away. That sparked the tireless feedback loop they seemed to be stuck in. In a moment of sullen insecurity he’d fretted that she was abandoning him, would disappear into the ether, never to return. Hillary retorted that had that been an option, she’d have left him years before and he would never have heard from, or seen, her and Chelsea again. That barb hurt. She’d intended it to. Bill wept. She wondered when she had become so cruel. Bill got angry and domineering. She in turn bristled and hurled a tumbler of scotch at him. Bill begged some more. She cried some more. He said he was sorry, again. She told him to go fuck himself, again. That was what their marriage had devolved into: a belligerent, gut-wrenching, power struggle. 

Eventually a compromise was settled on. Bennet would travel with her but keep his distance - the last thing she needed was a babysitter. And she would take Huma, the young intern Melanne had sent on the trip in her stead. Huma was bright, good company, and seemed to have a sixth sense when it came to anticipating Hillary’s needs. In this instance: no hovering.

She had left her hotel in a long, black trench coat and jeans that morning. After pulling her hair into a ponytail and donning a dark, low brimmed hat, she slipped on a pair of oversized sunglasses and handed Huma a Christmas shopping list for the White House staff. As for Bennet, she hadn’t seen him since she’d ducked into the tube station near the hotel a few hours earlier. She couldn’t however shake that all too familiar sensation of being watched and guessed that he’d probably caught up to her at some point. 

The mid-morning sun filtering through the glass rafters overhead, warming the back of her neck. Covent Garden had changed a lot since she’d fallen in love with city after wandering through the open air vegetable markets, browsing the quaint boutiques, and stopping to watch the Punch & Judy puppet show in the square late in the summer of 1978. She’d always thought that if she ever settled in a country other than the US, the history and charm of London would suit her just fine. Hillary felt her eyes prickle. Her throat tightened. So much had changed since that summer. She was no longer that naive young bride. 

One thing that hadn’t changed was the flower markets. She opened her eyes and smiled. She was surrounded by a sea of flowers, a cornucopia of colours and fragrances from every corner of the globe. A botanical representation of the world under one glass ceiling. There was nothing more beautiful and for a moment she felt the oppressive weight she carried everywhere she went these days lift for a few moments. She wondered what would happen if she sat down right where she was and refused to move ever again. She could just imagine the headlines: “From First Lady to Bag Lady”, “The disassembling of Hillary Clinton”. As it stood, her allergies were beginning to flare up and she’d likely collapse into a coughing fit and choke to death if she didn’t leave soon. These small moments of levity were few and far between of late, but there would be more flowers tomorrow. 

She turned toward the Apple Market but stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes locked on a tall, tawny skinned man across the galleria. His dark hair was tied back, his chin shaved clean, but there was something heart-wrenchingly familiar about his profile. Hillary’s heart thumped in her chest… It couldn’t be him... This man’s shoulders were slumped. He was leaner too. Too lean actually. And he moved with a slight limp. It wasn’t him... she told herself despite the fact that her feet had begun moving of their own volition. Her eyes stayed fixed on him… Was her mind playing tricks on her?… He turned a corner and she lost sight of him. 

“Anand!” she cried. She was running now, shoving her way through shoppers and tourists, and careening around the corner after him. There were people everywhere. Too many people. She frantically searched the faces of passers-by, peered into shop windows. Her stomach knotted up into a tight ball. She’d lost him. How could she have lost him? He’d been right there in front of her. She blinked back tears. Maybe he hadn’t been there after all. Maybe she had imagined the whole thing. Maybe she was beginning to lose her mind… She felt small and fragile and didn’t know which was worse: the hopeless emptiness she felt, or the hot flush of embarrassment that washed over her. Panic rising, she spun around, looking for the closest exit and time stood still. 

Hillary gasped. Anand stood not ten feet away from her. His brilliant green eyes as mesmerizing as the first time she’d seen them. Even in his utter surprise at seeing her, they held same tenderness that filled her with warmth whenever he looked at her. But he was pale. So pale. And his broad frame leaned heavily on a walking cane clutched in his right hand. The chiseled lines of his cheek bones and strong chin were much more pronounced, but it was the long, red scar running from his right ear and along his jaw that made her chest constrict painfully. Hillary launched herself toward him before she could stop herself. She didn’t want to stop. Not until he was in her arms. 

Anand held her tightly. He’d been convinced he was hearing things when he heard what sounded hauntingly like her voice echoing over the din of the market. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But there she was. Hillary. In his arms. And finally... finally, there was relief. After months of longing for her, months of wondering if he would ever hold her again, months of watching from a distance as she was battered and bludgeoned and bled.

“It is you,” she whimpered against his ear. 

Anand squeezed eyes closed and drew in a shuddering breath. “Yip. Just me.”

She pulled back and cupped his face in her small, warm hands. His skin was clammy. She was close enough now to see smaller lacerations and burns around his right temple and forehead. “You’re hurt,” she whispered, gingerly tracing the angry scar on his jaw. This had been her worst nightmare since the day she’d met him. “What happened?”

Anand caressed her face as if to convince himself that she was real.“It doesn’t matter,” he smiled. “I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” Hillary shot back, her brow furrowing as she noticed more burns and cuts running down the side of his neck. 

He chuckled. She was adorably flushed. Her porcelain skin was scrubbed clean of makeup, and her bright cerulean eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. Her nose was leaking and sprinkled with tiny, new freckles that hadn’t been there before. She smelled like wild sage and warm honey. She took his breath away. “How are you here?” he asked in disbelief.

Her heart was racing, endorphins pulsing through her veins as she wondered the very same thing. Her stomach exploded into a flurry of butterflies. It felt like something out of a dream, a dream she dreaded waking from. She reached for him again but Anand flinched. 

“Hillary, stop,” he said, gently pushing her away. It was hard to miss the pain and confusion in her eyes in what must have felt like an imminent rejection. “We shouldn’t do this here,” he quickly explained, glancing around. “Where are your agents?” he asked, peaking over her shoulder. 

Reality reasserted itself and Hillary instantly regained her composure. She took a small step away from him. He was right. They were standing in the middle of a shopping mall surrounded by hundreds of people. She’d be lying if she said a big part of her didn’t care, but prudence prevailed. Her life had been upended. The last thing she needed was to complicate things further by landing them on the front page of every tabloid to kingdom come. “Don’t know,” Hillary smirked. “I ditched Bennet near Kensington a few hours ago. He’s really hard to shake though. I suspect he’s lurking around here somewhere.” 

Anand grinned. “And you’re sneaking around dressed like Inspector Clouseau.” 

Hillary cocked a brow. “First, I’m a big fan of Inspector Clouseau,” she replied playfully. “And second… I don’t sneak.” 

Anand laughed. This woman would be the death of him. “I didn’t know you’d be in London,” he said, their banter instantly shifted into a something more sober. Hillary’s gaze dropped to where he was clutching the walking stick. She was blindsided by guilt. She hadn’t responded to any of his messages in more than a year. What would have happened if she had?

“I’m sorry, Anand,” she whispered and rested her hand lightly over this heart. “I couldn’t…”

“I know,” he answered, pressing his hand over hers. “I didn’t mean to make you feel—” 

“No!” she interrupted. “I should have… I didn’t… I could have—“ she rambled, tears spilling down her cheeks. She didn’t know what she should have done. “I didn’t want to hurt you. My life is so complicated, it’s just so complicated and I knew something was wrong. I knew something was off but I was too scared to—“

“Hillary, baby, slow down—“ 

“I was so afraid of you, of hurting anyone, of everything falling apart. And now it has and I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what comes next. It’s a mess, I’m a mess— and I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. You were in trouble— I didn’t know. Tell me what happened—” She ran out of breath. 

Anand pulled her into his arms. “Shh,” he soothed. “It’s ok. Breathe. I’m alright. Everything’s going to be ok, baby. Just breathe.”

She buried her face in his neck, breathed him in, felt his warm masculine scent wrap around and calm her. “I never meant to hurt you.” 

“I know,” Anand said, pressing kisses to the side of her face. “Come with me.” He laced his fingers through hers.

“Where are we going?”

“My flat,” Anand smiled. 

Bennet watched from the small bench he had settled on as the younger man threw his arm protectively around Hillary’s shoulders and lead her toward the closest exit. He’d cursed quietly under his breath when he first recognized the Indian doctor, as surprised to see him as Hillary had been. He was relieved they were leaving. People were beginning to stare and he was loathe to interrupt what was clearly a very private moment for the First Lady.

He followed them at a discreet distance, careful not to catch Hillary’s attention as she glanced over her shoulder from time to time. She was nervous, he could tell. Innocent people often looked and behaved more suspiciously than guilty people did. This was new territory for her. As for the doctor, he wasn’t so sure. The man was infatuated with her, that much had been obvious from the start. Bennet would be lying if he said he didn’t have his suspicions about him. He’d seen situations like this unfold before and someone always ended up getting hurt. He hoped, for the young doctor’s sake, that Hillary’s trust was not misplaced and that he understood what he was getting into. When it came to it, it was his job to protect Hillary and that’s exactly what he would do. 

They stopped in front of a modest apartment building a few blocks from the market. The doctor unlocked the door and ushered her inside. Bennet knew that his job was about to get much more complicated.

Chapter Text

London, September 1998.

 

Hillary lingered just inside the front door of the flat. The airy space was clean and very modern with soft light streaming in through large windows that overlooked a small park below. It was tastefully decorated in white, greys and blues, and she quickly recognized Anand in the bold bursts of colourful and exotic art pieces, the rusty, antique Dixon propped against the wall and the collection of old cameras scattered about. It had been decades since she’d been alone with a man in his home. This wasn’t just any man.

“Are you going to stand there forever,” Anand called from the kitchen that opened off to the left, “or would you like to sit?” He pulled two mugs from a cabinet and gestured toward the living room. 

Hillary took off her coat and hat and hung them beside the door where he’d abandoned his jacket along with his walking cane. She was too anxious to sit and busied herself instead by perusing his photographs on the walls, stealing glances of him as he hobbled around the kitchen. He seemed to have an appreciation for Capa and Man Ray, and she picked out one or two Borges and McCurry prints. He loved photography. How had she not known this about him? It occurred to her then how little she did know about him. 

“Honey or lemon?” he asked, setting the steaming mugs down on the coffee table in front of a low, slate blue, platform sofa. He appeared to be as apprehensive as she was now that they were alone. 

“I prefer tea in my milk,” she smiled. 

Anand nodded and she watched him limp over to the fridge. Her breath had caught when he’d taken off his jacket at the door. The injuries that started on the right side of his face continued all the way down his arm and she’d just barely made out what looked like the outline of a bandage under his t-shirt. 

“What happened, Anand?” 

“Car bomb just outside of Freetown,” he answered and popped some milk into the microwave.

A chill ran up Hillary’s spine. “You were in Sierra Leone? I thought there was a ceasefire in place.”

“The fighting won’t stop as long as there are blood diamonds flowing out of the country. It’s hard to tell who the good guys are any more. Ceasefire or no ceasefire, people keep dying.”

Hillary settled on the sofa. She’d read the briefings on Sierra Leone. The civil war had been raging to some degree since before Bill took office. Villages and towns had been burned to the ground. Men were murdered trying to protect their families. Women and girls were raped daily and sold as sex slaves. Boys were abducted and turned into child soldiers. And small children were maimed and mutilated, forced into the smallest crawl spaces in some of the most dangerous diamond mines in the world to dig. The Pentagon had advised Bill not to get involved. The official line was that the US stood to gain nothing by doing so. Hillary disagreed, but her opinion on the matter held little weight.   

The sofa dipped next to her as Anand sat a tea pot on the coffee table and leaned over to stir milk into her tea. She could feel the warmth rising from his skin as her eyes trailed over the lacerations and burns that inched up his arm in an abstract keloid lattice and disappeared under the sleeve of his t-shirt. She feathered her fingers over the scars.

“Shrapnel.” Anand said, watching her curious fingers. “Rebel factions had been harassing aid workers around the country for weeks, trying to intimidate us into leaving. In June, a Belgian therapist who worked with some girls in a nearby village was found murdered in her flat. Then it was a priest from Ghana. A week before the attack a couple of volunteers from Spain washed up on a beach. They were trying to make a point I suppose. They parked the car across the street from the clinic. No one thought anything of it.” There was a haunted, faraway look in his eyes. “We lost thirteen patients in the blast, six of them were children. Two of our nurses and a doctor died instantly. I’d worked with them before. In Rwanda and Chechnya. They were good physicians. Good friends. I woke up in a hospital in Berlin a week later.”

Anand swallowed the lump in his throat. Hillary laced her fingers through his and squeezed his hand. She knew what it felt like to lose friends. There was little that anyone could say or do to ease the grief.

“And your injuries?” she asked quietly. 

“Well the shrapnel tore up my hide,” he sniffed, his characteristic grin in place. “I was lucky. It looks worse than it is. Most of the wounds were superficial. The scars will fade. Pity,” he pouted. “I think they make me look like a badass. Women love that.”

Hillary snickered. Only he could switch gears so effortlessly. She glanced down at his leg. “Well that doesn’t look superficial or badass to me,” she smiled. 

“What!” Anand frowned. He lifted his leg and made a show if flexing his knee. “I knew I should have gone for the peg leg.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Pirates are the ultimate badasses of badassery.”

Hillary stifled her amusement. “What happened?” she pressed. He was trying to change the subject and she wasn’t going to encourage him.

“It was traction when I woke up,” he shrugged. “I’d broken it halfway down my thigh and they’d already put the pins in my knee. Which is a pity because I really could have gone for that peg leg.” 

Hillary playfully swatted his leg. 

“Ow!” He yelped. “I didn’t feel much when I woke up, but I’m not so sure now that you’re around.” She let out a boisterous guffaw and Anand was reminded of how much he loved hearing her laugh. “I’m stuck with the cane while I rebuild the strength in my muscles but my doctor is confident of my full recovery.”

Hillary returned his grin over the rim of her cup as she sipped her tea. She hadn’t laughed, truly laughed, in what felt like forever. Running into Anand had been the very last thing she expected to happen that day, but for some unfathomable reason it seemed to be how gravity worked between them. She had missed him. Missed his mischievous smile, the warmth in his eyes, the gentlenesses in his voice. But mostly, she had missed who she was and how he made her feel when she was with him. 

He wasn’t lying about his injuries but she knew he was hiding from her. She set her cup on the table and tentatively reached for the hem of his shirt. Anand grabbed her wrist. “Hillary, don’t,” he warned.

“Jesus!” she gasped. An angry, purple bruise wrapped around his abdomen from his flank to his sternum. He was crisscrossed with Kinesio tape, and there was a six-inch-long sutured incision just below his ribs.

“Four broken ribs and a perforated lung. There was some minor internal bleeding and bruising. Nothing too serious,” he smiled weakly. 

“You could have died,” she said, blinking back tears.   

“But I didn’t. I woke up. I don’t understand why, but I did.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“They had families, Hillary. Children. Parents. People who needed and depended on them. No one was waiting for me. No one who would miss me.”

“That’s not true,” Hillary said and rested her hand gently on his injured ribs. His skin was swollen and hot against her palm. She would give anything to heal him if she had the power to. The very notion of a world without him terrified her. “I’m glad it wasn’t you,” she whispered, caressing his skin. “I would miss you.”  

Anand tried to mask the longing in his gaze. “How long will you be in London?”

“I’m sorry,” Hillary stammered, heat rising in her cheeks when she caught the desire in his eyes. He pulled his shirt down and scooted away from her on the sofa. “I didn’t mean to…” She trailed off, painfully unsure of herself, so completely unlike the radiant, confident woman he had fallen in love with. He wanted to pull her into his arms and comfort her but too much had happened to simply ignore. 

“It’s alright,” he said, keeping his eyes averted. 

“I mean it.” She gave him a timid, watery smile. “I am grateful you’re alright. I really am.”

“Thank you,” he nodded, her words filling him with something he hadn’t felt since waking up broken and alone in Berlin: hope.

Hillary shook her head. “No. Thank you.”

Anand looked confused for a moment. 

“For this,” she said thickly. “For the flowers. For being there even though I’ve done nothing but push you away. It meant more to me than you’ll ever know.”

“I wasn’t sure you were getting them.” He sipped his tea. “Or that they were welcome.”

Hillary fidgeted with her mug on the coffee table. “I didn’t respond because—”

“Because you love your husband,” he said with a sad smile.

And there it was. That indisputable fact.

She did love Bill. She loved him beyond reason, beyond pride, beyond every instinct for self-preservation. That love had her in a chokehold. And for the first time in her life, Hillary felt she was on the verge of being snuffed out by it. The sudden pressure in her chest made it hard to breath. She stood and moved unsteadily to the window to catch the cool breeze filtering in. 

Anand drew in a deep breath. “I had a lot of time to think when I was in Berlin. You were right. I have no idea what it is to be married for as long as you have. Or to love someone for as long as you’ve loved him.” He shifted in his seat. “It was selfish to think that my feelings were more important. Or that I can compete in any way. I can’t.” 

She looked out across the park below. A light afternoon drizzle was falling. She loved the rain, had always found it rejuvenating. She had come to London to escape. The last thing she had wanted was to delve headlong into how, or why, her life was coming apart at the seams. And with Anand no less. The very man who had stirred feelings and desires in her she had once believed no one but her husband could. To talk about Bill with Anand felt like an unconscionable violation of their marriage. The bitter irony of course was that she’d lost count of all the times Bill had violated said marriage.

Anand studied her intently. He worked with pain. He’d seen it in every shape, color and degree imaginable. He had spent years leaning how to diagnose and treat it. He’d seen the devastation it could wreak. He'd watched people die not from their injuries, but from the pain and physical distress of those injuries. But he’d never seen anything like the distress he saw in Hillary’s eyes, in the way she moved, in the way she struggled to hold herself together and hide it all.  

“I was wrong in Vienna. I had… have no right to demand anything from you. I’m not going to pretend that I know what you’re feeling with everything that’s happening. I don’t think anyone can. But I do care about you, Hillary.”

From the very first infidelity, Bill had been the transgressor and she the victim of his reckless, hurtful behavior. But that wasn’t entirely true any more. It was different this time. Yes, he had broken his vows yet again. And yes, the pain of his latest betrayal ran deeper than it ever had before. But she could no longer claim the moral high ground in their relationship. Not when she had blurred the lines so irrevocably with Anand.

“I want you to know that I value your friendship,” Anand breathed softly beside her. “I want to be your friend. And I want that to be easy for you. For us. No matter what happens.” 

Hillary’s eyes met his, found them full of tenderness despite the pain of his concession.

“I do love Bill,” she said, biting her lower lip to keep it from trembling. A tear trickled down her face.

“I know,” he murmured and Hillary could see how deeply her words cut him. He reached up and stroked her cheek. “I don’t want you to worry about me asking you for anything more. I won’t put you in that situation again. I will do... be... whatever you need me to be. Just tell me what you need?” 

Hillary closed her eyes and allowed the warmth of his skin to seep into hers. She turned her face into his palm and pressed a tender kiss to the inside of his wrist. She needed the pain to stop. Anand’s pain. Chelsea’s pain. Bill’s pain. Her pain.

She pushed up onto her toes and crushed her mouth to his. “You,” she hummed against his lips and wrapped her arms around him. “I need you. ” 

Anand stood dumbfounded as Hillary drew his bottom lip into her warm mouth. She swirled her tongue against his and his resolve slipped. He had longed for this moment. Longed for her to acknowledge that the connection between them wasn’t merely a figment of his imagination. He longed for her touch, her taste, her essence. He drew her closer and she clung to him, enveloping him in the most ardent kiss any woman had ever given him. Anand struggled against the desire she unleashed in him as her mouth and hands grew more frantic, more needy. But as breathtaking as it was, it was filled with heart-rending grief and desperation.

“Mmm… Hillary, wait. We should—” 

His voice reverberated through her as she swallowed the rest of his words. She didn’t want to wait. She didn’t want to think. She was tired of thinking. All she had done was think. Hillary moaned into his mouth, her every sense attuning itself to the intoxicating sweetness of his lips. This is what she wanted: the lightheaded euphoria of drinking him in, the burning heaviness pooling at her core. She wanted Anand. To engulf her, consume her, make her forget everything and everyone. 

Her mouth left his and she pressed hot, wet kisses to his neck as she steered him back toward the couch. Anand’s knees hit the edge of the couch and he caught her as just as she clambered into his lap. Hillary latched onto his mouth again, hungrier and harder than before.

Anand pulled away and gently caught her wrists. “Hillary, you’re not thinking clearly.”

“I’ll be careful,” she panted, wringing her hands free and slapping his out of her way. “I won’t hurt you. I promise.” She clawed at the fabric of his shirt and tried to drag it up his torso.

“I know,” Anand said, trying his best to restrain her. “I don’t want to hurt you either.”

“You won’t hurt me,” Hillary protested, her gaze unfocused and heavy lidded. “I need you.” She grabbed his head and crushed her mouth to his again. “I want you,” she whimpered, grinding her hips against his. “Don’t you want me?”  

Anand swallowed. He buried his hands in her hair and forced her to look at him. “You have no idea how much I want you,” he confessed, eyes boring into hers.

“I just want it to stop.” Hillary began to tremble in his arms. “Please, Anand. Make me forget,” she begged. “Just help me forget.” 

“Hillary, there is nothing I want more than to make love to you. But not like this, baby. Not like this.” he choked, his own tears flowing. “You’re hurting right now, and I don’t want to be another reason why. I couldn’t bare that.”

Hillary collapsed against him. She buried her face in his neck as years of painstakingly controlled doubt, fear, sorrow and rage unraveled into gut-wrenching sobs. It felt as though her life force was bleeding away from her with every tear. Like she was being swept away in an avalanche of raw exhaustion she had been trying to outrun for decades. Every self-deception had finally caught up to her. ‘La petite mort’... In her case: a long overdue implosion. There was nowhere left to hide. 

Anand cradled her in his arms as she wept. Pressing gentle kisses to her forehead, he stroked her hair and rubbed soothing caresses up and down her back. He held her until she ran out of tears and her body went limp and heavy in his lap, until the hiccups subsided and her breathing evened out to the occasional quivering exhalation. 

“I don’t want to go back to Washington,” she finally said. “I can’t take it any more. I’ve had enough.”

Anand tightened his arms around her. “Are you talking about Washington? Or your husband?”

She pulled herself out of his lap and curled up on the sofa facing him. “I’m not sure I can forgive him this time,” she said woefully. “Or that I want to.”

Anand sighed. “I’m not going to pretend that I have any sympathy or respect for him. I don’t. But maybe, in time, he’ll earn your forgiveness.” 

“They’re going to impeach him,” Hillary frowned, nibbling on her thumbnail. “That’s what all these investigations have really been about. They’ve been building toward this from the day we set foot in the White House. Bill just gave them the perfect excuse with his lies,” she spat.

“What does that mean for you?”

“Nothing, legally,” Hillary sighed. “I’ve been the Republican’s piñata for years now. They would have locked me up and thrown away the key years ago if they could. I’m not afraid of them. It’s Bill I’m worried about.” 

“Is there something more?” he asked uncomfortably, not wanting to pry beyond what she was willing to share. “Other than the affair, I mean?”

“I don’t think so.” The flicker of dread in her eyes answered at least part of his suspicion. She wasn’t sure, and part of her was expecting another shoe to drop. Hillary paused for a moment and he could see the gears turning in her brain. 

“As reckless as he’s been, they have no legal grounds on which to impeach him for lying about a personal… indiscretion. That would be a violation of our constitution.” Her eyes welled up again and she softened. “I hate what he’s done, but I keep thinking about Chelsea,” she sniffed. “We invested everything in this presidency, made choices she shouldn’t have had to contend with. But we did it for her. So that she, along with every child in our country, would have every opportunity they deserve to shape the world we brought them into. Bill has his faults, but he’s a wonderful father. He’s a good president. He’s been good for our country. And for the world. For that he deserves to be treated fairly. I still believe in everything we’ve tried to accomplish. I have to stand by him through this. For Chelsea’s sake.” 

She wiped her nose on her sleeve. If there was anything left between them, any commonality at all, then it was their shared desire to serve. It was how they had started their life together. That they might end it that way seemed poignantly apropos. How they had managed to screw everything in-between up so badly seemed beyond her grasp at the moment.   

“What is it?” Anand asked softly, brow furrowed in genuine concern.

“I don’t think I can survive if I stay with him,” Hillary murmured. “At least not as I’ve known myself, not as the woman I want to be.”

Anand took her hand and kissed it. “This will probably sound trite coming   from me given that I’m more than a little bias, but the Hillary you are is a bloody-amazing woman and I’m fucking crazy about her.” 

Hillary’s heart swelled. She scooted closer to him and Anand folded her into his side. Settling her face into his neck, she wrapped her arm around his waist and found his bruised flank again. “Did I hurt you?” she whispered into his chest, tracing feather-light circles into his skin.

Anand shook his head. “No. Although, you did have me worried there for a minute,” he chuckled. “It’s a good thing I’ve got a hole in my hide or who knows what would have happened.” 

“I’m sorry,” she giggled, fragile and shy when she looked up at him. 

You’ll get no complaints out of me,” he grinned. “I rather enjoy kissing you.”

Eyes twinkling and cheeks tinged pink she brushed her lips against his. Anand responded, deepening the kiss as he tenderly caressed her face.  

“What are we doing here, Hillary?” Anand asked when they finally came up for air.

“I don’t know,” she breathed, burrowing further into him. “I’ve never done this before.” Anand combed his fingers through her hair. Silent minutes ticked by. “But I’m going to start by telling Bill the truth.”

“The truth?” 

“That I’m in love with you.”

Anand unwound himself from her embrace and shot a playful smirk at her. “You’re in love with me?” 

“I am,” Hillary nodded, unable to suppress her smile. She cupped his cheek. He was beautiful. It was that simple. She had thought so from the moment she first laid eyes on him but he’d come to mean so much more to her. “And I’m not going to lie about it.”

“Good,” Anand grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling with mischief. “Because I love you, too.”

“I’ve missed you,” she whispered. 

“Me, too,” Anand said. He pulled her back against his chest. They settled comfortably on the sofa.   

“I don’t want to go back to the hotel yet,” Hillary murmured. 

“You can stay for as long as you’d like,” he said, pressing a kiss into her hair. “But I warn you. I can’t be held responsible for what may or may not happen should you attempt to seduce me again. I am a very sick man after all.” 

Hillary laughed and playfully swatted his leg. 

“Asshole!”

 

 

Chapter Text

 Washington, October 1998.

 

It was easy enough not to read the Starr report, or the inundation of daily newspaper disquisitions on it. That didn’t prevent disjointed fragments of information from seeping through the chinks in the armor she’d constructed for herself… Leaves of Grass… He had given the same book to her on their second date. Nor could she un-hear the hushed whispers of staffers gasping over tidbits like: “And he said… I may be alone in three years”, or “I just know he was in love with me.” Context was important she reminded herself. The context of his taped testimony was a little harder to ignore.

The unadulterated duplicity of the entire farce both enraged and tore her to shreds. The GOP’s disdain for Bill had gone far beyond political sport. They were determined to flay him no matter the cost to the integrity of the Institution of the Presidency. It was one of the most abhorrent displays of perversion and savagery masquerading as patriotism she had ever seen. No human being, regardless of their crime, deserved to be debased that way. Her heart bled for her President.

As for Bill, her husband, Hillary was deeply unnerved by what she saw perhaps more clearly than she ever had in all the years she’d known him. She couldn’t pull her eyes away from him as he fenced with the grand jury prosecutors. There was a precision to the way he feigned and parried, twisted the facts, writhing out from beneath their grasp every time they got close to cornering him. It went far beyond his skill as a lawyer. As a professional, it was hard not to appreciate his skill and agility. As his wife, she was horrified, gutted by the realization that it was the same dexterity he had used to work her over with years of excuses and rationalizations, and worst of all, empty apologies. His performance was profoundly heartbreaking bordering on pathological. 

They had fallen into a rhythm once she returned from London. She did her best to stay busy, finding and inventing as many reasons to spend as much time away from the White House as possible. When in public in any official capacity, they smiled and made a point of presenting a united front. At home however, she avoided him, retreating to their bedroom or her private sitting room while he took sanctuary in the West Wing. It wasn’t until she wandered into their private study one sleepless night and found Bill asleep on the sofa that she discovered he’d taken up residence there instead of the guest quarters down the hall. 

Her rage had subsided by then, but her grief was still palpable. He had tacitly given her wide berth to metabolize the fall out from the report and his testimony. While he knew he deserved her anger, he avoided provoking further ruptures to their already fragile armistice. But they were coming up on the eleventh of the month. Hillary would be lying if she said knowing that he’d seen his mistress on their previous anniversary didn’t wound her deeply. She’d arranged to have the dates of her trip to Prague moved up so that she would be out of the country for their anniversary. It would be easier on both of them that way. She knew she had to talk to him before she left. She’d been putting it off because she hadn’t yet found the words for what she needed to say. But the longer she waited, the harder it would be for both of them in the end.

It was almost two thirty in the morning when she heard the door to the study close. He was so tired that he didn’t notice her in the doorway to their bedroom as he set up his makeshift bunk. He kicked off his shoes and stripped down to his undershirt and boxers. 

"Bill."

“Fuck!” Bill blurted, startled to find her leaning against the doorjamb. “You scared the shit out of me sweetheart.” He gave her a gentle if wary smile. 

“Sorry,” Hillary said, her eyes fixed on the dark, puffy circles beneath his. He wasn’t sleeping. At least not comfortably. Her gaze dropped to his trousers and shirt on the floor and she resisted the impulse to gather them up and fold them into a neat pile. 

She shifted uncomfortably where she stood. They hadn’t been alone since the Vineyard. When had the need for space morphed into a seemingly unbreachable chasm? “I’m leaving for Bulgaria in the morning,” she said quietly, slowly edging into the room. “I was hoping we could talk before I go.” 

“Yeah, of course,” he said, eagerness superseding exhaustion. He had been waiting patiently for her to come to him, knew that she would when she was ready. 

She crossed the room and sank down onto the sofa next to him. The warm light from the Tiffany lamp on the end table cast a warm glow across her face. She still had the most beautiful skin of any woman he’d ever known. Peach-soft and flawless. Bill watched as she drew in a shallow breath, her eyes fixed on her hands, tightly clasped in her lap.

“I’m sorry,” she began tremulously.

Bill’s brow furrowed. “For what?”

“I should have given you a divorce when you asked for it. We wouldn’t be in this situation right now if I hadn’t been so stubborn,” she said thickly. “If I hadn’t been so afraid to let you go. I should have. We both might have had a chance to be happy. I’m sorry.” 

Bill felt the blood drain from his face and extremities. Of all the things he had imagined she might say, this was not it.

“I just loved you so much,” Hillary whispered, eyes glistening. “I didn’t know how to walk away.”

He felt sick. The years leading up to the presidency had been the most grueling in their relationship. He had gambled with everything they had spent their lives working for and had come a hair’s breadth from destroying their marriage. He remembered one particularly brutal fight during the Marilyn Jo affair, when in a rage he’d screamed at Hillary: “I never asked you to come to Arkansas. I never asked you for any of this!

Hillary had always been the only person who had ever truly believed in him, never doubting for a moment what he was capable of. Especially when he failed to believe it himself. In his darkest, most destructive spin outs, it was always Hillary who would anchor and pull him back toward equanimity and sanity. She was stronger than he was, smarter than he was, a better person in every way. He worshipped and hated her for it.

He would never forget the look on her face when he’d demanded a divorce. She had sublimated her dreams and promise to make a life with him and support his ambitions, and he had thrown it in her face. He recalled vividly the noxious self-satisfaction he felt watching her crumble beneath the weight of his cruelty and vindictiveness. He had broken something in her that day. And if he was truly honest with himself, he had never taken the time, nor had he found the courage, to help her heal. 

She had done what he always took for granted she would do. She picked herself up, waited him out, then patched him and their imperfect love back together again. But his brutishness had left a residue, a trepidation in her eyes that would surface in their most intimate moments when she felt most exposed. It was as if she half expected him to rip the rug right out from under her again. There would be an imperceptible catch in her breath followed by a flicker of panic. She would beat it back and it would blink out of existence as quickly and quietly as it appeared. But he saw it, knew it was there, knew it was he who had instilled that deep-seated wariness. Once in the White House, there was little time for navel-gazing as they were forced closer together, into a deeper, more airtight dependency on each other in order to withstand the continuous barrage of attacks laid against them. That had changed on the morning he told her about Monica. The trauma resurfaced, etched into the soft lines of her beautiful face and the immutable sorrow in her eyes. It was the long, suffocating summer of 1988 all over again, only this time, the devastation ran much, much deeper. 

“I’m glad you didn’t,” Bill replied ruefully. “You saved me from making the biggest mistake of my life. I’d have ruined all our lives. Chelsea’s, your’s and mine. I know I’ve done little to deserve you or the second chance you gave me back then, but I want to be the man you deserve Hillary. I really want to try this time.” His hand landed gently on her knee. Hillary flinched. 

“We’re damaging each other, Bill. I can’t do this with you any more.”

“I know,” Bill nodded. “Have you had a chance to think about the therapist?”

She was not comfortable with a complete stranger poking around their marriage. She was by nature an intensely private creature. There were things about her life and marriage she had never even discussed with her mother. She’d bristled when Bill first raised the idea of seeking professional help, but in truth, their backs were against the wall. They needed a lifeline if they had any hope of salvaging their relationship and making it through the end of Bill’s term.

“I have,” she sighed. “I think it would be good for Chelsea. The staff too.”

Chelsea. The staff. It was hardly the enthusiasm he’d hoped for but it was a start. “What about us?” he asked hesitantly. “You and me?”

Hillary looked up. “What makes you think therapy will help this time? It clearly had no effect in the past,” she snapped, her words more acerbic than she intended.

“I really want it to this time, Hill,” Bill tried to assure her. “I don’t want to keep hurting you. I don’t want to keep damaging you, like you said. I know it’s hard for you to believe right now, but you’re the only woman I’ve ever truly loved. I know we’re here again because of my problems, and I know I have no right to ask you for anything. But I need you, and I believe counseling can help us find our way back to each other.”

A single tear trickled down her face. “I’ve been here the whole time, Bill,” Hillary  sniffed with a sad smile. “Right from the start.”

She wanted to lash out at him. Remind him of the numerous occasions when she had been right upstairs in their home while he was getting blown in his office with not so much as a lick of guilt. Now he expected her to help save him. Again. Save him when she was fighting harder than she ever had to keep her head above water. She was tired of fighting, tired of the endless struggle to satisfy Bill, to earn Bill’s approval, to earn Bill’s love.

“And you’re still here,” he said. “I’m beyond grateful for that.” 

Her stomach began to churn. A prickle of perspiration gathered on her brow and her gaze dropped to her fingers twisting in her lap.

Bill studied his wife. He’d known Hillary for more than half her life, arguably from the time that she was girl. He’d watched her grow into the woman she now was, knew her every mood, understood her impulses, her vulnerabilities, the way she thought. She was his best friend and he knew when something was bothering her, when she was holding back.

“What is it?” he asked, staring at her with anxious blue eyes.

Hillary turned to him. She had to face this head on, no matter the outcome. “This is really hard to say. And I never imagined that…” She trailed off, the words suddenly stuck in her throat.

“You never imagined what, sweetheart?”

Quick, trembling breaths. “Do you remember my visit to India a few years ago?”

“With Chelsea,” Bill nodded, smiling as he recalled the delight in his daughter’s voice when they’d spoken on the phone.

Hillary swallowed. “I met someone on that trip. Someone who’s become very important to me.” 

It took a moment for her words to register, and he considered that he might have misheard her. “Met someone? What are you talking about?”

She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I’m not telling you this to hurt you. Or to punish you for— for the affair,” she choked out. “This has nothing to do with that.”

Bill stared at her blankly. It felt like a piano had landed on his chest making each inhalation increasingly more painful.

“Who?” he said brusquely and Hillary watched as he turned a deep shade of red. “Who did you meet?”

“It’s no one you know,” she said. “And that’s hardly the point, Bill.” 

“Hardly the point?!” he erupted, bouncing of the sofa to pace in front of the fireplace. “You’re telling me that you’re having an aff—” He stopped abruptly, struck by some thought that seemed too preposterous to consider. “Wait. You went to India almost four years ago. Are you telling me that this has been going on all this time? That you’ve been— been—”

“No!” she bit back, nausea rising bitter in the back of her throat. “That is not what I said.”

Bill raked his fingers through his hair. “Then you better start talking, Hillary.” There was a hint of something dangerous in his voice and eyes. “Because it sure as shit sounds like you’re telling me that you’ve been fucking someone for, oh— I don’t know— maybe four years now. And I want some fucking ans—”  

She flew across the room and was glaring up at him in a matter of seconds, her hand hot and pulsing from the stinging slap she’d landed across his face. “Don’t you dare,” Hillary seethed, her eyes burning with barely contained fury. “I am not one of your whores, Bill Clinton. I am not like you.”

It was a kick to the gut a thousand times worse than any slap or punch she could have delivered. The walls seemed to close in around him, sucking the air out if his lungs. He swayed where he stood and Hillary reached for him.

“You should sit down.”  

Bill batted her off and dragged himself back to the sofa. He buried his head in his hands, his body shaking, face redder than before as some invisible band tightened, burned, around his chest. When he looked up, Hillary was beside him with a glass of water. He accepted it reluctantly and gulped the water down.

“There’s no affair, Bill,” she said softly and sat down again. “There was never an affair.”

“But there's something now?” he snarled, struggling to control his temper.

Hillary closed her eyes, willed herself to continue. “This isn’t easy for me, so I need you to listen.” 

Bill’s jaw twitched. 

“I love you, Bill. I always have, and I know that I always will. We’ve had the most incredible life together. You gave me Chelsea, the most precious gift I could ever have hoped for. I will forever be grateful for that.” 

His eyes stung at the mention of their daughter. He would never forget the way Chelsea had looked at him the night he’d told her the truth. The hurt. The contempt. When she was a little girl, Hillary, more than he, had shielded her from his weaknesses. It had never occurred to him that she would someday grow up. He was embarrassed, deeply embarrassed, that he’d had to explain himself to his daughter. Worse, that he’d hurt her as deeply as he had her mother. He wasn’t sure there was any coming back from that.

“I knew what we were signing up for when we came to Washington,” Hillary continued. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy. And despite everything that’s happened, I don’t, not for one second, regret the decision we made to do this. But I’ve tried to be what you needed me to be, Bill. As your wife and partner, as your friend and your First Lady. But somehow, somewhere in all of it, I lost track of myself. There have been mornings when I’ve woken up paralyzed not knowing who I’m supposed to be, or what I’m supposed to do. That’s terrifying to me.” The tears were coming now despite her best efforts to hold them back. “This excruciating sense of being unmoored and not knowing how or when it happened. That’s not me, Bill. I’m not built that way. And if I’m completely honest, it’s been years since I felt like myself.” Hillary wiped her eyes. “Until that spring in India. Something shifted.”  

A heavy sense of dread settled in his stomach like a deadweight dragging him into an abyss. He didn’t want to hear this. He couldn’t move. 

“It was like coming up for air,” Hillary said, keenly aware of his eyes on her. “I felt like I could breathe again. I felt seen. Awake. Desired. Alive for the first time since…”

“Since what?” Bill spat, choking back his tears.

“Well… since the day you asked me for a divorce,” she confessed.

And there it was. Karma. For every action there is an equal reaction. The injury he had so cavalierly, so spitefully, inflicted all those years ago was still raw. Hillary had never truly healed. They had come full circle at last.

“I wasn’t looking, Bill. I wouldn’t even have known what to look for,” she murmured. “For a long time I didn’t understand what I was feeling, but once I did—” her voice hitched. “I tried to ignore it. I tried to fight it with everything I had—” 

A chill ran up Bill’s spine. “Why are you doing this?” 

“Because I don’t want to lie to you. We’ve been through too much, and despite everything that’s happened, you are the father of my child and I respect you.” She took a deep breath, watery eyes raising to meet his. “His name is Anand Varma, and I love him.” 

Bill stared at her aghast. “You love him?” he echoed incredulously.

“Yes,” Hillary nodded. “And I need to find out what that means. For me, as well as for you. For all of us.”

His mind was whirring. His heart in his throat. “Hillary, stop it,” Bill warned.

“I can’t, Bill.” She shook her head. “I can’t stop it. I never intended for any of this, but it’s happening. I can’t pretend any more. I can’t deny what I’m feeling. I don’t want to,” she said blinking back tears. “But I will not sneak around or lie to you. I won’t do that.”

He was numb. It wasn’t everyday that your wife, the love of your life, told you that she had fallen in love with another man. The very notion was anomalous, too outlandish for him to wrap his mind around. Bill massaged his throbbing temples and stared at the intricate cerulean swirls woven into the antique silk Aubusson rug. It was almost as delicate and beautiful as Hillary’s eyes. Nothing was a beautiful as his Hillary’s eyes.

“So I’ve fucked up - again! - and you want carte blanche to take a lover. Is that it? Is that how this works now?”  

Hillary exhaled slowly. “I don’t think you’re quite hearing me, Bill. This is nothing to do with you or what you’ve done - past or present. This is about me and what I need to do for myself to move forward.”

“You’re my wife!” Bill barked, temper rising again. 

“I’m not asking for your permission, Bill,” Hillary shot back with a defiant glare.

His eyes locked with hers and he was met with the fiery determination of the girl he’d fallen in love with in the Law Library at Yale almost three decades before. Shame burned him to his core. He had brought them to this place of ruin and despair yet again. His eyes filled with tears. 

Silent, solemn minutes ticked by as the gravity of what their marriage had become settled into the crevices between them. Hillary spoke first. 

“I’ll be back by Tuesday evening,” she said softly. “We should schedule a session with the counselor for Wednesday afternoon. 

“You still want to do that?” Bill rasped with a bewildered expression.   

Hillary smiled gently and took his trembling hand in hers. “We built this presidency together. I will not stand by and allow the Republicans to tear you, or us, down. You’re a terrible husband, but you’re a good President.” Her voice thickened, filled with pride and sorrow. “I believed in you from the start and I believe in you now. We’re a team. We’ve always been a team. We’re going to have to find a way to work through this impeachment shit together.”

“And then what?” 

Her smile faded. “I don’t know. That’s what I have to figure out.” 

Bill watched as she stood and started back toward the door that separated the study from their bedroom. Hillary didn’t need him. Not the way he needed her. It had always been an uncomfortable truth in their relationship and they had been heading toward this reckoning for years.    

“Hillary,” Bill called after her.

She paused in the doorway.   

“Thank you.”

Hillary nodded.

“And just so we’re clear,” he said, eyes boring into her from across the room. “I’ll never give you a divorce. Not ever. I’ll never let you go.” 

Karma is not bound by time. For every ending, there was a new beginning. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Washington, 12 February 1999. 

 

Hillary allowed the sofa to catch her as her back gave out for the briefest of moments. The numb, relentless throb in her sciatic nerve sent a sharp twinge down her left leg. She hissed and stretched out on the plush cushions in the warm, afternoon light filtering in through the bedroom windows. She’d spent the morning poring over the map of New York state with Harold. Her eyes felt gritty. All she needed was a few quiet moments and she’d be fine. A slow, controlled exhale against the pain in her back.

Not guilty.

The nightmare that had begun that cold January morning the winter before was finally over. They had escaped ruin by the skin of their teeth. Bill’s presidency had been preserved. The acquittal came as more than a vindication. It was an emancipation. Her emancipation. Her droopy eyelids drifted close…

 

New York, October 1998.

New York pulsed with a vibrancy that no other city in the world could capture. The strobe of Broadway lights, a symphony of accents from every part of the world as you walked down the street, the smell of pizza wafting around every corner, museums and galleries, the kamikaze-cab-drivers, street artists and winos. She loved it all. When Charles Schumer had asked her to campaign on his behalf, she had been more than happy to accept. She felt free in New York, infused with an adrenaline-laced spark of defiance. Rather than returning to Washington on the train with the rest of her entourage earlier that evening she’d opted to stay overnight. She slipped out of her hotel room just after 10:30pm and was heading toward the elevator bay when the sound of someone clearing their throat behind her stopped her in her tracks. 

“Good evening, Ma’am.”

Hillary swung around, her heart in her throat. “Bennet!” There had been no sign of him moments before. “I was — I’m going for a walk—” she stammered.

Bennet squinted at her; eyes raking over her long black coat, thick scarf and low brimmed hat. He wasn’t buying it. 

“We should use the service elevator, Ma’am,” he said, pointing down the hall in the opposite direction she’d come from.

“Thank you, but that’s not necessary.” She kept moving, eager to put an end to the awkward run-in as quickly as possible. “I just need some air. I’ll be fine on my own.”

“There are three journalists from the Times and two from the Post in the lobby bar, Ma’am,” Bennet said, hot on her heels. “Might look a little suspicious if you’re recognised when you’re supposed to be in Washington this evening.”

Hillary stopped. “How do you know there are reporters in the lobby bar?”

“It’s my job to know, Ma’am,” he answered with a hint of irritation, manoeuvring himself between her and the elevator. He was annoyingly nimble for a man his size. 

“I’ll be careful not to attract any attention then,” she replied with a strained smile.

Bennet caught hold of her elbow as she tried to duck around him. “I can’t protect you if you keep sneaking off, Ma’am. It’s not safe.” 

Hillary shrugged him off with a glare. She didn’t trust him. A fact Bennet was keenly aware of. He had been warned that she was unlike any of her predecessors. She was fiercely independent and would not be managed as easily. It was why the president had explicitly asked for him. ‘Hillary thinks she’s slick. Thinks she can charm her way around anyone whenever she wants. She’s feisty!’ he’d chuckled with his husky Arkansan drawl. ‘They tell me you’re ex-SEAL, Bennet. Keep my wife safe.’ The last line had been delivered less conversationally and more as a presidential directive. 

“I need to know where you are at all times, Ma’am,” Bennet explained, loosening his grip and backing away from her. “So that I can get to you in the event you need me.”

Hillary stared up at him, confused by what sounded curiously like concern in his voice. From the moment he’d been assigned to head her detail, she’d had the distinct impression that the man disliked her - intensely! He was austere, spoke only when spoken to, and at times he seemed to look straight through her. He had never offered her a hand, not down the stairs, not even as she’d struggled awkwardly out of the backs of a cars. She had tried to engage him over the years, but he hadn’t so much as given her a smile.

“I’m going for a walk, Agent Bennet. I’m hardly—”

“You are the First Lady, Ma’am,” Bennet interjected sternly. “You’re always vulnerable.” 

Bennet considered how much of the conversation he’d had with Bill a few weeks earlier he should share with her. It had been clear at the time that he’d been talking to her husband and not the president of the United States. Should he tell her that Bill had summoned him, demanding to know everything he knew about Anand Varma: when and where they’d met, how often, minute details of their interactions. He’d quickly surmised that she’d told him about the man, but only as much as she wanted him to know. Should he reveal that her husband had ordered a full criminal background investigation of the doctor. That the state department had flagged his passport. Or that Bill had called him several times a day when she was in Eastern Europe, wanting a full account of her every move; when she woke up, who she spoke to, what she had for lunch, when she went to bed, if she was alone. It would be a breach of protocol to divulge classified information to her. So much of her privacy had already been violated. He needed Hillary to trust him.

“Dr. Varma cleared JFK customs at 2:37pm this afternoon,” Bennet said patiently. “He took a cab to a residence on the Upper West Side, arriving 5:22pm. He left the residence at 9:58pm, and is currently on the F train heading downtown.”  

Hillary blanched. “You’re following him?” 

“No, Ma’am.” He shook his head. “I’m protecting you.” 

“Of course,” Hillary snorted, her eyes flashing with anger which dissolved into a glisten of frustrated tears an instant later. “Bill. What did you tell him?”

Bennet’s eyes softened. “It’s my job to protect you, Ma’am. From any, and all threats. Both abroad, and at home.” 

He watched Hillary process his words. Her shoulders relaxed imperceptibly as she studied him warily, blinking away her tears, embarrassed by the speed with which they had blurred her vision.

“Dr. Varma is not a threat,” she sniffed, drying her nose with her scarf. 

The jury was still out on that as far as he was concerned, but he would keep that to himself. “Please, Ma’am,”Bennet sighed. “Let me help you.”

Hillary weighed her options. She could have him reassigned but he’d simply be replaced with someone new; someone she didn’t know and who could prove perhaps even more faithless. She’d learned, all the way back in Arkansas, to never trust the security personnel. She’d seen him from Anand’s window in London while he’d waited in the small park across the street. He hadn’t been trying to hide. He’d wanted her to know he was there. The pretext his job provided him was convenient. His ulterior motives, however, were vague. She didn’t like this. Even so, she was making both their lives more difficult.

Hillary composed herself.“I’d appreciate your discretion, Agent Bennet.” 

Bennet acquiesced with a sharp nod. “Always, Ma’am.” 

“Thank you,” she murmured. She didn’t like this at all.

She followed him down the hallway to a waiting service elevator. The ride down was quiet and tense. When they arrived at the service entrance behind the hotel, Bennet helped her into an unmarked sedan and climbed into the driver’s seat. 

“If I can make a suggestion, Ma’am?” Bennet said, turning over the engine and steering the car into the flow of traffic. 

Hillary looked up from the back seat. “What’s that?”

“It would be easier for everyone if you just tell me what you need going forward.”

She caught his reflection in the rearview mirror. The corner of his mouth twitched, curling upward. It was the first she’d ever seen him smile, or at least what passed for a smile where he was concerned. She sank deeper into her seat and stared at the passing lights of the busy city streets. …Better the devil you know. 

The room was lit by flickering images: Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Red. It had come up in one of their phone conversations when she’d mentioned that Blue was one of the most riveting films she’d ever seen, and that she hadn’t yet seen the final instalment of the triptych. They’d snuck in as the opening credits were rolling. She’d felt giddy clinging onto Anand’s hand as he lead her to their seats at the back of the arthouse nestled in New York’s, East Village. She looked around the half-empty movie theatre and a rush of endorphins bubbled up from her toes. Not a single person knew she was there. It was exhilarating. 

She stole sidelong glances at Anand in the dark as the film played out on screen.His colour had improved and he’d gained weight in the weeks since she’d last seen him in London. The scarring on his face had faded considerably and his thick, soft beard had grown back in.

“You’re not watching,” he mumbled, eyes glued to the screen as he devoured a fistful of popcorn. 

Hillary found his hand in the dark, her wide, toothy grin glinting in the dark. “Thank you for this.” He’d pulled her from the tempest that had become her life and given her something she hadn’t even know she’d needed: a sliver of serenity.  

Anand leaned toward her. “Can I ask you something?” 

“What?” Hillary leaned in a smidge closer.

He was quiet for a long while, drawing out the moment as he breathed in her earthy scent. His breath puffed warm over the delicate skin behind her ear and across her neck, unfurling a tendril of desire at her core. She shifted in her seat.

“How do you feel about dating?”

Hillary snickered. “What?”

“Well, I really like you,” he whispered. “And when two people like each other, they… you know… date. So they can get to know each other better.” His lips brushed against her ear. “I’m being a little forward, but I think you like me as much as I like you.”

She shivered. She hadn’t known what to expect seeing him for the first time since they’d bumped into each other London. They’d talked on the phone almost every day since, sometimes for hours when her schedule allowed. There had been long, thoughtful email exchanges to fill in the gaps. He’d sent her orchids for her birthday, and a collection of rare poems by Omar Khayyám. One particular line had captured her attention: Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.”

“I like you a lot,” Hillary breathed, her heart thumping in her chest.

She felt his smile against her ear. “Then will you date me, Hillary?”

No, she really hadn’t known how this would play out at all. But now that she was here, close enough that she could feel the life-affirming warm radiating from his body, she wanted to be swept away more than she wanted her next breath. Hillary nodded. 

“Good,” he whispered. “Because I’m going to kiss you.” His gravelly baritone tripped along her veins sending ripples of arousal thrumming through her. “Even if this is our first date.”  

It began more as the consideration of a kiss; a curious exploration of lips and tongues, unhurried and delectable. She wove her fingers through his long curls, drawing him nearer, lowering her defences little by little. His warm hand burrowed under thick layers of wool to rest gingerly at her waist, a thumb caressing the curve of her breast in a barely-there touch. There were shy smiles and muffled moans as their enthusiasm intensified, leaving them lightheaded and flushed when they eventually came up for air. It would not always be so easy.

Back at the White House, the probability of impeachment bore down on her. With every day that her future hung in the balance, Hillary wrestled against the dark swell of depression that threatened to swallow her whole. In the weeks after their date she regressed into her darkest fears and rationalisations for why any type of relationship with Anand was a fantasy at best. At worst, it would be a calamitous mistake she would live to regret. He lived half a world away. She lived in a fish bowl. The odds that they would survive unscathed were zero to none. She tried to push him away.  

 

Port-au-Prince to Amsterdam

“You’ve been avoiding me.”

They’d once again been thrown together by chance in the aftermath of hurricane George. Anand had grown impatient with his recovery in London and jumped at the opportunity to run a small relief clinic in the wreckage of Port-au-Prince. Hillary hadn’t mentioned that a short stop in Haiti had been added to her South American itinerary when they’d spoken briefly the week before. 

I’ll find you… words from the conversation that had first brought them together echoed through her mind when she open her hotel door and found him on her doorstep. She should have known. There was hurt, and a hint of rejection in his eyes when he looked at her. It broke both her heart and her resolve. She pulled him over the threshold and into her arms.

“I’ve missed you so much,” she mumbled into the crook of his neck.

“Don’t shut me out,” he said, holding her to him as though he never intended to let go. 

“I’m scared.” She trembled against him. 

  “Then tell me,” he said, cradling her face in hands. “It hurts when you shut me out. You don’t have to do this on your own, Hillary. I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Hillary kissed him. Kissed him like her life depended on it. Kissed him until her heart pounded and her lungs burned. Kissed him until he had her pinned to the wall beside the door, a breath away from allowing their instincts to overwhelm them. 

“We should go,” he panted against her swollen lips, palms smoothing firmly over the curve of her hips, fingers twisting in the satin-soft fabric of her robe.

It took a moment for her to emerge from the intoxicated haze she’d slid into. “Where?” she frowned.   

He took her to a small tavern in a nearby beach town, where a writer he’d befriended was reading from a collection of his newest short stories. He thought it would help take her mind off of things for a few hours. She never once let go of his hand.  

A couple of weeks later he talked her through a 3am anxiety attack as she lay curled up on a bathroom floor in Tel Aviv during a state visit to the Middle East with Bill. He flew to South Carolina to squeeze in a firelit  beach picnic following the most harrowing Christmas she’d ever had. He lulled her with gentle Hindi lullabies he’d learned as a boy as she cried herself to sleep the night before Bill's trial began. And on her visit to The Hague that February, he stole her away to a gallery in the Jordaan, introducing her to hauntingly beautiful world of Brassaï. By the time she was scheduled to return to Washington two days later, she was aching to see him again. She made the short detour to London overnight. He surprised her with a late dinner at a small restaurant in Notting Hill where he knew the owner.

“Close ‘em.”

“I’m so full,” she whined. “I don’t know if I can manage another bite.”

“You’ll like this. I promise.” There was a glint in his eyes. It thrilled and filled her with trepidation at the same time. One of the downsides of her position was that people were always trying to feed her weird and wonderful foods - moose lip soup sprung to mind! - promising that she would like them. She fucking didn’t. 

Hillary rolled her eyes, then closed them. She felt the cold tip of a spoon pressed to her bottom lip. It sent goosebumps prickling across her skin as memories of a scorching Indian day in 1995 came flooding back. She parted her lips. A cool burst of lime and basil with a hint of green chili melted across her tongue.

“Ohmigod!” She licked her lips. “What is that?” she asked, reaching for the spoon across the table, greedy for another bite.

“That’s not how you play this game,” Anand chuckled. He popped a spoonful into his mouth and closed his eyes. “This reminds me of the forests around Dharamsala,” he sighed around a mouthful of sorbet. “Crisp mountain air. A cool stream running into a small lake. Dev and I used to hike up there when we went home on university breaks,” he said gesturing toward the kitchen behind them. He opened his eyes just in time to catch Hillary’s anxious smile as she glanced at the Indian chef watching them curiously from the expo window. 

“He’s staring,” she muttered. 

“He’s more interested in what you think of his cooking than who you are,” Anand smiled, shooting a pointed glare at the man who promptly disappeared into the recesses of the kitchen. “Dev’s like a brother,” he assured her. “You can trust him.” 

Hillary glanced around the small restaurant. Nobody was paying them any attention. There were no photographers peering through the windows. Bennet sat perched in a corner, tucking into a hearty meal while he read a local newspaper.

“Your turn,” Anand said, pulling her back to him and away from her unease, spoon loaded up and ready with the next mouthwatering mystery.  

Hillary propped her chin in her hand and leaned in.

Cherries. Cardamom. Red chilies… “Red brick temples. Dancers. Banyan trees. Sitar music,” she hummed, fresh flavours flooding her senses. “Chennai after the monsoon,” she smiled.

He was staring at her when she opened her eyes, a besotted grin on his face. A light flush blossomed in her cheeks as she held his gaze. 

“Now… this one,” Anand frowned, digging his spoon into the last frozen scoop. “I can’t quite place this one.”

The flavours were far more subtle. There was the hint of something smokey swirling around her tongue. “Burned honey. Persimmon. Dry salt air and roasted desert tiger nuts.” She dipped a finger into the dessert and sucked in it thoughtfully. “Tastes like Egypt to me.”

Anand’s eyes lit up. “That’s it! I’ve been trying to figure that out for months.” He grabbed her hand across the table and pressed a soft kiss to the inside of her wrist. “You. Are. Brilliant.” 

She felt brilliant. Radiant. Beautiful. For the first time in her life Hillary knew what it felt like to be at the centre of one man’s unwavering attention.  It grounded her. Filled her with hope and anticipation. 

Hillary… Hill…

Hillary jolted awake to the sight of two penitent grey-blue eyes blinking down at her. 

“Bill,” she croaked. She was groggy. She had fallen asleep. She hadn’t meant to.

“It’s over,” Bill said quietly, wringing his tightly clasped hands. “The Senate voted the Republicans down.”

“I know,” Hillary said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Bill watched her expectantly as she sat up and pushed herself into the corner of the sofa, slowly drawing her knees to her chest to ease the pressure in back. 

“Can I get you anything?” he asked, concerned.

Hillary shook her head.

“I was thinking we’d go to Camp David for a few days,” he said hoarsely, pulling at the knot of his already loosened tie. “I think it would be good for us if we got away. Spent some time together. Just you and me. A fresh start,” he smiled nervously.

She couldn’t bring herself look at him. Whenever her eyes met his, she was hit with a heartrending force that sent her hurtling dangerously close to an all too familiar precipice. She had fallen before. Believed that she could forgive him as many times as it took for him to understand that all she’d ever really wanted was him. It had cost her. 

Hillary heaved herself off the sofa. “I have meetings in New York I need to prep for—”

“You can prep at Camp David,” Bill shot back, refusing to be brushed off. 

“And you’ve lost an entire year. You have a job to get back to,” she said, limping toward the ensuite. 

“Are you ever going to let this go?!” Bill exploded, leaping up from the sofa to cut her off in the middle of the room, his face burning with suppressed anger. 

She wasn’t surprised by the outburst. The pressure had been building in him for days and she’d known an eruption was imminent. If anything, it would move things along by jolting them out of the compliant inertia they’d slumped into. 

“I don’t want to go to Camp David with you,” Hillary answered flatly. 

“For god’s sake,” he shouted. “I’m fucking trying here! Can you at least try to meet me halfway.”

She drew in a deep, tremulous breath. “I told you I would see you through the trial.”

Bill stared at her with wide, panicked eyes, a moment of hesitation flickering across his face. “And?”

“And I have,” Hillary responded pointedly. She had promised herself that she would. 

Bill growled, pressing his fingers into the sockets of his eyes until his knuckles were white. “What does that— What are you saying? What do you mean?” 

Hillary pushed past him, irritated. “I have to pee, Bill,” she snapped, heading for bathroom. 

“Stop walking away from me, Hillary,” Bill said, the pleading tone in his voice a swift shift in tactic.  

Hillary had had enough. “What do you want me to say, Bill?” she said, throwing her hands up. “Would you like me to congratulate you for not fucking up too badly? Do you want an impeachment survival trophy? Or maybe you want a medal for husband of the year? Would you like me to go along with your delusion that we can just pick up the pieces and move on like nothing happened, like nothing’s changed?”  

Bill scrubbed a hand over his face. “That’s not what I was sugges—“

“Well something did happen!” she cried. “Everything has changed! You can’t just whisk me off to Camp David so you can fuck me and weasel  your way back into my heart, and my mind, and my soul again.” Her eyes prickled. She wouldn’t cry. She would not allow herself to cry on this day. “I’m not the same person I was a year ago. I won’t go back to being the fool that you lie to, and humiliate, and sell out over and over and over again.”

Her words cut through him and his panic-stricken expression gave Hillary a modicum of satisfaction. “Are you leaving me?”

This is what had become the most tiresome part of being married to Bill; the years and years of his vampiric need for reassurance, the constant buttressing of his fragile ego. It was the root of his self-destructiveness, his narcissism. She’d finally come to see it for what it was, finally made sense of why he fucked around; of why he needed to fuck around. People were functional to Bill; only valuable for as long as they provided a distraction from his self-loathing. That’s what all the women were about. Disposable repositories of affection he didn’t know how to hold onto. At the core of the man who had everything was a little boy who believed he was unworthy of love. That killed her. He walked around with a void that nothing, and no one, could fill. She had poured herself into him, tried with all her heart to help him heal. He had torn her apart. She had nothing left to give. And he was sucking the last little bit of life force she had managed to hang onto.

“It’s him, isn’t it?” Bill snarled. “Filling your head with all this bullshit.” He wanted to grab her, shake some sense into her. Instead, he shoved his fists into his pockets where they wouldn’t get him into more trouble than he was already in. 

Hillary let out a small, exhausted laugh. “I know you’d like to believe that. Actually, I don’t care what you believe anymore. All I know is that for the first time since I met you, Bill Clinton, the thought of a life without you doesn’t scare me. You’re not a little boy, Bill. And it’s not my job to make you feel better.”

  She was right, and he knew it. Hillary had spent the better part of their twenty-eight years together cleaning up his messes and gluing him back together after every self-indulgent implosion. If there was any chance for forgiveness, he’d have to earn back her love and trust. Her respect. Knowing that wasn’t at all useful in helping to rein in his anger or his jealousy.

“Twenty-eight years for some fucking kid, Hillary,” he spat. 

“He's not a kid. And this not about Anand,” she smiled sadly. “And for once, it’s not about you. I’m trying to figure out what I’d like to do with the rest of my life. I’m trying to understand who I’ve become. Who I’m becoming. But you don’t have to worry,” she smirked. “I won’t embarrass you by leaving you now. We’ve made it through the worst part of this shit-show. I’ll leave when I’m fucking good and ready so don’t look so pained. ”

Bill snorted indignantly. “You think a give a shit about the optics?”

“Yes, actually,” she answered, walking into the bathroom. “I know you do.”

“You can win,” he called out as she was about to slam the door.

She stopped. “What?” 

“New York,” Bill said. “I know it’s your decision to make, and that my opinion is the last one you want to hear. But you should run. I’ll help with whatever you want me to, however you need me to.” 

Hillary stared at him. When she didn’t respond, he dropped his eyes to the scuff marks on his shoes and rocked back on his heels. “Or not,” he shrugged. “Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. Has a nice ring to it.” 

Hillary rubbed at the crease in her forehead. The very idea was ludicrous. “I haven’t decided yet,” she said honestly. 

Bill smiled. “You have my support no matter what you decide.”  

Hillary nodded. “Thank you.” 

She closed the door between them.  

Bill released a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding. It was a calculated risk dangling this particular carrot in front of her. He knew his wife. Knew that she had sublimated her ambition for his. Knew how much she doubted herself despite the scope of her capabilities. All she needed was a little push. 

She didn’t need him if she chose to run for Moynihan’s seat. She could ride to victory on her approval rating alone. Bill knew she could make the transition without him. No, she didn’t need him. If anything, he was a liability. He sometimes wondered if the best thing he could do for Hillary was to let her go. That very morning he had come within an inch of losing his presidency and destroying what they had built together over a lifetime. Losing the presidency would have been a crushing blow. Losing his marriage would destroy him.

Bill saw clearly now how precarious a situation he was in. He had driven Hillary to the breaking point; forced her to consider her life without him. He had not until that very moment understood that for him, there was no life without Hillary. If he wanted to keep her, it would have to be on her terms. He did not, however, consider it beneath him to use every advantage at his disposal. He was a selfish man after all. The doctor might have captivated her with his charm and virility for the moment. But charm and virility stood little chance against the power of the Oval. 

Hillary waited until she heard the door close behind Bill. She climbed onto her bed and pulled her personal laptop out of her nightstand drawer. Her email consisted of a single word: 

Egypt 

 

Chapter Text

Cairo, March 1999. 

 

The force of his weight slammed her into the door as he kicked it shut behind her. Her teeth bit into his full, lower lip as he caught her in a bruising kiss. She swallowed his groan, moaning into him. He coaxed her tongue to swirl against his. She was dizzy. His hands were everywhere. Greedy, tender hands in her hair, on her face, her lips, her thighs, her ass.

… 39 days, 7 hours, 21 minutes…  

She needed a moment to catch her breath. She spun to face the door, her palms slapping hard against the surface to cushion her impact as he surged into her from behind. They stayed like that for what seemed an eternity, the length of his body pressed into her, his hot breath panting loud against her ear. Long, dexterous fingers flared firmly between hers. She rested her forehead against the cool surface of the door as he pressed warm, wet kisses to the back of her neck. The course hair of his beard tickled her skin.  

“Hello, Hillary.” Gravel and velvet reverberated through her. 

She could make out hints of cedar wood and bergamot on his freshly showered skin. She could almost taste him. “Hello, Anand.”

… 39 days, 7 hours, 19 minutes…  

“What took you so long?” he cooed against her ear, lips tugging on her earlobe. She moaned as his tongue traced the shell of her ear, finding the tender spot behind it where he pressed his lips. She shuddered, felt his fingers fold gently around her throat, tilting her head back so he could nip and lick his way down her neck.

“I tried—,” she gasped, her hand inching up the hard muscles of his bicep to his neck, tangling in his curls. “To get here — quickly as I—“

Anand sank his teeth into the tender spot between her shoulder and neck.   

“Ah!” she hissed, her body pushing back into his, undulating sensuously against the sting. 

… 3 years, 11 months, 27 days, 4 hours, 27 minutes…  

“Missed you,” he murmured hoarsely. 

Her hand fisted in his hair, pulling his mouth down to meet hers. He hardened against the small of her back. She moulded herself to his groin, grinding into him. 

They stumbled down the hallway of his small suite; lust-drunk and ravenous, groping and caressing, gorging themselves on gluttonous kisses. Anand dug his fingers into her waist, hoisting her above him, pinning her to the wall with his body. He latched onto the pulse point in the hollow of her throat. 

“Oh god!” Her head rolled back, a heady rush of  blood pumping through her body, firing across her synapses. She tightened her legs around his hips, using the wall to push into the delicious, silken heaviness oozing from deep inside her. His hands gripped her ass harder, hips driving her into the wall. He couldn’t get enough. He covered her mouth with his, sucking the air from her lungs and carried her into the bedroom. 

She was hot, burning up. Her heart was racing. She couldn’t breathe. The room was spinning. She froze when he bumped into the foot of the bed.

“Wait!” she gulped, her heart seizing in her chest. “I don’t know how to do this. I need to— Stop. Please stop.” 

Anand’s arms tightened around her. Her body had gone rigid. She was shaking. 

“What?” he panted, gently sitting her down on the edge of the bed. He dropped to his knees in front of her, worried eyes searching hers. “Did I hurt you?” he asked, combing his fingers through her hair.

Hillary shook her head. “I don’t know how to do this,” she whispered. “It’s been years since—“ her voice caught, the colour in her already rosy skin deepening. “I haven’t been with anyone but Bill in a long time. I’ve never done this before.“  She bit down on her lip to stop it from trembling. 

“Shit,” Anand murmured. He soothed the tears pooling in the corners of her eyes away with his thumbs. Years of suppressed need had launched him into overdrive the moment she’d stepped into his hotel room. However eager she had been, his raw need had overwhelmed her. He dropped his forehead to hers, aroused and deeply ashamed. “I’m sorry. I got a little caught up. I didn’t mean to push.” He pressed a kiss to her forehead. “I want you to be comfortable, to want this, to want me. When you’re ready. I’m sorry.” 

Hillary watched his gaze soften; captivating green eyes filled with love and tenderness. Adoration. She could lose herself in these eyes. She reached up and smoothed a thumb across his brow. “I do. I want you with my whole heart,” Hillary smiled apprehensively, eyes darting away from his. “It’s just that I — I don’t want you to be disappointed,” she whispered.  

Anand’s jaw twitched as realisation dawned. The years of infidelities had ravaged her self-confidence. Not on the surface, not the persona admired and respected for her self-possession, intelligence and ambition the world over, but the woman beneath. The sweet, modest, intensely private creature he’d fallen in love with. The beautifully vulnerable woman who sat paralysed by fear and doubt in front of him. This was the real damage her husband inflicted; a deep-seated insecurity that she was inadequate outside of her usefulness to him. He quashed the bitter rage rising at the back of his throat. 

“You don’t have to prove anything to me, Hillary,” Anand said. He took her hand and pressed a warm, tender kiss to the inside of her wrist. “You don’t have to be anything but who you are. And you don’t have to earn my love. Let me take care of you. Even if it’s just here for now, in this time, in these four walls. However you need me to.”

Hillary blinked back tears. It wasn’t Anand she didn’t trust. It was herself. What they had arrived at was not something to do lightly. It could never be taken back. She needed to be sure she did not want to take it back.

Anand smiled, that sweet, soft smile that tugged at her heart. “I want to take care of you.“

Hillary swooped forward and surprised him with an ardent kiss. Cradling his head in her hands, she savoured his mouth with an intensity that imbued everything that her words couldn’t express. It was dizzying. It was electrifying. It was profoundly erotic. It was beyond anything Anand had imagined. When she pulled away her lips were red and swollen. Anand throbbed uncomfortably in his jeans.

“What do you want, Hillary?” he whispered, breathless, his attention drawn instantly to her fingers as they ghosted over the still sensitive scars down the side of his neck. He watched her eyes darken, smoulder as they followed her touch to the first button of his light cotton shirt. A quick breath and she popped it open. Then the next button. And the next. Her fingers crept beneath the two halves of his shirt and smoothed it off his shoulders. 

Hillary licked her lips, her mouth dry as her eyes swept over his wide, muscular chest. She raked her nails through the soft blanket of hair there, following it as it trailed down his stomach and disappeared into his jeans. She scraped the backs of her nails across the skin just above his waistband, then smoothed her trembling palm over his stomach to find the long raised scar stitched into his right side. Anand groaned, bracing his hands against the edge of the bed, his thumbs tracing firm circles into the fleshy curves of her hips. 

Mesmerising blue eyes peered into his. “I don’t want to lose you.”   

“I’m right here.” He leaned in and kissed her. 

Hillary wrapped her arms around him. She hooked her ankles on the backs of his thighs and pulled him closer to her. He was exactly where she wanted him to be. She was exactly where she wanted to be.

Somewhere, in the delectable haze of insatiable mouths and curious hands, her blazer ended up in a tangled heap with her shoes. His hands left a wake of goosebumps as they inched from her hips, up her back and to her shoulders, gathering the thin silk of her blouse as he went. 

“Lift,” he mumbled against her lips when he could go no further. He was in no mood to deal with the fussiness of buttons. Neither was she. She released his mouth just long enough for him to peel the fabric clean from her body. 

Hillary flushed from her hairline to her navel when she emerged to find Anand looking at her. Age and stress had changed her body since the swimming hole in Zimbabwe. She’d gained weight. Her breasts were fuller and her waist had thickened. If he noticed, it seemed of little consequence to him. He feathered his fingers over her skin along the lace trim of her bra, eyes burning with hunger. He wanted to learn her. Wanted to take his time discovering every inch of her skin and the secrets she kept buried there. He wanted to burrow beneath the veneer of the woman who belonged to so many, but who lay quietly obscured and neglected beneath a world of crushing expectation.

“So soft,” Anand breathed. He pressed a delicate kiss to the swell of her breast, then moved to the other, palming her gently as he laved and kissed his way to her chin and back again. He wound an arm around her waist and fell back onto his haunches, pulling her into his lap. Hillary wrapped her legs around his hips, anchoring herself to him, gasping when he scraped his tongue over her lace covered nipples. She reached around her back and snapped the clasp of her bra. Anand wasted no time, his fingers plumping the silken weight of her breasts as he sucked a dusky nipple into his hot mouth. Hillary wove her fingers into his hair, holding him to her as she pushed into the delicious wetness of his mouth. He grazed her nipple with his teeth and bit down gently, ripping a breathy groan from deep inside her.

“Ahh!” she panted, squeezing her eyes closed against the sting.

Anand swirled his tongue to soothe the nub and bit down a little harder. He watched her breath hitch, her brow furrowing in concentration as pain morphed into pleasure. She dug her fingers into his shoulders when he moved to her other breast, a small smile lighting her face with the ensuing rush of liquid heat soaking her panties. She felt his smile around her aureola when her hips bucked involuntarily into his. There would be time for payback later. 

For now, what she wanted was to kiss his forehead, his nose, his ears, his neck. She wanted to score the groves of his shoulders with her fingernails. She wanted to lap up the salt on his skin, plunder the sweetness of his mouth, sink her teeth into his taut, hard muscles. She did. Anand met her every inch of the way, stoking her arousal as it swelled and plunged her into a haze of wanting, craving, needing… moremoremore. He licked his way from her nipples to her navel, teased his tongue across the faded cesarean scar hidden just below the waistband of her pants, nipped at the fleshy patch of skin between her hip and waist. Hillary squeaked. Anand sat stunned as she leapt out of his lap and scampered around the corner of the bed. 

“No tickling,” she panted, pink and flustered, her perky breasts bouncing.  

Anand grinned, thrilled with his newest discovery. “Are you ticklish, Hillary?” he teased, pushing onto his knees and moving toward her. 

She inched up the side of the bed. “Please don’t,” she giggled, teetering unsteadily.

“Where are you going?” Anand laughed, grabbing the drawstring of her linen pants, reeling her toward him. He locked his arms around her legs and ran his tongue over the sensitive patch of skin again.  

Nonono!” She pleaded. “I’ll do anything. Anything. What do you want?” 

He marvelled at how effortlessly she’d shifted from bonelessly aroused to skilled negotiator in under a second. He made a quick mental note. It might be fun to play around with that particular skill in the future. He ducked around her thrashing hands and bit her hip lightly. 

Fuck-you-you-fucking-asshole-bastard-FUCK!!!” she yelped, her knees buckling.

He burst out laughing as she squirmed and giggled in his arms. He ran his hands up the backs of her thighs and nuzzled the supple skin below her navel. “Anything, huh?” he chuckled.

Hillary’s head bobbed frantically.

Anand pulled the knot in her drawstring free and moved on to her zipper. He tugged her linen pants over her hips, leaving her standing in only a pair of delicate lace panties. Her breathing kicked up a notch as he traced the fine, scolloped lace from the inside of her thigh to her hip. He leaned in and kissed the divot where her thigh met her pubic bone, again on the opposite side, then latched onto the flesh at the top of her thigh with every intention of leaving just the smallest of bruises. Hillary’s hands trembled on his shoulders when he looked up at her, her stomach clenching in sweet agony. He pressed a soft, warm kiss to her mound, lifted her and laid her gently out along the length of the bed. Then he stood, unsnapped the buttons of his jeans and eased them off, all the while never taking his eyes off her. Succulent breasts, hourglass waist, the feminine little bump of her stomach. His mouth watered when he reached the neat trim peeping through the lace of her cream panties.

Hillary forgot to breathe. He was long and lean, a sinewy, golden brown. Her eyes picked up where his jeans had, until then, kept him hidden from her, trailing down to the thick thatch covering his groin from which his now fully erect penis grew. She forced her eyes not to linger and continued down his brawny thighs and calves.

Anand sat down beside her. “I’m safe,” he said, needing her to understand that she could trust him - that he wouldn’t do this unless he was sure he wouldn’t hurt her in any way. What they were doing was vitally important - because anything involving Hillary was vitally important. He had to get it right.    

“Me too,” Hillary whispered, her eyes locked on his as he grazed a finger from her hairline to the tip of her nose, down over her lips. She pouted beneath his touch and arched her neck to give him more skin. He continued over her chin, along her neck to the valley between her breasts, ending his journey in lazy circles around her navel, watching, smitten, as she trembled. He climbed onto the bed and straddled her legs. Grinning mischievously, he teased his hands over her waist, explicit in the reaction he as after. Hillary writhed beneath him.

“Asshole,” she giggled breathlessly.

“Now that I have your attention,” he admonished playfully. “Don’t move a muscle, Mrs. Clinton.” And then his mouth was moving toward hers, but instead met with Hillary’s cool fingertips.

“Not Mrs. Clinton,” she frowned. “Hillary. With you I’m just Hillary.”

Anand smiled down at her. “Hillary…” he hummed as he licked the corner of her mouth. “Hillary…” as he kissed the notch at the base of her neck. “Hillary,”… as he suckled her breasts. “Hillary,”… as he branded her stomach and waist and hips with wet, burning kisses. 

Hillary was falling, spiraling into pleasure she had thought she would never experience with him. She melted into the plush pillow top of their bed, allowing him free rein over her body and senses. She was shaking like a leaf. Anand could feel the throb of her heart pounding beneath her skin. His breath quickened as he stole a glance up at her. A light sheen had formed on her skin. She was glowing. He felt himself harden impossibly more, painfully more. To see her so free, in the throes of such abandon, had been worth every torturous step of their journey to this moment.

Shakti-jaan… he thought, then realised he’d said it out loud when her smokey eyes fluttered open. His heart constricted. She was real. She was in his bed.

“Please don’t stop,she hummed. 

Anand ran his fingers along the lacy edge of her panties, pinched the sides and eased them down her legs. He tossed her underwear over his shoulder and Hillary swallowed hard when his eyes settled on her naked skin. No one had ever quite looked at her with the hunger she saw in his eyes. He kissed his way up the inside of her right thigh, unhurriedly moving toward his goal. He draped her knee on his shoulder and switched thighs. She watched as a drop of sweat trickled from his temple down the side of his neck, his muscles straining with every sensuous movement.

He surprised her when he finally reached her tumescent folds. A cool stream of air prickled her skin, piquing her senses as he blew gently across her slit. A tendril of arousal curled up her spine. Hillary dug her fingers into the covers beneath her in anticipation of his touch.

“You smell divine,” he murmured. And then he was gone. 

The first swipe of his tongue sent a burst of heat rushing from her clit to her fingertips. Anand swirled his tongue through her folds, moaning his enjoyment of her taste into her skin, laving her clit slowly, tenderly.

Anand…” Hillary whimpered, her thighs shaking on his shoulders. He licked and suckled, nipped and grazed, devouring her with a reverence that made her heart race. 

Anand…” Hillary moaned, grabbing fistfuls of his hair, her hips greedily chasing his mouth. He drew languid circles around her opening, drinking her in, savouring her. She felt his wicked smile against her as he pinned her wrists to the bed and thrust his tongue into her.

Anand!…” Hillary cried, a sound of pure ecstasy and excruciating pleasure as the pressure at her core surged white-hot and piercing. She let out a low, guttural groan, a sound she didn’t know she possessed until that very moment, while her body convulsed and rippled and shattered into a million pieces. 

His hands smoothed over her hips and thighs, over the soft pillowy mounds of her breasts and stomach. She could scarcely breathe. Her orgasm thrumming through her body in rebounding waves, peaking harder and more deeply than she’d ever come before. He had never seen anything more beautiful.

Anand kissed his way up her heaving body. He stretched out beside her, a wide, entirely too smug grin on his face as she tried to catch her breath. She could barely move, even as she felt his naked skin pressed deliciously along the full length of her body for the first time since they began their lovemaking. He ran his tongue softly between her lips. She opened up to him, sucking his lips, kissing him deeply, relishing her taste on his tongue. It had been so long since she’d experienced that particular pleasure. It had always served to excite her further. He chuckled when she slumped back into the pillows, limp and blissfully spent.

“That was…”

“Breathtaking,” Anand finished for her, brushing a damp lock from her forehead. 

Hillary curled her a leg over his hip. Her fingers trailed across his skin from brow to chest, from nape to the small of his back. She kissed his throat, lapping at his tart skin to make him shiver, nipping when he groaned in delight. Anand ran his hand from her shoulder to the dip of her sweat-slick waist, down over the swell of her hip to her small foot.

“I love the way you touch me,” she hummed against his lips. 

He slanted his mouth over hers in a kiss that flared her arousal again. She felt the bed dip with their weight as he rolled her onto her back beneath him. Her legs fell open in invitation, cradling his hips as he settled against her, his erection hot and throbbing against her inner thigh. She clung to him as he pressed soft kisses to her forehead, her nose, and each of her eyes. When she looked up at him, he was smiling at her, sweetly, his eyes filled with the same wonder and devotion she often saw whenever he looked at her.

She moved with him when he hitched her knee up to his waist. Moaned with him when he drew the thick, heavy length of his penis through her wet folds. She spread her legs wider, as far as they would go, letting herself feel him there. She hissed against the sudden burn she felt when he pushed passed the tight ring of muscles of her opening. 

“You ok?” Anand panted, resting over her on his elbows to spare her his weight.

Hillary bit her lip, embarrassed. “You’re a little… more... than I’m used to.”

Anand smiled. He kissed her deeply, twining his tongue with hers in a heady distraction, then thrust into her with his full weight, filling her completely. 

“Fuck!” they cried together. 

Hillary dug her nails into the hard muscles of his ass, her back snapping taut with pleasure. She didn’t resist the pain. It seared through her. It was sublime. It was divine. Anand stilled above her as she rippled and stretched around him, maddeningly smooth and tight, soft and warm. He kissed her face and combed his fingers through her hair, allowing them both time to adjust to this new connection. He loved this moment, when two people are connected so intimately but not moving. He loved that he was in this moment with her. Hillary loved it too. The feeling of welcoming him into her body, more easily and readily than she had into her heart and her mind. She raked her nails up his back, overcome when he trembled in her arms.

Jaan-e-Jaan,” Anand breathed in the space left between them.

She tightened her inner muscles around him and he whimpered somewhere in the back of his throat. Her breath caught a moment later when he dragged himself out of her, almost fully, then slid back home again, smooth and hard and so fucking good. He repeated the motion, rolling his hips into her, hitting just a little deeper on every upward stroke.

Pleasure coiled and pulsed at her core. She kissed him long and slow. Anand’s mind abandoned him to the unbelievable sensations of being inside Hillary, moving inside Hillary, making love to Hillary. When she cried out his name he wrapped his arms around her, holding her to him so that he could slip deeper and higher into her. They moved in opposition, looking for their rhythm, letting it find them.

Her orgasm snuck up on her this time, a slow-building crescendo that blurred her vision in a kaleidoscope of colours that singed her veins with icy-fire. There was nothing but the sound of Anand’s voice. Nothing but the exquisite burn of his skin sliding against hers. She drank his sweat, sucked in the air he exhaled, soared from the crest of one euphoric wave to the next, and before she knew how, the next. Tears spilled from the corners of her eyes. 

Anand couldn’t hold back any longer. He had given her all that he could. He had given her everything his body had. He thrust into her one last time and surrendered his soul. 

“Hillary!” he sobbed, collapsing into her embrace. He rested his head on her chest, gasping for air as they lay trembling in each others arms. 

Time stood still. 

They drifted. Joined. One. Anand pressed kisses into her hair, her face, the salty trails left by her tears. When he rolled them onto their sides, Hillary drew lazy patterns across the scar bisecting his flank as she lay looking at him. There would be no going back. He was part of her now.

“That was…” 

“Breathtaking,” Hillary grinned lazily, her eyes heavy with sleep.

“Beyond my wildest imaginings,” Anand grinned. 

“Hmm…” she purred, luxuriating in the sweet heaviness seeping into her bones. “You’ll have to tell me all about your wildest imaginings.” 

“Later,” he laughed, reaching down to pull the rumpled covers around her cooling body.

Hillary yawned. “Shakti-jaan… What does it mean?”

“Well…” Anand said. “Shakti is the primordial goddess of all creation. She's... everything, everywhere. And Jaan means ‘beloved’ in Hindi.”

“And Jaan-e-Jaan?” she asked.

His gaze warmed as he tucked a lock of her hair behind her ear. “Jaan-e-Jaan means ‘Love of my life’.” 

Hillary’s heart fluttered in her chest. She traced the contour of his cheek. He was beautiful. It was that simple. She had thought so from the moment she first laid eyes on him.

Anand-jaan,” she said, trying the words out. If she was his beloved Shakti, then what little she knew of Hindu mythology meant that he had become the protector of her heart through all the chaos of her life. “My Vishnu-jaan,” she smiled, her eyes fluttering closed.

Anand watched as her breathing and the laugh lines around her mouth evened out.

3 years, 11 months and 27 days…

She was part of him now. There would be no going back.

 

 

Chapter Text

Cairo, March 1999

 

She woke before dawn. For a heartbeat there was panic. The unfamiliar room. The unfamiliar weight of his arm across her waist. The unfamiliar cadence of his breath on the back of her neck. The humming throb between her legs brought a flurry of memories of how she’d come to find herself in an unfamiliar bed. 

There was bliss, and also heartache. Overwhelming love, and deep sorrow. Serenity, and the shadowy residue of guilt. What she didn’t expect was tears. Tears of joy and contrition. At the confluence of this far-flung dawn lay the wreckage of a broken marriage and the burgeoning promise of a new love. 

She turned in his arms, careful not to wake him. Anand rolled onto his back and stretched, his large hand searching for her in his sleep. She held her breath until he found her thigh and settled again. 

She hadn’t really looked at him the night before; really taken him in. She had been too overwrought by the piercing arousal surging through her bloodstream. But now, in the soft blue light of early morning, she was free to let her eyes wander. To take her time. To assure herself that the impressions tingling beneath her skin were real, and that he had embedded them there. 

She twirled a lock of his hair around her finger, remembering how she had twisted her fingers in his thick mane, transported by his every move as he’d loved her. She trailed a finger over his wide mouth, dizzy with memories of where his lips had been. Her hands grew bolder on his chest, captivated by the softness of his skin, and the uneven texture of the scars that crisscrossed his abdomen. She’d felt them while they’d made love but hadn’t wanted to make him self-conscious. With a furtive glance at his face, she slowly drew the sheet draped over his waist back and followed the cicatrices down the length of his leg. 

Hillary teared up. Close up, she had a full view of how his body had been torn through and  burnt and stitched back together after the Freetown IED the year before. Anand had trivialised his injuries, but he had almost been killed. That he was alive and with her came down to nothing more than chance and luck. She pressed a kiss to his hip and thanked God, his gods too, for sparing him.

Her attention was quickly drawn to another part of his anatomy. One she’d been too worked up to give due attention the night before. One that rendered an altogether different type of agony. One that made her pussy shudder and weep. Hillary feathered her fingers over the velvety skin of his cock. Even in repose it was a tantalising, beautiful cock. An otherworldly cock. A powerful cock. She ached with the memory of the pleasure it had conjured in her and how thoroughly it had used her. She pressed a tender kiss to the head, filled with entirely different kind of gratitude to the gods. Trailing opened mouthed kisses along its length, she hummed. He was plump and salty-tart and tasted of her. 

Anand moaned. His throat was dry. He often had dreams about her. Lush dreams. Sinful dreams. Dirty, naughty, lurid dreams. But none so intense as the one now pulling him under. His skin was on fire with the sensation of feather-light touches and questing lips. It took a moment to notice the light behind his lids, to register the tightening in his groin and the wet heat engulfing him. He blinked. A pair of iridescent blue eyes peered up at him from where Hillary lay tangled with his legs, her naked skin like alabaster. 

Jesus-fuck!” he gasped, the haziness of sleep vanishing in an instant.

She curled her fingers around him, focusing more intently on her task, teasing him with her lips and tongue and teeth. Her free hand found his scrotum, caressing and massaging him until he bucked into her mouth. He fisted a hand in her hair, hissing into the cool morning air, swelling in her grip. She could feel the tension building in his muscles as she swallowed him deeper. Anand bucked and writhed. Hillary hummed around him again, thrilled that she could bring him to the edge of delirium with so little effort. It made her feel sensual and wanton in a way she hadn’t in years. She wanted more. With one last self-satisfied lick from his base to his tip, she nibbled her way over the tight ridges of his stomach, pausing to swirl her tongue around his sensitive nipples. Her soft belly skimmed his throbbing erection as she levelled herself with him and sucked his lower lip into her hot mouth. Anand pulled her to him in a ravenous kiss. He was about to roll her beneath him when she caught his wrists. Pinning his hands on either side of his head, Hillary straddled him. She was hot and slippery where she brushed against his cock. He could smell her. She made his mouth water. 

She leaned in and drew him into a slow, deep kiss. She kissed him until her skin prickled with goosebumps and her lungs burned for air and her hips ground against his in restless circles. Resting her forehead against his chin, she tried to catch her breath. It was too much, and not enough. Lifting her hips, she reached between their bodies and grasping him firmly pressed him to her opening. Inch by painful inch, she let out a long, almost anguished groan as he stretched her. She wanted to devour him, to possess and absorb every part of him, until there was nothing left, until there was no separation between them, until he had seeped into her skin and fused with her bones. Anand watched her, awed and wanting desperately to touch her but she held him in place. She had him just where she wanted him. He thrust up into her until he was hilt-deep and her breath caught. Hillary closed her eyes and purred in relief.

The world receded as they breathed together. When she eventually opened her eyes, his heart stopped. No one had ever looked at him with the tenderness and desire radiating from her in that moment. Nor had he ever seen such heartbreaking intensity and vulnerability. She kissed his lower lip softly, then canted her hips against his. The blood drained away from his brain.

She had to move slowly. Long, languid strokes against the rising urgency of her need. She wanted to memorise every last sensation coursing through her body as he moved inside her. The burn. The thrum. The breathless exhilaration. For those times when they’d be separated by oceans and responsibilities and convoluted circumstances. For those moments when she needed the comfort of his touch but couldn’t reach for him. Stroke by stroke, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, she shaped the illusion, an escape, her sanctuary. Her warm breath puffed over his face as her lips brushed his. Her skin glistened with a dewey sheen as she rose and fell against the waves of heat blossoming at her core. She was close. So close. She could almost taste her release; sweet and bitter and precariously out of reach. Anand saw the irritation on her face, felt it in her increasingly desperate thrusts and plaintive whimpers. 

Hillary sat back abruptly, reaching behind her to grasp his thighs for more leverage. His hands gripped her hips instinctively, pulling her down onto him hard. She gasped and ground into him, rolling her hips to find just the right angle. Her nails bit into his skin as she redoubled her efforts, chasing that elusive spark. But no matter how hard she tried, it stayed out of reach, her body wound too tight, too eager, frustrating her and pushing her goal even further away. On the verge of tears, she focused on Anand, on the lust in his eyes as they raked over her body, the way he licked his lips when they landed on her breasts. 

“What do you need, baby?” he rasped. “Tell me what you need.”

She fell forward and pressed her fingers to his lips. Anand kissed her fingertips, then swirled his tongue around them. He held his breath as she drew her hand between her legs. 

Her brow furrowed when she found her target, drawing tight circles around her clit. Her hips slowed to a deep, hypnotic grind as she teased out her release. Anand swallowed hard as her nails grazed the base of his cock. He had only ever dreamed this: Hillary shamelessly using him for her pleasure. To see it play out was riveting. His hands trembled as he slid them up her waist to squeeze her plump breasts. His cock throbbed painfully as he slid in and out of her tightening grip. He rolled her nipples between his thumbs and forefingers and she cried out, her orgasm rending her. She was ravishing, and regal, and ethereal as she shivered and shook above him. She watched as Anand’s head rolled back into his pillow, felt his body spasm and shoot deep inside her with a growl of something resembling her name. 

Hillary collapsed against him. She slipped her arms underneath him and burrowed into his warm chest, panting hard against his slick skin. Anand ran his hands from her nape to her rump in soothing caresses, his heart thudding against hers. They lay like that for a long while, quiet and clinging to each other in the pink light of morning as their bodies calmed and cooled. A rumbling gurgle broke the silence. Hillary stifled an embarrassed moan.

“Seems you’ve worked up an appetite,”Anand chuckled. 

“I’m starving!” she giggled, her sexy blonde mop adorably tousled. 

“Can you stay for breakfast?” he asked, brushing a few wayward strands of hair from her eyes.

She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. It was almost five-thirty. She needed to get back to her suite before someone noticed she hadn’t used it. She also didn’t want to test Bennet’s patience this early into their arrangement. 

“Rain check,” she said. 

“I’m going to have to come up with something utterly decadent given the amazing wake up call you just gave me.” He smothered their laughter with a sloppy, wet kiss. 

As if on cue, there was a soft knock on the door down the hallway. Anand groaned. 

“Your Minotaur has terrible timing.”

Hillary rolled her eyes and peeled herself out of his arms. “Bennet likes you,” she said, crawling out of bed. “He may not always show it, but he does.” 

Anand sat up. “He most absolutely does not!” he scoffed, grinning from ear-to-ear as she skipped around the room gathering her clothing, modestly trying - and to his delight, failing - to hide her luscious, fleshy curves. 

“Well keep calling him a Minotaur and see how that works out for you,” she called from the ensuite. 

“Nuh-uh, I’m not as stupid as I look,” Anand retorted.

Hillary laughed. She could get used to this. 

 

Her day passed by in a blur. There were the usual meetings with local dignitaries, a tour of a Khalili bazaar, planned speeches at a youth centre and the American University; ordinary diplomatic rituals she had performed a thousand times before. But it was anything but an ordinary day. 

She was tired, deliciously tired. Her thighs and back and belly ached. She wasn’t sure if her staff noticed her casual indifference as she flounced along at half pace. She didn’t much care. She tried to keep her mind from wandering and replaying the events of the previous night and morning. But there was the smile. The persistent, insistent mirth that crept across her face at inopportune times. She was giddy. It was amusing and embarrassing, and annoying. 

Halfway through lunch with the Mubaraks, she lost track of what the Egyptian president was prattling on about and caught herself just in time to notice his wife, Suzanne, studying her from across the table, a feline smirk hidden behind her tea cup. A fleeting acknowledgement passed between them, something intrinsically feminine. A discernment that went beyond their shared experience as the consorts of powerful men and was rooted in the quiet wisdom between women. On her way out, Suzanne ushered her to the door with a gentle hand at her back. 

“The Egyptian air agrees with you, Hillary,” she teased. “You’re glowing. You must tell me your secret.”

Hillary felt her cheeks warm. “It must be the heat. I’m looking forward to our trip to Luxor tomorrow.”

Suzanne leaned in, her voice filled with kindness. “It’s good to see you happy. You’ve earned the right to live a little.”  

 

He was waiting when Bennet walked her out of the service entrance later that evening.  

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Hillary giggled. She’d been doing a lot of that lately. 

Anand revved the engine of the battered old Dixon he was sitting on. 

“Where did you find this?” 

“I’m resourceful,” he chirped.

“This is insane,” she whispered, glancing back at Bennet who stood scowling. They were definitely testing his patience. 

“Where have I heard that before?” Anand grinned, handing her a helmet.  

Hillary smiled as she took it. They were a long, long way from Dhaka. She took off her baseball cap and popped the helmet on.

“Keep it under 50,” Bennet warned as she climbed onto the bike behind Anand. 

“Don’t worry, Mr. Minotaur. I’ll have her home before she turns into a pumpkin.” 

Bennet glared at him. Hillary did her best impression of sheepish penitence and shrugged. They took off down the alley.

“We’re pissing him off,” she snickered, her arms wrapped around his waist as they wove through the chaotic streets of Cairo and into the Mokattam Hills.

“That’s the most fun I’ve had all day.”

Hillary nipped his ear.   

“Ouch!” he yelped, the bike swaying a bit. “I’m driving here, Lady.” 

“And you best drive carefully or I’ll tell my Minotaur to eat you,” she snarked.    

“Actually,” Anand said, pretending to give it some serious thought. “I think I remember a very horny blonde in my bed this morning. I’m not sure. I could have made the whole thing up. But that may have been a little more fun.” 

“Where are you taking me?” she called over the rumble of the engine. 

“You’ll see.” He winked and turned back to the road. 

 

She stood dumbstruck as the sunset flooded the gaping cavern of the Zabbaleen Cave Church. 

“What do think?” 

“It’s incredible,” Hillary murmured, gaping at the sprawling city below and the arresting dessert mirage and pointed peaks of the Giza pyramids off in the distance.

Anand smiled. He would never be able to match the creature comforts of her everyday life. But he could give her these small, rare moments of novelty and beauty. Hillary’s awestruck appreciation filled him with no small amount of pride. 

“Do you want to have a look about?”

She shook her head. “Not just yet. I need a moment,” she said, unable to tear her eyes away from the mesmerising view. She sank down onto the stone step behind her. 

Light moved in shadows and brightness over the walls of the church, illuminating and obscuring the tableaus etched into the stone. Heathens and pagans, sinners and saints, all humbled in this majestic place of worship and redemption. A quiet stillness moved through her. She looked at Anand who stood staring up at a fresco in the ceiling across the cave and her heart leapt. She had never known how to love someone without losing herself. And though she had no regrets, a different possibility lay in front of her now. Suzanne’s words came back to her: “You’ve earned the right to live… 

This time it would be on her terms.  

 

Chapter Text

DC, April 1999

 

The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg had lured him down the hall. 

Bill stood watching her from the doorway. She was shuffling around the kitchen in her socks and an old Yale sweatshirt. Her nose was stuck in a book while she absently dunked a tea bag in her steaming mug. The table in the small dining nook by the window was littered with newspapers, notebooks and pens. It brought back memories of New Haven. They hadn’t had much back then, but Hillary had managed to make their first, modest home cozy and comfortable. Bill had lived in many houses before he’d met her, but that was the first time he’d felt like he had a home. He remembered a quiet Sunday morning just like this: Hillary wearing his too long sweatshirt, scrambling eggs and cussing at the New York Times crossword, books piled and teetering on every flat surface. It was on that day he’d realised that not only was he hopelessly in love with her, but that she had, in the short months they’d known each other, become the truest friend he’d ever had. He’d wondered then what it would be like to grow old with her, somehow knowing that life with her would be immeasurably more interesting and meaningful than without. There was comfort in the scene in front of him. No matter where he’d travelled, how many houses they’d lived in, or how often he’d wandered off over the years, he had always, somehow, ended up right back here; watching his wife from the kitchen door, loving her more deeply than he ever could have imagined he would on that sunny morning almost thirty years ago. Hillary was the only real home he’d ever known. 

“I made French toast,” she said, smiling when she noticed him in the doorway. 

She moved to the nook with her tea while Bill grabbed the plate she’d left in the warmer for him. French toast had been Chelsea’s favourite and a Sunday morning tradition since her second birthday. Hillary had kept it up even though their daughter no longer lived at home. It was her small way of holding on, Bill knew. He poured himself a cup of coffee and settled in the table across from her.

“Thank you,” he said, reaching for the maple syrup. She hummed, closing her book to watch him drizzle syrup over his breakfast while he kneaded a sore spot in his stiff neck. Hillary squinted at him. 

“There are four empty bedrooms to choose from on this floor, Bill,” she said, eyes glinting with amusement. “And nine more upstairs.”

Bill glanced up as he chewed. It had been a long time since she’d looked at him with something other than disappointment and suspicion. He’d first noticed the shift in their last two counselling sessions. She’d been calmer and more receptive, after months of dejection and defensiveness. 

“But none of them are our bedroom,” he husked, his coffee too hot as it slid down the back of his throat. 

“Well you can’t keep sleeping on the sofa,” she said. “It’s fucking up your back.”

“My back is fine,” Bill insisted. 

 “You’re being stubborn—”

Bill raised an eyebrow. “No, you are stubborn. I would be much more comfortable in my own bed with my wife.”

He’d been on the sofa for over seven months. It wasn’t the first time. It was, however, the longest in their relationship. Sheer stubbornness on his part. She’d thought about inviting him back into their suite; if only to stop the residence staff from gossiping. Secretly, she’d begun to feel sorry for him, resenting her puerile need to punish him in that small, petty way. They were working on repairing the damage done to their friendship in therapy, on reestablishing trust. Their most recent sessions had focused on resetting healthy boundaries. She wasn’t quite sure where it all would lead, but she knew the trap of having Bill too close. She knew how easy it was to be drawn in by the banter, seduced by his charisma, obliterated by his charm. If their current circumstance was any proof, it would only be a matter of time before they ended up right back at square one: more betrayals, more heartbreak.  

“We need to talk about how all this is going to work, Bill,” Hillary said quietly.  

Bill frowned. “I thought that’s what we were doing, Hill.” The sarcasm in his tone not lost on her.

Hillary fidgeted with the tag of her tea bag. “I’m talking about you and me… and Anand.” 

His fork hit his plate with a loud clang. “… and Anand,” he echoed incredulously. His very name made Bill’s teeth hurt. He’d convinced himself that her infatuation with the Indian doctor would run its course quickly and quietly. She was hurt and angry. He’d been willing to allow her that. But he’d barely been able to contain his rage when he’d questioned Bennet about her North Africa trip, resentful of how vague and evasive the agent had been. Bill admired his loyalty to Hillary, but it meant more aggravation for him.

“I know you saw in him Cairo,” Bill said bitterly. 

Hillary nodded. “I did.” 

His eyes hardened. It was all there, right in front of him, everything he’d tried to ignore since she’d come home. He could see it in the soft lines around her eyes, in the beaming radiance of her smile. He’d noticed it in the languorous sway of her hips. He could smell it on her skin, in her hair, even where she sat across from him now. 

“And did you fuck him, Hillary?” he sneered.

Hillary stared at him, her heart breaking. She knew he knew. The last thing she wanted was to rub salt in his wounds. But she was not ashamed of, nor would she be shamed for what she had shared with Anand. She had chosen to make love with him, freely and wholly. She would not allow Bill to cheapen and denigrate that. 

“That’s not how I would describe it,” she said, her reproach tactful but intent. “But yes, we were intimate.”

The sound that wheezed out of him was something between a laugh and a sob. He crumpled in his seat and scrubbed a hand over his face. He wanted to rip her apart, excoriate her, make her bleed for the utter devastation she was wreaking. But the words stuck in his throat. His heart pounded painfully in his chest. Hillary fought the urge to reach for his hand. 

“I think we to need to set some rules for how we move forward,” Hillary said. She took a deep, steadying breath. “I think it’s only fair that you should see… date, whomever you chose. I do, however, have some stipulations.”

“What?” he muttered, still reeling from the bomb she’d just dropped in the middle of their marriage. 

“I don’t want to know the details of your relationships,” she continued calmly. “I don’t want to meet or run into any of your… girlfriends. And you’ll have to be careful. Regular STI screenings. A vasectomy if necessary.” 

Bill gaped at her. 

“I’ll need to know who you’re dating. I’d like to be prepared next time and not get my ass handed to me by some fucking reporter or republican asshole trying to launch a career. You don’t need my advice or approval but I would appreciate it if you stayed away from my friends, our mutual friends, the wives of friends, the wives of friends of friends— just all married persons in general. And for god’s sake, Bill, enough with the women who work for you. You’re the president of the United States, you can have any woman you want!”

His mouth moved but no sound come out. This was all too absurd. The entire farce too ridiculous to wrap his mind around. Hillary hid the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth behind her mug. It wasn’t often she left him speechless. She sipped her tea, allowing him a moment to let everything she’d said sink in.  

“Lastly,” she said, an unambiguous note of warning in her voice. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but out of respect for our daughter, I’d ask that you please not date any of her friends. I will not tolerate that.” 

“Have you lost your mind?” Bill rasped.  

“No,” Hillary answered. “I’m thinking clearly for the first time in a long time. If we’re going to salvage our relationship, and I have no idea what that looks like yet—”

“Marriage!” Bill interjected. “You mean, our marriage. Yours and mine, and no one else’s.” 

Hillary bit back an indignant retort. She did not want to fight with him. She was tired of fighting with him. 

“Bill, our marriage, or what’s left of it, doesn’t work anymore. We’ve been broken for a very long time,” she said ruefully. “There’s no going back to how things were, so I’m trying to move forward. I think we both have an opportunity to grow here. To take what happened to us, to our relationship, and turn it into something— Well, something that doesn’t hurt so much. Something gentler. Something kinder.” 

“Do I get a say in any of this?” he asked. 

Hillary chuckled, the irony of their situation not lost on her. “I thought you’d jump at the opportunity of an open marriage.” 

Bill shook his head. “I never wanted an open marriage,” he protested thickly. 

“Well, I can see how much more fun the other way was,” Hillary teased with a wicked smile. “The thrill of getting away with it is half the fun.”

Bill laughed at the wretched, embarrassing truth of it. He laughed because Hillary could still make him laugh, even through this, their most harrowing and fraught time as a couple. She’d always known how to pull him through, how to steer him clear of rocks and in the right direction. The way a true friend would; someone you trusted with your life.  

“This is unusual, I’ll admit,” Hillary said. “It’s not how I’d hoped or dreamed our marriage would turn out.”

He was struck by a deep sadness - his own as well as Hillary’s. This was not what he’d imagined growing old together would look like either.

“But I’m learning things I never knew about myself, or even considered a possibility,” she said. “Flawed as I am, I’m sure there are those who will punish me for it - including you! But this is the most honest I know how to be right now.” 

“Hillary, you’re asking me to allow another man into our marriage.” He shifted in his seat. “I know I screwed up more times than I can count but that’s nowhere near what you’re asking for here.”

“And giving,“ she replied softly. “Ignoring what was right in front of me, pretending that everything was fine is how we got here. I’m not doing that any more. I’m finally giving you the freedom you’ve always wanted. No more lies. No more guilt. You’re free to have your cake and eat it.” She’d meant that last line as a joke but it fell flat. 

Bill stared at her, his eyes welling up, his heart crumpling in his chest.

“What’s the alternative, Bill?” Hillary asked gently. “I won’t go through this with you again.”

His stomach twisted into a tight knot. He wanted to throw up. A divorce wouldn’t just tear their family apart, it would rend the country. It would be the final nail in his presidency. He wouldn’t, couldn’t be forced to resign, but his presidency would lose all meaning. It had been their dream together and he had ruined it. Everything they had worked for would end in an ash heap of obscurity and ignominy. But worst of all, he would lose Hillary. Bill knew that if it came to it he would fight her every step of the way. Not out of spite. Not because she’d found solace in the arms of another man. Not to punish her. No. He loved her with his whole heart. He would fight to hold on because he didn’t know how to live without her. He would destroy them both. She was offering him an out. 

“What will we tell Chelsea?” he sniffed.  

“I’m flying out to see her next week,” Hillary answered.

“Should I come?” He used his sleeve to dry his eyes and nose. “I mean shouldn’t we tell her together?”

Hillary rolled her eyes. “I have no idea what we should or shouldn’t tell her,” she said. “But it should be me. It will easier for her.” She hesitated. “I think.” 

 She swirled her tea bag in her mug while Bill stared out of the window across the south lawn. Explaining things to Chelsea in a way that wouldn’t taint her belief in love and commitment wasn’t the only thing on her mind. There was something she hadn’t told Bill. Something she hadn’t quite sorted out for herself yet. The truth was that she wasn’t ready walk away from their marriage, she’d spent more than half of her life with Bill. And you didn’t just walk away from your life without knowing where you were going. What further confused matters was that she didn’t know if she wanted to.  

Bill cleared his throat, his eyes bloodshot. “Our family comes first. No matter what, we stay together as a family.” 

Hillary looked up from her mug, a little taken aback. 

“It’s the only way I can do this, Hillary,” Bill pressed.

 There was no doubt that Chelsea and her father were two of the most important people in her life. That would never change. “Of course,” Hillary nodded. 

Bill sighed and rubbed his forehead. “You’ll need to tell at least one person on your staff besides Bennet. Someone you trust implicitly,” he warned. “Someone who’ll watch your back.”

She hadn’t thought that far ahead. She didn’t want to think about who Bill’s co-conspirators had been over the years. She knew about Betsy and Betty - women she was both grateful to, and resentful of. And Vernon for sure. Hillary stopped herself. She didn’t want to know who else might have helped her husband cover his extramarital escapades. It was a fool’s errand and she’d moved beyond the need to dredge it all up again. 

“I’ll think about it,” she answered. 

“And I’ll need to know where you are at all times,” Bill said. 

Hillary smirked. “Isn’t that what you have your super-spy, Bennet, for?”

“The last thing you need is for this to get out, Hillary,” he said irritably. “You think all the awful shit they’ve said about you over the years is bad? You have no idea what they’ll do if they find out you’re having a relationsh—” Bill paused, the word stung like acid on his tongue. “You’ve survived being the ambitious, feminist she-devil from their nightmares. You’ve survived their bullying and slurs and insults. You’ll never survive being an adulteress, their Hester Prynne.”

It was a stark and inescapable truth she wasn’t unaware of. Yet another example of the pernicious disparity women still struggled against. Most people had forgiven Bill’s affair and lies even before the question of impeachment had been raised. Before even she, the humiliated wife, had found her footing again. She would not be afforded the same kindness or courtesy. It wouldn’t matter what the truth was. She would be eviscerated, branded a whore, a manipulative cunt, a modern day Hester Prynne. The invisible scarlet ‘A’ seared into her forehead would block out the sun. The way the Lewinsky woman was being treated was proof enough of that. The whole spectacle was horrendous to watch even if she did have little pity for the woman who had inserted herself in her marriage and threatened her daughter’s future and security.

“I won’t let that happen to you,” Bill said, as if reading her mind. He reached for her hand and laced his fingers through hers. “I need to be able to protect you.” After all was said and done, he owed her that much. 

Hillary felt her eyes betray her, tears blurring her vision. “My feelings for Anand haven’t diminished my love for you.”  

“Good.” Bill said. “Because I love you and that will never change. I want to be married to you. I don’t want anyone else. I’ll never put you through what I’ve put you through this last year again. I promise.”

Hillary gave him a dubious, watery smile. “I think we’re beyond making promises we can’t keep.”

Her apprehension was warranted. He had broken all his promises to her in the past. Bill traced his thumb lightly over the back of her hand. “I want to meet him,” he said tentatively, uncertain of where the edges of this new arrangement lay. 

She hadn’t considered that he would want to meet Anand. Or that Anand would ever want to meet him. It instinctively felt like too volatile a prospect; a potential collision that none of them would emerge from unscathed. “This is all very new, Bill,” Hillary said. “For all of us. I’m not sure I’m ready for that.” 

Bill nodded. She was right, these were uncharted waters for both of them. No, for the three of them. There was three of them now: Bill, the love of his life, Hillary, and her new love, Anand. The whole affair was surreal. But there was something more, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something strangely enticing.   

“In the meantime,” Hillary said, interrupting his thoughts as she got up to reheat the tea kettle and refill his coffee cup. “You need to get off that sofa before you kill yourself.”

Bill moved back into their bedroom that night.  

 

Chapter Text

Palo Alto, May 1999

 

“I know it’s a lot to take in. But your dad and I think—” Hillary paused, her calm façade faltering imperceptibly around the edges.

The flight to Palo Alto had been nerve-wracking. She’d almost asked the pilot to turn the plane back at least three times. It was impossible to know how to have this conversation. All she could hope for now as she sat crosslegged with her daughter on her dorm room bed was that with time Chelsea would understand. 

—I think you’re entitle to the truth.” Hillary smiled. “I don’t want you to hear this from someone else. And I want you to be honest about you think and feel.”

 Chelsea stared back at her with cornflower blue eyes. Hillary could see her mother there; the incisive intelligence and kindness, the empathy, poise and grace. She was immensely proud of her daughter but sometimes worried that she had done too good a job of teaching Chelsea to mask her emotions. She was far too stoic for someone so young. 

“So we go on like nothing’s changed?” Chelsea said after a nail-biting silence.   

Hillary swallowed a mouthful of Chardonnay. “For the time being, we have to. We have an obligation to the country. At least until your dad’s term is up.” 

“And then you’ll divorce him?” Chelsea asked, nibbling a cold French fry from their mostly forgotten takeout. 

Hillary let out a shaky breath. “Honestly, I haven’t thought that far ahead, Chels. Your dad and I— we’ve been together for a long time. Our families, our friends, our work— our lives are inextricably entwined. A divorce would be extremely complicated and painful for everyone.” 

“I know you stayed because of me,” Chelsea murmured. “When I was little, I mean. I heard things— when you and dad argued. That he— I know this isn’t the first time he’s done this. Cheated, I mean— And I know that you were afraid to leave him because of what happened to Grandma when her parents spilt up, because you didn’t want that to happen to me.” 

Hillary’s heart clenched. She could hear how deeply Chelsea’s admission weighed on her. Worse, she could feel the burden of the quiet guilt her daughter had concealed from her for so long.

“But this is different, Mom. You don’t have to put your life on hold to protect me anymore. I’m not a little girl.” 

A lump formed in Hillary’s throat. “You will always be my little girl, Chelsea,” she said. “And I will always protect you. But I stayed with your dad because I loved him and I wanted to our marriage to work.”

“But, Mom—”

“No, Chelsea,” Hillary said sternly. “There are things about my relationship with your father that are between us alone, things that I will not discuss with you. Things that none of your business. Yes, I didn’t want to separate you from him because I wanted the two of you to be close, to have the type of relationship neither Bill nor I had with our fathers. I don’t regret that choice. I’d do it again. But no matter what happens between your father and me, you will always be at the centre of our lives. You will always be the unbreakable bond that connects us and I wouldn’t want it any other way.” 

“I don’t understand how you can be around him every day,” Chelsea said, her resentment toward Bill still simmering. “I mean, you think you know someone and then... It’s the lies that hurt the most, isn’t it?”

Chelsea hadn’t spoken to Bill much since Christmas. Or her much either, really. Hillary understood her need for autonomy and distance from the looming melodrama of ‘The Bill & Hillary Show’. She was at an age where she needed to strike out on her own, to immerse herself in her own interests and focus on forging her own life path surrounded by friends and companions of her choosing. In an ironic twist Hillary was thankful that Stanford was far away on the opposite end of the continent. Chelsea needed privacy and space. And however much she missed and worried about her, she trusted Chelsea. She knew that the rift that had torn open between her daughter and her father would take time to heal, but that Chelsea needed to heal first.

She took Chelsea’s hand. “He’s not a perfect man, honey. I’m not perfect either. We’ve both made a lot of mistakes. But your dad loves you more than anything in the world, Chels. And at some point, eventually, you’re going to have to forgive him for being human.” 

“Have you forgiven him?” 

Even now Hillary could see the confusion and mistrust Bill’s deception had caused. She squeezed her hand. “I’m trying, honey.”

“Do you love him?”

“I’ll always love your dad,” Hillary said. “He’s been my best friend since—” 

“Not dad, Dr. Varma?” 

They’d circled back to were their conversation had begun: Anand.  

“Yes,” Hillary said quietly, uncertain of the reaction her honesty would elicit. “I think I do.”

Chelsea cocked her head to one side - the way Bill did when deep in thought. “Isn’t that what love is?” she asked. “Thoughts?”

Hillary smiled, amused. “I think it’s a little more nuanced and complicated than that.”

Chelsea reached for the glass in Hillary’s hand and sipped. “I didn’t know it was possible to be in love with two people at the same time,” she said. 

“Neither did I,” Hillary said pensively.

“Until now?”

“Until now,” Hillary nodded. “It’s different with Anand. I love him in different than I love your dad. I know that sounds trite, confusing even… but it’s true. What I feel for him is very real. I feel calm and safe when I’m with him. I haven’t felt that way in a long time with your father. It’s just something about our dynamic, about who we are together, how we’ve always been: Bill-and-Hillary, Hillary-and-Bill… I’ve always taken care of him, never the other way around. And that’s not bad. We’ve had a wonderful life and an incredible love story. We made you out of that love. But with Anand, I don’t have to take care of him because he can take of himself. There’s room for me to just be me. And now it’s as though I’m uncovering a part of myself I didn’t even know was there. Like wondering onto an entirely new floor in a house I’ve lived in my whole life. In a strange way, it’s like I’ve fallen in love with myself as much I’ve fallen in love with him. That I’m more than what he needs me to be. And he sees all of me, enjoys all of me, wants all of me. I didn’t know there was a difference; to be wanted that way as opposed to needed as part of someone else’s definition of who they are. It feels good. It doesn’t hurt. I need that.”  

Chelsea gave her a watery smile. “What’s he like?” 

“He’s sweet,” Hillary said. Chelsea watched her mother’s smile and eyes brighten. “He’s kind. Smart. Goofy! He’s generous and helps people. He’s impulsive and leads with his heart and doesn’t always think things through. The exact opposite of me!” she chuckled. “He’s moody, and stubborn and little accident prone, too. You’d like him.” 

Chelsea rolled her eyes. “He sounds a little like dad. You have a type,” she teased. 

“He’s younger than your dad,” Hillary grinned. 

“How much younger?”

“38.”  

“Mom!” Chelsea hiccuped.   

Hillary giggled and took her wine glass back. “Oh believe me, I wish he weren’t!” She sobered a moment later. “It’s not the same, Chels,” Hillary said softly. “Anand, is an adult. He’s mature. I would never have allowed our friendship to evolve if he weren’t. There’s a mutuality of responsibility between us. We didn’t fall into this out of boredom or convenience. No one is being mislead or taken advantage of, and —” 

“— he’s more than a couple of years older than me,” Chelsea cut in. 

Hillary nodded, not trusting herself to say more about that one, small humiliating little detail about Bill’s affair that was beyond disconcerting for both her and Chelsea. It was enough that Chelsea was so blatantly aware of the scant age difference between herself and girl who’d violated their family. She desperately wanted to move beyond the insult and trauma of it. They both did.

“Do you trust him?” Chelsea asked. 

Hillary was struck by the solemnity of her tone. Somewhere along the way, Chelsea, it seemed, had evolved into an adult right under her nose. 

“Yes,” Hillary said. “After all these years in Washington, I think I’ve learned to read people pretty well. Anand doesn’t have an agenda. He doesn’t want anything from us.” She smiled. “Besides, your father has generously offered to shoot him in the event he behaves badly.”

Chelsea laughed and Hillary felt inexorably grateful to be her mother. 

“And dad is really cool with this?”   

Hillary sighed. “It’s where we are, Chels.”

Chelsea absorbed that. “Do you think he’ll be ok?” 

“Yah, I think so,“ Hillary said wistfully.

“Mom.”

“Hmm?” 

“I know this isn’t about, dad. Or what he did. I know you’re not trying to punish him.” Chelsea turned to her. “I’m happy for you. I want you to be happy. I want both of you to be happy again. Thank you for telling me, for trusting me.” 

Hillary teared up, her heart aching with relief. “Aw, Chels—” 

“I want to meet him.” Again, that slight tilt of her head as the gears of her mind shifted. 

“You do?” Hillary asked surprised, flicking her tears from her eyes.

“He’s important to you,” Chelsea said. Then she gave Hillary a wicked smile. “Besides, you didn’t think you were gonna get off that easy, did you?” 

Hillary laughed. “Nothing about this is remotely easy, Chels!”

Chelsea snickered. “You’d be disappointed if it was, Mom.”

 

Chapter Text

Anand reached for the last samosa. 

“Uh-ah!” She slapped his hand away and snatched the pastry. “That’s mine,” she grinned and bit into it, humming as she chewed.  

“We can order up a few more if you want,” he offered. But she wasn’t even listening. 

She’d surprised him. Their schedules, hers especially, had been tricky in the weeks after Egypt. He hadn’t expected to see her for another month, when they’d planned to meet in Morocco. When she’d called from her plane to tell him she wanted Indian for dinner, Dev had been more than happy to oblige and sent over a feast. He’d spread it out on the coffee table while she’d showered and changed into something more comfortable after her long flight. Now she sat parked on his living room floor wearing leggings and one of his t-shirts, hair still damp, skin rosy and clean, licking her fingertips.

“What’s this called again?” Hillary asked, pointing to a heap of pickles on her plate.

“That’s mango achar.” 

 She had a healthy appetite to say the least, and he watched in amazement as she moaned and groaned her way through their meal. It was nothing short of adorable. 

“I had no idea you liked Indian food so much.” 

She shrugged. “London does have the best Indian outside of India.”

“Ah, so that’s why you’ve come all this way.”

“It’s a much shorter flight,” she smiled.

Anand pouted. “I feel used and taken advantage off.”

She dropped her fork and crawled toward him, eyes sparkling with mischief. “Oh I haven’t even begun to use you yet, Dr. Varma.” She straddled his lap and drew him to her in a playful kiss.  

“We’ve moved on to dessert, I take it,” he said, trailing kisses down the side of her neck,  hands stealing under her shirt. She felt him hardening against her through his soft linen pants. 

“Nope!” She giggled, pushing out of his lap and moving back to the table. “Where’s that carrot and coconut pudding-thing with the cashews and raisins?” 

“It’s called Gaajar Halwa and you’re a cock-tease.” Anand laughed, jumping up to fetch the dessert from the kitchen. 

“You have no idea,” Hillary mumbled, her mind wandering salaciously as her eyes swept over the muscles rippling beneath his shirt to his tight retreating ass as he went. 

“What was that?” Anand asked, amused by the slight flush in her cheeks. 

“Nothing,” she said, fidgeting with her earlobe.

He was growing to love these endearing moments of modesty. He smirked and bent over slowly to pick a napkin up off the floor, angling his hips to provided her with an even more enticing view of his ass. Hillary groaned. Turnabout was fair play. She needed to change the subject before she got too distracted. 

“I’m thinking about running for the Senate,” she said as he crossed back to her with the dessert.

He plopped down on the sofa and pulled her up next to him. “I think you’d make an excellent senator.” He scooped up a spoonful of the treat and offered it to her.  

“I’ve never run for office before,” Hillary said, a hint of anxiety in her voice. “It would be a big adjustment for everyone. If I even won, that is.”

“You don’t think you can win?”

“Oh, I think I can win. I’m just not sure it’s the right move right now. Bill has always been the candidate in our family. I’m not sure I want to put Chelsea through another campaign with everything that’s happened. And I’m not sure I can deal with another campaign. All the scrutiny and attacks. Besides, a lot has changed.”

Anand fed her another bite. “What about practicing law again? I doubt you’ll have a hard time finding a firm that wants you.”

Hillary winced. “I’m a recovering lawyer and I’d like to keep it that way.” Her mood shifted inward. “I never enjoyed practising law. I did it because I had to. Bill’s salary was modest when he was governor. And I needed to retain some of my independence. I wanted Chelsea to grow up knowing she could be self-reliant and that she didn’t have to depend on anyone, that she can do anything she sets her mind to. But I hated working in the corporate sector,” she admitted quietly. “I always thought I’d work for the WHO or  UNICEF when we left Washington so I could focus on issues that are important to me. And I want to continue my work with Vital Voices.” 

None of this surprised him but he could see how conflicted she was. 

“Either of them would be lucky to have you,” Anand said. “But what is it you really want, Hillary?”

Hillary hesitated for moment. “To know that I can do it. That I can get elected and serve on my own merit.” 

“So why the doubt?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “Not many people know this, but I failed my DC bar exam after Yale,” she murmured. “I was crushed. I was embarrassed. Everybody in my life at the time, my friends and teachers, my mother, Bill - they all expected so much from me and I couldn’t even pass the DC bar exam. I think I’ve been afraid of being a disappointment ever since. I found myself believing that if I put myself out there again, if I reached too far, too high, I’d fail again.”

Anand put the dessert down. “Well, this may come as news to you, but you’re anything but a failure. If you don’t believe me there’s a world of women out there who would attest. And I’m almost certain Chelsea would, too.” 

She let out a long, shaky breath. “I don’t want to be afraid anymore.” 

“Then don’t be.” Anand smiled and took her hand. “C’mon, walk me through it.” 

“Well, I’d be running for the seat from New York, so I’d have to establish residence there before the campaign starts.”

“You love New York,” he said encouragingly.  

“I do,” Hillary agreed. “That’s the uncomplicated part.”

“And the complicated part?”

“Bill,” Hillary sighed. 

“Ah…” 

He tried not to think about the future too much. Even though he’d been in love with her for years, they’d been lovers for only a few short weeks. It was all still so new, so fresh. It was easier to live for the moment, in the joy he felt when he heard her voice or in the thrilling anticipation of seeing her. There was a sweet madness in the love that overwhelmed him when she was with him, a reckless abandon in the deep contentment he found knowing that they were finally together and that she loved him. Hillary ran parallel to his every thought, weaving herself into every essential aspect of his life. It was simple. It was rhapsodic. But she was married. She had husband and a daughter whom she loved with all her heart. She had entire life outside of him. He had not wanted to consider how, or where, he fit into all of it. If he fit at all. The reality of how they would knit their lives together going forward had not, until now, been a concern. 

“That’s why I’m here,” she said. “I didn’t want to do this over the phone.”

Anand’s hand tensed around hers. He had been so excited by the spontaneity of her visit there’d been little reason to think it was anything more than lovely weekend rendezvous, a much needed reconnect to bridge the weeks spent apart. 

“I thought you came for the Indian,” he joked, but there was a flicker of apprehension in his eyes. 

“I don’t want this to end,” she said.

“Neither do I.”

“Anand, if I run—”

“Divorce is not a realistic prospect,” he said, cutting her off. “It would put you at a disadvantage.”

Hillary nodded. “We’re not as progressive or liberal in the US as we like to think we are. It’s hard enough being a woman. Throw in feminist, pro-choice, and divorced on top of that and I’d never get elected.” 

“I know,” he said softly.

 She caressed the back of his hand with her thumb. “It’s a pragmatic compromise. The least destructive one we have right now,” Hillary said, hoping to reassure him as much as herself. “Bill and I have come to an agreement, he’s free to live his life however he choses as long as he doesn’t interfere with mine. I don’t know what it will mean down the line, or how it will all shake out. But for now, at least in public, we have to stay together, or at a minimum give the appearance of such.” She picked at a loose thread in his pants. “The question is whether this is something you can live with?” 

 In a small, selfish corner of his heart, the desire to have her all to himself was undeniably there and grew with every passing day. Anand had hoped that once the salvo of attacks from the political firestorm she’d been ensnared in had subsided, once he and Hillary had had more time together and she felt more secure and confident of his devotion, that once she’d had some time to heal and regain her strength, she would leave her marriage. It was as much as he could allow himself to hope for. For her sake more than his.  

“Do you remember what I said to you the last time you were here?” 

Hillary smiled. “We said a lot of things that day.” 

“That you were right. I have no idea what it is to be married. I hope that will change someday.” He tucked an errant lock behind her ear. “I know how much you’ve invested in your life with Bill, what you’ve sacrificed. What you’ve built. Most people can only fantasise about having that in a relationship - romantic or otherwise.” 

“Yah, and look where it’s gotten us,” she said with a forlorn smile.  

“I can never replace him, Hillary. Or give you what he can, what he has. And I would never ask you to give up everything you’ve worked for just to be with me. If staying married to him for the time being means that you have the opportunity to do something you really want to do, I will not jeopardise that.”

She still had trouble believing the course her life had taken. That she’d fallen for him so profoundly. That being with him felt so right. “I know we haven’t really defined this,” she said, heart pounding in her chest. “And I don’t want to make any assumptions—”

“Assume this.” His long fingers threaded through her hair and he pulled her into a soft, languid kiss. His tongue gently teased hers, trailed over her teeth, tickled the roof of her mouth. “You mean the world to me,” Anand said, pulling her into his arms. 

“I don’t know what a campaign will mean for us. I’ll be under a microscope,” she said.   

“You’ve been under a microscope since the day we met.”  

Hillary pulled back. “This is different. If anybody finds out about us—”

“We’ve managed so far—”

“It could end very badly for all of us, Anand.”

Anand coaxed her eyes up to meet his. “What was it you said about not being afraid anymore?”

Hillary chewed her lip, her mind whirring with every worst possible outcome.   

“I’m not going to ask you to trust me. I know that’s not easy for you with everything that’s happened. And I’m not going to promise that everything is going to work out just fine. I don’t know that. You don’t know that. What I do know is that I’m not going anywhere.”

“But what if—” 

Anand pressed a finger to her lips. “It’s a leap of faith, babe.” 

He was right. Her fear had taught her to be overly cautious. It had crippled her, made her doubt what she knew she was capable of. Her choices had never been easy for reasons she’d never fully understood. What she did know now was that she was tired of allowing her fear to deprive her what she really wanted. 

Anand stood and walked over to a console near the window. He rifled through some vinyl records and dropped one onto the turntable. The dulcet strains of David Gray’s This Year’s Love filled the room. 

This years love it better last/ 

Heaven knows it’s high time/ 

I’ve been waiting on my own too long…

“Up,” he said and pulled her into his arms. 

She had craved the comfort that washed over her when his arms closed around her and felt some of her worry dissipate. 

“I’m sorry this is all so complicated,” she said, looking up into his eyes. 

“What, dancing?” He pushed her into a twirl and pulled her back into his arms just as effortlessly. “We’ve never danced before. I like it.” 

“It’s a slow song, I’m a bit more challenged in the rhythm department.” She laughed but he could still sense her restlessness. “I meant all of it,” she said. “You, me, Bill, politics, everything. I wish my life was simpler.”

“Do you think I’d love you more if it was?” 

She hadn’t really thought of it that way. Anand grinned. 

“I knew what I was getting into, Hillary. Stop apologising for things that are beyond your control.” 

She buried her nose in his chest and breathed in his scent as they swayed to the music. “You’re wrong about one thing, you know,” she said.

“Well I’m glad to hear it’s only one thing.” 

She looped her arms around his neck. “There is one thing you’ve given me that no one else has in a very long time.”

He raised an eyebrow, his mouth curling.

“Make love to me, Dr. Varma,” she murmured coquettishly, sliding her warm hands beneath his t-shirt. “I have come a very, very, very, long way after all.” 

“Greedy, greedy, girl,” Anand chuckled, leading her toward his bedroom. 

Her breath caught when he pressed gentle kisses to her eyelids. He left a wake of goosebumps on her skin when undressed her. He lavished her breasts with attention. The slivery hairs on the back of her neck prickled when he pushed her thighs apart, kissing and stoking her to ecstasy again and again. She laughed at the look on his face when she shoved him away with her foot and crawled onto her knees. 

“Like this,” Hillary panted over her shoulder grabbing the headboard to steady herself, her kittenish smile dripping with lust as she reached back to draw him closer. 

Anand wrapped his arms around her and slid into her from behind, thick and heavy and sinfully divine. Hillary sighed. She gripped his hip, her nails marking his skin as she ground back onto him. Her eyes never left his as they moved together, his strokes measured and deep.

“I’ve dreamed about making love to you like this,” she purred. 

His green eyes sparkled with mischief. He raked his nails from her neck to the small of her back. She whimpered and arched into him. 

“What else have you dreamt about?” he whispered, massaging her plump breasts. 

She caught one of his hands and guided his fingers to her clit. 

“Make me come again and I’ll show you.”

Anand groaned. “Yes, ma’am.”

 

Chapter Text

She wondered - not for the first time - why she had never spent more time in Italy. There had been brief official visits to Naples and the Amalfi coast a few years before but she hadn’t made it up to Tuscany. 

She watched the sun dipping toward the horizon from the Piazzale, the medieval Florentine skyline suspended beneath a sky streaked in autumnal golds and purples. A light breeze carried hints of honeysuckle up from the banks of the Arno, the Ponte Vecchio silhouetted against its smooth glassy surface in the distance. Hillary ran her fingers over the smooth stone dangling from her neck. She’d spotted it in the shop window of an old, rinky-dink jeweller on the bridge the day before. 

“It complements your new hairstyle,” Anand said, fastening the clasp of the fine white gold necklace around her neck. 

Hillary fidgeting with her bangs. She’d spent hours with Huma trying to find just the right wig. She’d settled on a striking jet-black pageboy that accentuated her eyes and sharpened the contours of her cheekbones. Anand had done a double take when she’d emerged from the bathroom looking nothing like her world-famous alter ego. 

“Happy birthday,” he said, placing a kiss on the back of her neck.

“It’s lovely,” Hillary said, the pristine amethyst pendant glinting against her pale skin. 

“It’ll look even better when I get you back to the hotel and take off all your clothes.” 

She caught his sly smile in the mirror as he turned to pay the grumpy old man behind the counter. It was not the first time he’d render her speechless that weekend. 

He stripped her bare the moment they stepped foot into their suite and made love to her until she had to peel herself out of bed and drag herself to dinner. He ravished her again when they returned after a late night stroll through the old city. And she’d woken that morning on the cusp of a gentle, rolling orgasm that had her grinning like an idiot all the way to the Galleria dell’Accademia where she literally forgot to think as she gazed up the mystical David in rare spellbound silence. 

The long lines and curves of his body, the grooves between his rippling muscles, the intricate web of purple-grey veins that ran beneath the surface of the cool marble, almost as animated as the venous tissue beneath her very own skin. Hillary couldn’t help but wonder if Michelangelo had any idea of the masterpiece he’d create when he set his chisel to the shapeless block of stone nearly five centuries before. The statue was so exquisite that one could almost forget the story of the hero behind it: the boy who defeated a giant to become a legandary king, and as king would in turn rape an innocent married woman and murder her husband to cover his crime. 

“I wonder what he was thinking?” Hillary mused, her voice echoing through the quiet museum.

 Anand stared up at the seventeen-foot tall statue. “That it was a little cold and it wouldn’t have killed Michelangelo to give him fig leaf.” 

“I was talking about Michelangelo,” she said rolling her eyes but following his gaze. “Is that all you’ve noticed since we’ve been here?”   

“Don’t pretend you didn’t,” Anand grinned. “It’s right there, holding sway over the entire room and all of Christendom.”

Hillary shook her head. “What is it with men and penis size,” she said, amused by the picture they must have made staring up at the statue’s groin like a pair of dimwitted five-year olds. 

“My interest is purely medical,” Anand shrugged. 

Hillary tilted her head and smirked. “His testicles are quite biblical in proportion.”

Anand snickered. 

She had almost not made the detour to Italy. In addition to keeping her official schedule and working around the clock with her small campaign staff to prepare for the official announcement of her senate run in February, breaking away had seemed like an ill-timed luxury. Think of it as an early birthday gift he’d said, reminding her that he wouldn’t have the chance to see her then and even less so once the holiday season started. It had been weeks since they’d last spent time together and she’d missed him terribly. It hadn’t taken much more for him to convince her that a couple of days together would do her a world of good. 

After the Galleria they meandered through Santa Maria del Fiore and stopped for lunch at a small cafe off the Piazza Duomo. Hillary loved being a regular tourist. More than that, she was giddy being able to hold his hand in public without fear of being recognised. It was titillating and indulgent. 

Anand smiled at her across their small cafe table. “Enjoying yourself?”

She looked around the piazza. “I love it here. There’s so much to see. It would take us weeks to get through it all.” 

“We’ll have to come back then.” He tucked some money into the check holder. 

She leaned in and softly kissed his lips. “I’d like that.” 

Anand’s heart leapt. There was nothing like being in love in Tuscany. 

They spent the rest of the day roaming around the Uffizi and Hillary quickly realised how deceptively small the museum was from the outside. If she never saw another Byzantine painting it would be too soon. But the Gentileschi, Caravaggio and Botticellis had been arresting. 

“You are far more bewitching,” Anand murmured when she stood staring up at Titian’s Venus of Urbino. She gasped when she felt his hand on her hip, his fingers sneaking beneath her blouse to skim across her skin below her navel. Blood rushed to her face as she glanced around the gallery. 

“Anand,” she warned. 

“Come.” He took her elbow and moved her to the far end of the room. “I spotted this on the way in and thought you might enjoy it,” he said. 

He guided her through a curtain of heavy industrial plastic cordoning off a small corridor. In the dim hallway Hillary could just make out the trestle worktops, hand tools and pallets of timber. The air was cool and smelled of fresh paint and dust. Anand steered her from the entrance toward a shadowy alcove behind a draped statue. 

“What are you doing?” Hillary whispered but from the look in his eyes she was fairly certain she knew.

“Giving you a memory of Tuscany you’ll never forget,” he answered hoarsely, pressing her against the wall with a hungry kiss. He was already hard against her hip. Her breath hitched as he undid the first… second… third button of her blouse.  

 “Anand, there are people right outside—” she was about to say door but there was no door, “right on the other side of this wall. Anyone could walk in.” She shivered when he pulled the cup of her bra down, his palm engulfing her soft breast. 

“You’ll have to be very quiet then,” he whispered and sucked her nipple into his hot mouth. Hillary whimpered. Her mind protested with every reason for why this was reckless and dangerous. Her body had other ideas though. Then again, Anand could be so persuasive. She pushed away from the wall, pressing her breast deeper into his wolfish mouth.

“Shit,” she panted, relishing the familiar heaviness gathering between her thighs.

“Shhh!” Anand said, cupping her face possessively and covering her mouth with his. 

Hillary groaned into him, her hands twisting in his hair. She loved the way he tasted. His hands singed her skin as he raked her skirt up her thighs. His fingers swirled through the moisture seeping from her folds and around her clit.

“Hmm…wet,” Anand growled. He pushed a long slender finger into her. 

Hillary tore her mouth from his with a hiss, her hips bucking into his hand needing more. She was unbuckling his belt and ripping down his zipper before she knew it. His mouth never left hers as he lifted her and wrapped her legs around his hips. He shoved her underwear to one side and moaned when Hillary grasped his throbbing cock and guided him into her. 

Her breath left her. The pleasure of being stretched and filled by him was intoxicating, maddening even. Anand gave her barely a moment to enjoy the sensation before he began thrusting. It wasn’t slow. It wasn’t graceful. It was ravenous and vigorous and unrepentant. It was everything she hungered for and could never seem get enough of when they made love. She muffled her cries in his neck as he slammed her ass into the cool, freshly painted wall over and over again. Hillary surrendered, relinquishing herself to his will as she hurtled toward what she could already feel would be a fierce climax. When she began to shake in his arms, Anand fused his mouth over hers to absorb her cries. Her orgasm tore through her. He was only a moment behind her. They slid down the wall in a heap of ragged breath and tangled limbs, spent and dazed. 

“Did you just fuck me in a corridor of the Uffizi?” Hillary asked as they wandered through the Boboli gardens afterward, their bodies tingling in the cool evening breeze. 

“Mm-hmm,” Anand hummed, “Thoroughly.” 

She’d wanted to wipe the smug look off his face but was still trembling from what he had done to her. He was right, she would never forget this place or this time with him. Florence would forever be their city.  

The stars had begun to twinkle above them as the last streaks of magenta faded into a gentian sky. Anand folded his arms around her waist. Hillary dropped her head onto his shoulder, burrowing deeper into his embrace. He’d been delighted when she had suggested a small picnic dinner instead of a fancy restaurant for their last night together. 

“What time does your flight for Iceland leave?” he asked. 

“9AM,” she sighed, a wave of sadness washing over her. The last few days with him had been magical and she didn’t want it to end. 

“Time enough for breakfast then,” he said. 

“And a quickie,” she grinned, raking her nails through the hair on his fleecy forearm. “Are you sure you don’t want to come with me? I’ve always wanted to go skinny dipping in a hot spring.”

Anand laughed. “As tempting as that sounds, I have to get back to Kinshasa.”  

They watched the lights of the city below blinking like fireflies on a warm summer evening. 

“I’ve had a teaching offer from George Washington University Hospital,” Anand said. “Should I accept?” 

Hillary’s caress stopped. “What? When?”

“About a month ago,” he said.

“But you were in the DRC a month ago,” she said, confused, retracing their timelines and trying to remember exactly what they’d been doing in the weeks since they’d last seen each other. Anand had been working in the Congo for the last four months, leaving only to see her when they could arrange it. And she’d been, well, prepping for her campaign when she wasn’t worrying about him. 

“Columbia-Presbyterian is a possibility, too. Though there are still some details that need ironing out but that’s beside the point.” 

Hillary waited, listening for said point.  

Gathering his courage, Anand took her hand. “I love these little rendezvous,” he said, gesturing to the city in front of them. “But you’re not going to be able to get away once you’re in the Senate. And these long stretches in-between are difficult enough at the moment. So I thought…” he trailed off. “I thought it would be easier if I came to you.”        

She sat up and turned to face him. “But what about your field work?”

Anand loved his work. He’d once told her that he’d never wanted to be anything other than a doctor. He saw the circumstances of his birth: born into poverty to mother who was unable to care for him as a gift. One that allowed him to understand what it was to be destitute, discarded, forgotten, unloved. He took the compassion of those who had raised him as instruction to care for those less fortunate than he had been. But joining MSF had been more than vocational for him. The organisation had allowed him to satisfy his curiosity and thirst for novelty. He had travelled the world, absorbing and learning from foreign cultures as he went. MSF hadn’t just given him a lifestyle he thrived in, it had moulded him into the man she had fallen in love with. 

“MSF will manage without me,” Anand said. 

“MSF is part of who you are,” Hillary argued. “It’s your life.” 

“And now you are part of my life and I want to be closer to you. Is that selfish of me?” he asked. 

Tension crept into her neck and shoulders. The feasibility of how all three of them: Bill, Anand and herself - would coexist, not only in the same country but potentially in the same city was something she hadn’t wanted to give much thought to. She’d been able to bifurcate her life with Anand from her life at home with Bill, making sure the two never overlapped in a way that would disrupt or threaten either. The setup, though not convenient, had worked for her; logistically, and to some extent emotionally too. She was in control of both. 

Hillary realised then that it wasn’t Anand who was selfish for wanting to be closer her, it was she who was selfish for wanting to keep him at a safe distance where he couldn’t upend her neatly compartmentalised world. It was hard enough that she couldn’t give him any assurances where she and Bill were concerned. But what would happen if he gave up his work with MSF to be with her? Would he happy? And for how long? And if things went to hell in hand-basket would he resent her? Would changing his life to accommodate hers change who they were to each other? 

“I can’t ask you to that,” Hillary said. “You can’t give up everything you’ve worked for.”

“Actually,” he smirked, “the prospect of more stability is something I didn’t know I wanted until you came along and turned everything upside-down.”

“You told me that being in one place for too long made you restless.”

“Yes,” he nodded. “That was true then. But you’re not asking me to do anything. I want to be near you.” He traced his thumb along her jaw. “There’d be no obligation on your part. No expectations. I just want to be able to get to you without having to take a bus, a train, and two flying carpets.”  

Hillary laughed nervously.

“Look, it’s a bit soon, I know,” Anand said. “And I know things could get a bit tricky with, Bill. But we, none of us - as you’ve pointed out - have done this before. And we can’t know unless we give it a go. You don’t have to decide now. Just think about it.”

She couldn’t keep the smile off her face. Despite her trepidation about it all, she couldn’t deny how deeply moving his offer was. She wanted him closer. She knew that now. She launched herself into his arms and kissed him.

Goosebumps prickled on the back of his neck and Anand chuckled. “Is that a ‘yes’ then?” 

Hillary grinned at him, her eyes sparkling. 

God, he loved her. 

 

Chapter Text

Bill teetered, his arms flailing, body twisting into a pretzel before his legs gave out and he went down in a blaze of glory. Across the frozen pond Hillary doubled over cackling. She skated over to where he lay sprawled out on the ice like a tattered scarecrow. 

“Are you alright?” She snickered.

He stared up at the sky, discombobulated but smiling from ear to ear. “Every time, Hillary. Every time,” he wheezed. 

“Oh, come on, you’re getting better.”

Bill glared at her. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this. Year after year after year…” 

“Because you love it,” she giggled. “Admit it, you love it.”

He hated ice skating. He’d never learned to do it as a child because nobody skated in Arkansas - they didn’t have any ice for godsakes! And he was terrible at it. If there was a prize for the world’s worst ice skater he was confident he’d cream it without ever having to try. Hillary was the only person who had been able to get him into a pair of skates. She’d tried to teach him way back when they’d first met but he was hopeless. Yet every Christmas, like a fool, he dragged his ass out onto the ice because it made her so damn happy it melted his heart. 

“The things I do for love,” Bill said, gazing up at her with a goofy smile. 

Hillary’s heart fluttered. “Let’s get you up.” 

She bent to take his hand and the next thing she knew Bill had his arms around her and she was pinned to the ice. He unzipped her jacket and shoved a hand full of snow down her turtleneck.

Sonofabitch!” she yelped, squirming underneath him.

Bill let out a howl. “Aww com’on, you love it. Admit it. You love it.”

She did love it. Christmas had always been a special time with her family and friends. Her mother, their brothers, extended family and a few close friends had spent Christmas with them at Camp David. There had been carols and presents and snowball fights. Hillary had played gin rummy with Diane, Chelsea and her mother. Dorothy wiped the floor with them. She owed her mother $75. Bill and the boys watched football and screamed at the TV. They went sledging the next morning and Hillary dragged everyone out to the frozen pond for some skating after lunch. She’d missed all the laughter and play the previous Christmas when neither she nor Bill had been in much of a mood for entertaining. Most importantly, Chelsea and Bill had spent more time together that week than they had in months and seemed on the path to mending their relationship. She’d watched with a great sense of relief as Chelsea had taken Bill’s hand after breakfast that morning, the two of them wandering off into the woods for a long walk. 

“You were saying?” Bill said, looking much too pleased with himself. 

“I can’t believe you did that. God, you really are a brat sometimes.” 

Bill’s breath puffed warm against her face. They were inches apart. Hillary’s pulse quickened when Bill bit down on his lip, his eyes slowly tracing over her mouth. She knew that look. 

“We should get back and pack,” she said, gently nudging his shoulder. 

“Sure,” he said with a boyish grin and rolled to the side. 

He helped her to her feet and held her hand as they skated back toward the rest of their group. 

“How’s your knee?” Hillary asked. 

Bill squeezed her hand. “Never better.” 

The White House was frenetic when they returned. Preparations for a celebration the likes of which had never before been seen in Washington were underway. Three years of planning had gone into the millennial extravaganza and Hillary was glad to catch whatever time she could to relax before hosting the biggest New Year’s Eve party in the country.

“Have you seen my Movado?” Bill called. “The one Vernon gave me for my birthday.”

Hillary squinted at the seating chart she’d been poring over for what must have been the six-hundredth time. “Second drawer, left hand corner, Bill,” she answered. “With all your other watches.” She listened as he rummaged through the drawers.  

“It’s not here,” he said impatiently.

She dropped the chart on the coffee table and padded into the dressing room. “Why do you need it?” she asked,  scanning the contents of the open drawer for the missing watch.

“I wanna wear it at the party on Friday,” Bill said. 

She pulled open an adjacent drawer and smiled. “Well, if you’d stop putting your watches with your cufflinks and cufflinks with your watches you’d have no trouble finding what you’re looking for,” she said, holding the black leather box in her hand. 

“Are you always this bossy?” Bill snarked, snatching the box from her and popping it open. 

“You used to like that about me,” she smirked as he slung the fine leather strap around his wrist then frowned. 

“Shit,” he said, fiddling with the buckle. “It’s broken.”

“Let me see.” She took his wrist. 

Bill watched her intently as she examined the clasp. She’d been happy the last few months. Smiling and laughing more freely, her waggish sense of humour more pithy than ever before. The pain he had inflicted had faded from her eyes. She was serene and moved with a sensual boldness he had never quite noticed before. Or maybe it had always been there and he’d taken it for granted, too distracted by taller, slimmer, poutier women he scarcely remembered afterward. And she’d stopped flinching every time he touched her. As miserable as it was for him to acknowledge, the doctor had been good for her.  

They’d been discreet. Much more than he’d ever been. Bill’s gut churned with shame when he thought about how careless he had been, how she must have known when he’d been with someone. A strand of hair on his lapel, a hint of perfume on his skin, a crumpled receipt in his pocket is all it would have taken to shatter her time and again. There was never a trace or even a suggestion of where she’d been when she came home. It was a kindness he was profoundly grateful for. It was more than disconcerting, however, to realise that if Hillary wasn’t honest about when she was going to see the doctor he would never know. That she could have had an affair right under his nose and he would have been none the wiser. 

He’d looked forward to welcoming her home from her trip to Iceland. Even though he’d been immersed in work, surrounded by people, he’d been lonely. He’d missed her presence, her essence, her face. He’d missed going to sleep and waking up next to her. The months since she’d invited him back into their suite allowing him to sleep beside her again had been difficult. To be so close yet feel so far away. But he’d understood her need for space and privacy and wanted to respect that. With time, it got easier. Day by day, as Hillary healed, so too did the rift between them. She’d slowly lowered her defences and they’d found a semblance of normality in their new reality. Before long they were bantering again, their minds sparking off each other as they always had. But he missed his wife. His lover. He yearned for her, for her touch. The delicate pressure of her fingers on the skin of his wrist stoked that longing, causing his temperature to rise and his heart to clench in his chest. He inched closer to her to catch a whiff of her scent, her breath. 

“Hmm… the buckle tongue has fallen out,” Hillary said, oblivious to his inner turmoil. “Give it to me,” she said, unwrapping the watch from his wrist and replacing it in its box. “I’ll have Huma run it to my jeweller in the morning.”

“Thanks,” Bill rasped softly. 

When Hillary looked up the raw intensity in his eyes sent a shiver down her spine. She was intimately acquainted with that intensity. Bill quickly averted his gaze and closed the drawers needing a moment to collect himself. Hillary swallowed hard, her throat suddenly parched. Struggling to look at her again, Bill focused instead on their reflections in the mirror in front of them.  

“Wanna watch a movie?” he said brightly. “They sent over a screener for something called Magnolia or something.”

Hillary licked her lips. “I need a drink,” she said, turning toward the door. “Want one?” 

“Whatever you’re having,” Bill replied. “I’ll make popcorn.”

Hillary took the glass from Bill’s hand and set it down on the coffee table as the credits rolled. He’d fallen asleep on her shoulder about halfway through the movie. She trailed her eyes over her husband’s long, lank body and smiled. He’d thickened and softened over the years. She gently brushed a curl from his forehead. She’d have to remind to get a haircut before Friday. Her hand lingered, fingers ghosting from his temple to his lips. He was he was still one of the most attractive men she had ever known. She stopped abruptly. 

“Bill,” she said quietly, nudging his shoulder. “Let’s go to bed.”

Bill yawned and stretched, unsure of whether he’d been dreaming.  

“Did you see her face?” Hillary asked, kicking her shoes off haphazardly. “I looked over at one point and thought she was going to rip out a chunk of Elizabeth’s hair.” She threw her head back in a giddy guffaw and Bill laughed. 

She’d seated him between Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren at dinner. Under any other circumstances he would have been thrilled to have the company of the two legendary actresses but the arrangement had proved anything but pleasant. It wasn’t long before Bill realised how intensely the women seemed to despise each other as they vied for his attention. His attention, however, had been fixed entirely on someone else all evening. 

Bill closed the bedroom door, pulling his bowtie from his neck and dropping it with a flourish as he danced toward her.

Longer than always is a long, long time,” he crooned slightly off key, “but far beyond forever you’re gonna be mine. 

“Bill! Shh! It’s four in the morning. People are trying to sleep.”

He scooped her up in his arms and danced her around the room, channeling Frank Sinatra with all his heart. “…I know I’ve never lived before, and my heart is very sure, no one else could love you more. No else, could love you more.” He spun her into a low dip as she giggled. Her face was dewy and flushed. She was tipsy. They both were. 

“You throw one helluva shindig, darlin’,” Bill drawled, setting her on her feet again. They continued swaying.

“Why, thank you, Mr. President,” Hillary replied in a breathy southern drawl all her own. She fluttered her lashes setting them both off again. 

“We forgot one thing though,” he said, the hand on the small of her back holding her close. 

“Oh, yah,” Hillary beamed. “What’s that?” 

Bill’s eyes softened. “We forgot to ring in the new year properly.” 

He closed the scant distance between them and paused a hairsbreadth from her. Hillary licked her lips, her eyes slowly tracing over his mouth.

His mouth was soft against hers as he took her lower lip between his. It was instinctual. A tender expression of love they had shared countless times through their life together. It was electric. Her heart thumped as his tongue swept into her mouth and swirled with hers. It was heady. She wound her arms around his neck as she swayed into him and deepened the connection. Bill groaned, his hands kneading her waist. It was all so achingly familiar. 

“Happy New Year, Hillary,” he panted when they parted, his eyes slightly unfocused. “God, I’ve missed—”

“Shut up, Bill.” She pulled him into a searing kiss before he could finish the thought. 

It was exhilarating. It was lusty. It was everything she hadn’t allowed herself to feel for him in more than a year. It was lips and teeth and greedy tongues. It was an impatient tangle of arms and legs and ravenous hands.

His dress shirt landed next his tuxedo jacket on the floor. Hillary moaned as his tongue laved the length of her neck. Bill fumbled with the zipper of her gown. She kicked the garment aside when it landed at her feet. 

Bill stepped back, his eyes raking over the lace and satin ensemble adorning her curves. All hills and valleys. Hillary moaned as he ran a trembling hand from her neck to her heaving chest, down between her plump breasts, over her small waist and the swell of her hip. 

“You’re so beautiful, Hillary,” he choked. “Perfect. Always, perfect.” He dropped to his knees and buried his face against her. 

Hillary whimpered as he devoured her breasts, threading her fingers through his soft greying hair as he worked his way down her body. She loved the way his fingers dug into her flesh, delicate and possessive all at once. She’d missed his hands, his touch, his oh-so-talented mouth. She shimmied out of her panties when Bill drew them over her hips. Their eyes locked for the briefest moment as he guided her thigh onto his shoulder. 

Bill pressed hot, wet kisses to her mound. 

“Oh, Bill…” Hillary sighed, her neck arching back as she melted into the familiarity of his touch. Her breath hitched when he swirled his tongue around her clit then gently pushed into her. She unhooked her bra when he reached for her breasts, leaning into his strong, capable hands and finding that precarious balance they had honed over the years. 

His mouth was luscious and wolfish. He was demanding and precise. Hillary cried out as her orgasm shook her to her core. Bill had barely a moment to catch his breath before she dragged him to his feet, unbuckling his belt as she went. 

Their mouths crushed together fervently. His feet tangled in his trousers and he tripped back onto the edge of the bed, drawing in a sharp breath when Hillary’s hand closed tight around his erection. She straddled his hips and sank onto him slowly. Bill’s eyes welled up.

“God, you feel good,” he whimpered, “I’ve missed you so much, sweetheart.” His beautiful hands splaying over her hips anchoring her to him and Hillary gasped as he thrust up into her, filling her completely. 

“I’ve missed you, too,”she moaned, wrapping her arms around him, peppering his face and hair with kisses as her hips ground into his. Bill buried his face in her neck, his arms tight around her as they fell into a familiar rhythm that was all their own.

“Slow down, honey,” he sputtered when his arousal began to singe his veins. “Too fast— it’s too fast. I don’t want to— not yet.” 

He had longed for this - hadn’t been sure he would be with her like this ever again. He wanted it to last. He wanted to savour it. He flipped Hillary onto the bed beneath him and thrust into her. Long, sensual, deep strokes. As deep as he could go. As deep as she would allow him. 

“I love you,” Bill breathed, his hands gentle and tremulous on her face as he moved inside her. 

 Hillary reached for him, her breath hot and sweet on his lips as she moved with him. 

“I love you, too, Bill.” 

 

Chapter Text

An icy wind stung her face as she stared at the phone in her hand. Six missed calls. She hit the message button and lifted the phone to her ear. 

Hi. It’s me.” There was a long, staticky pause. “I really need to talk to you. Please call me. Please.” There was another long silence before the call disconnected. 

Hillary snapped the mobile close. She’d lost count of how many times she’d replayed the message. 

She’d woken with throbbing ache behind her eyes on New Year’s day. She dragged herself into the shower, her eyes stinging with tears and smudged mascara while her stomach roiled with guilt and confusion. Bill was just waking up when she emerged from the dressing room. 

“Morning,” he said sitting up. 

“Morning,” Hillary murmured.

Bill rubbed his eyes. “Good god, I feel like I’ve been dragged by an eighteen-wheeler,” he yawned. “How are you upright right now?”

“Champagne will do that to you.” She dropped an overnight bag onto the bed and Bill watched with groggy fascination as she shoved a nightdress into it.

“Going somewhere?” he asked with a dopey smile.

Hillary grabbed her laptop and eyeglasses from her nightstand. “Cynthia’s house for a couple of days.”

“Cynthia’s house?”

She swung the bag onto her shoulder. “Yes. I have some ideas for my next book and she said I could use the beach house if I needed a quiet place to work. It’s just for a few days. I can be back in an hour if I’m needed.” 

“Whoa, hold on!” He jumped out of bed. “Wait a second.” He spun her around just as she reached for the door handle. “What’s happening here?”

Hillary shrugged away from him.  

“We need to talk about last night—”

“There’s nothing to talk about—”

“I think there is—” 

“No, there isn’t. It happened—”

“It didn’t just happen. We made love, Hillary.”

“Yes, we did.”

“For the first time in ages and it was incredible and beautiful and right. It felt like we’re finally finding our way back to each other.”

Hillary’s heart leapt into her throat. It had been incredible. And it had felt right. But in the clear light of morning it also felt incredibly wrong. “We were drunk, Bill.”

“What does that...” He trailed off crestfallen and bewildered. “We were drunk so it doesn’t mean anything?” 

Hillary struggled to meet his eyes. “I don’t know what it means.” She truly didn’t. 

“Well then let’s talk about it—”

She opened the door and headed down the hallway. 

“Don’t just walk away.” Bill threw his hands up in exasperation. “Hillary!” 

Bennet took her bag from her as she rushed onto the elevator. 

“I need a minute, Bill,” she said. 

The last thing she saw was the dejection on Bill’s face before the doors closed between them. 

 

The waves lapping at her ankles were frigid. Hillary snuggled into the thick wool throw wrapped around her shoulders and peered out at the roaring Chesapeake swells buffeting the store. She’d spent most of the morning wandering up and down the deserted beach after a long, restless night alone in the beach house.  

What had happened between her and Bill was no drunken mishap. They’d been orbiting each other with ever diminishing proximity since their entente that spring. If she was completely honest, she’d known they were on a collision course. The alcohol had nothing to do with it, nor had it impaired her judgement in any way. If anything, it had tempered her nerves and untethered the desire that had been building inside her for weeks. She’d wanted Bill as much as he’d wanted her. She didn’t regret making love to him. What caught her off-guard was how wretched she’d felt when she woke and her first thought was Anand. 

In a daring moment of impulsiveness, Hillary had asked him to spend part of the holiday season with her in Washington. She hadn’t thought through exactly how they would manage it but her yearning to share some part of the holidays with him had fleetingly prevailed over caution and reason. Anand, however, had been more than a little homesick and flew to India to spend Christmas at Jeevna Jyoti. After a long, frustrating recovery following his accident, re-acclimating to work and figuring out their unfolding relationship had kept him away from New Delhi for almost two years. He craved the smells and sounds and colours of his motherland, but more pertinently, he missed Sister Mary, whose health he fretted had begun to deteriorate after a protracted spell of the flu. He’d emailed the most adorable picture of himself with the septuagenarian nun: him dressed as Santa Claus and she gussied up in a puckish little elf costume, doling out presents to a gaggle of ecstatic orphans. The affection between them was palpable and Hillary could see clearly from whom Anand had inherited his mischievous bent. She’d never seen him happier and his joyful oblivion further exacerbated her shame.

She’d been honest with Bill about Anand; explicit about her feelings and intentions well before she’d gone to bed with him. She’d given Bill time and space to metabolise the realignment of their relationship. And while she’d felt profound sadness about the disintegration of their marriage, she hadn’t felt guilty about her decision to move forward with Anand. But this was different. Sleeping with Bill blurred the boundaries with Anand. Boundaries she hadn’t fully anticipated or understood now existed. It felt like a violation, like a betrayal. It felt an awful lot like cheating. 

Staring at her mobile, Hillary drew in a slow breath. It had already been three days since she last spoke to Anand and however much she wanted to, she knew couldn’t avoid him forever. She was about to dial his mobile when the phone began to ring, an unfamiliar number flashing across the small screen. 

“Hillary?”

“I was just about to call you,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t pick up on her uneasiness. 

“I’ve been trying to reach you.” He sounded tired and agitated. 

“I know, it’s been a little crazy on my end.”

“I’m at the Hilton off Dupont Circle.”

Her stomach dropped. “You’re in Washington?”

“I know I shouldn’t have come, but— but you weren’t answering and I—I need to see you. Can you come?” 

“What’s going on?” She started down the beach back toward the house in a panic.“Anand, what’s wrong?”

“Sister Mary,” he said thickly. “She’s— I’ve lost her.”

Hillary stopped dead in her tracks. “I’ll send Bennet for you.”

 

She wore a groove into the hard wood floors while she waited. Anand’s eyes were bloodshot and drawn when he walked though the door. She didn’t know how it was possible that he could look like he’d aged ten years and a lost little boy at the same time. No sooner had Bennet closed the door behind him and he was in her arms, his shoulders trembling, his tears seeping through her sweater to her skin. 

“I’m sorry,” he sobbed. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

“It’s alright,” she said, rubbing soothing circles across his back. 

“I just needed to see you.” He tightened his arms around her. “I need you.” 

“I’m right here.”

 

Hillary made a pot of tea hoping the warm brew would comfort him and they settled in front of the fire place. Rain began to beat against the windows overlooking the bay. 

“She was all I had when I was small,” Anand said, staring at the flickering flames. “She read to me, bathed me, took care of me when I was sick. When I was four, a couple from England came to adopt me. I was terrified. I didn’t want to leave her. I ran away and hid in the railway yard nearby for four days, hoping that eventually they’d go back to where they came from and leave us alone.” 

The hint of amusement in his voice did little to quell the dread and overwhelming sadness she felt imagining him as a small boy wandering around a busy railway yard by himself with nowhere to go, no food to eat, and no one to protect him. 

  “Children used to runaway all the time. Nobody ever bothered to go looking for them. Amina came to find me and took me home.”

“I didn’t know her name was Amina.”

“No one did. I was only one who called her by her birth name.” He smiled sadly. “Her father named her after her mother who died giving birth to her. They were very poor, but he never remarried - which is very unusual for men in our culture. He was this larger than life character and raised Amina by himself. He told her they were like Laurel & Hardy, just the two of them against the world. And that as long as they had each other they could do anything. He was killed in a rickshaw accident when she was seven. That’s when she went to live with the nuns. But she worshipped her father and talked about him all the time, like he was still alive and would come bursting through the door at any moment. When Amina found me on the doorstep of Jeevna Jyoti, she named me after him.” 

Her eyes brimmed with tears. “It’s a good name.” 

“She couldn’t adopt me legally, but she made me her family by giving me her father’s name. She made sure I got a decent education and when it was time for university she used what meagre savings she had to pay for tutors and books and application fees. I don’t know how she managed to get me into the scholarship programme that took me to Cambridge but I am here today because she believed in me. Because she loved me.”

Hillary squeezed his hand. “I can only imagine how proud she was.”

A tear trickled down his face. “When she didn’t rouse when I went to wake her,” he sniffed, “I felt exactly like I did the day that couple came to take me from her all those years ago. Terrified. Alone. Like I was being torn open, ripped away from the person who was my only home, my only constant.” 

Her heart ached for him and with love for him. “Losing a parent is hard no matter how old you are,” Hillary said, reminded of her father’s death and how fresh the loss still felt to her at times. “I’m happy you had these last few weeks with her.” 

Anand dropped his head into her lap and curled his body around her. Hillary held him, struggling to hold back her own tears as he wept. 

“Whose house is this?” he asked when his breathing evened out after a long while. He sat up and dried his eyes with the sleeve of his sweater. 

“My friend Cynthia’s. She’s an old friend from my days at Wellesley.”

Anand blinked at her curiously. “I thought you’d be in Washington?”

Everything that had happened since New Year’s Eve came flooding back. “It’s been a hectic few weeks.” She stood and threw a few logs onto the fire. “I needed some time to catch my breath and think.” It was only half a lie but she felt no less shitty for it.  

“I’m intruding.” Anand said, reading her mercurial shift. “I can go back to—” 

“No. I’m happy you’re here.” She picked up their mugs and Anand followed her to the kitchen. “Why don’t you go upstairs and take a shower. I’ll make dinner.” 

“I can help,” he said, trailing closely behind her as she riffled through cabinets, depositing ingredients on the kitchen island as she went. 

“No!” Hillary said, wincing inwardly at her sudden irritation. She stopped in front of Anand and rested her hand over his heart. “For once, let me take care of you. Please, Anand.” 

Anand exhaled heavily, his forehead against hers. “I love you.”  

“I know,” she said, allowing the steady cadence of his breath to soothe some of her frayed nerves. She leaned up and kissed him gently. “There are fresh towels in the bathroom. Take your time.”

He grabbed his bag but stopped half way up the stairs. “Are you alright?” 

Her chest constricted. “Yes. Fine.” But her smiled felt forced and hollow. “How about pasta?”

Anand nodded even though he didn’t believe her. “I’m starving. Pasta would be lovely.” 

He continued up the stairs trusting that she would talk to him when, and only when, she was ready to. 

 

They shared a bottle of wine over dinner and Hillary listened as Anand talked more about his mother. He was particularly interested in her relationship with Dorothy, too. They rarely spoke about her family but Hillary felt little reason to hold back now. She told him everything she knew about the mother’s difficult childhood and shared more about her own. There was laughter and tears and Anand was exhausted by the time he crawled into her bed, falling asleep as soon as she turned out the light. 

Hillary lay quietly beside him. She couldn’t tell him that she’d made love to Bill. Not now. Not when he was so raw, his heart broken and bleeding. She would have to wait. Just until his grief had abated. But as her sleepless hours wore on she wondered whether there was any merit in her need for honesty. What purpose would hurting him deliberately to assuage her own guilt serve? And what did that say about her? Watching his chest rise and fall in the soft glow of the moon she knew she had never loved Anand more intensely. She could, and would, lie to protect him - even from herself. The irony of her situation left a bilious aftertaste on her tongue. 

 

She wanted to walk him to his gate when she dropped him off at the airport on her way home but doing so would only have drawn needless attention. The two days they’d spent together at the beach house had been replenishing for both of them, and despite his grief, Anand had regained some equilibrium by the time he kissed her goodbye and headed for his plane to London. 

She got back to the White House a little before midnight and found Bill in his sweats, a tumbler of scotch dangling from his hand over the Truman balcony.

“Hi,” she said, sidling up to him at the railing. 

He greeted her with a weary smile. “Hi.”

“Can’t sleep?” 

“Work,” he sighed, his shoulders bunched up. He took a sip of his scotch. “How was the bay?”

“Blustery.”

He swirled the rich amber liquor in his hand. “They say there’s a storm coming.” 

“Anand was with me for a few days,” Hillary said softly. “His mother died. He’s suffering.” She hadn’t been sure what to expect but Bill looked genuinely taken aback. “It wasn’t planned, Bill.”

“I know,” he said and handed her his tumbler. “He’s lucky to have you.” 

Hillary took a deep drink, enjoying the burn of the rich liquor as it slid down the back of her throat.

“Thank you for telling me,” Bill said. 

Hillary nodded and they fell into an easy silence. It was an unseasonably warm and clear evening for January but she could smell snow in the air.  

“I’m not going to apologise,” Bill said after a while. There was heart-rending vulnerability beneath his brusque restraint and it tugged at her heart.

Hillary turned to him and cupped his face with her hand. “I don’t expect you to.” 

Bill’s eyes fell shut. “Not for loving you.” He covered her hand with his and pressed a tender kiss to the inside of her wrist. “And I can’t promise that it won’t happen again.”

A shudder ran up Hillary’s spine. Nor could she. Making love to Bill again had stoked the embers of the irrepressible force that had bound them to each from the very start. It was more than the attraction of opposites, more than sex. It had always been more than sex. 

“I’m going in,” she said quietly. “Don’t stay out here too long, there’s a storm coming.”

Bill smiled, releasing her hand as she turned for the door.