Chapter Twenty-Five

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

It was getting on for six-thirty that evening when Mark made his way up to the private quarters, calling June as he went. The two met in his private study. It was a smallish room, dominated by the immense flat-screen television on the wall and a sleek modern desk with a glass top and brushed steel legs. The entire desktop could be used as a touch pad screen, and there was a single black lacquered drawer under the center which contained a keyboard and several remote controls. The desk chair was brown leather and reclined. Two more similar chairs were backed up against the side wall in between a bookcase overflowing with books and various tablets and ereaders.

“I’ve got to bring you up to date on Matt,” Mark told June as he pulled out one of the chairs on the wall. “You’ve seen him already, haven’t you?”

“I spent the afternoon with him.” June sat down then glanced anxiously up at her pacing brother. “Was that okay?”

“I, uh…” Mark frowned. “I didn’t really tell you, but I was keeping him in solitary confinement as punishment for running away. I mean, we can’t reward that.”

June sighed. “I guess not, but he didn’t have a lot of options.”

“I know, I know.” The irritation in Mark’s voice grew before he could catch it. “I’m sorry. I know I’m angry. And you didn’t do anything wrong because we haven’t had a chance to talk. But we’ve got to get together on this. Just be aware, Harold’s got me more pissed off than usual.” He sighed. “He wouldn’t even say hi to Matt.”

“Yeah, I know.” June tried to blink back her tears.

“Well, the good news is, Matt doesn’t have to go back.” Mark squeezed her arm gently. “Harold and Shawna will maintain nominal custody, but we’re pretty much free to do as we see fit. I’m inclined to work Matt’s butt off this summer, then let him board at St. Ignatius Prep in the fall. But what do you think?”

June wiped her eyes and thought. “Well, aren’t Tony and Rebecca Cooper going to do some interning this summer?”

“I was going to have them do the personal assistant thing to spell Gen Flowers. And it turns out, she’s got this summer fellowship she’d like to do. With Matt here, I can let her go and either work him full-time or split hours between him, Tony and Rebecca and maybe Kira Watanabe if she’s interested.”

“She should be, but she probably won’t be here for a good chunk of the summer. Once her dad gets back from Japan, she has to go stay with him, which is another mess.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about it. Thanks for stepping up on that, by the way. Do you want me to contribute to the legal fund?” Mark went over to the desk and turned on the top.

“You’d better not,” June knotted her fingers together. “We don’t want any hints of conflict of interest.”

Mark winced and shut the top down. “You’re right.” He sank into the chair. “Anyway, back to Matt. I really feel like we need to impress on him that the running away was not a good idea, if not for him, then for Kira’s sake, if you know what I mean.”

June sighed. “Yeah, that makes sense. I just hope it doesn’t backfire on us with Kira. Karen’s really worried about her – apparently, she gets pretty stubborn.”

“Oh, I’m shocked,” Mark said dryly. “How do you feel about keeping Matt in solitary for the rest of this week, with the once nightly video conference?”

“That seems fair. Do you want him as personal assistant full-time or do you want to split hours?”

“I think they can split hours and we have to give them some time off on Sundays so they can all hang together. I want Matt to have his friends.”

“Given that’s what started this whole mess, that’s a good idea.” June smiled weakly. “I’m okay with St. Ignatius, too. Since Tony’s there, it should help Matt adjust.”

“Okay.” Mark got up. “Do you want to come with me to break it to him?”

June looked down at her mobile phone. “No. I’ve got some work to get done. I’ll go in and visit after dinner if that’s okay.”

“Sure. As much time as you want. Oh, there is a gadget restriction in effect.”

June chuckled. “Yeah, he went on about that.”

“Like I said…”

“I know. We can’t reward how he went about getting here. Does he get his stuff back at the end of the week?”

“Sure.” Mark went to the door and paused. “I hope you didn’t cut your business on the coast short.”

“No,” June said quickly. “It’s fine, Mark. Really. I needed to be here more.”

“Okay. Thanks, June. I’m sticking to not wanting your business to suffer because of being here for me. But I have to say, I really appreciate you being here.”

“I’m happy to do it.” June smiled.

Mark left, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket and texting Sharon. He checked the response just as he got to Matt’s room and smiled, then texted a quick response back.

Matt was just finishing his dinner when Mark walked in.

“Hey, Uncle Mark,” he said, scrambling to his feet.

“Sit down,” Mark said, sitting on the bed next to him. “We’ve got to talk.”

“This doesn’t sound good.”

“Well, your dad left around noon.”

“Oh.” Matt slumped and shook his head. “I suppose that’s a good thing.”

“Matt, I’m sorry about him and the way he acted. You certainly don’t deserve it,” Mark put his hand on his nephew’s back.

“Yeah, I know.”

Mark smiled softly. “I know you do, Matt. But it still hurts. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t.”

Matt swallowed, then slowly sank into quiet sobbing, leaning against his uncle. Mark held him gently and waited until the sobs eventually abated. Matt finally sniffed.

“I don’t get it,” he finally sighed. “Yeah, I get that Dad’s pissed at me. I’d be pissed, too. But he didn’t even want to see me.”

“I know.”

“And I talked to Mom, but she’s really mad and I tried to apologize but she hung up on me.”

“It’s like you said, Matt. They’re pissed and that’s as much about me as it is about what you did. They’re feeling like you love me more than them.”

Matt’s face screwed up. “But they’re my parents.”

“Of course and of course you love them.” Mark shook his head and patted Matt’s shoulder. “And you love me, too. So what? It’s not a competition and I’m not out to steal your affections. But they’ve decided it is. And if you love them, then you can’t love me and if you love me, you can’t love them.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Not entirely. Has to do with our cultural paradigm, according to Karen Tanaka, and that’s hardly your parents’ fault.”

“So does this mean I’m staying here?”

“That’s the good news. Now, your parents do still have legal custody of you, but your aunt and I are pretty much in charge and I don’t think your folks are going to challenge that. Just before you start celebrating, keep in mind, you will be working this summer and then going to boarding school.”

“Working?”

“For your college fund and you’ll be working for me as my personal assistant.”

Matt brightened. “Can I get a car?”

“No. You won’t need one.”

“How about a dog?”

Mark grinned. “You’ve been talking to your grandfather, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, but it’s a good idea and I’d like a dog.”

“Well, at the moment, you’re hardly in a position to be asking for things. You will remain in solitary confinement through the weekend and you will exhibit exemplary behavior from here on in. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Matt ducked his head, supposedly in shame, but Mark caught the grin underneath.

“That will be all, then,” Mark said, getting up. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Matt bounced up and gave his uncle a quick hug before Mark left the room.

Mark, for his part, was still feeling rather angry and unsettled. Even as he left the hallway for the stairs, he went through the mental monolog – Matt was going to be okay, that was the important thing. It didn’t matter how badly Harold had behaved, it was Harold who had the problem, not Mark.

Mark was still going through the mental monolog as Sharon let him in through the secret basement entrance to her townhouse.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“It’s been a rocky few days,” he replied. “Let’s concentrate on getting dinner together and then maybe we can talk.”

“It’s almost done,” Sharon said. “The potatoes are fried and in the oven. The salad is made, but needs dressing and I just have to nuke the broccoli while I sauté the fish.”

“That’s good,” Mark sighed. “I can dress the salad if you don’t mind.”

“All yours.”

And, in fact, dinner, featuring tilapia fillets cooked a la Meuniere, with butter-fried new potatoes, steamed broccoli, and salad, was ready in a matter of minutes. Sharon opened a bottle of Chablis while Mark finished dishing up the food.

“So, I haven’t gotten the final word on Matt,” she asked as she placed two full wine glasses on the table next to the filled plates.

Mark sat down and slid his napkin onto his lap. “Matt’s staying. After the last two days, there’s no way I’d let him go back.” Mark paused and looked at his meal. “Fortunately, Harold didn’t push it.”

“Matt said that he hadn’t seen his dad.”

“That’s because Harold refused to see him.” Mark’s voice got very tight and low.

Sharon gaped. “He what? Oh, my God, what kind of—” She stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry. I know he’s your brother.”

Mark started eating quickly. “That’s fine. Bash him all you want.”

He tried to look casual but saw Sharon’s soft gaze. Slowly, he swallowed.

“Look, Harold is one of the very few people on this planet who can get under my skin and make me question everything I know is right,” he said finally. “It’s kind of nice to hear someone else say what I’m usually thinking about him.”

Sharon shook her head. “He is quite the prize specimen. I know some serious Neanderthals who have more social grace than he does.” She frowned. “But to not even say hello to your own son.”

“I know,” Mark replied with a resigned sigh. “He didn’t even bother coming back to the White House last night. According to his security detail, he and his buddy Congressmember Chuck Meyers spent the night at Meyer’s favorite brothel.” Mark snorted. “It’s not even one of the better ones in town.”

“Oh?” Sharon asked.

Mark shrugged. “It’s one of those unspoken realities of the Old Boys Club. If you’re a man and you’re a legislator, you get invited to parties at whorehouses. A lot of the old farts consider it part of their perqs, and sometimes if you need to get something pushed through, you have to play on their turf. It does make it hard on some of the women legislators, but that was kind of the point. One of the reasons I don’t care to go to those kinds of parties.”

“I see.” Sharon shuddered. “It does sound like something Harold would enjoy. Yick.”

“Yeah, well, one thing about Matt being in town, I’m not going to be able to come over here for a while, unless it’s an acknowledged PFZ party.” Mark picked up his wine glass and gazed at the light yellow wine. “I mean, I assume you’d prefer we were discreet about this.”

“I haven’t told anybody if that’s what you’re asking.” Sharon paused. “I don’t know that it has to be that top secret. We are just friends.”

Mark chuckled. “You want to try and convince Eddie and the rest of the gang of that?”

“Good point. Oh, well. We were trying to keep distance, anyway.”

“Yep.” Mark took a long sip of his wine. “Let’s hear it for distance.” He sighed. “Anyway, thanks again for helping out with Matt. I really appreciate it.”

Sharon smiled. “It’s no trouble. He’s a nice kid.”

“He is.” Mark drained his glass and stood up. “And I have to get back.”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

Sharon followed Mark down to the basement and the secret entrance. He looked at her fondly, then sighed.

“I suppose one good thing about Harold is that with a brother like him, why would you dare want me?” Mark said, forcing a smile.

“Well…” Sharon started, then saw the wary look in his eyes, and decided to say the opposite of what she was about to. “You’re right. He is one hell of a disincentive.”

Mark burst into laughter and left. Sharon chuckled as she shut the door behind him, then found herself sniffing. Distance was necessary, but there was part of her that longed to hold Mark and comfort him the way she had held Matthew two days before.

Mark’s laughter also faded quickly once he was in the Presidential limo. Harold was only part of the problem and he couldn’t unleash any of that on Sharon. But he deeply wished he could.

Here ends Book One of White House Rhapsody. The story is ongoing, however, and will continue in a few months with Book Two. In the meantime, I’ll be featuring a new Operation Quickline story, Sad Lisa.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Pull quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody

In Washington, the President and his staff had spent a very busy two weeks. First, a minor head of state had died, so Sharon had accompanied Vice President Elmira Vallegos to the funeral. Then there was the full-on revolt in one of the other Middle Eastern countries, probably fomented by the policy Mark had held to in Saudi Arabia – and which even Sharon finally had to admit had been the right course of action.
Mark also had federal budget issues to contend with, what with that phase of legislation coming due in a couple months, and he still had his education legislation that he wanted to be passed. So there were multiple rounds of meetings to the point that Mark found himself at Sharon’s at least five times during those two weeks, twice at PFZ parties with the rest of the Advisory Board and three times having dinner with her alone and playing chess and gin rummy just to relax.
By that Saturday, he was good and restless. The West Wing tended to be fairly empty on weekends, although Sundays there were several Muslim staff members who worked since they took off Fridays and Saturdays. Also, Sunday mornings, when the President was at church, staff members would sometimes show up to get a jump on the week. But if they were going to work Saturday, or any time when the president was in the White House, the West Wing staff made a point of doing so from home simply because if they went into the office, they would more often than not get dragged into playing catch or basketball or running laps or whatever physical activity the President was in the mood for.
Sharon, he usually left alone, but when she showed up that Saturday, Mark decided to heck with it, popped up in her office and dragged her off to the White House basement, where the basketball court was.
“I hate playing basketball,” she complained as they rode down the elevator.
“Well, it’s no fun shooting hoops by myself,” Mark told her.
“I can watch and catch up on email.”
“You can play and finally learn how to do a decent lay-up.”
Sharon laughed. She was wearing a close-fitting t-shirt and jeans over a pair of running shoes. Mark was similarly attired, except that he had basketball shoes on.
As he often did when he caught a staffer working on Saturdays, he coached Sharon through the art of the lay-up, insisting that she run several drills until he was satisfied that she had it. Then he spotted her several points and the two began a game of one on one.
Once again, Mark was caught off guard by Sharon’s natural athleticism. She played hard and thanks to the points he’d spotted her, pulled ahead quickly.
“Why do I get the feeling I’ve been suckered?” he asked, gasping as she drained another three-pointer. He trotted over the area under the net to get the ball.
“You’re the one who insisted on spotting me the points,” Sharon said. She caught the ball as Mark threw it at her and went out of bounds to start play.
“Because I thought I had an unfair advantage on you,” he said. “You hate playing basketball.”
“So I’m not that competitive.” Sharon grinned as she bounced the ball a couple times. “I didn’t think you wanted me to let you win. I could.”
“Don’t even.” Mark grinned also.
He caught the ball as Sharon tossed it and play was on again. The two played for several minutes as Mark caught up, then began winning. Then Sharon got the ball and dribbled toward the basket. Mark shadowed her closely. She tried dodging, but he stayed close on her back, not letting her escape. Laughing, she tried dodging again, and again, and then. Mark folded his arms around her and his lips found hers.
Sharon let herself melt into the kiss, returning it, feeling the soft pressure of his mouth and the sweet saltiness of his tongue. Mark felt his heart beating out of his chest, wondering how long it could last.
Not long enough. He lifted his head and their eyes caught. Sharon smiled, then shuddered.
“Foul?” he said softly.
“Well, you are pretty sweaty.”
He moved in again and she pulled away. He sighed.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to be going there,” Sharon said.
“Well,” Mark said, helplessly as Sharon glared at him. “I guess I overstepped the boundaries again.”
“Do that often, do you?”
“Not that often,” he grumbled. “And never past propriety.” He paused. “Well, not since high school, but then I didn’t know what I was doing.” He paused again. “That doesn’t excuse it.”
“I wasn’t saying it did. But it doesn’t mean I’m that worried about you, either.” Sharon plopped down onto a nearby bleacher. “Not that way, at any rate.”
“So now what?”
“What do you mean?”
Mark shrugged and picked up the basketball. “Do you still want to keep trying to be friends? It’s been working. Or do we do the whole split-up routine, with you… I don’t know.”
“I don’t know, either.” Sharon sniffed and shut her eyes. “I was really liking the friend thing. And I can’t quit my job.”
“You probably could.”
“Except that it’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life and I love my work.”
“Oh, brother,” Mark sighed.
“Not that I’m blaming you.”
“I didn’t think you did.”
Sharon looked him over. “Whatever.” She sighed. “I guess it’s time to try maintaining a little distance.”
“Just what I want to do.” Mark dropped the basketball onto the floor, then caught it again. “But you’re right. It’s probably for the best.”
“Yep.” Sharon pulled herself up off the bleachers and left the gym. Mark watched, wondering if he’d blown it yet again.
By late Monday morning, however, such thoughts were rudely shoved aside by a call from Mark’s sister-in-law. He’d almost put the call off as his day was beyond packed with meetings and photo shoots with a major speech to deliver at the national American Medical Association convention early that evening. But something made him tell Kent to put Shawna through.
“Hey, Shawna, what’s up?” Mark asked, putting her on the speaker as he looked over emails on his tablet.
“Have you heard from Matt lately?” Shawna asked a little too casually.
“No,” Mark said, resisting the profound temptation to point out that she was the reason he hadn’t.
“Oh.”
Mark waited a moment. “Is everything okay with Matt?”
“He’s not at home. I thought maybe he tried to see you.”
“He’s not at home. Where is he?”
“If I knew do you think I’d be calling you?”
Mark groaned silently. “In other words, he’s missing. How long has he been gone?”
A text message from Sharon flashed on Mark’s screen. Mark pounded a quick text to Kent.
“He left a note Friday morning that he was going to stay at a friend’s house,” Shawna said as Sharon slipped into the Oval Office. “We haven’t seen him since then, but then the way he hides out in his room, we sometimes don’t. And Thursday night, he was playing with his basketball and broke the spy cam I put in his room.”
“A spy cam? Shawna, why in heaven’s name, are you spying on him?” Mark gritted his teeth.
“He defies me regularly. He has this friend Jasmine Thomas that no one knows who she is. And he had a secret email account. Who knows what else he’s been up to.”
“Knowing Matt, probably not much. Have you called the police?”
“I’m not going to do that!” Shawna screeched then got a hold of herself. “I know better than that, thank you very much.”
Mark looked up at Sharon, trying desperately to hold onto his temper.
“Shawna, I may have something. Can you hold for a moment?”
“I suppose.”
Mark punched the hold button on the phone then signaled Sharon.
“Sir, it’s about your nephew,” she said softly.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve just spoken to him. He’s here in DC. He called my niece first, and then me.”
“Bring him in.”
“Yes, sir.” Sharon paused. “Can you call security then?”
“Will do.” Mark again pounded out a quick note on his tablet, then hit the hold button on the phone as Sharon left the office. “Shawna, he’s here in Washington and it sounds like he’s safe.”
She sighed in relief. “Good.”
“One of my staff members is getting him. I don’t want to embarrass him by going myself. I’ll call you after I’ve talked to him.”
“Fine. Go ahead and undermine me again.”
“Shawna, I have bent over backward every time to support you, even when I’ve had a really hard time with that.” Mark felt his temper flaring. “You want to be undermined, I will show you undermining. You put a freaking spy cam in his bedroom for no good reason that I can see. You have repeatedly isolated this kid from the people he most wants to hang with, and then you bitch at me because I want to be supportive?”
“I’m supposed to let him keep pestering you when you’re the high and mighty president? And since when do you know anything about raising a teenager?”
“Apparently, I know more than you do since I’m the person he keeps running to when he’s had it up to his eyeballs with your repressive nonsense. But, hey, you’re his mother. I will respect that and put him on the first plane back to St. Paul. I won’t promise he’s going to stay there. But I will send him back because obviously, you know better.”
There was a click on the other end of the line. Shawna had hung up. Mark got up from his desk, took several deep breaths, then paced for a few minutes before he could get his focus back.
Sharon, for her part, hurried to the coffee shop/internet cafe where Matt said he was. Only about five blocks from the White House, it was a pretty typical place, with red bar stools lined along a counter and overstuffed sofas and chairs scattered about filled with patrons staring at laptops. Sharon looked around, searching for a teenager who, presumably, looked like the president. He found her first.
“Umm, Aunt Sharon?” asked the youth.
He had that lanky, rangy look many teen boys had, with deep green eyes like his uncle, although he was barely taller than Sharon. He had on a pair of khaki-colored cargo pants with a dark t-shirt and a plaid shirt over that, and the brittle veneer of false bravado.
“Matt?” Sharon asked back.
He nodded. “You sure look like Jodi.”
“And how would you know what Jodi looks like?” Sharon asked.
“Video chat.” Matt’s face scrunched into a perplexed frown.
“Oh. Right.” Sharon smiled, trying to look inviting. “Your uncle asked me to bring you in.”
Matt seemed to melt in front of her eyes.
Sharon scooped him into her arms. “It’s all right, Matt. You’re safe now. You’re safe.”
She held him for another minute until his shaking stopped.
“I am in so much trouble,” he sniffed.
“Yeah, probably,” Sharon said. “But let’s get you where we need to go. Where’s your stuff?”
“It’s all right here,” Matt said, disengaging. He held up his duffle bag.
“Good. Come on.”
“How mad is he?” Matt asked once they were on the street.
“Hard to say,” Sharon replied. “I mean he’s angry, but he was talking with your mother when I saw him.”
Matt strangled a sob. “Look, I had to leave. She put a spy cam in my room. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is? I couldn’t even change clothes in my own bedroom.”
“Sounds pretty horrible.”
“I don’t get it. I don’t do drugs. I don’t sleep around. I don’t get into fights. But it’s like she thinks I’m going to go off the rails at any second. And I’m not. I just don’t like the same people she does. Is that any reason to spy on me?”
Sharon sighed. “Of course not. But I’m not your mother.”
“Woh.” Matt suddenly stopped.
They had passed the k-rails blocking Pennsylvania Avenue from the area in front of the White House and were walking along the black wrought iron fence that separated the sidewalk from the North lawn and portico. Sharon found herself smiling at Matt’s awe.
“That’s really it, isn’t it?” Matt said.
“Yep. It is.”
“Man, that is so beyond awesome.” He grinned suddenly. “We’re going there, aren’t we?”
“Yeah.”
Matt suddenly paused. “I’m not sure what’s freaking me out more. That it’s the real White House or that my uncle is there waiting to kick my backside.”
Sharon patted his shoulder. “The White House part freaks us all out. As for your uncle and your backside, I can’t say he won’t, but I suspect he’ll at least be fair.”
“Fair?” Matt shook his head. “Okay, more fair than my mom, but, seriously, have you ever gotten him pissed at you? I mean really pissed?”
“Yes, and I just got pissed right back.”
“Seriously?”
“Yes, but I don’t recommend it as a strategy.” Sharon pushed him toward the guard station. “Now, let’s get it all over with.”
They first passed the entrance booth on the White House driveway, then as they entered the West Wing, security was waiting with Matt’s ID. Sharon was a little startled to see Riff Butler waiting for them, with a file folder in his hands.
“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” said the imposing African American gentleman. “The President asked me to take young Mr. Jerguessen upstairs.”
“Then I’ll leave him in your hands, Agent Butler.” Sharon turned to Matt. “Matt, this is Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, chief of security here at the White House. He’ll take you to your uncle.”
“Okay.” Matt smiled weakly at Sharon. “Um, thanks for coming to get me.”
Sharon smiled. He was a nice kid. “You’re very welcome, Matt. Good luck.”
Mark was in a meeting with five senators from the Health, Education, and Labor Pensions Committee when Gen Flowers slipped into the room and whispered in his ear.
“Thank you,” he said to Gen and got up. “Stay seated everyone. I have to step out for a few minutes.”
“A photo opp?” sniggered Senator Janet Marley, one of Mark’s opponents, although the two were friends.
Mark glared at her. “And you, more than most, know the value of that.” He got his temper back under control as the others gasped in surprise. “I shouldn’t be gone for more than twenty minutes. I realize that’s not much time, but I want to see some progress on getting this bill ready. Are we clear?”
He didn’t wait for the others to murmur their assent before heading off to the private quarters.
Riff was waiting in the upstairs hall as Mark came up the stairs. “Sir, he’s in the room, as you requested. But if I may…?”
Mark took the file folder from Riff. “What is this?”
“Your nephew, sir. There is probably good reason why he left.” Riff hesitated. “We keep dossiers on all your relatives to prevent people from using them to exploit you.”
“And this is Matt’s?” Mark opened the folder.
“The Senator and Mrs. Jerguessen’s, sir.”
Mark read over the report and whistled through his teeth. “This is not good.”
“No, sir. It is the recommendation of the Secret Service that your nephew not be returned to his parents.”
“Indeed.” Mark looked up at Riff, closed the folder and tapped it. “While I can see how this poses a threat to Matt, I don’t see how returning him to his folks poses a threat to me.”
A slight hint of a smile flickered across Riff’s face. “I got to know him during the campaign, sir. And you did ask me to show some concern for the people around you.”
“Thanks.”
Riff stepped aside and Mark paused before entering the room where Matt was. The contents of the folder made it clear that things were worse with Shawna’s drinking than Mark had thought and possibly Matt knew, and Harold’s neglect was possibly a greater blessing than hurt. Still, Mark would need their permission for Matt to stay and he’d already snapped at Shawna.
As soon as Matt saw his uncle, he scrambled up from the bed, heedless that his smartphone went flying. Wordlessly, the two hugged each other, with Mark hanging on even more tightly.
After several minutes, Matt pulled away.
“How much trouble am I in?” he asked.
Mark held back a smile – he had to spot the kid points for facing up to the worst of things.
“That’s hard to say,” Mark said slowly. “What you did was incredibly stupid.”
“But I was desperate!” Matt wailed.
Mark held his hand up. “I get that. But running away was not the smartest way to deal with it. For starters, it isn’t necessarily going to solve anything. If your parents insist on you going back, I cannot keep you here. I’m legally obligated to send you.” Mark put up his hand again as Matt started to protest. “We might be able to swing it, but it’s going to take some finesse, and your running away doesn’t help.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.” Matt slumped. “I made a plan and I made sure to try to contact Aunt June or you as soon as I could. I just couldn’t get through.”
“Well, I’m not going to reward stupidity. Are we clear on that?”
“Yes, sir.”
“I don’t particularly want to send you back to your folks, either.” Mark sighed as his phone pinged. “Look, I’ve gotta go get some senators to play nice with each other. In the meantime, you are confined to quarters. We’ll work out the rest of your punishment later, depending on what happens with your parents.” He bent over and grabbed Matt’s phone. “There will be no gadgets, either.”
“But I gotta let the others know I’m okay!”
“You can text Jodi and Tiffany this evening.”
“But what about Kira and Rebecca and Tony?”
“Who?”
“Kira Watanabe, Rebecca Cooper and Tony Garces. We’ve all been hanging out on video chat all spring. They’ll know about me being gone ‘cause Jodi and Tiffany will text them as soon as they can get off campus for lunch break.”
“All right. You can do a video chat tonight at six thirty.”
“Ten o’clock? I know it’s late, but Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast. That’s three hours behind and they’re not always home by 3:30.”
“Six thirty. I’ll have their aunt text them and let them know they need to be home on time. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”
Mark left, pulling his phone from his pocket. The ping was from Kent, asking about lunch and another meeting. Mark sighed and dialed his answer as he headed for the elevator. After that, he called Shawna but got no answer. He also tried Harold’s number, but got no answer there, either.
Sharon got the text from Mark and immediately texted her niece about the early video chat. She also called Solly to let the chef know that there was an extra guest in the White House, which it turned out, Solly had already found out. She had already sent up a large steak, with baked potato, salad and broccoli to Matt’s room and had quizzed him on his other favorites.
“Hmph,” Solly snorted to Sharon. “Somebody’s going to have to educate that boy. I mean, I expect a teenager to want hamburgers and pizza and that stuff. But he didn’t even know you could put blue cheese dressing on a steak, never mind not knowing what a gumbo is.”
“I guess you’ve got your work cut out for you, Solly,” Sharon replied, trying not to laugh. “Did he like the blue cheese?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s not picky. I’ll give him that. But he has got some learning to do.”
“True. Listen, it’s probably not my place, but the boss is not having a very good day. Think we can come up with something to cheer him up?”
“No problem. I might even boil up some potatoes for him to mash. You want to come to dinner?”
“Only if he asks me.”
“Uh-huh. He’ll ask.”
“I’ve got to run. Thanks, Solly.”
Late that afternoon, Karen Tanaka landed in Sharon’s office and shut the door.
“You are not going to believe this,” Karen said, slumping into the chair next to Sharon’s desk.
“Believe what?” Sharon finished yet another email, then turned to Karen.
“I know you know about Matt.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know you knew.”
Karen rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Jodi and Tiffany texted Kira this afternoon with the news – apparently, he’s been part of this video chat group with Coop’s kid Rebecca and Tony Garces.”
“I thought you were happy Kira has friends.”
“Not complaining about that part.” Karen suddenly got up and began pacing. “But I am ready to kill my kid. Do you want to know why Matt was able to get away so cleanly? It was Kira’s plan. She refuses to go to her father’s this summer. And the other kids were helping her. She said they were only going along with it so that Kira wouldn’t go off on her own.”
“Sounds about right,” said Sharon.
“What?” Karen whirled around and planted her hands on Sharon’s desk.
“I was going to get it clarified before I talked to you about it,” Sharon said slowly. “And the only reason I was going to do that was because I didn’t want to get you upset unnecessarily. But I did see a couple things a couple weekends ago that made me wonder if something was up. Then it kind of came out in the garble I got when the girls called me this morning to tell me about Matt.”
“Oh, my god!”
“Jodi told me the only reason they weren’t saying anything was that she and Tiffany didn’t want Kira to not trust them and then get into worse trouble. I thought she was talking about Matt, but I guess he used the plan they’d come up with for Kira.”
Karen sank back into the chair. “Now what do I do?”
“I’m probably not the best person to say, but maybe nothing for now. You’ve got time before Kira has to go to her father’s. And the good news is, the plan did work.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
Sharon hesitated. “Yeah. It got Matt safely into the care of trustworthy adults. He’s with us. He’s not on the streets prostituting himself or worse.”
Karen leaned forward and put her head in her hands. “This is a nightmare.” She looked up suddenly. “You think the boss is going to hate me because of this?”
“I don’t know. He’s pretty angry, but I think it’s mostly at his brother and sister-in-law. Did you know Matt’s been gone since Friday morning and they only noticed it today?”
“That poor kid. And Kira. You know, the worst of it is, I don’t entirely blame her. But I don’t dare encourage it.”
“No. But if the kids can put their heads together and come up with a smart way to do something insanely stupid, I’m sure we can come up with an alternative for Kira and Allie. We do have some time.”
Karen nodded and got up. “We do have that. Thanks, Share. I’d better get back to my office and see if there have been any leaks about Matt showing up on our doorstep.”
“Okay. See you.”
Mark, for his part, had a rather odd afternoon. He made several calls to his brother and sister-in-law, none of which were picked up or returned. He did call June and encouraged her to stay in California, where she was working on some project or other. After all, if Matt was going to be able to stay, he would still be in solitary confinement for a while, and if he wasn’t, he’d be gone by the time she got back to Washington.
Then he got a rather puzzling email from his brother. He replied in the affirmative and got no response to that. It being close to six-thirty at that point, he made his way up to the private quarters and Matt’s room.
Sharon was already there. She’d brought him a laptop that was set up to work with the White House wireless network, Matt having left his at home since, with all the tracking and blocking software, it was virtually useless. The two were chatting pleasantly when Mark walked in. Sharon immediately got to her feet and tried to nudge Matt to his.
“What?” Matt asked.
“Protocol,” Sharon hissed. “The President walks into a room, you stand and stay standing until directed to sit.”
Mark rolled his eyes as Matt, grinning, got to his feet. “Sit. Both of you.” He took a deep breath. “Matt, your dad finally emailed me. He’s going to be here Wednesday morning.”
“So am I going back?” Matt asked, suddenly anxious.
“I’m guessing not, but who knows.” Mark glanced at Sharon, then sighed. “I’m working on it. We may be able to swing it even without your folks’ permission, but it will make it a lot easier if we get it. In the meantime, you have a video chat to log into.”
Matt eagerly clicked into the chat room, hailed his friends, who noisily hailed back, then Matt picked up the laptop and swirled it slowly around the room to show everyone not only the room but who was in there. Sharon chuckled as Jodi gasped when she saw Mark.
“Hi, Aunt Sharon,” Tiffany suddenly hollered and the others sing-songed, “Hi, Aunt Sharon!” as well.
“Hi, guys,” Sharon said back. “Aren’t you going to say hi to Matt’s uncle?”
There was the sound of hissing and mumbling back and forth between Jodi and Tiffany and Kira and Rebecca (who were sharing a laptop).
“We can’t call him Uncle Mark!” someone hissed.
“Good evening, Mr. President,” said Tony, and then the others chimed in.
“I’m so glad you got there safely, Matt,” Tiffany said quickly.
“So, how much trouble are you in?” Tony asked.
The girls unilaterally began yelling at Tony, although it was Matt shouting over them that finally calmed them down.
Matt glanced up at his uncle. “I drew solitary confinement until further notice. With no gadgets.”
“Ow. That’s harsh.”
“It’s not unexpected,” said Rebecca. “What’s next?’
“We don’t know.”
As the teens chatted, Mark gestured at Sharon, who got up and joined him in the room’s doorway.
“You’ve got five minutes,” Mark announced to a chorus of protest.
But then the teens seemed to forget he was there as they returned to their conversation.
“That’s all right,” Sharon said softly to Mark. “I happen to know that Kira and Rebecca don’t have much time left, either. Parental reprisals.”
“Huh?”
“They were all in on it together, sort of,” Sharon said. She looked quickly at Matt. “Listen, Karen is freaking, but it’s connected to the custody case her ex brought against her. The court wants to enforce her ex’s visiting rights and Kira’s gone on record refusing to go. Karen’s worried you might be mad at her.”
Mark shook his head. “At Karen? Nah. I’m not even that mad at Kira and the others. It’s just really depressing to me that Matt felt this was his only option – and it damned near was.” He looked over at Matt. “Time’s up.”
There was another howl of protest, but Matt said goodbye, then handed over the laptop. Mark did take a moment to hug his nephew before he and Sharon left.
In the hall, he looked at Sharon. “Look, you’re already up here and in up to your neck. Want to stay for dinner?”
“Sure.” She chuckled softly. “So much for distance.”
Mark nodded. “I think you’re safe tonight. I am in no mood for anything remotely romantic or happy. Unless it involves strangling Matt’s parents.”
Solly was waiting for them in the upstairs kitchen with a pan of potatoes that needed mashing and some chicken breasts that needed pounding flat. Mark congratulated her on her choice and set to work pounding chicken meat until it was almost translucent.
Wednesday morning found Mark in a somewhat calmer frame of mind. Though he was still apprehensive – with Harold one never quite knew what was coming – Mark felt he’d at least had a chance to brace himself for the unpleasantness ahead.
After confirming that Harold had, indeed, gotten on the plane and that it was going to land at National Airport, Mark sent Sharon and Al Eddington to pick Harold up, apologizing ahead of time for what would probably not be a very pleasant encounter.
Sharon had dealt with all kinds of unpleasant older men and so wasn’t terribly worried about the president’s brother. Al, who had met Harold before, simply shrugged it off. After all, he and Harold probably had more in common than not, and Al seemed somewhat preoccupied.
“You okay?” Sharon asked in the car as it wound its way through the Washington traffic.
Al shrugged. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it.”
“Well, that’s…” Al looked over at Sharon and winced. “You’re going to just keep bugging me, aren’t you?”
“I might. Why don’t you just spill and avoid all the bugging?”
“It’s Caroline,” he sighed. “The biopsy on her lung came back positive yesterday.”
“Oh, Al, I’m so sorry.”
“They’ll be running some more tests tomorrow, but the doctor said that the prognosis is pretty decent.”
“How’s she dealing with it?”
Al snorted. “She’s great. I’m the one who’s falling apart. You know, I thought if we were going to deal with this, I was sure it was going to be breast cancer. I was ready to deal with that. But lung cancer? I’m the one who should have the lung cancer.”
“Actually, guys can get breast cancer,” Sharon said.
Al chuckled in spite of himself. “We’ll have to see about that. Thanks. And, uh, do you mind keeping this under your hat?”
“Of course,” Sharon said.
By that time, they had arrived at National Airport and were let off near the baggage claim for the flight Harold Jerguessen was on. Al saw the president’s brother first. Harold Jerguessen was tall, but with sharply receding light brown hair and thick jowls. In spite of expensive custom tailoring, his suits always seemed rumpled and ill-fitting. He carried a tan leather messenger bag that wasn’t quite bulging.
As a state senator in Minnesota, Harold used his slightly rumpled look to seem more folksy and in touch with his constituents than he actually was. He mostly rode along to election on his brother’s name and a love of publicity and a good sound bite. Harold was good at sound bites.
Al approached and greeted Harold, who responded amiably enough, but Sharon caught a flicker of annoyance in Harold’s green eyes as if he just barely tolerated Al. Al introduced Sharon.
“So why’d you bring your secretary?” Harold asked Al, as he covered Sharon with an appraising smirk.
“I’m one of Al’s colleagues on the advisory board,” Sharon said pleasantly. “Do we need to wait for your luggage?”
“Didn’t bring any with me,” Harold snarled, then turned to Al. “I’m only staying the night.”
Al had already signaled the car and it pulled around so that the three of them could get in. Harold spent the drive back to the White House chatting about nothing with Al and ignoring Sharon, who took advantage of it to surreptitiously answer a few emails.
When her phone rang, she looked at the readout and lightly coughed.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, I really have to take this,” she said.
“Ah, it’s just my kid brother,” said Harold with a forced chuckle.
“I’m afraid it’s the Chinese ambassador,” Sharon said. “Excuse me.”
She quickly switched to Chinese as Harold glowered. They pulled up at the White House and through the gate as Sharon finished her call.
Al silently dismissed her as they got out of the car.
“I’ll take you to the Oval Office, Senator,” Al said, leading the way.
When Kent announced Harold’s arrival, Mark put his tablet down and told Kent to send his brother in immediately. Harold swaggered into the office and looked around appraisingly.
“Nice set up you got here,” said Harold with a nod.
“Thank you,” said Mark. “Would you like some coffee?”
“I don’t need anything.” Harold plopped down on one of the couches and began fishing through his inside jacket pocket. “Nice piece of meat you sent to meet me at the airport.”
“She’s a valued member of my staff.” Mark remained standing behind his desk, holding on to his temper with both hands.
“And how is she in bed?” Harold pulled a cigar out and bit the end off.
“I wouldn’t know.”
Harold lit his cigar off a match and looked around. “Where’s the ashtray?”
“Since the employees chose to ban smoking indoors at the White House, I don’t have one.”
“You should have one for people who smoke. It’s rude not to.” Harold dumped the match on the coffee table and let out another puff of pungent smoke. “Anyway, I’ve got meetings on the Hill, so let’s just cut to the chase.” He got a standard letter-sized envelope out of the messenger bag and tossed it on the coffee table. “Since you’ve been wanting to undermine us ever since Matt was born, we’re going to let you have him.”
“Really.”
“Terms are there in that envelope.”
“I see.” Mark walked over and picked up the envelope. “All right. I’ll look these over and get back to you in the morning. I just want to be clear on everything.”
“So you’re going to take him?” Harold sounded surprised.
Mark looked his brother over. Apparently, Harold hadn’t expected Mark to want Matt.
“Yes, assuming you are okay with that. You are his father.”
“I wrote up the terms. You just sign the paperwork and we’ll be good to go.”
“I’ll do that,” said Mark, trying to keep his voice even. “See you in the morning?”
Harold struggled into a standing position. “Yes.”
“You said you had meetings. I can arrange to have dinner at whatever time is good for you. And there is a room ready for you. Breakfast is at seven or you can order it sent up at whatever time you prefer.”
Harold paused. Mark could see him mulling over the options.
“I’ll be back for dinner at seven,” he announced. “And I gotta go. See you.”
“Your Secret Service detail will have your car brought around and see you out.”
Harold snorted. “What? You can’t trust your own brother to walk around on his own?”
“Yes,” Mark said, even though he didn’t. “The detail is for your protection. Standard operating procedure around here.”
Harold snorted again and swaggered out of the office. Mark waited until the door was shut and stayed shut before calling Johnnie.
“Yes, sir?” she asked when she picked up.
“I’ve got some highly confidential papers that I need White House counsel to go over with a fine-tooth comb,” Mark told her. “I’ll send Gen with them, but I need them before the end of business. Can you let them know?”
“I most certainly can, sir.” Johnnie paused. “I saw on the run-down that Matt’s dad was supposed to come by and I think I caught a whiff of cigar smoke in the hall.”
“You did.”
“Need to vent?”
Mark chuckled. “Probably, but I don’t have time. In any case, he’s gone until dinner time and even odds he won’t show then. He left some papers for me to sign so that I can keep Matt here.”
“Gotcha.” Johnnie sighed. “I’ll have Voskovich sift through every letter.”
As it turned out, Mark was right and Harold did not show for dinner. He didn’t even stay the night at the White House. Matt took it philosophically and didn’t ask if Mark knew where his father was.
Mark knew, thanks to Harold’s security detail. He wasn’t sure he knew what he was going to do about it until the next morning when he had a quick meeting with Mila Voskovich, one of the attorneys that served to help represent the president with any potential legal issues. Voskovich had the changes made and the paperwork was printed out on Kent’s printer long before Harold arrived at 11 a.m., demanding to see Mark.
“Well? Did you sign those papers?” Harold said as he entered the Oval Office.
“Yes, but White House counsel insisted I make a few changes that you will need to initial,” Mark replied, picking the paperwork up off his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat?”
“Sheez, Mark. I’m your brother. You’re supposed to trust your family,” Harold complained as he stayed standing.
“Right now, I can’t enter into any contracts without approval from White House counsel,” Mark replied, not at all sure he was unable to do so.
“So much for leader of the free world,” Harold snorted. “You’re such a pansy, Mark.”
“Actually, there were only two clauses changed – the ones that have me paying you to raise your son. And, frankly, Harold, while I am only too happy to help out with Matthew, I see no reason to why I should pay you for the privilege. Now, if you’ll just initial here and here.”
Harold glared at him. “What if I don’t?”
“Harold, you were gone all night last night and you’re wearing the same suit you wore yesterday.” Mark sighed. “As in I know exactly where you went last night with your buddy Representative Chuck Meyers.”
“So you’re blackmailing me.”
Mark chuckled coldly. “I don’t have to blackmail you, Harold. But I can offer you a choice. Given that you haven’t even bothered to say hello to your own son, given your wife’s drinking problem and given your behavior last night, I think I could make an excellent case for having Matthew removed from your home. Now, I’m perfectly happy going through the courts, if I have to, but I know you’ve got a tough campaign coming up next year. So we can either do this quietly and privately, with the terms you have mostly specified, or we do it publicly.”
“You don’t want DeeDee?”
“I’m happy to have her. However, she did not come to me for help and she is close enough to 18 that it’s really moot at this point.” Mark stared Harold down.
Harold shifted uncomfortably as he thought things over, then snatched the papers from Mark’s hand and flipped through them.
“There are two copies there, one for each of us,” Mark said.
“I can see that.” Harold went over to the desk, looked for a pen, then pulled open the top drawer and got one out. “You know, Mark, one of these days, someone is going to show you up for the mean, manipulative son of a bitch that you are.”
Mark took another deep breath. “I don’t doubt it. Thank you, Harold. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting. Did you want to see Matthew?”
“I’ve got a plane to catch,” Harold grumbled as Mark looked over the papers.
He snatched the set Mark handed back to him and stormed out of the room. Mark sighed, took a very deep breath, then went to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopping only to call Jean Bouyer and ask her to keep an eye out for any potential statements from Harold.

June had her mind on only one thing as she slid out of the limousine outside of the family entrance to the White House – seeing her nephew. Which is why she didn’t see her oldest brother until he was almost, literally, on top of her. At first, Harold seemed angry, but he suddenly broke into a smile.
“June! Long time no see.” He held out his arms. “How about a hug for your big brother?”
June tried to back away, but with a whole crowd of West Wing employees and her own assistants standing around, she suddenly caved and gave Harold a quick embrace.
“Hey, Harold,” she said, choking back the sick feeling in her gut and quickly pushing away from him. “I’m so sorry. I’ve got to get upstairs.”
Harold held her for a second, then let go with a snort. “You know, it’s really sad how little respect I get from my own family.”
“I’m sorry, Harold,” June said over her shoulder as she hurried away.
Upstairs, she sent her assistants to their offices, then went on to her rooms and shut the door. She fought to get the sick feeling under control, but she still felt unclean and ugly, never mind that it was just a hug. And even then, she could have and should have simply refused. She knew she had the power to do that much. She should have. What was wrong with her that she kept giving him that much power over her?
June knew she should have reached for her phone, but unfortunately, she looked in the mirror. Fortunately, she remembered that moment very clearly. Five minutes later, she was all smiles and giving Matthew a big hug.

Chapter Twenty-Three

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

The Presidential party arrived home from the Middle East on Friday with some acclaim and kudos. At the press conference, Mark insisted on congratulating Sharon and her staff, especially Faiza. But he had another surprise for Sharon up his sleeve for Saturday.

He had told her that he would send a car for her in the morning, so Sharon was not terribly surprised to find a White House official driver knocking on her door at nine am. She was surprised when the car pulled up to Andrews Air Force Base, then slid on through the gates and around the base buildings until it pulled up onto a deserted runway. Waiting next to the Presidential limo was Mark chatting amiably with Eddie Cooper, while Rebecca Cooper and Kira Watanabe whispered amongst themselves. Sharon wasn’t sure but thought she saw Rebecca put something into Kira’s hand. Near the limo, a small burgundy sedan sat ready.

“And there she is,” said Mark as Sharon got out of the car.

“I am, and what is this?” Sharon answered.

“We thought we’d have driving lessons today,” said Mark. “Rebecca’s almost old enough to get her license. Kira’s ready for a learner’s permit. And you don’t know how to drive yet, either. So why not have a little driving school.”

“Why not?” asked Sharon as Eddie ambled forward. “Maybe because you’re assuming that I want to learn how to drive? And I don’t?”

“You don’t want to drive?” asked Rebecca. Both hers and Kira’s mouths all but hung open with the shock.

“What’s the problem, Wheaties?” Eddie asked, jovially.

“No problem,” Sharon answered, trying to sound pleasant in spite of her annoyance. “I get around quite nicely and thus see no reason to learn how to drive.”

“Everybody should know how to drive,” said Mark. “It’s a basic life skill.”

“I’m doing pretty darned well without it,” Sharon said. “Seriously, when was the last time either of you heard me bumming a ride?” She paused. “I take public transportation or I call a car service. I sometimes even take cabs. Trust me, if I can make it work in Southern California, I can make it work anywhere.”

“But how can you not want to drive?” Kira said, her voice filled with the utter horror of one who has waited her entire life to get behind the wheel.

Sharon sighed. “Well, I didn’t get the chance to learn when I was younger. I was in boarding school in Switzerland when I was sixteen. Then after that, there wasn’t time while I was getting my degree. And then I was busy working and there just really wasn’t any reason to.”

Mark flashed a mischievous grin at her. “Oh, really?”

Sharon flushed. “Okay. The few times I did try to learn… Things happened. Not every time. But let’s just say driving is not my gift.”

“I get it,” said Eddie. “We got a little phobia going on here.”

“Not a phobia, just a preference.”

“Prove it,” said Mark.

“All right. Fine.” Sharon put her hands up in defeat. “But you guys are going to regret it.”

For the first hour or so, things ran very smoothly. Rebecca even demonstrated her mastery of the three-point turnabout, while Sharon and Kira took turns driving slowly and stopping over and over again. Eddie insisted that the most important part of driving was learning how to stop the car and insisted that all three students learn how to come to a smooth, controlled stop before doing anything else.

Eventually, however, he did have Sharon speed up a little. Mark was in the back seat with Kira and Rebecca while Eddie rode shotgun. He pushed Sharon to forty miles an hour when there was a loud bang and the car careened out of control. Fortunately, there was nothing to hit on the runway, but the car didn’t stop until it rolled onto the pebbled field alongside. The airbags blew and when the dust settled, there was a brief moment of silence.

“Don’t—” began Eddie.

“I’m saying it,” snapped Sharon. “I told you so.”

Rebecca and Kira began chattering and as Eddie began to ask if everyone was all right, the back seat door slammed open.

“Sir! Are you all right?” barked Riff Butler. “Get the medics over here!”

“I’m fine, Riff,” Mark said mildly as he shifted.

“Don’t move, sir,” Riff snapped.

“Excuse me,” snarled Mark. “There are four other people in this car, any one of whom could be injured. If I say I’m fine, I’m fine. Everybody else okay?”

There were murmurs that of general okay-ness, although Sharon did have a bloody nose. Riff continued to check Mark out until he flat out commanded Riff to look Sharon over, since she plainly had the most serious hurt, and it wasn’t even that serious. Within a minute or two, the blood flow was staunched and everyone slowly stumbled out of the car and stretched.

“May I ask what happened?” Sharon said.

“Front passenger tire blew,” one of the Secret Service agents said.

“Don’t—” began Eddie again.

“I told you so,” Sharon said anyway.

The medics cleared her first, and then checked the girls and Eddie only because Mark flat out refused help until the others were checked, much to Riff’s annoyance. Other agents were already combing the runway. One bent and picked something up, then hollered. A minute later, Riff came up with a bent piece of metal about the size of his hand.

“Looks like this is what you hit,” he said. “Hate to say it, but good thing you found it and not one of our planes.”

Sharon shuddered. “Thanks, Agent Butler, but that’s not helping.”

“I think we’ve had enough driving for one day,” Mark said.

Kira giggled. “What about getting back on the horse? We could let Sharon drive the limo.”

Rebecca giggled as well.

Mark glanced over at Riff, who was not laughing.

“I think I’ll pass,” said Sharon. “I would like to go home and get into a clean top if I could.”

“Sure.” Mark waved over the car Sharon had arrived in. The girls went with her and convinced Sharon to call June so that the four of them could have lunch together. Sharon insisted on inviting Rebecca’s mother, Cordelia, and Karen, as well, then called a local restaurant that could deliver lunch to her townhouse.

Back at the White House, Mark called Riff up to his study.

“Riff, I appreciate that I am the priority, but this morning was not acceptable,” Mark said. “If there are other people around in a situation, there has got to be a way to make sure everyone gets care, not just me.”

“I understand, sir,” said Riff.

“Do you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mark looked Riff over dubiously. “You know I’m getting a really stubborn vibe from you. I know you’ve done this before, but I’m not convinced you understand what I’m worried about. Do you have any clue how bad it would look if someone else died or was hurt worse because you guys were taking care of me? Let alone how bad that would make me feel. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

“We have procedures for that, sir.”

“Then how come I haven’t seen them?”

Riff’s sigh was almost imperceptible. “I’ll take that into account, sir.”

Mark dismissed him, still feeling nettled.

At Sharon’s townhouse, the women were laughing heartily over the lesson.

“Okay,” said Karen, as she and the others piled different toppings on their hot dogs and french fries. “I have to say, it is a little weird that you don’t drive, Sharon.”

“Maybe, but it’s not like I can’t get around,” Sharon said. “Is there any more chili?”

“Here,” said Cordelia, a tall woman with dark, rich skin and straightened hair. “What I don’t get is why Eddie and Mark decided you needed to.”

“It’s gotta be a guy thing,” said Sharon. “Women I know think it’s weird, but usually leave it at that. Guys have to teach me how to drive.”

“Didn’t you ever want to drive?” Kira asked, still a little in shock that someone wouldn’t.

“You know, I don’t remember being that excited about it for some reason,” Sharon said. “I was still living in Italy when I turned 14, so you’d think it would have rubbed off on me. But then, I could get pretty much anywhere I wanted without a car, so it never really occurred to me that I needed one. And European kids aren’t usually quite as car crazy as American kids are because they can’t start driving until they’re eighteen.”

Kira and Rebecca just looked at each other and shook their heads. Later, they landed in the living room, apart from the adults, and as Sharon passed the open doorway, she couldn’t help overhearing bits and pieces of their conversation.

“Matt said he got a library card with his no problem,” Rebecca was saying.

Sharon couldn’t make out Kira’s reply.

“Well, it’ll make it harder to track you,” Rebecca said.

She looked up, saw Sharon and started. Kira bounced around, then started giggling nervously.

“As you were,” said Sharon.

But as she returned to the dining room, she wondered just what the girls had been talking about and whether Matt was June’s nephew Matt or not.

Two days later, in Pasadena, Jody and Tiffany got called into the assistant principal’s office at their school. Mrs. Landry was a plump Black woman with tight curls in a shorter cut. Her round shape, however, belied just how tough she could be. The problem was, she wasn’t sure just how tough to be on Jody and Tiffany, who were hardly regulars in her office, even though Mrs. Landry knew them fairly well.

“Ladies,” she said. “Please be seated.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured as they sat in the chairs in front of the desk.

“I just got a call from a Mrs. Harold Jerguessen,” Mrs. Landry said. “She was trying to reach the parents of one of our students, a Jasmine Thomas. Now, we don’t have a student registered here by that name, and I told Mrs. Jerguessen that. She insisted that we did, or at least there was a Jasmine Thomas on Facebook who said she was a student here. I didn’t have much to say to that, and we hung up. But as I thought about it, I did remember a certain social studies project last year that you two were working on.”

Jody gulped and turned pale.

“We didn’t close the account,” said Tiffany. “We’re still gathering data.”

“Mm-hm,” Mrs. Landry replied.

“Most people have figured out that she’s an avatar,” Tiffany said. “They may not know who she is, but they have mostly caught on to the joke.”

“Well, Mrs. Jerguessen said that she was concerned because her son Matthew has been spending a lot of time calling and chatting with this Miss Thomas and she wanted to meet the young lady’s parents. What do you two know about that?”

“We don’t know anything,” said Tiffany.

But Mrs. Landry caught the slight emphasis on the word “know,” and pressed her lips together.

“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Tiffany said.

“No, you haven’t,” Mrs. Landry said. “But we agreed that if I got calls from parents, you’d close the account.”

“Please, Mrs. Landry,” Jody burst out. “We need to keep it open. For Matt’s sake. His mom is really mean and won’t let him call his aunt and uncle or have the friends he wants to have. And she spies on him all the time, and it’s not like he’s doing anything wrong.”

“That you know of,” said Mrs. Landry. “Well, if you want to keep Jasmine Thomas, I can’t tell you not to. But I can ask you to send her to another school. We don’t want to encourage misrepresentation. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured.

As soon as they were dismissed, Tiffany hurried to the edge of the school campus.

“We’ve got to text Matt and let him know his mother is onto us,” she said frantically scanning for teachers.

“Go ahead,” said Jody. “I’ll keep watch.”

Tiffany skittered through the touch screen on her phone, cursing as she mistyped. A couple minutes later, the phone chirped as Matt’s reply arrived.

“Okay, he’s been warned. He’s going to let his uncle know and hope for the best,” Tiffany said. “We’d better get back to class before we’re spotted.”

In Minnesota, Matt put off going home as long as he could, but his mother was still waiting for him with a new phone and a new laptop. She insisted that he turn over his current models, then sent him to his room, where an even more unpleasant surprise awaited him. There was a new book on his shelf, one that had a small camera in its spine.

The loss of his laptop and phone were only the least of the losses for Matt. There was the loss of being able to get dressed in his own bedroom – he had checked out his bathroom and there weren’t any cameras there that he could find. Not that he had let his mother know that he knew about her spy cam. It was insulting enough that she’d put an extra book on his shelf as if she’d assumed he didn’t read enough to notice.

But worse than even the spy cam was the loss of his special email account, where not only did he have all his back email, he also had all his contact information for his friends and his relatives – the ones he really wanted, as opposed to the people his mother expected him to like. Somehow, someway, he hadn’t covered his tracks well enough and his mother’s computer guru had not only found the account, he’d shut it down.

At least, thanks to Jody and Tiffany, he’d been able to warn everyone that he was likely to be on radio silence. And for some reason, he’d memorized Tiffany’s mobile phone number. But he didn’t dare call it, mostly because when Tiffany was able to answer, he was at home in his room being spied upon.

He knew what he had to do and while he was pretty worried about how his aunt and uncle would react, he couldn’t see any other options. The trick was how to pull together the necessary cash and pay-as-you-go phone and make the right reservations without alerting his mother. She had already had his locker searched at school, and he knew she’d been going through his room even more thoroughly than before. She’d even searched his car – he’d smelled the remnants of her perfume and stale vodka.

Then, on the first of June, luck fell into Matt’s lap – one of his classmates with whom he’d been friendly was leaving school two weeks early, as she did every year to spend the summer on her father’s archaeological dig.

“They always make me do this,” she groaned. “I think it’s their way of punishing me for getting out early. Anyway, they won’t let me turn in my books until the last day, so I have to find someone who will do it for me since I’ll be in the Northwest Territories. I just leave them in my locker, so you don’t even have to keep them. All you have to do is get them and turn them in during assembly period, like usual. Here’s my combination.”

Matt agreed and began working the plan. In just under two weeks, he’d pulled almost two thousand dollars in cash from his bank account. He’d researched bus, train, and plane travel and decided that not only was the bus cheaper, it wasn’t that much slower than by train and it was less conspicuous than flying. Granted, he did have a very good fake ID that Tony Garza had gotten him before things had blown up, but there seemed to be no point in pushing the issue. Matt also bought a cheap smartphone with a pay-as-you-go plan but sighed when he realized he didn’t really have anybody to call.

The next part was a little trickier, but he decided that if he timed it right, it would be worth the risk. Fortunately, it wasn’t that unusual for him to dribble a basketball or toss a baseball around in his room. He had never had an accident with the ball before, but late Thursday night, before the last day of school, the ball slipped from his hand and hit the bookshelf where the camera was. Cursing loudly for his mother’s sake, he righted the shelf and put all the fallen books back up, willy-nilly, with the camera book’s spine to the wall just in case the camera was still working.

He waited for a good hour, then crept out of his bedroom and checked his mother’s room. His father was staying in St. Paul, as usual, ostensibly to be close to the State Capitol. His mother, as usual, was sound asleep and likely to remain so until fairly late in the morning, especially given the empty vodka bottle on her nightstand.

Matt packed relatively lightly. Fortunately, the last day of school was a free dress day, so he wouldn’t have to wear his uniform and jeans were allowed. It wasn’t like he was going to stay the whole day, anyway, just long enough to drop off books and get his stuff. He finished packing, left his mother a note that implied he was staying the weekend with a friend, and at the normal time, got in his car and went to school.

The morning went smoothly, and as soon as Matt thought he could get away unnoticed, he slid out and got in his car. He did stop by his bank to pull another thousand dollars out of his account. He’d practiced a story about getting a new computer, but the teller never even noticed that he was under-age and gave him the cash.

He parked his car outside the home of one of the guys his mother had always wanted him to hang with, then got his duffel bag and walked quickly away to the local bus line, and once the bus finally showed, he headed out to the Minneapolis bus station, via the local commuter train.

The freedom was both exhilarating and frightening. But he’d traveled on his own before, usually just to visit one or the other of his grandmothers, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Or at least, that’s what he told himself.

He made the bus to Chicago just in time and it wasn’t until he’d made the transfer in Chicago to the New York bus that he began to relax, and in fact, fell sound asleep. It was still a very long ride and the bus didn’t arrive in New York City until late Saturday afternoon. Stiff and a little intimidated by the rush of people and the general skankiness of the bus terminal, Matt debated calling Tiffany to see if she could get him in contact with Jody’s father, who supposedly lived in the city. But just then he saw a concert poster and remembered that Michael Wheatly was on tour someplace on the West Coast that weekend.

So Matt went ahead and headed for Times Square and after walking around a bit, found a reasonably priced hotel with free wi-fi and a computer room. From there, he looked up his aunt’s company’s address and phone number and tried to see if he could get her office. All he got was a voice recording asking him to call back later.

He sighed. There were decent odds she wasn’t even in New York at that time. He had no idea where she lived when she was in town and given the cost of hotels, he doubted he could afford to stay more than a night or two to wait for her. He did some research, then decided to wait one more day, then head to Washington, DC. At least, he had several friends there and a good idea of how to find them.

Chapter Twenty-Two

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.

Sharon couldn’t believe she was on another date with Max Epstein. But there he was, across the cocktail table at the Press Club bar, in full monolog. He had called on Wednesday and after the Correspondents Dinner, Sharon had decided he deserved another chance. So she’d accepted and was sorely wishing she hadn’t.

“Max,” Sharon said suddenly, getting up. “Can we go for a walk?”

“Uh, sure,” Max jumped up and followed her out of the bar.

It was still early that Saturday evening. The mid-May weather was warm enough to be comfortable, but without the miserable humidity of full summer. Traffic on the street was light and the sidewalks were largely empty. There were always tourists in D.C., but the summer rush hadn’t yet begun.

“I’m thinking if we head this way, we can have dinner at Stradiman’s,” Max began as the two left the building.

Sharon put her hand on his arm and squeezed. “I’m thinking not.”

“Huh?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Max, I don’t get it. You’re a nice guy.”

Max slumped. “Oh, great. You’re dumping me.”

“Now, wait a minute!” Sharon glared at him, then began walking. “There’s nothing here to dump. We’re friends.”

“I thought we were dating.”

Sharon shook her head. “It was borderline at best. And don’t try to bust my hump for leading you on. You didn’t even get a kiss goodnight those other two times.”

“So, if we’re not dating, why are you giving me the breakup speech?”

Sharon winced. “Because you’re making me crazy, Max. We go out. You take over. You ramble on without listening to a word I say. And yet, you’re not like that normally. I heard you last week. You were funny. You listened to everyone else. You were great. So what gives? Why are you such a pain in the ass to date, but perfectly fun to be around otherwise?”

“I don’t take over.”

“Max, you choose the venue. You tell me what I want off the menu. You tell me what wine to drink with it. I’m beginning to feel like I’m not necessary.”

Max slumped even further into himself. “Women like a strong decisive guy.”

“It depends on how strong and decisive,” Sharon said.

“But you called me those first two times.”

“I know.” Sharon bit her lip. “I probably shouldn’t have. I was just…”

“Just what?”

They stopped at a street light and Sharon gazed at the traffic.

“I was just trying to prove to myself that I’m not in love with someone else.” She suddenly growled. “And it’s not who you think it is.”

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” Max grumbled. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

“Because I didn’t want to admit it to myself.” Sharon sniffed and blinked back tears. “I was trying to convince myself that you were closer to the kind of guy I want. But, no. I’m falling for the guy who’s unavailable again. And then I go and hurt you. I’m so sorry. I just can’t do this. I’ve tried settling and believe me, that didn’t work out. Which is probably why I’m so cranky about your control issues.”

Max snorted. “Except that you’re not the first woman to tick me off for that. I’m sorry, too. I didn’t think I was that nervous going out with you, but I always start chattering and taking over when I’m nervous.”

“Maybe we could just go out as friends.”

“No.” Max sighed and shook his head. “If I’m really honest, it wasn’t you, per se, making me nervous. You’re just the first… Well, I got really turned around right before Christmas last year. Family crap.”

“Sounds unpleasant.”

“It was. Anyway, I thought I was past the crappy parts. You may have heard, I don’t have a good rep with women.”

“Multiple times.”

“Yeah, well, It’s kind of a problem I have. My dad was kinda down on women. He always blamed it on my mother leaving us.” Max frowned and swallowed. “Only I found out this year that he hadn’t exactly been honest about what happened.”

“Oh, dear.”

“It gets worse. I finally decided to look for my mother – my last girlfriend said I needed to get over my mommy issues. My mother’s tried to contact me off and on since I became an adult, but I never responded because Dad had always told me how controlling and mean she was. And I was angry that she’d abandoned me. So I’m looking through the court records for their divorce and find out she left because Dad was hitting her – there were pictures. And she’d taken me with her. I was only two at the time, so I don’t remember any of this. Anyway, then I find an old warrant for Dad’s arrest on kidnapping charges. Turns out when he was transferred by the Air Force to Germany, he took me from my mother and she couldn’t get me back because the Air Force wasn’t willing to enforce the custody order. And that’s probably why Dad stayed. He couldn’t go back because of the kidnapping warrant.”

“That’s harsh.”

“Yep.”

“Have you connected with your mother yet?”

“Yeah. It’s been going really well. One of the reasons I thought I was ready to start dating again.” Max laughed bitterly. “I’m guessing I wasn’t.”

“Well, I’m guessing my taste for the unattainable didn’t help.” Sharon looked up and saw a small Spanish restaurant next to them. “Why don’t we just have dinner here – strictly friends and we can talk about our respective issues and why we’re terrible for each other.”

Max laughed. “Yeah, what the hell.”

Late the next day, Sunday, the President and staff members boarded Air Force One for a five-day tour of the Middle East. Sharon rode on board with the executive staff, while Faiza Moussel had gone on ahead to the first stop Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Monday was filled with talks, but successful ones, then there was a busy day in Jordan, and a very tense day in Palestine, Wednesday, because Mark’s visit was setting a historical precedent.

That night, after a debriefing session with the full staff in the hotel suite’s conference room, Mark left first, then quietly returned when he noticed that Sharon hadn’t left yet. She was still sitting at the conference table, talking in Spanish on her mobile phone. The room was relatively small, but decked out in gold and red, in spite of the modern furniture.

Mark stood next to the door, nodding when Sharon noticed he was there, and trying to indicate that she should finish her call. She nodded and continued her conversation for another couple minutes, then hung up and held up a finger while she made several notes.

“Yes, sir?” Sharon asked as she finished.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Mark said, trying to sound casual.

“It’s been pretty busy.” Sharon fidgeted with her pen.

“Maybe. But you’ve still been avoiding me.” Mark moved over to the table and sat down. “I’m not worried, per se. I just wanted to be sure nothing’s wrong.”

“There’s nothing any more wrong than there ever has been,” Sharon said. “I just… It…” She looked over at him. “I just had to face facts Friday night about my issues with the unattainable. It’s my pattern. The guys I tend to fall for all seem to have some particular baggage that I just can’t work around. Mostly, they’re famous.”

“Could it be a secret longing for fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve dealt with it. It wasn’t fun and I don’t want to deal with it again. Maman says that it’s because everyone in our family, we’re all such over-achievers, that’s the kind of guy I like and a good chunk of the time, the fame is part of it.”

“Like your famous brother.”

“Yeah. The running gag until I got this job was that I was the underachiever in the family,” Sharon smiled softly. “I think it has more to do with that I’m the only one of my sibs who isn’t an artist. I mean, it wasn’t like they thought I wasn’t doing anything. That was the joke – I was way ahead of my peers. But because Michael and Susan were both at the top of their fields and I was still just a VP with a ways still to go up the career ladder, it seemed like I wasn’t doing that much. Then when Sarah started her Ph.D. work, plus selling through some major galleries, well, you get the picture.”

“You’re a pretty intense bunch.”

“So what’s your pattern of baggage?” Sharon forced a smile.

“My pattern, huh?” Mark leaned back in his chair and pressed his lips together. He debated telling her the truth but decided it wasn’t the time. Besides, it wasn’t as though he had other issues. “I, uh, tend to do the love at first sight thing and flame out quickly.”

Sharon winced. “Oh.”

“That’s a big reason why we’re not having a relationship right now. I don’t want to do that to you.” He smiled at her softly. “Not exactly breaking our patterns here, are we?”

“I suppose not.” Sharon looked down at her notes.

Mark reached over and touched her hand. “Maybe it’s not the patterns that are the problem.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s you and falling for the guy who’s famous. It’s your attitude toward that fame that’s the issue, not that you shouldn’t be liking him. In my case, it’s not the falling in love that’s the problem, but rushing into it without… Without doing what we’re doing.”

“Which is?”

“Building a friendship, I hope. Learning to like each other before letting the chemistry carry us away.”

“And what about my thing with not wanting to deal with your fame?” Sharon finally looked up and watched his eyes.

Mark yawned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Truth be told, I have no idea. But I suspect that with enough time, you’ll figure it out. And fortunately for you, time is our best option, right?”

Sharon nodded. “Assuming we can hold out. Anyway, it’s late. You’re tired and we might have an issue with Mexico again.”

“Shavings.” Mark stood up and flinched slightly as Sharon bounced up with him. “We’d better get to bed then. Good night.”

“Good night, sir.”

He smiled as Sharon left without waiting for him.

Sharon left, dialing Washington, DC. Her conversation with Karen Tanaka was brief and to the point, which wasn’t unusual in itself. But something didn’t feel right. So Sharon texted June, who was in New York again, then went to bed.

At four o’clock the next afternoon, in Washington, June knocked on the door to Karen Tanaka’s office. It was cramped, like everyone else’s office, but it had a window looking out onto the south lawn and a more square shape. Karen had painted the walls a rich, creamy yellow and brought in a glass and brushed chrome desk, complemented by an ebony black entertainment unit on the side wall with a bank of four televisions, each on its own shelf one on top of the other. A simple ikebana arrangement of spring flowers adorned the desk. Framed photos of her daughters dotted the walls.

Karen admitted June with a listless smile.

“What’s going on?” June asked.

Karen looked away. “What do you mean?”

“Sharon texted me last night that something didn’t feel right when she called you yesterday.” June slid onto the small black leather chair in front of the desk and set her purse on the floor next to her. “She thought something might be wrong.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it, June,” Karen said with a soft sigh.

“Okay,” June said grabbing her purse and getting up. “I suppose I have to respect that.”

“June. Wait.” Karen slowly put down the lid on her laptop. “I’m sorry.”

June looked down onto Karen’s desk and saw the legal papers there. Karen saw June’s eyes, then sniffed.

“Yeah, that’s a court filing,” Karen said softly. “It’s my ex. George. He’s suing for custody of the girls.”

“Ouch,” said June, slowly sitting down again.

“It’s nothing he hasn’t done before,” Karen said, slumping back in her chair. “We’ve been through this twice since the divorce.”

“And yet you were able to move here with the girls.”

Karen nodded. “He threatened to sue when I got this job, but I not so delicately pointed out that he’s already blown three court-ordered evaluations.”

“Three?”

“The first when we first got divorced, then the two other times.”

“So if he’s blown three evaluations, what are you worried about?”

“It’s always a little dicey,” Karen said. “Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to interpreting best interests of the children and the evaluation. Which is why George keeps filing. He keeps hoping he’s going to get a sympathetic judge.” Karen handed June the papers. “And it looks like this time he may have.”

“Oh?” June thumbed through the papers.

“My attorney called just a bit ago. There was a surprise temporary order hearing this morning. It was just luck that I got the summons yesterday, and I called Lewis immediately. So he was able to get in on the hearing. He called just now. It is not looking good.”

“They can’t hold hearings without notifying the other side.”

“In child custody cases, they can.” Karen came around the desk and plopped into the leather chair next to June. “It’s the temporary emergency order thing – the idea is to protect kids from a potentially violent parent.”

“But you’re not violent,” June said.

“They can do it for other reasons. According to Lewis, George’s attorneys are arguing that I brought the girls here to DC against his permission and that he signed the agreement under duress. Which he kind of did.” Karen tightened her lips. “Lewis said this new firm that George has, they’re scorched earth specialists. And Lewis can’t prove it, but they just happened to get a judge who’s notorious for giving the fathers custody if they show the slightest interest in the kids, never mind what the evaluations show.”

“Well, the girls are old enough, the judge will have to listen to what they say, and based on what I heard last month, they’re not too excited about being with their dad.”

Karen snorted. “They’re arguing that I poisoned them against George. And the girls’ grades are down. Part of it is just the new school. Allie’s grades are coming back up. But Kira’s are still off.”

“How bad is it?”

“Just a few percentage points, but…” Karen rolled her eyes. “I hate buying into the stereotype, but for George, anything less than 100 percent is huge. Since we got here, I haven’t been riding them that hard. And you know what? Kira’s actually been making friends – more than she’s ever had at one time. You know, Coop’s kid Rebecca. And Sharon’s nieces, Jodi and Tiffany. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for Kira, it’s amazing. She’s always been a loner. I just don’t know how far that’s going to go with George’s new attorneys.”

“Scorched earth specialists.”

“Figures.” Karen slumped back again. “It’s just George’s style. The only thing Lewis and I can’t figure out is how he’s paying for them.”

June frowned. “I thought George was a doctor.”

“Head of emergency at County-USC – which means he could get more elsewhere, but he’s still pulling in some good money.” Karen shook her head. “Lewis said these guys, they’re seriously high-end, the firm you hire when you’ve got hundreds of millions in assets to protect and you can afford the long court battle to get your kids. Lewis and I keep pretty good tabs on George’s assets – it’s not like he hasn’t tried hiding money from us – and Lewis said he has no idea how George is paying for these guys.”

June suddenly reached into her purse and pulled out her tablet. Glancing at the legal papers, she quickly started typing onto the pad.

“What are you doing?” Karen asked.

June swore. “I thought as much. I just googled George’s firm and another one that I know. They’ve got a cooperative agreement. Which means I know how George is paying for them. Or rather, who’s paying them for George.”

“What?”

It was June’s turn to sniffle. “Look, Mark and I don’t talk about it much, but there is someone who has a lot invested in making trouble. This person can’t bring down Mark, so… Well, the people around Mark get hit instead. And you just got some publicity as Mark’s friend. The timing is just too suspicious.”

“You mean..?” Karen thought. “Lewis did say that opposing council did seem to be rushing this through.”

“That picture of Mark hugging you only came out a little over a week ago.” June fumed. “And your situation with your ex was ready-made for this kind of attack.”

“You know, Lewis was saying that I might have to give up the girls because these guys are really good at digging up and slinging dirt and making even a hangnail look like major carelessness.” Karen started crying full on. “I don’t want to lose my babies, but I can’t let them get hurt that way.”

June reached over and gently grabbed Karen’s arm. “They’re not going to. I swear. I’m not going to let these SOBs hurt you or Kira and Allie. It’s because of me and Mark that they’re involved.”

“It’s not your fault, June.”

“I know.” June swallowed. “But, Karen, I know what it’s like to live with the wrong parent. Believe me, there’s a reason why my mother and I are estranged. I won’t let that happen to another kid.”

“But what can you do?”

“I can pay for the attorneys you’ll need to fight this.”

Karen bounced up. “June, I can’t let you do that. This could cost—”

“I know how much it could cost. Or will cost.” June got to her feet. “I know how these guys work. They’ve got George convinced that only he can save the girls.”

“Oh, he was already convinced of that,” Karen snapped.

“Then all they had to do is gently push him into the ends justifying any means to get his kids for him. And if George is the controlling jerk I have every reason to believe he is, he bought it hook, line and sinker, and these new attorneys are going to scorch the earth and then some to get George full custody of Kira and Allie. The only thing those girls have going for them is that you’re willing to cave in rather than let them get scorched in the process. And you can’t let that happen.”

Karen looked at the ceiling. “I can take care of my girls.”

“In a fair fight, you can and then some.” June walked over to Karen and put her hands on her shoulders. “This isn’t going to be a fair fight. They’ve already tried sneaking a temporary emergency order hearing past you and your attorney. And they got the sympathetic judge. No, we can’t prove it, but I’m pretty darned certain that was no luck of the draw.”

“How will I pay you back?”

“You’ll raise your daughters and protect them and keep them safe. And you’ll let me play auntie.” June shrugged. “That’s all I need. Karen, money I’ve got and more seems to keep following me. I may as well put it to some good use.”

“Won’t it hurt if it gets out that you’re paying my attorney fees?”

“We’ll find a firm that can spin anything they throw at you. Please, Karen. Like I said, I know where this is coming from and, no, it’s not my fault. But Mark and I are the reason it’s happening and if he found out, he’d be doing the same thing.”

“Oh, God.” Karen sank into the chair in front of the desk. “I guess we’ll have to do it.”

“The first thing we’re going to have to do is get on that emergency order.” June sat down next to her.

Karen nodded. “George wants his summer visitation rights enforced. As if I wasn’t going to. I bought the plane tickets for the girls two weeks ago. I told Kira last night she was going to have to go.”

“I’m guessing she wasn’t happy.”

“She flat out refuses to go. Good thing I’ve got until the end of June to change her mind. If I can change her mind.”

“We’ll figure something out. You’re not alone in this, Karen. You have support. I’ll be with you every step of the way. Scorched earth specialists can be beaten and it can be done without using the same tactics. You have the truth on your side and it’s pretty hard to beat that. You just can’t give in.”

Karen nodded sadly. Slowly she turned to June and the two held each other as Karen at last relented and sobbed. June started crying, too.

That evening, Kira Watanabe signed into the video chat room. Matt was already signed in, as were Jodi and Tiffany. Tony pinged in, with Rebecca joining within seconds.

“How bad is it?” Jodi was asking.

“How bad is what?” Rebecca asked.

“All Mom would say is that I have to go to my dad’s this summer,” Kira said. “My dad is suing Mom for custody again and it’s really got her upset.”

“Sounds like you’ll have a sucky summer,” Matt sighed.

“I’m not going,” Kira said. “I’m going to run away and take Allie with me. There’s no way I am going to live with him and I am not going to let him near Allie. She doesn’t deserve that.”

“Kira, you can’t be serious,” Rebecca said. “That’s dangerous.”

“Like living with him isn’t?”

“Rebecca’s right,” Tony said. “It’s bad on the streets. I know.”

“I’ve just gotta think it through is all,” Kira said. “I’ve got money saved, so that should help. And I could probably set up some sort of web business to make more, so nobody knows how old I am.”

“You could stay with us,” Jodi said.

“Her dad could track her to us too easily,” Tiffany said. “I suppose we could sneak her past my mom, but we’d never make it past yours.”

“You know, Kira, it would be good to have some sort of grown up helping,” Tony said. “You really need somebody to help you hide and keep a roof over your head.”

“And you’ll need cash,” said Matt. “You’ll have to find a way to get your money out of your savings account without your mom noticing.”

“Actually, what you need is a plan,” Tony said. “And a backup plan in case things go wrong.”

“I know. We could hide them at my Aunt Susan’s,” said Jodi.

“Why not your dad?” Rebecca asked.

“Too straight,” Jodi and Tiffany said together.

“Tony’s right,” said Matt. “What you need is a plan and a backup plan.”

“And a backup plan after that,” Tony added.

“Okay. So how do I get one?” Kira asked.

Chapter Twenty-One

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.

Sharon ended up going to the annual White House Press Correspondents Dinner that Saturday night after all. Eli Weatherall asked her to go with him, since his date, Gwendolyn Mackie, was accompanying Mark. The two joined Gus Guerrero and his husband Emilio Juarez, as well as Karen Tanaka and her boyfriend Hideo Matsumoto, a professor of Asian History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Karen was unexpectedly giggly.

The Coopers were at the next table over with their eldest daughter Rebecca and Tony Garces, a tall, almost scrawny Hispanic boy with an easy smile. Seated with them, so that his back was to Sharon, was Max Epstein.

The room was packed so tightly that Sharon could almost hear everything Max said. He was alone that night. Given the rumble of his voice, then Tony’s voice, then the roars of laughter from the table, Sharon got the impression that Max and Tony were going head to head in a comedy routine.

“It wasn’t quite head to head,” Cordelia Cooper said in the ladies room, right before the speeches started. “Max is hysterical. I don’t know why you’re not seeing him more often. He’s wonderful fun. And so willing to listen.”

Sharon shook her hands before reaching for the hand towels next to the sink and looked at in puzzlement at Cordelia. Karen, who was waiting, giggled.

“Max?” Sharon asked. “Listening?”

“Yeah. He even let Rebecca choose dessert for him. Why are you looking so funny?”

“That’s not the Max I know,” Sharon said. “He had to run everything on the dates we went on. And listen? I had to fight to get a word in edgewise.”

Karen cocked her head to the side. “Maybe it was a date thing.”

Sharon shrugged. “Maybe. And speaking of, you seem pretty excited about your date.”

Karen giggled helplessly. “Hideo, that sweetie. We’re going to New York next weekend. He even let me plan it all out and he said I could take him shopping. Okay, only for an afternoon.”

“That’s still pretty good.” Sharon grinned.

“He’s sansei, like me,” Karen said, referring to the Japanese American tradition of counting the generation from ancestral immigration to the U.S. “Okay, Hideo’s grandparents were a lot older than mine were when they immigrated from Japan, so his grandfather is a lot more old school. That’s why Hideo’s father caved in and agreed to give Hideo a Japanese name. But Hideo’s mother is pretty Americanized – I think she’s sansei, herself – and she wasn’t about to put up with that whole proper Japanese woman nonsense from Hideo’s father. So Hideo’s a regular modern guy, all into equal partnership.”

“Wow. That sounds great. I’m so glad you’re happy.” Sharon smiled. “Dare I ask how Kira and Allie are taking it?”

“Allie adores Hideo.” Karen finished drying her hands. “Kira seems to like him well enough, but she’s at that aloof age, anyway. She’s more interested in meeting up online with Jody and Tiffany. And Rebecca, and that cute Tony Garces kid and I believe even June’s nephew.”

“It’s quite the crew,” said Cordelia.

Karen giggled again. “It’s the most friends Kira has had at one time in her life. Not exactly the extrovert is my girl.”

Sharon smiled as they left the room.

Later, after the speeches, as people got up from the tables, gently maneuvering around chairs and each other, Sharon bumped into Max.

“Hey, Sharon,” Max said, grinning at her. “Did you have fun tonight?”

“I had a great time. It was a lot of fun.”

“What did you think of your boss’s remarks?”

Sharon smiled, somewhat hesitant and ready to be interrupted. “He did really well. He’s always had pretty good timing. That’s why he did so well on the late night talk shows during the campaign.”

“I agree,” said Max. “I don’t know why no one else seemed to notice that.”

“Hey, Max. Uh, Sharon,” said Gus, coming up with Emilio and Eli in tow. “You still okay with us heading over to the PFZ for post-prandial relaxing?”

“Yes,” said Sharon. “In fact, I’ve already texted for my car.”

“A bunch of us were going to meet for drinks,” Max said. He waved at Gus, Sharon, Emilio and Eli. “Did you want to join us?”

Gus slapped him on the back. “Nah. We got tagged by the boss to head to our super-secret hideout so he can join us.”

“Maybe next time, Max,” Sharon said, leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. “I’ll see the rest of you guys over there.”

Up on stage, Mark was busy shaking hands, but not too busy to miss Sharon reaching over and kissing Max on the cheek. He grinned and came back to himself, hoping no one had noticed.

But Mackie had.

“What’s with you and Wheaties?” she asked Mark in the limo on the way to the PFZ.

“What do you mean?” Mark asked although he was fairly certain he knew exactly what Mackie meant.

The older woman chuckled. “When Wheaties kissed that guy on the cheek, it’s not like you didn’t notice. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were jealous.”

“Nah,” Mark replied, hoping he sounded casual. “I’m more worried about Epstein. He hasn’t got a real good reputation with the ladies, you know.”

“I think Sharon’s a big girl.”

“I know.” Mark sighed and looked at Mackie. “Does this mean you’re in on it, too?”

Mackie frowned. “In on what?”

“The big conspiracy to get me and Wheaties together.”

“No. But I’d like to be.” Mackie patted Mark’s shoulder. “I get it. You don’t want to be set up.”

“That and there are some very good reasons why it’s not something that’s going to happen,” sighed Mark. “Seriously, Mackie. We’ve discussed it. We kind of had to. We’re just not in a position to do anything about a relationship and may never be.”

“All right.”

Mackie settled back in the limo seat. Mark looked sideways at her, wondering if she was going to take him seriously.

“Looks like the press is onto your gadget habit,” Mackie said suddenly. “And speaking of, have I got something coming up for you.”

Mark chuckled and sat back and listened.

Monday and Tuesday turned out to be big days at the White House. One of the television networks had arranged to spend two days in the West Wing, doing a day in the life special on the new administration. Like most of her fellow staff members, Sharon regarded the crew as a nuisance, but little more. Tuesday morning, as she came in late to work, she was congratulating herself on not having done any interviews.

Coffee mug in hand, she hurried through the corridors to her office, only to get knocked into by a young woman holding the cord of a camera as the operator moved backward. Sharon’s coffee sprayed across her cream-colored tailored top.

“Oh, my god!” exclaimed the producer, a young red-haired man wearing a white t-shirt and jeans.

Sharon forced a smile. “It happens.”

Fortunately, her office was only a few feet away and Julie came out of her cubicle to investigate.

“Good thing I stopped at the dry cleaners this morning,” Julie said, grinning. “I’ve got another suit right here.”

“Thanks.” Sharon wiped her hand on her skirt.

“At least coffee comes out,” Julie said, reappearing with a dark brown skirt and jacket.

“Running late today?” the young producer asked Sharon.

Sharon looked up while juggling her mug, her briefcase, and the clean suit. “Not so bad. It’s only nine.”

“Most folks are here by seven,” the producer said.

“So am I, usually,” Sharon replied, yawning. “But I had to be up at 3 am for a conference call with NATO.”

“That sounds cool,” the producer said, pulling out a notepad. “What was it about?”

“Sorry. Classified.” Sharon smiled as her mobile phone buzzed. She got her suit hung up on her office door then answered the phone. “Ja, Raul… Bitte.”

She smiled at the TV crew, added a burst of rapid German into the phone, then shut the door.

“Sorry, guys,” Julie said. “She’s got to get ready for her ten o’clock meeting.”

Sharon’s head popped out of the door again, only, this time, she called softly in Chinese. Katie came running, replying in the same language.

“Woh,” said the producer. “That’s amazing.”

Julie shrugged. “It’s normal around here. Excuse me.”

Sharon was not in a better mood when changed, she showed up at the Advisory Board meeting.

“Heard you bumped into the crew,” Eddie teased.

“I escaped without doing an interview, but the producer heard me speaking in three different languages and wants to talk with me later,” Sharon grumbled.

“And everybody’s talking about coffee stains around here,” Karen said somewhat dourly. “We can’t be that much worse than the previous administration.”

“We’re not even close,” said Al Eddington, who’d had a post in the White House with the previous president. “It’s just that we’ve got all the designer coffee around here.”

The chatter ceased as Gen Forrest opened the door to the conference room.

The day was also special because it was Mark’s birthday. After the Advisory Board meeting, Mark spent an hour or so being interviewed by the TV anchor, then the rest of the afternoon was devoted to a party in the West Wing Mess for all the employees and a brace of TV crews.

That night and the next day, shots of Mark hugging Karen Tanaka were all over the TV news, newspapers and websites. Karen took it all with good humor, especially since the next day, a more important story broke: one of the janitors had been caught spying on the president.

“Do we know who for?” June asked Mark that Thursday at breakfast.

“We don’t know in any way provable in court,” Mark said. He looked at his sister meaningfully, then went back to looking over a briefing on his touchpad.

June sighed. “Well, at least we know who confirmed that Ashely Whitcomb rumor.” She waited, pondering. “Do they know if there’s anyone else on the take?”

“Could be,” Mark said, still reading. “But Riff Butler said that he’s certain there isn’t, and Major Wills nearly had a heart attack when he found out and is now raking the entire staff over the coals.” He put down the tablet. “I grant you, she’s pretty determined. But that sort of thing just doesn’t happen. The people here are proud of their jobs, and I suspect get a cheap thrill out of knowing things about us that no one, but no one will ever know.”

“I know,” sighed June. “Well, I’m heading out to New York today and probably won’t see you until you get back from the Middle East next week.”

“Okay. Enjoy your trip.”

“You, too.” June got up and kissed Mark on the cheek before heading back to her room.

Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller pursed her lips then looked up at the man with the thin lips, the pale, pale skin, and dark, slicked-back hair.

“It would appear your source has slipped up, Jensen,” she said, holding up a newspaper with the picture of Karen Tanaka and her son on the front.

Jensen pressed his lips even thinner. “My source is good.”

“Was good. He got caught, remember?”

“It could be just an innocent hug.”

“You know better than that.” Rose dropped the paper onto the coffee table in front of her. It was a magnificent mahogany piece – the only bit of color in an otherwise white room. “What have we got on her?”

Jensen flipped through a file. “An ugly divorce and a boyfriend that appears to be staying over a lot. From what my sources in California tell me, the ex is not happy about him and has been wanting custody of their daughters for a long time.”

Rose quirked an eyebrow at him. “Can you do something about the custody thing?”

“That we can do. I’ll call Elwood.”

“In the meantime, we need to alert the public to this Miss Tanaka’s fooling around. She’s obviously making a play for my son and she’s hardly suitable.”

“I agree, Ma’am.” Jensen’s thin lips slid into an off smile.

Chapter Twenty

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 romance fiction serial White House Rhapsody: We would have been married off in no time

Tuesday night, in Washington, DC, there was a party in the PFZ. Mark was late. He had a date for a fundraising gala. Sharon had hired a caterer for the party, and the crowd, mostly Advisory Board folk and spouses, was noisy and in a good mood by the time the Celebrity Dance Off elimination show began. The host announced that Michael Wheatly would appear and the crowd gathered around the TV in Sharon’s basement hooted loudly. But when the host introduced Michael Wheatly playing his first big hit, Hard Town Saturday Night, Sharon gulped. Fortunately, neither of the two dancers featured as Michael sang were blond. Sharon held her breath. No one mentioned the video or seemed to even be thinking about it. Johnnie Washington caught Sharon’s eye and lifted her eyebrow in question. Sharon barely nodded. Johnnie blissfully kept Sharon’s secret.

The show went on, some people booing when one couple was told they were not going to be eliminated that night. Sharon made the mistake of asking why only to get a resounding chorus of how another celeb, who was a much better dancer, had been eliminated in favor of this klutz, and there was just no justice and the whole stupid show was nothing more than a popularity contest. Only to have another half of the group start shouting about the validity of the professional dancers and what they were attempting to create.

And the whole debate was raging so hotly that no one entirely noticed that Mark had come in, and even then, they barely heard the host announce the song from Michael Wheatly’s newly released album. Fortunately, the group quieted down pretty quickly – since Michael Wheatly was the whole reason they were there.

The song was done entirely on acoustical instruments. A few strings from the show’s own orchestra, Toby on the grand piano, singing backup, and Michael on a stool to next to the piano. Two pairs of dancers swirled and glided in blissful love while the central couple danced back and forth. Michael sang about the woman who had love right in front of her but couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it.

Mark hadn’t heard the artist’s name, nor really paid attention to why they were all supposed to be there. So while he knew of Michael Wheatly and was familiar with his music, it didn’t really register with Mark just who he was looking at. But the lyrics to the sweet and wistful music certainly registered. He saw Jean pop Coop a playful, knowing nudge, and then looked over at Sharon. The words did remind Mark of Sharon, but she didn’t seem entirely upset. If anything, she was misty-eyed and awed.

June slid up next to Sharon. “It’s such a great song and he sounds so good.”

“He does,” Sharon whispered. “And look. Toby’s singing back up and playing for him. She looks so grown up and professional.”

The crowd, both in the studio and in the PFZ, roared when the song ended and the camera faded to Michael’s fingers on the guitar strings, then to the lone female dancer sitting on the stage. A second later, a second camera picked up Michael taking his bow, then pulling Toby from the piano and taking another with her. Then the two of them put their hands out to someone in the audience. The camera followed and Sharon screamed.

“Susan’s there!” she yelped.

“But why are they acknowledging her?” June asked, then in a lower voice. “I thought it was your song.”

“Oh, my god!” Sharon gasped. “I thought that looked like Susan’s style. The choreography. How did they get Susan’s choreography?”

The crowd on TV and in the basement finally quieted and the host, a tall, but otherwise bland man, turned up seated next to Susan.

“You know,” he said. “When we signed Michael Wheatly to come tonight, we were told he is a family operation. So we want to share with you that our lovely pianist is his daughter, Toby Wheatly. And the choreography for our dancers was done by his sister Susan Wheatly.”

Susan waved as the crowd began cheering loudly again. Both Sharon and June were screaming in wonder at that point, and Sharon was flat out crying.

Johnnie came up and screamed at Sharon. “Your sister did that? How’d you get such a talented sister? That was amazing!”

“You have no idea,” June gasped.

“What you don’t know,” the host hollered over the crowd, “is just how special this dance was. We don’t normally do this, but we’ve got some footage from this morning’s rehearsal.”

The music swelled slightly and on the TV was a close up of Susan from the shoulders up, demonstrating a hold and explaining a direction in dancer’s shorthand. The dancer she was speaking to nodded, and then there was a collective gasp as the camera pulled out and showed Susan in her wheelchair.

“We had the most amazing time,” Ivan said, as the camera switched to him talking. “Susan really has an incredible vision and just gets inside you to turn the music into this idea. This story. Five minutes with her and you forget about the chair. It’s just about the dance.”

Mark felt a little out of place as the rest of the group surrounded Sharon, congratulating her. Someone had frozen the picture on the screen with a three-shot of Michael, Toby and Susan and all of a sudden, the penny dropped.

“They’re related,” Mark said.

Coop, who was standing next to him. “He’s Sharon brother. You didn’t know that?”

“I wasn’t even sure who that was. You guys were so noisy when he was introduced and I never connected Michael Wheatly to Sharon before now.”

“Man, we have got to get you out more,” Coop said, slapping Mark on the back.

In another part of the basement, June was sitting with Sharon as a commercial tried to sell them on some new drug.

“That song was pretty cool, too,” June said.

“It’s okay,” Sharon said.

“Uh-oh. Big brother hit a little too close to home.”

Sharon snorted. “He’s always doing that. It’s his version of playing the Mom psychic card. I just don’t like the publicity is all. I’m hoping nobody connects it to me.”

“Well, I can see where they might.” June nudged Sharon. “He’s got a point, you know? Love right in front of you and you turn it down?”

“The song is about this drummer from his band that I dated a few years back,” Sharon said, feeling a little annoyed. “Michael thought it was some great romance and it wasn’t. We liked each other, but I was never that in love with the guy.”

“Was he in love with you?”

Sharon shrugged. “Don’t know. Don’t care. I mean, I didn’t want to hurt him – that’s why I broke it off as soon as I did.”

“Well, you might want to think about what your brother is singing about,” June said. “I’ve got a feeling it’s also a pattern you have.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Just based on a few things I heard from your sister and your mom.”

Sharon snorted. “I’ll work on my issues with unavailable men just as soon as you start working on finding a guy, yourself. Talk about avoiding love.”

“Ouch,” June said. She took a deep breath. “I may just do that. I’ve got a few things to work through first, but I think I’m on my way.”

“Good.” Sharon smiled, feeling no little relief that she’d managed to distract June.

Sharon had been avoiding Mark all evening, hoping that Mark wouldn’t make any connections between the song and herself. But it would be hard not to, especially once Mark picked up on her relationship to Michael Wheatly. And from his shy smile, he had.

The problem was, Mark decided, wasn’t that the song was so much like Sharon. It was that he couldn’t help feeling like he was the one with love right in front of him and was letting it slip away. He didn’t say much to June in the car on the way back to the White House, and she decided it wasn’t the right time to say anything.

Mark spent the night dreaming about Sharon and even though in the dreams, things never went anywhere, when he woke up the next morning, he still felt pretty good. But the day was doomed, nonetheless.

Sharon showed up in his office shortly after eight with some bad news.

“It’s the Saudi ambassador, Achmed Ben Hamadi,” she told him. “He’s insisting on a meeting today. Kent put him in between your meeting with the Senate Finance committee heads and your lunch meeting with the Joint Chiefs.”

“Sounds like fun,” he said, picking up the phone. “Wasn’t I supposed to have something with some design show about this office? June said this morning that was supposed to be today.”

Sharon shrugged. “I have no idea.”

“Kent?” Mark growled into the phone. “I’m looking at my adjusted schedule and it looks like that design show got kicked… I know, but this is the fifth time in a row that’s happened. That’s not fair to them… All right, move the Senate Finance gang up a half hour or so and push the lunch back. And call the Saudi Embassy and tell them we’re going to have to push that meeting back a half hour… That’s my final word.”

Sharon sighed and shook her head. “That is not going to make things easier.”

“Can’t be helped.” Mark smiled apologetically. “They can’t just expect to call on the same day and a get meeting just because they want one. Even if something’s blowing up somewhere, and I don’t think anything is at the moment.”

“Libya’s looking a little dicey again.” Sharon tapped her laptop. “Looks like I’m going to have to brief you now on the Saudi thing.”

The phone rang and Mark paused before picking it up.

“Can’t. Got a conference call with the governor’s association. Meet me after the Senate finance meeting. And you’re dismissed.”

“Yes, sir.”

Despite Mark’s best efforts, the meeting with the finance committee went longer than he wanted. Then there were delays getting the cameras in and the lights set for the design show. It was a special being shot featuring Leta Gonzales, who was well known for her popular office makeover show on the home and garden channel. Gonzales had asked for and gotten permission to re-do the Oval Office for the current occupant. The problem was, Mark’s schedule had been so packed, he’d had to postpone the meeting with her (which was to be part of the special) where he would tell her what he wanted for the office.

He and Sharon went over potential strategies for the meeting with the Saudi ambassador while the camera crew got things set up and arranged, but that still left precious little time for Mark to actually meet with Gonzales.

She was a well-padded woman of average height, with a round, smiling face and colorful clothing. She wore her shiny black hair in ringlets that bounced on either side of her huge glasses. The crew shot a few bits of Sharon briefing Mark, then Sharon had to step aside while Mark met with Gonzales.

June arrived just about then, as well.

“It’s an honor to meet both of you,” Gonzales said, pushing her glasses up on her nose as the two cameras ran. “This is going to be a fun project.”

“I hope so,” said Mark. “Would you like to sit down?”

He gestured at the couches and the three of them sat down while Sharon glared at her Blackberry in the background.

“Okay,” Gonzales said. “This isn’t just any office, but at the same time, you do work here. What’s your vision for this room?”

Mark chuckled. “That’s the tough part. Obviously, this isn’t just about me. It’s the Office of the President, with all that represents to the American people. I really want to keep the sense of history in here, as well as the dignity of the office. But I also want it to be welcoming, a place where meetings can happen and opposing sides can come together.”

The phone buzzed. “Mr. President, the Saudi ambassador is at the front gate.”

“Thanks, Kent.” He smiled sadly at Gonzales. “I guess that means we have about ten minutes before he gets here.”

“Oh no, Mark!” June groaned.

“It can’t be helped.”

“I need to get measurements and some more input for a plan,” Gonzales said. “I don’t think I can do it in ten minutes.”

Mark got up and went to the desk. “Don’t worry about that.” He pushed a button on the phone. “Kent, have them put the ambassador in the tea room and make sure there’s coffee ready.”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“All right.” Mark turned back to Gonzales and smiled. “You’ve got me for just about nine minutes.”

Kent buzzed about six minutes later to inform them that the ambassador was in the tea room and waiting.

“Sir,” said Sharon. “We’d best get over there. He takes being kept waiting as a major insult.”

“I’m so sorry, Ms. Gonzales.” Mark smiled warmly and shook her hand. “Take as much time as you need. And go ahead and trust June. She knows what I like.”

June shot Mark a quick glare, then smiled at Gonzales.

Mark, for his part, could feel the irritation wafting off of Sharon as they went to the meeting with the Saudi ambassador.

“I’ve got Leonidas in the tea room with the ambassador,” Sharon grumbled as she fumbled with a scarf to cover her hair for the ambassador. “His Excellency refuses to speak to women.”

“And they sent him here?” Mark muttered.

But he was all smiles as he entered the tea room.

“Your Excellency, I’m so glad I was able to squeeze you into my schedule,” Mark said, extending his hand. “What can we do for you today?”

The meeting did not go well. The ambassador was clearly uncomfortable with Faiza and Sharon present. Faiza was wearing her hajib, as usual, and Sharon had covered her head with her scarf, but that didn’t seem to help. Furthermore, Mark was philosophically opposed to the ambassador’s request on behalf of his government and wasn’t about to budge on the issue, even though Sharon thought he should. Not that she said anything while the ambassador was there.

But after they got back to the Oval Office, Sharon said plenty.

Mark cut her off. “Look, your point is well taken. But I ran on this issue and it wasn’t just for the sound bite. If I’m not going to do it for our own American companies, I’m not doing it for the Saudis. Period. We’ll just have to work something else out.”

“Sir?” Kent’s voice burst in over the intercom. “The Joint Chiefs are ready for you.”

“I’m on my way,” Mark growled in the direction of the phone. He turned to Sharon.

“I understand, sir,” Sharon said with a soft sigh. “I’ll talk it over with Faiza and see if Daniel has any ideas.”

“Thanks.” Mark paused. “Listen, I’ve got that opening at the Smithsonian this evening, but it’s only cocktails. Want to hang around and make dinner with me and Solly afterward?”

“You don’t have to make up to me.”

Mark grinned. “I usually send flowers when I do that.” His phone beeped again.

Gen’s voice floated out of the intercom. “Sir, that’s Ms. Washington. She says it’s urgent.”

“In a second.” Mark looked at Sharon. “It’s just turning into one of those days, you know?”

“I can tell.” Sharon smiled. “I’ll stick around.”

“Thanks.” Mark hit the intercom. “Gen, did Miss Whitcomb get the flowers and the briefing?”

“I think that’s what Ms. Washington wants to talk about,” Gen replied. “Miss Whitcomb refused the briefing.”

Sharon shook her head, grinning. “Definitely one of those days. Have fun at the opening.”

“Right.”

With the afternoon fast spinning out of control, Mark wasn’t looking forward to his date with Ashley Whitcomb that evening. It was his practice to send his dates flowers and to brief them on the event they’d be attending with him so that they wouldn’t feel lost and would be aware of any potential pitfalls, as well as all the protocols associated with the Office of the President. The rest of the dating pool appreciated the information. Ashley was the first to refuse a briefing.

“I’m not an idiot,” she told Mark as the presidential limo made its way to the American History Museum.

“Nobody said you were,” Mark said, shifting uncomfortably.

Ashley’s dress was far too spangly for the exhibit opening cocktail party they were attending and showed considerably more leg than it should have. Mark didn’t want to say anything, but he knew that the women there would be in regular business wear and day dresses. He knew that because he had read the briefing that Ashley was supposed to have gotten.

“But the briefings are important,” Mark said. “Even I look at them, and I’m doing this stuff all the time.”

“I think I can handle myself,” Ashley replied, scooting somewhat closer to Mark. “This will be fun.”

“Ashley, this is an official date, and this is what going out with me is like,” said Mark, trying not to wince as she took his arm. “It’s not about having fun. It’s about connecting with folks in a more casual setting.”

The limo pulled up at the museum at that moment and Mark slipped out of the car first, checked for the photographer’s line and put himself between the photogs and Ashley. The reporters shouted questions, as usual. Ashley tried to stop, but Mark gently tugged her onward.

“We answer questions when we leave,” he said softly in her ear. “We don’t want to keep our host waiting.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Ashley did not seem all that contrite. Mark debated letting her know that she would have known that had she taken her briefing, but decided to wait. The cocktail party was the usual for such events, and Ashley was, as Mark expected, way overdressed for the occasion. She smiled all through the event, hanging closely on Mark’s arm, sometimes even answering for him and even referred to him by his first name.

Then came the major blunder. Mark, as he was always expected to, had to make a short speech. Ashley made a point of standing next to him while he spoke and even touched his arm at one point. Mark ignored her, but he was fully steamed by that point. Even as he hated all the formality required by protocol, having Ashley address him by his first name felt horribly invasive as it was. Then to pretend that kind of intimacy by touching him, never mind that even First Ladies hadn’t done anything like that, it was beyond the pale.

Unfortunately, Senator Halstead was waiting for the two of them as soon as Mark finished.

“Well, you two look good together,” Halstead said amiably. “Nice to see a happy couple.”

“I’m glad you think so,” Mark replied, somewhat at a loss for words.

“We’re having a lovely time,” Ashley said. “Mark and I get along so well together.”

Mark removed her hand from his arm. “Miss Whitcomb, I’m afraid we don’t, and I think it’s time for us to leave.”

“Leave?” Ashley actually pouted. “I’m going to powder my nose.”

Mark watched her go as the Senator nudged him playfully.

“She’s a beautiful woman,” Halstead said. “Looks good on your arm. You two will make a great couple.”

“We’re not a couple and we’re not going to be a couple,” Mark growled.

Halstead leaned closer to Mark. “You know, Mr. President, a real man wouldn’t turn down a beautiful woman like that.”

“Oh, we’re going to play that card, are we?” Mark glared at the senator. “Go ahead. Tell the world I’m gay. You’re going to find out that almost nobody gives a rat’s ass about my orientation and the few people who do aren’t going to vote for me, anyway. And for your information, a man can be single and straight and prefer a woman with some brains, which Miss Whitcomb is sorely lacking. Which is why I do not find her attractive and why we will not ever be a couple. So the next time you try to throw somebody at me to further your narrow-minded agenda, do us both a favor and find somebody with some real substance. Good evening, Senator.”

Mark turned and saw Ashley standing right there, looking as if she were about to cry.

“It’s time to go,” he told her. “And we will not be answering any questions as we leave. Do you understand?”

Ashley nodded. It almost worked. But just before Mark and Ashley reached the limo, a journalist called out loudly, “Mr. President, is that your new girlfriend?”

Ashley stopped and glared at Mark. “Well, am I?”

“Ms. Whitcomb, this is neither the time nor the place,” Mark growled.

“I think it is,” Ashley said. “Am I your new girlfriend or not?”

Mark leaned over and hissed in Ashley’s ear, “You have one second to get in that car or I will have the Secret Service put you there. And I am not bluffing.”

Ashley waited for a moment, then turned with a huff and got in the car. Mark followed.

“How could you embarrass me like that?” Ashley sniffed. She sat all the way over to the other side of the car.

“You have been embarrassing me all evening,” Mark replied. “And that last display was beyond the pale. And just for the record, no, you are not my girlfriend. You have never been. You never will be. And we are not going out again.”

Ashley sobbed. “Aren’t I pretty enough for you?”

“Pretty?” Mark gaped. “This has nothing to do with pretty.” He sighed. “Look, Ashley, you’re just not my type.”

“Oh, really. Is Gus Guerrero your type?”

“No.” Mark held onto his temper with both hands and handed Ashley a tissue from the pocket on the door. “I prefer women, but a different kind of woman. You’re beautiful, Ashley, but I need a little more than that. Actually, I’m not that excited about beautiful women. I like women I can talk to about substantive, intellectual things. Like how scrolling works on my iPad.”

“What?” Ashley dabbed at her eyes with the tissue.

“Ashley, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but, frankly, Gwendolyn McKelvey is more my type than you are. You’re a nice woman, but you’re just not for me.”

“Who’s Gwendolyn—  Oh, my god! You’d rather date a fat, old woman than me? What kind of a freak are you?”

Mark sighed. “I’ll see you to your door.”

The limo slowed and had barely stopped when Ashley opened the door right into traffic.

“No, you won’t,” she sniffed and scrambled out.

Mark sighed and got both Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero on the phone.

Sharon, June, and Solly were waiting for him in the upstairs kitchen. The three were munching on California rolls and sipping martinis. June grabbed the cocktail shaker the second she saw her brother as Solly put a glass on the counter.

“You need this,” June announced. She was working hard to suppress her laughter knowing full well that Mark was not in the mood.

“Boy, do I,” Mark grumbled, sliding onto a stool next to Sharon. “You guys heard already?”

“Karen called me the second it was posted,” June said.

“And June called Solly,” said Sharon, “Who didn’t say anything, but I could tell something was up, so I went online and told June she’d better join us.”

“And it gets worse.” Mark put his head in his hands. “I’d already had it out with Halstead at the party. And then in the limo on the way home, I told Whitcomb that I’d rather date Mackie than her.”

Sharon burst into laughter. “I’m sorry! I can’t help it. Mackie is so going to have your ass over that one.”

“I was trying not to hurt Whitcomb’s feelings,” Mark said.

June was giggling. “But Mackie? Did Whitcomb even know who she is?”

“It took her a minute, but she did get it,” Mark conceded, taking a sip of his martini, then glared at Solly. “This is your fault, you know.”

“It sounded good at the time,” Solly said. “What you want for dinner? We got chicken medallions, scallops, some sweetbreads, some veal cutlets, andouille sausage, linguica, a couple bass fillets.”

“Paella,” said Mark, brightening for the first time. “We can have it all.”

Waiting for the paella to cook meant that the evening went on a little later than anticipated, but the result was worth it. However, Mark glared at June when she insisted that he walk Sharon to the car pick up because June had to be up early to get to New York in the morning. Sharon asked if Solly wanted to share the car, but Solly said she had her own ride home and smiled mysteriously. Mark just rolled his eyes.

“Oh, come on,” Sharon teased him as they waited for the elevator.

“Excuse me, I’ve had enough matchmaking this evening,” Mark said.

The doors to the elevator opened and the two got on.

“I get that,” Sharon said. “But at least they mean well.”

“The worst of it was, I almost told Ashley that you were my type.”

“I’m glad you didn’t. We would have been married off in no time.”

The doors opened, and Mark watched Sharon as she got off. In the back of his mind, he could hear Sharon’s Song playing.

“You want to go with me to the Correspondent’s Dinner on Saturday?” he asked.

Sharon stopped and took a deep breath. “Um. Actually, I was looking forward to spending Saturday night in my jammies reading.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. What with all the commotion over Ashley…”  Mark smiled helplessly.

Sharon suddenly guffawed. “You know who you should take if you can pry her off of Eli.”

“Mackie?” Mark laughed as well. “You know, that might just work.”

He broke off as his phone rang, and he glanced at the readout.

“Mind if I take this?” he asked Sharon, then waited as she nodded. “Hey, Tony, how’s it going?” He laughed at something on the other end. “That’s a good one. I’ll feed it to Scavotti… Oh, you did. Well, great. You’re doing a terrific job… Hey, that’s terrific news. Can I call you back in ten…? Okay, well, have fun… Sure. Talk to you later.”

Sharon smiled and raised her eyebrows as he hung up.

“That’s Tony Garces,” Mark told her. “Did you hear about that horrible murder in the District a little over a year ago? The kid came home and found his grandparents, mother, and sister shot to death by a drug dealer after his mother?”

“Whew! Missed that one. That was him?”

“Yeah. He and his sister had been in an out of foster care all their lives, so Coop and I had finally gotten his grandparents here from Mexico to give him and his sister a stable home, and then the murder happened.” Mark sighed and shook his head. “He’s an insanely bright kid. Coop had gotten him into St. Ignatius Prep and the brothers there were good enough to let him board there after everything went down, and he wasn’t really supposed to stay there over the summer last year, but Coop and I convinced the child welfare people that he needed the stability. The only problem is that they’re not going to let him stay over at school during this summer. Fortunately, Roy said he’d take over as Tony’s foster parent. That’s what Tony was calling about.” Mark chuckled. “And to feed me another joke for the correspondent’s dinner.”

“Sounds like it was a good one.”

“It was and I’m using it. Like I said, the kid’s bright and a hell of a sense of humor. He’s a real survivor, that one.” Mark suddenly sighed. “So far, we’ve been able to keep him from coming off the rails. But he doesn’t have a lot of friends his own age. Rebecca Cooper’s been friendly with him. He’s her date for the dinner. But Brother Stephen said he’s a little worried that Tony is something of a loner, and some of his art can be pretty angry.”

“Not surprising when you consider,” said Sharon.

“Yeah, well, it’s not a huge secret, me, Coop and Roy helping out, but it’s not something we talk about,” Mark said, suddenly bashful. “I don’t want anyone making a big thing of it. For Tony’s sake.”

Sharon nodded, smiling. “I get it. You’re a good man, sir.”

Mark shrugged. “Tell that to Ashley Whitcomb.”

At that point, the car pulled up and Mark helped Sharon into the back seat.

“You know, we do have parking here at the White House,” he said before shutting the door. “You could drive yourself.”

“I could if I could drive,” said Sharon, grinning.

“What?”

“I never learned. I never needed to. See you tomorrow, sir.”

Still gaping and befuddled, Mark shut the door and watched the car pull away, while Sharon mulled over her warm feelings for Mark.

In her room in Silver Spring, Maryland, Rebecca Cooper pointed the browser on her laptop to the video conferencing site just as her mother knocked on her door.

“Rebecca, it’s ten p.m. on a school night,” her mother’s voice said through the closed door.

“Mom, I told you we can’t conference before now because Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast,” Rebecca groaned with all the considerable angst of a 16-year-old.

“I got you,” her mother replied. “But you better be done by eleven because I am sending your father up at that time and he’s got an early class in the morning.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes. She had her father’s slender figure and dark skin and was almost as tall as he was.

“I know.” She sighed.

In her more generous moments, she was willing to concede that her parents were cooler than most, but that did have its limits and she was hard and fast against one at the moment.

Tony Garces was already online in the conference room and the laptop pinged as Kira Watanabe signed on.

“I know, Mom,” Kira growled, her face turned away from her computer’s webcam. “Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast, so we can’t do it earlier. You said it was okay.” She turned to face the webcam. “Hi, ‘Becca. Hi, Tony.”

“Hey,” said Tony. His dark hair was parted in the middle, but its waves flared near his chin, which was sprouting the first hints of a beard. His long, lanky body was spread down the length of a dorm room bed.

“Hey, Tony. Hey, Kira,” said Rebecca as the laptop pinged again.

“Hey, gang,” said Matt, as his picture popped into the mix. “Are Jodi and Tiffany online yet?”

As if in response, there was another ping and Jodi and Tiffany popped onto the screen sharing the same window.

“Hi, everyone,” said Tiffany, nudging Jodi.

“Hi,” Jodi said softly.

“Okay. Is all our company met?” said Rebecca.

“Was there anybody else?” Jodi asked Tiffany with a slightly anxious air.

“It’s just us, Jodi,” Kira said. “Rebecca was just quoting Midsummer Night’s Dream again.”

“Well, at least you guys get it,” Rebecca said, sighing. “All right. I’ve only got an hour, so let’s get to it. We are here because we are fed up with the total jokes that are our school newspapers, so we have decided that the only way kids our age are going to get real news is to do it ourselves. Is that a fair and accurate representation of our goal?”

“That’s pretty much it,” said Matt. “Would you believe I had the school’s budget figures in hand, plus a killer quote from the dean and they bumped the story and headlined a feature on prom dresses?”

There was a collective groan.

“I know,” grumbled Tony. “It’s so stupid. Mr. Landrew says we’re supposed to question authority. We need a free press to hold the powers that be accountable. So I draw one cartoon with the headmaster and do we run it? No way. Never mind the headmaster is a total sell-out sleazoid tool.”

“Well, you can’t just come out and say that,” Tiffany said.

“But that’s the whole point of an editorial cartoon,” Tony countered. “You make it funny enough that you can call someone a total sell-out sleazoid tool and he doesn’t mind so much.”

“That doesn’t mean that your cartoon was funny enough,” Kira said.

“Guys,” Rebecca said. “I got time pressure, okay? We can debate editorial policy later. What we need to do is set up our beats so we have some content and in the meantime think about how everything is going to look and figure out a name for our site and all that stuff.”

“I can get all the web stuff set up,” Jodi said.

“I’ll draw the art and do the design stuff,” Tony said. “And then I can do editorial cartoons.”

“I’ll cover politics,” Matt said.

“I’ll do business and economics,” Tiffany said.

“I guess that leaves education for me,” said Kira. “Since Rebecca’s going to want to do arts and entertainment.”

“You know I got that one,” Rebecca said.

“And I’ll copy edit,” Tiffany said. “We’ve gotta make sure this thing looks really good. Do we want our readers to know our age?” A female voice mumbled in the background. “Yes, we got our homework done.”

“We’d better get going,” said Jodi. “Mom’s going to want me to help balance the cash registers again. For her store, you know.”

“All right,” Rebecca said. “We’ll meet back here in one week and each of us needs to come up with three possible names for our site. That way we’ll have plenty to choose from.”

There was a solid knock on her door. “Rebecca? Are you getting ready for bed yet?”

“I’m almost done, Dad.” Rebecca turned back to her laptop. “Next week, right?”

The others nodded their assent and the windows began winking out. Rebecca closed her laptop with an evil grin. This was going to be fun.

IM Session

Gloryhg: You there?

ChknCoop: Hold on.

ChknCoop: I’m back. Had to get ‘Becca off her laptop.

Gloryhg: Did you hear about Roy and Tony?

ChknCoop: They approved Roy. ‘Bout time. How’s Tony taking it?

Gloryhg: He’s excited. Found out something odd about Wheatly, though.

ChknCoop: What?

Gloryhg: She can’t drive. She doesn’t know how.

ChknCoop: She doesn’t know how to drive? That’s crazy. We’ll have to fix that.

Gloryhg: I think we will. Can I trust you with the mission? I’ll have to let her know I “accidentally” dropped the news to you. So wait ‘til then to embarrass.

ChknCoop: Wait? Jugsy, I’d swear you were sweet on her.

Gloryhg: I’m not, but it wouldn’t make any difference if I was. I’m in no position to do anything about it.

ChknCoop: Heard that before. Damn that Becca! Catch you later.

Gloryhg: Night.

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.