Chapter Fifteen

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

Pull quote from romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: And she obviously sees good stuff in you, June.

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

“It’s too early,” Susan groaned.

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

“Who’s bright idea was this, anyway?”

“You know who. And it’ll be fun.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just us?”

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

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

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

“Tomorrow, too?” Sharon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jodi giggled. “She didn’t, at first.”

Tiffany laughed, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” said Kira.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sure you can,” said June.

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

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

“Thanks, June,” Allie said, grinning.

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Sharon asked.

“Yeah.” Kira sniffed. “I’m fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you talk to your mom about it?”

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

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

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

“You doing okay?” Sharon asked.

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

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

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

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

“That’s cold.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jodi,” Sharon warned.

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

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

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

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

“I guess anytime you like,” said June.

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

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

“Yeah. We can be done by three.”

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

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

Jodi didn’t hear her.

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

“Cool with me,” Susan said, grinning.

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

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

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

Sharon rolled her eyes.

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

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

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

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

Sharon glanced over at June and the two smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. But I want to.”

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

Max grinned. “Thanks.”

He scrambled after her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan grinned. “You really do your homework.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want to intrude,” Max said.

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

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

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

“Since when?” said Sharon.

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

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

“It doesn’t?”

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

“That’s still pretty hot,” said June.

Sharon and Susan looked at each other and started laughing.

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

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

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

“Aunt Sharon!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madeleine turned back to the crowd.

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

Robert flushed and seemed to shrink even further into himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon could only nod in agreement.

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

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

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

Max stammered. “Sharon’s great.”

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

“But…” Max didn’t get to say more.

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

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

“You look flustered,” Sharon said.

“No. I’m fine.” he stammered.

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

“Something about your sister. Uh, Susan.”

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

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

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

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

Sharon looked at him, then over at Susan. “Sure. You got my number.”

She moved off, leaving Max puzzling out the entire exchange.

Sharon, Susan and Sarah left the reception soon after, and soon everyone met back at the Wheatly house in Orange County.

There, Sharon, Sarah, and June found themselves chatting upstairs in a computer room while Jodi and Tiffany played with the desktop there.

“Woh!” Jodi proclaimed suddenly. “They got Grandmere’s unveiling up already!”

Sharon and June turned to the computer.

“Already?” asked Sharon. “So what are they saying?”

“The usual junk,” sighed Tiffany. “There’s the interview with Wilkins. Wait. Here’s Grandmere.”

It took June a second to register that Tiffany was referring to Madeleine as if Madeleine were her grandmother and not just Jodi’s.

“This day is the fulfillment of a life’s dream,” Madeleine was saying on the newscast on the computer screen. “There are no words to express it.”

“Mrs. Wheatly,” asked the reporter. “What do you think about the president’s sister coming to see your unveiling?”

“It was very nice of her to come,” Madeleine replied, somewhat coolly. Then she brightened. “Ah. There are my daughter and her friend. I must say hello.”

She pushed past the reporter.

June gasped while Sarah and Sharon chuckled.

“Well, I guess I know how I rate,” June said, trying not to sound as hurt as she felt.

“Yeah, you do,” Sarah said, laughing harder.

“Oh, June,” Sharon said, putting her hand on June’s arm. “That means you’re rating pretty high with Maman.”

“What?”

Sarah gasped and put her arm around June’s shoulder. “June, what Maman was saying is that it’s not important that you’re the president’s sister. What’s important is that you’re Sharon’s friend.”

Tiffany giggled. “Looks like you just got adopted.”

Sharon smiled. “June, Maman has never cared about how famous or important someone is. She’s a total artist that way. What she cares about is how nice you are to us, and even then she gives most folks a lot of leeway.”

“As far as she’s concerned, you’re a part of our family now,” said Sarah. “You gotta understand, we never lived near our relatives. So Maman adopted our friends. Seriously, ask her some time how many kids she has. She’ll tell you she has six. And there’s only four of us, but she counts Inez and Cameron.”

“And the only reason she doesn’t count more of our friends,” Sharon continued, “is that they have parents and Maman doesn’t want to disrespect them. She can get away with it with Inez and Cameron because of Michael – they’re daughters-in-law.”

“But I thought Inez and Michael aren’t married,” said June.

Jodi rolled her eyes. “As good as. And like that’s going to make a difference with Grandmere.”

“It doesn’t for me,” Tiffany said. “I’ve got an extra grandma.”

“But she doesn’t even know me,” said June.

“Are you kidding?” screeched Sarah. “She’s psychic. She doesn’t have to know you know you. She already does!”

“Puh-leeze!” Sharon groaned. “She is not psychic. She’s just really observant. And she trusts us to know good people when we meet them.”

“Yeah, like your last boyfriend.” Sarah snorted.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “That was not a typical situation.”

“Hah! She was so onto him.”

“That’s neither here nor there and has nothing to do with June.” Sharon turned to her friend. “What we’re trying to say is that Maman doesn’t care who you’re related to or what your name is or any of the extraneous stuff. What she cares about and is pretty good at seeing is what’s in your heart. And she obviously sees good stuff in you, June.”

“And we do, too,” said Sarah, giving June an extra squeeze around the shoulders.

Tiffany grinned at June. “You’ll get used to it. It’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah. I guess,” June said, smiling in spite of the awkward feeling in her gut. “I guess it is.”

The next day, Jodi and Tiffany hid out in Tiffany’s bedroom. The Watanabe girls had left that morning for Washington. June was on her way to Minnesota but did take a call from Jodi and Tiffany before she left to give them some key information.

“You want to do the talking?” Jodi asked Tiffany.

“Sure,” Tiffany said. “June should’ve called him by now. You got the number?”

“Dialing,” Jodi said, pressing the numbers into the cell phone. She handed it to Tiffany as the phone on the other end rang.

In Minnesota, Matt Jerguessen saw the odd number flashing on his cell phone, along with the name Jasmine Thomas and a picture of an attractive blond girl. His aunt said she was safe. Matt shrugged and decided to answer it.

“Is this Matt?” a young female voice asked on the other end. “My name is Tiffany. Your Aunt June asked us to call.”

“Yeah. She said something about a Jodi Wheatly who works with my uncle.” Matt glared sullenly at his computer.

“Jodi’s aunt works with your uncle,” Tiffany explained. “She’s right here with me. Is it okay if I put you on speakerphone?”

“Yeah. I s’pose.”

“Say hi,” Tiffany told someone as her voice dimmed.

“Hi, Matt,” Jodi said softly.

“Anyway, your aunt said you were having trouble talking to her and your uncle because your mom has all this monitoring software on you?” Tiffany continued.

“Yeah. And she has most of their numbers blocked on my cell phone,” Matt grumbled. “Aunt June had to call from her hotel room this morning so she could get through.”

“We know. That’s so bogus,” said Tiffany.

“But what can you do about it?” Matt asked.

Tiffany giggled. “We’re Jasmine Thomas. We’re an avatar. So when this phone calls you, your mom will think it’s from this kid from California that got stuck here during spring break and we met at a party last night. It’s already on Jasmine’s Facebook page.”

“You started a Facebook page just to fake out my mom?”

“No.” Tiffany laughed again. “Jodi and I started it last spring for a social studies experiment. We wanted to test how many kids from our school we could get to friend this total stranger who claimed to go to school with us but didn’t really exist. A lot of them did.”

“Really dumb,” chimed in Jodi. “Weird thing is, it kinda grew on its own.”

“I think some of the girls get the joke finally,” said Tiffany. “But I don’t think anyone knows it’s us. Anyway, Jodi’s a computer wiz, and she can hack around your mom’s monitoring software on your laptop so you can email your aunt and uncle.”

Matt frowned. “I don’t know about that. Mom’s got some computer guy who puts all that stuff on. Won’t he catch on?”

“It depends on the software,” Jodi said. “But I have a very elegant algorithm that he’d have to look at the code to see. It operates manually, though, so you’ll have to be careful. But that’s why it stays hidden so well. So what program has she put on your computer?”

“Um, TeenGuard,” said Matt.

The girls giggled.

“Oh, that is just too easy,” said Jodi. “Mac or PC?”

“PC.”

“All right. Tiffany, can you text the addy to him?”

“Texted.”

Matt saw the beep and saw two web addresses.

“You need to go to that first site and type in the second address in the box,” Jodi said. “It’s a site that will let me work on your computer.”

“Won’t my mom find out?” Matt tried not to squawk.

“Not likely,” said Tiffany. “Matt, the way that TeenGuard works is that it takes a snapshot of your screen every time you open a new window or it sees a file with certain keywords in it. All those snapshots create these little text entries that are saved in a file and then the software contacts the server and uploads the file to your mom or her tech person. The easy part is that it only uploads the file when you click the turn-off button on your computer.”

“It’s part of the stealth feature,” said Jodi. “But it’s kind of a dumb one because it’s really easy to defeat.”

Matt went to the website and then entered the second address in the window. It took a few seconds, but then Jodi muttered her approval and soon it was as if his cursor was moving all over the page by itself.

“This is going to be a snap,” Jodi announced as windows flashed open and closed. “I’m pasting the patch directly into the program’s code. What it does is toggle off the software with an alt-shift keystroke, then turns it back on again, only it looks like you’re doing something else. That’s the elegant part. Most hacks just disable the software, but then your mom will know you hacked it. But you have to remember not to leave it on too long or it will look strange.”

“The second thing we’re going to do is set you up on a proxy server so you can email out,” Tiffany said. “That way you don’t have to clear your browser history, just in case your mom decides to check that, too. I have it set up at my place and my mom couldn’t tell if there was something funny going on if she wanted to because she doesn’t get computers.”

“Basically, it just looks like you’re going to my website, but it’ll let you surf anonymously,” said Jodi.

Matt could hear computer keys rattling on the other end and marveled at the windows opening and closing on their own on his computer.

“There. I got the last few entries out,” Jodi said. “By the way, you won’t want to turn on your computer and turn the guard off right away, because it erases the last couple entries when you toggle it on, so they can’t be seen. But it could erase the startup entry and that would look funny.”

“Okay,” said Matt hesitantly.

“Oh, and you really should hide your phone number on your Facebook page,” Tiffany said. “It’s out there in the open for anyone to call.”

“I don’t have a Facebook page,” said Matt.

“Yeah, you do,” Tiffany said. “June was a little surprised. She said she didn’t think you liked party girls that much.”

“I don’t.” Matt did some clicking on his computer. “Oh, man. My mom must have put this up and friended all those girls. She loves those idiots.”

“More of a LinkedIn kind of guy?” Tiffany teased. “Or are you on Reddit?”

“I’m not on any of them,” grumbled Matt. He paused. “I don’t have a lot of friends. I mean, I have friends at school, but Mom doesn’t let me talk to them because they’re… Well, poor and smart and she thinks I should hang with the popular kids.”

“Eeeuw!” Tiffany and Jodi groaned together.

“Totally my problem,” said Jodi. “My mom wants me to be normal and all the normal kids are so boring. Or into drugs and other stupid stuff.”

“Same here,” said Matt.

“Well, now you’ll be able to email your real friends,” said Tiffany. “Here’s the address for the proxy server. You can get to the free email sites from there and sign up for your secret address.” She giggled.

“Okay. Uh, thanks. Oh, and do you have an email address?”

“Sure.” Tiffany spelled it twice to be sure Matt had it. “And can you email us your new address so we can give it to Jodi’s aunt so she can give it to June?”

“Sure.”

They clicked off and Matt went directly to the proxy server site and signed up for a new address.

Chapter Fourteen

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: Most folks are surprised that I don't really own anything.

The next night was Jodi’s party with her father’s family. Everyone had gathered in Orange County at the Wheatly home for supper and music. There was singing, with the dogs howling along, there was bickering and plenty of eating and wine. In the middle of it, the phone rang.

“I’ll get it!” hollered Toby, grabbing the kitchen phone. “Wheatly residence.”

“Office of the president calling for Ms. Sharon Wheatly,” said Mark’s voice on the other end.

“Which president?” asked Toby.

There was a pause as Mark tried not to laugh. “President of the United States.”

“Bugger!” Toby yelped then yelled loudly. “Aunt Sharon, it’s your boss!”

“I’ll take it upstairs,” Sharon called, heading for the stairs.

“What am I supposed to do?” Toby screamed back.

“Say hello.”

“Uh, hello,” Toby said hesitantly into the phone. “Um, I’m Toby.”

“I’m Mark Jerguessen.”

“Oh, my god! You really are the president!”

“Yep.”

There was a soft click.

“I got it!” Sharon called from her parents’ bedroom.

“Bye!” Toby said quickly, then slammed down the phone.

“Good evening, sir,” Sharon said into the phone.

Mark laughed. “Your family is good.”

“That was my niece, Toby. She’s Michael’s kid.”

“How old?”

“Sixteen.”

“Sounds about right. Is she the birthday girl?”

“No, that’s her sister, Jodi. She turned fifteen yesterday. It’s gotten to be a family tradition that we all get together for Jodi and Toby’s birthdays. Not sure why. We don’t get together for anyone else’s birthdays.”

Sharon reached for the door to the bedroom and closed it, but it didn’t help. The music floated upstairs nonetheless.

“It sounds like a fun tradition. And noisy one, too.”

“We do like making music together.”

“Cool.” Mark sighed.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Just wishing I could spend time with my nephew like you’re spending with your nieces.”

“Ah.”

“So you doing the cake and presents thing?”

“The cake, yes. Presents, sort of.”

“I don’t get it. That’s only two nieces. And if I remember correctly, three aunts and a pair of grandparents without other grandkids. Jodi should be making out like a bandit.”

Sharon laughed softly. “You’d think so, I guess. But we’re kind of funny that way. We don’t do a lot of presents, and Jodi, this year, decided she wanted to save the planet and asked us all to donate to her favorite charities – like science foundations and books for the poor, stuff like that.”

“You sure that kid is human?”

“It’s not all that surprising,” Sharon said. “We’re just not very materialistic as a family. I think it’s because we spent so much time moving from place to place when we were kids. When you have to pack up all your belongings every few years, you get the idea pretty quickly that less is more. Things are nice, but they’re not that important.”

“Huh.”

“You having trouble understanding that?”

“Actually, no.” Mark mused. “Not at all. It’s kind of weird. Most people are surprised that I don’t tend to collect things, either.”

“Aside from your gadget habit.”

“Aside from that. But even then, unless it’s actually useful, I don’t keep it around long.”

Sharon thought about all the toys on Mark’s desk. “That’s right, you don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen anything on your desk that you don’t use. How did that happen?”

“Um. It’s a long story. I just learned at a very young age that the people who were giving me all sorts of stuff weren’t the people who cared that much about me. Whereas, the people who really cared about me didn’t give me a lot of stuff, but did give me their time and their love. After a while, it was pretty easy to figure out how important stuff was. Or wasn’t.”

“Sounds about right. Interesting.”

Mark chuckled. “How do you mean?”

“That we share that kind of life value, I guess,” said Sharon. “It’s not real common. Most folks are surprised that I don’t really own anything.”

“What about all that stuff in your townhouse?”

“It’s not my townhouse. It’s my friend Carla’s. That’s mostly her stuff. Except for the kitchen tools and my cast iron skillet.” Sharon finally plopped onto the bed. “I had a condo for a while, but I was traveling so much that I was hardly ever there. I barely had a table and chairs, let alone any real furniture in it. So I sold the darned thing. Although that is one nice thing about Carla’s place. It doesn’t look like corporate housing. I’ve done more than my share of that, thank you very much.”

“Ugh. Me, too. All those hotels on the campaign trail. And actually, the place I had in DC while I was in Congress and the Senate was pretty bare. It horrified June.”

“I’ll bet.” Sharon chuckled. “Anyway, is there any business you need to discuss?”

“Uh, not really. You covered it in your last email. I guess I’ll say goodnight, then.”

“Good night, sir,” said Sharon.

As she hung up, she paused. The noise from downstairs was still pretty intense, but something else was nagging at her. It wasn’t until quiet finally descended on the house and Sharon went to bed that it hit her. The president had called just to chat.

The conversation hadn’t been all that deep, although the fact that they seemed to have the same values about material things wasn’t exactly glossing the surface. But there was something… Sharon shuddered. If only she and Inez hadn’t been talking about biological clocks and if only Sharon hadn’t had that image of Mark Jerguessen as daddy.

Groaning, Sharon flopped onto her side and threw her covers over her head.

Another late night in DC, Yasmin Sollette hefted herself upstairs out of the Metro station and onto the street. With the president and his sister gone for the week, there really hadn’t been much to do in the White House kitchen, beyond supervising the lunchtime cafeteria service for the staffers remaining behind. So Solly had spent her afternoon doing research at the Library of Congress, then had spent the evening at a very long briefing at the State Department.

She was hungry as she walked toward the brownstone that held her apartment. As she passed St. Augustine’s, she crossed herself, then smiled. Across the street, a new restaurant had opened up – Joe’s Creole. It was late, but Solly decided a bowl of gumbo was just what she needed.

The restaurant was small and packed with rickety tables and red vinyl seats, most of them occupied by couples or small groups. The smells from the kitchen behind the counter at the back were encouraging. Solly placed her order and was presented with a steaming bowl and some fresh bread in minutes.

It was hard to miss the man in the black suit and shirt when he walked in. He was the only White person in the place. Solly glanced up then turned her attention to her soup. But she wasn’t terribly surprised when the man sat down across from her.

“Ms. Sollette?” he asked, presenting his hand.

Solly looked at the hand but didn’t take it.

“Depends on who’s asking,” she replied, casually tearing off a piece of bread.

“Someone who’s interested in helping you.” The man’s smile was slightly off, but that could have been his exceptionally thin lips, Solly thought. His dark hair was slicked back and made his white skin look even whiter.

Solly chewed on her bread. “What do you want?”

“The same as you – to help our president.”

“Funny. You don’t look like someone who wants to help the president.”

The man shrugged. “I can’t help what I look like. But there’s a very interested party who can do a lot to make the president’s personal life… easier. Problem is, this person needs information to do it.”

“Uh-huh.” Solly shook her head and dug into her gumbo. Joe – or whoever his cook was – had put enough chili sauce in it to sear her nostrils before she even tasted it.

“You help me, I can help you,” said the man. He pulled a white envelope from his inside suit pocket and dropped it on the table in front of Solly.

Solly shook her head and chuckled. “Are you crazy? This is the sweetest gig I’ve had in my life and you want me to risk it all to spy on the president?”

“To help the president,” the man corrected. “He’s a lonely guy. And let’s face it, there are an awful lot of lonely women out there who can and will take advantage of him. We need to know who’s seeking him out and what’s going on so that we can protect him.”

“Uh-huh.” Solly took another bite of soup. It was thick and the perfect melange of peppers, onions, sausage, and okra. Solly guessed it had probably been thickened with file powder, as well. “So, who is this person that wants this information?”

“Someone who prefers to keep a low profile.”

“You mean someone who don’t want to get into trouble.” Solly took another bite and chewed, debating whether the bit of meat she was chewing was really duck. Or maybe it was goose.

The man spread his hands. “Think what you like. Either way, there’s a lot of money there and plenty more for whatever you can give us.” He got up. “Keep that as our gift. We’ll talk soon.”

“Uh-huh.” Solly waited until the man had left to reach for her cell phone. She dialed quickly.

“Security office, Dickens,” said the voice on the other end.

“Hey, Randy. It’s Solly. I got approached.”

“No kidding. By who?”

“Didn’t say, but it sounds like that guy you warned us about – pasty white face, slicked-back black hair. No lips. How you gonna kiss a guy like that?”

“Don’t know,” Randy answered jovially. “See, I got lips and you can come kiss them anytime.”

“You be kissing my backside first,” Solly replied pleasantly. “He left an envelope.”

“How much?”

Solly reached over and looked inside the envelope. “Hoo-ee! There’s five thousand dollars in here. Think that’s enough to turn me?”

“I guess he thinks so. You sure you want to do this?”

“He’s just gonna keep trying ’til he gets someone. Better me than someone who really will turn.” Solly thumbed through the cash. “What do you want me to do with the money?”

Randy chuckled. “The boss said to keep it. Called it combat pay. ‘Course you could always share it with me.”

“And get you booted right outta the Secret Service. I know they keep an eye on you guys.”

“And how. So I guess you’re on, then. We’ll talk again in the next couple days, come up with some names to feed Mr. No-Lips.”

“Sure. Sounds like fun.” Solly chuckled and hung up.

Chapter Thirteen

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

Pull Quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: It's one of the few cheap thrills I have left.

The flight to Los Angeles wasn’t particularly full. Sharon, Michael, and Inez sat in a center section in the first-class cabin, a luxury Sharon seldom indulged in, but a necessity for Michael. Still, Sharon had to concede, as she sat back in the bigger seats and stretched out her legs, that first class had its compensations.

Michael had headphones on even before the plane took off and was soon in his own little world, switching through the channels on the seat back TV. Inez dozed for a bit, then as the flight attendants served drinks, she and Sharon began chatting.

“You sure you’re okay about Toby living with you guys?” Sharon asked, finally. “You seemed so ambivalent about it last night.”

“Oh, it’s not Toby,” Inez said, glancing at Michael, who clearly hadn’t heard a word. “Seriously, it isn’t. I adore her and we’ve always gotten along well. It’s just… My biological clock, you know?”

Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I thought you didn’t want kids.”

“I thought I didn’t either.” Inez smiled. “But now there’s Michael and he’s such a great dad. I see some of my friends with their babies and I can’t help thinking how nice it would be.” She shrugged. “Maybe not.”

“Michael want to?”

“He’s warming to the idea, I think. He doesn’t want to start over, and he’s afraid we’ll split and he’ll be parenting from a distance again.”

“I can’t blame him for that.” Sharon shook her head. “If there was anything that Cameron did that made me mad, it’s the way she didn’t want Michael around as much as he wanted.”

Inez nodded. “Well, I’m pretty sure Michael and I won’t split. And even if we do, I hope I have the good sense not to keep him from his kids. Those girls adore him.”

“Yeah.” Sharon nodded and sighed.

Inez nodded as well and the two lapsed into silence. Sharon found herself musing about babies and having one and was rather startled to realize that she was seeing Mark Jerguessen in the background as the father. She looked over at Inez, who had started dozing again. Sharon shook her head to clear her mind and picked up a book, hoping somehow that she could exorcise that last image.

Sharon felt somewhat wrung out by the time she followed Michael and Inez off the plane at Los Angeles International airport. Michael already had his phone out and was dialing.

“We’re down,” he told the person on the other end. “Terrific. We’ll meet you at the baggage claim… Uh-huh. Cool. See you there.”

“Meet who?” asked Sharon, shifting her carry-on.

“Sarah and Susan,” Michael said, grinning. “Suse said she can take me to their car while you and Inez get the bags.”

Sharon glared at him as she addressed Inez. “Amazing how he always manages to get out of tiresome little chores like that.”

“I know,” said Inez. “One of these days.”

“What?” Michael asked.

As the three spilled into the waiting area next to the baggage claim, Sharon spotted Sarah first. Her youngest sister was bouncing up and down and waving. Sharon cringed, hoping that people wouldn’t recognize who she was waving at. Michael didn’t seem to mind and scooped Sarah up in his arms as the young woman ran his way.

“How’s the baby!” he teased.

Sarah slapped his arm. “Michael, put me down!”

She was about Sharon’s height and mostly slender. Her hair that day was its natural light brown and cut shaggy and short. She had a small dimple in her nose where she’d worn a nose ring until piercing got popular.

“Hey, Sarah,” said Sharon, as Sarah pounced on her.

“It’s great to see you!” Sarah crowed.

“You’re looking abnormally normal,” Inez said as she got her hug.

Sarah was, in capri jeans and a paint-splattered t-shirt.

She shrugged. “Why not? I’ve got my artist cred. Hey, Suse! Here they are.”

“No kidding,” Susan said back, being almost on top of them.

Somewhat paler than she’d been before her accident, Susan still carried herself like the dancer she was, at least from the waist up. Her left arm was in a brace, but she sat in a yellow-striped racing wheelchair. Her brown hair had also been cropped and she wore a black top and jeans. Sharon bent to hug her.

“Good to see you, Suse,” she said softly.

“Good to see you.” Susan grinned. “And since Sarah here has done such a great job of attracting all kinds of attention, I’d better get the Swelled Head to the car before we get swamped by autograph seekers.”

“And he wonders…” Sharon sighed, spotting the furtive looks aimed at Michael as people in the crowd tried to figure out who he was.

“I’m not attracting attention,” Sarah said. “My god, we’re in an airport. You expect people to holler and hug and all that.”

“It’s not like they’ve been gone that long,” Susan replied. “We saw them at Christmas. That was only a few months ago.”

“Come on, Suse,” said Michael. “Let’s get to the car.”

After the luggage was collected, the group reunited at the older Honda Accord that was actually their parents’ car. Michael had bought more recent models for his parents, but they kept the older car as a backup for when their children visited. Michael did help load the trunk with Sharon’s suitcase, Sharon’s and Michael’s guitars, and Susan’s chair.

Still chattering, Sarah drove from the airport, first out to Pasadena and Michael’s weekend condo, so that he and Inez could spend the afternoon with Jodi (it being Jodi’s birthday that day) before Jodi celebrated with her mother and grandparents from that side of the family. From there, Sarah drove Sharon and Susan to their parents’ home in Placentia, a small suburb in the north of Orange County.

It was a comfortable, two-story house, with dark wood siding and white trim. The lawn was carefully kept and the jacaranda tree that had been a twig when the Wheatlys first bought the place was now a decent-sized tree. The early spring air was just right but the tree still had another month before its distinctive purple blooms would show. Sarah pulled the car into the garage and left the garage door open as she got Susan’s chair from the trunk.

“Usually, I just toss it in the back seat,” Susan grumbled as she took the chair from Sarah and opened it. “I’m getting really sick of this being driven around stuff. I gotta get Michael to buy me one of those hand-control cars. Maybe one of those hybrids.”

Sharon yawned. “Yeah. Where are Maman and Dad?”

Sarah grinned. “Maman’s scoping out the site for her latest. She and Dad will be installing it all week. Share, you are so gonna freak out when you see it – and don’t ask. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”

Madeleine Wheatly had always been a sculptor. With her children grown and her husband’s job not moving them all over the place, she had finally found the opportunity to follow her passion for the truly large and was developing quite a following for her huge public art pieces – the kinds of metallic sculpture found in parks and on city plazas.

Sharon hefted her suitcase out of the car and followed Susan and Sarah into the house to a chorus of barking from her parents’ two dogs, then banished to the back yard. Sharon had never lived there, at least not for any length of time. Her parents had bought the house when Sharon was in her second year of college and Sarah was just starting high school. It was a large place with five bedrooms upstairs, and a living room, dining room, kitchen, family room and den downstairs. The den, however, had been transformed into a studio for Madeleine and was where she did most of her preliminary work and smaller sculptures.

When friends of the family asked Madeleine why she and Robert had bought such a huge house when they only had Sarah at home and soon to leave, herself, Madeleine always smiled and said that she needed room for her grandchildren. What she had meant, as Sharon and her siblings knew full well, was that Madeleine not only wanted enough space so that the whole family could visit but also to accommodate any relatives from Belgium or Wisconsin, where her husband was from.

Nonetheless, Sharon did have a room that was more or less hers. Still feeling a tad groggy from the flight and the time change, she pulled her suitcase upstairs to her room and dropped it next to the bed. It had a floral print bedspread on it, which complimented the light green walls and the white French provincial furniture in the room.

The two shaggy tan mutts known as Coco and Mimi burst into the room. They were medium-sized. Coco was almost twelve years old and her formerly dark muzzle had gone white, but Mimi was only four and still very rambunctious. Sharon petted them both fondly.

As she came downstairs with the dogs on her heels, she noted that the living room looked the same as it had for the past few years – with red and gold striped drapes, black sofas and Sarah’s collage/mural along the back wall featuring a landscape view of the city of Liege, Belgium, from the scenic overlook at the north of the city.

But as Sharon made her way into the open family room and kitchen area, she noticed that the family room and dining room in the house had changed significantly. The red and gold drapes, similar to the ones in the living room were gone, and the dining room was mostly decked out in chartreuse and yellows, while the family room had mostly white and yellow furniture and drapes.

“Did Maman redecorate again?” Sharon asked her sisters, who were lounging in the family room.

Susan rolled her eyes and bent to scratch Coco’s head. “Oh, yeah. I think it was the Hennesseys. They gave her that Trojan flag for Christmas and I’m pretty sure that sent her over the edge.”

Sharon sighed and shook her head. It was a common problem. Madeleine used red and gold in her home décor in honor of the Wallonie, the French-speaking part of Belgium, where she was from. Unfortunately, too many people interpreted that as meaning the family were fans of the USC Trojans, whose colors were red and gold. Given that all of Madeleine’s children, except Susan, had gotten at least part of their education at UCLA (aka USC’s crosstown rivals), it was not a happy misconception.

The phone rang and Sarah grabbed it.

“Michael!” she groaned. “How lame can you get? Go to hell, jackass.”

And she slammed the phone down.

“What was that all about?” Susan asked.

“Our idiot brother,” said Sarah. “He said, ‘Office of the President for Ms. Sharon Wheatly.’  Like we were going to fall for that.”

Sharon gulped and looked down at her hands. “Merde!”

“What?” asked Susan.

“My phone. It’s in my purse upstairs,” Sharon said. “That’s probably why he’s calling here.”

“You mean?” Sarah asked. “Share, you gotta be kidding. It was Michael, I swear.”

“Not bloody likely,” Sharon said. “The boss makes his own phone calls and even if he didn’t, his secretary is a guy.”

“No way,” Sarah said.

The phone rang again and Sharon dove for it.

“Hello?” she asked.

“Office of the president for Ms. Sharon Wheatly,” said the all too familiar voice on the other end.

“Good afternoon, sir, this is Ms. Wheatly,” she replied as Sarah gulped.

The voice on the other end broke down in laughter.

“That—” he gasped. “That’s one of the best responses I’ve gotten in a while.”

“I see,” Sharon said, keeping her voice calm and trying to ignore the stares of her two sisters.

“Coop’s kids were pretty fun for a while,” Mark said, finally getting a grip on his laughter. “But now they’re all blasé about the president calling their house.”

“How can I help you today, sir?” Sharon asked.

“We had a man at the town hall meeting who brought up something I think we’ll want to cover when we’re in Mexico,” said Mark. He was touring the Midwest, attending town hall meetings and making speeches to enlist support for his education initiatives.

“Sure. Let me get something to write with.” Sharon looked frantically at the phone niche – basically a cabinet and desk unit tucked just inside the kitchen where it could be easily reached from both the kitchen and the family room. The desk surface was littered with magazines and sketches, but no notepaper and the pen cup held only a small paintbrush and two metal cocktail stir sticks. Sharon covered the mouthpiece and looked at her sisters. “I need a notepad and pen.”

Susan pointed at Sarah, who tried to look innocent. Sharon sighed. She at least knew where the notepads had gone and had a very good idea where all the pens and pencils had disappeared to, as well.

“Sir, I’m sorry, but you’ve caught us a little off-guard here,” Sharon said.

Mark chuckled guiltily. “Uh, that was kind of the idea. Why don’t I call your mobile?”

“That’d be perfect,” Sharon said. “But give me a few minutes to get upstairs so I can get it out of my purse.”

“Sure thing,” said Mark and he disconnected.

“I thought you were on vacation,” Susan said.

“There’s no such thing when you work at the White House,” Sharon said, hurrying back up the stairs. “And, Sarah, don’t even think about grabbing any of my notepads.”

Sarah waved the notepad she was working on at that moment. “Too late.”

Sharon groaned. “You better have left me one with some paper in it.”

“Of course,” said Sarah turning back to the small legal pad, on which she was drawing a set of eagles at different positions on each page, effectively animating the majestic bird in flight.

Sharon quickly and quietly shut the door to her room, grabbed her mobile phone from its pocket in her purse and turned it on. A minute later, it was ringing.

“Wheatly,” she said, clicking the answer button.

“Let me guess, we’re in a better place to talk?” Mark said from his end of the line.

“Yes and hopefully, my rotten sister hasn’t stolen all my notepads.” Sharon dug through her purse, having found a pen, but still couldn’t put her hands on a notepad.

“The one who called me a jerk?” Mark began laughing again.

“I’m so sorry about that. She thought you were my brother.”

“Ah. Michael’s your brother. That was a pretty priceless reaction.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t have the mobile on.”

“I wouldn’t have known. I called the house first.”

Sharon frowned. “In other words, you called the house specifically to freak my family out.”

Mark chuckled. “Yeah. Me bad boy. It’s one of the few cheap thrills I have left.”

“I could have done without it.” Sharon glared at her purse, then emptied it out on the bed. “That little brat. She got all of them.”

“Huh?”

“My sister Sarah.” Sharon flopped onto the bed. “It’s one of the few downsides of having artists in the family. My mom is constantly picking up a pen or pencil, doing a quick sketch for some piece she wants to cast, then getting distracted. She wears her hair on top of her head, and sticks the pen or pencil in her hair and go does whatever. So all the pens and pencils end up in her bathroom or in her studio. Dad picks them up, too, and wanders off with them. But Sarah’s the worst offender. Not only does she grab all the pencils and scatters them hither and yon, she steals notepads to make flip books out of them.”

“Flipbooks?”

Sharon sighed. “They’re little books that when you flip through the pages, you get some animated mini-film on them?”

“Oh, yeah. Those are cool.”

“Well, Sarah loves doing them. She used to do a lot of animation when she was in high school. And because she loves what she calls found art, she grabs whatever notepads she can get her hands on and makes flipbooks out of them.” Sharon started going through the exterior pockets on her suitcase. “She really likes those little notepads the realtors always give out – she can crank out a flipbook out of one of those is a couple hours and the paper is just heavy enough. And my mini-legal pads are her second favorite, for some reason. It only takes her a couple days.”

“What does she do with them when she’s done?”

“Sells them. They’re surprisingly popular for doodles on ripped off notepads, but that’s because Sarah’s really good. Sometimes she colors them, sometimes she just does pencil drawings. But she gets some good money from them and she’s been going really crazy of late, because she donates the sales money to spinal cord injury research. For my other sister. Anyway, what was the point you wanted for the Mexicans?”

“Oh, I already emailed it to you.”

“Good. I’ll get right on it.”

“No rush. How’s the homecoming been so far?”

Sharon shrugged. “I’ve just barely gotten here.”

“I won’t keep you, then. Talk to you again soon.” Mark disconnected.

He gently set the phone back down on the desktop, gazing around at the office suite on Air Force One, where he was sitting. Given the huge amount of resources involved in getting him from one place to another, Mark had been trying to balance the need to be out where folks could connect with him with his commitment not to squander resources. It had taken some doing to convince the Air Force not to fly a second plane as back up every time he left Washington, but that had meant stationing multiple versions of the Air Force One plane at several key locations.

Mark tapped the Danish modern blond-wood desk again. June had overseen getting the plane re-decorated since the inauguration and the office had been done over in soothing blues with creamy tan accents. At least, that’s what June had told Mark. He looked around the office and had to concede June was right again.

He wondered what June would have to say about Sharon. He knew the two were getting to be pretty close friends. He also liked to think he and Sharon were getting to be good friends. He sighed, wondering why he’d bothered to call Sharon back when he could have just as easily sent the information via email and, in fact, had just done so. He frowned. He knew why he had. He’d wanted to hear her voice, wanted to chat with her just for the fun of it. And he didn’t want to think about not seeing her for the rest of the week.

The intercom buzzed.

“Mr. President?” asked the young Marine serving as his valet that trip, Corporal Evans. “You asked me to call you when it’s time to go.”

“Thanks, Corporal.” Mark stood carefully, balanced himself on his crutches and hitched up his jeans.

He was headed for a dinner-time meet and greet at a bar in Texas – enemy territory, Tanks had joked. Still, he’d gotten some good ideas from these kinds of events and they did build good will. And Mark knew he’d need a lot of it to put his education proposals in place. Sighing, he left the office, took the cowboy hat from Corporal Evans and headed out

In Pasadena, things were considerably less sanguine. Michael paced in the kitchen in Cameron’s home. It was one of those large country kitchens, with red granite counter tops and maple wood cabinets and matching wood floors. Michael paced between the island in the middle, while Cameron and Inez sat in the adjacent matching breakfast nook.

“Look, Cameron, we already told her she could come live with me,” Michael said. “All the conditions are spelled out in the paperwork. What more do you want?”

“I want my daughter to live with me,” Cameron said, her voice shaking with emotion. “What part of that don’t you get?”

Michael turned on her. “Don’t I get? I’ve been wanting to live with my daughter for most of her life.”

“You’ll have the girls in Africa with you this summer.” Cameron folded her arms stubbornly.

“They don’t want to go to Africa,” Michael snarled. “Jodi danced around it all afternoon. Practically spoiled her own birthday because she doesn’t want to go to Africa. Toby has been begging me not to take her since the idea came up.”

“Well then, maybe you ought to do something else this summer,” Cameron said.

“It’s work and it’s for a good cause.”

Cameron rolled her eyes. “Right. Your work. It always comes first. Before the girls. Before me.”

“Don’t even start that,” Michael growled back. “Don’t even. Just because your dad put his life on hold doesn’t mean he did the right thing.”

“He acted responsibly,” Cameron fought to keep her voice from rising and failed.

“And resented you for it,” Michael shot back. “Which you spent endless hours complaining about. Excuse me if I don’t want to make the same mistake. Excuse me if I think it’s possible to balance taking care of kids and living a dream. Oh, wait. That’s not going to happen because if it did, we wouldn’t be divorced and I wouldn’t be constantly fighting you to spend more time with my two children. Like a responsible father.”

“Miguel, vas.” Inez said suddenly.

Michael glared at Cameron, then took Inez’ advice and stalked off.

Cameron sniffed. “He’s so frickin’ stubborn.”

“He is,” Inez said. “But he’s also got a point. Cameron, I know you love your babies and I know why. They’re wonderful girls. But he loves them, too.”

“Then why isn’t he willing to sacrifice anything for them?” Cameron said, her tears finally falling. “It’s always his career. Always.”

“That’s not true, Cameron.” Inez laid her hand on Cameron’s arm. “He gave up several dates this week so he could be here for Jodi’s birthday. He’s always done that. It used to make me crazy when he’d insist on flying back here every other weekend so he could be with his girls. It’s tough booking somebody who does that.”

“But why couldn’t he just settle down with us?”

Inez shook her head. “As if that would have helped? Come on, Cameron. I’ve seen you and your dad together. It’s not pretty.”

“My dad made a necessary sacrifice.”

“Because your mom made him. And it nearly killed him and trashed your relationship with him because he couldn’t help resenting you and your mom for making him work in a music store instead of performing.”

Cameron frowned. “Well, he’s performing now.”

“And why does that surprise you?” Inez smiled. “Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did. Which says a lot about how much he loves you.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t be saying this, but I once asked Michael why he didn’t give up the touring and all that, like you wanted him to. He told me your father told him not to.”

Cameron snorted. “That sounds like Dad.”

“Well? Who do you have a better relationship with? Your mom?”

“I wish.” Cameron wiped at her eyes. “She’s still trying to raise my kids for me.”

“So how well do you think it worked? Your parents gave up their dreams and everything else to raise you right and made themselves miserable in the process, not to mention totally alienating you. Do you want that to happen to you and Toby?”

Cameron squeezed her eyes shut. “Of course, I don’t. I just wish there was another way.”

Inez smiled and patted her arm. “Yeah. I know. It sucks. But at least you have your daughters. It’s not unlikely that the best I’ll get is the chance to share them with you. And they are very good girls.”

“Thanks.” Cameron let out a bitter chuckle. “Until they get stubborn. Then they’re just like their dad.” She sniffed again. “Where’s the paperwork?”

“Right here and here’s a pen.”

Chapter Twelve

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: It's nothing I want to be doing

Early Monday afternoon, June called Sharon from New York.

Barely missing a beat as she typed furiously on her laptop, Sharon hit her the button on her headset.

“Hey, June, what’s up?”

“Just checking in,” said June. “Five o’clock okay for your makeup and hair for tonight?”

“Not even.” Sharon sighed and stopped typing. “I’ll just do my own in my office. I’m swamped, what with going home next week and the Mexico trip after that.”

“You sure?”

“It’ll have to do, June. But thanks.”

“Okay.” June hung up reluctantly.

But Sharon was relieved that June didn’t press the point. The formal dinner that night at the Russian embassy had originally been just a meeting with the ambassador. However, since the event at the South Korean embassy almost two weeks before had been such a success, the Russians had decided they’d better go one better. Sharon was glad her mother had shipped out all Sharon’s party clothes and formals the week before.

The dinner, itself, turned out to be beyond boring. Sharon was seated next to the ambassador, as dictated by correct seating. The only problem was that Mark was seated at the other end of the very long table next to the ambassador’s wife, whose English was not as good as she thought it was. Even more disturbing, after the dinner, as Mark and Sharon left the embassy, there were the usual questions about Sharon’s dress.

“This is ridiculous,” she grumbled as the presidential limo left the embassy.

“What?” asked Mark.

“All these stupid questions about what I’m wearing,” Sharon groaned. “Who cares? Nobody asks you who designed your formal wear. And I don’t even want to think what Jean’s going to say tomorrow.”

“Why would Jean say anything?”

“Because I have no clue who designed my dress,” Sharon replied, testily. “I didn’t say so, but I got it off the rack my first year out of college when a whole bunch of us were sent to a company retreat, and then told we had to dress for dinner.”

“It’s a very nice dress,” Mark said, feeling somewhat wary. It was a very nice dress, strapless and straight in apricot silk with a jeweled belt. “But why are you so prickly about it?”

Sharon sighed. “Because our honored guest from Russia kept making eyes at me all through dinner. I tried to talk to him about some of our talking points, but he kept blowing me off. He didn’t say anything, but it just felt like he didn’t want to talk business with the president’s date.”

“You may have a point.” Mark frowned.

“It probably wouldn’t be so bad if I got asked substantive questions on the press line. But all they want to know is who I’m wearing.”

Mark nodded and pulled his iPhone from his pocket. “All right, I’ll make a note to talk strategy on this with Jean and Gus. Do you want in on the discussion?”

“Can’t even if I wanted to,” Sharon said, pulling out her Blackberry. She kept one eye on it as she scrolled through her email and messages. “I’m trying to get on top of several things, including that Mexico trip. Plus we’ve probably got a situation in Nigeria developing and you don’t want to know what a mess the Middle East is again.”

Mark winced. “You’re right, I don’t. But I’ll probably have to soon enough.”

“Well, you’ll get it in your national security briefing tomorrow.” Sharon paused as she read an email. “Good news, it doesn’t look like it’s going to break out in open hostility.”

“Good.” Mark shifted and rubbed his left shoulder.

“You okay?” Sharon asked.

“Oh, yeah. Just a little stiff. It’s been a few years since I pitched overhand.”

“Pitched?”

“I’m throwing out the first pitch of the season at the National’s game on Wednesday.” Mark grinned. “I’ve been working out with their pitching coach.”

Sharon snorted. “Given their bullpen, you’d have done better with a Little League coach.”

“Very funny.” Mark chuckled. “He clocked me at 83 miles an hour.”

“In the strike zone?” Sharon grinned.

Mark shrugged. “Mostly.” He looked at her again. “You’re a baseball fan.”

“Yeah. It was Dad’s way of keeping us in touch with our U.S roots since we were living everywhere else. I’ve been rooting for the Dodgers all my life.”

“Hmmm.” Mark grinned. “This could be a problem. You realize that June and I are big Minnesota fans.”

“I suppose I could cut you some slack on that.” Sharon smiled, as well.

At Sharon’s townhouse, Mark walked her to her door but didn’t go in.

The next day, Karen made a point of seeking the president out, which got her invited to the meeting with Gus and Jean that afternoon.

“This could be a real problem,” Mark told them. “I know Sharon is great PR, but I can’t afford her losing credibility because everyone sees her as my arm candy. We’ve got to find a way to get the press off the dresses.”

Karen and Jean looked at each other and nodded.

“Actually, we were about to suggest the same thing,” Jean said slowly.

Karen nodded. “It’s that blond thing. She’s female, she’s attached to you, it must be about the pretty looks.”

“So what do we do?” Mark asked.

“Two things,” said Gus. “Why not set her up on the pundit rounds? She could even do the comedy channel’s news show. Put her in a position to talk about what we’re doing to build our foreign relations and someone’s going to notice that she’s got brains. You might even want her on… What’s his name’s show, the big mouth. She’ll make mincemeat of the turkey.”

“That’s if we can get her to do it,” said Karen. “She’s not joking about preferring a lower profile.”

Jean shrugged. “I think Gus can talk her into it. But what’s the second point?”

“Keep her off the photo lines,” Gus said, shifting in his chair. “Meet her inside the venue.”

“She’ll like that,” said Mark. “Okay. Let me think about it. As for the pundit rounds, keep it light. She’s pretty busy. And come to think of it, so am I. Do we need to discuss anything else?”

The others didn’t and the meeting was dismissed. Outside the Oval Office, Karen and Gus decided to talk to Sharon together. Sharon, not surprisingly, declined. Until Wednesday.

The first day of the baseball season wasn’t that big a day for Mark in many respects. What happened on the mound when he threw out the first pitch would have no permanent ramifications. His political career would be largely unaffected. Nonetheless, most of the Advisory Board was in the presidential box by the time batting practice started, along with some of the press staff and Johnnie and her husband, Tyrone.

June had seen to it that everyone had jerseys and hats from their hometown teams. Although since Karen didn’t care and Sharon did, Sharon got the Dodgers jersey and Karen wore the Angels. Oddly enough, Sharon was the one who had lived, for a time, in the shadow of Anaheim stadium and Karen not far from Dodger stadium.

As Sharon entered the box, she smiled at the preponderance of Minnesota Twins jerseys. Both Eddie and Johnnie were from Minneapolis. June, of course, was decked out in Twins regalia. But Sharon noted an average-sized man standing next to June who looked vaguely familiar, also sporting a Minnesota jersey.

June waved Sharon over. “Come here and meet my dad!”

Thomas Jerguessen was considerably shorter than June and Mark, but he had passed his green eyes and square jaw onto his son. Sharon marveled at how little June resembled her father.

“How do you do, Mr. Jerguessen?” Sharon asked, shaking his hand.

“Fine, thanks, and call me Thomas,” he answered, his smile both warm and rather familiar. “So I hear you’re one of June’s latest B-  Whaddya call it?”

“Dad,” June laughed. “BFF – Best Friends Forever.”

“Right,” Thomas said. He turned back to Sharon. “I’m glad. June deserves good friends.”

“I’m doing my best.”

Thomas glanced at her jersey. “National League, huh?”

“’Fraid so,” Sharon said.

“Ladies and gentlemen, will you please rise and join in our national anthem,” the loudspeaker announced.

Sharon went to the viewing platform in the box, followed closely by June and everyone else. Thomas noted with satisfaction that Sharon remembered to take her hat off. June was startled by Sharon’s excellent singing voice, as she harmonized with Eddie, Gus, and Karen.

“And now, ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer’s voice crashed over the cheers from the end of the anthem. “Throwing out the first pitch of this year’s baseball season, the President of the United States, Mark Jerguessen.”

The crowd cheered loudly as Mark trotted out to the mound wearing a Nationals jersey and cap.

“It’s a good thing he doesn’t have any buttons on his sleeves,” June muttered to Sharon as Mark waved to the crowd.

“He doesn’t look all that nervous,” Sharon said. “But Al and I had a briefing with him earlier today and I don’t think he heard five words.”

“He threw pitches at Dad last night for two hours,” June said. “He wasn’t this stressed on election night.”

Mark went into a full windup from the pitcher’s mound, with the catcher crouched and ready behind home plate. Sure enough, the ball slapped into the mitt with a solid thunk and the crowd went wild. On the television in the box, one of the sportscasters noted that Mark had pitched in college. The board flashed the pitch’s speed – 79 miles an hour.

“Not bad for an amateur,” Gus said, nodding.

Sharon happened to glance over at June and Thomas and caught the nervous look between them. When Mark entered the box later, mid-way through the first inning, he greeted everyone with a smile, but Sharon noticed he was not happy.

He went out to the viewing platform to watch the game. Sharon came up to his side.

“You okay?” she asked softly.

Mark glared down as the National’s batter whiffed at a fastball. “I should be.”

“That was one sweet pitch,” Sharon said. “Right on the inside corner.”

“Maybe.” Mark nodded at the batter. “But even he could’ve knocked that out of the park.”

“At seventy-nine miles an hour?”

Mark glared. “I wanted at least eighty.”

“Hmm.” Sharon tried not to laugh. “Okay. It sucks that you didn’t do as well as you wanted. I get how that feels. But your not-so-good was still miles better than what most of us could do. Including the team.”

Eddie came up. “Hey, Boss – I guess if this presidential thing don’t work out, you could tear up minor league ball.”

Mark chuckled as a whoop went up behind him from inside the box. Sharon looked up and saw a close up of her and Mark standing together at the rail. She couldn’t quite hear the commentary, but had a good idea of what was being said from the way Karen glared at Al. She retreated into the box, annoyed because she wanted to watch the game.

A minute later, she pulled Gus and Jean together and told them to set up a few appearances on some news shows.

Thomas, for his part, quietly watched the goings on, especially Mark. Later, as Thomas and Mark finished dinner together back at the White House, Thomas sat back.

“Good job on the mound today,” Thomas said quietly.

Mark shrugged. “I was clocking over 80 in practice.”

“Yeah. I heard.” Thomas played with a wine glass. “Sounds like you’re trying to impress everybody again.”

“Nah.” Mark winced, then sighed. “Maybe. I thought I was just trying to beat my personal best.”

“I’d say that’s legit except that you’re still sulking about it.” Thomas chuckled. “You’d think being president would be impressive enough.”

“Not if I want another four years,” Mark sighed. “Randler, over at the party headquarters, is already talking about the next election.”

“Throwing an 80-plus mile an hour fastball isn’t going to get you a second term and you know it,” Thomas said.

Mark made a face and debated going back to work. Thomas stopped him.

“Mark, one of the things I’ve always admired about you is the way you keep trying to best yourself all the time. But we both know how that can get out of hand and we both know why it happens to you.”

“Look, I haven’t needed her approval since I was in high school.”

“Not intellectually, no. But sometimes it does get to you.” Thomas shrugged. “And it’s too bad. You did a hell of a job today and you couldn’t enjoy it because you had it in your head that you could have done better. So, I’m telling you to cut it out. Okay?”

Mark smiled awkwardly. “Yes, sir.”

“All right then. You promised me a game of chess, didn’t you?” Thomas got up and stretched.

On Friday morning, after the Advisory Board meeting, Sharon hurried out to the Metro and from there to the airport to make her commuter flight to New York City for an interview segment on The Carl MacArthur Show. MacArthur was notoriously opposed to Mark’s politics, so Sharon wondered why Yesmenia had booked her on that show, but Jean Bouyer had assured Sharon that it was part of an overall plan. Gus had also briefed her extensively because MacArthur was known for liberally interrupting his guests and sometimes even ridiculing them.

Yesmenia was waiting for Sharon at the studio and offered a few more talking points. But as it turned out, Sharon didn’t get to use them or any other points during her segment. MacArthur, a heavy-set man with a full head of gray hair, started out with a rant against the upcoming trip to Mexico, referring to the Mexican president by the wrong name. Sharon corrected him gently, but that only set MacArthur off to the point that he wouldn’t even let Sharon speak.

“So how do you answer that, huh?” he suddenly demanded.

“Are you done?” Sharon asked, looking up from the notes she’d been making.

“I’m asking you to answer a simple question,” MacArthur snarled.

“Are you going to listen to my answer or are you going to interrupt again?” Sharon replied.

MacArthur laughed. “In other words, you don’t have an answer.”

“I have plenty of answers. You just don’t want to hear them.”

And Sharon began to answer MacArthur’s question, but he interrupted again and Sharon went back to writing notes.

As soon as the segment was taped, Sharon gathered her belongings and made to leave. MacArthur sidled up to her.

“Great segment,” he told her. “I loved the way you hit me back there.”

“You’re welcome, I suppose,” said Sharon coolly.

“You know, you could’ve butted in more.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. MacArthur, I was raised to be more polite than that.” Sharon got her bag from Yesmenia and pulled out her Blackberry.

“Aw, come on. It’s just showbiz.”

“I understand that, probably better than you think.” Sharon turned to him. “But I’m not about show biz. I’m about providing top level information and advice to our president. And if I chose to treat you with respect, maybe you should have taken that as a hint. Now, I’ve got a plane to catch. Good day, Mr. MacArthur.”

Sharon turned on her heel and walked away with Yesmenia following quickly behind. Yesmenia was elated.

“That went even better than we expected,” she burbled in the limo back to the airport.

Sharon glanced up from her email. Yesmenia Alvarez was a small woman in her early 40’s who nonetheless had a girlish mien. Her fluffy pink clothes and giggling masked a devastating intelligence and deadlier wit.

“I suppose,” Sharon said.

Yesmenia patted her hand. “Don’t worry. I just called my contact at Newsbreakers, told them what happened and they bumped Trudi Little to put you on Monday.”

“Who’s Trudi Little?”

“Flavor of the moment pop star good girl gone bad.”

“Oh. Her.” Sharon sighed. “And I’m taking her place. That doesn’t sound good.”

Yesmenia just giggled. “I’ll take care of your briefing and I’ve cleared your schedule with Julie.”

“Yeah. She’s asking when she should book my flight back here.” Sharon glanced out the windows at the crowded sidewalks along Avenue of the Americas. “If it weren’t for that dinner at the Indian Embassy tonight, I’d just stay in town.”

She wasn’t entirely surprised when the limo went to a private airstrip near the airport. Douglas Lee and June were waiting next to a small jet. Sharon all but groaned.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to be taking advantage of perks like this,” she told them.

“We aren’t,” said June.

“It’s my jet,” Douglas said. “Well, it won’t be after I get it to DC. I sold it to some lobbyist. But since we need to bring it to him and since the four of us need to get back home, may as well take it and get you done up while we’re in the air.”

June grinned. “I’ve got the perfect dress for you.”

Sharon tried not to roll her eyes, but boarded and let Douglas do his thing.

It was just supposed to be a simple inter-office softball game the following day, with the White House staff going up against the State Department. The format was slo-pitch, which meant that Mark had to play outfield and Sharon finally got to pitch because she was the most accurate.

But since both the White House and the State Department tended toward rather intense, high-stress workloads, both work environments attracted rather intense, highly competitive workers, which meant that this was no simple inter-office softball game. Which became pretty evident in the first inning when Earl Wallace, the deputy secretary, trashed his shoulder whiffing at one of Sharon’s pitches.

It wasn’t until the fourth inning when a State junior staffer finally got a significant piece of a pitch and teed off into right field. Mark ran hard after the ball, made a diving catch, only to land hard on his left knee and feel a pop.

The searing pain was bad enough. Having the Secret Service go nuts and clear the field was worse. Coop and the rest of the Advisory Board were laughing, too. As Riff Butler got Mark upright and off the field, Mark told everyone to keep the game going. He tried to convince Riff to let him stay, but Riff wasn’t buying it.

The president’s limo arrived at Walter Reed at roughly the same time as three trauma victims of a car crash. Mark could see the people on the gurneys and wondered briefly why it seemed like all the doctors were surrounding his.

“Is it my imagination, or do those folks look pretty badly hurt?” he finally snarled.

“Sir, you’re a priority patient,” explained an older doctor.

“Look, I am in no way a critical case,” Mark growled. “Why don’t you check those guys out and get them stable and then we can play with my knee.”

The older doctor grinned. “Thanks. Guys, let’s move.”

The doctors scattered. Riff frowned.

“Sir, you do pose a security risk by waiting for treatment,” the agent grumbled.

“Like the psychos just knew I was going to blow out my knee and land here,” Mark grumbled back.

“I agree the odds are against it, but it’s always possible somebody wouldn’t mind taking advantage of an opportunity,” Riff said, his eyes darting everywhere.

Mark shook his head. Riff did have a point – they were in a pretty tight cubicle with curtains drawn, so it wasn’t immediately obvious who was in the hospital. But that didn’t mean the press weren’t going to find out something was up soon enough. Mark debated calling Jean and Gus.

About an hour later, he did. Sharon picked up.

“Where’s Jean?” Mark asked.

“On second base,” Sharon replied. “I’m not up for a while, so I’m covering phones.”

“Oh. What’s the score?”

“Eleven to four, our favor.” Sharon laughed and hollered. “Make that fourteen to four. The Warmonger just pasted one over the left field fence. He’s still limping around the bases. How are you doing?”

“My knee hurts and the doctors are dealing with a car crash. When’s Augie up?”

“He just came in behind Jean. Here. I’ll let you talk to them.”

Sharon handed over the phone to Jean, who beckoned Gus over and the two of them huddled together. Sharon shook her head as one of the White House janitors struck out and finally ended the inning. The State Department promptly flamed out and the game ended.

Sharon had planned to fly back to New York on Sunday, but thanks to the president’s injury, she decided she’d better stay in the office until she had to leave on Monday to get to New York for her next taping.

At least, the news out of Walter Reed was good. Mark’s knee was merely sprained and wouldn’t need surgery. Sharon spent Monday morning reassuring the Mexican government that the injury would not keep the president from his trip the following week. She got a brief respite from the frantic emails from all over the world while she was on the plane back to New York and tried to use that time to focus on her talking points for that afternoon’s taping with comedian Larry Rosen’s comic look at news issues, called Newsbreakers.

But again, talking points didn’t matter. As soon as Sharon hit the studio, one of Rosen’s production assistants was asking her how she wanted to deal with the president’s knee injury. Sharon called Gus, then met for a couple minutes with Yesmenia, who was already at the studio. Yesmenia then took care of getting the information to the writing staff while Sharon went back to answering email on her Blackberry.

She was impressed when Rosen met her in the show’s green room about half an hour before the taping was to begin. Rosen walked her through the interview but warned her that he would have to throw her the odd curveball or things would look too rehearsed.

“We really do want you to look as good as possible,” he told her.

Sharon smiled. “I appreciate that. I’m sorry I’m so distracted. The email has been a little crazy with folks freaking out over the president’s knee.”

Rosen couldn’t help chuckling. “Yeah, we’re having fun with that. Hurls a 79-mile an hour pitch, then messes up his knee in a softball game?”

“It was surprisingly competitive,” said Sharon. “And he caught the ball.”

“Can we use that?” Rosen asked.

“Sure.”

“Great. We’ll add it to the interview.”

The taping went reasonably well, with Sharon having to give Rosen the evil eye only once when he joked about how hot she was. She managed to get most of her talking points in and even took some ribbing when she confessed she pitched the ball that got pasted and caused Mark to make his ill-fated catch. Finally, Rosen tossed the curve ball.

“I’m told you know what time it is anywhere in the world,” Rosen said, grinning.

“I do have to do some math,” Sharon said, blushing.

“Okay, Vladivostock.”

“What time is it now?”

Rosen nodded, giving her the time as if the show were airing live rather than in a few hours. She gave him the time. He reeled off three other cities around the world and Sharon correctly pulled up the hour.

“Shnevnitz, Russia,” Rosen said, finally.

Sharon hesitated. “Uh, where is that close to?”

“I have no idea,” Rosen replied, laughing. “I made it up.”

Sharon laughed.

As she left the stage, she found Michael and Inez waiting for her in the green room and promptly left with them.

She let Michael chit chat in the limo back to his and Inez’s place. There, the three put together a quick dinner with some leftover bolognese sauce that Michael had made over the weekend, poured over long spaghetti with a salad on the side and a Barolo to drink. As they settled in to eat, Sharon grinned at Michael.

“So, are you guys ready for Toby’s big visit next week?” she asked, swirling her spaghetti onto her fork with a soup spoon.

“Are any of us ready for the Tobester?” Michael asked, laughing. “That kid is a force of nature.”

“Just like her old man,” said Sharon. “But seriously, Inez, how are you doing with it?”

“I’m starting to look forward to it,” Inez said. “I’m definitely going to have my hands full between the two of them.” She smiled fondly at Michael.

Sharon looked at Michael. “So why isn’t Jodi moving out, too?”

Michael shrugged. “We haven’t really talked about it yet. I suspect Jodi doesn’t want to abandon her mom. And there’s always Tiffany to consider.”

“Well, yeah,” Sharon said. “You’d have to perform surgery to get those two apart.”

“Maybe.” Michael frowned. “I do get worried that she’s too dependent on Tif. Not that I don’t like Tiffany.”

“We both adore her,” Inez said. “And you know, Michael, I’m not sure that it’s a dependent thing going on. I mean, they both seem to function better as a unit. But when I’ve talked to Jodi about it, she’s pretty aware that some separation is inevitable.”

“I get that, too,” said Sharon.

“Well, we’ll see,” said Michael. Suddenly, he grinned at Sharon. “Good taping, though.”

“Better than last Friday,” Sharon sighed.

“Come off it, Share,” Michael chuckled. “You’re a natural on camera.”

“You are good,” said Inez.

Sharon shrugged. “It’s nothing I want to be doing. I’ll stay in the background, thank you.”

Michael snorted. “Way to do it, dating the president, for cripes sake.”

“We’re not really dating,” said Sharon. “I’m working when I’m out with him.”

“Come on.” Michael’s grin was pure evil. “You expect me to believe there’s no executive slap and tickle going on?”

“Yeah, I expect you to believe it.” Sharon knew Michael was just trying to push her button and fought to keep her voice calm. “He’s not my boyfriend. We’re not dating. I just work for the man and that’s the way I want to keep things.”

Michael burst into laughter. “I’m sorry, sis. But you are so lying.”

“I am not!” Sharon said indignantly.

“Then you are lying to yourself,” said Michael. “You like him. Mondo big time.”

“What do you know about it?” Sharon said.

Michael chortled. “I know you. This is not the first time you liked somebody and tried to pretend you didn’t.”

“Since when?” Sharon looked at Michael, completely puzzled.

“Paolo Fiore.”

Sharon laughed. “Paolo? Is that the best you can do?”

“You can’t say you didn’t like him.” Michael smirked.

“I was twelve.” Sharon glanced over at Inez, who just smiled.

“But you liked him.”

“So?”

“You said you didn’t.” Michael grinned.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I told you I didn’t so you’d stop teasing me. You’re going to have to try harder, big bro.”

“Eric Lassiter.”

Sharon began to squirm. “I never said I didn’t like him. It just wasn’t a good fit.”

Inez laughed. “Oh, come on, Sharon. Even I could see you were trying not to get involved and I barely knew you then. You two would have been a great couple.”

“We had fun together,” Sharon conceded. “But I would never have been able to handle the rock and roll lifestyle. And I couldn’t ask Eric to give up his life.”

“Bullshit,” snorted Michael. “Sheez, Sharon. You keep saying you hate the fame and glory thing—“

“Miguel.” Inez stopped Michael with a warning glare.

“Michael, I don’t like it,” Sharon said. “I don’t want to be famous. And I’m not dating Mark Jerguessen. Okay? Now, what time is the flight tomorrow?”

June looked calm as she walked into the office located on the West side of Los Angeles. The office looked calming enough, with two overstuffed chairs in a relaxing shade of green, complimented by a tan couch in buttery-soft leather. Dr. Shanetta Williams was calm enough, the kind of classic African-American beauty with dark skin and the calm presence of one who knows herself.

June, however, was anything but calm.

“Good to meet you, Miss Jerguessen,” Dr. Williams said, extending her right hand.

June took it and shook with appropriate firmness. “Good to meet you, Dr.”

“Please. Have a seat.” Williams waved at the couch.

June sat down on the edge of the couch cushion and smiled.

“Now, how can I help you?” Dr. Williams said.

“Dr. Ortiz referred me,” June said, then swallowed. “She said you’re the best for… Well, you can guess my problem.”

Williams nodded. “I understand you’ve been especially reluctant to deal with it. According to Dr. Ortiz, you never mentioned it, even after several years of therapy.”

“I know.” June sniffed. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

“There’s no rush.” Williams smiled and pushed a box of tissues toward June.

“There is and there isn’t.” June took one of the tissues and twisted it in her fingers. “It’s just… Look. There’s a good reason why I haven’t been able to talk about this before. It has to do with my brother.”

Williams’ eyebrows lifted. “It does?”

“No! Mark is completely innocent. That’s the problem. He’s the one who’ll be hurt if this gets out.”

“How?’  Williams asked.

“It’s like this.” June started talking confidently. “When I was fifteen, I was gang raped. Only several years later, when Mark was running for the state senate, one of the guys came out and said he did it and that it was consensual. Nobody believed Mark when he said I hadn’t told him about it. What made it worse is that the guy Mark was running against was campaigning hard on the whole tough on crime thing. So here’s Mark – his own sister is a victim and he couldn’t do anything about it. And he loses the election. The only one Mark’s ever lost.”

“That sounds like a tough one.”

June nodded. “I mean, I don’t blame myself.”

“You don’t?” Williams smiled.

“Okay, maybe not intellectually.” June shivered. “I know up here…” She tapped her forehead. “That what happened was not my fault. I had no control of it. But let’s be real, there’s a big difference between knowing it in your head and really knowing. See what I mean?”

“Yes.”

“This other issue…” June sighed and twisted her fingers back and forth. “I can’t afford to let it get out. It’s too volatile and there are too many people who’d love to use something like this against Mark who could really hurt him.”

“I know. You’re not the first client of mine who’s had to contend with the threat of public scrutiny,” Williams said. “So why do you want to deal with it now?”

June gulped. “That. There’s this guy…”

“Ah.”

“One of the things that drew me and Doug together is that we both had some major issues. You know what I mean?”

“I do.” Dr. Williams nodded.

“Only Doug seems to be working on his.” June smiled. “He’s not there yet and he’s not pushing me. More encouraging me, like. The only problem is that he doesn’t know what my issue is. I’ve had a couple relapses over the past few years. Last fall wasn’t so bad. It was during the election. The stress, you know. But I got myself out of it. Still, Doug’s worried about me.” June paused. “And if I’m really honest, the only thing that’s going to stop my relapses is getting over this thing.”

“I see.” Dr. Williams made a note on her legal pad. “Well, you’re certainly motivated. But I’d better warn you, working on this issue won’t necessarily prevent you from relapsing. It may even trigger one. And even if you get it all worked out, you could still relapse.”

June sniffed. “I don’t think I’m looking for a magic bullet. Maybe I am. It’s just that I have to do something and it has to be discreet.”

“I understand. But I’m afraid having to do as much work as possible in one week is going to make it pretty difficult for you.” Dr. Williams looked down at her notes. “And there is one other part of the therapy that seems to be the key to recovery – talking about it.”

June swallowed. “But Mark…”

“A lot will depend on who you can trust. I don’t think you have to announce it to the world. But you will have to talk about it, certainly with Doug, probably your brother and maybe one or two other supportive friends. Not right away. Let’s get through the basic feelings first. Think you can manage that?”

“Yeah,” said June, not at all certain she could.

“Good. Let’s get to work.”

Email Conversation

From: niecybagdha@indonet.in

To: ChmpionGrl@livewire.net

Dear Sharon;

I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you about that visit this summer. It’s been very busy around here, what with the elections coming up again.

I see you’ve been getting quite a lot of attention lately. I think maybe you have a point about it causing trouble. Some of the ministers here have been making very unkind comments. The ones who don’t know you yet, I assure you. I can’t wait to see you educate them. They need to get their minds open, anyway. I hope you have a very large and very strong crowbar.

From: ChmpionGrl23@livewire.net

To: Niecybagdha@indonet.in

I not only have a very large crowbar, I have a very nice sledgehammer for you. When do we get to start swinging?

Chapter Eleven

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: What else did she do? Release it to the press?

It wasn’t the mean-spirited nature of the emails that flummoxed Sharon. It was the sheer number of them.

“They’re all the same,” she told Gwen McKelvey over the phone Thursday. “You’re a manipulative bitch and stay away from him, whoever he is. But there’s thousands and thousands of them.”

“Are they all from the same address?” Mackie asked.

“No. Different ones it looks like.”

Sharon could hear her pounding keys in the background. She had given Mackie access to her account and it sounded like Mackie had just pulled it up.

“Wow. Sure looks like a Trojan from here,” Mackie said.

“Oh dear. Can you fix my computer?” Sharon bit her lip.

“It’s not your computer,” Mackie said. “It’s all the other computers that the Trojan got installed on. You’re just the target. Or one of them. Tell you what. I’ll get the email company to get this all cleared out and your account reset.”

“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”

Except that after Friday’s meeting, Mackie followed Sharon to her office and shut the door.

“What’s up?” Sharon asked.

“That email attack,” Mackie said. “It looks like you were the sole target.”

“What about all those other computers?” Sharon asked.

Mackie sighed. “Their owners probably don’t even know they have a Trojan on their drives. It’s a particularly nasty bit of malware and in this case, set up to just send email to that one address of yours. I was able to contact a couple of the senders and found the code for the Trojan. The scary thing is, all it does is send out occasional single messages to one address – yours. The heuristic-based anti-malware software isn’t going to pick it up because it’s not an unusual behavior on the drive. But you get enough computers doing it at the same time, then you get bombarded.”

“Who would want to do that?” Sharon shivered a little.

“That’s the hard part.” Mackie leaned over and gently grasped Sharon’s hand. “It wasn’t necessarily an attack against you. There’s nothing in the message or in the code to suggest a specific attack. Someone could have just picked up the address from one of your surfing sessions and decided to play with it. That person probably doesn’t even know who you are.”

Sharon sighed again. “So now what do I do?”

“We get you another email address. Although, just in case, I would make sure it’s not based on your name.”

Sharon made a face. “Sure. Why not? Oh, great. All my contacts are in that account. Can I transfer them over?”

“I put everything into a .csv file. You should be able to upload it onto almost anybody’s email. But I would stick with a webmail account. And remember to back up your contacts and saved emails on a regular basis.”

Mackie dropped a thumb drive onto Sharon’s desk and left the office.

“Damned nuisance,” Sharon grumbled and went back to work.

As that afternoon turned into evening, Sharon realized with a start that she had a date. Avoiding Gus Guerrero’s office, she hurried out of the White House and onto the Metro, getting off at Foggy Bottom and the Georgetown district.

The bar was nothing exceptional – the normal wood and brass kind of place attached to a restaurant best known for attracting the right people. The bar was crowded with all kinds of folk, especially Congressional staffers and lobbyists. The music wasn’t pounding too loudly and Sharon could see through the dim light a series of semi-circular booths lining the back wall.  Max hadn’t arrived. Sharon decided to stand in the restaurant’s waiting area. Max showed up almost exactly 15 minutes late. Sharon made a point of walking over to him and kissing him on the cheek.

“Wow,” said Max with an evil grin. “Are we trying to tell the boyfriend something?”

“More like the people who insist he is my boyfriend,” Sharon said amiably.

“Got it,” said Max.“You want to eat here or just have drinks and eat somewhere else?” He bent closer, putting his mouth to her ear. “Frankly, I’d recommend eating someplace else. The food here isn’t bad, but I checked with our restaurant critic and she suggested a couple other spots that are a lot better.”

“It depends on the profile,” sighed Sharon. “We are here to be seen.”

“Tell you what,” Max said. “Why don’t we have drinks here and we’ll go someplace else for dinner? That’ll get you seen more places.”

He gently took her elbow and steered her into the bar. Smiling, he grabbed a table and made a point of pulling out a chair for Sharon and seating her. Sharon barely had time to look at the cocktail menu before Max had summoned a waiter.

“What can I get for you tonight?” the waiter asked, an average size young man with a bad case of acne and white shirt and a striped tie he could have gotten from a congressional intern.

Sharon squinted at the menu while Max ordered a premium scotch with water on the side.

“I’ll have a glass of the house chardonnay,” Sharon said when the waiter turned to her.

As the waiter left, Max grinned and leaned forward over the table.

“I wouldn’t pick you as a wine by the glass kind of girl,” he said.

Sharon shrugged. “A place like this, they’re going through it fast enough and it’s a drinkable label. So, tell me about growing up in Germany.”

Max launched into a monolog about his childhood in German schools and coming back to the United States for college, then deciding to become a journalist. He asked Sharon briefly whether she’d spent any time in Germany, but then interrupted her answer to talk about an amusing incident from a high school trip to Italy.

And the evening went on from there, with Max making all the choices about where to go and what to do next, although Sharon had to concede, he did have a nose for a good restaurant. Max did listen occasionally, but just as often interrupted whatever Sharon was saying. Still, he kept any lewd innuendos to a minimum and didn’t protest too much when Sharon left him cooling his heels at a rather trendy nightclub not far from the university.

The next day, Saturday, much of the White House office staff, including the Advisory Board, gathered at the White House to play softball – yet another attempt at team building by Marian Jefferson. Mark got to play, but couldn’t pitch because he wanted to throw overhand to practice for baseball opening day when he’d be expected to throw out the first pitch.

Sharon found herself mostly playing the outfield, which bored her silly, although she did manage one good catch when Jean Bouyer lobbed one into right field. More annoying, Gus was waiting for her after the game. He pulled her aside and checked that no one else was in earshot.

“How’d your date go last night?” Gus asked, anxiously.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Sharon grumbled. “Augie, I’m a grown woman. I can handle Max Epstein.”

“No kidding,” Gus replied. “But I’m not sure he can handle you.”

“What?”

Gus fidgeted with his mitt. “Max has got issues.”

“I noticed. But they’re not that big a deal.” Sharon looked at Gus more carefully. “Everyone thinks you’re worried about me getting my heart broken.”

Gus shrugged and looked out over the South lawn. The snow was long gone, but in spite of constant manicuring by the garden staff, there was the odd muddy spot here and there. The evergreens were dark against the budding dogwoods and other deciduous trees dotting the border of the huge expanse of grass.

“Yes and no,” Gus said finally. “It’s happened before, though.” He winced and led Sharon back toward the West Wing. “The problem with Max is he doesn’t know when to quit.”

“He didn’t push anything with me,” Sharon said. “He was a little controlling, but otherwise, he was pretty nice. And when he did that interview, he’d obviously done his homework.”

“He’s a great reporter.” Gus nodded, his big square head bobbing. “That’s not the problem. He’s just not good dating.”

“No kidding.” Sharon started to head off to her office, but Gus stopped her again.

“Okay, I’m not worried about you getting your heart broken.” Gus paused. “But maybe you should be worried about breaking his heart.”

Sharon turned to Gus. “What?”

Gus sighed loudly. “It’s Max. Like you said, he’s pretty nice but controlling. The problem is, he thinks he’s really hot.”

“And how many men don’t?” Sharon laughed. “Come on, Augie. You think I couldn’t figure that one out?”

“No, no, no, no.” Gus winced again. “Wheaties, you only think you’ve got Max figured out. He comes off pretty badly when he’s dating, but that’s not who he is.”

Sharon frowned. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure.” Gus shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve dated the guy. For one thing, Max is straight and I was already with Emilio when Max and I met. But I’ve heard from both sides. Some of Max’s girlfriends came to me when they were going out. And then Max started crying on my shoulder.” Gus sighed again, even more deeply than before. “Max isn’t that bad a guy. He’s just really, really lousy at dating. I think it’s that he was raised by his dad. He was in the Air Force, you know.”

“Yeah. I remember Max saying something about that.” Sharon looked Gus over. “So, what’s the big deal about me dating him?”

“I don’t want either of you getting hurt,” Gus said, finally. “I know. You can take care of yourself. But I don’t want you hurting Max, either. He’s a decent guy. He deserves somebody really nice who knows how to handle him. The last thing he needs is you making mincemeat out of him.”

Sharon smiled. “I don’t want to do that, either, Augie.” She suddenly frowned. “He hasn’t said anything, has he? I mean, he’s not falling for me? I left him cooling his heels last night and he seemed okay with that.”

“I don’t know.” Gus thought it over, then checked his mobile phone. “He hasn’t called me, but that doesn’t mean he would. On the other hand, he did call when you asked him out last Wednesday. I don’t know.”

Sharon sighed. “Is he going to get terribly upset if I make it clear I’d rather just be friends?”

“I don’t know. If he has any women friends, I’ve never seen them. But we’re only work buddies, at the club and all.”

“Well, you’re close enough to care about him.” Sharon smiled. “Look, it wasn’t the best date I’ve been on, but he’s not terrible. How about if we both wait and see what happens?”

Gus brightened. “Sure. We can do that.”

“Good.” Sharon grinned. “I’d like to think I’ve finally outgrown high school.”

Gus laughed. “I’d like to think we all have. Now, if only high school would stop following us around.”

Sharon laughed also and the two went back to their respective offices.

In California, Cameron Dykstra was trying to hold onto her temper with both hands.

“Toby, you can wait until after you finish college,” she said through gritted teeth. “Hollywood will still be there.”

Cameron was a tall woman, almost as tall as her ex-husband, Michael Wheatly. She had the same blond hair as him, with deep blue eyes and a willowy build, although the hips were getting somewhat padded as the years wore on.

“Like I don’t know that!” Toby hollered back. “It’s not about waiting. It’s about me being bored out of my skull for the next six years just because you want me to be normal.”

“I never said I wanted you to be normal,” Cameron growled back as she watched her elder daughter pace the living room. “I want you to have a normal life. You need to be grounded before you try to work in that industry.”

“But I am grounded, Mom. I’m not going to do drugs or get pregnant or drink and drive. I know better.” Toby stopped pacing just long enough to face her mother down.

“And I know how easy it is to get caught in that nonsense. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

“Dad didn’t do it and you can’t say he didn’t have the chance.”

Cameron bit back her rage. “You leave your father out of this.”

“Why? Are you still angry at him? Is that why you’re forcing me to be some normal person? Just so you can prove I’m not him?”

“Tabitha Marie, I said to leave your father out of this.” Cameron felt the tears rushing to her eyes but decided she wasn’t going to give in. “He agreed that the best thing for you girls was to give you as normal a life as possible. That is why you live with me. And that is why you are not going to the High School for Performing Arts.”

“I have an audition, Mom!” Toby shrieked. “Do you know how hard those are to get?”

“An audition you applied for without my permission.” Cameron felt her voice rising and tried to calm it, but it was too late. “Or your father’s, I might add. Weren’t you grounded long enough when you called that agent?”

“She called me.”

“And I told you not to call her back. Period. End of sentence. Frankly, I have had it with your end runs and your constant attempts to defy me. You are going to your room and you are going to stay there for the rest of the weekend. Do you understand?”

Toby glared at her and stomped off. Cameron went back to the kitchen, sniffling.

In her room, Toby slammed the door shut, then pulled out her cell phone and dialed.

“Daddy?” she asked when Michael answered.

“Hey, Tobester, what’s up?”

“I want to live with you!” Toby sobbed. “Mom hates me. I just want to act and she won’t let me do anything. I even got an audition for the High School for the Performing Arts in New York and she’s all mad just because I sent the application in.”

Michael took a deep breath. “You must be feeling really angry.”

He glanced over at Inez, who lifted an eyebrow. He shrugged.

The odds were fairly good that Toby was not telling him the whole story. But at the same time, Michael had been feeling increasingly uncomfortable with Cameron’s philosophies of late. The situation was going to take some delicate maneuvering.

Toby complained on. Michael smiled weakly at Inez. She’d gone to considerable trouble to make a special dinner for the two of them. Inez’ family was, in fact, Puerto Rican, but Inez had crossed cultures to make Michael’s favorite Mexican dishes – cheese enchiladas with lightly pickled cabbage, chiles rellenos and rice. The table had been set with candles and the two were finishing the last of a gewurztraminer they’d picked up on a special trip a couple years before to California. Which meant that Inez had something up her sleeve.

Inez waved at him that he should let Toby talk and began clearing the table. Finally, Michael was able to get a word in edgewise.

“Honey, I get that you’re upset, but why did you apply in the first place?” Michael asked.

“Ms. Collins said I should,” Toby replied.

“Ms. Collins?”

Toby harrumphed. “My drama teacher. She knows you live in New York. I thought if I got an audition Mom might get it into her head that I’m, like, not normal.”

“Did you tell your mom about Ms. Collins.”

“She didn’t even give me a chance! Dad, can’t you do anything? I can’t take any more.”

Michael sighed. “Toby, I know this is a difficult situation, and I will talk to your mother and get her side of the story. She is your mother. We both owe her that much respect.”

“And you’re my dad. You get some say in what happens to me.”

“Yes, I do. But you know I’m not going to let you play us against each other. And keep in mind, Inez has to be part of the decision, too. It’s all about making the best possible choice for all of us, including you.”

“All right,” Toby grumbled.

“Honey, I just don’t want to make any promises I can’t keep. Hang tight and I love you. Okay?”

“Okay. I love you, too.”

Michael hung up, feeling the depths of Toby’s despair.

“How is she?” Inez asked softly, sitting down in her seat next to the table.

Michael shook his head. “Some of it’s typical adolescent, the world’s coming to an end angst. But some of it, I hate to say it, but she’s got a legitimate gripe.”

“What’s up?”

“Cameron. You know how she’s bent on the girls having a normal life, but Toby wants to act.”

“Oh lord,” Inez sighed. “Did she get another agent?”

“No. She applied to the High School for the Performing Arts behind her mom’s back.”

Inez chuckled. “She used your address?”

“Oh yeah. And blamed it on her teacher’s suggestion. Even odds, it was the teacher.” Michael fidgeted with his wine glass. “Either way, Toby got an audition and Cameron blew a gasket.” Michael shook his head. “Problem is, I’m really beginning to think Cameron’s pushing this normal thing too hard, especially with Toby.”

“She doesn’t want Toby to get into all the drugs and drinking and sex.”

“Like she can’t at school?” Michael got up and started pacing in the open space between the dining room and the living room. “Toby wants to come live with us.”

“Oh.” Inez blinked and swallowed, then held her breath. “What do you want?”

“Inez, I’m not going to tell her to come on out without talking it over with you.” Michael’s pacing picked up and his arms flew as he gestured. “This is a big decision and it’s not like you’re not involved. I mean, what kind of a jerk would I be if I didn’t consult you first?”

“A jerk who loves his daughter?”

Michael sank onto the living room couch. “God, I’d love to have her. I’ve hated not being around and missing out all the time.”

“I know.” Inez sighed.

“But what about you? What do you want?” Michael was back on his feet.

“I want her.” Inez studied her fingernails. She looked up. “Seriously, Michael, you know I love your girls. I just…”

“Just what?” Michael noted the candle on the table that was still burning. “You had something you wanted to discuss with me tonight, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. I just don’t think this is the best time.”

“Oh, great.” Michael turned on her. “What? And what does this have to do with Toby?”

“Everything and nothing.” Inez looked out the front windows, her eyes filling with tears.   “I want a baby.”

“You’ve been saying for years you don’t want kids. That’s why we’re not married.”

“I know.” Inez sniffed. “And I didn’t. Only now, Julie Alvarez. She’s my age and she can’t get pregnant. And I wasn’t able to before when I was trying and I was nine years younger than I am now. And I see my sister and my friends and they have babies and they’re so happy and…”

Michael flopped onto the couch. “Well, this is a hell of a time to drop this on me!”

“Drop this on you!” Inez bounced to her feet. “Excuse me. You’re the one who wanted me to tell you. And it’s not about you, anyway. It’s about me and what I need and want. I mean, you’re part of it.”

“And that’s exactly my problem. I’m the sperm donor. Do I get a say beyond that? Do you even care whether or not I want to be a daddy again?”

“Of course, I care. But you need to hear me, too. You need to pay attention to where I’m at instead of only worrying about how it affects you. It affects both of us and I’m the part that you always forget.”

Michael started pacing again. “I don’t always forget you.”

“You forget often enough.”

“It’s not like you let me.”

Inez groaned. “Well, somebody has to keep your ego in check. Sheez, Michael. Sometimes I think you believe all the hype.”

“That was low.” Still, Michael looked away guiltily.

“But not wrong.”

He looked at Inez, who held her ground next to the table, her eyes daring him to try to contradict her. He took a deep breath.

“I want to be crystal clear here – I’m not saying no,” he said slowly. “And I want to get married. But I’m not wild about starting over again with a kid. Even if Toby doesn’t come to live with us. Inez, we’re having enough trouble adjusting. And if Toby comes, I don’t even want to think about how much crazier that’s going to make things.”

“I’m not saying it will be easy. And I’m not saying we have to.” Inez came over and slid her arms around Michael’s waist. “But I’ve got something really good here and it just seems right. I can’t help thinking how special it would be to have your child. The two of us, working together to help a new little one grow up.”

“And what if we split up?” Michael asked softly.

“Ah.” Inez nodded.

“I don’t want to raise another kid on weekends again.” Michael pulled out of her arms.

“I know.” Inez sighed. “Miguel, I can promise all you like. But we both know things happen.” She smiled softly. “Why don’t we use Toby as a test run? I mean, she’s at that tough time in her life. If we can make that work, won’t it be easier to decide about a baby?”

Michael nodded. “If we can get Cam to let Toby come.” He sighed. “We can’t let Toby pull this end run nonsense off.”

“You’re right. But she knows she’s never gotten away with it before. It could be she really is crying for help, here. So give yourself a day. Then talk to Cam and see what the two of you can work out. It’s like you told Toby – what’s best for all of you.”

“No.” Michael reached out and pulled Inez close to him. “It’s what’s best for all of us.”

“Yeah. Us.”

Michael spent the better part of that evening pacing the apartment. The next morning, he went out for an extended walk, then paced the apartment some more. Finally, around lunchtime, he did an extended consultation with Inez, then picked up his cell phone.

Cameron, in Pasadena, was quietly making breakfast. The tension in the house was all but suffocating. Jodi was hiding in her room and Toby was still confined to hers. Cameron was less than enthused to see her ex-husband’s number on the caller ID but picked up her cell phone anyway.

“Hey, Michael.”

“Cameron, I think you need to know that Toby called me yesterday.”

She sighed. Michael was using his reasonable tone, which meant she probably wasn’t going to like what he had to say. It also meant he probably had good reason to use it.

“Somehow, I’m not surprised,” Cameron said. “Complaining about me?”

“Yeah. And I just listened and validated her feelings.” Michael paused. “And while I do not approve her going behind your back on the school application, Cameron, I have to say I really think it’s time to re-visit the whole normal life thing.”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Michael! I thought you supported me on that.”

“I do and I have. And you’ve done a terrific job with the girls. It’s just that they’re kind of getting past the white picket fence routine.”

“What would you know about it?” Cameron felt her voice rising. “You’re not here.”

“Because you asked me not to come around that often.” Michael’s voice got tight. “You didn’t even want me living in the same state. I moved to New York because you didn’t want me around any more often than the court said. And the only reason I agreed is that I didn’t want the girls caught in the middle of an ugly situation.”

Cameron swallowed as she got her grip again. “Point taken. But Michael, they’re in the dangerous years, the easiest time to turn their heads. Their judgment just isn’t there yet.”

“No, not entirely,” Michael conceded. “But, Cameron, their judgment is better than you think. And when you consider I know where the pitfalls are. I know how to warn Toby off them. Cam, she’s going to act whether you want her to or not. Wouldn’t it be better if she did it while under my wing instead of flying off on her own because you won’t let her?”

“I think I know what’s best for my daughter.”

“Our daughter, Cameron. She’s my kid, too. And I have supported you, a few times against my better judgment. But I’ve done it because I trusted you. And now it’s time you trust me.”

“What do you want?” Cameron growled.

“I want Toby to come live with me in New York so she can go to the High School for Performing Arts, assuming she gets in, some other acceptable school if she doesn’t. In any case, I will supervise any acting she does.”

“I want her to have a normal life.”

“It will be the kind of life that she finds normal, with other kids like her.”

Cameron bit her lip. “I’ll think about it.”

“Do that.” Michael debated briefly making his threat but decided it would be better to wait before threatening the lawyers.

As Cameron swiped off her phone, she noticed that Jodi had slipped into the kitchen.

“Talking to Dad?” Jodi asked.

“Yep.”

“About Toby?”

“Jodi, this is between your father and me.”

Jodi shrugged as she went to the pantry and pulled out a box of cereal. “I overheard Toby talking to Grandpa Dykstra. She said she wants to live with Dad.”

“She called Grandpa?” Cameron shook her head, trying to clear the fury she felt. “What else did she do? Release it to the press?”

“Don’t think so.” Jodi got a bowl out of the cupboard and milk from the fridge. She looked at her mom. “But she might if she thought of it.”

Cameron sank into a chair.

“Mom, maybe she should go live with Dad.” Jodi shrank back a little as Cameron glared at her. “I know you want us to have a normal life. But, Mom, we’re not normal and it has nothing to do with Dad. It’s just us.”

“I don’t want her to get caught in all the partying and drugs and sex and…”

“What? Like she can’t get caught in that here at school?” Jodi filled her bowl. “Dude. It’s almost more weird that she isn’t sleeping around or drinking or smoking pot or doing pills or—”

“Enough. I don’t need a litany.”

“I’m not kidding, Mom. You talk about consequences all the time and most of the girls in my class – not a clue what those are. They get in trouble, their folks buy them out of it. Oh no, they didn’t do anything. Until one of them overdoses, then all the parents are, like, we’ve got to crack down on this kind of behavior.” Jodi rolled her eyes. “Except that it’s never their kid. It’s always someone else’s. It’s not like you or Dad. You guys never let us get away with anything.”

“I’m the one who doesn’t let you get away with anything,” Cameron grumbled.

“Dad doesn’t either. Trust me. He thought I got snarky with Inez once, made me scrub the toilets and the floors in his apartment. Twice in one day.” Jodi rolled her eyes again and started eating. “Toby thinks he’s so nice? You may as well let her go. She’ll find out the hard way.”

Cameron sighed, then went back to her bedroom before calling Michael.

“Yeah?”

“How do we do this, Michael? I don’t want Toby rewarded for going behind my back.”

“I don’t either. How about this? She said her teacher wanted her to apply to the school. Why don’t you talk to Ms. Collins and find out what really happened? If Toby was on the level, then we let her audition and go from there. If she wasn’t, she spends her first month here grounded and goes to another school. Fair enough?”

“That makes sense.” Cameron paused. “How often do I get to see her?”

“As often as you want. I’ll take care of the travel arrangements. It’ll be fine, Cameron. You’ve done a good job with her. She’s grounded and solid. And neither of us are going to let her get away with any nonsense. Those aren’t the kids who get in trouble. Okay?”

“Okay.” Cameron’s reply was dull and lifeless. But Michael was right.

Chapter Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon sighed loudly, during one particularly obnoxious rant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glanced over at Mark, who was smiling softly.

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

Coop immediately took up his report.

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

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

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

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

“What?” said Sharon.

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

“Don’t you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon found her fuming in her office.

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

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

“Oh. I know you. Why’d she call you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What got stolen?”

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

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

“Who?”

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

Sharon remembered some ravioli made with semolina the Thursday before.

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

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

“You can talk to your brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Solly turned on her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Wills looked at both women, nodded and left.

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

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

“But how am I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Still,” grumbled Sharon.

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

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

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

Solly was waiting for them in the kitchen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Amateur,” said Sharon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Matt,” she announced. “Matthew?”

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

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

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

“Why?” Matt grumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she was waiting for him in the living room.

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

He stopped.

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

Matt glared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you going?” Shawna demanded.

“Out.”

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

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

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

“Very good, Meez Cherguessen,” Marta replied.

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

IM Session

Swheatly531: Got a minute?

Gloryhg: Yep. What can I do for you?

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

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

Swheatly531: Don’t worry about it.

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

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

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

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

Gloryhg: Catch you later.

Chapter Nine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

“Why would he want to do that?”

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

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

Sharon grimaced. “Why?”

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

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

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

“I suppose.”

“Great. This afternoon okay?”

“Already?” Sharon gulped.

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

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

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

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

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

The waiter approached and Sharon asked for separate checks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like what?”

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

“And what do you really want?”

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

“How?”

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

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

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

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good news,” she announced after being admitted.

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

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

“Is it even daylight there yet?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?” Sharon asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Fine.” Mark shifted uncomfortably.

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

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

“Excuse me, I most certainly can.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No one bothered you, did they?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean and Gus looked at each other.

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

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

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

“What did they want?” Gus asked.

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

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

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

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

Gus sighed. “It will do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Be nice if it were,” sighed Gus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope. If I may?”

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

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

Or was she?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s a bold move,” Mark said.

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

“A little. I’m not that good.”

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

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

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

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

CAPITAL CUES

By Max Epstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To: Swheatly531

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

Chapter Eight

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

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

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

Mark applauded slowly at the end of the tune.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The group applauded severally, and Mark acknowledged the tribute.

“Where are we going?” Whitey asked.

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

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

The others groaned loudly.

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I told you.”

“At least some of the guys are cute.”

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

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

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

“Welcome to my nightmare.”

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

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

“He’s on the phone,” she said.

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

“Tortillas?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you are?” Karen asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“He was hitting on me,” Sharon grumbled.

“I can imagine,” Augie sighed.

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

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

Karen giggled. “So we stand warned.”

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

“Yeah,” said Augie.

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

“Good,” said Augie with decided finality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. Are you ready?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, you are my date.”

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

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

Sharon winced again. “Not really.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

“No.”

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

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

Mark softened. “How?”

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

“Sure.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then why…”

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

“Oh.”

“I know we were working, but, well…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June laughed.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yowza. You must be sitting pretty.”

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

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

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

“You’ve got friends in L.A.”

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

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

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

“You got a business degree in there.”

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

“No. I’d love it.” June smiled.

IM Session

Gloryhg:  Hi.

Swheatly531:  Hi.

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

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

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

Swheatly531:  For working, it wasn’t bad.

Gloryhg:  I may have overstepped a boundary.

Swheatly531:  When? Oh, the kiss.

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

Swheatly531:  Oh.

Gloryhg:  You okay with it?

Gloryhg:  You there?

Swheatly531:  Yeah. Just thinking it over.

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

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

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

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

Gloryhg:  I know.

Swheatly531:  BTW, Gloryhg???

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

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

Gloryhg:  See you tomorrow.

Chapter Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were near the exit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi!” Sharon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There were four of you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Sharon yelped, then regretted it.

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

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

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

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

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

“He did this?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You mean the dating pool?”

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

Sharon groaned softly.

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

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

“I don’t get it,” she said finally.

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

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

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

Sharon winced.

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

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

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

“I suppose. I guess I’m in.”

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

“So soon?” Sharon groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And hate?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes!”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

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

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

“It’s beautiful,” Sharon gasped.

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

“It’s gorgeous.”

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

“Draped?”

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

“June, what are you talking about?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You okay?” Sharon asked, finally.

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

“I’ve heard there’s some coolness.”

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

“But you don’t like their parents.”

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

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

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

“Including you and his uncle?”

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

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

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

“That was a hoax.”

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

“Oh, no.”

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

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

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

“But his mother is—”

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

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

“I can only hope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suppose. Are you all right?”

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

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

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

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

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

“And…?” Michael waited.

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

“If we’re free, why not?”

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

“So?”

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

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

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

“No kidding.” Michael flopped onto the couch.

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

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

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

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

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

“Then don’t let it.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Inez.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark froze, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Martindale,” said Augie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere late in the third quarter, Sharon overheard Mark and Al discussing something, apparently unaware that she could hear them. Nonetheless, she felt her blood boiling and for the rest of the evening, she couldn’t wait until everyone – including the boss – went home.

Which was why she was even more annoyed to find that Mark was still there when she finally pushed the Coop and his wife out her front door.

“I can clean up myself,” she told him angrily.

Surprised, he stepped back. “I’m sorry?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Okay, I can understand you being a little nettled earlier today, when I made that crack about you not notching my bedpost. But you didn’t have to tell Al that I was just another beautiful woman and it didn’t matter.”

“I didn’t—“ Mark frantically went over the evening in his head. “Oh, for crying out loud. You’re taking that completely the wrong way!”

“Then Al did, too.” Sharon did not like the shrill notes creeping into her voice, but she couldn’t help it.

“Did you hear me set him straight?”

Sharon snorted.

Mark groaned. “You did, didn’t you? And you’re still mad. What is wrong with you?”

“Because I’m sick and tired of being just another beautiful woman!”

“Then you didn’t hear all of what I said.”

“I don’t care.”

“I do. Al’s the one you should be mad at, not me. He’s the one who said I should sleep with you because of your looks. What I said was that if that was the only reason I was sleeping with you, then – and only then, I might add – you would be just another beautiful woman and it wouldn’t matter.”

“I don’t want to be mad at Al,” Sharon groaned, throwing a napkin on the bar.

“Well, what good is being mad at me going to do?”

Sharon sniffed. “I need the distance.” She looked over at him. “That was great chili, by the way.”

Mark sank onto a barstool. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Everything.” Agitated, Sharon prowled around the room, trying to straighten it. “I was an idiot today, okay? I should never have asked you about Martindale or whether you’ve got somebody else you’re seeing. It’s none of my damned business. And I don’t want it to be my business. And I sure as hell don’t want to end up like Martindale.”

“What do you want?” Mark asked softly.

Sharon looked at him. “Probably the same thing you want.”

Mark winced. “I don’t know about that. It wouldn’t be about the looks, and it would certainly be against my better judgment, but what I want right now may or may not get us to your bedroom.”

“I’m not picky about where.” Sharon swallowed. “But that damned better judgment clause. That’s the only reason you still have your clothes on.”

“Are you going to run away on me?” Mark braced himself.

“No.” Sharon hung her head. “I’ll tell you right now, every freaking nerve ending in my body is screaming to put as much distance between you and me as possible. At this point, Africa is not far enough.” She looked at him again. “But somehow, it just seems like that would be the worst thing I could do. That if I left now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

“Sharon, if you need to back off, then we’ll back off.” Mark swallowed. “But, please, don’t go promising that you’ll regret leaving or anything like that until–“

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, that’s not what I’m saying,” Sharon snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not promising my life to you or any nonsense like that. What I meant is that I can’t run away now. I don’t know about tomorrow. But right now, I can’t.”

“Yeah, well, do me a favor and be careful with that not running away stuff,” Mark growled, then sighed. “I’ve heard it before. She swore she could handle it.”

“Well, I think I’ve seen what can happen,” Sharon said.

“No. You haven’t. You haven’t seen squat. And you won’t, if I have anything to say about it.” It was Mark’s turn to start pacing. “Look, I think we both know I can’t promise you won’t face some bad publicity at some point or other. None of us can and the best thing we can do is keep our noses squeaky clean just in case. And it’s not as if we’ve known each other all that long. What do we really know about each other? That we like to cook and eat and drink good coffee and wine? It’s not like we can’t be friends and take our time finding out who we are. Seriously, Sharon, you’d have to give up too much to be with me right now. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“And I don’t want to put you in that position.” She sighed. “I’m just wondering how long better judgment can hold out.”

“So am I.”

Mark left a few minutes later, after another awkward good-bye at the basement door.

Sharon spent the rest of the night alternating between worrying that things would be forever awkward at work and wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with Mark. So while she felt for poor Carrie Martindale when things blew up on Sunday, Sharon was glad she had something besides her boss to dwell on. 

Not that the Martindale affair was that big a deal for Sharon directly. Outside of the U.S., the sexual antics, real or potential, of a sitting U.S. president were more a source of bemusement than anything, especially in those countries where it was well-known their leaders were not only cheating on their spouses but using government money to pay for their high-class call girls. That a young woman had lied about never meeting President Jerguessen barely caused any notice, which meant Sharon didn’t have to think about the issue much at all, beyond commiserating with Tanks and Augie and press secretary Jean Bouyer, who were dealing with all the fuss domestically.

For Martindale had already told reporters on Friday, before the President had made his statement about not commenting, that she had never met the man. She had always worked in the House of Representatives and had had limited contact with senators. Which she said again, Sunday morning, on one of the political talk shows, although Augie later said she should have known that something was up when she’d been asked on the show. Why have her there at all if she really didn’t know the president?

Because as soon as she affirmed she had never met President Jerguessen, she was asked to identify the people in the photo on the studio screen – a photo that clearly showed her and Mark Jerguessen shaking hands at a party of some sort. Flabbergasted, Martindale stammered that she had no clue where or when the photo had been taken and then made her second fatal error by suggesting that the show had somehow tampered with the shot to make it look as though she and the president had met.

So naturally, on Monday, everyone was talking about how if Martindale had lied about knowing the president and the two had obviously met, then how well did she really know him? Sharon found herself trying not to wonder the same thing, although there was a part of her that remembered that Mark had said that as far as he knew the two had never met. So unless someone had been doing some serious playing around with PhotoShop, the two obviously had.

It got around the White House very quickly that the boss was not happy. He kept his same schedule, sent around a memo reminding employees that they were not to comment either way on any rumored romances, but otherwise kept to himself as much as possible. Jean said at the morning press briefing that they were working on the source of the photo, and it did not appear that anyone could identify when or where it had been taken. Which while Jean did not say so and flat out denied it when she was pressed, got many assuming she was implying that the photo was a fake.

What did help was that the next day, Jean was able to announce to the press that the photo had been identified.

“It was taken at an education lobby party about 15 months ago, just before the president announced his candidacy,” she said. “The president told me it was usual for such affairs and he remembers talking with several people whose names he never got and would probably be surprised to find that he’d met them, as well. Nor is he surprised that Ms. Martindale did not remember the event, either. He was just a senator at that point and as she has pointed out, she worked with members of the House. The president would also like to point out that this sort of thing is exactly why he does not comment on potential relationships.”

Which fed the fire for another few days, although by the time Carrie Martindale showed up to the White House for a very public lunch with the President, the story was all but dead.

All but dead, June noted with some mild disgust as she perused a couple Washington society blogs. She was fairly sure her brother was not seeing anyone at the moment. Mark was beyond discreet, but June could usually tell. The funny thing was, it had looked like he was seeing someone back in early February. June decided it had either fallen through or something else had triggered his “happy” look, as she called it. Either way, something had to be done about the gossip-mongering and she thought she knew what. The problem would be convincing Mark.

That Sunday, as Mark made their brunch, June laid out her idea. As she expected, Mark was less than enthused.

“What makes you think people won’t be placing bets on who wins my hand?” he grumbled as he chopped onions to go in what would become a corned-beef hash.

“Then the joke’s on them, isn’t it?” June replied. “I mean, honestly, Mark, half the reason the damn rumors get so much ground is that you don’t date anyone publicly. If you’ve got a whole group you’re dating, then it’s pretty obvious, these are just friendly relationships. What’s even better, is that I’ll be the one overseeing who you go out with for what event, so there’ll be a lot less room for speculation.”

Mark grimaced. “Do you really want to take that on?”

“Honestly?”

“Oh, crud.” Mark shook his head with a rueful grin. “You’re just dying to, aren’t you?”

June giggled in spite of herself. “Damn skippy. I mean, I don’t want to mess with your love life. But it kinda would be fun to set you up. You could even set me up occasionally if you want.”

“Hm.” Mark focused on finely dicing a potato. “That could even things up a little.”

“Could. And I don’t mind you floating the odd name or two, just between us. It’s not like I don’t know most of your friends.”

“True.” Mark thought as he turned the heat up on the cast iron skillet, then slid some white solid fat into it.

June grimaced. “Are you using lard again?”

“It’s the unadulterated stuff, without the poly-unsaturates and lard has less of the bad fat than butter. Besides, it’s the best thing to get this hash nice and crisp the way you like it. How about Mary Karpati?”

“She’s perfect.” June nodded. “If I can get her, Tish MacDonald?”

“Your BFF. So that’s what triggered this little idea.” Mark grinned shamelessly.

“What?”

“Hasn’t she been begging you to set me up with her for how long?”

June laughed. “More like how long ago. We were in high school when that happened. She’s gotten over you in a big way, although you’re okay as guys and politicians go. Think we can add Carrie Martindale to the list?”

Mark winced. “Conflict of interest.”

“You’re right. Karen Tanaka?”

“Has a boyfriend.”

“Sharon Wheatly?”

“Doubt you’ll get her to go for it.” Mark held his breath, hoping that June didn’t notice the flutter in his chest. “Besides, doesn’t look good dating a subordinate.”

June sighed. “Mark, the whole point is that you’re not really dating, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s see. Who else?”

Mark left her to her musing.

Two days later, Daniel Friedman got June on the phone.

“I, uh, heard about your dating pool plan,” Daniel told her once the pleasantries were dispensed with.

“Yeah. You got someone for me?”

“I do. Only I’m thinking as a special interest date, for embassy soirees, etc. Sharon Wheatly.”

“Too perfect. But Mark said he’s concerned about what it would look like dating a subordinate.”

“She’d be there almost as his assistant and personal translator.”

“I suppose, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think she’ll go for it.”

“She’d be perfect and we won’t have to spend a lot of time briefing her. Plus, we won’t have to worry about her saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

“Well, I’ll talk to her, but don’t get too excited, Daniel. She really doesn’t like the spotlight.”

“Let me know how it goes. Maybe I’ll talk to her, too.”

“Just do me a favor and wait for me to give you the heads up.”

June hung up, not sure what to do. The problem was, Sharon would be the perfect date for embassy and other events involving foreign dignitaries. But what she’d said about not liking being looked at, June understood and was reluctant to push Sharon. Not entirely reluctant. Mark clearly liked her, although June was pretty sure he was more interested in her as a friend.

June suddenly smiled. Friendship was all well and good. But there was something about Mark and Sharon that just seemed to feel right. Maybe what the two of them needed was a nice gentle shove in the other’s direction.

Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller was only moderately annoyed as she aimed her remote at the television and hit the off button. Mark had connected with someone early on in February – she could always tell. But it must have flamed out early and fast. Still, when Walker had found that photo of Mark and that Martindale bitch, it had seemed promising. Then when Martindale denied ever meeting Mark, that had been good. Rose thought she’d caught one, finally.

But, no. Mark looked indecently triumphant as he made that ridiculous fuss over having lunch with Martindale. Rose felt slapped in the face. It wasn’t as if she did not have his best interests at heart. She was his mother, for Heaven’s sakes. She deserved a little respect for that, if no other reason. But once again, Mark was not only snubbing her but flaunting it, as well.

Rose sighed. If he wasn’t going to accept her protection and care, that was his choice. But she wasn’t going to let him ruin his life without her best effort, and if that meant making sure he kept his hands away from all but the right women, she’d do it.

IM Session –

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