Chapter Ten

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull Quote from romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: "He was also feeling rather pleased with himself."

When Sharon first saw the vicious email, she knew she should have reported it to security. But since it didn’t actually threaten her with anything, she chalked it up as yet another disadvantage to fame, although, in retrospect, she’d come to realize it was more her own denial operating at that point.

Max’s article was embarrassing enough as it was. The last thing Sharon wanted on the Monday morning after it ran was to hear about it. Which of course meant that the entire Advisory Board, including part-timers, had to send relentless emails, both congratulating and teasing her. Her family wasn’t much better, especially Michael, who had taken plenty of heat from her at various times in his career.

However, Sharon put most of it behind her and focused on her work. Until Tuesday, during the Advisory Board meeting, when Karen Tanaka made a point of running some video feeds from the latest late night comedy shows. Sharon had been featured on every one, and unlike Max’s article, the jokes were not about how smart she was.

“I don’t know,” chortled one comic. “Is it really a good idea to try to make peace with a woman hot enough to start a war over?”

“I finally figured out why I can’t get any hot women,” crowed another. “You gotta be president to get a woman that hot.”

Sharon sighed loudly, during one particularly obnoxious rant.

“Can I just crawl under the table and die now?” she asked plaintively.

“So that’s it,” another comedian continued. “If our former president had kept a hot chick on his arm, we’d still have our allies.”

“I think we can turn that off,” said Mark quietly.

Karen shrugged. “I know it’s sexist and demeaning, but everyone is talking about how well our foreign policy changes are going.”

“Better yet,” said Augie, “it’s all on our message.”

“Right,” grumbled Sharon. “Trust our new president because he’s a babe magnet. That really lends authority to negotiations.”

She glanced over at Mark, who was smiling softly.

“I guess I’d better use some of that authority then to bring this meeting back to order,” Mark said. “What else is going on today?”

Coop immediately took up his report.

When the late night talk show jokes about the president’s girlfriend still hadn’t let up after Tuesday night, Sharon decided it was time to take steps. Unsure at first who she should call, she found a business card on her desk from the week before. He’d started the trouble, he could help her fix it.

That Max Epstein was a little startled to get Sharon’s call would be an understatement. But he readily agreed to meet her at the latest happening watering hole Friday night. Fortunately, Mark did not have any embassy soirees that week, either.

Which meant that it should have been a smoother week for Sharon, except that Wednesday after lunch, she got a call from June.

“Sharon, I hate to ask you, but I’m not sure who else to call,” June said, somewhat anxiously. “Johnnie won’t touch it and Karen would totally blow up.”

“What?” said Sharon.

“It’s Solly, the chef.” June sighed. “She’s having another hissy fit and I’m stuck in New York. Can you go down and find out what’s going on?”

“Don’t you know?”

“All I know is that she’s trying to fire the entire staff again. Something about some theft. I’d call myself, but I don’t want to get Major Wills’ back up again.”

“Why can’t he handle it? He’s the chief usher. Isn’t that his department?”

June groaned. “Are you kidding? He’s terrified of her. All he’d do is fire her and that would break Mark’s heart. And Wills doesn’t want me talking to the domestic staff unless he’s present because that will undermine his authority, so you can sort of see his point.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.” Sharon sighed and hung up.

Yasmin Sollette was a woman whose height alone made her an imposing character. Add in an ample (though not huge) waistline and a temper that could run as hot as a broiler on high, and it was understandable why she was a rule unto herself. Her incredible talent as a cook, not to mention the ability to run a kitchen that faced the unique demands of the White House, made the temper worth dealing with, at least as far as June was concerned.

Solly’s mother was Lebanese-Asian, her father Creole-Hispanic. Her face bore the wide nose and round features of the African American side of her heritage, but her skin was very light with a slightly olive-brown hue that spoke to her Middle Eastern and Spanish roots. More often than not, her disposition was sunny and she laughed loudly and easily.

Sharon found her fuming in her office.

“Who are you?” Solly demanded when Sharon knocked on the open door.

“Ms. Jerguessen called me,” Sharon said. “I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Oh. I know you. Why’d she call you?”

“She’s stuck in New York. She asked me to find out what was going on.”

“What’s going on is I need to be able to fire folks what need it. That’s what’s going on.” Solly jumped to her feet and began pacing. “You can’t keep order in a kitchen when you can’t fire nobody. There’s stealing going on and I can’t fire nobody? How am I gonna find out who’s doing the stealing if I can’t scare ’em? How am I supposed to do that?”

“I’m not sure.” Sharon swallowed. “What was stolen?”

“My quail eggs!” Solly snapped, her eyes glittering angrily. “I had two dozen for the President’s luncheon on Thursday and half a dozen are gone. Not to mention some premium Serano ham. And let me tell you, somebody’s been dipping into my natural lard pretty regular, too. You think it’s easy to find this stuff? You think I can just pick it up at the local supermarket?”

“I’m pretty sure you can’t.” Sharon sighed. “I’m sure there’s some sort of procedure, though. Why don’t I talk to Major Wills?”

“That old poop?” Solly threw up her hands. “He’s not gonna do anything! I need to fire people, put the fear of God in ’em. That’s how you get to the truth. I got a whole list of ingredients that have gone missing since the day I started. I can’t put nothing nice in the upstairs pantry without somebody helping hisself. And I sure as hell ain’t putting it down here. Good semolina flour and somebody took the last pound right before I needed it. I need to fire people.”

“How about if we find some other way to put the fear of God in them,” Sharon said.

“Well, you better or I am walking. No point sticking around if I can’t control my own kitchen. No point at all.”

Sharon retreated, trying to remember who the luncheon on Thursday was for. She debated talking to Major Clive Wills, who as Chief Usher, oversaw all the domestic and event staff at the White House. But Wills was a stickler for protocol and domestic issues went through the First Lady’s office, never mind that there really wasn’t a First Lady. And Sharon had already ruffled the man’s feathers when she’d had her office look over the arrangements for the French foreign minister’s visit the month before.

Wincing because she knew June had other better things to do, Sharon nonetheless dialed June’s number.

“So what did you find out?” June asked.

“Well, the theft triggered it,” Sharon said. “She wants to fire the staff so that she can control the kitchen. Make everybody afraid enough that someone will snitch, presumably.”

“What got stolen?”

“Nothing that serious, just ingredients, but it seems to be ongoing. She mentioned half a dozen quail eggs, some Serano ham, and some natural lard. She seemed more concerned with keeping her people under control.”

June groaned. “Half a dozen quail eggs? Cripes. I think I know who her thief is. Figures the one person we won’t be able to fire without a lot of due process.”

“Who?”

“My brother. He made quail eggs benedict for brunch last Sunday, with Serano ham.”

Sharon remembered some ravioli made with semolina the Thursday before.

“That’s right. Your brother cooks,” Sharon said, hesitantly, hoping she wasn’t giving anything away. Not that either she or Mark had explicitly decided to keep their few dinners together a secret.

June hadn’t noticed. “What a headache. And I can’t talk to her directly.”

“You can talk to your brother.”

“That I can.” June sighed. “I hate asking, Sharon, but can you talk to Solly in the meantime?”

Sharon sighed as well. “Sure. Why not?”

She hung up and went back to Solly’s office where the chef was pacing again.

“Maybe I just oughta get out of here now,” Solly grumbled, barely noticing that Sharon had returned.

“Do you really want to break the President’s heart?” Sharon asked. “He really does love your work.”

Solly harrumphed. “That’s the only reason I’ve stayed this long. But, dang, I can’t keep doing what I do if someone keeps stealing. From the President, hisself. What kind of person does that?”

“Well…” Sharon grimaced. “You know how he cooks for himself a lot. And according to Ms. Jerguessen, umm… Well, he served her quail eggs for brunch last Sunday. With Serano ham.”

“What?” Solly turned on her.

“I think your thief is the one person we can’t fire.” Sharon shrugged. “At least not for another four years.”

Solly sank into her desk chair. “I put that stuff upstairs so it wouldn’t get taken.”

“That’s probably why he thought it was okay for him to take.” Sharon smiled weakly at her. “He’s not immune to reason. Maybe we could work something out.”

There was the sound of a throat being cleared loudly and meaningfully at the door to Solly’s office. Sharon turned.

There were those who said Major Clive Wills had served at the White House since Ulysses S. Grant. That the man was old and an old school Southern gentleman there was no doubt. He was of medium height with bright white hair, faded blue eyes and the ramrod straight spine one associated with dancers or the military. He was technically retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, which is where he began his White House service and why he kept his title. It was generally accepted that the only way he was going to leave the White House was feet first.

“Good morning, Major,” Sharon said, pleasantly. “How can I help you today?”

“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” he replied, his Southern drawl lengthening with his displeasure. “I was not aware that we have any foreign dignitaries on the schedule in the immediate future.”

“Next month, I believe,” Sharon replied. “The reception for the new Nigerian ambassador. But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Oh, come on,” Solly growled, getting up. “The woman can come down here and consult with me on a dinner party she’s having, can’t she? Last I checked, it’s a free country.”

Major Wills looked at both women, nodded and left.

“You better get him off my back, too,” Solly grumbled softly to Sharon. “He is getting on my last nerve. I bet you anything, if I could’ve just talked straight up to Ms. Jerguessen or the President, we wouldn’t be having no problem with me not knowing what he’s taking for his own cooking. And I’d rather be talking to you about them foreign dignitaries than him any day.”

Sharon nodded. “I’ll tell Ms. Jerguessen about your concerns. But you’ve got to stop threatening to fire everybody. This is the White House. It’s due process.”

“But how am I—”

Sharon cut her off. “You can write them up. I’ll make sure you have the forms. And they will get read, and not by Major Wills. Okay?”

“Okay. But what are we going to do about the president? It’s awful hard to plan when you don’t know what’s going to turn up missing one day to the next.”

“Isn’t there someplace in the main kitchens down here where you can stash stuff?”

Solly frowned. “Hell, no. It’s too crazy and cramped down here. There’s barely room for the pastry station. Last big dinner we had, we were plating the salads in the hall. I tell you, if this weren’t the White House, I would not be here.”

Sharon thought. “It’s a pretty crazy place to work. Tell you what. Can you stick around ’til, say six-thirty, seven tonight?”

“Think so.” Solly looked over the schedule pinned to the bulletin board at the back of her office. “Ain’t nothing scheduled and the president usually likes his dinner around then, anyway. Lessee if he sent down his order yet.” She glared at the computer on her desk, then hit a couple buttons. “Nope. Nothing yet. He might be planning on cooking hisself tonight, but Major Goop says I still gotta be around, just in case.”

“Let me send an email or two.” Sharon began pressing buttons on her Blackberry. “I’ll give you a call as soon as I get an answer.”

Sharon hurried back to her office, texting as she went. June was delighted that it looked like things were resolved. Mark agreed to meet with Solly in the upstairs kitchen at 6:30 and invited Sharon to join them, which Sharon was hoping he would.

Solly, of course, already had clearance for the upper floors of the White House, since she or whichever of her cooks was on duty usually used the upstairs kitchen to prepare meals for the president and his sister. Sharon had to wait for an escort, and at 6:25 precisely, Major Wills showed up at the door to her office to take her upstairs.

Mark arrived at the same time and dismissed the major for the evening. The major glanced at Sharon and left with a slight smirk on his face. Sharon started.

“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said. “It doesn’t matter what he’s thinking, he’s not going to say anything about it.”

“Still,” grumbled Sharon.

“Let me put it this way, the Major hinted that my predecessor had some preferences that would have totally blown his moral compass image and not a hint of it leaked.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Are you sure said Major didn’t make some rash assumption?”

Mark chuckled. “I, uh, found some independent confirmation in the desk.”

Solly was waiting for them in the kitchen.

“Mr. President, this is Yasmin Sollette,” Sharon said, beckoning Solly forward.

“Oh, just call me Solly,” she said, blushing.

“Solly, it’s about time we got to meet.” Mark pushed forward and grasped her hand. “I tell you, I have been thoroughly enjoying your work. The food is just fabulous. I’d love your recipe for that gumbo you made the other night.”

“That’s gumbo – a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Sharon cut in. “We do have an issue to work out, sir. As I mentioned in my email, Solly has been rather frustrated by the way certain ingredients have been disappearing.”

“I am so sorry, Solly,” Mark said, charm oozing from every pore. “I had no idea. I just saw all these cool ingredients.”

“Apology accepted, sir.” Solly blushed again and let out a little giggle, then collected herself and grew stern. “I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d’a known what was going on.”

“We are definitely going to have to establish some boundaries here, aren’t we?” said Mark, relaxing a little. “By the way, where are you getting that pure lard? That stuff is wonderful!”

Solly grinned. “I got an organic pig farmer down in Virginia that renders it. Cain’t really sell it, cuz of all them FDA rules, but I got some pull. I’ll get you some.”

“So I suppose, then, the issue is primarily about storage,” said Sharon. “Shall we lay out whose stuff goes where?”

Mark pulled off his suit jacket and loosened his tie while he and Solly went to work re-organizing stock and deciding what could be shared, what needed to be kept separate and how to tell when Solly was stashing something for an upcoming event or meal. Then there was the debate over who would actually cook dinner, with Solly insisting that it was, in fact, her job to do the cooking and Mark countering that after the grief he’d caused her, cooking for her would be the least he could do. Then Solly said that if he wanted to do some penance, he could play sous chef for the evening, to which Mark agreed.

Fortunately, there wasn’t an issue over the knives. Mark’s had always been kept in a special butcher block. But Solly did have to send a page downstairs for hers. In the meantime, she stood over Mark, nodding as Mark expertly minced a shallot.

“You got the technique down, but you are slow,” Solly observed. “Good thing you got this president job, cuz you wouldn’t last five minutes in a real kitchen.”

Sharon, who had been invited to stay for dinner, laughed.

Solly glared at the refrigerator, then called downstairs for some pork tenderloin, and a variety of mustard, turnip and beet greens. The ingredients showed up within minutes and Sharon was put to work, as well.

Solly saw to slicing the tenderloin into paper-thin slices, while Sharon washed spinach and mesclun for a salad. Mark washed the other greens and chopped them down for steaming, then chopped a couple small mushrooms. Solly slid slices of tenderloin into a frying pan with a little bit of butter and oil and had much of the meat ready in a few short minutes. To the pan, she added another bit of butter, then sauteed the chopped mushrooms, shallot, and some garlic that Sharon had chopped. A dollop of Dijon mustard went in with a little chicken stock from the fridge. Under Solly’s direction, Mark plated the steamed greens on a platter then arranged the tenderloin slices while Sharon dressed the salad with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.

The only other conversation going while the food was being prepared was what wine to serve with the food. Mark finally won out and pulled a New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the refrigerator.

The meal, itself, was filled with laughter as Solly told horror story after horror story of kitchen mishaps. As Solly remarked to Sharon later, “I know he’s the boss and all, but I really like that he can be a friend, too. Know what I mean?”

“Yep,” Sharon replied, smiling to herself as the two rode down in the service elevator.

“He ain’t bad in the kitchen, either,” Solly said. “Slow, but not bad.”

“Amateur,” said Sharon.

Solly chuckled. “Yeah, but that’s a good thing. Keeps me employed.”

Sharon’s Blackberry buzzed. “What?” She burst out laughing. “It’s the boss. He sent me a shopping list.”

“I think we’re going to get along,” Solly said, grinning.

Mark, for his part, finished washing the dishes under the baleful eye of a member of the housekeeping staff. He wasn’t supposed to be cleaning anything. But old habits died hard and his paternal grandmother had always insisted that he take responsibility for cleaning up after himself. That meant he made his bed the second he left it in the morning and when he cooked something, he washed the dishes, all of which irritated the housekeeping staff no end.

He was also feeling rather pleased with himself. He’d been wondering how to invite Sharon upstairs for dinner. With Solly around to aid and abet, it wasn’t likely to cause scandal. Not that Solly would sell out. Mark paused. He hoped Solly wouldn’t sell out. He scribbled a note to check on her salary.

Matt Jerguessen thought he heard the doorbell ring as he flipped through the channels on the TV in his room. It was late afternoon and there wasn’t much on. Several channels had the news on, most of them showing his dad talking to the press about some bill the state legislature was supposed to be passing. Matt sighed. They’d talked about the bill earlier that day in his political science class – it was supposed to fund drug treatment for non-violent offenders, based on a successful program that a couple other states had instituted. But there were a lot of politicians, his father included, who didn’t want to pass it because they didn’t want to look soft on crime.

“Criminals belong in jail, not the hospital,” Harold Jerguessen intoned from the TV. “This is about justice and good stewardship of taxpayer money.”

Matt changed the channel again quickly, wondering if his dad would change his tune about the bill if he knew about his daughter’s drug habit. Never mind that the bill would actually save the state taxpayers a fortune.

His mother’s voice drifted up from downstairs. Matt quickly turned on a video game and put his headset on. With luck, she’d assume he hadn’t heard her.

Shawna Jerguessen sighed and excused herself to her guests with a smile. Of course, Matt hadn’t heard her. Climbing the stairs, she braced herself. The boy was getting more difficult and moody every day. There had to be a way to get him to socialize more.

She knocked on his door, knowing she wouldn’t get an answer. She opened it and shook her head. Matt was busy spraying some monster with gunfire. Perhaps it was time to take those horrible games away from him. She didn’t want him shooting up his high school – she didn’t think she could take the humiliation, not to mention what it would do to Harold’s career.

But Matt didn’t seem like a misfit and he didn’t seem to have any interest in guns. He didn’t even email that much and his web surfing seemed innocent enough. She made a point of keeping track of Matt’s computer and cell phone activity. Now, if only she could do something about him being such a loner. It just wasn’t healthy.

“Matt,” she announced. “Matthew?”

He didn’t answer, absorbed in his game. Sighing, she went and stood in front of the television.

“Mom!” he groaned. “I was just about to get to the next level.”

“Marissa and Brittany are here,” she said, sternly. “They’ve come to see you.”

“Why?” Matt grumbled.

“Matthew, would you please go downstairs and be sociable for a change?”

Heaving a tortured sigh, Matt got off the bed and followed his mother downstairs.

Even though the house had a colonial exterior, it had a thoroughly modern and open floor plan. Marissa and Brittany, young, thin, brown-haired and giggling, were waiting in front living room – a bright space with elegant beige furniture and walls that had been featured in a local luxury magazine.

Matt mumbled a greeting at them, thanks to a prod from his mother, who was standing right behind him.

“Matt, this is so important,” Marissa said. “You heard about Jimmy Langstrom getting arrested?”

“Yeah,” Matt said. Langstrom had tried to get Matt to deliver drugs to Matt’s sister DeeDee and then offered some to Matt, explaining that was how he’d gotten DeeDee hooked. The senior had been arrested the day before on drug charges and as far as Matt was concerned, jail was exactly where Langstrom belonged.

“You know he’s innocent,” Brittany chimed in. “So we’ve got this petition, see? And everybody’s signing it.”

“What’s a petition going to do?” Matt asked.

“Matthew,” his mother laughed gently. “Don’t be so silly. Jimmy needs your support.”

Matt shrugged. “I’m going back to my room. See you guys.”

Matt went back upstairs knowing full well he was in deep trouble with his mom. He had to get out of there. He listened for the door with one eye out his window, which overlooked the front of the house as he packed his backpack with his laptop and a couple notepads. Grabbing his parka and his car keys, he headed to the staircase in the hope that he could escape the house before his mother tracked him down.

But she was waiting for him in the living room.

“Matthew, we need to talk, young man,” she said sternly.

He stopped.

“What on earth is the matter with you?” Shawna continued. “Did you have to be so rude?” She waited as Matt shrugged. “Why, in Heaven’s name, couldn’t you have signed that petition?”

Matt glared at her.

“Obviously, darling, a petition will have no effect on Jimmy’s case, but you could have at least shown your support.” Shawna looked away, then got a better grip on her anger.

Matt snorted. “Support what? A drug dealer?”

“You don’t know that. Innocent until proven guilty.”

“Yeah, just like Ramon Gutierrez. Except he really was innocent.” Matt watched his mother take the hit with dull satisfaction.

Shawna hated being reminded of how her bigotry had cost their gardener his livelihood and all because some jewelry had turned up missing the day he’d been working on their yard. She’d had the gardener arrested, very publicly, only the jewelry turned up three days later, in her car. If Matt hadn’t found the jewelry and called the police, she would have let Gutierrez take the fall. Only by the time Gutierrez was released, all his customers had decided he wasn’t a safe risk.

“I’m outta here,” Matt announced, pushing past his mother.

“Where are you going?” Shawna demanded.

“Out.”

Feeling beyond helpless, Shawna watched her son stalk out of the house. His older sisters hadn’t been that difficult. There had been Tracy’s abortion when she was 12, but she was in college and seemed to be okay, dating a different boy every week. DeeDee’s behavior had been a little hyper the past couple years, but her grades were fine. Boys were different.

Shawna paced for a couple minutes then went into the kitchen and pulled an empty water bottle from the cupboard. It was getting close to dinner time, and the housekeeper was busy putting together a salad.

“It looks like it’s going to be just me tonight, Marta,” Shawna told her sadly.

“Very good, Meez Cherguessen,” Marta replied.

Shawna took her bottle into the dining room and after checking to see that Marta was fully occupied in the kitchen, Shawna opened the American Colonial style breakfront and pulled out a bottle of vodka, and filled the water bottle with it.

IM Session

Swheatly531: Got a minute?

Gloryhg: Yep. What can I do for you?

Swheatly531: Nothing much. I just wanted to let you know that I picked up your groceries. Had to substitute shiitakes for the chanterelles. But the produce guy said morels should be in season soon.

Gloryhg: Cool. Thanks. Now, how do I pay you back?

Swheatly531: Don’t worry about it.

Gloryhg: Not worried about it, per se. But I’d prefer to keep things on the up and up if you know what I mean.

Swheatly531: It’s a little low-tech, but you could just write me a check. The total came out to $146.28. But I got the Sevruga caviar and a half dozen of the clochettes.

Gloryhg: Yum. I’ll go down now and drop the check in your office. Any place special you want it?

Swheatly531: The desk is fine. Hold on. Something weird is going on with my email. Catch you later.

Gloryhg: Catch you later.

Chapter Nine

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull quote from romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: "I told you I could have ditched that meeting."

The day after the Korean Embassy party found Sharon back at work, as usual, intently trying to run down some information on an old European trade agreement. She had just found something that looked close when Jean Bouyer cleared her throat.

That the press secretary was a little on the round side, most people got. What startled most folks was her short stature. Bouyer tried to enhance her four feet, ten inches by always wearing at least 3-inch high heels and piling her shiny red hair on top of her head, which would have looked ridiculous on most similarly sized women. But the look probably worked for Bouyer simply because she was one of those short women who filled a room with her presence.

Sharon hadn’t had much contact with Jean beyond the occasional lunchtime chat in the cafeteria, so she was a little surprised to see Jean standing in her doorway.

“Hey, Jean, what’s up?” Sharon asked, trying not to keep one eye on her laptop’s screen.

“An interview request,” Jean said in her oddly flat voice.

“Huh?”

“Max Epstein wants to do a story on you.”

“Why would he want to do that?”

Jean shrugged. “I don’t really care. But Yesmenia and I talked it over and we think it’d be a really good idea.”

Yesmenia was Yesmenia Alvarez, the president’s public message head.

Sharon grimaced. “Why?”

“We’re coming up on the first one hundred days and the boss isn’t happy with what he’s been able to do so far.” Jean balanced one of her feet on the tiny little spike of her red shoe. “The one area where he’s really been gaining ground is the foreign relations. If we can get a story out there about that, well, that might give his first one hundred some oomph.”

Sharon sighed. “So why doesn’t Epstein talk with Dan?”

“He has, but he wants to talk to you. You want me to have Allen set it up with Julie?”

“I suppose.”

“Great. This afternoon okay?”

“Already?” Sharon gulped.

Jean started out. “Max’s deadline is tomorrow. Trust me, you want to accommodate that.”

Sharon sighed again and went back to her document, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when Julie emailed her that she had a lunchtime interview with Max Epstein at a small bistro two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sharon made a point of being on time and was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see Max at the restaurant waiting for her. It was a small place, crowded with tables, and red vinyl-covered booths along the walls. Max had secured one against the lunch rush. He got up as she approached the table, no mean feat, given the booth, and remained standing until she was seated.

“They do an incredible salmon here,” Max told Sharon as he handed her a menu.

“Hmm.” Sharon browsed, one eye on Max to see what he was up to.

The waiter approached and Sharon asked for separate checks.

“I can put this on the expense account,” Max offered.

“No can do,” said Sharon. “Too close to a conflict of interest for me.”

The waiter sighed as Sharon ordered steak, salad and fries, and an iced tea. Max ordered salmon. As the waiter left, Max pulled out his voice recorder. Sharon sighed.

“I guess my order was on the record,” she said.

Max shrugged. “Not if you don’t want it to be. I can cut some slack on that one.”

“I don’t know if it matters. I probably would have ordered the same thing, anyway.”

“Shall we start at the beginning?” Max smiled. “What got you interested in world affairs?”

He led her through most of her work history, pausing only when the waiter came with their food. Sharon had to concede that Max had done his homework.

“As I understand it, you and one of your last bosses had something going,” Max finally asked.

“Oh, so that’s it?” Sharon rolled her eyes. “You lull me into a false sense of security and pull this?”

Max grinned. “Are you saying you don’t want to answer?”

“Nah.” Sharon speared a french fry. “We kept things discreet, for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t that big a deal. We still worked together for a while after we broke up.”

“So he wasn’t the reason you left the corporate world for the public sector?” Max grinned.

Sharon shrugged. “He may have been, but not for the reason you might think. He wanted a stay-at-home wife and kids, and I didn’t want to be that kind of wife. I was tempted to try it, but I realized pretty quickly that it was more that I was getting a little burnt out on the corporate thing. I had always wanted to go into public service and the diplomatic corps, anyway. So maybe the break up started the nudge that got me here. There were other things, too.”

“Like what?”

“Um,” Sharon hesitated. “We almost lost my sister a year and a half ago, and it just reminded me that it was probably time to go after what I really wanted.”

“And what do you really want?”

“Eventually? Maybe Secretary of State. Maybe just an ambassadorship. I don’t know. I’m really loving what I’m doing now.”

“Why?”

“It’s pure research, for one thing. I don’t have to worry about developing policy. And I do get to work my diplomatic chops every so often, but it’s not my primary function, and that’s refreshing.”

“What about the reports this morning out of North Korea that the U.S is favoring South Korea, based on last night’s reception?”

Sharon smiled. “Can’t comment.” She suddenly shifted at the soft buzzing in her purse. “Hold on.” She looked at her Blackberry and grinned. “And would you believe, it looks like I know how we’re going to handle those reports.”

“How?”

“Still can’t comment. Have to get the boss to clear it, first. And Dan. I mean Secretary Friedman.”

“Speaking of your boss, all the talk today is how good you two looked together last night.”

Sharon rolled her eyes, then glared at Max. “Let’s not get started with that. I have no interest in a relationship with the man. I mean, we’re friends. He’s a really nice person. But I’d have to be nuts.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? Complete loss of privacy, for starters. I’ll stay in the background, thank you.”

Max looked at her, pondering. “So you’re a free agent.”

“Don’t get too excited. I’ve heard about you.”

“Yeah.” Max suddenly sighed. “But let’s get back to your preference for the background, as you say, is that related to your brother’s fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to ask about him.”

“I’m more asking about why you prefer the background.” Max smiled encouragingly.

“I suppose that’s legit. And, yeah, I have seen the dark side of fame. But it’s not just Michael. It’s what happens with the president, himself. I mean, the poor guy can’t even go out to get a beer with his co-workers after work. A lot of the ways you and I move around and take for granted that we can do, he can’t. That is not my idea of a way to live.”

Max nodded. He asked a couple more questions about Sharon’s personal life, but it was more in the sense of her history and what got her interested in world affairs. As Sharon got up to go, he gave her his card.

Back at the White House, Sharon found that the president wanted to go over the previous night’s party as well as updates on a potential trip that summer. She checked in with Kent, found the president had a few free minutes right then, so she gathered up her laptop and Blackberry and hurried over to the Oval Office.

“Good news,” she announced after being admitted.

Mark looked up from the desk and smiled. “About what?”

“North Korea. My buddy at the university in Seoul got back to me while I was at lunch.”

“Is it even daylight there yet?”

Sharon quickly calculated. “It’s, what, one-thirty now? It’s about two-thirty in the morning there. Kim’s a hard-core night owl. He used to joke that we’d make a great couple except being in the same time zone would probably kill us. Anyway, he’s the poli sci/world affairs professor I told you about.”

“Right. So what’s the good news?” Mark glanced at his laptop.

“The North Koreans are just making noise about the favoritism. Katie called it dead-on. They have to complain to look good, but there is definitely interest in re-establishing relations with us.”

Mark smiled. “That is good news. Have you emailed Dan yet?”

“Not yet.” Sharon opened the lid to her laptop. “I’d just got in when I got your note and figured you’d want to hear it first, anyway.”

“Got in? Oh, that’s right. Didn’t you have some interview or something?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Apparently, Max Epstein thinks our world affairs policy would make a good feature.”

“It would.” Mark sighed. “Isn’t he that reporter with the bad rep regarding women?”

“Let me guess, you’ve been talking to Augie.” Sharon kept her eyes on her screen, her fingers flying over her keyboard as she wrote her email.

“He called me when he heard about it from Jean.”

“It’s no big deal. Max behaved himself. Asked some good questions, too. We’ll see how the story turns out.”

Mark tried not to glare as Sharon continued working on her email. After all, it was only one interview and it wasn’t as though Sharon was dating the guy. And even if she was, it wasn’t like she was going to be dating Mark, except at working functions, a thought that thoroughly depressed him. Except that, all of a sudden, Sharon was asking him something about an upcoming trip to Mexico. Mark shoved his depressing thoughts aside and forced himself to focus on something besides Sharon and dating and not dating.

“Are you all right?” Sharon asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Fine.” Mark shifted uncomfortably.

“You sure?” Sharon looked him over critically. “You don’t look fine.”

“No. I’m okay.” Mark met Sharon’s skeptical glare. “Look, I’m bugged about the whole Max Epstein thing. Not that you can’t handle it.”

“Excuse me, I most certainly can.”

Mark shrugged. “I guess Augie got under my skin. He really is freaking out. He doesn’t want to see you get your heart broken.”

Sharon laughed. “There is no way Max Epstein could possibly break my heart because I’m not going to fall in love with him.”

“And what makes you so damned sure you’re not?” Mark snapped, appalled at how angry he sounded. He met Sharon’s gaze. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.” Sharon glared at her laptop. “Apparently, everyone’s talking about how good we looked together.”

“Jean mentioned that.” Mark swallowed. It was all over the Washington blogs and in the Post’s gossip column. “You do take a great picture.”

“Thanks. But there’s something insanely unsettling about being on the Metro and seeing yourself on the front page of the LifeStyle section.”

“No one bothered you, did they?”

“No. In fact, no one seemed to notice me, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

Sharon sat back on the office couch, looking deeply saddened. Mark sighed, feeling guilty and annoyed that he couldn’t sit down next to her and hold her close.

“Mr. President,” said Kent’s voice from the intercom. “Senator Halstead and the reps from the Moral Americans Caucus are here for their meeting.”

“Let me finish here with Ms. Wheatly,” Mark replied, shuddering. He looked at Sharon. “If you want, we can take our time. It’s not like this is a meeting I’m excited about.”

“But they can cause you an awful lot of trouble,” said Sharon, closing her laptop. “I’ve still got to finalize my thoughts on the African trip schedule as it is. I’ll finish the report and email it to you and Dan this afternoon.”

“Fine. And cc it to the rest of the Advisory Board, too. I’d like to get their input at tomorrow’s meeting.”

Sharon nodded and got up. The two looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, then Sharon left.

The meeting with the Moral Americans did little to improve Mark’s mood. He finally cut it short with a promise to think over their proposal and give them an answer the next day. Then, after several deep breaths and one Zen meditation exercise to calm himself down, he summoned Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero to the Oval Office. He was still trying to achieve some calm when they both arrived.

“We’ve got a problem,” he announced, after giving the two permission to take a seat in front of the desk.

Jean and Gus looked at each other.

“You mean a new one?” Jean asked. “’Cause I haven’t heard about any. You, Augie?”

Gus shook his head. “Just the usual nonsense.”

“My meeting just a few minutes ago,” Mark told them. “The one with the Moral Americans Caucus. It went well enough, however, let’s just say that their proposal has left me more than a little… nonplussed.”

“What did they want?” Gus asked.

“They want me to get married.” Mark got up and started pacing. “To a woman, of course. Even offered me four different candidates.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding!” snapped Jean.

“I think I know where this is going,” Gus said, grimly. “Did they specify to a woman?”

“Oh, yes. They think that it will show my support for marriage and encourage others to get married.”

Gus sighed. “It will do that.”

“And if I don’t start making some moves along those lines, they are fully ready to start a campaign questioning my support for marriage and average Americans.”

“How long have they been gone?” Jean asked, immediately opening her laptop and scanning the screen.

“I put them off until Friday.” Mark rolled his eyes. “Big step, lots to think about, you know.”

“Could they have forgotten about the Friday news conference?” Gus asked.

“I’d be surprised if they had,” said Jean. “They may be narrow-minded asses, but they’re not stupid. At least, I don’t think they are.”

“They’re not,” said Gus. “Which means they fully expect you to turn them down. And also means they’re pushing you to the wall on the gay marriage thing.”

“I know.” Mark sighed. “And it’s not like there aren’t other issues to focus on instead of something that should be a gimme.”

“Be nice if it were,” sighed Gus.

Mark looked over at him. “I know. It’s just you won on the legislative side. You won judicially. There ain’t much I can do besides tell the Moral Americans to get over it, already.”

“Maybe that’s what you need to do,” Jean said, smiling. “I mean, don’t blow them off. You can’t afford to look too dismissive of their concerns. Better yet, promote marriage – for all Americans, not just the straight ones.”

Mark half-smiled. “You know, that might work.” He flopped into his desk chair. “It’s just the gall of it all – get married or we’re going to make your life miserable.”

“I’ll get right on the statement,” Jean said, almost getting up expectantly.

“Go ahead,” said Mark, remembering just in time that he should dismiss her.

Jean scooted out. Gus hung back, though not entirely for reasons of protocol.

“You okay, sir?” Gus asked. “It’s not like you to let this sort of thing get under your skin.”

Mark sighed. “Yeah. It’s just other things. Have you got anything else for me?”

“Nope. If I may?”

“Yeah.” Mark sighed as he watched Gus leave.

Mark knew it wasn’t like him to let things like the Moral Americans get under his skin. In fact, under normal circumstances, Mark would normally be laughing himself silly. Except that for the first time in a very long time, he was thinking he might actually like to get married. And he wasn’t sure which was more upsetting, the fact that he was thinking that way or that the woman he wanted was pretty much off-limits.

Or was she?

It was getting close to six-thirty when Sharon IM’d Jean about the North Koreans and heard back about the Moral Americans. Nor was she particularly surprised when, at right about the same time, a group IM from Mark came through asking if the PFZ was going to be open that night. Pretty much everyone else from the Board had other plans. So Sharon relented and invited Mark to come make dinner with her. Mark accepted, almost too quickly and the two went back and forth, debating menu items based on what they had and or Sharon could get.

Mark seemed almost cheerful as Sharon met him in the basement.

“I’ve got the broth and a portobello,” he told her, showing her the canvas bag he was holding. “And some semolina. Plus a kick-ass Tavel that if the domestic wine lobby knew I had, I’d be dead.”

“Great, I love French rosés,” said Sharon. She smiled then led the way up the stairs. “I’m pounding the pork cutlets now. I’ve got plenty of arugula for a salad, maybe with some tomatoes. And I found some butternut squash chunks in the fridge. If we nuke them, we could use that for the ravioli filling along with some of the portobello.”

“And I love the idea of just dropping them in the hot broth. I am starving.”

As they entered the kitchen, Mark put the bag on the counter.

“Well, you’d better get the pasta started then,” said Sharon. “That’s going to take the longest. I’ve got some herbed goat cheese and crackers. We can have that while the pasta is resting.”

“Sounds good.”

Their conversation remained focused on putting the meal together, a hot chicken broth with squash and mushroom ravioli, arugula and tomato salad with artichoke hearts, and breaded pork cutlets piccata-style with broccoli.

“You seem to be in a better mood,” Sharon said, as they finished their meal.

“I think I am,” said Mark. “I’m sorry I got so grouchy this afternoon.” He sighed deeply. “I told you I could have ditched that meeting.”

“The Moral Americans?” Sharon chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that.”

“Even Augie agreed, they’ve got a point about my marriage encouraging weddings.”

“That’s what, a six-billion-dollar industry?” Sharon smiled. “Could turn the economy around.”

Mark chuckled ruefully. “I don’t think that’s what they were after.”

“No. Really? But how is you getting married going to stop gay marriages?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Mark toyed with his wine glass. “They talked about leading by example, and obviously assumed I’m straight.”

Sharon thought briefly about that one kiss. “I have reason to believe so.”

Mark smiled. “Yeah, I’m afraid I am.” He frowned. “The senator hinted that my not falling in line with their request might lead to rumors I’m gay. As if I’d be worried about people thinking that.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Nah. If I’m not going to judge a person based on their sexual orientation, why should I care if folks judge me that way? Problem is, you were right. The Moral Americans are just vocal enough to cause trouble in other ways, too. I don’t want to appease them, but I don’t want to blow them off, either.” Mark gazed off into space.

They were in the dining room, sitting at one end of the rather large table. It was a fairly large room with windows that looked out onto the street, covered with pull-down shades and gold velvet curtains. It was a more sedate version of Baroque opulence and Sharon knew that the  cherry-wood table and breakfront were genuine Louise XV. She’d been with Carla on a trip to France when Carla had bought the pieces.

However, Mark’s attention was actually drawn to the chess set at the other end of the table.

“You play chess?” he asked, getting up and looking at the board.

“Yeah. I got that out this afternoon.” Sharon followed him to the end of the table. “Kim challenged me to a game earlier. I gave him the white.”

The queen’s white pawn was already moved ahead two spaces.

“That’s a bold move,” Mark said.

“Kim really likes playing his queen. He’s also really good at getting rank with his pawns.” Sharon looked at Mark. “Do you play?”

“A little. I’m not that good.”

“Neither am I,” Sharon sighed. “Kim usually whips me backwards and forwards. I think he just asks me to play to humor me. I’m going online tonight to see if I can figure out a strategy.”

Mark chuckled. “I’ve got one. Ape his moves. It’ll make him crazy.”

Sharon hesitated, but Mark made an impressive argument and the two found themselves hovering over Sharon’s laptop, searching chess sites and debating until Sharon suddenly yawned and Mark remembered that it was time to go. And both were surprised and relieved when there was no awkwardness at the basement door.

So the next day, in spite of questions about marriage and the Moral Americans, Mark was in a pretty good mood. He made his statement about supporting marriage for all Americans and re-iterated that it was, in fact, his support for marriage that was behind him still being single. He hadn’t met the right woman yet, nor was he in any position to do anything about it at that time, assuming he did meet the right woman. The press corps, most of whom saw little use in a story about a group who had lost several times over on every effort they had made to legislate their agenda, let the President off on the issue. And there were other issues of more moment.

CAPITAL CUES

By Max Epstein

Mai Lin Hu, the wife of South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Jong Hu, was significantly impressed when President Jerguessen wished her well on her birthday last Wednesday at the reception the South Korean embassy held in the president’s honor.

Activist Gloria Park was amazed that not only did President Jerguessen know who she was, he was able to ask her knowledgeable questions regarding her issue – adoption fraud in African countries.

“I saw him refer to his iPhone a couple times,” Park said. “But he was checking his facts. That he even knew to do that – wow.”

What Park did not realize is that just prior to her conversation with the president, he had received an instant message from World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly, who had presumably pointed out Park and made sure her boss knew he wanted to talk to her.

It was an interesting dance that night. The president checking his iPhone, then glancing at Wheatly. She would glance in the direction of someone else. Or she would check her Blackberry and he’d glance in the direction of another. Seconds later, he was checking his iPhone.

Wheatly later conceded that she was, indeed, providing links and other information to the president as various people at the party talked to the president.

“It’s my job,” she explained. “It’s what I do. I provide critical background information to the president so that he can make appropriate and intelligent decisions.”

But according to Secretary Daniel Freedman, Wheatly’s job is a key part of President Jerguessen’s efforts to rebuild this country’s relations with other nations.

“She’s our secret weapon,” Freedman said. “Okay, maybe not so secret. But Sharon is a master at keeping track of people and issues. Mrs. Hu was blown away that the president knew that it was her birthday. That was Sharon who found that out. And that may sound trivial, but something as simple as a ‘happy birthday’ at the right time can go a long way toward building the right kinds of relations we need in the world right now.”

To: Swheatly531

You bitch. You may think you have him all wrapped up with a nice pretty bow. It doesn’t matter who you’ve got snowed, I know you for who you are. Bitch.

Chapter Eight

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull Quote from romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: I know we were working, but, well...

Tuesday, Mark entered the meeting room for the Advisory Board meeting and knew immediately that something was up. It wasn’t obvious. The group stood and chanted, as usual. But as Mark sat down the rest of the group didn’t. Instead, Augie blew a note on a pitch pipe and the group sang a chorus of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Mark applauded slowly at the end of the tune.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

“Today is St. Patrick’s Day,” Coop answered. “The Irish are a people with a great love of song and storytelling.”

Sharon grimaced. “Coop, you are aware that was not a real Irish tune.”

“It was written by a couple Jewish guys,” Tanks said.

“It’s not like any of you are Irish,” Coop said.

“And you are?” Ed-man asked even though he should have known better.

“Full one-quarter,” Coop replied, grinning. “My paternal grandfather was a son of the sod. Given the way Grandma talked about him, it may even have been consensual.”

“Be that as it may,” Mark interrupted. “Do any of you delinquents have a report to present?”

The meeting fell to order, but Coop was quite taken with the success of the venture and continued lobbying for a second performance.

Coop also had another announcement for the end of the meeting.

“Our esteemed boss will be joining us for lunch,” he said.

The group applauded severally, and Mark acknowledged the tribute.

“Where are we going?” Whitey asked.

“You mean who did you con into letting us in?” Ed-man added.

“Believe it or not, the National Press Club.”

The others groaned loudly.

Coop waved them down. “There will be no interviews and we have a semi-private room. And Augie had nothing to do with it besides making the suggestion. They’re just being decent. Now, if some of those other clubs get wind of it, maybe they’ll decide to stop being so snooty and let us in, as well.”

The group decided to ride in the Presidential limo for the fun of it. It was Sharon’s first time in the car and she tried not to gulp when she realized she’d be riding in it again the next night for her “date” to the South Korean embassy.

The lunch, itself, was fun and relaxing. The food was pretty good, and while Mark initially got a few stares, by and large, the group was ignored. Until the end of the lunch. Mark hurried back to the White House, and with him went Ed-man, Coop, and Whitey. Sharon, Tanks, and Augie decided to take the Metro back, since Tanks had to find a deli so she could make sandwiches for one of her daughters’ school event the next day and Augie knew where one was and Sharon wanted to know where it was, as well.

But Augie got side-tracked by a former colleague in the bar. Sharon and Karen offered to wait for him, and while they were waiting near the door, Karen nudged Sharon.

“You’re right,” Karen said with a wicked grin. “People do look at you a lot.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I told you.”

“At least some of the guys are cute.”

“Unfortunately, they’re not the ones who try to pick me up.”

At the other end of the bar, a reporter in a tan corduroy jacket, dark plaid shirt and navy blue tie was chatting with his friend with one eye firmly on Sharon. His hair was brown and beginning to thin, especially around the temples.

“So, who’s going to try?” Karen teased. “That geek in the back?”

“Welcome to my nightmare.”

As if in response, the reporter got up and headed toward the door of the bar. However, he was reaching into his jacket pocket and actually left from the other door.

Behind her, in the foyer, Sharon could hear him talking to someone in German. Exceptionally fluent German. Karen glanced back into the foyer.

“He’s on the phone,” she said.

“Talking to somebody about getting them some tortillas,” Sharon said.

“Tortillas?”

Sharon shrugged. “Mexican food is getting more popular in Europe, but it’s still pretty hard to find the good stuff.”

Augie chose that moment to come back. “Let’s get out of here.”

The women turned as the reporter in the foyer dropped his phone in his pocket. Augie, however, got pulled back into the bar. The reporter grinned as he saw the women.

“Ladies,” he said in a natural American accent. He was of average height and his waist was just on the edge of getting thick. But otherwise, he wasn’t bad to look at. “Let me guess, Dr. Karen Tanaka and Ms. Sharon Wheatly?”

Karen grinned. “You got it in one. Where’d you learn to speak German like that?”

“Dad was in the Air Force and stationed there, then took a civilian job there when I was a kid.” The reporter shrugged. “I basically grew up in Ramstein.”

“And you are?” Karen asked.

“Max Epstein, at your service.” He bowed, but with one eye on Sharon. His eyes were brown and Sharon spotted an old scar on his chin, which though clean-shaven, appeared to be losing the battle.

He addressed her in German, Sharon replied somewhat frostily and then Augie came up and glared at Epstein.

“Max, I see you’ve met my colleagues.”

“It appears I have, Gus. Good to see you again.” Max smiled and left.

“So what did you guys say?” Karen asked as they left the building.

“He was hitting on me,” Sharon grumbled.

“I can imagine,” Augie sighed.

Sharon frowned. “Have to give him points. He made an obscure reference to some German poetry. I was lucky I knew the poem.”

“Well, I wouldn’t get too excited.” Augie glared back at the club for a second. “Max is a darned good reporter, but he’s got a bad reputation with women. And in a couple cases, I know how bad.”

Karen giggled. “So we stand warned.”

“I already was,” Sharon said. “He’s the one that does that Capitol Cues column, right?”

“Yeah,” said Augie.

Sharon nodded. “Then he’s the one. He hit on my brother’s girlfriend a year or so back and seriously ticked both her and my brother off.”

“Good,” said Augie with decided finality.

Sharon and Karen looked at each other, but the truth was, there really wasn’t anything more to be said on the matter.

Max, for his part, had returned to his office and was already dialing his phone and doing a Google. It hadn’t taken much mulling over. He wasn’t sure exactly where his research on Sharon Wheatly would lead, but at the very least, she’d make one very good story.

She was supposed to be accompanying the President to the South Korean Embassy cocktail party that next night. Max grinned. An email to his buddy on the International desk and the invite to the party was as good as in his hands.

For Sharon, the upcoming do at the embassy was turning into more trouble than it was worth, in her opinion. Late Tuesday afternoon, June called her upstairs to the studio for a final fitting of the new dress, which Sharon only endured because she was able to keep reading e mails on her Blackberry. Then there was the briefing with the President on Wednesday, not to mention coordinating with the State Department on several trips coming up in the next few months. Not to mention all the other things going on in the world that she had to stay on top of.

So Sharon felt no little irritation when June called her to the media prep room at five p.m. Wednesday to get ready for the embassy party.

“The party doesn’t start ’til seven, and we don’t want to be there before seven-thirty,” Sharon complained. “I don’t need two hours to get dressed.”

“Douglas Lee is going to do your hair and makeup,” June explained. “All the other dates get done up. You should, too.”

“I can get done up in my office,” Sharon grumbled. “I don’t need fancy hair and makeup.”

“Yes, you do. Now, come on. Even Paris Hilton can’t get Douglas Lee to do her hair.” June gently led Sharon from the office.

Lee, who was stick thin with a dark ring around his shaved head, was sympathetic to Sharon’s complaints and only stopped her from reading email when he absolutely had to. Sharon, when she saw her hair curled and piled on top of her head and the makeup job, had to concede that Lee had done a terrific job. She could only hope that Mark wouldn’t notice.

But, of course, Mark did. Fortunately, when he came to pick her up at her office, he saw her first from the hallway. If she had been lovely before in business wear, she was devastating all dressed up to go out. Mark took a deep calming breath before rapping at the office door. Even better, she seemed preoccupied.

“Looks like we might be in for a bumpy evening,” she said, standing then picking up a dark burgundy cloak that matched her mauve lace dress. “It just came over from State that Qui Cho and buddies from the Taiwan mission picked up invites for the party tonight.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s hope Dan’s there.”

“He should be.” Sharon glared at the flat red leather purse June had given her to carry. It was too small for much besides her ever-present Blackberry, an ID case, and a lipstick. “I’ve got some notes so I can brief you in the car. Have you got your iPhone and do you want me buzzing you?”

“Of course. Are you ready?”

 “Yeah, I guess so.” Sharon smiled weakly. “I serve at the pleasure of the President.”

Mark smiled and offered his arm, although inwardly, he winced.

As the presidential limo arrived at the party, he got out first, spotted where the press cameras were and put himself between them and Sharon as he helped her out. The photographers shouted out, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” loudly and over and over again, but Mark ignored them as he walked Sharon into the embassy.

Beyond that, it was a pretty normal party, except that after going through the receiving line, Sharon and Mark separated pretty quickly. They had planned it that way, to allow Mark to work the room and Sharon to observe and send instant messages to him as she spotted various people who might want to talk to him. She also chatted with various dignitaries, stopping a couple times as Mark sent her a message, requesting more information than he could get from his iPhone while talking to someone.

But the third buzz puzzled her. First off, it came from Gloryhg. Then secondly, there was the message, itself: “Buffet’s got some seriously good sweet kimchee at the end. And the bulgogi is WLF!”

As she looked up, she realized that Mark was looking at her from the other end of the room. He winked and nodded at the buffet. Sharon wasn’t sure what WLF meant, but the bulgogi was very good, as was the sweet kimchee.

It was past nine when Mark nodded again and they said their good-byes. As they left the embassy, the photogs and others were waiting along the path from the door to the limo. Mark paused long enough to answer a few questions.

“Who’s your date tonight?” someone hollered.

“My world affairs advisor, Sharon Wheatly,” Mark answered, grinning.

“Miss Wheatly,” someone else hollered from the crowd. “Who are you wearing tonight?”

“What?” Sharon backed away as she felt her Blackberry buzz. “Excuse me for a second.”

Sure enough, there was a message from Gen Flowers. Sharon glanced around and Gen was near the car, smiling. The message answered the reporter’s question.

“Oh, my dress,” Sharon replied. “It’s an original from Ms. Jerguessen’s private collection.”

“Please keep in mind,” Mark interjected, “that Ms. Wheatly isn’t just my date. She’s here as part of the team, and has put in a full night of work.”

“Mr. President, can you tell us about your objectives with the South Koreans?” another reporter bellowed above the other hollers.

Mark went on to answer questions amid the flashes from the cameras, while Sharon smiled softly and stepped back. Unfortunately, someone else wanted to know who had done her makeup and hair and Sharon couldn’t answer.

“He’s a friend of the president’s sister,” she said. “I don’t recall his name. I was finalizing the research for tonight at the time.”

“Ms. Wheatly, why mauve?” a reporter bellowed.

“I’m not answering questions about my dress,” Sharon answered and stepped back toward the limo. “This evening was about building our foreign relations, and that’s where my focus is, thank you very much.”

“And I think that will do it for tonight,” added Mark, stepping up and taking Sharon’s arm. “Thanks, everyone.”

And with that, he led Sharon to the limo and helped her in. Once the door was shut, Mark leaned back and laughed.

“Well,” he said. “Turns out you’re quite the media pro, after all.”

Sharon made a face. “Just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I want to.”

“Oh, come on. You had fun nailing them on the make-up questions.”

“No.” Sharon sighed. “Maybe a little. It’s just kinda ridiculous that I’m here as your aide and all they want to know is what lip gloss I’m using.”

“Well, you are my date.”

“As if that makes any difference. I was here to work as much as you were.”

“Well, you pulled it off.” Mark grinned and nudged her. “Looks like you had fun doing it, too.”

Sharon winced again. “Not really.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

“No.”

Mark looked at her, puzzled. “No? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve been with women who really hate the attention and they get all stiff and you didn’t. In fact, you’re more like somebody who likes the attention.”

Sharon grimaced. “I don’t. I mean…” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”

Mark softened. “How?”

“It’s…” Sharon shrugged as she struggled to find the right words. “Okay. This is just between the two of us, right?”

“Sure.”

“It’s not that I don’t like the attention. I’ve been getting it most of my life, and it could be a lot worse. It’s just…” Sharon swallowed. “I just feel so shallow. I hate that about myself. It’s like I’m lying or something. I don’t want to be obsessed with my looks or stuff like that, but that’s why people look at me. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about my brains and who I am as a person. But, yeah, it’s kinda cool that people think I’m good-looking.”

Mark laughed. “That doesn’t make you shallow.”

“Unless all the girls you grew up with were that shallow and all into who photographed them and they didn’t count as people unless they ended up in this tabloid or that.” Sharon shuddered. “I thought it was stupid then and I still think it’s stupid. And I hate it when I get caught up in it.”

“Ah. I hear you. There’s no question you can get pretty caught up in it all.” Mark chuckled. “But I think the fact that you hate getting caught up is a pretty good sign that you’re not going to.”

Sharon sighed. “I’d rather not deal with it in the first place. Anyway, you wanted to compare notes?”

Mark nodded, smiling but wishing they were talking about anything but work. Sharon went over some of the information she’d gathered from various folks and Mark listened dutifully.  When they got to Sharon’s townhouse, Mark walked her in and shut the front door.

“It’s a little late, but I can pull some dinner together,” she said.

“No, I’m pretty well stuffed from the party.” Mark paused. “And I’ve got to get back. Riff’s already annoyed that I came in with you.”

“Then why…”

“I just wanted to say thank you and good night, like a good date.”

“Oh.”

“I know we were working, but, well…”

Mark bent and kissed her mouth. Sharon lost her breath and longed both to wrap her arms around him and not let go and she longed to shove him away. And it was still over too soon.

“Good night,” Mark said and opened the door.

“Good night,” Sharon whispered. She closed the door behind him still trying to savor the feel of his lips on hers.

Mark bounded down the stoop, hoping that this working date thing might be working for him.

For June, it was movie night with her buddy Douglas Lee, and even as the presidential motorcade was wending its way back to the White House, she and Doug were crashed on the couch in her sitting room, snacking on popcorn that the kitchen staff had liberally doused with mayonnaise and asiago cheese as the final credits rolled on a silly romantic comedy on June’s massive flat-panel TV.

Doug grinned. “That was a fun little flick.”

“Yeah. I was surprised it was so good,” June replied. “I mean, the previews made it look cute, but it actually had some meat, didn’t it?”

Doug yawned and stretched. “It sure did. I really appreciate you letting me up here to watch it. Now I don’t have to wait for it to come out on DVD.”

“Isn’t it still in the theaters?” June took a sip from her chardonnay.

“It is, but I’d have to go to some other city to watch it. If I tried to go see a chick flick like that in Manhattan, I’d be bombarded by clients. Or women who want to be my clients.”

June laughed.

Doug shrugged. “The problem is, I’m trying to slow business down.”

“What?”

“I’m thinking about getting out of the hair and makeup biz, or at least, just do it for special occasions or something. May I?” Doug picked up the wine bottle and his glass.

“Help yourself.” June nibbled on a popcorn kernel. “But why?”

“I’m bored.” Doug finished pouring his wine and handed the bottle to June. “I mean, it’s still fun to do a really great cut or get the perfect style or whatever. It’s just that last week, I was going over the finances with my accountant and I realized he was more interesting than ninety-percent of the women I do. And my accountant is not that interesting a guy.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have brought you down if I’d known.”

Doug waved her off. “No. That whatshername…”

“Sharon.” June poured out the rest of the bottle into her glass without thinking about it.

“Sharon. She was great. And your other friend, Karen? I’d love to work on her. She was hysterical. It’s all the spoiled rich dames with more money than taste. And the models.” Doug rolled his eyes. “I still love doing the shows. You can really do some creative stuff. But if I have to listen to another vapid little twit blathering on about nothing.” He shuddered.

June put the popcorn bowl aside. “I guess they can be a bit much. During a show, I’m not really paying attention. So, what are you going to do instead?”

“I don’t know yet,” Doug grinned. “The hard part is going to be getting my client list down. It seems as though as soon as I tell someone I’m dropping her, she throws ridiculous amounts of money at me to keep her on. And the more I insist I don’t want it, the more she throws. You get a couple offers for a hundred thousand dollars a haircut, and that’s pretty hard to turn down.”

“Yowza. You must be sitting pretty.”

“Pretty enough that I can pretty much do what I want from here on in.”

June’s hand accidentally landed on Doug’s. He flinched. June pulled her hand away as she sighed.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

Doug shrugged. “It’s okay.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I gotta get over this touching thing. It’s time. It may be why I want to get away from New York. But I’m gonna do it.”

June’s heart thudded as he slowly took her hand in his.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked, not at all sure if she was.

“Yeah. I think I am.” Doug smiled at her. “I’ve racked up a couple breakthroughs lately and my therapist said I should try extending myself a little.”

“Oh. That’s great.” Feeling guilty, June looked down at the bowl. “We’ve still got a full bowl of popcorn.”

“Yeah.” Doug laughed. “At least, it wouldn’t take us both a full week to eat that much.”

June grinned back. “We did put a decent dent in this. The problem is, I’m getting full.”

“Me, too.” Doug took a small handful and began nibbling at it. “Say, June, how would you feel if I moved down here to Washington?”

“What?”

“I’d keep my shop in Manhattan and come up for the shows. But the business can pretty much run itself. And maybe I can do some good here. Maybe put an end to helmet hair.”

June laughed. “That won’t happen.” She looked him over. “You’re not thinking of moving down because of me, are you?”

“Yes and no.” Doug grimaced. “I want to get out of New York because I need to and I’m thinking about here because you’re here. At least, I’d have one friend.”

“You’ve got friends in L.A.”

Doug shook his head. “If I can’t handle models and rich bitches, how far do you think I’d get with the Hollywood crowd?”

“Point taken.” June shrugged. “But do you really want to be a Washington dilletante?”

“I don’t know what I want.” Doug sighed. “I’ve been doing hair since I was eighteen and helping my mom out at the shows since I was five.”

“You got a business degree in there.”

“Yeah. To run my shop and all the other things that were coming along because of that.” Doug shook his head. “It’s time I broadened myself, explored other passions. Who knows? Maybe I want to go back to hair. Maybe I’ll just be a dilletante early retiree. Don’t know yet. But the only way I’ll be able to find out is if I get away from New York for a while. So, do you mind if I hang out down here?”

“No. I’d love it.” June smiled.

IM Session

Gloryhg:  Hi.

Swheatly531:  Hi.

Gloryhg:  Thought I’d check in. Thanks for giving me your personal address.

Swheatly531:  You gave me yours. What’s WLF?

Gloryhg:  Worth Living For. To die for is too negative. I had a good time tonight.

Swheatly531:  For working, it wasn’t bad.

Gloryhg:  I may have overstepped a boundary.

Swheatly531:  When? Oh, the kiss.

Gloryhg:  I’m told I do that sometimes. Overstep, I mean.

Swheatly531:  Oh.

Gloryhg:  You okay with it?

Gloryhg:  You there?

Swheatly531:  Yeah. Just thinking it over.

Gloryhg:  <<sigh>>  Great. Am I looking at a harassment suit?

Swheatly531:  Maybe. 😉  Probably not. I hope you’re not thinking I’m ducking comment because you’re the boss.

Gloryhg:  Well, that you might does worry me. I mean, one of the reasons I hired you in the first place was because I was confident you’d tell me what you thought regardless of what I might think.

Swheatly531:  I just don’t know what I think right now. The boss part is a little awkward. But it’s more the whole dating thing, in general. It’s not a good time for that, you know.

Gloryhg:  I know.

Swheatly531:  BTW, Gloryhg???

Gloryhg:  An old nickname from my college days. The Coop again. Loved poking fun at my ambitions. I got this address years and years ago and mostly forgot about it until the other one went public last summer.

Swheatly531:  Well, gotta go. Want to finish some reading before getting to bed. See you tomorrow.

Gloryhg:  See you tomorrow.

Chapter Seven

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull quote from romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: as long as you look good, nothing else matters.

The next day, close to five p.m., Karen stopped by Sharon’s office on the way to her own.

“Wheaties, you want to—” She stopped. “Where are you going?”

Sharon finished putting on her coat. “Home. My brother and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner. In fact, I’ve got to hustle. He could already be there.”

“You have a brother in Washington?” Karen asked, following Sharon out of the office.

“He lives in New York, but he’s bringing my other guitar. I didn’t want to ship it or put it in checked baggage when I came out last January.”

“Okay. This is cool. You not only play a musical instrument, but you’re picky enough about it that you have more than one and you don’t want to check it.”

Sharon shook her head, smiling. “I’m not that good. This guitar is just special. My dad bought it for me for my tenth birthday. We were living in Italy, then, so he went to Spain and got it. I have another that travels with me.”

“Next time we’re in the PFZ, we’ll have to hear you play.”

“I’m not that good, Karen.” Sharon felt herself flushing. “I mostly play for myself. You know, stress reduction, like your crocheting.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Did you have to tell June that I do it? She loved the lace and is trying to talk me into doing a few yards for her. Says she’s got a great new design.”

“That was an awfully cute suit she made you. Can you believe she cranked it out in less than one week?”

“Her dressmaker did the sewing, but, boy, that’ll teach me to open my mouth in the dressing room when she’s around.” Karen rolled her eyes.

They were near the exit.

“Look, I gotta fly,” said Sharon. “I told him six, but with my brother you never know. He has no sense of time whatsoever. He shows up late. He shows up early. One of us would have shot him by now if it weren’t for his girlfriend.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow.” Karen went back to her office, smiling softly to herself. She hadn’t forgotten about Sharon’s guitar playing and was debating how to tell the others.

Augie had an electric piano in his office, which he played when he was thinking about something. Coop was always whistling something. Karen, herself, played the violin and piano. She wondered about the others. A little Advisory Panel band would make the dread Marian Jefferson happy. Stress reduction and team building. Better yet, the boss was out of the White House for a few days on a trip to Chicago. Karen barely pondered a moment more before sending Coop an email.

Coop was a little too enthusiastic and Sharon groaned loudly when she saw his email that night after Michael and Inez had left. It had been a pleasant visit, and just long enough. Sharon adored her older brother, but he had that antsy kind of energy that usually left her rather drained after a couple hours with him. Sharon, who also loved Inez like her other sisters, often asked her how she dealt with the antsiness. Inez usually just smiled and shrugged. That night had been no different.

As Sharon mulled over Coop’s email, she decided that Coop and her brother had a lot in common. Nonetheless, the next morning, she brought her travel guitar with her to work and later to an unofficial lunch meeting in Augie’s office. Coop had come in just for the meeting and turned out to be a rather nice tenor. Ed-man did not come in, as he was not a singer, which surprised no one. Whitey did his singing as part of a Navajo group and he was also a drummer, which helped. Karen held a tune rather nicely, but it was hard to sing and play the violin at the same time. Still, the lunchtime jam session had been fun. At least until Coop passed out the sheet music for a prank on the following Tuesday. Tanks loved the idea and convinced the others it was worth doing.

Later that afternoon, Sharon got a call from the security office. A large package had arrived for her. Sharon went down to confirm that she knew the sender and to give her permission for the package to be searched. The Secret Service man promised to have it put in her office by the next morning, even though it was Saturday.

June, for her part, had been debating how to talk to Sharon about her own little scheme. Saturday morning, she decided it was time and called Sharon’s cell phone.

“I hate to ask you to come in on the weekend,” June began.

“I’m already here,” Sharon said. “I’m redecorating my office this weekend.”

“Oh? Great. I’ll be down in just a bit.”

June could hear Sharon’s voice as she approached the office.

“No, I’m looking at them right now,” Sharon was saying. “They’re fabulous… Seriously, Sarah, they’re perfect. The Outre-Meuse poster and the one from the Sparrow series… No, darling, I know you’re not going to, but you should. It’s amazing. You could make some serious money on it…”

June peeked in the open door. Sharon turned and June spotted the headset parked on her ear. The floor in front of the desk was littered with cardboard and bubble wrap. Framed art leaned against any available vertical surface. Sharon was holding a framed oil painting. June could see a lot of pink and a long black slash through the middle, but none of the details.

“You’ve totally caught her. It’s perfect, Sarah. You’ve outdone yourself, sweetie,” Sharon continued. “I’m not overdoing it. You’re great, Sarah, and you know it. Now get over yourself, already… I mean it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it… Thanks. I love you, too… Bye.”

Chuckling, Sharon switched off the headset then smiled as she saw June.

“Hi!” Sharon said.

“Hi.” June looked at the different artworks and smiled. “Wow. This is one hell of a collection.”

“That was my sister Sarah,” Sharon explained, the pride oozing from her. “She’s an artist. I asked her to pick some art for my office and this is what she sent.”

June looked at the oil in Sharon’s hand. “This is incredible. Where did she get it?”

“That’s her own work,” said Sharon. “It’s one of a series she did when our other sister, Susan, had her accident. Susan is— was a dancer. It’s hard to say now.” Sharon sniffed suddenly. “It’s still hard. It was only two summers ago.”

June reached out and held Sharon’s shoulder. “Oh, my god. I’m so sorry.”

Sharon shrugged. “Thanks. I… It’s… Hell. I’m the last person to say where Suse should be now. But anyway, Sarah, God bless her, found a way to help us all deal with it.” Sharon lifted the painting again. “She did a whole series – Sparrow Without Wings, one for each of us. We always called Susan the Sparrow because she was always flitting all over the place. She’s kind of like my brother that way. Can’t stay still.”

“There were four of you?”

Sharon laughed. “Yeah. My older brother, then me, Susan, and Sarah. And Michael has two girls, Toby and Jodi. They live with their mom.”

“Heavens!” June looked again at the painting. “So what are you going to do with this one?”

Sharon shrugged. “Good question. I know I want to paint. I was thinking green, but then this…” She looked at the oil again.

June looked around the narrow office. “Actually, I think you’re on the right track. If you go with greens on the wall, it will not only complement the pink, but I think it will make the painting really pop. Let’s see, do I have any paint chips?”

“I have some here.” Sharon handed June the collection of small cards hooked together by a metal ring.

The two debated colors for several minutes, although Sharon ultimately went with June’s suggestion to use two shades of green, with a faux chair rail in gold and orange to divide the darker green on the bottom of the wall from the lighter green on top.

“Tell you what,” June said. “Why don’t you go get the paint while I get changed and get the walls prepped?”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sharon said.

“I’m totally serious.” June grinned. “One of the worst parts of being the CEO, you never get to get your hands dirty. And I love painting. Seriously. I’ll call a car for you.”

“Uh…”

June had already grabbed Sharon’s desk phone and was dialing. “Don’t worry about it. Weekend stuff comes out of personal funds and we can prove it, if necessary. And I already helped Tanks put her office together.”

Thanks to the car, Sharon got back from the paint store in record time, happy to find that her furniture order had arrived and been inspected by the Secret Service. The new credenza, chair, and shelving waited outside the office. June was inside, putting the last bits of masking tape over what would be the faux chair rail.

It was mid-afternoon by the time the two finished with the walls, but the chair rail would have to wait until the walls had dried.

“Let’s go on up to my studio and kick back for a while,” June said.

“Okay,” Sharon replied, not sure what June was suggesting.

June led her into an elevator and it was pretty clear as they got off that they were now in the private residence. Sharon gulped.

“Yeah, it’s still freaking me out,” June said, heading for a nearby stairway. “And I’m living here. The Lincoln bedroom is that way. Want to know where my brother’s room is?”

“No!” Sharon yelped, then regretted it.

“He’s around here, someplace.” June shook her head. “You know how he keeps going on about not keeping people at work all hours? Total hypocrite. Even money, he’s in his private office right now, working away.”

“Couldn’t he be, like, watching a basketball game or something?” Sharon asked.

“Probably, but he’s still working.” June chuckled. “He hasn’t got anything else to do. Come on.”

June’s studio was a large open room with lots of windows along the long wall. There were several antique armoires in between the various windows, a drafting table at one end, curtains along the far short wall and a still life set up in one corner with an easel containing the canvas in front of it. In front of the curtains was a square riser. Three different types of sewing machines were set up along another wall, along with a pressing station and several dressmaker’s dummies. Near the door was a desk with a laptop and next to that an overstuffed couch and a couple file cabinets.

“My sanctum sanctorum,” June said, with a wave of her hand. “You know how brothers are supposed to be despised?” She shook her head. “Kinda hard to despise a brother who can put something like this together.”

“He did this?”

“Not entirely. I had most of the input. But it was his idea to make sure I had it.”

Sharon shrugged, trying to stay cool. “He’s the right kind of brother, I guess.”

“Mostly.” June waved at the couch. “Have a seat.”

“You know, it suddenly dawns on me that you came down to my office this morning because you wanted to talk to me.” Sharon flopped down.

June swallowed. “Oh, that. Yeah, I did. Listen, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but I’ve got this little project going, trying to maybe prevent some of the rumor-mongering regarding my brother and eligible females.”

“You mean the dating pool?”

“Exactly.”

Sharon tried to get up. “Oh, no. Not interested. No way, no how.”

June flopped down next to her. “Sharon. Seriously. We need you. Dan Friedman wants you to pull embassy duty. It’s perfect. You won’t need all the extra briefing and you’ll know how to handle yourself better than anybody. Plus, the whole point of the dating pool is that you’re just friends.”

“I’m not sure I want to be friends,” Sharon complained. “For crying out loud, I work for the guy. He’s my boss. How would that look?”

“Exactly. You’re there for a reason. It’s not about romance, it’s about work.” June sat back triumphantly.

Sharon groaned softly.

June touched her arm. “Seriously, Sharon. You’re safer out in the open this way.”

Sharon felt a cold chill. Mark had said the same thing once.

“I don’t get it,” she said finally.

June sighed. “Let’s just say that there’s less room for rumors to get started when you’re openly associating with my brother.”

“But don’t photographers and news people show up at embassy events?”

“They do, but nobody cares. Look what happened with Carrie Martindale. The whole reason that went crazy is that she denied she knew him. If it’s obvious you have a good reason for being with him, no one is going to give a damn.”

Sharon winced.

June held her arm. “Look, I get it about not wanting to be looked at and your privacy and all. It’s just one of those paradox things that being out in public with Mark is the best way to be ignored. Trust me, it’s the secret romance that they’re all looking for. And we do need you, Sharon. Mark’s whole thing is repairing our foreign relations. We need someone who can help him with that, not someone who might say something stupid out of ignorance.”

Sharon sighed. “There’s the trump card. Damn.”

“It’ll be public knowledge that I’m the one arranging Mark’s dates. That’ll make it even harder for any rumors to gain ground.”

“I suppose. I guess I’m in.”

June grinned. “Terrific. I’ll set you up for the Korean embassy bash on Wednesday.”

“So soon?” Sharon groaned.

“Hey, it’s repairing our foreign relations. Everyone’s been trying to get Mark to their embassy for the past three months. The South Koreans just came up in the rotation. Now, we’re talking cocktail length. From what Tanks says, all you’ve got is that blue number.”

Sharon flushed. “I’m afraid so. I do spend most of my time working, you know.”

June got up and sat down in front of the drafting table. “Blue is not a bad color for you, but I’m thinking mauve for some reason.”

“Why not?” Sharon said. “Something old-fashioned with puffed sleeves?”

June grimaced. “Yes and no. Tanks is about trends. That’s not a knock on her, by the way. That’s just who she is, and I love that about her. But you.” June looked her over again and Sharon could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “You are more about classic styling. But daring.” June clipped a sketch pad to the top of the drawing board and sharpened a pencil. “What do you love most about your body?”

“Me?” Sharon thought. “My eyes, I guess.”

“And hate?”

“Oh, lord, hips, thighs, you name it.”

June looked her over again. “Nah. Your hips aren’t bad at all. Not according to your measurements. Your shoulders are a tad narrow. I noticed you don’t tend to carry a shoulder bag.”

“Can’t keep anything up on my shoulders.”

“Thought so.” June started sketching. “That’s good. We can go with the off-shoulder look. Hm. Sash around the hips?”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes!”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

June grinned and beckoned Sharon over. “Well, look at this. What do you think?”

The dress on the sketch pad was straight, but with a sash that encircled the shoulders and another that encircled the hips, and long straight sleeves.

“It’s beautiful,” Sharon gasped.

“I’ve got it!” June jumped up and rummaged through one of the armoires. “Mauve silk lace. I knew I had a sample in here. That must have been what got me thinking mauve.” She presented the roll of fabric to Sharon. “You like it?”

“It’s gorgeous.”

June held the fabric up to Sharon’s face. “It’s perfect for your coloring. I think I’ve got a fitting leotard in here. Would you mind if I draped this on you? The paint should be dry by the time we’re done.”

“Draped?”

“It’s a way of making a pattern. I basically just pin and cut it right on you. It’s fast and it will fit like nothing you’ve ever owned before.”

“June, what are you talking about?”

“Indulging myself.” June sighed. “Look, Sharon, I don’t know if this will make sense to you or not, but I really love making clothes for other people. It’s why I do what I do. And one of my absolute favorite things to do is to make specific designs for specific people. It’s like that suit for Tanks. No way would that work on anybody else. And the glory of it was, I was able to get to know Tanks and to take what I knew about her and make that part of the design. And this dress is part of what I know about you. It is the most fun thing on the planet for me.”

“Okay,” Sharon said slowly. “I get that. It’s like when Sarah or Susan or my brother get going. It’s who they are.”

“It’s part of who I am.” June smiled softly. “I started in high school. My BFF. She was a little on the chunky side and hated that she couldn’t find clothes that fit and were cute. So I made stuff for her and it was so much fun. That’s why I went into clothing design. The only problem is that designing in a vacuum kinda sucks. I have to have somebody in mind when I’m designing or the result bites.”

“So will this dress end up in production?” Sharon grinned slyly.

“No! No way. This is yours and yours only.” June paused. “Something similar might end up in production.” She looked Sharon over again. “I could do a whole line around you. But nothing personal. I think Tanks is a little more profitable as inspiration. Clothes are about trends and she does that thing so well.”

Sharon laughed. “She does. You know, Al Eddington calls her Advisor Lite.”

June giggled. “And she’s one of the smartest people I know. Did you hear her on the gender ramifications of using sex to sell hamburgers?”

“You know how people talk about me having my finger on the pulse of the world. Tanks could run circles around me. I swear she can spot what’s coming faster than Coop can. And what Coop doesn’t know, ain’t worth knowing.”

June nodded. “And I’ve known Coop for years. Come on. Let’s get you into a leotard.” 

Sharon found being draped on a tedious business, at best. And hard on the arms, which had to be held out from her side for a long time. June was sympathetic and didn’t fuss too much as Sharon shifted. The two were chatting pleasantly when there was a knock on the door and Mark suddenly entered.

“June, have you heard from Matt?” he asked, then stopped. “Oh. I didn’t know you had company.”

“I was helping Sharon paint her office,” June explained. “We’re waiting for the paint to dry so I can paint a faux chair rail. What’s up with Matt?”

“Just haven’t heard from him,” Mark said softly. “We can talk about it later.”

Suddenly serious, June looked up at him. “What happened?”

Mark glanced at Sharon. “Got a bounce back. His web address mailbox is full.” He smiled weakly at Sharon. “Probably not paying attention. We’ll talk later.”

“For sure,” June replied as she went back to pinning in earnest.

Sharon silently sighed her relief as Mark left the studio. June hadn’t seemed to notice Sharon’s fluttering heartbeat. In fact, June seemed distracted and sad.

“You okay?” Sharon asked, finally.

“Yeah.” June stopped and sat back on her heels. “No. I’m worried.” She looked up at Sharon and went back to pinning. “Matt is our nephew. Our oldest brother’s kid. We, uh, don’t get on that well with Harold and Shawna.”

“I’ve heard there’s some coolness.”

“That would about describe it. They have three kids. Mark and I, well, we’ve tried to be there for them. It’s hard because we don’t want to undermine their parents.”

“But you don’t like their parents.”

“Their parents are pretty obnoxious.” June shook her head. “They’re into appearances and as long as you look good, nothing else matters. The two older girls, Tracy and DeeDee. They bought into it. Matt. He’s sixteen. He’s a lot like Mark. Real thoughtful and everything. Only Matt’s a lot more introverted than Mark.”

“Doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d let his inbox get too full.”

June sighed. “He’s not. It’s Shawna. She’s… Controlling I guess is the way to put it. She wants Matt to hang with her idea of the right kind of kids. So she doesn’t let Matt connect with anybody she doesn’t approve of.”

“Including you and his uncle?”

“Especially us.” June jabbed a pin into the fabric with a particularly violent thrust. “It’s pretty amazing that she pulls it off, too. What with all the different ways kids have of communicating these days. But she’s got Matt totally under her thumb, not to mention control of his laptop and his cell phone. Has totally blocked all the addresses and numbers from folks she doesn’t like. And his school won’t let the kids use social networking sites or webmail. I suggested the public library, but apparently, they need a parent’s signature to let him on.”

“Can’t he borrow someone else’s laptop or phone?”

“There’s a little problem with that. Did you get an email last summer with Mark’s private cell phone number and email?”

“That was a hoax.”

“No, it wasn’t. One of Matt’s so-called friends figured out who he was emailing and calling.”

“Oh, no.”

“Matt’s gotten so paranoid, he’ll barely email my dad or grandma. Which is probably the biggest problem.”

“Poor thing.” Sharon thought. “I wonder if there’s a way to set up a false personality, maybe with the right kind of avatar or something.”

“That you’d have to get past Mark and I don’t think you will. He’s dead set against undermining Matt’s parents.”

“But his mother is—”

“I know.” June picked up her scissors, gazing at Sharon thoughtfully, but as though she wasn’t seeing her. “I think Mark’s worried that if we give Shawna any real ammo, she’ll take it out on Matt.”

“That would make sense.” Sharon thought. “You know. I’ll have to think it through and do some checking, but I think I can arrange a workaround. Maybe if your brother gets worried enough, he won’t be as concerned about undermining.”

“I can only hope.”

June was done just before dinner time. Sharon declined to stay for the meal, not wanting to see Mark again.

The next morning, she was surprised to see the whole faux chair rail painted in. It was done in a complicated criss-cross pattern in orange and yellow with a dark gray background. Sharon wondered how long it had taken June to do it, and how much of June’s work had to do with her worry about her nephew. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much Sharon could do about it at that moment, so she moved her new furniture in and hung the artwork.

In New York city, Michael Wheatly sat in the tiny music room in his apartment, feeling a little lost and not quite sure what to do about it. In the two months since he and Inez had been living together, there had been considerable rockiness. The fights had been intense—and loud—but not so serious as to break them up. If anything, Inez said she’d expected them, part of the whole learning to live together process.

Still, Michael felt uncomfortable. It was true that his ex-wife had been more likely to avoid confrontations during the four years they were married. But the fights toward the end, those had been loud and ugly. Michael played his and Inez’ latest fight back through his mind, trying to find something different.

He played a few notes on the mini-grand piano in front of him and debated writing them down on the sheet music in front of him. It was about that time that he caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke. Inez must have come home. He’d been concentrating pretty intensely on his latest composition and Inez knew better than to knock when the music room door was closed. Michael felt a pang of guilt, looked at the music and decided he’d played out this latest bit of inspiration.

Inez was in the living room, smoking and looking out the apartment window without seeing anything.

“Are you home early or did I lose track of time again?” Michael asked softly.

Inez turned and snubbed out her cigarette. “Oh. I don’t know. What time is it?”

Michael looked around the living room but there were no clocks visible. There was a clock on the DVD player, but that was closed in the cabinet below the TV. The kitchen boasted clocks on the microwave, the oven and the stereo unit under one of the shelves, but that was in  the kitchen.

“It’s dark,” Michael observed. “Six-ish, maybe?”

“Sounds about right.” Inez pulled her mobile phone from her pants pocket. “Six-thirty-eight, actually. You want dinner?”

“I suppose. Are you all right?”

Inez shrugged listlessly. “So-so. Maria French came by the studio today. She wants to show my work at her gallery.”

“That’s terrific.” Michael paused. “Are you worried about having enough prints developed or something?”

“No. I’ve got plenty of pictures.” Inez looked over at him and smiled sadly. “I could take some new shots for the kids at play series, but I’ve got enough for Maria’s exhibit if I don’t get to it.”

“Then what’s bothering you? You don’t smoke inside here, usually.”

“I’ve gotta quit this lousy habit.” Inez dropped the pack of cigarettes onto the window sill.

“And…?” Michael waited.

Inez looked at him. “Mama called this afternoon. She wants me to come to dinner next Sunday.”

“If we’re free, why not?”

“She wants me. You were not included in the invite.” Inez began pacing. “My ex is going to be there.”

“So?”

“Mama doesn’t quite get it that Manuel left me. She wants us back together again. Even a bastard like Manuel is better than me being alone or living in sin with you.”

“I take Mama doesn’t quite get it that you’re the one who doesn’t want to get married just yet.”

Inez turned on him. “Now don’t start that with me, will you? I’m in no mood.”

“No kidding.” Michael flopped onto the couch.

Inez rolled her eyes. “And you’re still bugged about the fighting.”

“Yeah, I am.” Michael glared at her. “Sorry. I know better. I just… I don’t know. This just isn’t what I expected. I mean I didn’t expect it to be perfect and happily ever after.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “So what? It’s not all about you. If we’re going to make a go of this, you’d better get used to that idea and fast. I’ve got a real problem here. If you’re not willing to listen, then I can go elsewhere.”

“No.” Michael got up and went to her. “I’m sorry. I should be listening better. But it’s not like we can do anything about your family.”

“Like I don’t know that? It still hurts. It’s still making me crazy.”

“Then don’t let it.”

“Easy for you to say.” Inez groaned and went back to glaring out the window.

Michael came up behind. “Okay. It’s not easy. But what are you going to do? You’re not going to change them.”

“I know. I just wish they weren’t so down on you.” Inez coughed lightly. “Manuel called me today, also. Said he wants to get back together. I guess his little floozy lost her job.”

“I’m sorry, Inez.”

“You’re right. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Michael smiled softly. “Except not get back together with him.”

“Don’t even,” Inez growled, then softened. “It’s not going to happen. I just don’t want to have to deal with it, is all.”

“Then don’t. The next time Manuel calls, hang up on him. If your mother starts in, hang up. There’s a reason those buttons are on the phone.”

Inez leaned into him. “I know. We’ll see. This is my mother we’re talking about, remember.”

Michael sighed. “Point taken. It’ll be all right, Inez, mi amor. The most important thing is that we’re here together. The rest of the world can go to hell.”

“It can.” Inez smiled. “So what did you do all day?”

Michael grinned. “Sparrow Without Wings. You want to hear it?”

“Of course, amado.” Inez shook her head and chuckled.

It was always about Michael. But sometimes, that was a good thing.

Jodi Rath on Fur Babies and Writing a Novel

Author Jodi Rath on how raising kittens is like writing a novel
Author Jodi Rath

Author Jodi Rath argues that writing a novel is not unlike raising critters. The author of The Cast Iron Skillet Mystery Series has a point. We authors do refer to our novels as our children. Please welcome Jodi Rath

Artists typically talk about their work as their babies. I don’t have human kids, but I do have fur babies. My husband and I had eight cats inside for a good, long run of years. In the last two years, we’ve lost four of them. Since then, we adopted a one-year-old boy and on May 18th, 2019 we adopted THREE five-week-old girl kittens named Lily Rose Rath, Lulu Bean Rath, and Luna Belle Rath. The boy that is one year is Murray Kinz Rath. All of our cats have middle names and they are all spoiled.

When I wrote book one, Pineapple Upside Down Murder, I babied that book so much. I wrote, rewrote—tried different themes, revised, started over, went from third person POV to first, and had an extremely difficult labor.

Picture of kittens Lilly, Lulu and Luna, illustrating Writing a Novel
Lily, Lulu, and Luna Rath

Book two, like I’ve heard many of my human mom friends say, was not as difficult or as scary as the first. Same with the kittens we just got. When we got our first, I was terrified about how small they were and I wouldn’t let them out of a room forever for fear something bad would happen. That was only when I had one kitten and all adults. Now I have three five-week olds and they all got the run of the house on day two of moving in—they had to learn to fend for themselves. Kittens, like babies, are more resilient than we give them credit for.

The work of writing a novel

It’s the same with an artist’s work. Yes, we have to put the time in and go through the labor. Yet, I’ve learned to trust myself more in book two. Am I perfect yet? Um, no—nor will I ever be—but, I am better than I was when I wrote book one. I have more confidence and I know I will continually get better. Same I have learned to get better as a kitty mama too. Same for all you moms and dads out there—we live, we learn.

One of the most exciting things about writing Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread Murder was already having a setting and my characters set up. It was so much fun seeing how they’ve grown and what they are learning now and what more they need to do to grow and mature. Just like me as a writer and a kitty mom and a wife and a teacher, I am always learning and growing and maturing (even though I did turn 46 in May—Ah HEM!!! Cough cough).

cover of the Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread Murder by Jodi Rath

Still, I am excited to share my newest baby with the world, and I’m already working on book 2.5, a Holiday Book for Thanksgiving called Turkey Basted to Death, which will come out November 18, 2019. I can’t wait to see how much more growth both me and my characters have developed by then—not to mention, my baby kittens will be eight months old by then and pretty much full-grown! Time flies when your having fun!

Jodi’s two books featuring restaurant owner Jolie Tucker, are set in Leavenworth, Ohio. You can find out more about Jodi on her website, www.jodirath.com.

Chapter Six

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Eddie Cooper still hadn’t worked out his mystery lunch plan by that Friday, but it didn’t make any difference, since Fridays were usually tight days for Mark. In addition to his regular meeting with the Advisory Panel, he usually ate lunch at his desk while finishing up and assessing his work for the week, then on to a regularly scheduled press conference at 2 p.m. It was all part of his plan to be more accessible and transparent. But it also gave him a chance to control what the weekend talking heads would be talking about, even before the usual Saturday radio address.

The Advisory Panel was slightly more rowdy than usual, since in celebration of the upcoming March Madness college basketball playoffs – starting that night – Coop had brought in a small plastic basketball hoop on a stand with a host of sponge balls to throw at it. Tanks scored a lucky shot by tossing one over her shoulder. Eli Weatherall was still there, but didn’t bother tossing any balls, although he did keep score. Gwen McKelvey was there and didn’t hit anything.

But things got serious quickly as Augie finished his report with a question for Mark.

“Boss, do you know a lobbyist named Carrie Martindale?”

Mark thought it over. “I don’t think so. Let me email Kent and see if she’s in my people database. Why?”

“She’s been working with the House on some proposals that sound suspiciously like your education initiative. Word’s getting around that she got them from you.”

Mark froze, then nodded.

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Coop said quietly.

“At least you know the drill.” Mark rattled the keys on his laptop. “I’ll have Johnnie get the memo out.”

“I don’t get it,” said Mackie. “So what if you gave a lobbyist some proposals for an initiative?”

“I’m guessing it’s the implication,” Tanks said. “Less than appropriate means?”

“At the very least making out a romantic attachment, whether one exists or not,” Coop said. “That’s why the policy is not to comment in any way.”

“It’s not the first time it’s happened, nor will it be the last,” Mark said quietly.

Al Eddington sighed. “I don’t know what the issue is. It’s not like you’re married, sir. Why shouldn’t you have an active social life as long as you’re discreet about it?”

“If you could find a woman who’ll put up with the photogs and the tabloid coverage,” Tanks answered.

Augie laughed loudly. “Are you kidding? They’re lining up to sleep with our boss.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly interested in notching marks in available bedposts,” Mark grumbled. “And frankly, given my current workload, I think a social life is going to be moot for the next four years, at least. So for the sake of Ms. – what was her name again?”

“Martindale,” said Augie.

“For the sake of Ms. Martindale, let’s remember that policy is no comment even to deny any social life I may or may not have,” Mark said, glancing at his laptop screen. “Kent’s sending me the wrap it up message. Is there anything else?”

“Game time’s at 8,” said Sharon. “Please remember it’s potluck.”

Mark left, hoping fervently that the matter of Carrie Martindale would not become an issue. But it was the second question asked at the press conference.

He stood behind the podium in the press room, blue curtains and White House emblem behind him. This time, the presidential seal was hung on the front of the podium, a dark wood one with an electronic notepad screen embedded in the surface. Kent and Johnnie stood at the side of the press room, which was, as usual, jammed full with the full range of reporters, print, broadcast and even a few bloggers who’d finally earned their press credentials. Mark had a stylus in his hand to work the screen when he needed an additional fact, unless Kent or Johnnie pulled it up for him faster.

“Mr. President, how well do you know lobbyist Carrie Martindale?” reporter Gene Garrett asked, a short, graying man from a Detroit paper.

“May I ask why you want to know?” Mark asked.

“There is a rumor circulating that Ms. Martindale may have personal access to you that other lobbyists do not have,” Garrett said.

“I have no comment on any relationship I may or may not have with Ms. Martindale, or any other woman, for that matter.”

Garrett pressed. “Mr. President, you have promised transparency. Why can’t you deny or substantiate the rumor or correct it?”

“Alright, here’s the drill on this and any other similar rumors,” Mark announced. “I will not deny a relationship because there are an awful lot of people who won’t believe me anyway and the woman still gets her name dragged through the mud. I will not substantiate a relationship because that would give rise to even more speculation and attention paid to the woman, who probably doesn’t want it in the first place. The bottom line is, unless you have hard evidence of something seriously improper falling outside the realm of consenting adults, such as money changing hands, then I’m not saying anything one way or the other and I advise any woman connected to me by rumor or by actual acquaintance to do the same.”

Which settled it for the remainder of the press conference. Mark was still feeling rather grumpy about the whole situation, but at least Johnnie had the stationery ready for him when he got back to the Oval Office. He barely had time to get the note written and in an envelope when Kent announced that Ms. Wheatly had arrived for a briefing he’d requested earlier.

It was the sort of thing that was important to stay on top of, but not terribly interesting. Mark listened carefully, adding notes to the document Ms. Wheatly had posted to his personal server, but even so, he wasn’t sure whether he was more distracted by his feelings for her or his fear that those feelings would end up ruining her life.

Sharon wrapped up the briefing quickly. There really wasn’t that much to go over and she could tell the president was not entirely listening.

“Of course, if anything changes, I’ll let you know immediately,” she said, closing the lid to her laptop.

“Of course,” Mark replied. He spied the envelope on the desk and picked it up. “Ms. Wheatly, would you mind giving this to Ms. Bouyer, please? She knows what to do with it.”

“Okay.” Sharon took the simple white envelope and felt the heavy bond paper. “What is it?”

Mark sighed. “Something I fervently hope you will never get from me. It’s a note to Ms. Martindale with an apology for the situation and some tips on how to deal with the press.”

Sharon’s eyes rose. “Ah. Precisely the reason you won’t be carving a notch in my bedpost any too soon.”

“I have never met Ms. Martindale, as far as I know,” said Mark, testily. “I meet a lot of people, so it’s possible our paths have crossed, but we do not have a relationship.”

“Sorry.” Sharon backed up a little, surprised by his tone. “I wasn’t implying that you did. But if this is what happens to women you don’t even know…” She shrugged.

“Trust me, Ms. Wheatly, you’re much safer out in the open like this. The person who starts the rumors doesn’t go after people I obviously know since I almost never date women I obviously know.”

“The person who– You mean, you know who’s behind this?”

“Yes. The same person who’s been playing this game since I was first in the state legislature.”

“But it can’t be working. Even the Kelly Won rumors didn’t come close to panning out.”

Mark sighed even more deeply. “But it has ruined a few good relationships, including one I was pretty darned serious about, and that’s the point.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Mark waited, hoping Sharon wouldn’t press further, but she seemed to understand that wasn’t someplace he wanted to go.

Sharon took a deep breath. “Um, this may not be appropriate, but if not Ms. Martindale, is there anyone else that you’re hiding a relationship with?”

Mark smiled softly. “No. I’m not seeing anyone.”

And found himself biting back that he’d like to be seeing her.

“Well, I probably shouldn’t have been asking,” Sharon said. “I’ll see you tonight.”

The PFZ was crowded. In addition to the Advisory Panel members, several spouses were there, including Al’s and Coop’s. Daniel Friedman had been invited and Tanks had brought her daughters and her boyfriend. Al got soundly razzed when he produced his offering, chips and sour cream dip.

“He didn’t tell me it was a potluck,” Carolyn Eddington groaned. She was as tall and ramrod straight as her husband, but a lot more easy going, with steel gray hair and soft blue eyes.

The cheering rose in pitch as Mark scurried into the basement bearing a dark blue covered Dutch oven.

“What you got, Jugs?” the Coop demanded.

“Chili – my own personal recipe,” Mark announced opening the pot with a flourish. “I got up early this morning and threw it together. It has been cooking gently all day and is in full flower.”

“Full sear, you mean.” groaned John Whitesand. “Sheeze, Jugs, I can smell the chiles from here.”

June entered with the bag containing the sour cream, onions and cheese Mark had brought to accompany his dish. Sharon hurried upstairs, hoping there were enough bowls and spoons. There were, but just barely.

There wasn’t much room left around the television, but it didn’t really matter anyway, since at any given time at least half the group was talking with each other while the other half watched. Tanks and Coop sat through all the commercials, and debated the social and economic ramifications of the good ones.

Somewhere late in the third quarter, Sharon overheard Mark and Al discussing something, apparently unaware that she could hear them. Nonetheless, she felt her blood boiling and for the rest of the evening, she couldn’t wait until everyone – including the boss – went home.

Which was why she was even more annoyed to find that Mark was still there when she finally pushed the Coop and his wife out her front door.

“I can clean up myself,” she told him angrily.

Surprised, he stepped back. “I’m sorry?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Okay, I can understand you being a little nettled earlier today, when I made that crack about you not notching my bedpost. But you didn’t have to tell Al that I was just another beautiful woman and it didn’t matter.”

“I didn’t—“ Mark frantically went over the evening in his head. “Oh, for crying out loud. You’re taking that completely the wrong way!”

“Then Al did, too.” Sharon did not like the shrill notes creeping into her voice, but she couldn’t help it.

“Did you hear me set him straight?”

Sharon snorted.

Mark groaned. “You did, didn’t you? And you’re still mad. What is wrong with you?”

“Because I’m sick and tired of being just another beautiful woman!”

“Then you didn’t hear all of what I said.”

“I don’t care.”

“I do. Al’s the one you should be mad at, not me. He’s the one who said I should sleep with you because of your looks. What I said was that if that was the only reason I was sleeping with you, then – and only then, I might add – you would be just another beautiful woman and it wouldn’t matter.”

“I don’t want to be mad at Al,” Sharon groaned, throwing a napkin on the bar.

“Well, what good is being mad at me going to do?”

Sharon sniffed. “I need the distance.” She looked over at him. “That was great chili, by the way.”

Mark sank onto a barstool. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Everything.” Agitated, Sharon prowled around the room, trying to straighten it. “I was an idiot today, okay? I should never have asked you about Martindale or whether you’ve got somebody else you’re seeing. It’s none of my damned business. And I don’t want it to be my business. And I sure as hell don’t want to end up like Martindale.”

“What do you want?” Mark asked softly.

Sharon looked at him. “Probably the same thing you want.”

Mark winced. “I don’t know about that. It wouldn’t be about the looks, and it would certainly be against my better judgment, but what I want right now may or may not get us to your bedroom.”

“I’m not picky about where.” Sharon swallowed. “But that damned better judgment clause. That’s the only reason you still have your clothes on.”

“Are you going to run away on me?” Mark braced himself.

“No.” Sharon hung her head. “I’ll tell you right now, every freaking nerve ending in my body is screaming to put as much distance between you and me as possible. At this point, Africa is not far enough.” She looked at him again. “But somehow, it just seems like that would be the worst thing I could do. That if I left now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

“Sharon, if you need to back off, then we’ll back off.” Mark swallowed. “But, please, don’t go promising that you’ll regret leaving or anything like that until–“

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, that’s not what I’m saying,” Sharon snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not promising my life to you or any nonsense like that. What I meant is that I can’t run away now. I don’t know about tomorrow. But right now, I can’t.”

“Yeah, well, do me a favor and be careful with that not running away stuff,” Mark growled, then sighed. “I’ve heard it before. She swore she could handle it.”

“Well, I think I’ve seen what can happen,” Sharon said.

“No. You haven’t. You haven’t seen squat. And you won’t, if I have anything to say about it.” It was Mark’s turn to start pacing. “Look, I think we both know I can’t promise you won’t face some bad publicity at some point or other. None of us can and the best thing we can do is keep our noses squeaky clean just in case. And it’s not as if we’ve known each other all that long. What do we really know about each other? That we like to cook and eat and drink good coffee and wine? It’s not like we can’t be friends and take our time finding out who we are. Seriously, Sharon, you’d have to give up too much to be with me right now. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“And I don’t want to put you in that position.” She sighed. “I’m just wondering how long better judgment can hold out.”

“So am I.”

Mark left a few minutes later, after another awkward good-bye at the basement door.

Sharon spent the rest of the night alternating between worrying that things would be forever awkward at work and wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with Mark. So while she felt for poor Carrie Martindale when things blew up on Sunday, Sharon was glad she had something besides her boss to dwell on. 

Not that the Martindale affair was that big a deal for Sharon directly. Outside of the U.S., the sexual antics, real or potential, of a sitting U.S. president were more a source of bemusement than anything, especially in those countries where it was well-known their leaders were not only cheating on their spouses but using government money to pay for their high-class call girls. That a young woman had lied about never meeting President Jerguessen barely caused any notice, which meant Sharon didn’t have to think about the issue much at all, beyond commiserating with Tanks and Augie and press secretary Jean Bouyer, who were dealing with all the fuss domestically.

For Martindale had already told reporters on Friday, before the President had made his statement about not commenting, that she had never met the man. She had always worked in the House of Representatives and had had limited contact with senators. Which she said again, Sunday morning, on one of the political talk shows, although Augie later said she should have known that something was up when she’d been asked on the show. Why have her there at all if she really didn’t know the president?

Because as soon as she affirmed she had never met President Jerguessen, she was asked to identify the people in the photo on the studio screen – a photo that clearly showed her and Mark Jerguessen shaking hands at a party of some sort. Flabbergasted, Martindale stammered that she had no clue where or when the photo had been taken and then made her second fatal error by suggesting that the show had somehow tampered with the shot to make it look as though she and the president had met.

So naturally, on Monday, everyone was talking about how if Martindale had lied about knowing the president and the two had obviously met, then how well did she really know him? Sharon found herself trying not to wonder the same thing, although there was a part of her that remembered that Mark had said that as far as he knew the two had never met. So unless someone had been doing some serious playing around with PhotoShop, the two obviously had.

It got around the White House very quickly that the boss was not happy. He kept his same schedule, sent around a memo reminding employees that they were not to comment either way on any rumored romances, but otherwise kept to himself as much as possible. Jean said at the morning press briefing that they were working on the source of the photo, and it did not appear that anyone could identify when or where it had been taken. Which while Jean did not say so and flat out denied it when she was pressed, got many assuming she was implying that the photo was a fake.

What did help was that the next day, Jean was able to announce to the press that the photo had been identified.

“It was taken at an education lobby party about 15 months ago, just before the president announced his candidacy,” she said. “The president told me it was usual for such affairs and he remembers talking with several people whose names he never got and would probably be surprised to find that he’d met them, as well. Nor is he surprised that Ms. Martindale did not remember the event, either. He was just a senator at that point and as she has pointed out, she worked with members of the House. The president would also like to point out that this sort of thing is exactly why he does not comment on potential relationships.”

Which fed the fire for another few days, although by the time Carrie Martindale showed up to the White House for a very public lunch with the President, the story was all but dead.

All but dead, June noted with some mild disgust as she perused a couple Washington society blogs. She was fairly sure her brother was not seeing anyone at the moment. Mark was beyond discreet, but June could usually tell. The funny thing was, it had looked like he was seeing someone back in early February. June decided it had either fallen through or something else had triggered his “happy” look, as she called it. Either way, something had to be done about the gossip-mongering and she thought she knew what. The problem would be convincing Mark.

That Sunday, as Mark made their brunch, June laid out her idea. As she expected, Mark was less than enthused.

“What makes you think people won’t be placing bets on who wins my hand?” he grumbled as he chopped onions to go in what would become a corned-beef hash.

“Then the joke’s on them, isn’t it?” June replied. “I mean, honestly, Mark, half the reason the damn rumors get so much ground is that you don’t date anyone publicly. If you’ve got a whole group you’re dating, then it’s pretty obvious, these are just friendly relationships. What’s even better, is that I’ll be the one overseeing who you go out with for what event, so there’ll be a lot less room for speculation.”

Mark grimaced. “Do you really want to take that on?”

“Honestly?”

“Oh, crud.” Mark shook his head with a rueful grin. “You’re just dying to, aren’t you?”

June giggled in spite of herself. “Damn skippy. I mean, I don’t want to mess with your love life. But it kinda would be fun to set you up. You could even set me up occasionally if you want.”

“Hm.” Mark focused on finely dicing a potato. “That could even things up a little.”

“Could. And I don’t mind you floating the odd name or two, just between us. It’s not like I don’t know most of your friends.”

“True.” Mark thought as he turned the heat up on the cast iron skillet, then slid some white solid fat into it.

June grimaced. “Are you using lard again?”

“It’s the unadulterated stuff, without the poly-unsaturates and lard has less of the bad fat than butter. Besides, it’s the best thing to get this hash nice and crisp the way you like it. How about Mary Karpati?”

“She’s perfect.” June nodded. “If I can get her, Tish MacDonald?”

“Your BFF. So that’s what triggered this little idea.” Mark grinned shamelessly.

“What?”

“Hasn’t she been begging you to set me up with her for how long?”

June laughed. “More like how long ago. We were in high school when that happened. She’s gotten over you in a big way, although you’re okay as guys and politicians go. Think we can add Carrie Martindale to the list?”

Mark winced. “Conflict of interest.”

“You’re right. Karen Tanaka?”

“Has a boyfriend.”

“Sharon Wheatly?”

“Doubt you’ll get her to go for it.” Mark held his breath, hoping that June didn’t notice the flutter in his chest. “Besides, doesn’t look good dating a subordinate.”

June sighed. “Mark, the whole point is that you’re not really dating, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s see. Who else?”

Mark left her to her musing.

Two days later, Daniel Friedman got June on the phone.

“I, uh, heard about your dating pool plan,” Daniel told her once the pleasantries were dispensed with.

“Yeah. You got someone for me?”

“I do. Only I’m thinking as a special interest date, for embassy soirees, etc. Sharon Wheatly.”

“Too perfect. But Mark said he’s concerned about what it would look like dating a subordinate.”

“She’d be there almost as his assistant and personal translator.”

“I suppose, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think she’ll go for it.”

“She’d be perfect and we won’t have to spend a lot of time briefing her. Plus, we won’t have to worry about her saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

“Well, I’ll talk to her, but don’t get too excited, Daniel. She really doesn’t like the spotlight.”

“Let me know how it goes. Maybe I’ll talk to her, too.”

“Just do me a favor and wait for me to give you the heads up.”

June hung up, not sure what to do. The problem was, Sharon would be the perfect date for embassy and other events involving foreign dignitaries. But what she’d said about not liking being looked at, June understood and was reluctant to push Sharon. Not entirely reluctant. Mark clearly liked her, although June was pretty sure he was more interested in her as a friend.

June suddenly smiled. Friendship was all well and good. But there was something about Mark and Sharon that just seemed to feel right. Maybe what the two of them needed was a nice gentle shove in the other’s direction.

Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller was only moderately annoyed as she aimed her remote at the television and hit the off button. Mark had connected with someone early on in February – she could always tell. But it must have flamed out early and fast. Still, when Walker had found that photo of Mark and that Martindale bitch, it had seemed promising. Then when Martindale denied ever meeting Mark, that had been good. Rose thought she’d caught one, finally.

But, no. Mark looked indecently triumphant as he made that ridiculous fuss over having lunch with Martindale. Rose felt slapped in the face. It wasn’t as if she did not have his best interests at heart. She was his mother, for Heaven’s sakes. She deserved a little respect for that, if no other reason. But once again, Mark was not only snubbing her but flaunting it, as well.

Rose sighed. If he wasn’t going to accept her protection and care, that was his choice. But she wasn’t going to let him ruin his life without her best effort, and if that meant making sure he kept his hands away from all but the right women, she’d do it.

IM Session –

Obstractin: Sis  Gld ur online

Swheatly531: What up?

Obstractin: Mchl jst left sd 2 tell u he’ll brng ur geet tmrrw

Swheatly531: Sarah, will you please learn to use vowels?

Obstractin: Nt when Im thmbin it

Swheatly531: What???

Obstractin: Thumbing it  Im on crackbrry

Swheatly531: Ah. I guess I’m just used to using all the letters on mine. Can’t chance a misunderstanding.

Obstractin: ur art in mail eta Frdy

Swheatly531: thanks

Chapter Five

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull Quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody, "Sharon was determined that it go no further"

Tuesday after Monsieur Sartimes’ visit, June got permission to go shopping. She waited just long enough for the Advisory Panel to finish its meeting and caught Sharon and Karen as they left.

Sharon protested that she had to work, but Karen grabbed her arm.

“What else have we got crackberries for?” Karen asked, waving her email phone. “We can email in between trying things on. And you need clothes.”

“That settles it, then,” said June, saluting with her Blackberry, as well.

“Let me get mine,” Sharon said with a rueful grin.

They did not have a lot of time because the Secret Service insisted that June be back in the White House before five p.m. And even though it was Sharon who needed new clothes, it was Karen who did most of the trying on. The problem was, Karen was just a hair too short to wear regular sizes and just a hair too tall to wear petites.

“That’s why I buy so much,” she explained. “If it comes to close to fitting, I’m not letting it go. I can’t afford to. Look at this suit. It would be adorable on me if it fit.”

June took the blue pantsuit with short sleeves and looked it over critically. “The pockets on the jacket are kind of boring. You know, if we gathered this section along here and let the gathers work into the pocket opening, that would add interest. I like the shawl collar, but these standard square sleeves. Puffed would definitely do better, and, Karen, you could really pull them off.”

“Really? I mean, I love those cute little round sleeves, but aren’t they too little-girly?” Karen asked.

“With your ‘tude?” Sharon teased.

“You’ve got presence,” said June. “You know, I’ve got some silk shantung in my studio that’s not far off this shade. I bet it would look great on you, Karen.”

“Okay,” said Karen, puzzled.

“We’ll get your measurements when we get back,” June said, dialing a number on her phone. “Ellie, please remind me to get Karen Tanaka’s measurements when we get back… Thanks.”

Karen and Sharon exchanged puzzled glances. But June had been serious about getting Karen’s measurements and took Sharon’s, as well.

“Just for the files,” June said, airily giving Sharon the once over.

“What are you gonna do?” Karen asked.

“Indulge myself,” said June. But before she could explain further, her assistant pulled her aside and the two talked quickly. “Damn. Listen, girls, gotta fly”

And she dashed off.

Friday, the Secret Service came through for Sharon’s plan, which surprised her, but as the nameless young woman in the black dress suit explained to her, Sharon was asking about a single contained space as opposed to going out in public.

She took the weekend to get everything set up, then sent a memo to the rest of the Advisory Panel inviting everyone out for a post-work drink at the new venue on Tuesday evening. Environmental activist and part-time advisor Eli Weatherall was in town, as well, and agreed to join the crew. Sharon also invited Johnnie, who declined in favor of seeing her husband, Tyronne, who was a curator at the Natural History Museum.

Mark seemed a little down when Sharon reminded the group at the end of the meeting about drinks that evening.

“Hey, boss, did we say you’re not invited?” Coop said, grinning in delighted evil.

“And did you get the bar cleared with security?” Mark asked, aware something was up, but feeling nettled nonetheless.

“As a matter of fact, we did,” Coop replied. “We even had Kent clear your schedule, so you can leave at 6:30. You just check with your man. You’ll see.”

Mark nodded, wondering what was going on, but wasn’t entirely surprised when Riff Butler, a large man of African American descent and an utterly passive face, came to the office door at 6:30. Riff was the Secret Service agent in charge of Mark’s personal protection unit. Mark put him off to finish some reading, but finally got his coat from Gen Forrest, dismissed her and followed Riff to a medium-sized dark sedan with tinted windows.

“Not the usual car,” Mark noted.

“No, sir,” replied Riff.

Nor was Mark let off at the usual well-lit entrance. In fact, if Riff and the rest of his usual team hadn’t been there, Mark might have been more than a little scared as the car pulled into a dark alley behind some Georgian-style townhomes in Georgetown. Even as the car stopped, Riff waited a moment and he and another team member, dark-suited and non-descript as they all were, quickly got out of the car, hustled Mark out and behind a fence with an iron gate.

They walked down a short tunnel and then down several stairs. Riff opened the door, but didn’t follow.

The room had the same ambient light as a comfortable bar. Mark couldn’t quite make out the background music under the chatter. There was a pool table with a good light hanging over it, then two couches facing a huge flat-panel television set, and then at the opposite end of the room, was a bar. The Advisory Panel was gathered around it, with Sharon behind the bar, tending.

“Well, look what the cat drug in,” Augie announced cheerfully.

“Here, here!” Coop added as he and the others came over and grouped around Mark. “Now that we are all here, we can officially open our own little joint. Jugsy, with your permission, this will be a Protocol-Free Zone. No Hail to the Chief, no yes, sirs, no standing when you come in. And definitely no applause unless you really earn it. You okay with that?”

Mark gaped, then grinned. “More than okay.” He looked around. “Ed-man, you okay with it?”

Al Eddington sighed. “Well, even the generals like to let their hair down occasionally. Why not the Commander-in-Chief?”

“Hot diggety,” sighed Mark. Grinning, he suddenly felt more relaxed than he’d had in months. Certainly since before his presidential campaign had begun in earnest. “What do we got for drinks?”

“I’ve got a full bar,” said Sharon. “Just so Ed-man can have a girly drink when he wants one. But I thought to christen the occasion, we could start with a little champagne.”

“She got the real French stuff, too,” chuckled Johnny Whitesand.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t call it champagne if it wasn’t.”

Karen laughed. “Whitey, it’s a wine snob thing.”

Sharon also had several snacks out on the bar, as well, including a couple of beautifully arranged plates of what Ed-man referred to as fancy cold cuts and Sharon called charcuterie. There were also cut vegetables with hummus dip for Eli, who was a vegan and even some cheddar cheese popcorn.

After a couple minutes arguing over the name – they later decided to call it the Protocol-Free Zone, or PFZ – they toasted the new venue and went on to chatter and just have a good time.

“Holy crap, that’s good paté!” Mark exclaimed suddenly, his mouth still full.

Ed-man proceeded to tease Mark about girly-meat and Mark ended up challenging Ed-man to an arm-wrestling contest. Loser cleaned the barware. It was a reasonably even match, but Ed-man lost. Mark stood.

“Now, as a real man, I’ll go ahead and clean the barware,” Mark announced.

But both he and Ed-man did it together. Sharon ran up and downstairs several times, returning leftover snacks to the kitchen above.

“Where the heck are we?” Mark asked suddenly.

“My place,” said Sharon, busy gathering the last plate with its remains of saucisson and little pickles and good Niçoise olives. “We’re in the basement. It works because of the secret floozie entrance some Senator put in years ago. The Secret Service can get you in and out of here without anyone knowing.”

“Cool.” Mark wasn’t sure how to take the news. On one hand, he was thrilled to have someplace where he could relax and not “be” the president. On the other, he wasn’t sure just how close he wanted to be to Sharon.

Or he knew how close he wanted to be to Sharon, but wasn’t sure if he should even be thinking along those lines. The last thing either of them needed was for the wrong person to start wondering about the two of them.

The others said good-bye to him as he made ready to head out the back with Riff. Sharon showed the others out upstairs, feeling decidedly mixed about their being gone. Or more, rather sad that Mark was gone, and not at all happy that she didn’t want him to leave.

Which added to how startled she was when she went downstairs one last time to pick up and found Mark.

“What are you still doing here?” she blurted out. “I’m sorry. I meant, I thought you’d gone.”

Mark shrugged. “Can’t leave yet. There’s a homeless person in the alley and the team is waiting for Metro P.D. to roust him out first. They don’t want anyone seeing the comings and goings if they don’t have to and they can’t do the rousting without folks knowing they’re there.”

“Oh. Any idea how long?”

“Nope.”

“Oh.” Sharon nodded. “Oh, what the heck. When I was at the deli today, I picked up a rib-eye steak. I was going to cut it in half, anyway. So would you like to stay for dinner?”

Mark glanced behind him, where Riff was waiting in the shadows. “I suppose that’d be okay. Can I help you put it together?”

“Sure. Why not?” Sharon said as she headed upstairs.

Mark followed along, whistling softly in appreciation as he saw the kitchen. Sharon laughed.

“I’m renting the place from my friend Carla,” she explained. “And Carla is so not a cook. But when she did up the kitchen, she put in all top-of-the-line appliances and everything, except cookware. It was completely useless until I bought all the pots and tools.”

The room was done in soft maple-wood modern cabinets with brownish gray granite counter-tops. The appliances were all stainless steel or black. The sink was built into an island facing into the dining room, with a long butcher’s block work table between the island and the back wall, where a six-burner stove sat under a gleaming beaten copper hood.

Sharon opened one of the double-sided extra wide doors on the refrigerator.

“Let’s see,” she said rummaging through the produce bin at the bottom. “I’ve got some bag greens, those will be good for a salad, and some par-boiled new potatoes. Perfect.”

“Sounds good.”

“Classic bistro fare,” said Sharon, turning from the fridge with the bag, the meat still in its paper wrapper, and a plastic container in her hands and bumping the door closed with her hip.

“I noticed you’ve mostly got ingredients in there,” said Mark, smiling.

“Except I don’t cook much during the week,” said Sharon, setting everything on the worktable. “I mostly do up stuff that I freeze on weekends, then pull together a pre-fab salad and some extra veggies weeknights. Assuming I’m not eating out somewhere. When it’s just yourself, it doesn’t make much sense to go whole hog all the time.”

“What can I do?”

Sharon looked at him. “Well, how about putting together the salad?”

“Sure.” Mark went back to the fridge and starting rummaging around, himself. “Hey, you’ve got some ‘shrooms in here. Would you like a sauce to go with that steak? And gorgonzola crumbles, that’ll make a nice vinaigrette and it’ll go great with the meat.”

“That sounds good.” Sharon was impressed in spite of herself. “Tell you what. Why don’t you pick a bottle of wine? I’ve got a cellar over there.”

Mark noticed the two refrigerator-like cabinets, one on top of the other next to the wall by the stairs. Sharon, for her part, had started slicing the steak horizontally, but had one eye on what Mark would do next. He went straight for the top cellar, then bent and looked through the smoky glass at the bottom cellar.

“Not a lot of whites in here,” he chuckled, feeling very pleased.

Obviously, Sharon knew her way around wines, and it was nice being on the same plane as someone else for a change. Most of Mark’s colleagues didn’t share his passion when it came to food and wine. If they did the wine thing, it was all too often for the show. Mark opened the top cellar and was pleased to find a wide variety of good reds, including a couple he knew darned well came with bargain prices, further confirmation that Sharon was buying what she thought tasted good.

“I haven’t got much of a collection,” Sharon said. “I’ve only been here a month. In fact, I only had a couple bottles until this weekend. But I figured while I was stocking the bar, I might as well stock my cellars.”

“Hm. Jordan cab,” said Mark, looking at a bottle. “Way too young, though.”

“I’ve been feeling optimistic about being around here long enough to open that.” Sharon was digging through the fridge again.

“Ah. A Rubicon. Oh. Infanticide. Shavings.” Mark put the bottle back. “Ah. L. Preston red. Say, isn’t that that one little place in Sonoma with the brick oven and the home-pressed olive oil?”

“You’ve been there?” Sharon looked at him with a happy grin.

“Years ago, but I really liked it.”

“I’ve been a member of their wine club for years. My mom ships stuff to me so we can get past the interstate shipping laws.”

Mark nodded. “I’ve been pushing for that one for years. But you would not believe the hold the distribution lobby’s got on some folks. This should be just light enough for a good pan sauce.”

“I’ve got shallots and garlic on the counter here next to the sink.”

“Shallots. Great. And knives?”

“Next to the sink. I’ll go ahead and wash the greens.” Sharon pulled a black cast iron skillet from a cabinet next to the stove.

“That is beautifully seasoned,” said Mark.

“A thing of beauty. It was my grandmother’s in Belgium. I got one and my sister Susan got one. Sarah and my nieces will have to wait for my mother to give up hers.” Sharon grabbed a gleaming chrome skillet from the same cabinet. “Here’s one for the steaks.”

With both pans on the stove, Sharon set about heating some natural lard in the cast iron skillet and when it was just hot enough, she carefully dropped in several tiny new potatoes from her plastic container. Mark, in the meantime, had sliced the mushrooms that Sharon had already cleaned, and had a shallot and a couple cloves of garlic finely diced.

The two shifted around as Sharon went to clean the greens and Mark expertly measured extra virgin olive oil and a red wine vinegar into a bowl and whisked them together. Sharon turned the potatoes, which were just getting a lovely golden crust on them and put the two steaks on.

“How well do you like your meat?” she asked, sprinkling kosher salt over the sizzling steaks.

“Just threaten it with the flame,” said Mark, smiling as he breathed in the smell of grilling beef.

Sharon grinned. A minute later, the steaks were turned and Sharon turned the oven on to warm. Mark was gathering the final ingredients for his sauce, including some beef broth from a box in the fridge and corn starch, which he mixed with some water in a tiny bowl.

Once the steaks were in the oven keeping warm, Mark slapped a tiny pat of butter into the gleaming steak pan and swirled it around. Then, turning down the heat, he lifted the pan to cool for a moment, and tossed in the mushroom slices, the shallots, cooked those for a minute, added the garlic, waited just long enough for the rich scent of garlic to flavor the air, then poured in a generous slurp of wine.

“Yikes, you’re confident,” Sharon observed.

“I’ve singed my eyebrows before,” Mark conceded as he scraped the bottom of the pan to mix any leftover bits from the steaks into the heating liquid. “But that bottle was cool enough, I figured I was safe.”

Sharon went back to pulling out plates, silverware, napkins and glasses from her cupboards. She set a couple placemats on the counter between the dining room and the sink. Then she mixed the salad in the dressing Mark had made, added the gorgonzola crumbles and divided the portions onto the plates. A second later, she had warm potatoes on the side, and Mark had the sauce ready to be spooned over the steaks.

She poured the wine as Mark set the plates on the placemats, next to the silverware. Sharon mmm’d loudly over the sauce, while Mark groaned with pleasure over the crispy brown potatoes. Laughing, they focused on eating, talking about other places and meals they’d loved. Sharon wasn’t quite the omnivore Mark was – he’d eaten chocolate-covered ants in South America. But she was quite pleased to realize how many tastes they had in common.

“It just boils down to living well,” said Mark after a contemplative sip of his wine. “It’s the simple basics of life. Anybody can stuff food in their face to fuel up. And you do have to balance taking care of yourself with enjoying the good stuff. But there are two kinds of people I just don’t get, the folks who are afraid of their food and the folks who don’t even think about it. I mean how could you not think about something that tastes this good?”

“It’s called being shut off from yourself, I guess,” said Sharon. “I sort of get the fear thing. I mean, my dad has to watch out for his cholesterol and I have another friend who’s diabetic. But the assumption that anything that tastes good can’t be good for you.” She shook her head. “Or that it should be untouched by human hands or it’s not safe. I worked food service for two weeks in college. I couldn’t handle people freaking when I touched their food bare-handed and I had just washed my hands.”

Mark looked down at his empty plate. His wine glass was mostly empty, as well.

“I guess it’s time for me to head out,” he said softly.

“You’re not driving, are you?”

Mark snorted. “No.”

Sharon poured some of the bottle into her glass then got the cork and stuffed it into the bottle. “Why don’t you take this with you? I can’t drink the rest of it and I don’t want to waste it. I mean, I’ve got one of those vacuum goodies that’ll suck the air out so it won’t go bad, but I just as soon you took it.”

“Thanks.” Mark chuckled. “What are the odds I’ll get tagged for an open-container?”

Sharon shrugged and followed Mark downstairs to the basement. Riff was waiting in the shadows.

“Riff, did you want something to eat?” Sharon called out, suddenly anxious.

“No, Ma’am. We got something. Sir? We’re ready when you are.” He disappeared out the door.

Mark paused. “Well. Thanks for a lovely dinner and a really nice evening.”

“You’re welcome. I had a good time, too.”

There was an awkward pause. Sharon suddenly smiled and moved back.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

Mark turned and left, feeling both elated and unsatisfied.

Sharon pounded up the stairs, rather annoyed with herself for letting Mark up there and thoroughly thrilled that they’d been so compatible. There weren’t many people she let cook with her. Mark had even remembered without being told to run the knife blade over the sharpening steel before he used it and had cleaned the knife before putting it back in the block.

She put the used dishes in the dishwasher and scrubbed out the potato pan and the other skillet before heading upstairs to her bedroom and turning on her laptop. She started an email to her friend, Niecy, but then stopped. What was there to say? Yes, it looked like she and Mark could be good friends, but Sharon was determined that it go no further. Absolutely determined.

IM Session

ChknCoop: Well, you’re finally back online.

Gloryhg: I had some reading to do. What’re you bothering me for?

ChknCoop: Just checking in to see how things went tonight.

Gloryhg: You were there. They went great.

ChknCoop: And it was totally Wheaties’ idea. Of course, I’m working on the lunch thang – proving to be a bit more of a wrangle, but we’ll get there.

Gloryhg: Sounds good. I appreciate the efforts. Listen, I’ve still got a lot of the education initiative to go over before tomorrow’s meeting with the Senate committee. See you tomorrow.

Out on the West Coast, late in the afternoon at an exclusive all-girls high school in Pasadena, Jodi Wheatly sat on the edge of a planter next to the school’s pick-up zone with her best friend Tiffany Sheppledorf.

Jodi, at age 14, was on the cusp of blossoming into as rare a beauty as her Aunt Sharon – a fact that numerous relatives remarked upon with appalling regularity. They both had the same blonde hair and brown eyes and basically the same retiring temperament and intense intellect, although while Sharon excelled in languages and diplomacy, Jodi much preferred math and science. Tiffany had Jodi’s slim build but also had lots of dark curly hair that she wore long. Both wore braces. Both were identified gifted, with Tiffany shooting to become a Renaissance woman, equally well-versed in the humanities, arts, and sciences.

Jodi’s older sister Toby stood nearby, surrounded by a gaggle of her girlfriends. The pitch and loudness were at full teenage high. Toby, at 16, had shed her braces, had shed glasses in favor of contact lenses, had brown hair and blue eyes and a tendency toward a more revealing wardrobe than modest. Athletic and outgoing, some were surprised to find that she and Jodi were related.

Toby and her friends were chattering about who was sleeping with whom, who liked whom, who should like whom and why it was all a gross injustice. Jodi just glared down the driveway.

“At least Mr. Perkins said we could be lab partners for the project,” Tiffany said softly.

“Yeah.” Jodi sighed.

“You don’t want to do all the work again, do you?”

“I’m glad about that, Tif, it’s just…” Jodi winced as one of the girls screeched about something. “I don’t know how Toby stands it.”

“Stands what?”

“Everybody looking at her, having to be the center of attention all the time.” Jodi shook her head. “Ms. Jenkins had to ask me about Aunt Sharon. Thank God, she didn’t say anything in front of the class.”

“Well, it is kinda cool having an aunt working in the White House.”

“Totally not. It’s almost as bad as having a rock star for a dad. Dude, if anybody finds out, it’ll be so embarrassing. Everyone will be asking me for the president’s autograph. I’ll bet Aunt Sharon never even sees him.”

“Oh, come on. Most of those kids are far too shallow to care about the president.”

Jodi glared at Tiffany. “Except this isn’t just any president. It’s super young, super cute, super single Mark Jerguessen. Even Toby knew who he was.”

“Dude. You’ve got a point.” Tiffany sighed.

Jodi groaned and checked her cell phone for the time. “Toby, what time did you say Mom was coming?”

“She’ll get here.” Toby rolled her eyes and turned back to her friends.

“You didn’t even text her, did you?” Jodi’s jaw dropped in anger, although she knew she  should have expected Toby to forget. “You were supposed to text her when cheerleading practice was over. Mom’s gonna be so pissed at you.”

“She knows when practice is over. Get over it.”

“Never mind. I’ll do it.” Jodi slumped as she thumbed the characters into her phone and nodded at Tiffany. “You’d better text your mom. We are going to be so late.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Mom’s not going to be home. She pulled a night class for the next term.”

Tiffany lived alone with her mother, a music history professor at the local university, in a house across the street from where Jodi, Toby and their mother, Cameron Dykstra, lived. Cameron owned a music store in the arts district near the university.

“Mom’s on her way.” Jodi sighed. “She sounds pissed already. I swear, Toby’s torquing her off on purpose.”

“You think?” Tiffany grinned. “Wanna eat at my place?”

“Oh, like I want to eat at mine. Toby and Mom are going to be fighting all night.”

“Maybe then your mom won’t remember my mom’s not home.”

Jodi’s phone chirped and she looked at the screen. “I’m guessing she already remembered. She says you’re having dinner with us.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Well, if your mom and Toby are fighting, we can surf the Congressional Quarterly site without her knowing.”

“I can’t..” Jodi grimaced. “She’s got it blocked and the last time I hacked around it, she made me promise not to.”

“We’ll use my laptop. That way, you’re not hacking around her block and I’ve got the emergency screen with the Jonas Brothers site on it. That way she’ll think we’re being nice and normal.”

“Dude.” sighed Jodi, feeling only slightly less miserable.

Look, Ma! I Made Farn!

Image of old jeans and finished farn from tutorial on how to make fabric yarn,

This is a little tutorial on how to make fabric yarn. It’s also a bit about why you would want to.

Fabric yarn, or farn, is yarn you make from large pieces of fabric. There are any number of ways to do this, but, basically, you make long strips that you eventually knit or crochet just like you would any other yarn. Except that farn is really, really bulky. You’re not going to make socks with this stuff. Maybe not even slippers.

What got me into making farn was that I have boxes and boxes of old, holey jeans that can’t be donated because they’re too ratty and thrashed (fashion be damned). So rather than adding to our waste problem, I’ve been looking for creative and fun ways to turn them into something else.

The problem with re-making clothes is that you generally have way more clothes than you’ve got useful projects. I’ve made several bags out of the seats of worn pants, but how many bags does one need in a lifetime? Certainly more than the seats of worn pants that I have.

The good thing about farn is that you need lots and lots of it to make anything. The bad thing about farn is that it is very time-consuming to make. On the other hand, it’s a very soothing thing to do when you’re about ready to do something violent to, say, the computers at an overly automated medical provider (not that I ever would, except virtually, but today it’s been very tempting).

How to make fabric yarn

You need some really sharp and solid sheers to make this easier. And the first thing you do is cut the seat off the jeans and save that to make a tote bag at some point. Or something else. Then you cut off all the seams and hems.

Cutting off the seams and hems of a pant leg for making farn.

The process is really pretty simple. At the short edge of a piece of fabric – in this case, the leg of the jeans – you start cutting a strip, about half an inch wide (it’s okay to eyeball it), off of the long edge of your piece. You cut all the way to the other short edge, but you do not cut through to the edge. You leave about half an inch of uncut fabric at that edge. Then, on that same short edge, you start cutting from that edge all the way to within half an inch of the first short edge. You can use a rotary cutter, and you can draw lines first, but it doesn’t really speed things up any.

Now, you may notice there’s a bit of a problem with pant legs. They’re not an even rectangle. There’s the point that kind of sticks out that forms the crotch. And most jeans legs get narrower at the hem because your ankles are narrower than your thighs – and should be. There are two ways to deal with this. One is to even things up and use the scraps for patches or some quilting project. Or you can treat the curved edge like you would a short edge and just not have really long parts before you start cutting from the bottom. Play around and see what works for you.

What you do with your farn is up to you. You can crochet rag rugs with it. I’m going to knit a really long jacket based on a Kaffe Fassett pattern that I’ve been wanting to make for years. I’ve made a seat cover with some farn that I made from an old, dead bed skirt. The options are pretty much endless. Unfortunately, so is the supply of ratty jeans.

Chapter Four

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody:  "I just didn’t have any cocktail dresses and this was the first one that appealed to me."

A few days later, Sharon was settling in fairly well. She’d gotten a little bit of a suspicious sniff when she’d asked Raul Mendoza for some specific research on the French foreign minister, but he’d done as she’d asked. She sent a quick email to the minister’s office to verify the information and to get some additional details, and Raul’s research had not only been accurate, it had been pretty complete.

The problem was what to do about it.

“Who’s in charge of entertaining at the White House?” Sharon asked Julie.

“The First Lady’s office,” said Julie, promptly.

“We don’t have a first lady.”

“Well, we do, sort of. The president’s sister.” Julie’s fingers went rattling quickly across her keyboard. “I’m sending you her email address. Ms. Jerguessen oversees all the entertaining, including state dinners and other events for visiting dignitaries. The scuttlebutt is that the press office would like to have her do more goodwill stuff, you know, planting trees and opening senior homes. But, hey, she’s running her business.”

“I hope she can find time for this. Is there a way to flag it so that she knows it’s critical?”

Julie nodded. “I’ll email her assistant. And here’s that address. Go ahead and cc the email to her. I follow it with a phone call. That ought to do the trick.”

“Thanks.” Sharon went back to her office.

June Jerguessen had caught some flak for running her business out of the White House, but Mark had insisted she do it and had set up a studio and office where she could. Not that it mattered much. June spent half her time in New York, as it was. Mark’s press secretary, Jean Bouyer used that to play down the criticism, after pointing out that both Mark and June had paid for the improvements and whatever equipment June needed themselves.

While June’s business meant that she did not have much time for goodwill appearances, she made time to actively oversee whatever entertaining needed doing, and there was a fair amount. Press events were generally handled through the press office, but on any given day, the president was expected to meet at least some member of the public, not to mention entertain ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries.

The French foreign minister was the highest ranking official they’d had thus far. Not being a head of state, he didn’t rate a full state dinner, but a formal dinner was expected. That was to happen on the last night of his three-day visit. There would also be a small reception at the State Department (which June would also oversee) on the first night, and two luncheons.

So when June received Sharon’s email on Thursday before the minister’s Wednesday arrival, she initially felt a little annoyed. But the fact that Sharon had thought to check impressed June and while it would mean some re-arranging, there was still time to do it.

She’d heard about the new wunderkind on the Advisory Panel. There had been the less-than-kind grumbling about her being a show-off and out of her element. But the email didn’t seem to indicate that. It just showed good sense.

So June decided it was time to check the new kid out. She found Sharon’s office without difficulty and could see that Sharon was there because the door was open. Sharon was at her desk, reading something on her laptop when a female voice called from a nearby cubicle. Only the female was not speaking English. A tall woman wearing a blue and orange hajib burst out of the cubicle and hurried into Sharon’s office as Sharon answered back in the same language.

Together, the two looked at Sharon’s laptop. They went back and forth for a minute, then Sharon nodded.

“I’ll call Al and see what his intel sources say,” she told the woman in English. “Thanks, Faiza.”

“No problem,” Faiza answered and headed back to her office.

Sharon was about to dial when she saw June and immediately got to her feet.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Sharon said. “Please come in.”

“Please, don’t confuse me with my brother,” said June, flapping her wrist. “If the First Lady has no official standing, I have even less.”

“Sure. I’m Sharon Wheatly.” Sharon reached over and pulled a chair next to her desk. “Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

June’s eyes fell on the grinder and yet another bag from K Street Koffee. “Oh my. Either you’re already a coffee geek or my brother’s trying to convert you.”

Sharon flushed. “The former, I’m afraid.”

June flopped into the chair. “He’s been trying to convert me for years. I can’t get into all the different beans, but I have to admit I am so spoiled when it comes to coffee. But I’ve had my limit for today. Go ahead. Sit down. I’m normal people, okay?”

“Okay.” Sharon sat down. “How can I help you?”

“Your email. I’m surprised the State Department hasn’t mentioned Monsieur’s problem.”

Sharon shrugged. “One of my staffers has a friend in the French foreign ministry and I went ahead and confirmed it with my contact. Monsieur Sartimes doesn’t like mentioning it, so his staff doesn’t volunteer the information. I’m not even sure their Embassy knows. The only reason I knew to ask was that he got sick last fall while visiting India. I have a friend who’s a minister in the Indian government and she told me all about it. Apparently, his blood pressure went through the ceiling and it scared them to death.”

June sighed. “Mark said we should tell Chef Solly to go all out. Monsieur has quite the reputation as a gourmand, you know, and Mark wants to take full advantage. You should see the menus. One of the lunches alone could clog a horse’s arteries. And it would be dismal for Monsieur if he got a separate plate and everyone else is feasting.”

“How hard would it be to swap out a few items for some healthier food? Or see if the chef can adapt as much of the menu as possible? I mean, there are lots of ways to do the gourmet thing and tone down the fats and sodium. My mom does it all the time for my dad.”

“The tricky part will be getting it past my brother. He was really looking forward to that dinner.” June sighed.

“I heard he can be something of a foodie.”

“A total omnivore, more like. But he does like to eat well. The problem is he can’t come off as too sophisticated or Middle America freaks. He gets too excited about rare French cheese and Wisconsonites assume their cheese curds aren’t good enough for him, which is ridiculous because he loves Wisconsin cheese curds.”

Sharon nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“And don’t even get me started on the veal thing,” June groaned. “Admittedly, there have been some real abuses, but if you know anything about dairy farming, you know why veal is not a bad thing.”

“Let me guess, no foie gras, either?” Sharon smiled wickedly.

June yelped. “You’ve gotta be kidding!” She got up. “All right. I’d better get with Chef on this. And thanks for the heads up.”

“Any time.”

June paused in the doorway. “Um. A lot will depend on whether I can get it worked out with security, but would you like to go shopping some time? I gotta warn you, I don’t usually buy much. It’s mostly research for me. But most of my friends are in New York and it would be fun to go with someone.”

“I don’t see why not.” Sharon shrugged. “I’m not really into heavy accumulation, either. Did that up until a few years ago, then decided I like keeping things simple. But it’s fun to go out.”

“Okay. Um, how’s Dr. Tanaka? You think she’d like going out?”

“Tanks? Yeah, I think so. She has at least three different winter coats with hats to match, so I’m guessing she likes shopping.”

June smiled. “She does know how to accessorize. I’ll see what I can work out and let you know. Maybe we can do lunch in the meantime, so the three of us can get to know each other.”

“Sounds good.” Sharon smiled.

As June left, Sharon decided she liked the president’s sister. She had his same down to earth, easy attitude and good head on her shoulders. And no potential relationship issues to deal with. Not a bad compromise.

The next few days kept Sharon pretty busy. Aside from the small flutter between Arabia and Qatar that Faiza had alerted Sharon to that Thursday, there were rumors of trouble in Rhodesia, an election that was getting overly contentious in Brazil and the Australian government was making noise about protecting their wine industry again, which meant the Californians would be worried.

In addition to all that, Sharon was working very hard to get up to speed in her new position. Thanks to her corporate work, she had a very good network of government contacts around the world. But that network had to expand rapidly if she was to be as effective as possible.

On Friday, Coop talked the Advisory Panel into coming in on Saturday to play tennis with the president at the White House tennis court, including tech advisor Gwendolyn McKelvey, an MIT professor and researcher who only came in on Fridays because she lived in Boston. Mackie, an average sized woman with a couple honest rolls about her waist, didn’t seem like the kind of person who was into sports, but partnering with Coop, the two killed everyone, including the president and his partner, Tanks’ oldest daughter, Kira. Ed-man refereed.

Still, as the group broke up to go to dinner, Sharon couldn’t help noticing the sad glint in Mark’s eyes as they all left.

So Monday, Sharon made a point to visit the Chief of Staff in her office.

“Come in, Ms. Wheatly,” Johnetta said brusquely as Sharon came to the door. “Please have a seat and how can I help you?”

“Well.” Sharon paused. “I’m not sure. But I think you’ve noticed it, too. About the president. He seems… Lonely doesn’t seem right, but isolated, I guess.”

Johnetta sighed. “That kind of comes with the position. But you’ve noticed, huh?”

“I don’t know if anyone else has,” Sharon said. “And I’m not even sure if what I think is going on is going on, or even what to do about it.”

“You’re right. He’s feeling the isolation.” Johnetta fidgeted with a small stack of papers on her desk. “All the protocols, you know? His friends don’t even call him by his first name anymore. Well, I do sometimes.” She glanced away, then back at Sharon. “Look, I don’t know if I should be saying anything. I’ve known Jugsy since we were in college.”

“Jugsy?”

Johnetta smiled. “Coop named him that when we were in Coop’s study group back when we were freshmen in college. That’s how Mark and I met, along with Mary Karpati and Dave Cohen. I was what they called a re-entry student. That’s why I was so much older than the others.” She chuckled fondly. “The surprising thing is, we’ve all stayed friends over the years and ended up here in Washington, more or less. Mark and I went into politics. Mary’s got her Ph.D. and is teaching at Johns Hopkins. Dave runs PBS.” She sighed again. “One of the things my predecessor told me he was really worried about when Mark got elected was that Mark is single. And it wasn’t about scandal or anything like that. But most men in this office have had wives to help keep them grounded, someone with whom they can just be themselves and no one else. Someone who can still call them by their first name, if you know what I mean. Mark does not have that, and Mr. Lamont said that worried him because if anything will make you crazy in this job, it’s the isolation. The restrictions on your movement are bad enough, but it’s the constant formality and distance that’ll really get to you.”

Sharon nodded. “I kind of figured. This may sound a little strange to you, but I almost know what he’s feeling. My brother is pretty famous.”

“Who’s your brother?” Johnetta looked at her, frowning. “Wait. Is your brother Michael Wheatly?”

“Yep.” Sharon smiled.

“Oh, my goodness, I recognize you. You did that wonderful video for him.”

Sharon flushed. “I did. I was only fifteen at the time and it made my life a living hell, so I don’t usually talk about it.”

“Why? It was beautifully done, and such a hope-filled story.”

“Maybe, but at the time, I was dealing with a lot of fifteen-year-old boys who just saw a hooker.”

Johnetta smiled. “I can see where that might make life difficult.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know. I thought you guys checked me out fully.”

“Jean and the press people probably knew and they didn’t see any problem with it. Like I said, we try to strip away all the non-essential details so we can focus on your qualifications.”

“Well, anyway, let’s get back to why I’m here. And I think you’ve pretty much answered my question.” Sharon waited for a moment, trying to figure out what to do next. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers.”

“You don’t?” asked Johnetta, suddenly smiling.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Trust me, the last thing I want to do is date the guy. I just… I don’t know. He just seems a little sad when the rest of the panel goes off to lunch or to dinner. So I wondered and, well, now I know. Maybe I’ll talk to the rest of them. We should be able to come up with something.”

“They just might.” Johnetta nodded thoughtfully. “If they do, would you keep me posted? And, uh, call me Johnnie.”

“Sure, Johnnie. I’m Sharon.” Sharon stood.

“Sure thing, Sharon.”

As Sharon left, Johnetta smiled and chuckled to herself. Mark had quietly protested any interest in getting together with the lovely Ms. Wheatly, and Sharon had just done the same about getting together with Mark. Which, of course, meant there had to be a way to get the two of them together.

Sharon, for her part, knew darned well she had other things to be thinking about besides her boss and turned her mind to focusing on those very things, not the least of which was the upcoming meeting with Monsieur Sartimes.

Daniel Friedman was not the sort of person anyone would have marked as a future Secretary of State, at least not based on his early career. He certainly didn’t have the tall, smooth good looks one associated with diplomats. If anything, Friedman, who was of average height, slightly scrawny, dark, curly hair, near-sighted and prone to ugly glasses, looked like the nerd he’d started out as. Some years before, during the first tech industry bubble, he had burst on the scene, having not only developed a prodigiously successful search engine but then parlayed that into the prototype for advertising on the Internet before selling out just before the first bubble burst.

It was an accident that he found his real passion in life shortly thereafter. It wasn’t so much the politics, which he began dabbling in right around the time he sold his company. It was diplomacy. The politics and his massive wealth merely got him the ambassadorship to Rwanda. The fact that he was able to actually help defuse some of the civil unrest there and get the country some significant U.S. aid did make folks sit up and notice. The ambassadorship to Russia only furthered his reputation.

So when Mark Jerguessen got elected, Friedman decided to pay a call on the president-elect and go after the big job. And he got it. It had been a bold move, the media said. Friedman conceded that he’d been a little surprised, himself. But the more he worked at the position, the more he realized he’d found his life’s passion, which was probably why he was so darned good at it.

Like everyone else watching the White House, he’d heard rumors about the president’s youngest – and prettiest – new advisor. There were those who suggested that everyone was just dazzled by the good looks. Friedman wasn’t so sure, but then he hadn’t seen her, either. He had gotten a couple emails from her, particularly one that pointed up the brief issue between the Saudis and Qatar, and suggesting that unless State had information otherwise, just ignoring it might be the best course of action for the time being. His staff hadn’t even realized the event had occurred, let alone that non-involvement was the best course of action.

Unfortunately, freezing his tush off on the tarmac at National Airport, waiting for a foreign dignitary’s plane to land wasn’t where he’d hoped to meet Ms. Wheatly. As she stepped out of the official limousine, he could see that the rumor mill had gotten the looks part right. Even bundled up in the regulation London Fog tan trench coat with a burgundy knit hat and matching scarf, he could tell she was striking.

The plane landed and Ms. Wheatly let Friedman take over, as Sartimes’ English was excellent. However, in the car on the way to the hotel, Monsieur addressed her in French, teased her about her Belgian accent and then she proceeded to out-pun him in French. At least, Friedman was fairly sure that’s what was going on. His own French was fairly good, but clearly, Wheatly spoke the language as a native.

“Where did you find her?” Friedman asked the president as the two went over their initial meeting with the minister.

“From you guys,” Mark replied genially. “Apparently, her application was in with the ones we’d requested when we had to replace Andy Shepherd.”

“You’re kidding. I know I had several folks offering candidates, but I don’t remember… Wait. My under-secretary, Earl Wallace. Just after we sent those applications over, he was all up in arms about a candidate for our office that had gotten mixed up in your applications. He wanted to hire her.”

Mark smiled. “I’m glad I got her first.”

“She’s pretty impressive.” Friedman sighed. “I could’ve used her.”

Sharon, herself, however, was not thinking about being impressive. She was panicking. Tanks had swung by her office and asked if she was leaving early to get ready.

“Ready for what?” Sharon had asked, going over the latest subject lines in her email inbox.

“The reception tonight. Cocktails with the French foreign minister?”

“Shavings!” Sharon gasped at Tanks. “I have to go to that.”

“And so do I,” Tanks sighed. “I just hope I can get out early so my girls don’t start whining about Mom being gone all the time again.”

“Kira’s fourteen. At that age, I would have loved it if my mom was gone all the time.”

“That doesn’t stop them from whining about it if they think they can get something by it.”

“So how ready do I have to get? I can get away with a suit, right?” Sharon looked at the long list of subject lines.

“The memo from State said cocktail dress, to encourage a social and welcoming atmosphere.”

Sharon sighed deeply. “At least they got that straight. The French don’t mix business and social like we do.” She frowned. “Do I even have a cocktail dress right now?”

“You weren’t expecting to go to any parties?”

“Not right away. I haven’t even been here a full month and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying. I’ve gotten a couple new suits, but that’s it.” Sharon sighed as she looked at the list of subject lines again, and closed the laptop. “I’ll have to look at these at home tonight.”

Sharon left a few minutes later. Karen met her at the Metro stop and the two went straight to Sharon’s place to see what Sharon already had before picking up Karen’s daughters and hitting the stores.

Karen was suitably impressed by Sharon’s house.

“It’s my friend’s place,” Sharon explained. “I’m just renting it from her. It’s a great old house, built by some senator years ago. He even had a secret doorway put in the back so he could sneak his floozies in.”

“Now that sounds like fun. Too bad I’m in a steady relationship. Let’s see your closet.”

Sharon led the way to the bedroom where Karen stood aghast at the open closet doors.

“You’ve only got about eight suits in here. Four day dresses. Good heavens, woman, why don’t you have any clothes?”

“I used to. I just got into simplifying a few years ago. I was traveling all the time, had no place to put things. And I had stuff that had gone completely out of style that I hadn’t even worn yet.”

“That’s normal. You’re supposed to have stuff like that. You go ahead to the mall. I’ll get my girls and meet you at there. This is an emergency. How can you justify not working to keep our economy going by buying your brains out?”

Sharon chuckled but sighed and headed out again.

It was not a fun outing. First, Sharon couldn’t find anything she liked, then Karen called and said that her younger daughter had a school project that absolutely had to be finished that afternoon and that she (Karen) would instead be haunting the craft stores that afternoon instead because, of course, her daughter, Allie, hadn’t even started yet.

Finally, as the clock ticked off closer and closer to five p.m., Sharon found a dress that she liked. It was an a-line in a shimmery light blue sheer over a light blue lining. The top fabric had little silver arrowheads flecked throughout. Sharon found some silver dress shoes that were workable, then a bag, necklace and matching earrings and scrambled back to the office to get dressed. 

If Sharon didn’t pay much attention to the looks as she entered the reception at the State Department, it was only because she was so used to people looking at her. Yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling there was something else behind them, at least from the women, beyond the usual jealous glances. It didn’t matter. She had other things to think about and stayed focused on greeting Monsieur Sartimes and chatting with him and the French ambassador for a bit.

After the president had joined them, Sharon moved away and all but ran into June. Which is when Sharon realized that her odd feeling about the other women looking at her wasn’t just an odd feeling. June’s dress may have been pink, but it was exactly the same as Sharon’s otherwise, right down to the gold arrowheads shot through the sheer pink fabric.

June, for her part, started laughing.

“Oh, Sharon, please forgive me,” June hissed, trying to stifle her giggles.

“I’ve got your dress on!” Sharon gasped.

“Yes. But it’s my fault.”

“Huh?”

But at that second, one of the butlers whispered something in June’s ear.

June groaned. “Gotta deal with this now. We’ll talk later. It’s not your fault.”

June scurried off as Sharon stood, trying to digest what had just happened, let alone figure out why June would feel guilty about the mix-up.

Daniel Friedman wandered up at that point.

“It seems to be going well,” he observed blandly.

“Uh. Yeah.” Sharon swallowed. “Anyone talking about the food?”

“Mostly about how good it is. Looks like we dodged that bullet.”

“Good.” Sharon’s voice came out a lot more tense than she’d planned.

“You okay?” Friedman asked

“Fine. Great.”

The president wandered up. “Looks like everything’s going really well, Daniel.”

“Sure seems to be,” Friedman replied. “Um. Did you hear about the menu changes?”

“No. Should I have?” Mark grabbed an hors d’oeuvre off a passing tray and popped it in his mouth.

“No, sir,” said Sharon quickly. “As long as you and Monsieur Sartimes are happy, who cares?”

“Tuna tartare?” said Mark, grinning. “Definitely some wasabi action on the endive? I’m happy and I hear Sartimes is chowing down like a pro.”

Sharon glanced downwards and saw something definitely wrong.

“Sir? Can I confer with you outside, please?”

“Sure,” Mark replied. “You got a headset on I can’t see?”

Sharon smiled. “It’s not that kind of problem. Sir?”

Mark glanced at Friedman. The two shrugged and Mark followed Sharon from the room.

Sharon wandered quickly through the halls, trying each door. “There’s gotta be an open conference room somewhere.”

Puzzled, Mark followed obediently until Sharon found a door that opened. She sighed in relief when it opened into a conference room and not a men’s room.

“Ms. Wheatly?” Mark asked, expectantly.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve got a button missing on your dinner jacket,” Sharon said, opening her purse. It was a small rhinestone affair, but big enough for what she needed. “On the sleeve.”

Mark sighed. “Oh. Yeah. I fidget with them. Johnnie’s always on my backside for tearing them off.”

“I think I might have a close enough match here,” Sharon said, pulling out her sewing kit.

“I’ve got it right here.” Trying to hide his flush, Mark pulled the button from his pants’ pocket.

“Well, that makes life easier.” Sharon smiled. “Don’t worry. You wouldn’t believe the number of executives I’ve saved just because I keep a sewing kit on me. May I have your jacket, please?”

Mark pulled his off and handed it to her. “Johnnie’s always telling me to keep my hands in my pockets.”

“Obviously, you’re listening,” Sharon said, then tried not to wince as she took the jacket and pulled out a chair from the conference table so she could get to work.

“Bad habits. What can I say?” Mark smiled.

He allowed himself a covert glance at Sharon. She bent over his sleeve, presumably concentrating on the job at hand. Yes, she was gorgeous. But that was almost a distraction. Granted, her interest in seeing him well-groomed had as much to do with her professional duties as anything else. Yet, there was something. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something special.

Which, of course, is why at that exact moment, June chose to burst into the room.

“Mark, they’re looking for you,” she began, then saw what was going on. “Oh. For heaven’s sakes. Can’t you keep your hands off your sleeves? For crying out loud. You’re a grown man!”

“I will endeavor to do better,” Mark said, pleasantly.

June rolled her eyes. “You say that every time. I don’t think you’re really trying.”

“It’s irrelevant now,” said Sharon, biting off the thread. “It’s taken care of. Although why more men don’t carry sewing kits is beyond me. It would make my life easier.”

Mark took his jacket back and put it on. “I’ll put it on my to-do list.”

“Get yourself back in there. It’s speech time,” said June, pushing him out the door. As soon as her brother was gone, she turned to Sharon. “Well. Thank you. I swear, it’s scary how often he tears his buttons off. Everyone thinks he’s the proverbial cucumber and no one ever notices how many times the buttons go missing on his suit jackets.”

“It’s not all that uncommon,” Sharon said, ducking her head as she put the sewing kit back together. “It’s why I learned to pack my little kit.”

June giggled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing. You must be horribly embarrassed.”

“It’s a little awkward on my first night out.”

“It’s my fault. I forgot I put this design into production.”

Sharon looked at her, completely perplexed. “I’m sorry? I just got it today.”

“It’s a Design by JJ, right?”

“I have no idea.” Sharon stopped and thought about it. “I just didn’t have any cocktail dresses and this was the first one that appealed to me.”

She grabbed the back of her dress and tried to wriggle around to look at the tag.

“It’s mine,” said June, laughing. “Are you serious? You had no clue?”

Sharon sighed. “I used to be better at the label game. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” June smiled warmly. “I hate label freaks, although I have to confess, they’ve been pretty good for business.”

Sharon took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. That makes how many times I’ve messed up tonight?”

“Messed up?” June looked at her. “Oh, Sharon, I’m not mad at you. Actually, I’m pretty complimented. You bought the dress because you genuinely liked it. That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten all year.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Sharon sighed. “I’m beginning to think Tanks was right. This White House thing is pretty freaky.”

June laughed outright. “Pretty freaky? Good lord, it’s absolutely crazy-making! I didn’t get this messed up dressing Helen freaking Mirren for the Oscars.”

“You’re not upset, then?”

“Why? Because you have such exquisite good taste?

Sharon sniffed and giggled. “Well, if you’re not upset, then to heck with the rest of them.”

“To heck with them, indeed. Shall we return together, arm in arm? That will really get the old gossip mill going.”

Sharon instinctively shrank back. “Oh, lord. Oh, what the hell. The men haven’t noticed. You’re not peeved. Why should I care?”

“You do, don’t you?’ June said softly.

Sharon shrugged. “You’d think I’d be used to the looking and the rumors and all that stuff by now. Funny thing is, I don’t think you ever get used to it.”

June shook her head. “You can. You can get used to a lot of things. Trust me.”

“Think your brother is ever going to get used to being president?” Sharon blurted out.

“Yipes. Where did that come from?”

Sharon blushed. “I can’t believe I just said that.” She sighed. “It’s funny. I just can’t help noticing how sad he seems every time the rest of the Advisory Panel talks about going out to lunch together and he can’t come with us.”

“Actually, I’ve noticed that, too.” June frowned. “It’s kinda weird, really. Mark is the original everyday guy. So it’s totally amazing to me that he’s gotten as far as he has. I mean, the kind of ego you need to pull off a presidential campaign. Mark doesn’t have that. He does have drive, I’ll give him that.”

“Probably accounts for it.”

“Probably. But he’s been having a couple problems settling in.”

“I, uh, talked to Coop about it the other day. He said he’d see what he could do. There’s a bunch of private clubs around the area. Coop said he’d talk to the Secret Service guys and the clubs, so maybe…”

“Maybe,” June said. “What’d be really great is a good hide-out with a secret entrance or something.”

The light went on in Sharon’s head. “Yeah. He likes basketball, right?”

June laughed. “He loves sports, period. The guy will watch curling, for crying out loud.”

“Curling’s kinda fun,” said Sharon. “Now, if he was into watching badminton, I’d really be worried.”

June laughed even harder and Sharon joined in.

“Think you can face ‘em?” June asked, finally.

“If you can, I can,” Sharon said.

So arm in arm, the two returned to the party. Across the room, Mark saw the two enter. Again, he felt his stomach flutter at the sight of her. And she was with June, no less, and the two really seemed to like each other. Mark smiled to himself. How perfect could one woman be?

Another time zone away, practice was running late. Matt Jerguessen waited in the stands while his coach raised hell with his teammates, his raspy bass voice booming through the rafters. It was only a matter of time before Coach Winslow came and raised hell with him. Matt wasn’t sure it mattered.

Just turned sixteen years old, he was supposed to be the sophomore miracle for his prep school team in Minnesota. Matt was supposed to be a lot of things, but at the moment, he didn’t care to be anything. He just wanted to be left alone.

Coach Winslow finished his harangue and the team went back to their drills, accompanied by squeaking shoes, thudding balls and murmured complaints. Winslow shook his head and started up the bleachers. He had years of experience working with privileged youth. Matt seemed to be a pretty typical angry young man and yet not. The kid hadn’t filled out yet and still had that lanky but awkward look about him. He’d look a lot like his famous uncle in a few years, especially with those deep green eyes. Girls seemed to melt around Matt, but he was barely aware of it. Or if he was, he was curiously disinterested. Winslow wondered briefly if Matt was gay, but that didn’t feel right, either.

“Matt?” he asked gently as he approached the boy.

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s going on?”

Matt stared straight ahead. “Sir?”

“Cut the crap, Jerguessen. You’re laying down on me. We both know you can do better. What’s going on?”

Matt shrugged.

“Are you trying to tell me you don’t want to be here?”

“Give me one good reason why I should.”

“You owe it to your team?”

Matt didn’t reply.

Winslow sighed. “If you don’t want to be here–“

“Coach, I gotta be here. Okay? I’ll try harder.”

“Who’s telling you that you have to be here?”

“Nobody,” Matt murmured.

Coach nodded. “Unless it’s understood that your folks want you to be on the team.”

Matt stayed silent. Of course, his folks wanted him on the team. It’s all his dad talked about. Not that his dad ever showed for games or anything.

“You know, I could drop you,” Winslow said.

“You could?” Matt’s eyes glinted with a spark of interest.

“But I can’t imagine that’d make anything easier for you at home.”

“They don’t care about me at home,” grumbled Matt. “As long as I don’t do anything public.”

“Which getting kicked off the basketball team would be.”

Matt sighed. “Probably.”

“Look, Matt. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen a case like yours. Folks want you to make a good name, but don’t seem to care about you.”

Matt shrugged.

“But one thing I’ve noticed about you is you really like playing. When you’re not in one of your moods.”

Matt shrugged again.

“I need you, Matt. You’ve got skills and when you’re not feeling sorry for yourself, you’re a damn good player. Can’t that be enough for you?”

“Dunno.”

“Isn’t there anybody you can talk to?”

“Used to be able to talk to my uncle.”

“So why can’t you now?”

“Uh, hello? President of the United States? I don’t think he’s got time for me.”

“Have you tried?”

“His old email’s down. The one he had in the Senate. Mom won’t let me have the new one. Assuming she even knows it. And she changed our Internet provider, so my old email’s dead. And it’s not like you can just call up the White House and ask to talk to the president. I tried. They didn’t believe me.”

“What about your dad?”

“Are you kidding? He hates my uncle. And he doesn’t talk to me, anyway.”

“Look, Matt, there’s gotta be some way you can get through. You’ve just gotta put your mind to it. You’ve got your grandfather and great-grandmother. I see them here all the time. And don’t you have an aunt?”

“Yeah.”

“So keep trying. I know if you put your mind to it, you can find a way through. In the meantime, I need you to get on your game. You’re a good player and a good kid. So what if some parts of your life suck? Make the best of what you’ve got going for you and it won’t matter that your parents don’t seem to care about you.”

“I s’pose.”

“All right. Now get down there and give me twenty laps.”

“Yessir.”

Matt, still feeling sullen and out of sorts, made his way down the bleachers to the gym floor to begin his laps. His teammates hooted derisively and he flipped them the bird. Aunt June was sympathetic, but didn’t really have any answers for him and he didn’t have her email address, anyway. His grandfather and great-grandma were nice enough, too, but barely knew what email was, let alone Uncle Mark’s address. Uncle Mark was the only people on the planet who really seemed to understand him and his mother had made damned sure he was out of reach.

The coach was right. There were other ways than email and telephone to reach Uncle Mark. It would take some planning and saving. Matt debated just using the credit card his mother had given him but knew if he spent too much at once, his mother would get called and that would blow everything. It would take a little research and the right timing. In the meantime, he could just play basketball.

IM Session

Swheatly531: Got a question for you.

Ladycarla: What up?

Swheatly531: Just noticed you got a really nice pool table and bar in your basement, mind if I add on?

Ladycarla: What do you have in mind?

Swheatly531: Just a big-screen TV and a couple couches. There’s room. I measured.

Ladycarla: Sure, but why?

Swheatly531: Believe it or not, it’s officially top-secret, but it has something to do with that hidden entrance down there.

Ladycarla: Niecy said you still had the hots for him.

Swheatly531: Won’t do me much good with the rest of the Advisory Panel hanging around, which is the point. Gotta fly.

Chapter Three

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull Quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: "We’re not here to toe the line and play nice."

Very early that next morning had Sharon walking up to the White House employee entrance with her stomach in knots. The afternoon before, she had been led around the West Wing by Ms. Washington, first to complete the box loads of virtual paperwork – the forms were actually on the computer – then to see her office. Ms. Washington said that Sharon’s predecessor had hired a staff, but since he had passed before the office could begin functioning, they hadn’t been officially working.

The office, itself, was made up of a pod of cubicles clustered, more or less, around her main office. The staff included four researchers and a personal assistant. Ms. Washington had said that she would see to calling the staff members and telling them to come in the next day. Then Ms. Washington slapped a flash drive with samples of the rest of the advisory team’s reports into Sharon’s hand and sent her on her way.

Sharon had spent the night poring over the reports. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t expected to present one on her very first day on the job, she still was determined to make a good impression.

Now, as she approached the guard gate at 6:30 a.m., she swallowed and put on her formidable best. So what if her stomach was doing loop the loops and that soft malevolent voice in the back of her brain whispered that it had all been a dream and the second she presented herself at the gate she would be immediately arrested for impersonating a successful woman?

Fortunately, the guard at the gate had no clue what the malevolent voice was saying and handed Sharon her temporary badge, explaining that she would need to go straight from the gate to the security office so that she could pick up her permanent badge and ID.

“Great. Thanks.”

Sharon flashed the guard a smile, but he didn’t see. He was too busy waving in another woman behind her.

The woman was fairly short but carried herself with authority. Her hair was shiny, deep black and perfectly straight, falling just below her shoulders. She wore a dark wool top coat over black dress slacks and boots, with a matching fuzzy hat perched on the top of her head. She stopped as she saw Sharon fumbling with her box and her temp badge.

“Are you Wheatly?” the woman asked. She was Asian, with an oval face that belied her age.

“Uh, yeah. How did you know?”

“Newbie badge, box. You’re moving in.” The woman held out her right hand, which was covered with a black kid glove. “I’m Karen Tanaka.”

“Oh. You research pop culture.” Sharon shook the offered hand and then readjusted her box.

Tanaka’s right eyebrow lifted. “And you’re up on your homework. That’s good. You’ll need to be on your toes around here.”

“I’ve done it before.”

Tanaka laughed. “Yeah. We all have. But there’s nothing like this. Don’t let the guys fool you. We’re all a little freaked out about being here. Even the boss. But they keep saying we’ll get used to it. Come on. I’ll show you around.”

They started off toward the side door of the all-too-famous building. There had been a good snow the night before and the lawn was glittering with a fresh foot or so.

“Thanks,” Sharon said. “I figured there might be some early arrivals, but I was hoping to get in first.”

“You almost made it. Most of us don’t get in until seven or so. The boss said that he doesn’t want a lot of working late, either. He wants the entire staff out of the office by seven p.m. unless absolutely necessary.”

“I’d heard that.”

Tanaka nodded. “It’s a good idea, in theory. Keeps us more well-rounded, prevents tunnel-vision.”

“And does it work?”

“Mostly. I’m early today because my kid had to be at school early for some planning meeting.”

Sharon remembered that Tanaka was a single mom with two children, one in middle school, one a freshman in high school. Sharon was about to ask for more details when a snowball caught her hard in the back of the neck. Sharon yelped and Tanaka whirled.

Behind them, an average-sized Black man in a tan trench coat and an ugly tweed hat approached them from the gate. There were still remnants of snow on his dark, woolen gloves.

“Coop!” Tanaka hollered. “What the heck do you think you’re doing? I got the newbie with me.”

Coop grinned, his teeth mostly white against his dark skin with an even darker pencil-line mustache on his upper lip.

“I meant to hit you,” he hollered back, good-naturedly.

Karen, smiling, rolled her eyes and let out a long-suffering sigh.

“Ignore him,” she told Sharon.

But Sharon knew that one ignored Dr. Edward Cooper at one’s peril. And it wasn’t because he was President Jerguessen’s best friend. Dr. Cooper was fairly widely acknowledged as being a beyond brilliant economist. He was also fairly widely acknowledged for his tendency toward practical jokes.

“So you’re the newbie,” Cooper said as he came up to the two women. “Welcome. I’m Eddie Cooper.”

Sharon finished brushing snow off the back of her neck. “Thanks. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Making an early start, huh?”

“Yeah. It doesn’t hurt on a first day,” Sharon said. They were almost to the door.

“Don’t make a habit of it,” Cooper answered, grinning. “You’ll end up old and ugly like me.”

Sharon grinned in spite of herself. Cooper was 46 years old and hardly unattractive, not that it mattered. He was married and had several children, by all reports.

Sharon dropped her badge and bent quickly to pick it up. Cooper dove, as well, but Sharon got the badge first. She also got a nice chunk of ice, which she quickly slipped underneath the collar of his suit. Cooper yelped as the ice hit the warmth of his skin, but he stood up, laughing.

“Man, that’s cold!” he said.

Tanaka laughed hard. “Wheatly, you and I are going to be very good friends.”

She held up her hand for a high five and Sharon swatted it.

“Be that as it may,” said Cooper, still smiling. “Both you ladies better remember, you’re playing in the big leagues now.”

And he swooped inside the West Wing entrance.

Tanaka laughed again, but it was more than a little hesitant. “Yipes. We’re in for it.”

“Oh.” Sharon swallowed her own fear. “Well. He’ll have to be very careful if he wants to mess with me.”

Tanaka opened the office door. “I like your spirit. Good luck, but I like your spirit.”

She pointed Sharon to the security office, then went on to her own. Sharon finished the final computer forms and got her badge and ID and directions to her own office.

It was blessedly empty. Sharon set her box on her new desk and fell into the padded, but aging swivel chair, all pretense at being strong and formidable gone.

What had she done? She’d dropped the snow down Cooper’s neck on instinct. And she had built her career on having razor-sharp instincts and the ability to take risks. Only, Sharon suddenly realized, the reason she hadn’t been afraid to take risks was that she had never worried about losing whatever job she’d held at the time. It had never mattered before because she had a fabulously wealthy rock star brother who would have been happy to support her. The fact that she and her sisters preferred to make their own way was their choice. And she had put away some serious money and made some excellent investments, which meant work was almost a matter of preference these days.

But now things were very, very different, she realized with a shock. For the first time in her life, she now had a job that she wanted to keep. Assuming Dr. Cooper would let her.

Sharon shook it off. Being scared wasn’t the answer. She had a staff coming in and research to finalize, not to mention an office to set up.

She looked around and cringed a little. She’d heard West Wing offices were cramped, and the windowless room was certainly that: wide and shallow with a fairly large dark wood desk in the center that faced the door. There wasn’t room for chairs in front, but there was a couch along one of the narrow walls, with empty bookshelves over the couch. On the facing narrow wall was a chalkboard and more shelves under that. Everything was painted a dull, institutional eggshell color, contrasting with the dark gray institutional carpet.

It wasn’t directly behind the desk because there wouldn’t have been room, but along the back wall of the office and to the side nearest the couch, was a dark wood credenza that sort of matched the desk. On top of that were a rather nice coffeemaker, a better than average grinder, and a couple bottles of water. Next to those was a brown bag folded over and hand-labeled, from K-Street Koffee, Kenyan AA. The soft scent of roasted coffee beans tickled Sharon’s nose. She picked up the note.

“Some of Cecil’s best for a fellow fan,” it said in a cramped scribble. “Welcome to the team.”

Sharon smiled. It was a nice touch and somehow, just right. She looked at the grinder. It wasn’t one of the top-of-the-line burr grinders like the president had in his office, that would have been too much. But it wasn’t your basic cheap model, either. Just enough to say welcome without any inappropriate overtones. Personal enough to show thoughtfulness, but not enough to imply a deeper intimacy was apparent or wanted.

There was only one thing to do and Sharon did it. In no time, some of the Kenyan AA had been ground and the coffeemaker was happily dripping away, filling the office with a comforting scent. Further inspection of the credenza revealed mugs, spoons, and sugar. There was even a small refrigerator at the end of the credenza that Sharon hadn’t seen at first and, sure enough, a small carton each of cream and milk were inside. Somebody else must have put those there.

With coffee on the brew, Sharon turned to unpacking her box, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. A young African American man dressed in a dark suit stood politely in the doorway.

“I’m here with your laptop, ma’am,” he said quietly. “If you’ve got a second, I can show you how to get on the system and get your passwords set up.”

“May as well,” Sharon said.

He came in and gently placed the computer on her desk, along with a sheet of paper.

“I also need you to sign this. It’s giving the Secret Service permission to enter your home and install secure wi-fi there.”

“Oh, okay.”

And so it went on. In fact, the young man was still working with her when the first of her staff members began to filter in shortly before eight a.m. The printer was down the hall and around the corner, partly because staffers were being strongly encouraged to do as much electronically as possible.

“Notes, memos, everything will be coming via email,” the young man said.

“Good. I think I’d better send one right now. Now, where was that list of my group’s emails?”

The young man disappeared shortly after, just as Sharon turned to thank him and ask his name. It seemed odd, but Sharon was more than distracted a moment later by the sound of someone clattering into the cubicle outside her door, muttering curses and other foul imprecations on the city’s subway system. Sharon stepped out of her office and into the cubicle. It was crammed with two desks, each facing opposite walls, and filled with the usual office paraphernalia, much of which was empty for the time being. The young female someone who had just come in was busy stripping off her coat as fast as she could while digging through the box on her desk to find something.

“Oh, hi,” she said, noticing Sharon. She was in her mid-twenties and dressed in a dark skirt and tan blouse that was somewhat more chic than the usual Washington business-wear. She pulled a hangar from the box and hung her coat on it. Her hair was long, brown and in a thick braid down her back. “I’m Julie. Think the boss knows I’m late?”

“I’m sure I do,” said Sharon.

Julie groaned and flopped into her chair. “I left early. I swear I did. But there was a killer pothole on the freeway, had traffic all backed up all the way to the Metro station. Then the freaking train just sat there for twenty minutes. Apparently, there was a problem at the Pentagon stop.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“At the moment, no. Are you one of the researchers?”

Julie laughed. “Heck, no! I’m not smart enough for that. I’m your assistant.”

“Great. Good to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Julie Ivins.”

“Actually, Julie, I just realized there is something you can help me with. I want to have a quick staff meeting in about ten minutes and we need to figure out how we’re going to get everyone into my office. And staff meeting will always include you unless I say otherwise.”

“Sure, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Call me Sharon.”

Julie grinned. “Okay.” She got up. “It’s going to be tricky. Would you believe you got one of the bigger offices?”

Sharon looked at her, surprised. “I thought you were just starting today.”

“Working for you, yeah. But I’ve been at the White House for about seven years now.”

“I thought every administration re-staffed.”

“Us clerical stiffs are always here. There’re some assistants in budget who’ve been here through three administrations already. I was working for one of the speechwriters before. I’m really liking the new president. You know, they dim the lights in the evening as the sun goes down? So people will actually go home at night? The president says he wants people to stay fresh and they can’t be fresh if they’re constantly burning the midnight oil.”

“Oh,” said Sharon. “Well, let’s figure out the meeting situation.”

It took Julie five seconds to look over Sharon’s office, propose a solution, then get the chairs needed to make it work. They were older, dark wood and decidedly old-fashioned. Sharon wondered how long the chairs had been in the building. They looked like they might have been new when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Sharon’s four staff researchers were pleasant enough and seemed to respond to her well. Faiza Moussel was a tall, slender woman with intense dark eyes. She wore a bright green and yellow hajib over her hair and was otherwise conservatively dressed in a tan suit with slacks. She had been born and raised in the U.S., but her parents were Algerian. She focused mostly on the Middle East and some parts of Asia.

Katie Minor was as short, stout and fair as Faiza was dark, tall and slender. Katie’s area of focus was Africa, although she was more interested in Eastern Asia, as well. Raoul Mendoza was a dour-looking older man with a bald top and dark hair underneath. He focused on Europe, Canada, and Australia. Leonidas Bertonetti was the South American expert, a handsome man in his mid-thirties with dark hair and a very Italian smoothness, probably because his family, though long in Argentina, was of Italian ancestry.

The meeting was very short and in less than half an hour, everyone had gone back to her or his desk to do some final updates

By nine-thirty, Sharon had her report amended and filed onto the server. Which was just as well because Karen Tanaka popped up in the office door right about that time.

“The boss asked me to bring you to the meeting,” Tanaka said. “I thought we could swing by the cafeteria first and get some coffee or something.”

“Or something.” Sharon stood up and refilled her mug. “Sounds good. Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about your laptop. Your assistant can bring it over before the meeting starts.”

“Sure.” Taking her mug, Sharon left the office. “Julie?”

“No problem.”

Sharon paused and looked at Tanaka. “Are you sure that’s okay? I got the impression from the guy that brought me the laptop that to let it out of my sight was tantamount to high treason.”

Tanaka laughed and rolled her eyes. “Consider Julie your second set of eyes.” She led the way down a nearby corridor. “By the way, who was your computer guy?”

“I have no idea,” said Sharon. “He never said his name. But he was tall and wore a dark suit.”

“Oh, that really narrows it down. They’re all tall and wear dark suits.”

“Ooh. Kinda creepy.”

“You said it.” Tanaka led Sharon through a pair of swinging double doors into a large, brightly-lit room with plastic and chrome tables and chair, and a steam table line at one end.

Tanaka went straight for the nook bearing air pots, other coffee paraphernalia and a basket piled high with plastic-wrapped Danish.

“The food’s pretty good here,” Tanaka said. “So’s the coffee, believe it or not. Turns out the boss is a coffee geek and a foodie. Rumor has it, he ran rough-shod over the budget office to get some real food in here and buys the coffee, himself.”

“A foodie, too, huh?” Sharon mused.

Tanaka turned on her. “You knew about the coffee?”

Sharon flushed. “It came up in the interview.”

Tanaka looked at Sharon’s mug and nodded. “You know, that doesn’t surprise me. He’s real good at making you feel right at home. With me, it was the food thing. We met at some campaign event at school, someone had set up this really bad sushi bar. And we both laughed at how trite it was. So when he called me in for the interview last December, he had brought in eel and octopus and some of the nicest sashimi you’ve ever tasted.” Tanaka filled a mug from one of the airpots. “The guy can even use chopsticks. He’ll be great if we get over to Asia. I’m kinda surprised he asked me to bring you to the meeting. He usually brings the newbies in, himself.”

“Really.” Sharon didn’t say anything more, but in the back of her mind, she decided she was relieved. If the president was still feeling the effects of that all too strange meeting, then she was perfectly happy he was keeping his distance.

Tanaka led her over to a table. “By the way, you played it perfectly with the Coop this morning.”

“I did?” Sharon sat down, trying to hide her fear.

“Oh, yeah.” Tanaka paused long enough to grab a few danishes from the basket and drop them on the table. “Here’s the thing. The idea behind the Advisory Board is interactivity.”

“Yeah, I’d heard.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’re all on the same page, opinion-wise. We all joke that the boss took Doris Kearns Goodwin too seriously.”

“Oh. You mean that historian who wrote that book about Lincoln’s cabinet.”

“Yeah, that Lincoln purposely stacked with people he didn’t agree with. The boss did the same, not only with the cabinet, but with the Advisory Board, too. Consider, you’ve got the Ed-man.”

“Dr. Eddington.”

Tanaka nodded. “Yeah. That guy is a hard-core Libertarian, for crying out loud. The only role for government is military and postal service, and he’d privatize the postal service if he thought he could. On the other end of the spectrum is Whitey, John Whitesand. Government should pay for everything. Both of these guys are hyper-intelligent, both are convinced they’re right. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Sharon hesitated. “I got the impression from Ms. Washington that everyone got along really well.”

“Whitey and the Ed-man are best friends.”

“Huh?”

“They are. That’s the genius of the Coop.” Tanaka stuffed half a danish in her mouth. “He was aiming at me, by the way. Guy can’t hit the broadside of a barn.”

“I don’t get it,” said Sharon, who had decided to abandon reason and was attacking another danish, herself.

“It’s all the practical jokes and teasing. So no one takes him or herself that seriously. Then it becomes all about the work. No one has to stick to their territory because their ego is at stake. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t agree with you because it’s not about you.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s like corporate games retreats.”

Tanaka laughed very loudly. “I’m sorry. It’s kind of the same idea, but I wouldn’t say so in front of the others.”

“Why not?”

Tanaka looked around and leaned in conspiratorially. “Because of Her. Marian Jefferson. The boss brought her in to run operations, and she’s really good. Kicked the stuffing out of the policy office and got it running worth something. And she actually got the budget office straightened out. And one of the ways she got those two offices working was that she had everyone, including the press office, do the corporate games thing.”

Sharon winced. “They are pretty effective.”

“And you look like you just tasted some bad wasabi.”

“I don’t really like them, myself.”

“None of us advisory folks do. It’s one of the reasons why the Ed-man works at home. So Ms. Jefferson finally tells the president that it’s only fair that the advisory group do the games and team-building thing.”

Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I’m getting the impression it didn’t go over well.”

“Ed-man flat out refused to show and sent out a notice to his staff that they didn’t have to, either. The rest of us dragged our sorry butts in that Saturday.” Tanaka shook her head and chuckled. “Coop was out and out docile, wouldn’t tease her, wouldn’t make faces, nothing. Until she gets us doing this stupid group project – we were supposed to build something out of snow. As soon as her back is turned, Coop says we should divide up into our respective sub-groups, each build our own fort and have a snowball fight. Ms. Jefferson had a cow. He just ignored her and we had the baddest snowball fight you ever saw. Coop damn near got frostbit when I rubbed his nose in it. That’s why he was aiming at me this morning. But that’s also how I know you played it right. He threatened to get you back. I’ve noticed. He doesn’t play jokes on people he doesn’t respect. He just ignores them. And advisory folks get that. We’re not here to toe the line and play nice. We’re here to think and to help the president get the best information he can get. Ed-man said it’s kinda like the Marines. They tear you down, then build you back up the way they want you. Coop tears you down, but then he builds you back up as part of something bigger than yourself.”

Sharon sat back. “Okay. That’s not quite what I expected, but that’s interesting.”

“Yep, but that’s part of the boss’s genius, too. He knows how to pick the right kind of people. We haven’t had a bad apple yet.”

Sharon stuffed back a momentary qualm then looked up at the clock. “Well, I guess it’s baptism of fire time.”

Tanaka grinned. “Good. You’re terrified. Coop will be so happy with me.”

Sharon laughed and followed Tanaka to the Advisory Board’s conference room. Julie was outside the door with Sharon’s laptop, which she handed to Sharon and then left. Sharon took a deep breath and entered the room.

The president had not yet arrived, but there was a laptop ready for him at the head of the table. The others had theirs open and ready, cords snaking across the table to a hole in the middle. Tanaka, whose own assistant had brought her laptop and a bag, took her place near the middle of the table, across from Eddie Cooper, who was smiling warmly. There was an empty chair next to him, closest to the head of the table, behind which a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hung on the wall. Across from the empty seat sat an elderly White man sitting ramrod straight, but rolling a pen in his fingers as if it were a cigarette.

Tanaka sat next to him, quietly crocheting some lace, and on her other side was a medium-sized man of Hispanic heritage and a decidedly boxy shape to him. He was doodling on a pad of paper next to his open laptop. Across from the Hispanic man was another who could have been his twin, except that he had the high cheekbones of a Native American. He was folding a piece of paper into what was starting to look like a bird of some sort.

“Greetings, newbie,” Coop said warmly and gesturing at the empty seat next to him. “Today, you get the seat of honor.”

“Why, thank you, Dr. Cooper,” Sharon replied.

As she sat, however, a very loud, very rude noise erupted from underneath her. Fortunately, Sharon had already set down her laptop. She paused.

“What do you know,” she said finally. “I’d call that at least a seven-pointer.” She got up and removed the whoopee cushion. “Frankly, Dr. Cooper, I’m disappointed in you.”

Coop’s eyebrows shot up. Sharon felt gratified that he had clearly not expected that response.

“A whoopee cushion?” she continued. “You can do better than that.”

She dropped the bladder in his lap as the rest of the board began breaking up.

“You are good, young lady,” Coop conceded between giggles. “But to the business at hand. Since our beloved fearless leader is currently detained, let me effect the introductions. Sitting directly across from you is Dr. Al Eddington, properly known in this forum as the Ed-man. Specialty the military, which is why he is sometimes known as the Warmonger. Next to him is Tanks, popular culture, whom you’ve met. Next to her is Augusto Guerrero, media specialist, properly known as Augie. Across from him is Whitey, aka John Whitesand, social justice. I specialize in economics. I am properly known as The Coop”

“The Chicken Coop,” said Augie, mildly. “And what shall we call you, Ms. Sharon Wheatly, specialist in world affairs?”

“Wheaties,” said Ed-man abruptly.

“Wheaties sounds good,” said Coop.

“As long as no one calls me Breakfast of Champions,” Sharon said.

“Why not?” Ed-man asked, insinuating that he had been thinking exactly that.

“Because you’re not getting any,” Sharon shot back.

“Ow!” howled Coop in joy. “The newbie scores big. And you’re already buying her lunch, Ed-man.”

“He is?” Sharon asked, eyeing Eddington.

“All I said was that I hoped you had good legs,” Ed-man replied.

“He’s an unrepentant sexist,” Tanks sighed.

At that moment, the door was opened by Gen Forrest. The rest recognized their cue and immediately go to their feet, Sharon scrambling to hers somewhat belatedly. It was just as well. The second she saw Mark, her heart skipped a beat in spite of herself.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” the group sing-songed together.

“Good morning, children, and how are we today?” Mark went to his place and sat down.

The others followed his lead. Mark noticed with a sudden jump in his stomach that Sharon was sitting next to him. It was where newbies and part-timers always landed. But he desperately hoped that the sudden dance going on in his gut wasn’t obvious to any of the others.

All seemed relatively normal. Mark deeply appreciated the balance between the respect for the office and the protocols, which oddly enough Al Eddington had been the one to insist on, and the friendly irreverence that put it all into perspective.

The meeting went on, as usual. There were a couple reports sent in from some of the part-time advisors to go over. No one had been expecting Sharon to give a report, but she had one ready and was able to back it up for the Ed-man when he questioned one aspect of it.

It broke up just before lunch, and in spite of her lunch date, Sharon lingered behind as the others filed out ahead of her and the president.

“Sir, Ms. Washington just sent me an email asking me to brief you later this afternoon on next week’s visit from the French foreign minister,” she said.

“I saw that. Kent’s got it set up for 3:45. Will that work?” he said.

“I serve at your pleasure, sir.”

Mark’s shoulders fell. “I know.” He glanced at her. “I never could pull off the autocratic thing.”

“It’s not usually that effective as a management style.” Sharon smiled at him softly. “If you’ll excuse me, sir. I’m supposed to go to lunch with the board.”

He smiled back, with an odd sadness in his eyes. “Yeah. Well, have fun.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Ms. Wheatly?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You like them?”

“Sir?”

“The other board members. Do you like them?”

Sharon looked into his soft green eyes, not quite sure why he was asking. She briefly debated trying to put a glossy spin on the situation, then decided that not only did she not have to, he really wanted her honest opinion.

“I do. They’re pretty intense and kinda rowdy, but I think that’s what I like about them.”

“Then I guess that means you’ll be around for a while.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

“Good.” Mark turned away. Beyond the normal concerns involved in working the political game effectively, Mark seldom worried about what others thought of him or his decisions. But why Wheatly’s opinion should matter, he couldn’t understand, except that it did, especially if it meant she was going to be around. “I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

“I’ll see you then. Oh. Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for the Kenyan and the other stuff. It was really thoughtful of you.”

Mark smiled. “You’re welcome, but be careful. The others seem to think the coffee thing borders on the unstable.”

Sharon chuckled. “And they should know from unstable. I guess since I’ll be out, I could swing by K-Street Koffee and pick up some extra beans.”

“Ethiopian Yrga Cheffe?” Mark’s eyes lit up. “City roast?”

“Done.”

Sharon left the room wondering why she had made such a silly offer. It wasn’t like the president couldn’t pick up the phone and get exactly what he wanted. But at the same time, it dawned on her that he couldn’t just go down to the coffee store and pick the beans up, himself, either. She shuddered. All the more reason to keep distance from him. And yet he was so sweet. And lonely.

From: swheatly@whithouse.gov

To: niecybagdha@indonet.in, ladycarla@freemail.com

Subject: New Email, Etc.

Dear Niecy and Carla;

Sorry it’s taken so long for me to get an email off to you guys. We had a little bit of a problem with the super secure wireless that’s currently installed at the house. Hope you don’t mind the upgrade, Carla. But naturally, it was so secure, I couldn’t get online at all. The nice thing about having the Secret Service as part of your tech support team, however, is that you get really fast service. I can get online with both my work and my personal laptop, although since the work one is so nice, I suspect I’m not going to be doing much on my old one.

I’m mostly sending this so you guys have my work email. I’ll still be using the personal one, but occasionally, I might have a professional question for you guys.

Well, the first day at work was pretty interesting. I’m really going to like it here. It’s intense and the rest of the board is scary smart, but they’re a lot of fun and the whole point is not to take yourself too seriously.

As for the president, don’t bother asking. Yes, I had that little heart flutter, but that is so not going anywhere. Maybe in eight years, but don’t count on it. He’s too busy and I do not want to give up my privacy.

Let me know what’s going on with you guys.

Sharon

Sharon Wheatly

World Affairs Advisor

The White House

Washington, DC.

To: swheatly531@freemail.com

From: niecybagdha@indo.net

Subject: So Not Going Anywhere?

Bullsh*t.

Love, Niecy