Chapter Nineteen

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: Of course, you may end up regretting that

Some points, Sharon remembered her father saying (usually in reference to some fanatical religious groups), were simply not worth proving. She smiled vaguely at Max Epstein as he went on about some column he’d written years before, wondering what point she’d been trying to prove when she’d called Max. That she wasn’t in love with Mark Jerguessen?

She nodded and sipped her wine, working at looking more interested than she was in Max’s soliloquy. The sad thing was that Max wasn’t that bad, except for his penchant for taking over a conversation or a situation. That was kind of the problem with having a yen for someone untouchable, such as the boss, Sharon mused. One tended to make up for it by doing all sorts of untenable things and trying to convince oneself that those things weren’t so bad. Such as listening to Max drone on.

Just drinks, she’d said. If only it were and not some hair-brained scheme to prove to herself that she was just another single woman with no interest in yet another man whose lifestyle would make her crazy in a nano-second.

“So what do you think?” Max suddenly asked. “Totally off the record, of course.”

“About?” Sharon suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry, Max. I was thinking about work. We’ve got that Mid-East trip this week.”

“That’s what I was talking about. Ashley Whitcomb is going to be at the Children for Peace conference in Jerusalem on Thursday. The one your boss is supposed to be speaking at.”

“Okay. Who’s Ashley Whitcomb?”

Max cocked a condescending eyebrow at her. “You don’t know?”

“No. That’s why I asked.”

“She’s that former Miss America who’s supposed to be seeing your boss on the sly.”

Sharon laughed. “Are you kidding? Where’d you hear that?”

“It’s all over the place.” Max swept his arm out as if to include everyone else in the bar.

As he went on to explain just why Sharon should have known this, Sharon let her mind wander again. She knew she had no reason to be jealous, although she couldn’t help wondering who Ashley Whitcomb was and how the president would have met her.

Instead of asking Max, however, she simply let out a huge yawn, apologized to Max profusely and made her escape.

The next morning, she and Karen went running along the Potomac.

“It’s one of those things you simply have to do,” Karen had explained. “You see it in all the movies.”

So Sharon met Karen at a bend not far from the Lincoln Memorial and the two took off. The famed cherry trees were just losing their blooms and a light mist hovered over the river as the early morning sun popped in and out of the clouds.

“So what’s with this Ashley Whitcomb rumor?” Sharon asked.

“It’s been floating around since Wednesday or so, I think,” Karen replied. “Things really started buzzing yesterday afternoon, though. The boss is supposed to be interested in her.”

“But who is she? I mean, besides a former Miss America.”

“She was a teacher for a year or so, but then about four years ago, she used the whole Miss America thing to get a book published about being nice to children and puppies. Come on. You saw it.”

“If it was in English, probably not,” Sharon said, gasping a little. “Four years ago, I wasn’t spending a lot of time in the States.”

“It spent some time on the bestseller lists,” Karen said. “But it was all about her name. Trust me. I tried to read it. It was like trying to make sense out of cotton candy. I found out who her ghost writer was and she said the experience was enough to almost make her want to give up ghostwriting. Whitcomb’s an idiot. According to the ghost, not only did Whitcomb have trouble stringing a coherent thought together, she still insisted on having complete control of the project. Worse yet, she made the ghost sign away all rights to the book and never even mentioned her in the acknowledgments. And once, when the ghost admitted she was actually the writer, Whitcomb tried to sue her for plagiarism. Can you believe that? Whitcomb couldn’t even sue for the right thing. The ghost told me the biggest reason she settled was that she didn’t want it to get out that she’d written that piece of junk.”

“Doesn’t sound like somebody our boss would like,” Sharon said.

Karen gasped and snorted. “Not really. But she makes great arm candy, especially since she does so much child advocacy work. Mostly fundraisers and speeches, as far as I can tell. But apparently, she sells event tickets. Put her on as the keynote and people fork the cash over.”

“So what’s up with the rumors?”

“That.” Karen waved for a stop. “Like I said, it really started buzzing yesterday. The Children for Peace conference. She wasn’t going to be there. Except yesterday afternoon, she suddenly got signed on as a panelist. The kicker is that one Senator Eamon Halstead called in a favor or two and got her signed up all of a sudden.”

“Isn’t he one of the big Moral Americans Caucus guys?”

“He’s the chair.” Karen took a long pull on her water bottle.

“But what has that got to do with the boss, except that he’s going to be at the conference, too?”

“Everything. Everyone knows the boss doesn’t date anyone he obviously knows.” Karen bent forward, pushing her chest against her legs.

“Oh. Huh.”

Karen pushed herself up and then bent backward. “It’s not like the guy has been celibate all these years. But he’s real good at keeping it quiet. Even June doesn’t know who all he’s dated.” She looked over the path. “I think we need to pick up our pace. You game?”

“Sure.”

Sharon was not at all sure and spent the remainder of the run trying not to gasp too hard. Still, Karen’s words echoed ruthlessly through her head. So everyone knew the president didn’t date anyone he obviously knew. Well, he’d said as much, as had June, on more than one occasion. So she was safe – the very word he’d used, as a matter of fact. The question was did she want to be safe in that respect?

Back at the White House, Mark was in the desk chair behind the elegant glass-topped table that made up his desk in his private study upstairs. He lounged comfortably into the soft dark brown leather, but his arms were folded and his expression stern. In front of him, on the other side of the desk stood Randy Nash and Yasmin Sollette.

Randy was a tall African American man in his early 30’s. A member of the Secret Service security detail at the White House, his broad shoulders and chest were more the result of working out and staying in shape. However, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what he’d look like if he ever let himself go. He wore the traditional dark suit, but his shirt carried the faintest hint of lavender rather than regulation white and his tie was a darker shade of lavender.

Solly was in her starched white chef’s coat and pull-on cotton canvas pants, this time gaily decorated with American flags on a dark blue background. Her plastic clogs were bright red. She was thinking that it was not fun to have President Mark Jerguessen annoyed with her.

“Sir,” Randy said, “you did say to provide our friend with a name.”

“But, Solly, that was a private conversation,” Mark growled.

“I understand, sir,” Solly said, drawing herself up with an injured sniff. “Did I share any part of it? I did not. I only got the idea is all.” She suddenly grinned. “And it was a good one, you gotta say that.”

Mark sighed and shook his head. “Well, I suppose Ashley Whitcomb is as good a target as any. I’m not comfortable with the idea of setting someone up that way, though.”

“Sir, our friend is not going to fall for some fake name,” Randy said.

“So why not take it out on somebody who’s making your life miserable?” Solly asked. “Them We-Think-We’re-So-Moral-Americans are just begging to be shown up. They want you to marry one of their girls, well, let’s just set ‘em up to think that and let it all blow up in their faces.”

“It’s too late now,” Mark said. “I guess we’re going to find out just how moral Miss Whitcomb really is. Any luck finding that other leak?”

“Getting there, sir,” Randy said. “We’ve had our eyes on several of the new hires, but there’s also one or two of the established staff who’ve expressed some displeasure that they didn’t get to retire when you took office. Based on some of the potential bits and pieces of the rumors, we think it’s probably with the janitorial staff.”

“I see. Well, keep looking.” Mark shifted up in his chair, then noticed the pair still waiting for him. “And you’re dismissed.”

He slouched back down as soon as the two were gone. He wasn’t surprised that there was a spy on the staff – maybe even more than one. He was just glad that Solly was willing to play decoy. Now, hopefully, no one would get hurt.

It wasn’t as though either he or Sharon had a lot of time to think about rumors about beauty queens. By Sunday, both Mark and Sharon were on Air Force One flying to Egypt. Faiza had gone ahead the day before. Sharon did allow herself a few minutes of excitement that she was, at last, on the fabled plane, then forced her attention to her work.

When Air Force One landed in Cairo, late that evening Cairo time, all was in readiness – the Egyptian prime minister’s limousine pulled up just as the plane taxied to a stop. There were the usual greetings and speeches. Faiza did most of the translation, being somewhat more adept at Arabic than Sharon.

The trip was somewhat controversial. Mark was in trouble at home for agreeing to visit the Egyptian president, Mr. Al Zabawi, given that the man was essentially a dictator whose record on human rights abuses was spotty at best. But the next day’s meetings went well enough, and at the end of them, Mark was able to suggest that there might be some progress in the human rights arena, thus proving his point that it was better to talk to the man than snub him.

The next day, the Americans flew to Luxor for a special tour of the archeological sites there, accompanied by both the Egyptian president and the head of the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities, Dr. Rahad Mohammed. As the sun set that day, the group finished by crossing the Nile by boat.

Sharon found Mark leaning on a railing watching the West Bank growing more distant.

“Good work today, boss,” she said.

“Thanks.” Mark took a deep, very satisfied breath and smiled. “Looks like we dodged a bullet with Dr. Mohammed.”

Dr. Mohammed, in addition to being one of the world’s premiere authorities on Ancient Egypt, was also, unfortunately, a rabid anti-Semite. He’d been added to the Luxor tour at the last minute and the Americans couldn’t exactly refuse since he was such an expert.

“So far,” Sharon said. “He’s not going to be at the reception tonight, which is a good thing. I overheard him going on that he had to get back to a new find. But we’ve got our statements ready in case he does shoot off his mouth in front of the press.”

Mark looked over at Sharon, noting how the setting sun gave her face a warm glow.

“I had fun today,” he said. “Whatever else he is, Dr. Mohammed’s pretty interesting.”

“I’d heard some of it before when I was here last,” Sharon said. “But he certainly had an interesting spin on it all. Any chance you can talk the Metropolitan Museum of Art to give back their antiquities?”

“Doubt it.” Mark chuckled. “Not even sure I want to get involved in that mess.”

“It is their history.”

“I agree, but…”  Mark grinned, rolling his eyes. “That’s whole lot of trouble with people I’d rather stay friends with, if you know what I mean.” He stole a sideways glance at Sharon. “You did a good job these past two days, too.”

“Thanks.”

There was a pause as the two watch the river sliding past. Then Sharon groaned and put her phone to her ear.

“What?” Mark asked.

“That’s a photographer in that little boat there,” Sharon said. “I’m pretty sure he got shots of the two of us.”

“We’re talking business,” Mark replied. “And we don’t comment, anyway. So?”

“Yeah.” Sharon pulled the phone from her ear and dismally looked at the read-out.

Not that there was any response yet – if there were to be one, she wouldn’t see it for a good many hours yet. The news media would be bad enough. The rest of the advisory panel would be merciless.

Sure enough, the Egyptian papers had the picture of Mark and Sharon on all the front pages, as did all the papers in Tel Aviv – where the Children for Peace Conference was being held, starting that next day. In fact, the picture was all over the Internet, though Sharon was glad to see that a shot of her with her phone to her ear was also included. Better yet, the Israelis didn’t seem to consider her merely arm candy.

But that could have been because Ashley Whitcomb had not only shown up but had made a point of sticking close to Mark at the reception at the end of the first day of the conference. And Whitcomb, if anything, seemed to like being arm candy.

It wasn’t anything Mark hadn’t dealt with before. But Whitcomb didn’t seem to get the subtle hints, so Mark found himself leaning more heavily on Sharon than he might have otherwise. She didn’t say anything as he repeatedly asked her to translate between various delegates and dignitaries.

“You know, he speaks English very well,” Sharon said about a French education minister that Mark pointed out.

“I know,” Mark sighed. “But you have said that talking to people in their own language makes me look more accommodating and approachable.”

“What about that picture of us on the boat?”

Mark grimaced. “Point taken.”

Bracing himself, he approached Monsieur Renault and was not at all surprised to find Ashley Whitcomb already chatting with the education minister. A minute later, Monsieur Renault excused himself and Mark found himself alone with Whitcomb.

She was the classic All-American blonde, almost tall enough to look Mark in the eye thanks to a pair of platform spiked heels, with a slim, almost bony body encased in a lightly sparkled hip-hugging strapless black cocktail dress.

“You seem to be following me tonight,” Mark said mildly.

“I thought it would be nice to get to know you,” Ashley replied, flashing her perfect smile that up close looked almost too white to be real. “After all.”

“You’ve heard the rumors, then.” Mark nodded. “I don’t comment at all. It blows over faster that way.”

Ashley giggled. “I didn’t say I wanted them to blow over. And it’s not like we don’t have anything in common. We both care about children.”

“Yes.” Mark looked at her without saying anything more.

Ashley giggled again, but there was an edge to it. “So. Is there a reason you’re not interested in me?”

Mark glanced down at her breasts. “It’s not that I’m not interested. I just don’t want to get you into trouble. The rumors aren’t any big deal now, but they will get worse and if there’s anything you’ve done that makes you look bad, it will become public.”

“I can handle it.” Feeling confident again, Ashley straightened and smiled.

“And I see no reason to put you in that position. However, if you really want to go out, I’ll email my sister and she can put you into the rotation.”

“Oh. I suppose that would be nice.”

Mark pulled out his iPhone. “Great. I’ll let June know. What’s your email address?”

Ashley stammered it out, then hesitated as Mark strode off. Sure enough, that Miss Wheatly was at his side again, presumably translating between the president and the Israeli Prime Minister. Half an hour later, Ashley made a point of circulating around to where Sharon was standing.

“Hi. I’m Ashley Whitcomb,” she said, shifting her champagne flute to shake Sharon’s hand.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“I know. You work very closely with the president, I see.”

Sharon looked around for Mark. “On a trip like this, I do. Other times, not so much.”

“Maybe I should start some rumors about you,” Ashley said with a little giggle.

“Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Ashley tossed her blonde hair over her perfectly tanned shoulder. “Somebody started them about me and I’ve only just met the man today. You work with him. Must be something going on.”

“That would be highly inappropriate, Ms. Whitcomb. He is my boss. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m needed to translate again.”

Ashley, however, was nothing if not persistent. The next day, she pulled a couple favors and managed to get a seat next to Mark during lunch. He chatted pleasantly with her, and later, during the cocktail hour before the conference banquet, he let her hang alongside him and didn’t seek Sharon out unless he genuinely needed her. Mark even put his arm around Ashley’s shoulders during the photo op before dinner.

Sharon, for her part, wasn’t entirely amused and felt even more annoyed that she was so disgruntled by Mark’s behavior. Still, she didn’t say anything until the U.S. party was back on Air Force One and the plane was in the air, and she only did because Mark called her back into his office on the plane.

He had kicked his shoes off, his black formal bow tie lay in a heap on the kidney-shaped blonde wood desk. His tux jacket hung precariously off the back of the tan leather desk chair. The chair reclined and swiveled, and Mark was reclining and had his feet up on the edge of the desk.

“Go ahead, plop it down,” he said, pointing at a smaller leather chair bolted into the floor in front of the desk.

Sharon had already taken her hair down and changed into jeans and a sweatshirt from UCLA. She looked down at her top.

“I didn’t think you were going to call me,” she said, sitting down in the chair and balancing her laptop on her knees. “I’d’ve put a suit or a dress on.”

Mark lightly snorted. “I don’t care. The only reason I haven’t changed is that I got a call from Admiral Kogen right when we got on board.”

“You did?” Sharon frowned as she reached for her Blackberry. “I haven’t heard about anything getting ready to blow up.”

“Nothing is.” Mark stretched, with his arms reaching above his head. “Turns out he just wanted to lobby for that new submarine project and the Senate is voting right about now. I thought it was a little late.”

“It’s only 4:30-ish there.”

Mark nodded and pulled out his iPhone. “Ah. You’re right.”

“Which is not why you called me in here.”

Mark chuckled and he pressed the screen buttons. “No. I don’t want to do a full de-brief on the trip, but thought since we’ve got to try and stay awake for a couple hours to get back on Washington time, maybe we could pull together the bullet points to focus on for when we do.”

“Sure.” Sharon opened her laptop and powered it up. “I guess the top thing is the Ashley Whitcomb rumors. You didn’t exactly help dispel them this afternoon.”

“No.” Mark chuckled, then shivered. “That was actually Augie’s idea. Halstead got a few minutes of the news cycle yesterday whining about me being gay again. So we made it pretty obvious I’m hetero and went ahead and used their girl to do it with. Kind of undermines his credibility, don’t you think?”

“You did an awfully good job of it,” Sharon said, then realized her tone was a lot more sour than she’d anticipated.

“Whitcomb seemed to think so.” Mark stopped as he saw the look on Sharon’s face, then burst into laughter. “I don’t believe it. You’re jealous.”

Sharon glared at him. “I didn’t say that.”

“But you are.” Mark grinned, then choked his laughs back. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. But come on. As many times as you’ve gotten on my case about it?”

“It’s not like I have anything to be jealous of,” Sharon grumbled. “She’s a classic fluff-head.”

“That doesn’t change anything.” Mark pulled his feet from the desk and leaned forward. His smile was softer now.

“I don’t want to be jealous with you. And, and it’s like you said to me last week. Just because we can’t have a relationship doesn’t mean you should have to live like a hermit. And I know you don’t, anyway.”

“I’m not seeing anybody right now, on the sly or otherwise.”

“And how would I know?”

Mark let out an utterly rueful sigh. “You would. Trust me. The same way June and… Well, others always know.”

“Right.” Sharon closed the lid on her laptop. “I’m not sure I buy that. You’re good at hiding.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like last week, with Mr. Makindu. You were in as foul a mood as I’ve ever seen anybody in, and yet, you were all smiles, Mr. Personality, while you were meeting with him.”

“Would you have rather I hadn’t put it on?”

“It’s not that.” Sharon rapped her nails nervously on the laptop lid. “It’s just that it was like you were a second person, you know?”

“And what if I have to be sometimes?” Mark’s eyes watched her intently.

Sharon sighed and looked back at him. “I suppose you do.”

“It’s not something I like about myself.” Mark looked away, wondering how much to say. “But it can be useful. Such as when I need to make a certain Nigerian ambassador feel welcome.”

“Hm.” Sharon leaned forward. Her elbow slid onto the desk as she put her chin in her hand. “And where’s the real Mark Jerguessen in all of this?”

Mark gazed unseeing at one of the dark portholes in the plane’s side wall. “That is and remains an excellent question. I like to think I’m fairly self-aware. Part of maintaining the whole moral compass thing.” He glanced over at Sharon. “Now, you, on the other hand, don’t hide diddley. You’re discreet, but I never have to wonder where you stand on anything.”

Sharon let out a strangled snort. “You’re probably the first person to tell me that. People are always telling me to stop hiding.”

“June said you don’t talk much about yourself.”

“What’s the point?”

Mark waited for her to continue, then grinned. “To get to know you?”

“You don’t seem to be having any problems with that.”

“In some ways. In some ways, not.”

His eyes caught hers and they gazed at each other. Sharon felt drawn in and warm, knowing full well that all Mark wanted to do in that moment was to kiss her, just as Mark knew that she wanted to kiss him just as badly and that if they did, it wasn’t going to stop.

“Sometimes,” Mark said very softly, “I just want to say to hell with it and…”

“I know.” Sharon smiled. “Sometimes I do, too. And to think that I told Ashley Whitcomb that having an affair with you would be highly inappropriate.”

Mark sighed and pulled back. “Maybe, maybe not. But I suspect it wouldn’t be smart right now.”

Sharon gathered her laptop and stood. “It would certainly undermine Halstead’s credibility on the whole gay thing.” She paused. “You know, people do talk about us. Whitcomb even said there had to be something going on. She wanted to start some rumors.”

“You going to be okay if she does?”

“I hope so.” Sharon looked at him. “But it’s not just Whitcomb. Tanks was teasing me about it.”

“Oh. So she’s part of the conspiracy, too.”

“What?”

Mark laughed. “There’s a conspiracy on to get us together. I’m pretty sure Coop’s involved. And June, and Augie and Jean. Possibly Johnnie.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Sharon felt herself gape and quickly shut her mouth.

“You think this is the first time Coop’s come up with something like this?” Mark sat back in his chair. “And just for the record, he has never succeeded.”

“Even on the sly?”

“Nope. Not once.”

“Good.” Sharon stopped. “I’m not sure if I find that reassuring or depressing.”

“Come to think of it, me either. But if you don’t mind, we’ve been close enough to that discussion already tonight. I don’t want to go there again.” He yawned.

“Any other bullet points to think about for the debriefing?” Sharon asked.

“That.” Mark pulled out a drawer and picked up a laptop. “We’ve got the Egyptian human rights concessions, and…  Tell you what. Why don’t you write up a list and email it to me? I’ll have Kent set up the de-briefing for Monday morning. That’ll give us time to get over the jet lag, coordinate with Daniel and pull some ideas together.”

“Great.” Sharon swallowed back a yawn, herself. “I’ll see you on the ground, then.”

She turned to go, then Mark’s laugh stopped her.

“What?” She turned.

“You didn’t wait for me to dismiss you.” Mark grinned at her happily.

“Oh! I’m so sorry, sir!” Sharon gasped, utterly horrified that she hadn’t.

“No, no, no!” Mark got up, excited. “You don’t get it. I’m so damn glad you didn’t. I know it’s protocol. I know it’s important. But I am so sick of everyone waiting around for my command.”

“Oh.”

“I don’t think it’d be a good idea if you walked away in front of other people.” Mark smiled softly. “Rumors, you know.”

“No. Of course not.”

“But if it’s just the two of us, would you mind terribly just leaving when it’s time to go? Please?”

Sharon smiled. “No problem.” She paused, then looked at him with a wicked glint in her eye. “Of course, you may end up regretting that.”

“Or you might.” Mark’s grin was equally wicked.

“Good night, sir.”

“Good night, Ms. Wheatly.”

In New York City, in the VIP departure lounge at JFK airport, Michael hung up his cell phone with a perplexed frown. He turned to Inez, who was involved in her own call and held up a finger to ask him to wait.

“Okay…” she told someone on the other end. “No. That sounds great… Well, we really appreciate it. We want it to be the best possible for everyone… Terrific. We’ll talk to you tomorrow then… Thanks. Good-bye.” Inez snapped her phone shut with a satisfied sigh, then looked at Michael. “Okay. You’ve got dancers for both songs, and no one has to run off and work with a celebrity. They’ve got some pros they’re auditioning for next season for Hard Town Saturday Night and no blonds. They’ll work off the dubs and it’ll pre-tape right before the show on Tuesday to allow for the rest of the band to set up and break down before the elimination show starts.”

“Yeah. Like last time,” Michael said, distracted.

Inez was too absorbed in her notes to notice. “You’ve got three pairs dancing to Sharon’s Song – they’re all eliminated pros, so you’ll have all Monday to work with them, but you won’t be able to get into the actual space until Tuesday. We’ll be meeting with the music director all day Saturday to nail down the arrangement. Have you cleared Toby and Jodi with their mom?”

“Yu-eah.” Michael fidgeted with his phone. “That’s the weird thing.”

Inez finally looked up. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes. Have no clue what, but Jodi was right. There is definitely something going on with Cameron.”

“There’s not going to be trouble with the girls playing with you, is there?”

“None what so ever. She didn’t even put in a pro forma protest. She just said the girls could do whatever they wanted.” Michael chuckled. “Jodi said no way. Tiffany doesn’t really want to, either. And, naturally, Toby was all over it. I’ll put her on the grand piano and let her sing back up.”

“That’ll work.” Inez frowned. “And Cameron’s not upset?”

“She said she had other things to worry about. Jodi says she’s scared about something, but Cameron keeps insisting she’s just distracted. So, naturally, Jodi’s scared to death.”

“Well, Cameron’s good at suffering in silence, then getting pissed because no one’s noticed.”

“I don’t think that’s what’s going on this time.” Michael shrugged. “But we’re not going to find out any too darned soon.”

A uniformed desk clerk approached them. “Excuse me, Mr. Wheatly, Ms. Santiago? Your flight is boarding now.”

“Great. Thanks.” Michael stood and gathered up his flight bag as Inez did the same.

The flight was mundane and there was a car service waiting when they got off the plane in Los Angeles. Friday afternoon, Michael tried to convince Jodi and Tiffany to play their cellos for his performance on the Celebrity Dance Off elimination show that coming Tuesday night, but both refused. Jodi didn’t say much about what was going on with her mother, but Tiffany did find some time to talk to Inez.

“Jodi thinks it’s something else bugging her mom,” Tiffany explained while Jodi tried to teach Michael how to make his ereader work. “And I have to say there may be. But I know she’s at least thinking about selling the music store.”

“What?” Inez all but gaped.

“Well, my mom got this great fellowship to go out and record vanishing folk music from all these different cultures all over the world and she asked Cameron to go with her. And Cameron’s been thinking about doing it.”

“Really. Like after Jodi’s in college?”

“No. Next fall.” Tiffany bit her lip. “I mean, Cameron says she’s gotta stay here and take care of Jodi and me, ‘cause I can’t go. And she swears she would never sell the store. But you can just tell she’s thinking about it.”

“How does Jodi feel about her mom going away?”

“I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think it’ll happen.” Tiffany pushed her glasses up her nose. “She’d probably be okay. I mean, she’s been looking forward to having Toby with you guys next fall. But it’s not like she’d be upset if we had to live with you guys. I mean her. I mean…”

Inez put her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders. “Of course, you’re welcome to stay with us. You’re just as much a part of this family as I am and we both know how that works.”

“I know.” Tiffany bit her lip again. “I just heard you were worried about Jodi and me being together all the time.”

“I’m worried about Jodi being so dependent on you,” Inez said, giving Tiffany a reassuring squeeze. “That’s a totally different thing than not wanting you around. And I do want you around. Okay?”

“Thanks.” Tiffany sighed. “I’m sorry. I was just being emotional.”

Inez laughed. “Then you’re being normal, and sometimes that’s a good thing.”

Tiffany smiled.

Saturday and Sunday everyone was absorbed in getting music, meeting with the people from the show, rehearsing and watching rehearsals. Inez noticed that in all the busyness both Jodi and Toby grew increasingly more relaxed, even though neither of them mentioned their mother.

Late Monday morning, both Michael and Inez completely forgot about Cameron in light of a more serious problem – the dance to go with Michael’s second number was not working. So Michael decided it was time to take a chance.

Susan, however, was not happy when she heard what Michael wanted.

“What kind of an ass are you?” she hollered so loudly through Michael’s phone that Inez heard her from eight feet away.

“I’m a desperate one, Suze,” Michael said. “And Mom said you’d been going to your old dance studio, so I thought maybe. I really need you.” Michael turned away from the group of six dancers huddled at the other end of the rehearsal studio – a bland room with one mirrored wall and wooden floors. “I can’t talk to them. I don’t speak their language and the dance is just not coming together. I mean, it looks good, but it doesn’t work. Susan, you’re the only person I know who can talk to them. Please?”

Susan’s language blistered the airwaves, but she eventually agreed to drive to the rehearsal studio and see what she could do.

“Do I get paid?” she snarled.

“Of course,” Michael said. “Union scale. Full day.”

“Will they pay for a demonstrator?”

“Same deal. No problem.”

“We’ll be there in an hour.” Susan hung up, strongly suspecting that the day’s wages would be coming out of Michael’s own pocket. Fine with her, she decided, him having the nerve asking her to help him with dancing when she couldn’t dance anymore.

Her therapist had suggested going to the dance studio, not to brood, but to help her face her grief over losing her ability to walk, let alone dance. He’d pointed out that she was going to see people dance again, she couldn’t realistically avoid it. She might as well adapt and see what she could do.

And she’d been able to help, running basic exercises for some of the new classes. Dina Cruz, about the only dancer friend that had visited Susan in the hospital, and the only one who wasn’t afraid of Susan, had volunteered to act as a demonstrator and the two were developing some excellent shorthand together.

But this would be different. Newer, younger dancers didn’t seem to care that she was in a wheelchair. They weren’t close enough to Susan’s accident or old enough to worry about what could happen to them. It was Susan’s old friends and colleagues who mostly avoided her, superstitious that an accident like hers could just as easily happen to them. And now, Susan would be working with more established pros and she couldn’t help wondering how they’d react to taking direction from someone who couldn’t even stand.

And it was true that there were some puzzled looks when Michael introduced the six dancers to his sister and told them she was there to help them with the dance. Susan quickly got the upper hand, though, when she spotted the problem after the first run-through.

“You’re doing a pretty couples dance,” Susan said.

“It’s a love song,” said Ivan, the lead dancer – a tall, willowy man with built-out shoulders and dark tousled hair.

“But it’s about a woman who has love right in front of her and won’t go after it,” Susan replied. She reached out her hand, palm down, with a dancer’s natural extension and grace. “It’s not the reaching out, it’s the yearning.”

She reached again, this time with her palm up. Ivan and the others gaped.

“That’s it!” Ivan said. “We’ve gotta change everything.”

“Wait a minute,” Susan said. “Let me think. Michael, can we move you and the piano? What about the strings?”

“Jodi and Tiff didn’t go for it,” Michael answered, smiling as he saw Susan literally coming to life.

It didn’t matter. Susan was already pointing to dancers and positioning them. Smiling, they went willingly.

Susan was still pushing everyone around when Jodi, Toby, and Tiffany arrived with Inez. Susan barely acknowledged they were there before ordering Toby into place at the piano. Inez looked at Michael and the two laughed.

“She’s all over the place,” Inez whispered to him.

“I don’t think I’ve seen her this happy since the accident,” Jodi whispered. “Is this really going to work?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Michael. “It was just a matter of time.”

“Grandmere and Grandpa are coming to the show, right?”

“They are now.” Michael looked over at Inez.

“I’m on it.” Inez grinned as she opened her mobile phone. “Think we can get Sarah and Sharon out?”

“Sharon said she had a big group of friends coming over to watch,” Michael said. “But call her, anyway.”

As it turned out, neither Sharon nor Sarah could get away to see the show in person. But it didn’t matter. Michael and Inez decided against telling them about Susan. It would make for one incredible surprise.

At home in her kitchen, Cameron Dykstra closed her laptop lid, then put her head down on her arms and cried. All the fear, all the relief washed over her in one wave of sobs after another.

It was a cyst – an ovarian cyst and not a tumor. She’d been so afraid, but not willing to tell anyone about the tests, lest they be forced to worry about her. Especially the girls. Cameron had already noticed that Jodi was worried.

But everything was fine. The cyst had been removed on Saturday – Cameron had scheduled the laparoscopic procedure and biopsy that day when the girls were going to be with their father so they wouldn’t be upset. Her mother had driven her to the hospital that morning and then home on Sunday, and the girls were too absorbed with their father’s big appearance on that stupid dancing show to pay much attention to how Cameron was. They’d even forgotten it was Cameron’s birthday. Which was just as well, Cameron decided.

It wasn’t cancer. Cameron, terrified that she was on the brink of dying, was going to live. All she had to do was pick up and carry on. Just like her mother had said. Life would go back to normal and all would be well. Or the same as it had been before.

Cameron sighed. She had a good life. She had her daughters, her work at the store. It wasn’t quite the life she’d planned, in those days before Michael, and, yes, even after they’d met and fallen in love.

She opened the laptop again and looked at the email on the screen. Her mother had emailed her father – a surprise in itself since her mother rarely mentioned the man let alone talked to him. Her father, Lee, had emailed back, still unaware that the growth was benign.

Cammie, honey, I’m really sorry to hear about your possible tumor. Believe me, all my energy is praying for it to be benign. I know we’ve had our ups and downs and there is a pile of regrets on my plate over each and every problem.

You’ve worked so hard for your girls and given them a good stable life. You have a lot to be proud of on that score. I just pray that you don’t regret giving up your life in the process. That was always the one thing I was afraid of —that you’d make the same mistake I did. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not about where or how many places you live, but how much love you give your kids. And you’ve obviously given your girls a lot, a lot of love.

If this turns out to be the actual crisis, I promise I’ll be there for you. You deserve that much. If it’s just a scare – as I pray that it will be – then please think of it as the gift of a new life. A new chance to live – maybe the same way, maybe in a whole new way.

Love, Dad.

A whole new way. Cameron blinked back another rush of tears. Her dad was right. This was like a second chance at living. And even if she’d escaped this time, would she be so lucky the next?

When she was afraid she was dying, her first thought was for Toby and Jodi and how she’d never see Toby win the Best Actress Oscar. Or Jodi the Nobel Peace Prize. Cameron laughed through her tears as she remembered that conversation about two years before. Her girls were so very clear about what they wanted for their lives, blissfully unaware of how easily and quickly that vision could and probably would change. Which brought Cameron’s second great regret about possibly dying – that she had given up all of her dreams to raise her daughters, dreams she had planned on taking up again once the girls were grown.

And now she had the chance to chase those dreams again. It had been so long, Cameron wasn’t even sure what those dreams were anymore, let alone if they were at all valid. Michael was begging to have more time with the girls. He already had Toby starting in the fall.

Cameron slapped the lid down on her laptop and picked up the phone.

“Happy birthday to me,” she whispered as she dialed Tiffany’s mother, Merilee Sheppledorf.

Chapter Eighteen

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: Maybe a nice gentle nudge in the right direction.

Air Force One left Mexico very early on Friday morning and arrived back in Washington in the early afternoon. Mark had made up some ground during Thursday’s morning’s meeting with President Diego, but it had been slow going. Between that and some of the goodwill visits the party had made Thursday afternoon and evening to various factories and the local university, where a coalition of foreign students and teachers had arranged for a party, Mark was exhausted. He knew Sharon would be exhausted when she arrived later that afternoon on a somewhat later commercial flight, and her staffer Leonidas Bertonetti and Earl Wallace were still in Mexico and would be until Sunday.

So Mark emailed Sharon that the trip debriefing would happen on Monday. Sharon, still working out her feelings, was mildly annoyed at first, then realized it was just as well to wait until there were other people around before she met with the president again.

In fact, when June called on Saturday to invite Sharon to church the next morning, Sharon initially declined.

“I really should work,” Sharon said. “I’ve got my notes to prepare from the trip, plus all the stuff that I left behind.”

“You also need some rest,” June said. “And… Well, let’s just call it a mission of mercy.”

“What do you mean?”

June giggled nervously. “It’s a combination of things. You see, there’s this children’s home that Mark and I have been visiting off and on for years. It’s here in DC. Anyway, I was kind of hoping you’d come with us on Sunday and bring your guitar and play for the kids. They’d love it. I know you don’t like performing, but this would be more of a sing-a-long kind of thing. There won’t be any press there. Mark won’t let them come.”

“A sing-a-long?” Sharon sighed. “How old are the kids?”

“All ages. A lot of the teens just snarl, but we’ve had a couple other musicians come and it seems to soften them up a little.”

“Okay. How late will we be?”

June hesitated. “Well, that’s the other part. After we get back here, Mark is having a little get-together. Coop is going to be there and Karen and her kids. And…”

“And what?”

“Well, one of the ministers at our church, Roy Hodgkiss, he and Eddie Cooper are Mark’s two closest friends ever. So, Roy just got back from a one-year mission to Honduras, and he and the family are coming with us to the children’s home, then Mark is having a little party to welcome the Hodgkisses back. The kids are okay – they’re five and seven, I think. It’s Melody, Roy’s wife. Sharon, she is simply the most boring human being that has ever walked on two legs. I love Roy like a brother and I love her, as well. But you know how these things go. Mark and Roy will be yakking it up and Melody and I will be staring at each other. Maybe you can find something to talk to her about.”

“Oh, I seriously doubt that,” Sharon sighed. “Can’t Karen talk to her? She’s better with the chit-chat.”

“That’s kind of the problem,” June said. “Chit-chat is definitely not Melody’s thing. She’s, um, what you call deep.”

“Oh, great. So we’re talking solving the problems of the world?”

“In a manner of speaking. She’s… Well, you’ll see. Please?”

It was the please that did it. Sharon agreed reluctantly to meet June at the church in the morning.

The service wasn’t too bad, Sharon thought. The children’s home turned out to be a refuge for kids who were victims of parental abuse. Many of the kids were withdrawn and sullen, but June was right about the music. Sharon found she enjoyed playing for the kids and was quite surprised when the little ones began dancing. A particularly shy teen girl, slightly overweight and hiding behind dirty black hair, began singing along and even began harmonizing with Sharon. But she disappeared before Sharon could get her name.

As June had predicted, several of the teens scowled and snarled, still Mark made a point of spending a couple minutes talking to each one. The response was lukewarm, but Mark expected that.

Sharon made a point of avoiding Roy and Melody Hodgkiss after being introduced to them. Melody seemed rather shy, as it was, and very absorbed in what her two children, Mary and Stephen, were doing. As for Roy, Sharon could feel some coolness on his part, but couldn’t figure out what it was.

Mark had a feeling he knew what Roy’s response was all about, but didn’t have a chance to talk to Roy about it until the group got back to the White House. There, Eddie Cooper, his wife Delilah, and their four kids, were waiting, along with Karen Tanaka, her boyfriend, and her daughters. The Watanabe girls were busy bonding with Coop’s eldest two, Rebecca and Deborah, who were roughly the same age. Coop’s youngest two, Daniel and Elijah were closer in age to the Hodgkiss children, being eight and six, respectively.

The party was comfortable and almost loud. It was held in the private quarters, in one of the larger sitting rooms, down the hall from the Lincoln bedroom. June had set it up as a space for more casual entertaining, with large couches and armchairs in rich jewel tones and heavy-duty cotton upholstery and a minimum of antiques.

Sharon got pressed into music duty again, and her playing was pronounced cool by the Cooper girls. Mark sat somewhat apart, slouching on a couch, watching her play, until Roy approached him.

“So that’s Wheatly,” Roy observed. He was a medium-sized man, with thinning, light brown hair, glasses, piercing blue eyes and a quiet firmness about his person.

Mark nodded. “Yep.” He paused. “I’m guessing you’ve heard about her.”

“Not so much,” Roy slipped down next to Mark. “Cooper says you’ve got a thing for her.”

“I might.” Mark shrugged, then noticed Roy’s eyes boring into him. “Okay, maybe I do.”

Roy groaned. “Aw, Mark, you’ve fallen in love again, haven’t you? From the first moment you saw her. Right?”

Mark winced. “It’s different this time.”

“That’s what you said the last thirty times.”

“That is an exaggeration.”

“Which only proves my point.” Roy looked at the glass of white wine he was holding.

“It is different,” Mark said finally. “For one thing, I haven’t done squat about it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. She doesn’t want that kind of relationship. Doesn’t want the publicity.”

“You usually keep things pretty quiet. Why should this be different?”

Mark sighed deeply. “It’s a hell of a lot more intense than anything ever before. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. And…  With all the publicity I get, it’s a lot easier for…  Well, you know. I don’t want to put Sharon through that.”

Roy nodded. “You don’t want to take a chance on her walking, you mean.”

“I guess that’s part of it.”

“Hm.” Roy watched Sharon as she played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” registering in the back of his mind that she was singing in German. “Coop was saying he thought the feelings were mutual.”

“Well, like I said, it doesn’t matter,” Mark grumbled. “Neither of us want to be involved in a relationship right now, for a lot of reasons. And I’m willing to bet I haven’t heard all of Sharon’s reasons. So, it’s kind of irrelevant. She’s doing good work for me. We’re becoming good friends. She’s getting really close to June, and that’s a good thing. We’re just going to keep the status quo and that’s that.”

Roy chuckled as he got up. “That isn’t that by a long shot, buddy, and I wish you good luck because you are going to need it.”

Some minutes later, Sharon found herself wishing she were someplace else in a big way. Melody Hodgkiss, a wisp of a woman, with light brown hair and deep brown eyes magnified by thick glasses, had come out of her shell. Sharon had merely asked Melody if she were a full-time mom, which Melody confessed she was, but that she was also about to start teaching systematic theology part-time at the Wesley Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, Sharon made the mistake of asking Melody what systematic theology was.

Melody was clearly passionate – in her own quiet way – about her topic. The problem was, the topic was so arcane, Sharon could make little sense of what Melody was saying. Roy, fortunately, saw her struggling and came over.

“Hey, Mel, got your lecture going again?” he asked, clearly proud of his wife, but aware that she could be a little hard to take.

She blushed. “Oh. Yeah. I’m sorry. I forget that it’s a little hard to explain what I teach, and I get so excited about it.”

“I understand,” Sharon said, smiling weakly.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Roy. “Half the time, I don’t understand what she’s talking about and I’m in the religion business.”

“But, Roy, it’s not that difficult,” sighed Melody. She stopped. “I mean. It can be if you’re not into theology.”

“Which I’m afraid I’m not,” said Sharon. “Will you excuse me?”

June caught up with her a minute later. “I did try to warn you.”

“She’s not boring,” said Sharon. “Just obscure.”

“Well, let’s be glad Tanks didn’t get a hold of her. Given how she feels about religion, the two of them would be mud wrestling about now.”

Sharon laughed, then caught Mark watching her and sighed. “Listen, I’m going to head out. I’ve got to call Russia at two a.m. and I’d like to get a nap before I do.”

“I’m glad you came,” June said. “And you were great with the kids. It made a big difference.”

“Thanks. It was good to help.”

Sharon smiled but avoided Mark as she left. Back at her townhouse, she paced nervously. The president had been watching her most of the day. She was glad that they were becoming friends, but she wasn’t comfortable with things getting any more intense than they were. After another few minutes of pacing, she made up her mind and called Max Epstein.

Max, for his part, was surprised when he saw Sharon’s number on his caller ID but wasn’t unhappy.

“What’s up, Share?” he asked jovially.

“How’d you like to go out sometime next weekend?” Sharon asked, trying to hide the nerves in her voice.

“I’d love it. I’ll pick you up Friday night at seven-thirty.”

Sharon hesitated. “Um. How about if we meet somewhere at that time?”

“Sure,” Max said. “Meet at the Zoo Bar?”

“That sounds good. I’ll see you at seven-thirty on Friday.” Sharon rang off before Max could say any more.

She felt a little guilty, but at the same time relieved.

Monday morning brought the Mexico de-briefing with the president, Leonidas Bertonetti, Earl Wallace, Daniel Friedman, and Sharon. But it didn’t last long. Mark had a speech to give at the Gay Union’s monthly luncheon and needed time to go over his talk with his speech writer. But as Sharon and the others left, Jean Bouyer was ushered into Mark’s office.

“Just a quick one, sir,” she said. “This just got posted on the Moral American website. They’re outing Augie.”

“So? He’s been out of the closet for years,” Mark grumbled. He was in a bad enough mood, what with Sharon clearly avoiding him and having to re-hash the whole miserable Mexico trip.

“They’re dropping not so subtle hints that you’re gay, as well.”

Mark laughed. “Well, hate to disappoint them, but—”  He stopped and nodded. “Tell you, what. How about me going no comment on the issue?”

“Wouldn’t that be perceived as being ashamed?”

“Maybe.” Mark mulled it over. “Why don’t you run it past Augie? My point would be it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what our respective orientations are as long as we’re doing our jobs – which we are.”

“Okay.” Jean paused. “If I may be excused?”

“Oh, yeah. Please.”

Jean slipped out as Calvin Whitecross came in. Calvin was a young average-sized Black man with close-cropped hair who had graduated first in his class at Harvard, then started almost immediately at a political public relations firm in the District. Mark had hired him as a speechwriter early in his campaign, surprising everyone. After all, Calvin was only 25 at the time and barely three years out of school. But Calvin had not only stepped up, Mark found the young man had a gift for capturing his voice and rarely made a speech that Calvin hadn’t at least written part of at some point or other.

Mark spent half an hour going over the speech and checking in with Calvin regarding some alterations given the recent Moral Americans post. Gus Guerrero called in, also, and the three conferred on a strong response. The Gay Union received the speech well, but as Mark left the luncheon, he got several questions about his orientation.

“As it turns out, I’m straight,” Mark finally said. “But I trust that the American public can see past that and accept me as I am, without hate and narrow-mindedness. And that will be all, folks. I’m not answering any more questions.”

Not surprisingly, the comment got major play and caused something of an uproar, with both sides screaming at each other at full force.

“It’s pundit mania,” Karen complained to Sharon later than afternoon while hiding out in Sharon’s office.

Sharon shrugged. “It’s sad that it’s still such a polarizing issue. Why should it make the least bit of difference whether Jugs is straight or gay?”

Karen tagged Sharon’s shoulder. “It might make a difference to you.”

“No, it doesn’t!” Sharon snapped, startling both herself and Karen with her vehemence. She flushed, then sniffed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m so touchy about that.”

“Maybe because you do like him?” Karen said softly.

Sharon sighed. “I like that we’re friends. I want to keep being friends. But I can’t get into a relationship with him. We work together. It’d be a disaster. And I don’t want that kind of publicity. I’m serious. Look what’s happening to poor Augie.”

“Okay. I believe you.”

“I’m glad.” Sharon sighed. “Thanks. And speaking of Augie, what are we going to do about him? Poor thing – all those people criticizing the love of his life and those two have been married longer than most straight couples.”

“I think it’s time for a PFZ party,” said Karen. “How about Friday night?”

“Can’t. I’m booked.”

Karen lifted an eyebrow but didn’t ask, to Sharon’s immense relief.

“Then let’s make it Thursday,” Karen said. “And let’s make sure Augie’s partner is invited.”

“That’s a great idea. Potluck?”

“And BYOB.”

The two women high-fived and Karen went off to email invites.

That evening, Mark took Gus upstairs to the residence to have dinner with Solly cooking and serving. Neither man was in a very good mood.

“It just sucks, man,” Gus said, sighing. “And what really gets me is that it’s my mom who’s suffering the most. And Emilio’s family. They’ve been really cool about us, but it’s not been easy for them. Hell, it was hard enough for me and Emilio, given cultural homophobia and all. But to have it out there like this. Poor mom has been getting phone calls all day. Her pastor called, for crying out loud. One of her neighbors wants to cure me.”

“I know, Gus. I’m sorry,” sighed Mark. “Who knew these schmucks would hit so low?”

“Hmmph!” Solly snorted. “Um. Beg pardon, sir.”

“Don’t worry, Solly,” Mark said, reaching over and snagging a slice of freshly cooked quesadilla. “We’re upset, too.”

Gus took a pull on his beer and shrugged. “Well, there isn’t much we can do about them. I learned a long time ago that some folks just aren’t going to listen no matter what you do. The good news is that I don’t see any real dip in your popularity numbers. It may be a bit early yet, but the polls seem to indicate that the Moral Americans went too far.”

“That would be good news,” said Mark.

“It would be except we’re not seeing a rise in your popularity, either,” said Gus, munching on a quesadilla.

Mark grinned. “Maybe if I started dating Ashley Whitcomb.”

“Ashley who?” Gus asked.

“One of the girls the Moral Americans was trying to push on me.”

Gus chuckled. “I don’t think so.” He stopped chewing for a second and thought. “You know who would send your numbers soaring if you started dating her? Sharon Wheatly.”

Mark glared. “Let’s not start that one. That is not going anywhere. That is not going to go anywhere, and I’d rather not discuss it.”

“Okay.” Gus glanced over at Solly, who shrugged.

The two men eventually ambled off to watch TV in the salon. Solly finished her clean-up, thinking as she did. Then she smiled in evil glee and pulled out her mobile phone.

The next day, gender orientation and the Moral Americans were only a secondary thought in Sharon’s mind. She had a larger, more serious issue that began with an email from her friend Carla.

“Now it makes sense,” groaned Katie Minor, Sharon’s expert on Africa and Asia, as she looked over Sharon’s shoulder in Sharon’s office. Katie shook her head in fury, her short blonde curls bobbing around her round face. “It’s like I said, the fact that they sent him here….”

“Oh, I get it,” grumbled Sharon. “I’ve got to call Solly right now.”

Katie gulped. “I’m not….”

“Katie, you’ve been all over the Chinese and their auto plant plans, not to mention the yen problem. None of us can do everything.” Sharon glanced at the phone on her desk, then at her staffer. “If I get to split your beat, what do you want to keep?”

“Asia? Please?” Katie’s blue eyes started to fill. She’d been raised in China, spoke Mandarin like Sharon spoke French, and spoke Cantonese better than Sharon did. Her Japanese was almost as good.

Sharon nodded and dialed Solly, who was not at all happy to hear that the new Nigerian ambassador, whose reception at the White House was that afternoon, was a Muslim and not a Christian, as they had originally thought.

“I’m so sorry, Solly,” Sharon said. “I think we’re mostly in the clear.”

“Mmmm.” Solly was not happy.

“You know we did think it might be possible, and I did suggest that to you early on.”

“Mmmm.”

“The Nigerians were being vague about it.”

“Then what do we have a State Department for? Huh? What about the CIA?”

“They’re the ones who let us know there might be a problem. Makindu keeps his religion pretty quiet. That and the photo with the archbishop is why we thought he was Christian. Turns out some folks in the foreign ministry office are out to get him and us. But I’ve got two sources, Solly.”

“Mmmmmmm.”

“Solly?”

“I’ll fix it. You better call old Prune Face for me, ‘cuz I am not taking any lip from him about the changes. Got me?”

“That’s the least I can do. Thanks, Solly.”

Sharon’s day didn’t get any better. Major Wills, the chief usher was not happy about the changed menu and while he forebore to say anything, Sharon could feel the frost through the phone. Then the Advisory Board meeting was sullen and angry since the group was still upset with the Moral Americans. Nor was Mark particularly pleased to hear about the mess up with the Nigerian ambassador and he let Sharon know about it during their pre-reception briefing.

“Why didn’t your staff catch it?” he demanded. “That’s why they work here.”

Sharon sighed. “Well, Katie should have. But she’s been researching three major issues going on in different parts of Asia, plus everything going on in Africa – that’s over 10 different governments, just on that continent. And the Nigerians were being cagey on purpose. They don’t like us and they really don’t like Makindu, but they can’t dump on him because he’s too popular in the south. That’s why they sent him here. And one of the reasons he’s so popular in the south is because he’s not overtly hard-core Muslim. We had a feeling something wasn’t on the up and up, but it took a while to confirm it.”

“Then why did they send us the picture of Makindu with the archbishop buddying up together?”

“To make us think he was Christian and potentially embarrass both us and him.” Sharon folded her arms. “That’s one of the reasons Katie thought something was hinky. But neither of us could get a clear answer from the Nigerian foreign ministry. And truth be told, neither of us had a lot of time to chase it down. I had the Mexico trip and Katie’s got more ground to cover than anybody else on my team.”

Mark glared at his laptop. “And Leonidas slipped up, too.”

“No, Diego pulled a fast one on us.” Sharon glared at him, then shrugged. “Although, I suppose there was the odd hint or two. But Leonidas is covering a lot of governments, too. In fact, I could use several more staffers.”

Mark glanced over at the door to Johnnie’s office. “How many?”

“I’d like to add a second person for each region, plus split Katie’s territory into two, with two people to cover whatever she doesn’t take.”

“That is not going to happen.” Mark chuckled ruefully. “Not when Operations was just in here yesterday begging me for twenty more people. And they need them, too.”

“I know.”

Mark sat back and sighed. “Set up a meeting with Johnnie. She and Steve are going over the numbers this week. You’re not going to get all you want, but they should be able to get you a few more people.”

“All right. Thanks.” Sharon waited.

Mark, who had been glaring back at his laptop, looked up and noticed her. “Anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh.” Mark swore. “You can go.”

Sharon left, trying not to fret about the reception that afternoon. Mark’s mood was beyond foul – so foul that Sharon was a little startled when he turned up for the Nigerian ambassador’s arrival all smiles. At first, she wondered what had happened to boost the president’s mood but then decided to be grateful for it. Or she was until the reception was over and she met with Mark, Katie and Daniel Friedman for the post-reception briefing. While Mark was polite to everyone and especially Katie, it was clear the foul mood had returned. Then Sharon realized with a start, the mood had probably never left him.

Sharon mulled that over while waiting for Johnnie to finish her meeting. It was as if Mark could summon it up at will, which made her really wonder how much of his pleasant behavior was cover for something darker. She’d seen flashes of temper in him before. But the ability to so completely fake the pleasant demeanor on command suddenly made her feel a little wary of him. Perhaps her date that Friday was more than just convenient.

She pushed her concerns out of her mind and spent the next half hour going over budget and staffing issues with Johnnie. Upon her return to her office, she called her staff together.

“Well, the bad news is that we’re not going to get all the extra staff that we need,” Sharon told Faiza, Katie, Raul, Leonidas, and Julie. They groaned collectively. “But the good news is that we are going to get two new researchers and one new administrative assistant. Human resources said they’ll be sending up the new assistant tomorrow morning. Katie, you’ve got your wish. I’m re-assigning you to Asia, including India. Faiza, I’m going to need you to expand your focus to Northern Africa, especially the Islamic states, and as far east as Pakistan.”

Faiza looked over at Katie. “I’ve been wanting to, anyway.”

“But how are we going to work the cubicles?” Raul asked, shaking his bald head anxiously. “We don’t have enough room for Leonidas and me in the same one as it is.”

Leonidas, who was sitting slightly behind Raul, rolled his eyes.

Sharon sighed. “Well, that’s going to be up to you guys. There is a new office that’s been freed up. It’s just in the basement. I was thinking of moving one of the new researchers in with Katie and Faiza since that person will be covering Africa and there is some room.”

“I’ll go to the basement,” said Raul with the kind of noble air that could only mean martyrdom.

“Are you sure, Raul?” Sharon asked. “I don’t want you feeling like you’ve been banished.”

“I will be perfectly happy down there,” Raul said. “I will be able to concentrate.”

He glanced back at Leonidas who kept his face passive, but Sharon knew darned well there had been some teasing going on. She sighed. Raul could be pretty insufferable, but he had a wonderfully strong grip on Europe.

“So, we’re getting an Africa expert,” Raul continued. “Does this mean I’m going to get some help with Europe?”

Sharon bit her lip. “A little. The other new person will be covering Canada, Australia and the rest of the Pacific Islands. But that’ll free me up to help you with Europe. Keep in mind, Raul, they’re admittedly active, but you do have fewer governments, overall, to watch.”

Raul simply nodded with his perpetual long-suffering frown. Sharon dismissed the group shortly after. She knew she projected confidence, but wasn’t at all sure she felt that way.

She was even less sure the next morning when Julie introduced Dianne Bowen. Dianne was a mousy-looking woman, about average height, although her posture was stooped enough she looked shorter. Her hair was brown. She wore dark horned-rim glasses and a frown that, as Sharon thought about it, reminded her of Raul.

However, the difference between Dianne and Raul, as Julie noted when she met with Sharon after introducing Dianne to the rest of the staff, is that while both were utterly convinced that they knew everything, Raul thought he was above the rules, Dianne lived and breathed them.

“That’s going to be awkward around here,” Sharon sighed. “Did Leonidas behave himself?”

“Leonidas? Has he ever?” Julie rolled her eyes. “The good news is that Dianne is completely impervious to his oh-so-dubious charm.”

“Aren’t most women?” Sharon said.

“I gotta give her credit. She shut him down. Cited chapter and verse from the employee handbook on sexual harassment. Even quoted the page and paragraph numbers.” Julie grinned. “I looked it up, too. She got it dead on.”

“Okay. That’s impressive.”

Julie bit her lip. “It should be. The only problem is that she has not got one iota of anything resembling a sense of humor. Worse yet, Dr. Cooper wandered by and starting teasing and she got all sniffy. She was polite, but as soon as Dr. Cooper was gone, she asked me why nobody in this part of the office had any respect for the place.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That the teasing and joking was simply stress relief so that we can all focus on what’s really important. I don’t know if she bought it, but she didn’t argue.”

Sharon shook her head. “If my guess is right, she won’t. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have problems. Should I send her back and see if we can get someone else?”

“I don’t know.” Julie frowned. “I think it’s only fair to give her a chance. Maybe she’s just nervous. She is a new hire from outside.”

“Fair enough,” said Sharon. “Now, we have some schedule issues to work out, don’t we?”

“Here’s a list of the embassy lunches and times. I know you said first come, first served, but these three all arrived on the same day.”

Sharon turned her attention to the email Julie had sent her.

That night, at the PFZ, the party was mildly rowdy and Sharon’s basement was full. Gwen McKelvey had arrived early from MIT and Eli Weatherall was in town, as well. Neither had dates, even though both were single. In fact, it seemed as though the two were getting exceptionally friendly.

Gus chuckled about it with Mark and Sharon at the bar.

“Who’d a thought it?” Gus said, then took a sip of beer. “Romance blooms in the White House.”

Mark glowered, but Gus didn’t notice.

“Speaking of romance,” Gus continued, “Sharon, I hear you’ve got another date with Max Epstein.”

“You do?” Mark glanced at her, realizing his expression was sharper than he’d expected.

“Tomorrow night,” Sharon replied, ignoring Mark. “We’re just meeting for drinks.”

Across the room, Jean Bouyer was chatting with Coop and June.

“Gus just asked Sharon about her date with Epstein,” she reported. “The boss does not look happy.”

June glanced over at her brother and Sharon. “No, he doesn’t.” She looked at Jean. “How can you tell what they’re saying?”

Jean laughed. “You didn’t know? I read lips. I’ve been deaf all my life.”

“You don’t sound like it,” Coop said.

“I’ve got some hearing and I got hearing aids when I was still fairly young. And my mom coached me pretty heavily. And I’ve got a cochlear implant, which makes a big difference.  But since my dad is deaf, I learned to sign and read lips, too.”

“What’s my brother saying now?”

Jean shrugged. “Can’t tell. He’s turned away from me.”

Gus had moved on and Mark wasn’t saying much of anything.

“You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Sharon asked him softly while picking at a spot on the bar.

“Not really. At least, not the way you think.” Mark glared sullenly at his glass of wine.

“Oh?”

Mark snorted. “Look, I can’t ask you to live like a nun simply because we can’t have a relationship. Even if we wanted to, we can’t.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Because of what happened to Gus. I can’t expose you to that.”

“What makes you think I’m not going to be the target of rumors anyway?”

“Yeah, but it’s worse when there’s something there to grab onto. You don’t want that and I don’t want to put you through it. So while I’m not worried about Epstein carrying you away, I’m not too thrilled that he gets to go out with you and I don’t.”

“Fair enough.” Sharon looked up. “Jean’s staring at us again.”

“She’s reading our lips, which is why I have my back to her.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Sharon smiled at Jean and gave her a little wave.

Jean turned back to Coop and June as Gus wandered up. “Looks like the boss is on to me.”

“So what’s going on?” Gus asked.

“We were snooping on my brother and Sharon,” said June. “Not sure what they were saying since Jean could only catch part of what Sharon said.”

“Anything?” Gus asked.

Jean shook her head. “It looked pretty innocuous. Something about Sharon getting caught in rumors.”

“That might have a lot to do with why nothing’s happening,” said Coop. “But it sure would be nice if those two would get together.”

“Coop, there’s nothing we can do,” June said.

“Why not?” Jean asked, her tone bordering on indignant. “That’s what friends are for, I thought. Maybe a nice gentle nudge in the right direction.”

June sighed. “What if Sharon doesn’t want the publicity? I mean, I seriously doubt they could keep it a secret.”

“I wouldn’t tell,” Coop said. “I haven’t before. But June does have a point. It’s going to be a lot harder now to keep things under wraps.” He smiled at Jean, who looked utterly deflated. “That doesn’t mean we can’t hope, pray, and very subtly nudge them along.”

“You? Subtle?” Gus laughed loudly. “Since when?”

Coop spread his hands in acquiescence.

June put her hand on Jean’s shoulder. “Look, I know how frustrating it is, seeing the two of them. I mean, they’re as close to made for each other as two people can get. But, uh, they do work together – you know how awkward that can get. With Mark being the big boss and all, that might be even worse, publicity-wise.”

She shot a quick, but meaningful look at Coop.

“I think we can trust the boss to make the right decision,” Coop said.

“And if he doesn’t, Sharon will whip him into line,” Gus said.

Email conversation:

From: FreeMJ@whatsis.net

To: JazzyT@windlive.com

Hey, Tiffany –

Thanks for emailing me back yesterday. Figures, my school library doesn’t have those books. The librarian said they were college level and wanted to know why I was interested in them. Total snark, I swear. I’m trying to do a research paper. Duh. So why can’t I use college level books if I want? It’s bad enough my teacher won’t let me use Internet sources. Says he doesn’t want me quoting Facebook. Why do teachers think we’re so stupid?

So, how’s it going out there? Tell Jodi I said hi.

Matt.

From: JazzyT@windlive.com

To: MattJ@livewire.com

Hey, Matt.

Jodi says hi back atcha. Oh, and thanks for sending that link for that game. Totally fun. Can’t wait to meet you in the gaming room.

Stuff here got more than a little weird today. Mom wants to go on a sabbatical starting this summer, tracing folk music that’s about to be lost because the people who sing/play it are dying out. I mean, I get that it’s necessary work, but I can’t go with her. So it looks like I’ll be living with Jodi and her mom. Or maybe Jodi’s dad, which would be immensely cool, since he lives in New York. Except Toby will be there, but she’s okay. It all depends on whether Cameron (Jodi’s mom) decides to go with my mom to help out. And also if Jodi’s mom can get someone to take care of her music store. And if Jodi’s mom decides she can let go of her kids. I, personally, think she’s torqued off enough at Jodi’s dad for taking Toby in that she’ll dump Jodi and me on him just to spite him. Hard to say.

How’s it going in your neck of the frozen woods?

Tiffany.

Facings Be Gone!

A few years ago, I made what turned out to be a really cute skirt. It fit well and was really comfortable. There was just one problem – the facing I’d attached to the waist wouldn’t stay in place for love nor money.

I understitched the seam allowance to the facing, like you’re supposed to. I tacked it to the side seams. I even tried to hemstitch it to the main body of the skirt. It both showed and wouldn’t lie like it was supposed to. I still wear the skirt, but I hate futzing with that flap of fabric.

A couple years later, I’m analyzing a few tops and some pants that had been commercially made for some other purpose, as I recall. But then I realized that not one of the items I was looking at had a facing. Nor had anything else I’d seen in a store. Not dresses, not tops, certainly not skirts.

Some of that was due to the style of the item. The cut edges were finished by waistbands, collars and the like. Some of them were lined and the lining attached to the facing. But, by and large, there are very, very few facings in commercial clothing.

Well, shoot. If the verdamnt things did not enhance the look of my finished garment, why was I making myself crazy by installing them? Believe me, I’ve got more interesting ways to make myself nuts.

No more facings

So, how do you finish the armhole edges on a sleeveless top, and the neck edge, as well? What about the waist of a skirt or a pair of dress pants when a waistband will just curl and be uncomfortable? I use bias binding. So there’s some top stitching on the right side. Why not?

A nicely bound neck edge – way easier and neater.

There may be the occasional use for a facing. I think I used one with my light spring coat that I made last year. My tops look just as neat. The skirts are comfy, and since I don’t tuck my tops in, who’s going to see the bias binding at the top? Frankly, if you’re physically close enough to me to notice that I used bias binding to finish my waist, then we had darned well better be on the kinds of terms where it’s not going to matter to you.

So, it doesn’t hurt to re-think how you do things. You never know when you’re going to discover a technique that makes everything easier.

Chapter Seventeen

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 was kind of afraid you were really mad at me

Tuesday, Sharon left for Mexico City in advance of Mark’s arrival there the next day. Leonidas Bertonetti, her South America expert, and Earl Wallace, the deputy secretary of state, had flown in the day before. The flight, itself, was relatively uneventful, but once the plane landed at AICM, it had to wait on the tarmac and the line to get through customs seemed endless. Sharon debated showing her Belgian passport – as a dual citizen, she held passports from both Belgium and the U.S., but then noticed that a German couple ahead of her didn’t get through any faster. Re-setting the sim card in her phone, she called the service for a private car and driver.

She had brought a minimum of luggage as it was, and as soon as she cleared, she hurried to the street. Fortunately, her driver was waiting, but getting to the American Embassy, where the President would be staying along with his staff, took forever through the packed Mexico City traffic. By the time she got to the Embassy, she had only a few moments to leave her bags at the front desk and hurry to a meeting with Bertonetti, Wallace, the American Ambassador Mariana Salas and Raul Montoya, the Mexican foreign minister.

Fortunately, all appeared to be in order for the U.S. President’s arrival the next day, except for one small glitch.

“Our president wants to use his own translators,” Senor Montoya said hesitantly.

“Why?” Wallace asked. He was an average-sized man with graying hair and the beginnings of a belly under his custom tailored dark suit. “We were told translators wouldn’t even be an issue since President Diego speaks perfect English.”

Montoya shrugged, obviously uncomfortable. “It was his idea initially to have the talks in English, but he changed his mind.”

“It’s not a problem,” said Sharon. She glanced at Wallace. “Bertonetti and I can fill in on our side.”

There were quiet looks all around, with everyone sensing what the real issue was and no one willing to say so flat out. Or rather, Sharon and Wallace waited until Montoya – a small man with a full head of salt and pepper hair and glasses – left the building.

“Diego’s going to be difficult,” Wallace announced as he watched out the window as Montoya got into his car.

“That’s why I prefer dealing with Montoya,” Salas replied. She had a full figure and wore her dark hair straight and shoulder length, carrying about her an air of understated elegance.

“Well, our president will already be giving his tarmac speech in Spanish,” said Sharon. “He sounded pretty good yesterday.”

Salas frowned. “We’d better warn him that Senor Diego is getting almost hostile.”

Wallace rolled his eyes. “But he’s the one who invited us, made a big deal about here being our president’s first foreign visit. What got into him?”

“Poll numbers,” Bertonetti said, smiling. “His are down and our boss’s are up. The crowd is looking forward to the visit, but they’re not so happy with Diego.”

Everyone groaned.

“I’ll call the boss,” sighed Sharon. “I was afraid this was going to happen.”

Mark was not thrilled with the news but was glad to be forewarned. Fortunately, the next day, Air Force One landed precisely on time at Mexico City International. Unfortunately, Mexican President Antonio Diego y Calderon arrived twenty minutes late. Mark stayed on the plane while waiting for Diego’s arrival. As the limo pulled up, Sharon called Mark. President Diego got out of the car to applause and the door to Air Force One opened.

Mark came down the portable stairs with his phone to his ear. The two presidents met halfway down the red carpet and Mark pocketed his phone. Diego, a tall man with a square face, dark black hair and slender build, grasped Mark’s hand.

“I’m glad you got here in good time,” Diego said, his smile not hiding the malice in his eyes. “I’m sorry I could not be here when you arrived. Pressing matters, you understand.”

“No problem,” Mark replied with a jovial smile. “It gave me an extra twenty minutes to get some work done.”

Diego went straight to his podium and began his welcome speech in Spanish. But no Mexican translator appeared to do the translation for the Americans. Sharon translated for Mark, nodding at Bertonetti, who smiled back. He was recording the speech. As soon as Diego was done, Mark stepped to his podium and pulled a folded sheet of paper from his coat pocket. He glanced at Sharon and she nodded. Smiling, he addressed the Mexican people in Spanish, as well.

Things didn’t get any better after lunch at the Mexican Presidential Palace. The first of several talks over the next two days began frostily. First Diego would make an impossible demand, Mark would politely refuse, Diego would counter with a greater demand and accuse Mark of not seeing reason, then Mark would counter that Diego was being difficult and on it went. By the time the first round was over and Mark and his party were back at the American Embassy, the silence was leaden.

The debriefing meeting at the Embassy was no less awkward, with everyone avoiding the real issue. Until Mark finally dismissed everyone so that they could get ready for the state dinner that night. Sharon remained behind in the conference room.

“If I may, sir?” she asked frostily, standing at one end of the table.

Mark nodded. “You’re not happy.”

“And you are?” Sharon took a deep breath. “Permission to speak frankly?”

Mark winced. “Granted.”

“Obviously, the jerk was baiting you. You didn’t have to fall for it.” Sharon’s nails rattled on the table.

“And what was I supposed to do?” Mark growled, turning away from her. “Cave in to all of his demands?”

“The same thing you do when you deal with the same BS behavior from the opposition back home. Seriously, sir. You know how to handle schmucks like that. I’ve seen you do it.”

“There are still protocols.” Mark started pacing.

“Oh. So the correct response to him being a jerk is to be a bigger jerk?” Sharon folded her arms and glared at him. “You’re playing right into his insecure, pathetic hands. You know better than that. We went over this possibility. What happened?”

“I don’t know.” Mark all but folded into himself, leaning his seat against the table.

Sharon softened a little. “Are you saying first foreign trip nerves got to you?”

“No! Yeah. No.” Mark looked away. “Maybe.”

“Oh.” Sharon shrugged. “Okay. I can see that happening. Good thing we’ve got another round of talks tomorrow. You got through the first one mostly unscathed. You’ll be fine.”

“Maybe,” Mark muttered.

But Sharon had heard. “Why won’t you be?”

Mark took a deep breath. “’Cause the guy really pisses me off.”

“Fine. What buttons is he pushing and how do we deal with it?”

Mark cursed under his breath. “It’s nothing you can deal with.”

“I thought that’s why I was here.” Sharon glared at him.

“No.” Mark shook his head and looked up at her. He debated trying to come up with another excuse, but not only did he get the strong feeling that Sharon wouldn’t buy it, it could prove disastrous the next day. “He was ogling you, okay?”

“That’s what set you off?” Sharon threw her arms up. “He was ogling me? That’s his being an ass. That doesn’t mean you have to respond like a bison in rut.”

Mark closed his eyes. “I know. Believe me, I know. It just caught me off guard, okay?”

“You know, I’m a big girl. I’ve handled sexist jerks like him before. Even heads of state, by the way.” Sharon began pacing.

“I know. Like I said, it just caught me off guard. Maybe it was because he was being such a jackass. And to see him leering at you.” Mark shook his head as if he were trying to shake away the vision. “It got under my skin. I don’t know why. It just did.”

“Well, get used to it. I’ve been ogled before, I’ll get ogled again. Some old men are just like that and I’ve been dealing with it all my adult life.”

“I don’t have to like it.”

“No. But you do have to keep your head.” Sharon stopped pacing and glared at him again.

“Yeah,” said Mark softly. “Point taken.” He looked up. “You’d better get ready for the dinner.”

Sharon smiled softly. “You going to be okay?”

He nodded. “Yep.” He sighed. “And, uh, thanks for not letting me get away with it.”

“I serve at the pleasure of the president.”

“That you do. You may go.”

Sharon didn’t go directly to her room to get dressed, but made a few phone calls and used the Embassy computer room to check her email. So it was some time later that she came across Wallace in the hall.

“I just met with the president,” he said. He looked at her. “What did you say to him?”

“Oh, nothing much,” Sharon answered.

“He looked like you’d just ripped him a new one.” Wallace frowned.

Sharon looked a little abashed. “I guess I did.”

“You what?”

Sharon sighed. “It’s what I get paid for. Anyway, I don’t think we’ll get a repeat performance, but Diego does get under his skin a little. I let Secretary Friedman know and we’ll have to map out a new strategy if Diego gets to the boss again.”

Wallace frowned. “But what happened?”

Sharon blushed. “Something totally unexpected.”

“Oh, crap.” Wallace rolled his eyes. “It was Diego leering at you, wasn’t it? I thought the boss looked torqued.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Sharon said.

But her opportunity didn’t come in the way she’d anticipated. She went ahead and wore the powder blue chiffon gown that June had made the month before. It was a simple, strapless dress with a wide gold belt and a straight skirt that flared into multiple layers of gauzy blues just below her knees. She wore a simple gold collar necklace, with her hair up to show off the matching drop earrings.

Senor Diego did not leave off his leering as he and Mark met for the presentation and receiving line in the grand foyer of the palace. The room was huge, paneled in white marble and decked out in gilt rococo trims, moldings, and wainscoting. A huge crystal and gold chandelier flickered above, while gilt sconces held more conventional electric lights with crystal shades.

Mark walked alongside Senor Diego into the foyer. Sharon was supposed to have been a step or so behind Mark as his translator, but Senor Montoya, looking apologetic, pushed Sharon into place next to Senora Diego – as if Sharon were Mark’s wife, or at the very least, date. There was no time to correct the placements.

Mark managed well enough in the receiving line. But in the dining room – featuring more of the same décor with wood paneling and dark wood chairs with glittering seat cushions – Sharon got assigned the proper space for a spouse or date: next to Senor Diego, who sat at the head of a very long table that ran the length of the room. Mark was placed next to Senora Diego, who sat at the other end.

The menu was extravagant, beginning with fresh caviar and cream on toast and meandering through a host of traditionally French dishes, such as cream of mushroom soup, and more Mexican specialties, such as a tuna ceviche with tequila.

During the ceviche, Sharon felt something rub her leg. Discreetly, she reached under the table to push it away but caught the fine wool of the pants worn by the man sitting at the head of the table.

“That tablecloth seems to be tickling me,” she announced in Spanish, reaching under and pushing Diego’s leg away firmly.

The leg was back during the main course – a tasty but not terribly interesting roast beef.

“There’s that tickling again.” Sharon announced. “Tablecloths can be so funny, can’t they?”

The salad was served last and Sharon had barely gotten a bite when she felt Diego’s hand on her knee, made all the more annoying since he had been mostly ignoring her throughout the dinner.

Sharon let out a little yelp. “Oh, dear, Mr. President! I think you’ve got a hold of my knee.” She laughed and looked at the other guests, smiling. “I work out so much, it must feel like wood.”

Glaring at her, Diego withdrew his hand.

The meal adjourned to another gilded room for dessert and coffee, and Diego ostentatiously avoided Sharon and Mark, who ostentatiously made a point of leaving the very second it was polite to do so.

Mark did wait just long enough to catch Diego privately.

“Que quieres?” Diego asked, innocently.

“Enough with the games,” Mark growled into the Mexican president’s ear. “I know you speak English as well as any American does. So hear me now. I get that you want to look tough for your voters – that doesn’t bother me. But you will treat my staff members with respect. Especially Ms. Wheatly, who is an important, trusted member of my staff. Comprendes?”

“She embarrassed me,” Diego grumbled.

“And you copped a feel.”

The two men glared at each other, but Diego broke first with a casual shrug.

“Okay,” he said.

Mark nodded. A moment later, the two men were smiling for the cameras.

Back at the embassy, Mark found Sharon in the embassy’s gardens. The night was balmy, with a soft breeze throwing the scent from the dozens of rose bushes in bloom into the air. Twinkling lights from Mexico City’s downtown towers hovered over the ornate Georgian-style building.

Sharon hadn’t changed but had taken her hair down. She leaned back on the cement bench in front of an orange tree, stretching and shaking her head, unaware that Mark was watching. He smiled and waited until she was upright and had opened her eyes.

“Oh,” she said and began to scramble to her feet.

“Sit. Sit.” Mark ambled over and indicated the space next to her. “May I?”

“Yes, of course.” Sharon slid over a little so Mark didn’t have to sit on top of her.

“Good job today,” he said, rolling his shoulders back to loosen the knots.

“Thank you, sir.”

“And a really good job tonight.” Mark sighed.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “What a creep. He’d been playing footsie all night. You’d think he could take a hint.”

“Well, my sympathies. I, uh, spoke to him.”

“I thought so.”

“I had to.” Mark glared at the walkway. “I can’t have him treating my staff with that kind of disrespect.”

“You’re probably right.” Sharon smiled softly. “Wallace was having a conniption, though.”

“I know. I talked to him. I told him flat out that you have a right to set boundaries. Diego was clearly out of line and you were more polite than I ever would have been.” Mark took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Even Wallace agreed that I can’t let Diego get away with that crap.”

“Are you willing to walk out of the talks if he tries again?” Sharon asked.

“If I don’t deck him, first.” Mark laughed at the look on Sharon’s face. “I’m not going to touch him. You were right. I can’t let him push my buttons. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let him bully me. Or play footsies with my staff.”

Sharon sighed. “You don’t have to defend me.”

“I know. You certainly proved that tonight.” Mark smiled softly at her. “This isn’t about you.”

“Good.” Sharon smiled back. “It can’t be, you know.”

 “Wallace thought so for a while until I set him straight.” Mark paused. “It was about you this afternoon.”

“I know. That was part of the problem.”

“It took a lot of guts to come after me like that.”

Sharon snorted. “That was easy. Almost too easy.”

“Maybe. But it is what I pay you for.”

“That’s what I told Wallace. Shocked the hell out of him.” Sharon shuddered. “I was kind of afraid you were really mad at me.”

“I was. But you were right and I appreciate that you took me on. No one else was going to.” Mark shifted and gazed, unseeing, at the garden. “You know, Senora Diego kept talking about how beautiful you were and asking me why I wasn’t dating you. And all I could think about was you yelling at me and insisting that I get a grip and all.”

“Oh, no,” Sharon groaned.

“Nah. It was a good thing. Because it just suddenly hit me that I’m not all hung up on your looks anymore. I don’t know that I ever was.” He looked at her. “It just seems like now I’m more focused on you as a person.”

“Well, I guess the attraction was bound to fade sooner or later.” Sharon smiled, but there was a catch in her throat.

“I didn’t say that.” Mark looked at her again, saw her gazing back and looked away. “It’s just different is all.”

Sharon swallowed as she stared at the garden path. “Good.” She took a deep breath. “But perhaps I’d better head back in. We want to stay professional and all, right?”

“Yeah. Right. Please feel free.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sharon got up.

“You’re welcome. See you in the morning.”

At the house in Orange County, Sarah Wheatly heard the car pull up into the driveway. It took some minutes before the front door opened. Soft curses accompanied the sound of rubber wheels squeaking on tiles and the door shut with an audible thud. Sarah wandered into the front hall.

“What are you still doing here?” Susan demanded, struggling to get her wheelchair going in the right direction.

Sarah leaned back against the doorway into the family room. “Waiting for you.”

“I meant why aren’t you back at Yale?”

Sarah shrugged. “I’ve got independent study this semester. Where’ve you been?”

Susan glared. “Out.”

“Getting laid?”

“Not that it’s any of your business.” Susan sat back in her chair with her arms folded. “But, yeah. I got laid. So?”

“You tell me,” Sarah said.

“What kind of horse manure is that?” Susan growled. “And since when is it your job to make an issue of my sex life?”

“Since you started sleeping around to prove something.” Sarah folded her arms and glared right back at her sister.

“Oh, like I’ve been some sort of saint all my life.”

Sarah snorted. “Trust me. Nobody’s saying that. But you weren’t loose, either. And you were a lot happier about your sex life before you started this.”

“I was a lot happier about a lot of things before I became a crip.” Susan defiantly pushed her chair toward the stairs.

“That doesn’t mean you have to sleep around,” Sarah snapped. “It’s like you’re trying to prove you’re still a woman or something.”

Susan turned on her. “Or maybe I just want a part of my old life back. Did that ever occur to you? I can’t dance, but I sure can still screw.”

“A lot of good that’s doing you. You’re not even having any fun. You just come home night after night, bitter and bitchy. Maman and Dad are getting pretty worried, and frankly, so am I.”

Susan pushed her chair onto the stair lift. “Well, get over it. I have to. Good night.”

“Susan!”

“Good night.”

The chair lift whined. Sarah debated pursuing her sister up the stairs, but decided it was pointless. The counselor had said this might happen. There was only so much the family could do. Susan would have to work the rest out herself.

Chat Session

Niecy:  Hey, Share – how was the trip?

LadyCarla:  Yeah. Any romance with the hot boss?

ChmpionGrl: ARRRGH! The trip sucked and the boss got torqued over President Diego’s sleaze act. Nor do I want any romance.

LadyCarla: Like we believe that.

ChmpionGrl: It doesn’t matter what you believe. He doesn’t want it any more than I do. And after the way I took him down a couple pegs for getting torqued, it is so not happening.

Niecy: Keep trying to convince us, Share. It’s most amusing.

ChmpionGrl: You guys are worse than my stupid brother.

Niecy: No, we’re not. We don’t write top ten hits about your love life.

ChmpionGrl: Oh, lord. The release is coming up, isn’t it? I just hope no one at work catches on.

LadyCarla: They won’t. White House wonks have no clue about popular culture. I’ve dated enough to know.

ChmpionGrl: Except my boss knows to keep an eye on it. Looks like I’ll have to talk to

Karen about it. Catch you ladies later.

Chapter Sixteen

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: At this point, I'll take a New England boiled supper.

Mark usually made a point of visiting his mother and brother on Easter Sunday. June usually joined him but declined that year and went to visit their father instead. Mark decided not to make an issue of it, and also decided not to spend too much time at Harold’s house. Just long enough to connect with Matt.

But Shawna saw to it that he and Matt were never left alone, and with Mark’s knee still healing, it was all but impossible to get around. Matt grumbled and glared at his mother but let things go.

Finally, Mark had to leave. He met June back on board Air Force One, in his office.

“You look like hell,” June said as the plane took off.

“Shawna wouldn’t let me talk to Matt,” Mark grumbled, shifting in his desk chair. “It’s almost as if she’s afraid I’m going to corrupt him.”

“That may be her rationale, but I think she’s more worried about you stealing his affection away from her,” June said.

A young Marine came in with a salad on a tray. “Can I bring you anything, sir? The galley cook says he has French Dip on the menu.”

“Sounds good,” Mark replied. “Thanks.”

June picked up her salad and began eating. “May I have a sandwich, too, please?”

“Yes, ma’am,” replied the Marine, who remained at ease and waiting.

“And you’re dismissed.” Mark suddenly remembered the protocol. He shook his head as the Marine left, then looked at June. “You’re eating a lot. Things went well in L.A.?”

June nodded. “Just dealing with some issues finally. And then spending time with Sharon’s family. Her mom is pretty special.”

“Really.”

“Yeah. She really made me feel like I was part of the family. Which is why I decided not to go to Shawna’s. I was feeling so good, I didn’t want to ruin it.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t say I blame you.” Mark toyed with his iPhone.

“Listen, about Matt,” June began as the desk phone rang.

“I’d better get that,” Mark sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. If you get busy, I’ll see you Wednesday. I’ve got to go to New York as soon as we get done with the egg roll in Washington.”

“Okay.” Mark turned to the phone.

Late the next day, Mark called Sharon into the Oval Office for a conference on their upcoming trip to Mexico. It had been a full day, thanks to the traditional egg roll event on the White House lawn. Mark had been annoyed to find that his sour mood from the day before was still with him and made it hard to enjoy an event he’d been looking forward to even more than usual. In the Oval Office, Sharon could see that Mark was distracted and not in the mood for a briefing.

“Uh, June hinted that the visit with your mom and sister-in-law did not go well,” Sharon said, finally.

Mark looked up, surprised. “When did you talk to her?”

“This morning before the party. I had some questions regarding that reception next week for the Nigerian Ambassador.”

“Oh. Well.”

“She didn’t say much about it.”

Mark smiled softly and shook his head. “I don’t care what you know. And, yeah, the visit sucked. Shawna refused to let me be alone with Matt and he had something to tell me. I just don’t know what.”

Sharon chuckled. “Believe it or not, I think I do. My niece Jodi and her friend Tiffany have been busy little conspirators.” She pulled a cell phone out of her pocket and handed it to Mark. “It’s a pre-paid phone, but when you call anyone, the caller ID shows up as Jasmine Thomas, with Jodi’s picture. June said I should give it to you.”

Mark winced as he shifted his knee. “I don’t like going behind Shawna’s back.”

“It’s the only way you’re going to talk to Matt,” said Sharon. “Jodi told me she’s got the clamps on him but good, and he’s not a happy camper.”

Mark nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

“Oh, and here’s his new email address. Jodi hacked around the parental control software on his laptop.”

“Nice kid.”

“She is a very nice kid.” Sharon shrugged. “I probably shouldn’t be encouraging her, but she does not approve of parental spying. And her mom let her do all the hacking to see if it was worth paying for the software to spy on Toby. She’s Jodi’s older sister.”

Mark nodded sadly. “There is something fundamentally wrong about parents spying on their kids. I could understand it if Shawna wanted to spy on her girls. I’m pretty sure DeeDee is using drugs and I have some sources saying there are some ugly rumors floating around about Tracy. But Matt is a straight arrow. A bright kid. And I don’t want him in trouble.”

“I know,” said Sharon, smiling softly. “For what it’s worth, the girls did say they thought Matt was pretty cool.”

“That’s encouraging, I suppose.”

“Say, you want to come over for dinner tonight? I can pick something up from the market on the way home.”

Mark grabbed his cell phone and checked his schedule. “I should be able… Yeah. I can. That’d be nice. Thanks.”

“I’ll get the chessboard out. And how about some plain old mac and cheese?”

“No! I’ve been eating straight-up American fare all week.” Mark sighed. “It’s been good stuff, even had some good spice to it. But fried. Sometimes fried twice. At this point, I’ll take a New England boiled supper.”

“Hm. Don’t think I have time for that.” Sharon gathered her laptop, pen, and notepad together. “How about I bring in some sushi and a salad?”

“Sounds good.” Mark stood. “And thanks. I really appreciate everything you’re doing. For Matt and for me.”

Sharon looked everywhere but at him. “I… Uh, don’t mind at all. A good friend is worth it. Anyway, I really need to get back to the office.”

“Oh. Yeah. Please.” Mark gestured at the door.

In New York, Michael Wheatly slid into the back of the shabby auditorium, breathing a small sigh of relief. Most kids his daughters’ age didn’t recognize him. But he didn’t want any teachers spotting him, either.

Toby was onstage, doing her audition for the High School of Performing Arts. Michael wasn’t sure which play her monolog was from, but it sounded very good. Then again, he wasn’t sure how much of his appraisal was paternal pride or cool recognition of a genuine talent. Worse yet, the kid had been playing games again. It wasn’t anything Michael could put his finger on, but something about their exchange earlier that day did not feel right.

Toby had talked him into the two of them going to a new restaurant in the Village and meeting Inez there. It was not the sort of place Michael liked very much and he’d been a little surprised when Toby told him that afternoon that Inez had not only okayed going there but had made the reservations. It was possible that Inez had okayed the restaurant to be nice to Toby, and Toby seldom lied outright. But Toby had an uncanny ability to dance around the truth and Michael couldn’t confirm with Inez because she was in meetings all day with his record company and the gallery where her latest photo exhibition would be. Which left Michael muttering, like Farmer Tweedy in Chicken Run, “them chickens is up to something.”

Toby finished a few minutes later and came skipping up the aisle toward him.

“You made it!” she gasped.

“I told you I would,” he said, putting his arm around her shoulders. “You sounded really good.”

Toby grimaced. “I guess. I kinda messed up the middle part – I wanted to get some more righteous anger into it, but I think I pulled back.”

“Well, it sounded fine to me.” Michael glanced around, then steered Toby toward the street. “We’ve got some time. Why don’t we walk back to the apartment?”

“Dad, it’s, like, fifty blocks!”

“It’s not even twenty.”

“Then can we shop?” Toby asked. She was too old to be bouncing up and down, but her excitement made it seem as though she were.

Michael chuckled and pushed her northward. “We’ll see. Didn’t you tell me you already had a terrific outfit for tonight?”

“That doesn’t mean I won’t find some cool stuff for home.” Toby shrugged. “And I might just find something to bring back for Jodi.”

Michael didn’t think Jodi was at the top of Toby’s list but chose not to say anything.

“We’ll see,” he said, finally.

To her credit, Toby did buy Jodi three different tops – made out of organic cotton – before she bought anything for herself. And while she complained about the tight limit Michael put on her spending, she didn’t push back too hard.

Michael remained suspicious and decided he had good cause when he saw the tight, extremely short skirt and shoulder-baring outfit that Toby put on back at the apartment to go to dinner in.

“I think you need to find a skirt that has more fabric,” he told her sternly.

“Come on,” Toby groaned. “I was with Aunt Sharon when I bought it. You think she’d let me buy something that made me look bad?”

“Did she see you in that?”

“Yes.”

Michael shook his head. “Did she say it was okay to buy and/or wear?”

“Well.” Toby huffed and rolled her eyes.

“Go change. Now.”

The new outfit Toby put on wasn’t quite as sexy or revealing, but only just. Michael suspected Toby had put on the other outfit to make this one look good, but decided that confrontation was a battle not worth picking.

The restaurant was in the Village, and Michael called his car service for a small limo instead of taking a cab. Toby fawned over his outfit and all but bounced out of her seat in the car. When they pulled up in front of the restaurant and Michael saw the velvet rope, he was not happy.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a line yet. As Michael walked Toby to the door, a flash went off. Grumbling, Michael practically pushed Toby inside the club.

As Michael checked in with the hostess, he spotted Inez waving at him in the dining room. The décor was dark – smooth black paneling with white accents. The tables had white tops with chrome legs and black and chrome chairs to match. Black square plates adorned the surfaces, which boasted tall narrow vases with single orchids in them. Spotlights, some colored, provided sporadic light throughout the room, switching here and there erratically as hip hop music thumped, just loud enough to drown the clatter of eating and conversation.

Not that there were many patrons. It wasn’t even eight p.m. yet. Michael sighed, feeling vaguely like a senior citizen. The hostess followed as he led Toby to the table where Inez was sitting. Michael kissed Inez, then got himself and Toby settled. A waiter appeared immediately to offer drinks, which Michael declined. Inez ordered a glass of wine and Toby asked for sparkling water. A minute later, they had ordered their food and Toby asked to be excused to visit the ladies’ room.

Michael leaned over to Inez. “You approved this place?”

“Actually, yes,” Inez said, all but hollering over the music. “I know she’s acting like she’s getting away with something, but she isn’t.”

“What do you mean?”

“She tried to do her dance yesterday. I let her know, flat out, that I wouldn’t put up with it. So this morning, she played straight with me and told me she really wanted to do at least one hot club so she can brag to her friends back home. I checked around and this place isn’t so hot all the paparazzi are hanging around, but still hot enough to be a real New York club. So I let her know that in exchange for playing straight, we could compromise on the club.”

“Oh.” Michael sat back, slightly bemused. “Someone still got a shot of us at the door.”

Inez shrugged. “We’ve gotten shot at the grocery store before. It happens. Cameron’s just going to have to accept that.”

Toby came bounding back to the table. She was barely seated when a medium-sized man wearing horned-rim glasses and hair gelled into standing attention approached the table.

“Well, hello, Michael,” he said, offering his hand while leering slightly at Toby. “I’m Frank DeWoz, the columnist.”

Michael held back. “I’ve heard of you.”

“I’m so glad to see Inez is here,” DeWoz continued, pulling up a chair and sitting down. “From what I saw at the door, we all thought you had a new girlfriend.”

He grinned at Toby, who looked confused.

“She’s my daughter,” said Michael through gritted teeth. “She’s visiting on spring break and wanted to see some nightlife.”

“Ick,” said Toby.

Michael signaled the waiter. “Mr. DeWoz, we are trying to have a quiet family dinner, so do you need anything else?”

DeWoz looked over at Inez, whose eyes were burning, then back at Michael, who was sitting up straight and proving that he was considerably larger than DeWoz.

“Well, that’s sweet.” DeWoz grinned weakly as he got up. “I am intruding abominably. Pray, forgive me.”

“No problem,” said Michael, still sitting up. “I know it’s a slow news night, but there’s no news here.”

DeWoz’s eyes flickered over to Toby and back to Michael again.

“No,” he sighed. “I’m afraid not.”

Toby shuddered as he left. “He thought I was dating you? Eeeuw!”

“I don’t think he’s so bad,” said Inez, smirking.

“Even grosser!” Toby groaned.

Michael chuckled, even as he kept one eye on DeWoz. It was a slow news night, and while Inez probably thought that it wasn’t such a bad idea to be seen, given that his new album was due for release in a couple weeks or so, Michael did not want to deal with the fallout from Toby’s mother.

Inez winked at him and he smiled back. She was proving to be better at handling Toby than he was. Which made Michael shudder. The baby she wanted so suddenly. They hadn’t spoken about it, but Michael knew it was on her mind. He was happy she was proving to be so good at the parenting thing but did he really want another child?

From: FreeMJ@whatsis.net

To: Gloryhg@livewire.com

Hey, Uncle Mark –

Thanks for texting me your email address. Did Tiffany and her friend set up one sweet workaround or what. All the guys at school say my mom is totally whack. I’m glad you think so too. How’s it going at the white house?

Matt

From: Gloryhg@livewire.com

To: FreeMJ@whatsis.net

Dear Matt;

It’s good to hear from you. While I agree your mother’s behavior seems inappropriate, I am still a little concerned about going behind her back. She is your mother and we both owe her some respect for that.

That being said, I’m glad we’re able to communicate at last. How’s school going? What are you doing these days for fun? Are you playing basketball this year? Let me know.

Uncle Mark

Nupur Tustin and Haydn Learn About the Police

Nupur Tustin writes the historical mystery series featuring composer Joseph Hadyn. She recently attended a Citizen’s Police Academy, in which cops teach civilians what they do, to learn more about investigating crime. She went hoping to apply what she learned to her own mystery writing. It was so successful that when I asked her to write about her experiences, she used the voice of Haydn, himself.

Author Nupur Tustin
Nupur Tustin

What is it like, you ask, for an eighteenth-century composer—a man from Austria—to attend sessions on policing in the New World nearly five hundred years later? Let me gather my impressions.

[The sessions, I understand, are offered for the edification of the general public, the police officers and guards considering it their business to enlighten the citizens about their work. What a notion! Herr Lichtenegger would scoff at the very idea of having to inform the citizenry of how he, Police Commissioner of Eisenstadt, goes about his work!

But the Americans take the entire business quite seriously.]

It would be putting it mildly to say I was surprised—nay stunned—at the number of women on what the Americans refer to as the force. The police force. Our first session took place on a warm Wednesday evening at 6:30 p.m. Mine must have been the only carriage on the street—a wide avenue marked with thick white lines and divided in the center by a thick yellow line.

I dare say the good citizens of America were as surprised to see my carriage with the Esterházy griffin emblazoned on the sides as I was to see their enclosed, horseless carriages whizzing up and down the street on either side of the yellow center line.

The lobby was crowded with men and women in the most outlandish clothes I have ever seen. The women wore breeches cut off at mid-thigh and a type of shirt without collars or ruffles. The men were similarly dressed, however their breeches, loosely cut, fell down below the knees. It was as much as I could do not to stare.

 To their credit, however, they appeared to take no note of my own garments—a blue coat and breeches, a white linen shirt with ruffles, and the wig without which I rarely leave my house.

They nodded and smiled politely and continued on with their conversations. Their lack of curiosity was astounding to me, but I have noticed that the men and women of the New World allow people their eccentricities. I could have pranced in wearing a purple wig, bearing a lion on my leash and they would have taken no more notice of me than they did now.

There is a curious kind of freedom here, and I find I rather enjoy it. What Maria Anna would have said, I do not know. I imagine she would not have approved.

A Woman Guard!

We were ushered in by a woman—dressed in breeches that reached down to her ankles and followed the form of her shapely leg more closely than Maria Anna would have deemed seemly. Her shirt had a collar and small, white buttons down the front, and was tucked into her breeches. Strangely enough, she wore a leather strap—her belt, she called it—around her breeches, and carried a number of items on it.

I was astonished to see a gun! Had the woman truly any knowledge of its use? I can think of no woman who takes any kind of interest in hunting. And from what I have seen of the New World, there is precious little to hunt. Out of the city, on one occasion, I caught sight of a deer and on another, two scrawny rabbits.

A pair of shiny metal shackles dangled from her belt as well—to restrain criminals, she informed me, although how a mere woman, even one as tall as this one, could have managed that, I can scarce say.

Then, there were some small, black, rectangular objects—radios, I believe they were called. These are a mysterious device that allow members of the force to communicate with one another. But the woman was no more able to explain how the device worked than was anyone else in the room.

“Honestly, I don’t know how it works,” she confessed. “I couldn’t explain it you.”

“It’s technology, science,” a young lad in his twenties mumbled.

Night watchmen and guards patrol our cities and towns at night. But here in the New World, Patrol Officers—so these men and women are called—go about in their black-and-white horseless carriages at all hours of the day.

The work they are called upon to do astounded me. Maria Anna and I, if we had a dispute with a neighbor, would no more think of calling upon the Bürgermeister than we would consider running to our parents. But in the New World, a man who objects to the raucous music his neighbor infests upon the neighborhood thinks nothing of calling—using a device known as a phone—his local police station and demanding that an officer be sent.

An elderly lady whose cat has run up a tree and refuses to come down, two drivers whose carriages have collided into each other at an intersection, a man who enters a store or bank and threatens the people inside with a gun—these are all calls the Patrol Officers respond to.

“No call is too trivial,” the woman cheerfully informed us. One of her superiors later said that when asked to intervene in petty disputes, he treated the matter in the same way he would an argument between his young daughter and one of her friends. “It’s like being a parent,” he confessed with a matter-of-fact shrug.

A strange sentiment for a police officer, in my opinion. Where I come from, all we ask of our policemen and guards is that they enforce the law and arrest criminals. For all their freedoms, the people of the New World seem all too apt to relinquish their responsibilities as grown men and women and to retreat to the world of childhood.

Who but a child would need a guard to settle an argument with a fellow human?

Freedom and Innocence

Even so, the freedoms our cousins in the New World enjoy are enviable. The law is so hedged in and hemmed by constraints that one fears that crime would flourish here. Yet that has not been the case. On the contrary, it has given the innocent greater protection against injustice.

The freedoms so wisely enshrined in the Constitution authored by the Founding Fathers of this country have ensured that the police work harder to ascertain actual facts to bolster their case. Mere suspicion will not suffice.

You may recall the occasion when my Maria Anna was summarily arrested for murder on the mere word of Frau Bruck, the dead alderman’s wife. A sergeant I spoke with assured me “that would not happen here.” 

The testimony of a witness might lead to what is known as a follow-up—the officer or detective speaking with the individual the witness has accused to ascertain the veracity of the information provided. But the individual would have the right to remain silent, to refuse to answer questions.

In fact, before any kind of serious interrogation takes place, any suspect, even a known criminal, must be informed of his rights—the right to remain silent, the right not to incriminate himself, and the right to have a lawyer present to advise him on his answers.

No person may be detained without reasonable suspicion, and no one may be arrested without good cause.

You may recall that at the time Maria Anna was arrested, I discovered the barber-surgeon searching our herb garden. Here in the New World, my permission would have been sought before that could have happened.

“And what if I withheld it?” I asked.

“Then we would author a search warrant,” the sergeant explained. “But we would need to have probable cause. We’d need to have a good reason to go there, to explain which areas we wanted to search, and what we expected to find. And we’d have to convince a judge that it was a just cause.”

Yes, I was impressed. Who would not be?

“These are unusual freedoms,” the sergeant said proudly. “Unusual even in our times.”

You can find out more about Nupur and the Joseph Haydn mysteries at her website ntustin.com. And you can buy her latest Haydn novel, Prussian Counterpoint at Barnes and Noble, Apple, Kobo, and Amazon.

Chapter Fifteen

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: And she obviously sees good stuff in you, June.

The next morning, very early, a stretch limo pulled up outside the Wheatly homestead. Sharon pushed Susan outside and all but dragged her half-asleep sister into the limo.

“It’s too early,” Susan groaned.

“Yeah, well, we have to get to Pasadena to get the others, then get across town in rush hour traffic,” Sharon answered as the limo driver put Susan’s chair in the trunk.

“Who’s bright idea was this, anyway?”

“You know who. And it’ll be fun.”

“As long as I can sleep on the way.” Susan grabbed her legs and pulled them up onto the seat, then flopped over on purpose.

Sharon chuckled and made a call on her mobile as the limo pulled away from the curb.

Once in Pasadena, the limo stopped to pick up Inez, then moved on to the next stop, where Toby, Jodi, and Tiffany were waiting. Toby complained about the early hour at least as loudly as Susan and the two propped each other up in one seat and closed their eyes.

“So where are we going?” Jodi asked Sharon softly.

“We’re having a special girls’ day out,” Sharon said.

“Just us?”

“No,” Sharon said hesitantly. “We’re meeting some friends for breakfast first.”

“For this, I had to miss school,” Jodi sighed.

Tiffany rolled her eyes. “It’ll be fun, Jodi. Better than economics class. And given that we’re ditching tomorrow, too, it’s no big deal.”

“Tomorrow, too?” Sharon asked.

“We’re not Catholic,” Jodi said. “It’s a half day and they’re only praying tomorrow ’cause it’s Good Friday. No point in going.”

“Ah,” said Sharon. Her mobile phone buzzed and she checked her email. “It never stops.”

The limo wound its way through the morning traffic to Malibu and the Pacific Coast Highway, finally drawing up to a restaurant perched over the waves of the Pacific Ocean. It was a weathered wood frame place with huge windows. Toby helped Susan into her wheelchair as the others looked around. Sharon suddenly grinned.

“Come on,” she said, leading Jodi and the others inside the restaurant.

Jodi nudged Tiffany with a nervous gulp. “See those guys over there?”

“Yeah.” Tiffany glanced at the three men in dark suits who were watching the room and the door expectantly. “Whaddya think? Hired muscle or Secret Service?”

“He can’t be here,” Jodi gasped. “He called my grandparents’ place twice this week. Freaked Aunt Sarah out and then Toby.”

“I’m surprised Toby even knew who he was.”

Jodi giggled. “She didn’t, at first.”

Tiffany laughed, too.

“There we are,” said Sharon, threading her way among the tables.

“Oh, no,” Jodi gasped when she saw who they were meeting.

Susan got a solid grip on Jodi’s arm. “Jodi, it’s okay. She’s probably just some rich broad your aunt knows.”

“Aunt Sharon probably does know her and I’ve heard she’s pretty rich,” Jodi groaned, not sure what alarmed her more—the casual way Sharon greeted and hugged the President’s sister or the fact that there were two young teens sitting next to June Jerguessen. “Who are the kids?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” said Susan as Sharon waved them over.

The girls were Karen Tanaka’s daughters, Kira and Allie Watanabe. Both had Karen’s round face and dark eyes. Kira, who was 14, wore her black hair short, almost in a fade, while Allie, age 12 still wore her hair long and straight. Both were tall and slender and wore simple light green dresses.

Sharon made the introductions all around, presenting June simply by her first name. And got everyone settled around the table.

“Have you guys been waiting long?” she asked June, as she glanced at the menu.

“No, we just got here. Was it a bad drive for you guys?”

“No. Thank you for the limo.” Sharon looked around, then lowered her voice. “Is Karen coming?”

“No. She’s stuck back in DC. Don’t you have another sister?”

“Sarah promised to help my mom install her latest sculpture,” Sharon replied.

The waiter, a tall slender blond woman in white shirt and black pants, took everyone’s orders and scurried off, one eye on the men in suits strategically placed around the dining room.

As they waited, Sharon and June tried to jump start the conversation. Susan, Inez, and Toby were still too sleepy, although they slowly perked up after the waiter brought mugs of coffee all around. Jodi was clearly too shy to say much, and while Tiffany and Allie managed to say a few words to each other, Kira held hard and fast onto her sullen scowl, daring anyone to speak to her. June glanced nervously at Sharon.

“They’ll be all right,” Sharon whispered. “It’s just going to take a few minutes.” She smiled at Kira. “Have you been having a good time with your dad this week?”

“No,” said Kira.

“He hasn’t been around much,” Allie said, then fell silent as Kira glared at her.

“That sucks,” Tiffany said. “I vote we banish the topic of fathers for the day.”

“My dad’s cool,” said Toby, who then jumped. She glared at Susan, who stared her down. “Oh. Yeah. We don’t have to talk about dads.”

Fortunately, at that point, the waiter brought everyone’s breakfasts. As soon as she had left, June cleared her throat.

“The reason we’re here is to enjoy a special girls-only day,” June announced. “After we finish breakfast, we’ll be headed for this wonderful spa not far from here. We’re talking massages, mud baths, facials, make-overs. You name it.”

“Oh, beyond super,” crowed Toby. “You think I could get a seaweed wrap?”

“I’m sure you can,” said June.

“Thank you, Ms. Jerguessen,” Jodi whispered. She looked at Sharon for help.

Sharon patted her hand. “It’ll be fun.”

“Thanks, June,” Allie said, grinning.

“Thanks,” muttered Kira. Her scowl softened a bit and she began to eat.

As did everyone else except June. With some of the strangeness eased and something easy to talk about, the girls slowly began chatting about what they wanted to do at the spa. Sharon smiled as the ice thawed, although part of her wondered why June only picked at her fruit plate. Her eyes caught Jodi and Tiffany’s and Sharon realized that the two girls had noticed June picking, as well.

It didn’t take long to finish eating and everyone sorted themselves into the two limos. A short drive later and they were at the spa, high in the hills overlooking the ocean. June, Susan, Inez, Toby and Allie all opted for seaweed wraps, while Sharon, Jodi, Tiffany and Kira chose the mud bath to start with. Jodi and Tiffany ended up in one bath and Sharon and Kira sat side by side in another.

The oozing black mud was warm and soothing and deeply relaxing. But after a few minutes, Sharon noticed a tear running down Kira’s face.

“You okay?” Sharon asked.

“Yeah.” Kira sniffed. “I’m fine.”

“I get the feeling things haven’t gone so well at your dad’s,” Sharon said quietly.

“You won’t tell Mom, will you?” Kira looked at Sharon anxiously.

“If it won’t hurt you, I won’t,” Sharon said. “What’s going on?”

Kira blinked, unable to wipe her tears. “I don’t wanna get Dad pissed. He’ll make Mom come back to California.”

“How can he do that?” Sharon felt something uncomfortable tugging at her. Karen rarely said anything about her ex-husband, although at some point she’d mentioned that George Watanabe was head of emergency medicine at County/USC hospital, which was just east of downtown. While the hospital was best known as the last resort for the many uninsured people in the city, it also boasted one of the top trauma centers in the country.

“I don’t know.” Kira shook her head. “He just can. He doesn’t even like seeing us, but that won’t stop him.”

“How do you know he doesn’t like seeing you?”

“He’s been at work all week. And when he is home, all he does is tell us what we’re doing wrong. We got in on Saturday and he told Grandmother Watanabe to turn us into proper Japanese girls, and then he left for work and didn’t come home ’til Tuesday. And then yelled at Allie about her grades. I mean, I can take it, but Allie can’t. You’d think Grandmother would stand up for us, but she doesn’t do anything except watch soaps on TV and make us do all the housework.” Kira sniffed again. “It just sucks, you know?”

“Sounds like it.” Sharon leaned back in the mud, considering. “I can imagine your mom might get mad.”

“There’s nothing she can do,” sighed Kira. “It’s just the way things are, you know?”

“Do you talk to your mom about it?”

“I can’t. She gets upset and I don’t want her getting into trouble with him. I mean, he’s mean. Really, really mean. He’ll go to court to make mom quit her job just for spite. He’s taken her to court every time she’s gotten a boyfriend, and it’s not like she makes that much money.” Kira coughed, then shook her head. “Look. It’s no big deal. I’ll figure it out.”

“I’m sure you will, Kira.” Sharon sighed inwardly. While she couldn’t help wondering just how bad things were – after all, it wouldn’t be the first time a teenager had overstated an issue – Sharon couldn’t help but see that Kira was pretty miserable.

The day was intended as a relaxing retreat, but shortly after lunch, Sharon spotted someone else not having a very good time. It was June. The spa, with its sweeping overlook of the Pacific Ocean, boasted an excellent kitchen, as well. Sharon watched June order her favorite salad only to see her nibble, at best. So Sharon made a point of catching June alone as they waited for their facials.

“You doing okay?” Sharon asked.

June tightened the pink plush terry robe around herself. “Oh, I’m fine. The girls look like they’re having a good time.”

Sharon looked toward the salon, where Kira and Tiffany were chatting and texting. Kira was looking more relaxed, at least.

“They seem to be,” said Sharon. “And we really appreciate the gesture. But you seem a little off.”

“I’m—” June wilted under Sharon’s soft, but firm look. “It’s Matt again. I tried to talk to him yesterday, but Shawna’s got my phone number blocked and when I called Shawna to find out what was going on, she hung up on me.”

“That’s cold.”

June shrugged. “That’s normal. They may hate Mark on that side of the family, but they don’t even notice me. Anyway, I’m more worried about Matt. He sounded pretty miserable when I did talk to him earlier this week.”

“Who’s Matt?” Jodi asked, coming up silently in her slippers and robe.

“My nephew,” said June. She smiled. “His mother doesn’t like me and his Uncle Mark, so she’s blocked our phone numbers and has some sort of blocking software on his laptop. You know, stuff like that.”

“Huh,” said Jodi. “I wonder which software.”

“I just wish I could find a way to get over the digital moat,” June sighed.

“I could come up with something,” Jodi said.

“Jodi,” Sharon warned.

June finally smiled. “That’d be nice, Jodi, but it’d have to be pretty sophisticated. Shawna seems to have most of her bases covered.”

Jodi shrugged. “Tiffany and I can work on it tomorrow. Right now, we’re trying to work out how to play some music with Kira and Allie.”

“That’s right,” said Sharon, musing. “They play strings.”

“Violins,” said Jodi, nodding. “Tiffany wants me to play viola so we can do a string quartet. They’re talking Beethoven, right now, though I’d rather do Haydn. Anyway, what time are we going to be done here?”

“I guess anytime you like,” said June.

Jodi looked at Sharon. “Toby wants to get her nails done and I was kinda hoping for a massage.”

Sharon nodded. “And I want my facial. Let’s do it, then. Is that okay, June?”

“Yeah. We can be done by three.”

“Okay. Now we just have to figure out where.” Jodi frowned as she wandered back to where Kira and Tiffany were. “Maybe Inez will let us go to Dad’s, but we’ll have to stop at the store, first.”

“For dinner?” June asked. “I could have it brought in.”

Jodi didn’t hear her.

Sharon chuckled. “I think she means her mother’s store. Cameron owns a music shop.”

“Oh.”

The younger girls saw to the coordination and after everyone had gotten their fill of beauty treatments, everyone loaded themselves back into the limos, with the younger girls and Inez in one, except for Toby, who rode with Sharon, June, and Susan. In fact, shortly after they had left the spa, Sharon got a text on her mobile.

“It’s Jodi,” she told the others. “The girls want to get their stuff from the Watanabe’s place. Apparently, Kira and Allie are going to spend the rest of their stay with Jodi and Tiffany at Michael and Inez’s. They want us to go ahead and get dinner on our own. They’ll pick up Mickey D’s because they want to practice.” Sharon texted back and paused. “It appears that Grandma Watanabe, Cameron, and Michael are all on board.” She looked up. “You guys mind?”

“Heck no,” said Toby. “Maybe we can go shopping.”

“Cool with me,” Susan said, grinning.

“I think Sharon had better,” said June, as she picked up her phone and made a call to change the reservation at the hotel downtown where she was staying. “You need some new cocktail dresses, kiddo.”

Sharon groaned. “I don’t want to hear about dresses. I’m at those shindigs to work. It’s not about what I’m wearing.”

June laughed. “Tell that to FashionCapitol.com. Honestly, Share, just give them what they want and maybe they’ll back off.”

Sharon rolled her eyes.

The ambiance of the hotel dining room was just what Sharon needed. She and the others had spent a couple hours at the nearby mall. June found herself quizzing Susan on her special needs, then taking rapid notes. Sharon took three phone calls, then answered several emails while the others browsed and chatted.

“So much for relaxing,” she grumbled as the four women settled in at the somewhat secluded table in the restaurant.

It was an open room, but complete with white tablecloths, red napkins, and faux candles on the tables.

“But you’re on vacation, Aunt Sharon,” Toby said, picking up her menu.

Sharon glanced over at June and the two smiled.

“There’s no such thing at the White House,” Sharon said. “Not with the boss’s first foreign trip next week.”

“That’s right,” said June. “You’re going to Mexico.”

Toby shrugged. “I thought you said foreign trip.”

Susan groaned. “Tobes, Mexico is a foreign country.”

“I know that,” said Toby. “I just thought you meant foreign, like really out there, like Africa or something.”

“Africa is supposed to happen this summer,” Sharon said.

Toby grimaced as Sharon’s phone rang yet again. Sharon looked at the read-out and groaned as she got up.

“Gotta take this one,” she sighed, clicking on the answer button. “Moshi, moshi.”

She walked out of the restaurant and into the lobby, conversing quietly in Japanese.

On the other side of the lobby, Max Epstein deleted the incoming text with a disgusted frown. Looking around, he saw Sharon and grinned. Even if his buddy Grayson had bagged on their meeting, at least Grayson had been right about one thing. Max slid his cell phone into the breast pocket of his dark tan corduroy jacket and sauntered over to where Sharon was talking on her phone.

She was obviously surprised to see him but waved even as she continued her discussion. A minute later, she hung up but held up a finger to Max while she either texted someone or added a note on the phone’s keyboard.

“Done,” she sighed. “And what are you doing here, Max?”

“I’m doing a magazine piece on Congresswoman Wilkins and I needed to catch her at home.” Max came over and gave Sharon a friendly peck on the cheek. “She came back to unveil some big new statue or something at that big Arts Center she got all that money for.”

“Huh.” Sharon looked Max over, wondering how many art unveilings at arts centers there would be the next day. “So are you staying here?”

Max snorted. “You gotta be kidding. Not on my pub’s budget. I was going to meet a friend from the local AP office. It was his idea to come here.” Max grinned expectantly. “He said he’d seen a few Secret Service types wandering around last night and this morning.”

“Yes, Ms. Jerguessen is here,” Sharon said. “We’re having dinner.”

“Mind if I join you?” Max asked. “Off the record. Or at least background.”

Sharon thought for a moment. “Tell you what. Have you done a column on June yet?”

“No. But I want to.”

“We’ll still have to clear it with the East Wing press office, but why don’t you join us and make your case? June deserves the attention.”

Max grinned. “Thanks.”

He scrambled after her.

Sharon walked up to the table and pointed back at Max. “Look at what I found in the lobby. Apparently, he got stood up. You ladies mind if he joins us?” Sharon looked at June. “He promises it’s off the record.”

“He’s kinda old, but he’s cute,” Toby said, then jumped. “Aunt Susan, do you have to keep pinching me?”

June smiled. “I guess I can put up with him if you can.”

Sharon grinned back. “Susan, Toby, this Max Epstein, a reporter that June and I know back in Washington. Max, my sister Susan, and our niece Toby.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet all of you,” said Max.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally,” said June as Max shook her hand.

Sharon waved the waiter over and got an extra place setting and chair for Max.

“I thought you two had met,” she said to June.

“Nope. Not officially, anyway,” June said. “He’s been at a couple press conferences I had to do.”

Sharon focused on her menu, as June asked Max why he was in Los Angeles. Max explained about the statue unveiling

“Really?” June asked. She looked over at Sharon and Susan, who shrugged.

“It’s gotta be Maman’s big unveiling,” Susan said.

Max suddenly nodded. “That’s right. Your mother is a sculptor.”

Susan grinned. “You really do your homework.”

“Not entirely.” Max frowned but found himself grinning back at Susan. “If I remember correctly the artist’s name is Fa-something or other.”

“Fauvrillet,” said Sharon. “That’s my mother’s family name. She usually signs her work that way.”

Max suddenly realized that Susan was giving him the come-hither eye. He was about to respond when Sharon’s hand landed on his forearm.

“Does this mean you’re going to be there, too, Max?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah. I was planning on it.” Max smiled weakly.

“We’re going to sneak June in,” Toby said. “And there is going to be a totally awesome party at my folks’ place. And my dad is going play something at the unveiling.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” Max said.

Susan snorted. “And you call yourself a reporter?”

“Okay, caught me.” Max smiled at her again, trying to figure out what it was that made him grin when he looked at her. “But how do you know so much about reporters?”

“I used to be as big a celebrity as my swell-headed brother, you know,” sniffed Susan, straightening in her chair.

“Since when?” said Sharon.

“I still am in the dance world,” Susan said. “Well, sort of.”

“Suse – two years as prima ballerina with a small company does not make you an international dance star.”

“It doesn’t?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Not when you’re dancing for the Ballet of the Pacific. The best you ever got with the London Ballet was featured dancer.”

“That’s still pretty hot,” said June.

Sharon and Susan looked at each other and started laughing.

“Duh,” said Sharon. “It’s just not rock star big.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “You gotta understand, the bar’s set pretty high in our family. Before sweet cheeks here got her gig at the White House, she was our resident underachiever.”

“Now Toby is,” said Sharon with a wicked grin.

“Aunt Sharon!”

Max knew he was supposed to be focusing on June, but kept finding himself pulled between Sharon and Susan. Finding himself completely overwhelmed, he finally excused himself and left. Sharon took advantage of his departure to claim an early start the next day, and while she, Susan, and Toby went with June up to her suite, they left shortly afterward.

The next day was one of those perfect Southern California days, with bright blue sky, a couple white puffy clouds floating through and temperatures in the high 70s. At the new arts center in South Los Angeles, a light breeze wafted through, tickling at the orange canvas cover over Madeleine’s latest work. Then, as the huge piece of fabric floated down, Sharon and Susan gasped loudly.

“I knew it!” Susan crowed. “It’s Angels. I knew it!”

Sharon started crying. “Oh my god, it looks just like her drawing.”

June looked puzzled. The bluish metal sculpture featured a host of waving, elongated triangles all balanced on a single point. The breeze set the triangles waving gently and yet the point remained steady.

Madeleine took the podium next to the sculpture and looked right at her children and grandchildren, who were standing to one side, with June and Inez in the middle and Michael up front where he could be easily seen. Jodi, Tiffany and Kira and Allie Watanabe were standing at the edge of the group, holding their instruments.

“Now you know why I wanted you all here today,” Madeleine said as she smiled at them. Short and a little on the round side, Madeleine was actually more muscular than fat. Her hair was a light brown with gray streaks at her temples, and as usual, piled on top of her head with stray strands catching in the breeze. She wore a black knit top over black pants and over that a perfectly proportioned kimono decorated with bright pink, green, blue and yellow flowers.

Her husband, Robert Wheatly, stood behind her, wearing a blue chambray shirt and a tie that was at least as colorful as his wife’s kimono. His jacket was tan and Italian cut and he wore dark slacks with pleated fronts and dark dress shoes. His light hair was not only very thin on top, but shot through with white and the tall lean frame that his children had all inherited was slightly hunched and his dark-framed narrow glasses continually slid down his nose.

Madeleine turned back to the crowd.

“There is a story behind this sculpture,” she said, her accent sounding somewhat French, somewhat English, with American overtones. “Many, many years ago, when I was a young woman, my uncle Michel, a Jesuit priest told me about the theological question, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I did not care about the theology then and still don’t. Ah, but what an image, and when I was studying art in London a year later, I decided I wanted to make a sculpture of it. The problem was how do I keep all these pieces moving and balanced and not have it fall down? So I drew my idea and talked to my professor who sent me to a civil engineering company in the city. There, I might find an engineer who would like the challenge of making this work. Most of the engineers wanted money or simply did not care. But one young American found my idea very interesting.” Her eyes full, Madeleine looked happily back at her husband. “And I found him very interesting. However, we could not at that time make my idea work. We made a marriage, we made wonderful children, we made an incredible life. But we could not make the sculpture happen. Until two years ago, when Congresswoman Wilkins made her very generous offer to provide a work of art for the center and put out a call for proposals. I told my husband I would like to submit a work and he smiled at me and said, ‘Madeleine, I know how to make it work now.’  And he did. This sculpture could not have happened without Robert, which is why his name is at the base along with mine.” She glanced back at her husband. “And don’t be mad at me. You deserve your due.”

Robert flushed and seemed to shrink even further into himself.

Sharon laughed even as she wiped the tears from her eyes. Robert glanced her way, then came forward in answer to his wife’s beckoning. He mumbled something into the microphone, which resulted in polite applause.

Madeleine laughed, gave her husband a solid kiss on the mouth, then clapped also. She bowed for the audience, then pointed to Michael.

He caught his cue and waved Kira, Allie, Jodi and Tiffany into place, then nodded at his mother. Madeleine grinned.

“My son was supposed to play something,” she announced to the crowd, “but instead, his music will be played by my granddaughter and her wonderful friends. Let us listen.”

The four girls set themselves up almost shyly, but when the music began, Sharon found herself crying yet again. She glanced over at June, who was sniffing, as well. Sharon knew the music was Michael’s, but it was also like the sculpture – floating and waving in the breeze.

“They rock, don’t they?” Michael whispered in her ear, his voice filled with pride.

Sharon could only nod in agreement.

The applause was generous, and then there was a short reception at the arts center, while the members of the press tried to interview June and Michael, both of whom skipped out pretty quickly. Nonetheless, there was plenty of milling about by the rest of the crowd, and in a quiet moment, Sharon found Max chatting briefly with Susan and pulled him away to introduce him to her parents.

Robert nodded, then slipped off with Sharon to talk to Jodi, while Madeleine caught Max’s elbow.

“You like my daughter?” she asked, her brown eyes, so like Sharon’s, boring into him.

Max stammered. “Sharon’s great.”

“My other daughter, Susan.” Madeleine patted his arm. “I’m not angry. But I must warn you, she has been hurt. Deeply. Now is not the best time for you two. Do the two of you a favor and wait a while, hien? Just a while. After that, I think you two will be very good for each other.”

“But…” Max didn’t get to say more.

Madeleine winked at him, then turned to the next person offering congratulations.

Max took a deep breath. He’d been dating Sharon and had no clue how he felt about Susan. How could the woman have known what he, himself, didn’t? Sharon slid up next to him.

“You look flustered,” Sharon said.

“No. I’m fine.” he stammered.

Sharon laughed. “What did Maman say to you?”

“Something about your sister. Uh, Susan.”

“No kidding.” Sharon laughed. “Maman loves doing that. Susan and Sarah swear she’s psychic.”

Max glanced at Susan in the crowd, then looked at Sharon. “Is she?”

Sharon shrugged. “Me and Dad, we don’t believe in that. We just figure she’s super-observant and willing to act on her instincts. Then again, she’s pretty damned good at figuring things out.”

Max shook his head. “Huh. Um. Say. You wanna go out when we get back to DC?”

Sharon looked at him, then over at Susan. “Sure. You got my number.”

She moved off, leaving Max puzzling out the entire exchange.

Sharon, Susan and Sarah left the reception soon after, and soon everyone met back at the Wheatly house in Orange County.

There, Sharon, Sarah, and June found themselves chatting upstairs in a computer room while Jodi and Tiffany played with the desktop there.

“Woh!” Jodi proclaimed suddenly. “They got Grandmere’s unveiling up already!”

Sharon and June turned to the computer.

“Already?” asked Sharon. “So what are they saying?”

“The usual junk,” sighed Tiffany. “There’s the interview with Wilkins. Wait. Here’s Grandmere.”

It took June a second to register that Tiffany was referring to Madeleine as if Madeleine were her grandmother and not just Jodi’s.

“This day is the fulfillment of a life’s dream,” Madeleine was saying on the newscast on the computer screen. “There are no words to express it.”

“Mrs. Wheatly,” asked the reporter. “What do you think about the president’s sister coming to see your unveiling?”

“It was very nice of her to come,” Madeleine replied, somewhat coolly. Then she brightened. “Ah. There are my daughter and her friend. I must say hello.”

She pushed past the reporter.

June gasped while Sarah and Sharon chuckled.

“Well, I guess I know how I rate,” June said, trying not to sound as hurt as she felt.

“Yeah, you do,” Sarah said, laughing harder.

“Oh, June,” Sharon said, putting her hand on June’s arm. “That means you’re rating pretty high with Maman.”

“What?”

Sarah gasped and put her arm around June’s shoulder. “June, what Maman was saying is that it’s not important that you’re the president’s sister. What’s important is that you’re Sharon’s friend.”

Tiffany giggled. “Looks like you just got adopted.”

Sharon smiled. “June, Maman has never cared about how famous or important someone is. She’s a total artist that way. What she cares about is how nice you are to us, and even then she gives most folks a lot of leeway.”

“As far as she’s concerned, you’re a part of our family now,” said Sarah. “You gotta understand, we never lived near our relatives. So Maman adopted our friends. Seriously, ask her some time how many kids she has. She’ll tell you she has six. And there’s only four of us, but she counts Inez and Cameron.”

“And the only reason she doesn’t count more of our friends,” Sharon continued, “is that they have parents and Maman doesn’t want to disrespect them. She can get away with it with Inez and Cameron because of Michael – they’re daughters-in-law.”

“But I thought Inez and Michael aren’t married,” said June.

Jodi rolled her eyes. “As good as. And like that’s going to make a difference with Grandmere.”

“It doesn’t for me,” Tiffany said. “I’ve got an extra grandma.”

“But she doesn’t even know me,” said June.

“Are you kidding?” screeched Sarah. “She’s psychic. She doesn’t have to know you know you. She already does!”

“Puh-leeze!” Sharon groaned. “She is not psychic. She’s just really observant. And she trusts us to know good people when we meet them.”

“Yeah, like your last boyfriend.” Sarah snorted.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “That was not a typical situation.”

“Hah! She was so onto him.”

“That’s neither here nor there and has nothing to do with June.” Sharon turned to her friend. “What we’re trying to say is that Maman doesn’t care who you’re related to or what your name is or any of the extraneous stuff. What she cares about and is pretty good at seeing is what’s in your heart. And she obviously sees good stuff in you, June.”

“And we do, too,” said Sarah, giving June an extra squeeze around the shoulders.

Tiffany grinned at June. “You’ll get used to it. It’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah. I guess,” June said, smiling in spite of the awkward feeling in her gut. “I guess it is.”

The next day, Jodi and Tiffany hid out in Tiffany’s bedroom. The Watanabe girls had left that morning for Washington. June was on her way to Minnesota but did take a call from Jodi and Tiffany before she left to give them some key information.

“You want to do the talking?” Jodi asked Tiffany.

“Sure,” Tiffany said. “June should’ve called him by now. You got the number?”

“Dialing,” Jodi said, pressing the numbers into the cell phone. She handed it to Tiffany as the phone on the other end rang.

In Minnesota, Matt Jerguessen saw the odd number flashing on his cell phone, along with the name Jasmine Thomas and a picture of an attractive blond girl. His aunt said she was safe. Matt shrugged and decided to answer it.

“Is this Matt?” a young female voice asked on the other end. “My name is Tiffany. Your Aunt June asked us to call.”

“Yeah. She said something about a Jodi Wheatly who works with my uncle.” Matt glared sullenly at his computer.

“Jodi’s aunt works with your uncle,” Tiffany explained. “She’s right here with me. Is it okay if I put you on speakerphone?”

“Yeah. I s’pose.”

“Say hi,” Tiffany told someone as her voice dimmed.

“Hi, Matt,” Jodi said softly.

“Anyway, your aunt said you were having trouble talking to her and your uncle because your mom has all this monitoring software on you?” Tiffany continued.

“Yeah. And she has most of their numbers blocked on my cell phone,” Matt grumbled. “Aunt June had to call from her hotel room this morning so she could get through.”

“We know. That’s so bogus,” said Tiffany.

“But what can you do about it?” Matt asked.

Tiffany giggled. “We’re Jasmine Thomas. We’re an avatar. So when this phone calls you, your mom will think it’s from this kid from California that got stuck here during spring break and we met at a party last night. It’s already on Jasmine’s Facebook page.”

“You started a Facebook page just to fake out my mom?”

“No.” Tiffany laughed again. “Jodi and I started it last spring for a social studies experiment. We wanted to test how many kids from our school we could get to friend this total stranger who claimed to go to school with us but didn’t really exist. A lot of them did.”

“Really dumb,” chimed in Jodi. “Weird thing is, it kinda grew on its own.”

“I think some of the girls get the joke finally,” said Tiffany. “But I don’t think anyone knows it’s us. Anyway, Jodi’s a computer wiz, and she can hack around your mom’s monitoring software on your laptop so you can email your aunt and uncle.”

Matt frowned. “I don’t know about that. Mom’s got some computer guy who puts all that stuff on. Won’t he catch on?”

“It depends on the software,” Jodi said. “But I have a very elegant algorithm that he’d have to look at the code to see. It operates manually, though, so you’ll have to be careful. But that’s why it stays hidden so well. So what program has she put on your computer?”

“Um, TeenGuard,” said Matt.

The girls giggled.

“Oh, that is just too easy,” said Jodi. “Mac or PC?”

“PC.”

“All right. Tiffany, can you text the addy to him?”

“Texted.”

Matt saw the beep and saw two web addresses.

“You need to go to that first site and type in the second address in the box,” Jodi said. “It’s a site that will let me work on your computer.”

“Won’t my mom find out?” Matt tried not to squawk.

“Not likely,” said Tiffany. “Matt, the way that TeenGuard works is that it takes a snapshot of your screen every time you open a new window or it sees a file with certain keywords in it. All those snapshots create these little text entries that are saved in a file and then the software contacts the server and uploads the file to your mom or her tech person. The easy part is that it only uploads the file when you click the turn-off button on your computer.”

“It’s part of the stealth feature,” said Jodi. “But it’s kind of a dumb one because it’s really easy to defeat.”

Matt went to the website and then entered the second address in the window. It took a few seconds, but then Jodi muttered her approval and soon it was as if his cursor was moving all over the page by itself.

“This is going to be a snap,” Jodi announced as windows flashed open and closed. “I’m pasting the patch directly into the program’s code. What it does is toggle off the software with an alt-shift keystroke, then turns it back on again, only it looks like you’re doing something else. That’s the elegant part. Most hacks just disable the software, but then your mom will know you hacked it. But you have to remember not to leave it on too long or it will look strange.”

“The second thing we’re going to do is set you up on a proxy server so you can email out,” Tiffany said. “That way you don’t have to clear your browser history, just in case your mom decides to check that, too. I have it set up at my place and my mom couldn’t tell if there was something funny going on if she wanted to because she doesn’t get computers.”

“Basically, it just looks like you’re going to my website, but it’ll let you surf anonymously,” said Jodi.

Matt could hear computer keys rattling on the other end and marveled at the windows opening and closing on their own on his computer.

“There. I got the last few entries out,” Jodi said. “By the way, you won’t want to turn on your computer and turn the guard off right away, because it erases the last couple entries when you toggle it on, so they can’t be seen. But it could erase the startup entry and that would look funny.”

“Okay,” said Matt hesitantly.

“Oh, and you really should hide your phone number on your Facebook page,” Tiffany said. “It’s out there in the open for anyone to call.”

“I don’t have a Facebook page,” said Matt.

“Yeah, you do,” Tiffany said. “June was a little surprised. She said she didn’t think you liked party girls that much.”

“I don’t.” Matt did some clicking on his computer. “Oh, man. My mom must have put this up and friended all those girls. She loves those idiots.”

“More of a LinkedIn kind of guy?” Tiffany teased. “Or are you on Reddit?”

“I’m not on any of them,” grumbled Matt. He paused. “I don’t have a lot of friends. I mean, I have friends at school, but Mom doesn’t let me talk to them because they’re… Well, poor and smart and she thinks I should hang with the popular kids.”

“Eeeuw!” Tiffany and Jodi groaned together.

“Totally my problem,” said Jodi. “My mom wants me to be normal and all the normal kids are so boring. Or into drugs and other stupid stuff.”

“Same here,” said Matt.

“Well, now you’ll be able to email your real friends,” said Tiffany. “Here’s the address for the proxy server. You can get to the free email sites from there and sign up for your secret address.” She giggled.

“Okay. Uh, thanks. Oh, and do you have an email address?”

“Sure.” Tiffany spelled it twice to be sure Matt had it. “And can you email us your new address so we can give it to Jodi’s aunt so she can give it to June?”

“Sure.”

They clicked off and Matt went directly to the proxy server site and signed up for a new address.