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.
Some points, Sharon remembered her
father saying (usually in reference to some fanatical religious groups), were
simply not worth proving. She smiled vaguely at Max Epstein as he went on about
some column he’d written years before, wondering what point she’d been trying
to prove when she’d called Max. That she wasn’t in love with Mark Jerguessen?
She nodded and sipped her wine, working at looking more
interested than she was in Max’s soliloquy. The sad thing was that Max wasn’t
that bad, except for his penchant for taking over a conversation or a
situation. That was kind of the problem with having a yen for someone
untouchable, such as the boss, Sharon mused. One tended to make up for it by
doing all sorts of untenable things and trying to convince oneself that those
things weren’t so bad. Such as listening to Max drone on.
Just drinks, she’d said. If only it were and not some
hair-brained scheme to prove to herself that she was just another single woman
with no interest in yet another man whose lifestyle would make her crazy in a
“So what do you think?” Max suddenly asked. “Totally off the
record, of course.”
“About?” Sharon suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry, Max. I was
thinking about work. We’ve got that Mid-East trip this week.”
“That’s what I was talking about. Ashley Whitcomb is going
to be at the Children for Peace conference in Jerusalem on Thursday. The one
your boss is supposed to be speaking at.”
“Okay. Who’s Ashley Whitcomb?”
Max cocked a condescending eyebrow at her. “You don’t know?”
“No. That’s why I asked.”
“She’s that former Miss America who’s supposed to be seeing
your boss on the sly.”
Sharon laughed. “Are you kidding? Where’d you hear that?”
“It’s all over the place.” Max swept his arm out as if to
include everyone else in the bar.
As he went on to explain just why Sharon should have known
this, Sharon let her mind wander again. She knew she had no reason to be
jealous, although she couldn’t help wondering who Ashley Whitcomb was and how
the president would have met her.
Instead of asking Max, however, she simply let out a huge
yawn, apologized to Max profusely and made her escape.
The next morning, she and Karen went running along the
“It’s one of those things you simply have to do,” Karen had
explained. “You see it in all the movies.”
So Sharon met Karen at a bend not far from the Lincoln Memorial
and the two took off. The famed cherry trees were just losing their blooms and
a light mist hovered over the river as the early morning sun popped in and out
of the clouds.
“So what’s with this Ashley Whitcomb rumor?” Sharon asked.
“It’s been floating around since Wednesday or so, I think,”
Karen replied. “Things really started buzzing yesterday afternoon, though. The
boss is supposed to be interested in her.”
“But who is she? I mean, besides a former Miss America.”
“She was a teacher for a year or so, but then about four
years ago, she used the whole Miss America thing to get a book published about
being nice to children and puppies. Come on. You saw it.”
“If it was in English, probably not,” Sharon said, gasping a
little. “Four years ago, I wasn’t spending a lot of time in the States.”
“It spent some time on the bestseller lists,” Karen said.
“But it was all about her name. Trust me. I tried to read it. It was like
trying to make sense out of cotton candy. I found out who her ghost writer was
and she said the experience was enough to almost make her want to give up
ghostwriting. Whitcomb’s an idiot. According to the ghost, not only did
Whitcomb have trouble stringing a coherent thought together, she still insisted
on having complete control of the project. Worse yet, she made the ghost sign
away all rights to the book and never even mentioned her in the
acknowledgments. And once, when the ghost admitted she was actually the writer,
Whitcomb tried to sue her for plagiarism. Can you believe that? Whitcomb
couldn’t even sue for the right thing. The ghost told me the biggest reason she
settled was that she didn’t want it to get out that she’d written that piece of
“Doesn’t sound like somebody our boss would like,” Sharon
Karen gasped and snorted. “Not really. But she makes great
arm candy, especially since she does so much child advocacy work. Mostly
fundraisers and speeches, as far as I can tell. But apparently, she sells event
tickets. Put her on as the keynote and people fork the cash over.”
“So what’s up with the rumors?”
“That.” Karen waved for a stop. “Like I said, it really
started buzzing yesterday. The Children for Peace conference. She wasn’t going
to be there. Except yesterday afternoon, she suddenly got signed on as a
panelist. The kicker is that one Senator Eamon Halstead called in a favor or
two and got her signed up all of a sudden.”
“Isn’t he one of the big Moral Americans Caucus guys?”
“He’s the chair.” Karen took a long pull on her water
“But what has that got to do with the boss, except that he’s
going to be at the conference, too?”
“Everything. Everyone knows the boss doesn’t date anyone he
obviously knows.” Karen bent forward, pushing her chest against her legs.
Karen pushed herself up and then bent backward. “It’s not
like the guy has been celibate all these years. But he’s real good at keeping
it quiet. Even June doesn’t know who all he’s dated.” She looked over the path.
“I think we need to pick up our pace. You game?”
Sharon was not at all sure and spent the remainder of the
run trying not to gasp too hard. Still, Karen’s words echoed ruthlessly through
her head. So everyone knew the president didn’t date anyone he obviously knew.
Well, he’d said as much, as had June, on more than one occasion. So she was
safe – the very word he’d used, as a matter of fact. The question was did she
want to be safe in that respect?
Back at the White House, Mark was in the desk chair behind
the elegant glass-topped table that made up his desk in his private study upstairs.
He lounged comfortably into the soft dark brown leather, but his arms were
folded and his expression stern. In front of him, on the other side of the desk
stood Randy Nash and Yasmin Sollette.
Randy was a tall African American man in his early 30’s. A
member of the Secret Service security detail at the White House, his broad
shoulders and chest were more the result of working out and staying in shape.
However, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what he’d look like if
he ever let himself go. He wore the traditional dark suit, but his shirt
carried the faintest hint of lavender rather than regulation white and his tie
was a darker shade of lavender.
Solly was in her starched white chef’s coat and pull-on
cotton canvas pants, this time gaily decorated with American flags on a dark
blue background. Her plastic clogs were bright red. She was thinking that it
was not fun to have President Mark Jerguessen annoyed with her.
“Sir,” Randy said, “you did say to provide our friend with a
“But, Solly, that was a private conversation,” Mark growled.
“I understand, sir,” Solly said, drawing herself up with an
injured sniff. “Did I share any part of it? I did not. I only got the idea is
all.” She suddenly grinned. “And it was a good one, you gotta say that.”
Mark sighed and shook his head. “Well, I suppose Ashley
Whitcomb is as good a target as any. I’m not comfortable with the idea of
setting someone up that way, though.”
“Sir, our friend is not going to fall for some fake name,”
“So why not take it out on somebody who’s making your life
miserable?” Solly asked. “Them We-Think-We’re-So-Moral-Americans are just
begging to be shown up. They want you to marry one of their girls, well, let’s
just set ‘em up to think that and let it all blow up in their faces.”
“It’s too late now,” Mark said. “I guess we’re going to find
out just how moral Miss Whitcomb really is. Any luck finding that other leak?”
“Getting there, sir,” Randy said. “We’ve had our eyes on
several of the new hires, but there’s also one or two of the established staff
who’ve expressed some displeasure that they didn’t get to retire when you took
office. Based on some of the potential bits and pieces of the rumors, we think
it’s probably with the janitorial staff.”
“I see. Well, keep looking.” Mark shifted up in his chair,
then noticed the pair still waiting for him. “And you’re dismissed.”
He slouched back down as soon as the two were gone. He
wasn’t surprised that there was a spy on the staff – maybe even more than one.
He was just glad that Solly was willing to play decoy. Now, hopefully, no one
would get hurt.
It wasn’t as though either he or Sharon had a lot of time to
think about rumors about beauty queens. By Sunday, both Mark and Sharon were on
Air Force One flying to Egypt. Faiza had gone ahead the day before. Sharon did
allow herself a few minutes of excitement that she was, at last, on the fabled
plane, then forced her attention to her work.
When Air Force One landed in Cairo, late that evening Cairo
time, all was in readiness – the Egyptian prime minister’s limousine pulled up
just as the plane taxied to a stop. There were the usual greetings and
speeches. Faiza did most of the translation, being somewhat more adept at
Arabic than Sharon.
The trip was somewhat controversial. Mark was in trouble at
home for agreeing to visit the Egyptian president, Mr. Al Zabawi, given that
the man was essentially a dictator whose record on human rights abuses was
spotty at best. But the next day’s meetings went well enough, and at the end of
them, Mark was able to suggest that there might be some progress in the human
rights arena, thus proving his point that it was better to talk to the man than
The next day, the Americans flew to Luxor for a special tour
of the archeological sites there, accompanied by both the Egyptian president
and the head of the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities, Dr. Rahad
Mohammed. As the sun set that day, the group finished by crossing the Nile by
Sharon found Mark leaning on a railing watching the West
Bank growing more distant.
“Good work today, boss,” she said.
“Thanks.” Mark took a deep, very satisfied breath and
smiled. “Looks like we dodged a bullet with Dr. Mohammed.”
Dr. Mohammed, in addition to being one of the world’s
premiere authorities on Ancient Egypt, was also, unfortunately, a rabid
anti-Semite. He’d been added to the Luxor tour at the last minute and the
Americans couldn’t exactly refuse since he was such an expert.
“So far,” Sharon said. “He’s not going to be at the
reception tonight, which is a good thing. I overheard him going on that he had
to get back to a new find. But we’ve got our statements ready in case he does
shoot off his mouth in front of the press.”
Mark looked over at Sharon, noting how the setting sun gave
her face a warm glow.
“I had fun today,” he said. “Whatever else he is, Dr.
Mohammed’s pretty interesting.”
“I’d heard some of it before when I was here last,” Sharon
said. “But he certainly had an interesting spin on it all. Any chance you can
talk the Metropolitan Museum of Art to give back their antiquities?”
“Doubt it.” Mark chuckled. “Not even sure I want to get
involved in that mess.”
“It is their history.”
“I agree, but…” Mark
grinned, rolling his eyes. “That’s whole lot of trouble with people I’d rather stay
friends with, if you know what I mean.” He stole a sideways glance at Sharon.
“You did a good job these past two days, too.”
There was a pause as the two watch the river sliding past.
Then Sharon groaned and put her phone to her ear.
“What?” Mark asked.
“That’s a photographer in that little boat there,” Sharon
said. “I’m pretty sure he got shots of the two of us.”
“We’re talking business,” Mark replied. “And we don’t
comment, anyway. So?”
“Yeah.” Sharon pulled the phone from her ear and dismally looked
at the read-out.
Not that there was any response yet – if there were to be
one, she wouldn’t see it for a good many hours yet. The news media would be bad
enough. The rest of the advisory panel would be merciless.
Sure enough, the Egyptian papers had the picture of Mark and
Sharon on all the front pages, as did all the papers in Tel Aviv – where the
Children for Peace Conference was being held, starting that next day. In fact,
the picture was all over the Internet, though Sharon was glad to see that a
shot of her with her phone to her ear was also included. Better yet, the
Israelis didn’t seem to consider her merely arm candy.
But that could have been because Ashley Whitcomb had not
only shown up but had made a point of sticking close to Mark at the reception
at the end of the first day of the conference. And Whitcomb, if anything,
seemed to like being arm candy.
It wasn’t anything Mark hadn’t dealt with before. But
Whitcomb didn’t seem to get the subtle hints, so Mark found himself leaning
more heavily on Sharon than he might have otherwise. She didn’t say anything as
he repeatedly asked her to translate between various delegates and dignitaries.
“You know, he speaks English very well,” Sharon said about a
French education minister that Mark pointed out.
“I know,” Mark sighed. “But you have said that talking to
people in their own language makes me look more accommodating and
“What about that picture of us on the boat?”
Mark grimaced. “Point taken.”
Bracing himself, he approached Monsieur Renault and was not
at all surprised to find Ashley Whitcomb already chatting with the education
minister. A minute later, Monsieur Renault excused himself and Mark found
himself alone with Whitcomb.
She was the classic All-American blonde, almost tall enough
to look Mark in the eye thanks to a pair of platform spiked heels, with a slim,
almost bony body encased in a lightly sparkled hip-hugging strapless black
“You seem to be following me tonight,” Mark said mildly.
“I thought it would be nice to get to know you,” Ashley
replied, flashing her perfect smile that up close looked almost too white to be
real. “After all.”
“You’ve heard the rumors, then.” Mark nodded. “I don’t
comment at all. It blows over faster that way.”
Ashley giggled. “I didn’t say I wanted them to blow over.
And it’s not like we don’t have anything in common. We both care about
“Yes.” Mark looked at her without saying anything more.
Ashley giggled again, but there was an edge to it. “So. Is
there a reason you’re not interested in me?”
Mark glanced down at her breasts. “It’s not that I’m not
interested. I just don’t want to get you into trouble. The rumors aren’t any
big deal now, but they will get worse and if there’s anything you’ve done that
makes you look bad, it will become public.”
“I can handle it.” Feeling confident again, Ashley
straightened and smiled.
“And I see no reason to put you in that position. However,
if you really want to go out, I’ll email my sister and she can put you into the
“Oh. I suppose that would be nice.”
Mark pulled out his iPhone. “Great. I’ll let June know.
What’s your email address?”
Ashley stammered it out, then hesitated as Mark strode off.
Sure enough, that Miss Wheatly was at his side again, presumably translating between
the president and the Israeli Prime Minister. Half an hour later, Ashley made a
point of circulating around to where Sharon was standing.
“Hi. I’m Ashley Whitcomb,” she said, shifting her champagne
flute to shake Sharon’s hand.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”
“I know. You work very closely with the president, I see.”
Sharon looked around for Mark. “On a trip like this, I do.
Other times, not so much.”
“Maybe I should start some rumors about you,” Ashley said
with a little giggle.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Ashley tossed her blonde hair over her
perfectly tanned shoulder. “Somebody started them about me and I’ve only just
met the man today. You work with him. Must be something going on.”
“That would be highly inappropriate, Ms. Whitcomb. He is my boss.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m needed to translate again.”
Ashley, however, was nothing if not persistent. The next
day, she pulled a couple favors and managed to get a seat next to Mark during
lunch. He chatted pleasantly with her, and later, during the cocktail hour
before the conference banquet, he let her hang alongside him and didn’t seek
Sharon out unless he genuinely needed her. Mark even put his arm around
Ashley’s shoulders during the photo op before dinner.
Sharon, for her part, wasn’t entirely amused and felt even
more annoyed that she was so disgruntled by Mark’s behavior. Still, she didn’t
say anything until the U.S. party was back on Air Force One and the plane was
in the air, and she only did because Mark called her back into his office on
He had kicked his shoes off, his black formal bow tie lay in
a heap on the kidney-shaped blonde wood desk. His tux jacket hung precariously
off the back of the tan leather desk chair. The chair reclined and swiveled,
and Mark was reclining and had his feet up on the edge of the desk.
“Go ahead, plop it down,” he said, pointing at a smaller
leather chair bolted into the floor in front of the desk.
Sharon had already taken her hair down and changed into
jeans and a sweatshirt from UCLA. She looked down at her top.
“I didn’t think you were going to call me,” she said,
sitting down in the chair and balancing her laptop on her knees. “I’d’ve put a
suit or a dress on.”
Mark lightly snorted. “I don’t care. The only reason I
haven’t changed is that I got a call from Admiral Kogen right when we got on
“You did?” Sharon frowned as she reached for her Blackberry.
“I haven’t heard about anything getting ready to blow up.”
“Nothing is.” Mark stretched, with his arms reaching above
his head. “Turns out he just wanted to lobby for that new submarine project and
the Senate is voting right about now. I thought it was a little late.”
“It’s only 4:30-ish there.”
Mark nodded and pulled out his iPhone. “Ah. You’re right.”
“Which is not why you called me in here.”
Mark chuckled and he pressed the screen buttons. “No. I
don’t want to do a full de-brief on the trip, but thought since we’ve got to
try and stay awake for a couple hours to get back on Washington time, maybe we
could pull together the bullet points to focus on for when we do.”
“Sure.” Sharon opened her laptop and powered it up. “I guess
the top thing is the Ashley Whitcomb rumors. You didn’t exactly help dispel
them this afternoon.”
“No.” Mark chuckled, then shivered. “That was actually
Augie’s idea. Halstead got a few minutes of the news cycle yesterday whining
about me being gay again. So we made it pretty obvious I’m hetero and went
ahead and used their girl to do it with. Kind of undermines his credibility,
don’t you think?”
“You did an awfully good job of it,” Sharon said, then
realized her tone was a lot more sour than she’d anticipated.
“Whitcomb seemed to think so.” Mark stopped as he saw the
look on Sharon’s face, then burst into laughter. “I don’t believe it. You’re
Sharon glared at him. “I didn’t say that.”
“But you are.” Mark grinned, then choked his laughs back.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. But come on. As many times as you’ve gotten on
my case about it?”
“It’s not like I have anything to be jealous of,” Sharon
grumbled. “She’s a classic fluff-head.”
“That doesn’t change anything.” Mark pulled his feet from
the desk and leaned forward. His smile was softer now.
“I don’t want to be jealous with you. And, and it’s like you
said to me last week. Just because we can’t have a relationship doesn’t mean
you should have to live like a hermit. And I know you don’t, anyway.”
“I’m not seeing anybody right now, on the sly or otherwise.”
“And how would I know?”
Mark let out an utterly rueful sigh. “You would. Trust me.
The same way June and… Well, others always know.”
“Right.” Sharon closed the lid on her laptop. “I’m not sure
I buy that. You’re good at hiding.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like last week, with Mr. Makindu. You were in as foul a
mood as I’ve ever seen anybody in, and yet, you were all smiles, Mr.
Personality, while you were meeting with him.”
“Would you have rather I hadn’t put it on?”
“It’s not that.” Sharon rapped her nails nervously on the
laptop lid. “It’s just that it was like you were a second person, you know?”
“And what if I have to be sometimes?” Mark’s eyes watched
Sharon sighed and looked back at him. “I suppose you do.”
“It’s not something I like about myself.” Mark looked away,
wondering how much to say. “But it can be useful. Such as when I need to make a
certain Nigerian ambassador feel welcome.”
“Hm.” Sharon leaned forward. Her elbow slid onto the desk as
she put her chin in her hand. “And where’s the real Mark Jerguessen in all of
Mark gazed unseeing at one of the dark portholes in the
plane’s side wall. “That is and remains an excellent question. I like to think
I’m fairly self-aware. Part of maintaining the whole moral compass thing.” He
glanced over at Sharon. “Now, you, on the other hand, don’t hide diddley.
You’re discreet, but I never have to wonder where you stand on anything.”
Sharon let out a strangled snort. “You’re probably the first
person to tell me that. People are always telling me to stop hiding.”
“June said you don’t talk much about yourself.”
“What’s the point?”
Mark waited for her to continue, then grinned. “To get to
“You don’t seem to be having any problems with that.”
“In some ways. In some ways, not.”
His eyes caught hers and they gazed at each other. Sharon
felt drawn in and warm, knowing full well that all Mark wanted to do in that
moment was to kiss her, just as Mark knew that she wanted to kiss him just as
badly and that if they did, it wasn’t going to stop.
“Sometimes,” Mark said very softly, “I just want to say to
hell with it and…”
“I know.” Sharon smiled. “Sometimes I do, too. And to think
that I told Ashley Whitcomb that having an affair with you would be highly
Mark sighed and pulled back. “Maybe, maybe not. But I
suspect it wouldn’t be smart right now.”
Sharon gathered her laptop and stood. “It would certainly
undermine Halstead’s credibility on the whole gay thing.” She paused. “You
know, people do talk about us. Whitcomb even said there had to be something
going on. She wanted to start some rumors.”
“You going to be okay if she does?”
“I hope so.” Sharon looked at him. “But it’s not just
Whitcomb. Tanks was teasing me about it.”
“Oh. So she’s part of the conspiracy, too.”
Mark laughed. “There’s a conspiracy on to get us together.
I’m pretty sure Coop’s involved. And June, and Augie and Jean. Possibly
“You’ve got to be kidding!” Sharon felt herself gape and
quickly shut her mouth.
“You think this is the first time Coop’s come up with
something like this?” Mark sat back in his chair. “And just for the record, he
has never succeeded.”
“Even on the sly?”
“Nope. Not once.”
“Good.” Sharon stopped. “I’m not sure if I find that
reassuring or depressing.”
“Come to think of it, me either. But if you don’t mind,
we’ve been close enough to that discussion already tonight. I don’t want to go
there again.” He yawned.
“Any other bullet points to think about for the debriefing?”
“That.” Mark pulled out a drawer and picked up a laptop.
“We’ve got the Egyptian human rights concessions, and… Tell you what. Why don’t you write up a list and
email it to me? I’ll have Kent set up the de-briefing for Monday morning.
That’ll give us time to get over the jet lag, coordinate with Daniel and pull
some ideas together.”
“Great.” Sharon swallowed back a yawn, herself. “I’ll see
you on the ground, then.”
She turned to go, then Mark’s laugh stopped her.
“What?” She turned.
“You didn’t wait for me to dismiss you.” Mark grinned at her
“Oh! I’m so sorry, sir!” Sharon gasped, utterly horrified
that she hadn’t.
“No, no, no!” Mark got up, excited. “You don’t get it. I’m
so damn glad you didn’t. I know it’s protocol. I know it’s important. But I am
so sick of everyone waiting around for my command.”
“I don’t think it’d be a good idea if you walked away in
front of other people.” Mark smiled softly. “Rumors, you know.”
“No. Of course not.”
“But if it’s just the two of us, would you mind terribly
just leaving when it’s time to go? Please?”
Sharon smiled. “No problem.” She paused, then looked at him
with a wicked glint in her eye. “Of course, you may end up regretting that.”
“Or you might.” Mark’s grin was equally wicked.
“Good night, sir.”
“Good night, Ms. Wheatly.”
In New York City, in the VIP departure lounge at JFK
airport, Michael hung up his cell phone with a perplexed frown. He turned to Inez,
who was involved in her own call and held up a finger to ask him to wait.
“Okay…” she told someone on the other end. “No. That sounds
great… Well, we really appreciate it. We want it to be the best possible for
everyone… Terrific. We’ll talk to you tomorrow then… Thanks. Good-bye.” Inez
snapped her phone shut with a satisfied sigh, then looked at Michael. “Okay.
You’ve got dancers for both songs, and no one has to run off and work with a
celebrity. They’ve got some pros they’re auditioning for next season for Hard
Town Saturday Night and no blonds. They’ll work off the dubs and it’ll pre-tape
right before the show on Tuesday to allow for the rest of the band to set up
and break down before the elimination show starts.”
“Yeah. Like last time,” Michael said, distracted.
Inez was too absorbed in her notes to notice. “You’ve got
three pairs dancing to Sharon’s Song – they’re all eliminated pros, so you’ll
have all Monday to work with them, but you won’t be able to get into the actual
space until Tuesday. We’ll be meeting with the music director all day Saturday
to nail down the arrangement. Have you cleared Toby and Jodi with their mom?”
“Yu-eah.” Michael fidgeted with his phone. “That’s the weird
Inez finally looked up. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes. Have no clue what, but Jodi was right. There is
definitely something going on with Cameron.”
“There’s not going to be trouble with the girls playing with
you, is there?”
“None what so ever. She didn’t even put in a pro forma
protest. She just said the girls could do whatever they wanted.” Michael
chuckled. “Jodi said no way. Tiffany doesn’t really want to, either. And,
naturally, Toby was all over it. I’ll put her on the grand piano and let her
sing back up.”
“That’ll work.” Inez frowned. “And Cameron’s not upset?”
“She said she had other things to worry about. Jodi says
she’s scared about something, but Cameron keeps insisting she’s just
distracted. So, naturally, Jodi’s scared to death.”
“Well, Cameron’s good at suffering in silence, then getting
pissed because no one’s noticed.”
“I don’t think that’s what’s going on this time.” Michael
shrugged. “But we’re not going to find out any too darned soon.”
A uniformed desk clerk approached them. “Excuse me, Mr.
Wheatly, Ms. Santiago? Your flight is boarding now.”
“Great. Thanks.” Michael stood and gathered up his flight
bag as Inez did the same.
The flight was mundane and there was a car service waiting
when they got off the plane in Los Angeles. Friday afternoon, Michael tried to
convince Jodi and Tiffany to play their cellos for his performance on the
Celebrity Dance Off elimination show that coming Tuesday night, but both
refused. Jodi didn’t say much about what was going on with her mother, but
Tiffany did find some time to talk to Inez.
“Jodi thinks it’s something else bugging her mom,” Tiffany
explained while Jodi tried to teach Michael how to make his ereader work. “And
I have to say there may be. But I know she’s at least thinking about selling
the music store.”
“What?” Inez all but gaped.
“Well, my mom got this great fellowship to go out and record
vanishing folk music from all these different cultures all over the world and
she asked Cameron to go with her. And Cameron’s been thinking about doing it.”
“Really. Like after Jodi’s in college?”
“No. Next fall.” Tiffany bit her lip. “I mean, Cameron says
she’s gotta stay here and take care of Jodi and me, ‘cause I can’t go. And she
swears she would never sell the store. But you can just tell she’s thinking
“How does Jodi feel about her mom going away?”
“I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think it’ll happen.” Tiffany
pushed her glasses up her nose. “She’d probably be okay. I mean, she’s been
looking forward to having Toby with you guys next fall. But it’s not like she’d
be upset if we had to live with you guys. I mean her. I mean…”
Inez put her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders. “Of course,
you’re welcome to stay with us. You’re just as much a part of this family as I
am and we both know how that works.”
“I know.” Tiffany bit her lip again. “I just heard you were
worried about Jodi and me being together all the time.”
“I’m worried about Jodi being so dependent on you,” Inez
said, giving Tiffany a reassuring squeeze. “That’s a totally different thing
than not wanting you around. And I do want you around. Okay?”
“Thanks.” Tiffany sighed. “I’m sorry. I was just being
Inez laughed. “Then you’re being normal, and sometimes
that’s a good thing.”
Saturday and Sunday everyone was absorbed in getting music,
meeting with the people from the show, rehearsing and watching rehearsals. Inez
noticed that in all the busyness both Jodi and Toby grew increasingly more
relaxed, even though neither of them mentioned their mother.
Late Monday morning, both Michael and Inez completely forgot
about Cameron in light of a more serious problem – the dance to go with
Michael’s second number was not working. So Michael decided it was time to take
Susan, however, was not happy when she heard what Michael
“What kind of an ass are you?” she hollered so loudly
through Michael’s phone that Inez heard her from eight feet away.
“I’m a desperate one, Suze,” Michael said. “And Mom said
you’d been going to your old dance studio, so I thought maybe. I really need
you.” Michael turned away from the group of six dancers huddled at the other
end of the rehearsal studio – a bland room with one mirrored wall and wooden
floors. “I can’t talk to them. I don’t speak their language and the dance is
just not coming together. I mean, it looks good, but it doesn’t work. Susan,
you’re the only person I know who can talk to them. Please?”
Susan’s language blistered the airwaves, but she eventually
agreed to drive to the rehearsal studio and see what she could do.
“Do I get paid?” she snarled.
“Of course,” Michael said. “Union scale. Full day.”
“Will they pay for a demonstrator?”
“Same deal. No problem.”
“We’ll be there in an hour.” Susan hung up, strongly
suspecting that the day’s wages would be coming out of Michael’s own pocket.
Fine with her, she decided, him having the nerve asking her to help him with
dancing when she couldn’t dance anymore.
Her therapist had suggested going to the dance studio, not
to brood, but to help her face her grief over losing her ability to walk, let
alone dance. He’d pointed out that she was going to see people dance again, she
couldn’t realistically avoid it. She might as well adapt and see what she could
And she’d been able to help, running basic exercises for
some of the new classes. Dina Cruz, about the only dancer friend that had
visited Susan in the hospital, and the only one who wasn’t afraid of Susan, had
volunteered to act as a demonstrator and the two were developing some excellent
But this would be different. Newer, younger dancers didn’t
seem to care that she was in a wheelchair. They weren’t close enough to Susan’s
accident or old enough to worry about what could happen to them. It was Susan’s
old friends and colleagues who mostly avoided her, superstitious that an
accident like hers could just as easily happen to them. And now, Susan would be
working with more established pros and she couldn’t help wondering how they’d
react to taking direction from someone who couldn’t even stand.
And it was true that there were some puzzled looks when
Michael introduced the six dancers to his sister and told them she was there to
help them with the dance. Susan quickly got the upper hand, though, when she
spotted the problem after the first run-through.
“You’re doing a pretty couples dance,” Susan said.
“It’s a love song,” said Ivan, the lead dancer – a tall,
willowy man with built-out shoulders and dark tousled hair.
“But it’s about a woman who has love right in front of her
and won’t go after it,” Susan replied. She reached out her hand, palm down,
with a dancer’s natural extension and grace. “It’s not the reaching out, it’s
She reached again, this time with her palm up. Ivan and the
“That’s it!” Ivan said. “We’ve gotta change everything.”
“Wait a minute,” Susan said. “Let me think. Michael, can we move
you and the piano? What about the strings?”
“Jodi and Tiff didn’t go for it,” Michael answered, smiling
as he saw Susan literally coming to life.
It didn’t matter. Susan was already pointing to dancers and
positioning them. Smiling, they went willingly.
Susan was still pushing everyone around when Jodi, Toby, and
Tiffany arrived with Inez. Susan barely acknowledged they were there before
ordering Toby into place at the piano. Inez looked at Michael and the two
“She’s all over the place,” Inez whispered to him.
“I don’t think I’ve seen her this happy since the accident,”
Jodi whispered. “Is this really going to work?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Michael. “It was just a matter of time.”
“Grandmere and Grandpa are coming to the show, right?”
“They are now.” Michael looked over at Inez.
“I’m on it.” Inez grinned as she opened her mobile phone.
“Think we can get Sarah and Sharon out?”
“Sharon said she had a big group of friends coming over to
watch,” Michael said. “But call her, anyway.”
As it turned out, neither Sharon nor Sarah could get away to
see the show in person. But it didn’t matter. Michael and Inez decided against
telling them about Susan. It would make for one incredible surprise.
At home in her kitchen, Cameron Dykstra closed her laptop
lid, then put her head down on her arms and cried. All the fear, all the relief
washed over her in one wave of sobs after another.
It was a cyst – an ovarian cyst and not a tumor. She’d been
so afraid, but not willing to tell anyone about the tests, lest they be forced
to worry about her. Especially the girls. Cameron had already noticed that Jodi
But everything was fine. The cyst had been removed on
Saturday – Cameron had scheduled the laparoscopic procedure and biopsy that day
when the girls were going to be with their father so they wouldn’t be upset.
Her mother had driven her to the hospital that morning and then home on Sunday,
and the girls were too absorbed with their father’s big appearance on that
stupid dancing show to pay much attention to how Cameron was. They’d even
forgotten it was Cameron’s birthday. Which was just as well, Cameron decided.
It wasn’t cancer. Cameron, terrified that she was on the
brink of dying, was going to live. All she had to do was pick up and carry on.
Just like her mother had said. Life would go back to normal and all would be
well. Or the same as it had been before.
Cameron sighed. She had a good life. She had her daughters,
her work at the store. It wasn’t quite the life she’d planned, in those days
before Michael, and, yes, even after they’d met and fallen in love.
She opened the laptop again and looked at the email on the
screen. Her mother had emailed her father – a surprise in itself since her
mother rarely mentioned the man let alone talked to him. Her father, Lee, had
emailed back, still unaware that the growth was benign.
Cammie, honey, I’m really sorry to hear about your possible
tumor. Believe me, all my energy is praying for it to be benign. I know we’ve
had our ups and downs and there is a pile of regrets on my plate over each and
You’ve worked so hard for your girls and given them a good
stable life. You have a lot to be proud of on that score. I just pray that you
don’t regret giving up your life in the process. That was always the one thing
I was afraid of —that you’d make the same mistake I did. If there’s one thing
I’ve learned, it’s not about where or how many places you live, but how much
love you give your kids. And you’ve obviously given your girls a lot, a lot of
If this turns out to be the actual crisis, I promise I’ll be
there for you. You deserve that much. If it’s just a scare – as I pray that it
will be – then please think of it as the gift of a new life. A new chance to
live – maybe the same way, maybe in a whole new way.
A whole new way. Cameron blinked back another rush of tears.
Her dad was right. This was like a second chance at living. And even if she’d
escaped this time, would she be so lucky the next?
When she was afraid she was dying, her first thought was for
Toby and Jodi and how she’d never see Toby win the Best Actress Oscar. Or Jodi
the Nobel Peace Prize. Cameron laughed through her tears as she remembered that
conversation about two years before. Her girls were so very clear about what
they wanted for their lives, blissfully unaware of how easily and quickly that
vision could and probably would change. Which brought Cameron’s second great
regret about possibly dying – that she had given up all of her dreams to raise
her daughters, dreams she had planned on taking up again once the girls were
And now she had the chance to chase those dreams again. It
had been so long, Cameron wasn’t even sure what those dreams were anymore, let
alone if they were at all valid. Michael was begging to have more time with the
girls. He already had Toby starting in the fall.
Cameron slapped the lid down on her laptop and picked up the
“Happy birthday to me,” she whispered as she dialed
Tiffany’s mother, Merilee Sheppledorf.