Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“With your ‘tude?” Sharon teased.

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

“Okay,” said Karen, puzzled.

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

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

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

“What are you gonna do?” Karen asked.

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

And she dashed off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not the usual car,” Mark noted.

“No, sir,” replied Riff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Any idea how long?”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good.”

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

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

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

“What can I do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Years ago, but I really liked it.”

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

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

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

“Shallots. Great. And knives?”

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

“That is beautifully seasoned,” said Mark.

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

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

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

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

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

Sharon grinned. A minute later, the steaks were turned and Sharon turned the oven on to warm. Mark was gathering the final ingredients for his sauce, including some beef broth from a box in the fridge and corn starch, which he mixed with some water in a tiny bowl.

Once the steaks were in the oven keeping warm, Mark slapped a tiny pat of butter into the gleaming steak pan and swirled it around. Then, turning down the heat, he lifted the pan to cool for a moment, and tossed in the mushroom slices, the shallots, cooked those for a minute, added the garlic, waited just long enough for the rich scent of garlic to flavor the air, then poured in a generous slurp of wine.

“Yikes, you’re confident,” Sharon observed.

“I’ve singed my eyebrows before,” Mark conceded as he scraped the bottom of the pan to mix any leftover bits from the steaks into the heating liquid. “But that bottle was cool enough, I figured I was safe.”

Sharon went back to pulling out plates, silverware, napkins and glasses from her cupboards. She set a couple placemats on the counter between the dining room and the sink. Then she mixed the salad in the dressing Mark had made, added the gorgonzola crumbles and divided the portions onto the plates. A second later, she had warm potatoes on the side, and Mark had the sauce ready to be spooned over the steaks.

She poured the wine as Mark set the plates on the placemats, next to the silverware. Sharon mmm’d loudly over the sauce, while Mark groaned with pleasure over the crispy brown potatoes. Laughing, they focused on eating, talking about other places and meals they’d loved. Sharon wasn’t quite the omnivore Mark was – he’d eaten chocolate-covered ants in South America. But she was quite pleased to realize how many tastes they had in common.

“It just boils down to living well,” said Mark after a contemplative sip of his wine. “It’s the simple basics of life. Anybody can stuff food in their face to fuel up. And you do have to balance taking care of yourself with enjoying the good stuff. But there are two kinds of people I just don’t get, the folks who are afraid of their food and the folks who don’t even think about it. I mean how could you not think about something that tastes this good?”

“It’s called being shut off from yourself, I guess,” said Sharon. “I sort of get the fear thing. I mean, my dad has to watch out for his cholesterol and I have another friend who’s diabetic. But the assumption that anything that tastes good can’t be good for you.” She shook her head. “Or that it should be untouched by human hands or it’s not safe. I worked food service for two weeks in college. I couldn’t handle people freaking when I touched their food bare-handed and I had just washed my hands.”

Mark looked down at his empty plate. His wine glass was mostly empty, as well.

“I guess it’s time for me to head out,” he said softly.

“You’re not driving, are you?”

Mark snorted. “No.”

Sharon poured some of the bottle into her glass then got the cork and stuffed it into the bottle. “Why don’t you take this with you? I can’t drink the rest of it and I don’t want to waste it. I mean, I’ve got one of those vacuum goodies that’ll suck the air out so it won’t go bad, but I just as soon you took it.”

“Thanks.” Mark chuckled. “What are the odds I’ll get tagged for an open-container?”

Sharon shrugged and followed Mark downstairs to the basement. Riff was waiting in the shadows.

“Riff, did you want something to eat?” Sharon called out, suddenly anxious.

“No, Ma’am. We got something. Sir? We’re ready when you are.” He disappeared out the door.

Mark paused. “Well. Thanks for a lovely dinner and a really nice evening.”

“You’re welcome. I had a good time, too.”

There was an awkward pause. Sharon suddenly smiled and moved back.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

Mark turned and left, feeling both elated and unsatisfied.

Sharon pounded up the stairs, rather annoyed with herself for letting Mark up there and thoroughly thrilled that they’d been so compatible. There weren’t many people she let cook with her. Mark had even remembered without being told to run the knife blade over the sharpening steel before he used it and had cleaned the knife before putting it back in the block.

She put the used dishes in the dishwasher and scrubbed out the potato pan and the other skillet before heading upstairs to her bedroom and turning on her laptop. She started an email to her friend, Niecy, but then stopped. What was there to say? Yes, it looked like she and Mark could be good friends, but Sharon was determined that it go no further. Absolutely determined.

IM Session

ChknCoop: Well, you’re finally back online.

Gloryhg: I had some reading to do. What’re you bothering me for?

ChknCoop: Just checking in to see how things went tonight.

Gloryhg: You were there. They went great.

ChknCoop: And it was totally Wheaties’ idea. Of course, I’m working on the lunch thang – proving to be a bit more of a wrangle, but we’ll get there.

Gloryhg: Sounds good. I appreciate the efforts. Listen, I’ve still got a lot of the education initiative to go over before tomorrow’s meeting with the Senate committee. See you tomorrow.

Out on the West Coast, late in the afternoon at an exclusive all-girls high school in Pasadena, Jodi Wheatly sat on the edge of a planter next to the school’s pick-up zone with her best friend Tiffany Sheppledorf.

Jodi, at age 14, was on the cusp of blossoming into as rare a beauty as her Aunt Sharon – a fact that numerous relatives remarked upon with appalling regularity. They both had the same blonde hair and brown eyes and basically the same retiring temperament and intense intellect, although while Sharon excelled in languages and diplomacy, Jodi much preferred math and science. Tiffany had Jodi’s slim build but also had lots of dark curly hair that she wore long. Both wore braces. Both were identified gifted, with Tiffany shooting to become a Renaissance woman, equally well-versed in the humanities, arts, and sciences.

Jodi’s older sister Toby stood nearby, surrounded by a gaggle of her girlfriends. The pitch and loudness were at full teenage high. Toby, at 16, had shed her braces, had shed glasses in favor of contact lenses, had brown hair and blue eyes and a tendency toward a more revealing wardrobe than modest. Athletic and outgoing, some were surprised to find that she and Jodi were related.

Toby and her friends were chattering about who was sleeping with whom, who liked whom, who should like whom and why it was all a gross injustice. Jodi just glared down the driveway.

“At least Mr. Perkins said we could be lab partners for the project,” Tiffany said softly.

“Yeah.” Jodi sighed.

“You don’t want to do all the work again, do you?”

“I’m glad about that, Tif, it’s just…” Jodi winced as one of the girls screeched about something. “I don’t know how Toby stands it.”

“Stands what?”

“Everybody looking at her, having to be the center of attention all the time.” Jodi shook her head. “Ms. Jenkins had to ask me about Aunt Sharon. Thank God, she didn’t say anything in front of the class.”

“Well, it is kinda cool having an aunt working in the White House.”

“Totally not. It’s almost as bad as having a rock star for a dad. Dude, if anybody finds out, it’ll be so embarrassing. Everyone will be asking me for the president’s autograph. I’ll bet Aunt Sharon never even sees him.”

“Oh, come on. Most of those kids are far too shallow to care about the president.”

Jodi glared at Tiffany. “Except this isn’t just any president. It’s super young, super cute, super single Mark Jerguessen. Even Toby knew who he was.”

“Dude. You’ve got a point.” Tiffany sighed.

Jodi groaned and checked her cell phone for the time. “Toby, what time did you say Mom was coming?”

“She’ll get here.” Toby rolled her eyes and turned back to her friends.

“You didn’t even text her, did you?” Jodi’s jaw dropped in anger, although she knew she  should have expected Toby to forget. “You were supposed to text her when cheerleading practice was over. Mom’s gonna be so pissed at you.”

“She knows when practice is over. Get over it.”

“Never mind. I’ll do it.” Jodi slumped as she thumbed the characters into her phone and nodded at Tiffany. “You’d better text your mom. We are going to be so late.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Mom’s not going to be home. She pulled a night class for the next term.”

Tiffany lived alone with her mother, a music history professor at the local university, in a house across the street from where Jodi, Toby and their mother, Cameron Dykstra, lived. Cameron owned a music store in the arts district near the university.

“Mom’s on her way.” Jodi sighed. “She sounds pissed already. I swear, Toby’s torquing her off on purpose.”

“You think?” Tiffany grinned. “Wanna eat at my place?”

“Oh, like I want to eat at mine. Toby and Mom are going to be fighting all night.”

“Maybe then your mom won’t remember my mom’s not home.”

Jodi’s phone chirped and she looked at the screen. “I’m guessing she already remembered. She says you’re having dinner with us.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Well, if your mom and Toby are fighting, we can surf the Congressional Quarterly site without her knowing.”

“I can’t..” Jodi grimaced. “She’s got it blocked and the last time I hacked around it, she made me promise not to.”

“We’ll use my laptop. That way, you’re not hacking around her block and I’ve got the emergency screen with the Jonas Brothers site on it. That way she’ll think we’re being nice and normal.”

“Dude.” sighed Jodi, feeling only slightly less miserable.

Chapter Four

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

Pull quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody:  "I just didn’t have any cocktail dresses and this was the first one that appealed to me."

A few days later, Sharon was settling in fairly well. She’d gotten a little bit of a suspicious sniff when she’d asked Raul Mendoza for some specific research on the French foreign minister, but he’d done as she’d asked. She sent a quick email to the minister’s office to verify the information and to get some additional details, and Raul’s research had not only been accurate, it had been pretty complete.

The problem was what to do about it.

“Who’s in charge of entertaining at the White House?” Sharon asked Julie.

“The First Lady’s office,” said Julie, promptly.

“We don’t have a first lady.”

“Well, we do, sort of. The president’s sister.” Julie’s fingers went rattling quickly across her keyboard. “I’m sending you her email address. Ms. Jerguessen oversees all the entertaining, including state dinners and other events for visiting dignitaries. The scuttlebutt is that the press office would like to have her do more goodwill stuff, you know, planting trees and opening senior homes. But, hey, she’s running her business.”

“I hope she can find time for this. Is there a way to flag it so that she knows it’s critical?”

Julie nodded. “I’ll email her assistant. And here’s that address. Go ahead and cc the email to her. I follow it with a phone call. That ought to do the trick.”

“Thanks.” Sharon went back to her office.

June Jerguessen had caught some flak for running her business out of the White House, but Mark had insisted she do it and had set up a studio and office where she could. Not that it mattered much. June spent half her time in New York, as it was. Mark’s press secretary, Jean Bouyer used that to play down the criticism, after pointing out that both Mark and June had paid for the improvements and whatever equipment June needed themselves.

While June’s business meant that she did not have much time for goodwill appearances, she made time to actively oversee whatever entertaining needed doing, and there was a fair amount. Press events were generally handled through the press office, but on any given day, the president was expected to meet at least some member of the public, not to mention entertain ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries.

The French foreign minister was the highest ranking official they’d had thus far. Not being a head of state, he didn’t rate a full state dinner, but a formal dinner was expected. That was to happen on the last night of his three-day visit. There would also be a small reception at the State Department (which June would also oversee) on the first night, and two luncheons.

So when June received Sharon’s email on Thursday before the minister’s Wednesday arrival, she initially felt a little annoyed. But the fact that Sharon had thought to check impressed June and while it would mean some re-arranging, there was still time to do it.

She’d heard about the new wunderkind on the Advisory Panel. There had been the less-than-kind grumbling about her being a show-off and out of her element. But the email didn’t seem to indicate that. It just showed good sense.

So June decided it was time to check the new kid out. She found Sharon’s office without difficulty and could see that Sharon was there because the door was open. Sharon was at her desk, reading something on her laptop when a female voice called from a nearby cubicle. Only the female was not speaking English. A tall woman wearing a blue and orange hajib burst out of the cubicle and hurried into Sharon’s office as Sharon answered back in the same language.

Together, the two looked at Sharon’s laptop. They went back and forth for a minute, then Sharon nodded.

“I’ll call Al and see what his intel sources say,” she told the woman in English. “Thanks, Faiza.”

“No problem,” Faiza answered and headed back to her office.

Sharon was about to dial when she saw June and immediately got to her feet.

“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Sharon said. “Please come in.”

“Please, don’t confuse me with my brother,” said June, flapping her wrist. “If the First Lady has no official standing, I have even less.”

“Sure. I’m Sharon Wheatly.” Sharon reached over and pulled a chair next to her desk. “Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Coffee?”

June’s eyes fell on the grinder and yet another bag from K Street Koffee. “Oh my. Either you’re already a coffee geek or my brother’s trying to convert you.”

Sharon flushed. “The former, I’m afraid.”

June flopped into the chair. “He’s been trying to convert me for years. I can’t get into all the different beans, but I have to admit I am so spoiled when it comes to coffee. But I’ve had my limit for today. Go ahead. Sit down. I’m normal people, okay?”

“Okay.” Sharon sat down. “How can I help you?”

“Your email. I’m surprised the State Department hasn’t mentioned Monsieur’s problem.”

Sharon shrugged. “One of my staffers has a friend in the French foreign ministry and I went ahead and confirmed it with my contact. Monsieur Sartimes doesn’t like mentioning it, so his staff doesn’t volunteer the information. I’m not even sure their Embassy knows. The only reason I knew to ask was that he got sick last fall while visiting India. I have a friend who’s a minister in the Indian government and she told me all about it. Apparently, his blood pressure went through the ceiling and it scared them to death.”

June sighed. “Mark said we should tell Chef Solly to go all out. Monsieur has quite the reputation as a gourmand, you know, and Mark wants to take full advantage. You should see the menus. One of the lunches alone could clog a horse’s arteries. And it would be dismal for Monsieur if he got a separate plate and everyone else is feasting.”

“How hard would it be to swap out a few items for some healthier food? Or see if the chef can adapt as much of the menu as possible? I mean, there are lots of ways to do the gourmet thing and tone down the fats and sodium. My mom does it all the time for my dad.”

“The tricky part will be getting it past my brother. He was really looking forward to that dinner.” June sighed.

“I heard he can be something of a foodie.”

“A total omnivore, more like. But he does like to eat well. The problem is he can’t come off as too sophisticated or Middle America freaks. He gets too excited about rare French cheese and Wisconsonites assume their cheese curds aren’t good enough for him, which is ridiculous because he loves Wisconsin cheese curds.”

Sharon nodded. “I know what you mean.”

“And don’t even get me started on the veal thing,” June groaned. “Admittedly, there have been some real abuses, but if you know anything about dairy farming, you know why veal is not a bad thing.”

“Let me guess, no foie gras, either?” Sharon smiled wickedly.

June yelped. “You’ve gotta be kidding!” She got up. “All right. I’d better get with Chef on this. And thanks for the heads up.”

“Any time.”

June paused in the doorway. “Um. A lot will depend on whether I can get it worked out with security, but would you like to go shopping some time? I gotta warn you, I don’t usually buy much. It’s mostly research for me. But most of my friends are in New York and it would be fun to go with someone.”

“I don’t see why not.” Sharon shrugged. “I’m not really into heavy accumulation, either. Did that up until a few years ago, then decided I like keeping things simple. But it’s fun to go out.”

“Okay. Um, how’s Dr. Tanaka? You think she’d like going out?”

“Tanks? Yeah, I think so. She has at least three different winter coats with hats to match, so I’m guessing she likes shopping.”

June smiled. “She does know how to accessorize. I’ll see what I can work out and let you know. Maybe we can do lunch in the meantime, so the three of us can get to know each other.”

“Sounds good.” Sharon smiled.

As June left, Sharon decided she liked the president’s sister. She had his same down to earth, easy attitude and good head on her shoulders. And no potential relationship issues to deal with. Not a bad compromise.

The next few days kept Sharon pretty busy. Aside from the small flutter between Arabia and Qatar that Faiza had alerted Sharon to that Thursday, there were rumors of trouble in Rhodesia, an election that was getting overly contentious in Brazil and the Australian government was making noise about protecting their wine industry again, which meant the Californians would be worried.

In addition to all that, Sharon was working very hard to get up to speed in her new position. Thanks to her corporate work, she had a very good network of government contacts around the world. But that network had to expand rapidly if she was to be as effective as possible.

On Friday, Coop talked the Advisory Panel into coming in on Saturday to play tennis with the president at the White House tennis court, including tech advisor Gwendolyn McKelvey, an MIT professor and researcher who only came in on Fridays because she lived in Boston. Mackie, an average sized woman with a couple honest rolls about her waist, didn’t seem like the kind of person who was into sports, but partnering with Coop, the two killed everyone, including the president and his partner, Tanks’ oldest daughter, Kira. Ed-man refereed.

Still, as the group broke up to go to dinner, Sharon couldn’t help noticing the sad glint in Mark’s eyes as they all left.

So Monday, Sharon made a point to visit the Chief of Staff in her office.

“Come in, Ms. Wheatly,” Johnetta said brusquely as Sharon came to the door. “Please have a seat and how can I help you?”

“Well.” Sharon paused. “I’m not sure. But I think you’ve noticed it, too. About the president. He seems… Lonely doesn’t seem right, but isolated, I guess.”

Johnetta sighed. “That kind of comes with the position. But you’ve noticed, huh?”

“I don’t know if anyone else has,” Sharon said. “And I’m not even sure if what I think is going on is going on, or even what to do about it.”

“You’re right. He’s feeling the isolation.” Johnetta fidgeted with a small stack of papers on her desk. “All the protocols, you know? His friends don’t even call him by his first name anymore. Well, I do sometimes.” She glanced away, then back at Sharon. “Look, I don’t know if I should be saying anything. I’ve known Jugsy since we were in college.”

“Jugsy?”

Johnetta smiled. “Coop named him that when we were in Coop’s study group back when we were freshmen in college. That’s how Mark and I met, along with Mary Karpati and Dave Cohen. I was what they called a re-entry student. That’s why I was so much older than the others.” She chuckled fondly. “The surprising thing is, we’ve all stayed friends over the years and ended up here in Washington, more or less. Mark and I went into politics. Mary’s got her Ph.D. and is teaching at Johns Hopkins. Dave runs PBS.” She sighed again. “One of the things my predecessor told me he was really worried about when Mark got elected was that Mark is single. And it wasn’t about scandal or anything like that. But most men in this office have had wives to help keep them grounded, someone with whom they can just be themselves and no one else. Someone who can still call them by their first name, if you know what I mean. Mark does not have that, and Mr. Lamont said that worried him because if anything will make you crazy in this job, it’s the isolation. The restrictions on your movement are bad enough, but it’s the constant formality and distance that’ll really get to you.”

Sharon nodded. “I kind of figured. This may sound a little strange to you, but I almost know what he’s feeling. My brother is pretty famous.”

“Who’s your brother?” Johnetta looked at her, frowning. “Wait. Is your brother Michael Wheatly?”

“Yep.” Sharon smiled.

“Oh, my goodness, I recognize you. You did that wonderful video for him.”

Sharon flushed. “I did. I was only fifteen at the time and it made my life a living hell, so I don’t usually talk about it.”

“Why? It was beautifully done, and such a hope-filled story.”

“Maybe, but at the time, I was dealing with a lot of fifteen-year-old boys who just saw a hooker.”

Johnetta smiled. “I can see where that might make life difficult.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know. I thought you guys checked me out fully.”

“Jean and the press people probably knew and they didn’t see any problem with it. Like I said, we try to strip away all the non-essential details so we can focus on your qualifications.”

“Well, anyway, let’s get back to why I’m here. And I think you’ve pretty much answered my question.” Sharon waited for a moment, trying to figure out what to do next. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers.”

“You don’t?” asked Johnetta, suddenly smiling.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Trust me, the last thing I want to do is date the guy. I just… I don’t know. He just seems a little sad when the rest of the panel goes off to lunch or to dinner. So I wondered and, well, now I know. Maybe I’ll talk to the rest of them. We should be able to come up with something.”

“They just might.” Johnetta nodded thoughtfully. “If they do, would you keep me posted? And, uh, call me Johnnie.”

“Sure, Johnnie. I’m Sharon.” Sharon stood.

“Sure thing, Sharon.”

As Sharon left, Johnetta smiled and chuckled to herself. Mark had quietly protested any interest in getting together with the lovely Ms. Wheatly, and Sharon had just done the same about getting together with Mark. Which, of course, meant there had to be a way to get the two of them together.

Sharon, for her part, knew darned well she had other things to be thinking about besides her boss and turned her mind to focusing on those very things, not the least of which was the upcoming meeting with Monsieur Sartimes.

Daniel Friedman was not the sort of person anyone would have marked as a future Secretary of State, at least not based on his early career. He certainly didn’t have the tall, smooth good looks one associated with diplomats. If anything, Friedman, who was of average height, slightly scrawny, dark, curly hair, near-sighted and prone to ugly glasses, looked like the nerd he’d started out as. Some years before, during the first tech industry bubble, he had burst on the scene, having not only developed a prodigiously successful search engine but then parlayed that into the prototype for advertising on the Internet before selling out just before the first bubble burst.

It was an accident that he found his real passion in life shortly thereafter. It wasn’t so much the politics, which he began dabbling in right around the time he sold his company. It was diplomacy. The politics and his massive wealth merely got him the ambassadorship to Rwanda. The fact that he was able to actually help defuse some of the civil unrest there and get the country some significant U.S. aid did make folks sit up and notice. The ambassadorship to Russia only furthered his reputation.

So when Mark Jerguessen got elected, Friedman decided to pay a call on the president-elect and go after the big job. And he got it. It had been a bold move, the media said. Friedman conceded that he’d been a little surprised, himself. But the more he worked at the position, the more he realized he’d found his life’s passion, which was probably why he was so darned good at it.

Like everyone else watching the White House, he’d heard rumors about the president’s youngest – and prettiest – new advisor. There were those who suggested that everyone was just dazzled by the good looks. Friedman wasn’t so sure, but then he hadn’t seen her, either. He had gotten a couple emails from her, particularly one that pointed up the brief issue between the Saudis and Qatar, and suggesting that unless State had information otherwise, just ignoring it might be the best course of action for the time being. His staff hadn’t even realized the event had occurred, let alone that non-involvement was the best course of action.

Unfortunately, freezing his tush off on the tarmac at National Airport, waiting for a foreign dignitary’s plane to land wasn’t where he’d hoped to meet Ms. Wheatly. As she stepped out of the official limousine, he could see that the rumor mill had gotten the looks part right. Even bundled up in the regulation London Fog tan trench coat with a burgundy knit hat and matching scarf, he could tell she was striking.

The plane landed and Ms. Wheatly let Friedman take over, as Sartimes’ English was excellent. However, in the car on the way to the hotel, Monsieur addressed her in French, teased her about her Belgian accent and then she proceeded to out-pun him in French. At least, Friedman was fairly sure that’s what was going on. His own French was fairly good, but clearly, Wheatly spoke the language as a native.

“Where did you find her?” Friedman asked the president as the two went over their initial meeting with the minister.

“From you guys,” Mark replied genially. “Apparently, her application was in with the ones we’d requested when we had to replace Andy Shepherd.”

“You’re kidding. I know I had several folks offering candidates, but I don’t remember… Wait. My under-secretary, Earl Wallace. Just after we sent those applications over, he was all up in arms about a candidate for our office that had gotten mixed up in your applications. He wanted to hire her.”

Mark smiled. “I’m glad I got her first.”

“She’s pretty impressive.” Friedman sighed. “I could’ve used her.”

Sharon, herself, however, was not thinking about being impressive. She was panicking. Tanks had swung by her office and asked if she was leaving early to get ready.

“Ready for what?” Sharon had asked, going over the latest subject lines in her email inbox.

“The reception tonight. Cocktails with the French foreign minister?”

“Shavings!” Sharon gasped at Tanks. “I have to go to that.”

“And so do I,” Tanks sighed. “I just hope I can get out early so my girls don’t start whining about Mom being gone all the time again.”

“Kira’s fourteen. At that age, I would have loved it if my mom was gone all the time.”

“That doesn’t stop them from whining about it if they think they can get something by it.”

“So how ready do I have to get? I can get away with a suit, right?” Sharon looked at the long list of subject lines.

“The memo from State said cocktail dress, to encourage a social and welcoming atmosphere.”

Sharon sighed deeply. “At least they got that straight. The French don’t mix business and social like we do.” She frowned. “Do I even have a cocktail dress right now?”

“You weren’t expecting to go to any parties?”

“Not right away. I haven’t even been here a full month and I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying. I’ve gotten a couple new suits, but that’s it.” Sharon sighed as she looked at the list of subject lines again, and closed the laptop. “I’ll have to look at these at home tonight.”

Sharon left a few minutes later. Karen met her at the Metro stop and the two went straight to Sharon’s place to see what Sharon already had before picking up Karen’s daughters and hitting the stores.

Karen was suitably impressed by Sharon’s house.

“It’s my friend’s place,” Sharon explained. “I’m just renting it from her. It’s a great old house, built by some senator years ago. He even had a secret doorway put in the back so he could sneak his floozies in.”

“Now that sounds like fun. Too bad I’m in a steady relationship. Let’s see your closet.”

Sharon led the way to the bedroom where Karen stood aghast at the open closet doors.

“You’ve only got about eight suits in here. Four day dresses. Good heavens, woman, why don’t you have any clothes?”

“I used to. I just got into simplifying a few years ago. I was traveling all the time, had no place to put things. And I had stuff that had gone completely out of style that I hadn’t even worn yet.”

“That’s normal. You’re supposed to have stuff like that. You go ahead to the mall. I’ll get my girls and meet you at there. This is an emergency. How can you justify not working to keep our economy going by buying your brains out?”

Sharon chuckled but sighed and headed out again.

It was not a fun outing. First, Sharon couldn’t find anything she liked, then Karen called and said that her younger daughter had a school project that absolutely had to be finished that afternoon and that she (Karen) would instead be haunting the craft stores that afternoon instead because, of course, her daughter, Allie, hadn’t even started yet.

Finally, as the clock ticked off closer and closer to five p.m., Sharon found a dress that she liked. It was an a-line in a shimmery light blue sheer over a light blue lining. The top fabric had little silver arrowheads flecked throughout. Sharon found some silver dress shoes that were workable, then a bag, necklace and matching earrings and scrambled back to the office to get dressed. 

If Sharon didn’t pay much attention to the looks as she entered the reception at the State Department, it was only because she was so used to people looking at her. Yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling there was something else behind them, at least from the women, beyond the usual jealous glances. It didn’t matter. She had other things to think about and stayed focused on greeting Monsieur Sartimes and chatting with him and the French ambassador for a bit.

After the president had joined them, Sharon moved away and all but ran into June. Which is when Sharon realized that her odd feeling about the other women looking at her wasn’t just an odd feeling. June’s dress may have been pink, but it was exactly the same as Sharon’s otherwise, right down to the gold arrowheads shot through the sheer pink fabric.

June, for her part, started laughing.

“Oh, Sharon, please forgive me,” June hissed, trying to stifle her giggles.

“I’ve got your dress on!” Sharon gasped.

“Yes. But it’s my fault.”

“Huh?”

But at that second, one of the butlers whispered something in June’s ear.

June groaned. “Gotta deal with this now. We’ll talk later. It’s not your fault.”

June scurried off as Sharon stood, trying to digest what had just happened, let alone figure out why June would feel guilty about the mix-up.

Daniel Friedman wandered up at that point.

“It seems to be going well,” he observed blandly.

“Uh. Yeah.” Sharon swallowed. “Anyone talking about the food?”

“Mostly about how good it is. Looks like we dodged that bullet.”

“Good.” Sharon’s voice came out a lot more tense than she’d planned.

“You okay?” Friedman asked

“Fine. Great.”

The president wandered up. “Looks like everything’s going really well, Daniel.”

“Sure seems to be,” Friedman replied. “Um. Did you hear about the menu changes?”

“No. Should I have?” Mark grabbed an hors d’oeuvre off a passing tray and popped it in his mouth.

“No, sir,” said Sharon quickly. “As long as you and Monsieur Sartimes are happy, who cares?”

“Tuna tartare?” said Mark, grinning. “Definitely some wasabi action on the endive? I’m happy and I hear Sartimes is chowing down like a pro.”

Sharon glanced downwards and saw something definitely wrong.

“Sir? Can I confer with you outside, please?”

“Sure,” Mark replied. “You got a headset on I can’t see?”

Sharon smiled. “It’s not that kind of problem. Sir?”

Mark glanced at Friedman. The two shrugged and Mark followed Sharon from the room.

Sharon wandered quickly through the halls, trying each door. “There’s gotta be an open conference room somewhere.”

Puzzled, Mark followed obediently until Sharon found a door that opened. She sighed in relief when it opened into a conference room and not a men’s room.

“Ms. Wheatly?” Mark asked, expectantly.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve got a button missing on your dinner jacket,” Sharon said, opening her purse. It was a small rhinestone affair, but big enough for what she needed. “On the sleeve.”

Mark sighed. “Oh. Yeah. I fidget with them. Johnnie’s always on my backside for tearing them off.”

“I think I might have a close enough match here,” Sharon said, pulling out her sewing kit.

“I’ve got it right here.” Trying to hide his flush, Mark pulled the button from his pants’ pocket.

“Well, that makes life easier.” Sharon smiled. “Don’t worry. You wouldn’t believe the number of executives I’ve saved just because I keep a sewing kit on me. May I have your jacket, please?”

Mark pulled his off and handed it to her. “Johnnie’s always telling me to keep my hands in my pockets.”

“Obviously, you’re listening,” Sharon said, then tried not to wince as she took the jacket and pulled out a chair from the conference table so she could get to work.

“Bad habits. What can I say?” Mark smiled.

He allowed himself a covert glance at Sharon. She bent over his sleeve, presumably concentrating on the job at hand. Yes, she was gorgeous. But that was almost a distraction. Granted, her interest in seeing him well-groomed had as much to do with her professional duties as anything else. Yet, there was something. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something special.

Which, of course, is why at that exact moment, June chose to burst into the room.

“Mark, they’re looking for you,” she began, then saw what was going on. “Oh. For heaven’s sakes. Can’t you keep your hands off your sleeves? For crying out loud. You’re a grown man!”

“I will endeavor to do better,” Mark said, pleasantly.

June rolled her eyes. “You say that every time. I don’t think you’re really trying.”

“It’s irrelevant now,” said Sharon, biting off the thread. “It’s taken care of. Although why more men don’t carry sewing kits is beyond me. It would make my life easier.”

Mark took his jacket back and put it on. “I’ll put it on my to-do list.”

“Get yourself back in there. It’s speech time,” said June, pushing him out the door. As soon as her brother was gone, she turned to Sharon. “Well. Thank you. I swear, it’s scary how often he tears his buttons off. Everyone thinks he’s the proverbial cucumber and no one ever notices how many times the buttons go missing on his suit jackets.”

“It’s not all that uncommon,” Sharon said, ducking her head as she put the sewing kit back together. “It’s why I learned to pack my little kit.”

June giggled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing. You must be horribly embarrassed.”

“It’s a little awkward on my first night out.”

“It’s my fault. I forgot I put this design into production.”

Sharon looked at her, completely perplexed. “I’m sorry? I just got it today.”

“It’s a Design by JJ, right?”

“I have no idea.” Sharon stopped and thought about it. “I just didn’t have any cocktail dresses and this was the first one that appealed to me.”

She grabbed the back of her dress and tried to wriggle around to look at the tag.

“It’s mine,” said June, laughing. “Are you serious? You had no clue?”

Sharon sighed. “I used to be better at the label game. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” June smiled warmly. “I hate label freaks, although I have to confess, they’ve been pretty good for business.”

Sharon took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. That makes how many times I’ve messed up tonight?”

“Messed up?” June looked at her. “Oh, Sharon, I’m not mad at you. Actually, I’m pretty complimented. You bought the dress because you genuinely liked it. That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten all year.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Sharon sighed. “I’m beginning to think Tanks was right. This White House thing is pretty freaky.”

June laughed outright. “Pretty freaky? Good lord, it’s absolutely crazy-making! I didn’t get this messed up dressing Helen freaking Mirren for the Oscars.”

“You’re not upset, then?”

“Why? Because you have such exquisite good taste?

Sharon sniffed and giggled. “Well, if you’re not upset, then to heck with the rest of them.”

“To heck with them, indeed. Shall we return together, arm in arm? That will really get the old gossip mill going.”

Sharon instinctively shrank back. “Oh, lord. Oh, what the hell. The men haven’t noticed. You’re not peeved. Why should I care?”

“You do, don’t you?’ June said softly.

Sharon shrugged. “You’d think I’d be used to the looking and the rumors and all that stuff by now. Funny thing is, I don’t think you ever get used to it.”

June shook her head. “You can. You can get used to a lot of things. Trust me.”

“Think your brother is ever going to get used to being president?” Sharon blurted out.

“Yipes. Where did that come from?”

Sharon blushed. “I can’t believe I just said that.” She sighed. “It’s funny. I just can’t help noticing how sad he seems every time the rest of the Advisory Panel talks about going out to lunch together and he can’t come with us.”

“Actually, I’ve noticed that, too.” June frowned. “It’s kinda weird, really. Mark is the original everyday guy. So it’s totally amazing to me that he’s gotten as far as he has. I mean, the kind of ego you need to pull off a presidential campaign. Mark doesn’t have that. He does have drive, I’ll give him that.”

“Probably accounts for it.”

“Probably. But he’s been having a couple problems settling in.”

“I, uh, talked to Coop about it the other day. He said he’d see what he could do. There’s a bunch of private clubs around the area. Coop said he’d talk to the Secret Service guys and the clubs, so maybe…”

“Maybe,” June said. “What’d be really great is a good hide-out with a secret entrance or something.”

The light went on in Sharon’s head. “Yeah. He likes basketball, right?”

June laughed. “He loves sports, period. The guy will watch curling, for crying out loud.”

“Curling’s kinda fun,” said Sharon. “Now, if he was into watching badminton, I’d really be worried.”

June laughed even harder and Sharon joined in.

“Think you can face ‘em?” June asked, finally.

“If you can, I can,” Sharon said.

So arm in arm, the two returned to the party. Across the room, Mark saw the two enter. Again, he felt his stomach flutter at the sight of her. And she was with June, no less, and the two really seemed to like each other. Mark smiled to himself. How perfect could one woman be?

Another time zone away, practice was running late. Matt Jerguessen waited in the stands while his coach raised hell with his teammates, his raspy bass voice booming through the rafters. It was only a matter of time before Coach Winslow came and raised hell with him. Matt wasn’t sure it mattered.

Just turned sixteen years old, he was supposed to be the sophomore miracle for his prep school team in Minnesota. Matt was supposed to be a lot of things, but at the moment, he didn’t care to be anything. He just wanted to be left alone.

Coach Winslow finished his harangue and the team went back to their drills, accompanied by squeaking shoes, thudding balls and murmured complaints. Winslow shook his head and started up the bleachers. He had years of experience working with privileged youth. Matt seemed to be a pretty typical angry young man and yet not. The kid hadn’t filled out yet and still had that lanky but awkward look about him. He’d look a lot like his famous uncle in a few years, especially with those deep green eyes. Girls seemed to melt around Matt, but he was barely aware of it. Or if he was, he was curiously disinterested. Winslow wondered briefly if Matt was gay, but that didn’t feel right, either.

“Matt?” he asked gently as he approached the boy.

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s going on?”

Matt stared straight ahead. “Sir?”

“Cut the crap, Jerguessen. You’re laying down on me. We both know you can do better. What’s going on?”

Matt shrugged.

“Are you trying to tell me you don’t want to be here?”

“Give me one good reason why I should.”

“You owe it to your team?”

Matt didn’t reply.

Winslow sighed. “If you don’t want to be here–“

“Coach, I gotta be here. Okay? I’ll try harder.”

“Who’s telling you that you have to be here?”

“Nobody,” Matt murmured.

Coach nodded. “Unless it’s understood that your folks want you to be on the team.”

Matt stayed silent. Of course, his folks wanted him on the team. It’s all his dad talked about. Not that his dad ever showed for games or anything.

“You know, I could drop you,” Winslow said.

“You could?” Matt’s eyes glinted with a spark of interest.

“But I can’t imagine that’d make anything easier for you at home.”

“They don’t care about me at home,” grumbled Matt. “As long as I don’t do anything public.”

“Which getting kicked off the basketball team would be.”

Matt sighed. “Probably.”

“Look, Matt. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen a case like yours. Folks want you to make a good name, but don’t seem to care about you.”

Matt shrugged.

“But one thing I’ve noticed about you is you really like playing. When you’re not in one of your moods.”

Matt shrugged again.

“I need you, Matt. You’ve got skills and when you’re not feeling sorry for yourself, you’re a damn good player. Can’t that be enough for you?”

“Dunno.”

“Isn’t there anybody you can talk to?”

“Used to be able to talk to my uncle.”

“So why can’t you now?”

“Uh, hello? President of the United States? I don’t think he’s got time for me.”

“Have you tried?”

“His old email’s down. The one he had in the Senate. Mom won’t let me have the new one. Assuming she even knows it. And she changed our Internet provider, so my old email’s dead. And it’s not like you can just call up the White House and ask to talk to the president. I tried. They didn’t believe me.”

“What about your dad?”

“Are you kidding? He hates my uncle. And he doesn’t talk to me, anyway.”

“Look, Matt, there’s gotta be some way you can get through. You’ve just gotta put your mind to it. You’ve got your grandfather and great-grandmother. I see them here all the time. And don’t you have an aunt?”

“Yeah.”

“So keep trying. I know if you put your mind to it, you can find a way through. In the meantime, I need you to get on your game. You’re a good player and a good kid. So what if some parts of your life suck? Make the best of what you’ve got going for you and it won’t matter that your parents don’t seem to care about you.”

“I s’pose.”

“All right. Now get down there and give me twenty laps.”

“Yessir.”

Matt, still feeling sullen and out of sorts, made his way down the bleachers to the gym floor to begin his laps. His teammates hooted derisively and he flipped them the bird. Aunt June was sympathetic, but didn’t really have any answers for him and he didn’t have her email address, anyway. His grandfather and great-grandma were nice enough, too, but barely knew what email was, let alone Uncle Mark’s address. Uncle Mark was the only people on the planet who really seemed to understand him and his mother had made damned sure he was out of reach.

The coach was right. There were other ways than email and telephone to reach Uncle Mark. It would take some planning and saving. Matt debated just using the credit card his mother had given him but knew if he spent too much at once, his mother would get called and that would blow everything. It would take a little research and the right timing. In the meantime, he could just play basketball.

IM Session

Swheatly531: Got a question for you.

Ladycarla: What up?

Swheatly531: Just noticed you got a really nice pool table and bar in your basement, mind if I add on?

Ladycarla: What do you have in mind?

Swheatly531: Just a big-screen TV and a couple couches. There’s room. I measured.

Ladycarla: Sure, but why?

Swheatly531: Believe it or not, it’s officially top-secret, but it has something to do with that hidden entrance down there.

Ladycarla: Niecy said you still had the hots for him.

Swheatly531: Won’t do me much good with the rest of the Advisory Panel hanging around, which is the point. Gotta fly.

Chapter Three

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

Pull Quote for romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: "We’re not here to toe the line and play nice."

Very early that next morning had Sharon walking up to the White House employee entrance with her stomach in knots. The afternoon before, she had been led around the West Wing by Ms. Washington, first to complete the box loads of virtual paperwork – the forms were actually on the computer – then to see her office. Ms. Washington said that Sharon’s predecessor had hired a staff, but since he had passed before the office could begin functioning, they hadn’t been officially working.

The office, itself, was made up of a pod of cubicles clustered, more or less, around her main office. The staff included four researchers and a personal assistant. Ms. Washington had said that she would see to calling the staff members and telling them to come in the next day. Then Ms. Washington slapped a flash drive with samples of the rest of the advisory team’s reports into Sharon’s hand and sent her on her way.

Sharon had spent the night poring over the reports. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t expected to present one on her very first day on the job, she still was determined to make a good impression.

Now, as she approached the guard gate at 6:30 a.m., she swallowed and put on her formidable best. So what if her stomach was doing loop the loops and that soft malevolent voice in the back of her brain whispered that it had all been a dream and the second she presented herself at the gate she would be immediately arrested for impersonating a successful woman?

Fortunately, the guard at the gate had no clue what the malevolent voice was saying and handed Sharon her temporary badge, explaining that she would need to go straight from the gate to the security office so that she could pick up her permanent badge and ID.

“Great. Thanks.”

Sharon flashed the guard a smile, but he didn’t see. He was too busy waving in another woman behind her.

The woman was fairly short but carried herself with authority. Her hair was shiny, deep black and perfectly straight, falling just below her shoulders. She wore a dark wool top coat over black dress slacks and boots, with a matching fuzzy hat perched on the top of her head. She stopped as she saw Sharon fumbling with her box and her temp badge.

“Are you Wheatly?” the woman asked. She was Asian, with an oval face that belied her age.

“Uh, yeah. How did you know?”

“Newbie badge, box. You’re moving in.” The woman held out her right hand, which was covered with a black kid glove. “I’m Karen Tanaka.”

“Oh. You research pop culture.” Sharon shook the offered hand and then readjusted her box.

Tanaka’s right eyebrow lifted. “And you’re up on your homework. That’s good. You’ll need to be on your toes around here.”

“I’ve done it before.”

Tanaka laughed. “Yeah. We all have. But there’s nothing like this. Don’t let the guys fool you. We’re all a little freaked out about being here. Even the boss. But they keep saying we’ll get used to it. Come on. I’ll show you around.”

They started off toward the side door of the all-too-famous building. There had been a good snow the night before and the lawn was glittering with a fresh foot or so.

“Thanks,” Sharon said. “I figured there might be some early arrivals, but I was hoping to get in first.”

“You almost made it. Most of us don’t get in until seven or so. The boss said that he doesn’t want a lot of working late, either. He wants the entire staff out of the office by seven p.m. unless absolutely necessary.”

“I’d heard that.”

Tanaka nodded. “It’s a good idea, in theory. Keeps us more well-rounded, prevents tunnel-vision.”

“And does it work?”

“Mostly. I’m early today because my kid had to be at school early for some planning meeting.”

Sharon remembered that Tanaka was a single mom with two children, one in middle school, one a freshman in high school. Sharon was about to ask for more details when a snowball caught her hard in the back of the neck. Sharon yelped and Tanaka whirled.

Behind them, an average-sized Black man in a tan trench coat and an ugly tweed hat approached them from the gate. There were still remnants of snow on his dark, woolen gloves.

“Coop!” Tanaka hollered. “What the heck do you think you’re doing? I got the newbie with me.”

Coop grinned, his teeth mostly white against his dark skin with an even darker pencil-line mustache on his upper lip.

“I meant to hit you,” he hollered back, good-naturedly.

Karen, smiling, rolled her eyes and let out a long-suffering sigh.

“Ignore him,” she told Sharon.

But Sharon knew that one ignored Dr. Edward Cooper at one’s peril. And it wasn’t because he was President Jerguessen’s best friend. Dr. Cooper was fairly widely acknowledged as being a beyond brilliant economist. He was also fairly widely acknowledged for his tendency toward practical jokes.

“So you’re the newbie,” Cooper said as he came up to the two women. “Welcome. I’m Eddie Cooper.”

Sharon finished brushing snow off the back of her neck. “Thanks. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Making an early start, huh?”

“Yeah. It doesn’t hurt on a first day,” Sharon said. They were almost to the door.

“Don’t make a habit of it,” Cooper answered, grinning. “You’ll end up old and ugly like me.”

Sharon grinned in spite of herself. Cooper was 46 years old and hardly unattractive, not that it mattered. He was married and had several children, by all reports.

Sharon dropped her badge and bent quickly to pick it up. Cooper dove, as well, but Sharon got the badge first. She also got a nice chunk of ice, which she quickly slipped underneath the collar of his suit. Cooper yelped as the ice hit the warmth of his skin, but he stood up, laughing.

“Man, that’s cold!” he said.

Tanaka laughed hard. “Wheatly, you and I are going to be very good friends.”

She held up her hand for a high five and Sharon swatted it.

“Be that as it may,” said Cooper, still smiling. “Both you ladies better remember, you’re playing in the big leagues now.”

And he swooped inside the West Wing entrance.

Tanaka laughed again, but it was more than a little hesitant. “Yipes. We’re in for it.”

“Oh.” Sharon swallowed her own fear. “Well. He’ll have to be very careful if he wants to mess with me.”

Tanaka opened the office door. “I like your spirit. Good luck, but I like your spirit.”

She pointed Sharon to the security office, then went on to her own. Sharon finished the final computer forms and got her badge and ID and directions to her own office.

It was blessedly empty. Sharon set her box on her new desk and fell into the padded, but aging swivel chair, all pretense at being strong and formidable gone.

What had she done? She’d dropped the snow down Cooper’s neck on instinct. And she had built her career on having razor-sharp instincts and the ability to take risks. Only, Sharon suddenly realized, the reason she hadn’t been afraid to take risks was that she had never worried about losing whatever job she’d held at the time. It had never mattered before because she had a fabulously wealthy rock star brother who would have been happy to support her. The fact that she and her sisters preferred to make their own way was their choice. And she had put away some serious money and made some excellent investments, which meant work was almost a matter of preference these days.

But now things were very, very different, she realized with a shock. For the first time in her life, she now had a job that she wanted to keep. Assuming Dr. Cooper would let her.

Sharon shook it off. Being scared wasn’t the answer. She had a staff coming in and research to finalize, not to mention an office to set up.

She looked around and cringed a little. She’d heard West Wing offices were cramped, and the windowless room was certainly that: wide and shallow with a fairly large dark wood desk in the center that faced the door. There wasn’t room for chairs in front, but there was a couch along one of the narrow walls, with empty bookshelves over the couch. On the facing narrow wall was a chalkboard and more shelves under that. Everything was painted a dull, institutional eggshell color, contrasting with the dark gray institutional carpet.

It wasn’t directly behind the desk because there wouldn’t have been room, but along the back wall of the office and to the side nearest the couch, was a dark wood credenza that sort of matched the desk. On top of that were a rather nice coffeemaker, a better than average grinder, and a couple bottles of water. Next to those was a brown bag folded over and hand-labeled, from K-Street Koffee, Kenyan AA. The soft scent of roasted coffee beans tickled Sharon’s nose. She picked up the note.

“Some of Cecil’s best for a fellow fan,” it said in a cramped scribble. “Welcome to the team.”

Sharon smiled. It was a nice touch and somehow, just right. She looked at the grinder. It wasn’t one of the top-of-the-line burr grinders like the president had in his office, that would have been too much. But it wasn’t your basic cheap model, either. Just enough to say welcome without any inappropriate overtones. Personal enough to show thoughtfulness, but not enough to imply a deeper intimacy was apparent or wanted.

There was only one thing to do and Sharon did it. In no time, some of the Kenyan AA had been ground and the coffeemaker was happily dripping away, filling the office with a comforting scent. Further inspection of the credenza revealed mugs, spoons, and sugar. There was even a small refrigerator at the end of the credenza that Sharon hadn’t seen at first and, sure enough, a small carton each of cream and milk were inside. Somebody else must have put those there.

With coffee on the brew, Sharon turned to unpacking her box, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. A young African American man dressed in a dark suit stood politely in the doorway.

“I’m here with your laptop, ma’am,” he said quietly. “If you’ve got a second, I can show you how to get on the system and get your passwords set up.”

“May as well,” Sharon said.

He came in and gently placed the computer on her desk, along with a sheet of paper.

“I also need you to sign this. It’s giving the Secret Service permission to enter your home and install secure wi-fi there.”

“Oh, okay.”

And so it went on. In fact, the young man was still working with her when the first of her staff members began to filter in shortly before eight a.m. The printer was down the hall and around the corner, partly because staffers were being strongly encouraged to do as much electronically as possible.

“Notes, memos, everything will be coming via email,” the young man said.

“Good. I think I’d better send one right now. Now, where was that list of my group’s emails?”

The young man disappeared shortly after, just as Sharon turned to thank him and ask his name. It seemed odd, but Sharon was more than distracted a moment later by the sound of someone clattering into the cubicle outside her door, muttering curses and other foul imprecations on the city’s subway system. Sharon stepped out of her office and into the cubicle. It was crammed with two desks, each facing opposite walls, and filled with the usual office paraphernalia, much of which was empty for the time being. The young female someone who had just come in was busy stripping off her coat as fast as she could while digging through the box on her desk to find something.

“Oh, hi,” she said, noticing Sharon. She was in her mid-twenties and dressed in a dark skirt and tan blouse that was somewhat more chic than the usual Washington business-wear. She pulled a hangar from the box and hung her coat on it. Her hair was long, brown and in a thick braid down her back. “I’m Julie. Think the boss knows I’m late?”

“I’m sure I do,” said Sharon.

Julie groaned and flopped into her chair. “I left early. I swear I did. But there was a killer pothole on the freeway, had traffic all backed up all the way to the Metro station. Then the freaking train just sat there for twenty minutes. Apparently, there was a problem at the Pentagon stop.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“At the moment, no. Are you one of the researchers?”

Julie laughed. “Heck, no! I’m not smart enough for that. I’m your assistant.”

“Great. Good to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Julie Ivins.”

“Actually, Julie, I just realized there is something you can help me with. I want to have a quick staff meeting in about ten minutes and we need to figure out how we’re going to get everyone into my office. And staff meeting will always include you unless I say otherwise.”

“Sure, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Call me Sharon.”

Julie grinned. “Okay.” She got up. “It’s going to be tricky. Would you believe you got one of the bigger offices?”

Sharon looked at her, surprised. “I thought you were just starting today.”

“Working for you, yeah. But I’ve been at the White House for about seven years now.”

“I thought every administration re-staffed.”

“Us clerical stiffs are always here. There’re some assistants in budget who’ve been here through three administrations already. I was working for one of the speechwriters before. I’m really liking the new president. You know, they dim the lights in the evening as the sun goes down? So people will actually go home at night? The president says he wants people to stay fresh and they can’t be fresh if they’re constantly burning the midnight oil.”

“Oh,” said Sharon. “Well, let’s figure out the meeting situation.”

It took Julie five seconds to look over Sharon’s office, propose a solution, then get the chairs needed to make it work. They were older, dark wood and decidedly old-fashioned. Sharon wondered how long the chairs had been in the building. They looked like they might have been new when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Sharon’s four staff researchers were pleasant enough and seemed to respond to her well. Faiza Moussel was a tall, slender woman with intense dark eyes. She wore a bright green and yellow hajib over her hair and was otherwise conservatively dressed in a tan suit with slacks. She had been born and raised in the U.S., but her parents were Algerian. She focused mostly on the Middle East and some parts of Asia.

Katie Minor was as short, stout and fair as Faiza was dark, tall and slender. Katie’s area of focus was Africa, although she was more interested in Eastern Asia, as well. Raoul Mendoza was a dour-looking older man with a bald top and dark hair underneath. He focused on Europe, Canada, and Australia. Leonidas Bertonetti was the South American expert, a handsome man in his mid-thirties with dark hair and a very Italian smoothness, probably because his family, though long in Argentina, was of Italian ancestry.

The meeting was very short and in less than half an hour, everyone had gone back to her or his desk to do some final updates

By nine-thirty, Sharon had her report amended and filed onto the server. Which was just as well because Karen Tanaka popped up in the office door right about that time.

“The boss asked me to bring you to the meeting,” Tanaka said. “I thought we could swing by the cafeteria first and get some coffee or something.”

“Or something.” Sharon stood up and refilled her mug. “Sounds good. Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about your laptop. Your assistant can bring it over before the meeting starts.”

“Sure.” Taking her mug, Sharon left the office. “Julie?”

“No problem.”

Sharon paused and looked at Tanaka. “Are you sure that’s okay? I got the impression from the guy that brought me the laptop that to let it out of my sight was tantamount to high treason.”

Tanaka laughed and rolled her eyes. “Consider Julie your second set of eyes.” She led the way down a nearby corridor. “By the way, who was your computer guy?”

“I have no idea,” said Sharon. “He never said his name. But he was tall and wore a dark suit.”

“Oh, that really narrows it down. They’re all tall and wear dark suits.”

“Ooh. Kinda creepy.”

“You said it.” Tanaka led Sharon through a pair of swinging double doors into a large, brightly-lit room with plastic and chrome tables and chair, and a steam table line at one end.

Tanaka went straight for the nook bearing air pots, other coffee paraphernalia and a basket piled high with plastic-wrapped Danish.

“The food’s pretty good here,” Tanaka said. “So’s the coffee, believe it or not. Turns out the boss is a coffee geek and a foodie. Rumor has it, he ran rough-shod over the budget office to get some real food in here and buys the coffee, himself.”

“A foodie, too, huh?” Sharon mused.

Tanaka turned on her. “You knew about the coffee?”

Sharon flushed. “It came up in the interview.”

Tanaka looked at Sharon’s mug and nodded. “You know, that doesn’t surprise me. He’s real good at making you feel right at home. With me, it was the food thing. We met at some campaign event at school, someone had set up this really bad sushi bar. And we both laughed at how trite it was. So when he called me in for the interview last December, he had brought in eel and octopus and some of the nicest sashimi you’ve ever tasted.” Tanaka filled a mug from one of the airpots. “The guy can even use chopsticks. He’ll be great if we get over to Asia. I’m kinda surprised he asked me to bring you to the meeting. He usually brings the newbies in, himself.”

“Really.” Sharon didn’t say anything more, but in the back of her mind, she decided she was relieved. If the president was still feeling the effects of that all too strange meeting, then she was perfectly happy he was keeping his distance.

Tanaka led her over to a table. “By the way, you played it perfectly with the Coop this morning.”

“I did?” Sharon sat down, trying to hide her fear.

“Oh, yeah.” Tanaka paused long enough to grab a few danishes from the basket and drop them on the table. “Here’s the thing. The idea behind the Advisory Board is interactivity.”

“Yeah, I’d heard.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’re all on the same page, opinion-wise. We all joke that the boss took Doris Kearns Goodwin too seriously.”

“Oh. You mean that historian who wrote that book about Lincoln’s cabinet.”

“Yeah, that Lincoln purposely stacked with people he didn’t agree with. The boss did the same, not only with the cabinet, but with the Advisory Board, too. Consider, you’ve got the Ed-man.”

“Dr. Eddington.”

Tanaka nodded. “Yeah. That guy is a hard-core Libertarian, for crying out loud. The only role for government is military and postal service, and he’d privatize the postal service if he thought he could. On the other end of the spectrum is Whitey, John Whitesand. Government should pay for everything. Both of these guys are hyper-intelligent, both are convinced they’re right. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Sharon hesitated. “I got the impression from Ms. Washington that everyone got along really well.”

“Whitey and the Ed-man are best friends.”

“Huh?”

“They are. That’s the genius of the Coop.” Tanaka stuffed half a danish in her mouth. “He was aiming at me, by the way. Guy can’t hit the broadside of a barn.”

“I don’t get it,” said Sharon, who had decided to abandon reason and was attacking another danish, herself.

“It’s all the practical jokes and teasing. So no one takes him or herself that seriously. Then it becomes all about the work. No one has to stick to their territory because their ego is at stake. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t agree with you because it’s not about you.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s like corporate games retreats.”

Tanaka laughed very loudly. “I’m sorry. It’s kind of the same idea, but I wouldn’t say so in front of the others.”

“Why not?”

Tanaka looked around and leaned in conspiratorially. “Because of Her. Marian Jefferson. The boss brought her in to run operations, and she’s really good. Kicked the stuffing out of the policy office and got it running worth something. And she actually got the budget office straightened out. And one of the ways she got those two offices working was that she had everyone, including the press office, do the corporate games thing.”

Sharon winced. “They are pretty effective.”

“And you look like you just tasted some bad wasabi.”

“I don’t really like them, myself.”

“None of us advisory folks do. It’s one of the reasons why the Ed-man works at home. So Ms. Jefferson finally tells the president that it’s only fair that the advisory group do the games and team-building thing.”

Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I’m getting the impression it didn’t go over well.”

“Ed-man flat out refused to show and sent out a notice to his staff that they didn’t have to, either. The rest of us dragged our sorry butts in that Saturday.” Tanaka shook her head and chuckled. “Coop was out and out docile, wouldn’t tease her, wouldn’t make faces, nothing. Until she gets us doing this stupid group project – we were supposed to build something out of snow. As soon as her back is turned, Coop says we should divide up into our respective sub-groups, each build our own fort and have a snowball fight. Ms. Jefferson had a cow. He just ignored her and we had the baddest snowball fight you ever saw. Coop damn near got frostbit when I rubbed his nose in it. That’s why he was aiming at me this morning. But that’s also how I know you played it right. He threatened to get you back. I’ve noticed. He doesn’t play jokes on people he doesn’t respect. He just ignores them. And advisory folks get that. We’re not here to toe the line and play nice. We’re here to think and to help the president get the best information he can get. Ed-man said it’s kinda like the Marines. They tear you down, then build you back up the way they want you. Coop tears you down, but then he builds you back up as part of something bigger than yourself.”

Sharon sat back. “Okay. That’s not quite what I expected, but that’s interesting.”

“Yep, but that’s part of the boss’s genius, too. He knows how to pick the right kind of people. We haven’t had a bad apple yet.”

Sharon stuffed back a momentary qualm then looked up at the clock. “Well, I guess it’s baptism of fire time.”

Tanaka grinned. “Good. You’re terrified. Coop will be so happy with me.”

Sharon laughed and followed Tanaka to the Advisory Board’s conference room. Julie was outside the door with Sharon’s laptop, which she handed to Sharon and then left. Sharon took a deep breath and entered the room.

The president had not yet arrived, but there was a laptop ready for him at the head of the table. The others had theirs open and ready, cords snaking across the table to a hole in the middle. Tanaka, whose own assistant had brought her laptop and a bag, took her place near the middle of the table, across from Eddie Cooper, who was smiling warmly. There was an empty chair next to him, closest to the head of the table, behind which a portrait of Abraham Lincoln hung on the wall. Across from the empty seat sat an elderly White man sitting ramrod straight, but rolling a pen in his fingers as if it were a cigarette.

Tanaka sat next to him, quietly crocheting some lace, and on her other side was a medium-sized man of Hispanic heritage and a decidedly boxy shape to him. He was doodling on a pad of paper next to his open laptop. Across from the Hispanic man was another who could have been his twin, except that he had the high cheekbones of a Native American. He was folding a piece of paper into what was starting to look like a bird of some sort.

“Greetings, newbie,” Coop said warmly and gesturing at the empty seat next to him. “Today, you get the seat of honor.”

“Why, thank you, Dr. Cooper,” Sharon replied.

As she sat, however, a very loud, very rude noise erupted from underneath her. Fortunately, Sharon had already set down her laptop. She paused.

“What do you know,” she said finally. “I’d call that at least a seven-pointer.” She got up and removed the whoopee cushion. “Frankly, Dr. Cooper, I’m disappointed in you.”

Coop’s eyebrows shot up. Sharon felt gratified that he had clearly not expected that response.

“A whoopee cushion?” she continued. “You can do better than that.”

She dropped the bladder in his lap as the rest of the board began breaking up.

“You are good, young lady,” Coop conceded between giggles. “But to the business at hand. Since our beloved fearless leader is currently detained, let me effect the introductions. Sitting directly across from you is Dr. Al Eddington, properly known in this forum as the Ed-man. Specialty the military, which is why he is sometimes known as the Warmonger. Next to him is Tanks, popular culture, whom you’ve met. Next to her is Augusto Guerrero, media specialist, properly known as Augie. Across from him is Whitey, aka John Whitesand, social justice. I specialize in economics. I am properly known as The Coop”

“The Chicken Coop,” said Augie, mildly. “And what shall we call you, Ms. Sharon Wheatly, specialist in world affairs?”

“Wheaties,” said Ed-man abruptly.

“Wheaties sounds good,” said Coop.

“As long as no one calls me Breakfast of Champions,” Sharon said.

“Why not?” Ed-man asked, insinuating that he had been thinking exactly that.

“Because you’re not getting any,” Sharon shot back.

“Ow!” howled Coop in joy. “The newbie scores big. And you’re already buying her lunch, Ed-man.”

“He is?” Sharon asked, eyeing Eddington.

“All I said was that I hoped you had good legs,” Ed-man replied.

“He’s an unrepentant sexist,” Tanks sighed.

At that moment, the door was opened by Gen Forrest. The rest recognized their cue and immediately go to their feet, Sharon scrambling to hers somewhat belatedly. It was just as well. The second she saw Mark, her heart skipped a beat in spite of herself.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” the group sing-songed together.

“Good morning, children, and how are we today?” Mark went to his place and sat down.

The others followed his lead. Mark noticed with a sudden jump in his stomach that Sharon was sitting next to him. It was where newbies and part-timers always landed. But he desperately hoped that the sudden dance going on in his gut wasn’t obvious to any of the others.

All seemed relatively normal. Mark deeply appreciated the balance between the respect for the office and the protocols, which oddly enough Al Eddington had been the one to insist on, and the friendly irreverence that put it all into perspective.

The meeting went on, as usual. There were a couple reports sent in from some of the part-time advisors to go over. No one had been expecting Sharon to give a report, but she had one ready and was able to back it up for the Ed-man when he questioned one aspect of it.

It broke up just before lunch, and in spite of her lunch date, Sharon lingered behind as the others filed out ahead of her and the president.

“Sir, Ms. Washington just sent me an email asking me to brief you later this afternoon on next week’s visit from the French foreign minister,” she said.

“I saw that. Kent’s got it set up for 3:45. Will that work?” he said.

“I serve at your pleasure, sir.”

Mark’s shoulders fell. “I know.” He glanced at her. “I never could pull off the autocratic thing.”

“It’s not usually that effective as a management style.” Sharon smiled at him softly. “If you’ll excuse me, sir. I’m supposed to go to lunch with the board.”

He smiled back, with an odd sadness in his eyes. “Yeah. Well, have fun.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Ms. Wheatly?”

“Yes, sir?”

“You like them?”

“Sir?”

“The other board members. Do you like them?”

Sharon looked into his soft green eyes, not quite sure why he was asking. She briefly debated trying to put a glossy spin on the situation, then decided that not only did she not have to, he really wanted her honest opinion.

“I do. They’re pretty intense and kinda rowdy, but I think that’s what I like about them.”

“Then I guess that means you’ll be around for a while.”

“Yes, sir. I will.”

“Good.” Mark turned away. Beyond the normal concerns involved in working the political game effectively, Mark seldom worried about what others thought of him or his decisions. But why Wheatly’s opinion should matter, he couldn’t understand, except that it did, especially if it meant she was going to be around. “I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

“I’ll see you then. Oh. Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for the Kenyan and the other stuff. It was really thoughtful of you.”

Mark smiled. “You’re welcome, but be careful. The others seem to think the coffee thing borders on the unstable.”

Sharon chuckled. “And they should know from unstable. I guess since I’ll be out, I could swing by K-Street Koffee and pick up some extra beans.”

“Ethiopian Yrga Cheffe?” Mark’s eyes lit up. “City roast?”

“Done.”

Sharon left the room wondering why she had made such a silly offer. It wasn’t like the president couldn’t pick up the phone and get exactly what he wanted. But at the same time, it dawned on her that he couldn’t just go down to the coffee store and pick the beans up, himself, either. She shuddered. All the more reason to keep distance from him. And yet he was so sweet. And lonely.

From: swheatly@whithouse.gov

To: niecybagdha@indonet.in, ladycarla@freemail.com

Subject: New Email, Etc.

Dear Niecy and Carla;

Sorry it’s taken so long for me to get an email off to you guys. We had a little bit of a problem with the super secure wireless that’s currently installed at the house. Hope you don’t mind the upgrade, Carla. But naturally, it was so secure, I couldn’t get online at all. The nice thing about having the Secret Service as part of your tech support team, however, is that you get really fast service. I can get online with both my work and my personal laptop, although since the work one is so nice, I suspect I’m not going to be doing much on my old one.

I’m mostly sending this so you guys have my work email. I’ll still be using the personal one, but occasionally, I might have a professional question for you guys.

Well, the first day at work was pretty interesting. I’m really going to like it here. It’s intense and the rest of the board is scary smart, but they’re a lot of fun and the whole point is not to take yourself too seriously.

As for the president, don’t bother asking. Yes, I had that little heart flutter, but that is so not going anywhere. Maybe in eight years, but don’t count on it. He’s too busy and I do not want to give up my privacy.

Let me know what’s going on with you guys.

Sharon

Sharon Wheatly

World Affairs Advisor

The White House

Washington, DC.

To: swheatly531@freemail.com

From: niecybagdha@indo.net

Subject: So Not Going Anywhere?

Bullsh*t.

Love, Niecy

Chapter Two

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

Pull Quote from romance fiction serial White House Rhapsody, "think we can try to just stay friends for the next eight years?"

When Kent Jeffries called to tell Sharon she had an interview at the White House, she was only mildly surprised. She’d heard that the various cabinet offices had been helping the White House hire staffers in their respective fields.

Her first week in Washington had been relatively relaxed. It had only taken three phone calls and two lunches to secure her meeting with Mr. Wallace at the State Department. She’d been a little surprised when Ms. Fritsch had called and requested an interview, but since things were done somewhat differently in the public sector, one had to expect it.

Still, a meeting at the White House. Sharon had to work to keep a professional demeanor as she signed in at the West Gate.

“Mr. Jeffries?” asked the guard, slightly incredulously.

“Yes, Mr. Kent Jeffries.”

“I’ll have to call on that.” He turned and dialed a phone. “Mr. Jeffries, I got a Sharon Wheatly here. Says she’s here to see you… Oh. I’ll do that. Very good, sir.”

The guard turned back to Sharon and started pulling together the visitor badge and all the other necessary paperwork. Sharon wondered why the guard was so surprised that she wanted to see Mr. Jeffries.

Another guard escorted her to the West Wing, and she couldn’t help giggling with excitement as she walked through the majestic corridors. Jeffries’ desk appeared to be in an outer office and Jeffries, himself, was short, pudgy, with dark, curly hair, glasses and the attitude absolutely necessary for a good gate-keeper. He barely glanced up from his computer as the guard introduced Sharon.

“How do you do, Mr. Jeffries,” she began.

“You’re not here to see me,” he said abruptly as if she should have known that. His voice was as sharp and nasal as his appearance bespoke.

“All you said on the phone was that you were from the White House and that I had an interview for today at this time,” Sharon said, putting as much authority into her voice as she could.

It was a considerable amount of authority – she had terrified middle managers all over the world with that tone. Nonetheless, Jeffries remained unaffected.

“You’re here to see the president,” he said, his eyes still glued to his monitor as his fingers rattled the keyboard.

Sharon’s heart stopped. Something tugged at the back of her brain suggesting that she should know why, but the shock of hearing who her interviewer was kept the suggestion at bay. There may have been a small betraying tremor, but her outward appearance remained cool. She’d been swimming with the corporate sharks far too long to give anything away that she didn’t need to. That didn’t mean her insides weren’t roiling.

She took multiple, discreet, deep breaths, which didn’t help at all when the intercom buzzed.

“Kent, I’m ready for the candidate now,” said a voice that was more than a little familiar.

Mark was trying to get a couple more seconds in on the latest briefing on pork belly subsidies when Kent announced Ms. Sharon Wheatly and shut the door. He glanced over the top of his tablet and saw legs. Shapely legs. He lowered the tablet and looked over the new candidate. She was wearing a suit, a lighter blue than you mostly saw on The Hill, and while it looked perfectly business-like, there was something else about it. The shape of the jacket was different – which Mark guessed meant it had style, something his sister, June, would have thumped him for missing.

Wheatly looked to be in her early 30s, and her blonde hair was pulled back instead of cut short and hair-sprayed out. But it was her eyes and her face… Standing on the other side of the room, it was hard to tell what color her eyes actually were, just that they were dark. But there was something about her.

Sharon, for her part, saw him appraising her and began to bristle, only to realize she’d been looking him over, too. He was so much better looking in person. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown hair that was just long enough on top to run her fingers through. And his eyes, which were a rich green, and something about the square jaw.

A third voice cleared itself.

“It’s good to meet you, Ms. Wheatly,” Mark said, coming around the desk. “This is Johnetta Washington, my chief of staff.”

Sharon propelled herself forward to shake hands first with the president, then with Ms. Washington.

“Good to meet you, sir. Ma’am,” Sharon replied.

“Please have a seat,” Mark continued. “Would you like some coffee?”

He dashed to the credenza next to the door. Sharon followed his gesture to the sofa in the middle of the room and sat down next to Ms. Washington.

“It’s Ethiopian,” Mark continued, painfully aware that he was chattering and helpless to stop himself. He filled three cups from a thermal pitcher on the credenza. “One of my guilty secrets. I get my own custom roast done.”

“K Street Koffee?” Sharon smiled, relieved and excited. Coffee geek-speak she could do.

“Yeah. Who else?” Mark grinned.

“I love them,” Sharon said. “It’s the only place in town I can get Kenyan Double-A that hasn’t been roasted to within an inch of its life.”

Mark handed her a filled cup. “Cecil is amazing. He did some Sumatran Mandheling for me that is beyond belief.”

Sharon sipped as he gave Johnetta her cup. Johnetta glared at him meaningfully as she reached for the cream and sugar on the coffee table in front of her.

“This is so good,” Sharon said. “Maybe just a little sugar to bring out the berry notes?”

“Please.” Mark grinned again, then turned to his desk. “Let me get your resume.”

Sharon noted that there was no paper on the desk and wondered where the resume was. Mark grabbed the tablet computer, then bringing his cup, came around and sat down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table.

“So, you’re looking to join us from the private sector,” he said, after tapping the tablet and giving the resume a quick glance. “Why the change?”

It wasn’t the question he’d intended to ask and he caught Johnetta looking at him quizzically. Sharon, however, had expected that question, and had her answer ready, but it wasn’t what came out of her mouth.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said instead. “I mean, public service. Growing up, all my friends wanted to be models, actors, CEOs. I wanted to be a diplomat, work all over the world, bring people together.”

“And you can’t do that on the corporate side?”

“Not really.” Sharon shrugged. “I guess you can. I just got so tired of the petty egos, the power games.”

“And you’re coming to Washington to get away from that?” Mark looked at her, bemused.

“Naturally.” Sharon laughed. “I know it sounds a little out of the frying pan into the fire. But at least, here, I can pretend that I’m doing some good, making the world a better place.”

“Indeed.” Mark looked over at Johnetta and nodded.

“This is a report on some trade issues with Kuwait,” Johnetta said, handing Sharon another tablet computer. “It was prepared by one of our staffers.”

Sharon looked it over and shook her head. “Well, someone’s not watching Al Jazeera.”

“I’m sure my staff does,” said Mark.

“Yeah, the English version,” Sharon said, looking him square in the face. She pointed to a spot on the screen. “This is a common mistranslation. It’s not at all consistent with what I’ve been seeing in the original Arabic.”

“That’s right.” Mark looked at the resume again. “That’s one of your ten languages.”

He looked over at Johnetta.

“What she’s saying makes sense given the intel we got this morning,” Johnetta said.

“So how many of those ten languages are you fluent in?” Mark asked.

“All of them,” Sharon said. “That’s why I put them on the resume. I haven’t taken the proficiency tests at State yet, so I don’t know if I qualify as an official translator.” She paused. “But I’ve been able to run circles around most of the embassy translators I’ve run into.”

“Fluent in ten languages.” Mark smiled and looked over at Johnetta, who was smiling. “And I thought I was doing well, fumbling through with high school Spanish.”

“For most Americans, you are,” Sharon said. “I’ve just been multi-lingual all my life. My mom’s from the French-speaking part of Belgium. My dad’s American. And we had a Mexican nanny. So I’ve been speaking English, French and Spanish as long as I can remember. Then we moved to Germany when I was seven, so I learned German, and Italian, when we moved there. By that point, I realized I wanted to join the diplomatic corps, so I learned Russian and Japanese. And started taking Chinese around then, too. And learned Hebrew and Arabic. My biggest weakness is the African languages. I’ve only got a smattering in a couple. Although I’m working on learning Igbo. Nigeria is one of those up and coming areas.”

“Oh, it is,” said Mark, somewhat ruefully.

The suggestion that had tugged at Sharon’s brain earlier suddenly popped up front and center.

“Is this about taking Andy Shepherd’s job?” she asked suddenly.

Johnetta sat up straight. “You mean you didn’t know what this was about?”

“No. No one said anything about any specific job,” Sharon said. “When I went in to talk to Mr. Wallace, over at the State Department, last week, it was just an informational interview. Then Mrs. Fritsch called, but she never said anything about any specific job, and all she wanted to talk about was my past work. So I thought she was just trying to place me, and since I wasn’t going after any specific position, I didn’t ask. So I didn’t know what to think when Mr. Jeffries called. He didn’t even say who I’d be interviewing with.”

“Really,” said Mark, looking over at Johnetta.

“I’ll speak to Kent,” Johnetta said. “I’m sorry about that, Ms. Wheatly. Since our process is geared at finding the right people, we try to strip any potentially prejudicial information off resumes and the like. Although in the effort to not get too much information, we sometimes let out too little. More to the point, are you interested in the position?”

“Are you kidding? Talk about my dream job!” Sharon sat back and paused to gather herself together.

“It’s more a research position,” Mark said. “I’m afraid it’s not to advise on policy, per se.”

“I understand. That’s why you have the Secretary of State.”

“Right. The World Affairs Advisor mostly just keeps me updated on what’s going on around the world,” Mark said. “We’ll be meeting twice a week with the other advisors, plus whenever I need additional briefings.”

“Pure research,” sighed Sharon. “Sounds wonderful.”

The intercom buzzed. “Mr. President, the members of the River Barge Commission are waiting in the Map Room for their meeting with you.”

“I’ll be right there, Kent,” Mark addressed the air behind him, then looked at Johnetta. “River Barge Commission?”

“Essay contest grip and grin,” she replied.

“Oh, right.” He stood and Sharon and Johnetta stood with him. “Well, Ms. Wheatly, it really was a pleasure. I’ve got to go through channels, but we’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sharon answered, shaking his hand. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He buzzed the intercom. “Kent, will you escort Ms. Wheatly to the gate, please?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you.” He looked up. “Thank you, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sharon turned and left the room.

Mark looked over at Johnetta. “What the hell just happened there?”

“You don’t know?” Johnetta smiled. “Well, I’m not going to tell you, then. But the bad news is, you’ve got to hire her. She’s the only one who’s stood up to you.”

“I know,” Mark said softly.

“Come on.” Johnetta gently took his arm. “Let’s go smile pretty for the river barge people.”

Sharon managed to hang onto her cool just long enough to get out on the street and down the block. She checked the time on her mobile phone and did some quick math. It was mid-morning in Washington, so it was evening in New Delhi and likely that Niecy was still up.

Sharon and Niecy were best friends at the all-too-exclusive Swiss college prep they’d gone to. But unlike most of their classmates, she and Niecy had remained close over the years, in spite of usually being on two different continents at any given time. Sharon briefly debated calling her mother, but it was too early in California for Madeleine to be awake enough to hear her.

Sharon dialed and hoped like crazy Niecy wasn’t out raiding brothels for underage sex slaves that night. Niecy’s day job, as she called it, was as assistant minister of education for India. But being the idealist she was, Niecy was just as likely to be out trying to save as many young girls as she could.

Niecy picked up at the first ring.

“Hallo, Sharon,” she said, cheerfully. “Did you have your interview?”

“Yes,” Sharon warbled in spite of herself.

“Was the White House as exciting as you thought it would be?”

“Way more.” And Sharon gushed out what had happened in the interview. “It was horrible, Niecy! And wonderful. I mean, there he is, checking me out and all I can think is that he’s so gorgeous and so sweet. There’s just something about this guy.”

“And what did he think about you?”

“How should I know?” Sharon groaned. “Wait. He said he had to go through channels, but that we’d be in touch.”

“That sounds very good for you, then.”

Sharon froze. “Niecy, I can’t take that job.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” Niecy was trying not to laugh. “It is your dream job. You have to take it if it’s offered.”

“Not that it will be. It’s totally the sort of job for old men with PhDs.”

This time, Niecy did laugh. “Sharon, you have out-witted any number of old men with PhDs, and a host of other credentials, too. You should take the job.”

“But I can’t. There’s just something about him. It’s begging for disaster. I can so see myself falling for him.”

“You’ve done that before and it worked out quite nicely, as I recall.”

“This time, it’s completely different. I’ve never had a man affect me this way. It’s scary, Niecy.”

“Are you afraid he won’t feel the same about you?”

“That would make it so much easier.”

“Then what’s the trouble? It’s easy if he doesn’t like you. And if he does, well, you could do a lot worse than a very handsome president of the United States, who, I have heard, is also very kind and very intelligent.”

“He certainly lived up to that.” Sharon found a bench and flopped onto it. “It would be a disaster. All my privacy, completely gone. I told you about that time with Michael’s video. It was horrible. People look at me enough, Niecy. Imagine if they had reason to look”

“That would not be very nice, I agree. But, Sharon, you will never get a better opportunity than this. It would be absolutely crazy to turn it down. And just think, you can work a couple years at the White House, and after that, you can do whatever you would like to for the rest of your life. You might be able to get an ambassadorship, or join a think tank. My goodness, dear, the world will be lining up to take you on, and you can entirely dictate your own terms. You can’t turn that down.”

“All I wanted was to travel a bit and then settle down with my books and some cats.”

“Or you could do that, too. But it will be a lot more comfortable after working at the White House, I assure you.”

“You can say that again. He’s a coffee geek.”

“And there you have it. You have something in common.”

Sharon sighed. “Just what I don’t need.”

On Sundays, after attending the obligatory church service, Mark made brunch for his sister, June, who was in residence at the White House to do all the things a first lady would do had Mark been married. It was a not entirely satisfactory arrangement since June was the very successful owner and designer of a clothing company based out of New York, which meant she had other things to do besides open pre-schools and champion non-controversial causes. So Mark, who enjoyed cooking, made his sister a nice brunch every Sunday morning.

The Sunday after his meeting with Sharon, he put together a ham steak, with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, some stone-ground grits, and a maple brioche.

“You look happy,” June observed as they began to eat.

Her hair was blondish and short and her eyes deep blue. Although June had never modeled, her face had the sort of symmetry one associated with fashion models. She also had the stature and figure of a runway model. Rumor had it, she had an eating disorder, but the rumor was only partly correct. She was a recovering anorexic, and even though she was over fifteen years into her recovery, she still did not eat a lot.

“Okay.” Mark scrunched his face as he tasted the asparagus. “I don’t think I put enough butter in the hollandaise. It tastes too lemony.”

“The hollandaise is perfect, as always. I said you look happy.”

“And…?”

“Well, not so happy, so I know you’re not getting any.”

Mark glared at his sister. “No, I’m not getting any. And I wouldn’t discuss it with you if I were.”

June looked him over more carefully. “But something’s going on. You’re happy. I noticed it Friday, at the press conference.”

“So?”

“If I noticed, then you know who else did.”

“Oh.” Mark stopped eating as he considered what June had really been saying.

It was something they seldom talked about and when they did, it was almost always in the most oblique terms.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said finally. “And if I don’t, then she doesn’t have anything to go on.”

“Since when has that stopped her?” June delicately cut a bite of ham. “I’m already hearing whispers about Kelly Won.”

“I haven’t seen her in over five years.” Mark turned back to his meal, his appetite somewhat soured.

June shrugged. “Well, like I said… And besides, the way you’re claiming to live like a hermit while you’re in office, she may be assuming you’re bluffing.”

“She’ll have to assume. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t stop seeing someone that I’m not seeing in the first place.”

“Okay. But don’t be surprised if it gets ugly again.”

“I’m never surprised when it gets ugly,” Mark sighed.

He tried to stay cheerful, but June’s observation had him nettled. He really wasn’t seeing anybody. It was true that it did tend to show when he was, even when he didn’t say anything. But there was no woman in his life at that moment.

Except the previous Thursday morning, he had met a very lovely – he corrected himself –

a very competent, amazingly intelligent, very sweet woman. June was watching him.

“I’m not seeing anyone,” he said.

But he had been vaguely concerned about hiring Ms. Wheatly. Johnetta was pushing him to make it final and he had been putting her off, saying the final background check needed to be completed. And there was no question, she was the best for the job.

But there was something about her that just made him feel good. The trouble was, if June could see it, then to let Ms. Wheatly anywhere near him was to leave her vulnerable and exposed. He’d seen it happen before, even as far back as when he was in the state legislature, and it had been bad. And those kinds of attacks were the sort that would seriously compromise her effectiveness as an advisor.

He was still debating what to do about the situation on Monday morning when Johnetta cornered him after their first briefing of the day.

“Sir, you’ve got to make a decision and you know Wheatly is your best candidate,” Johnetta said.

“Yes and no, Johnnie,” Mark said.

“What are you talking about? The background check came through and she’s as clean as a whistle, even with past relationships.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mark started twisting the buttons on his suit coat sleeve.

“Hands in your pocket, Sir.”

Mark sighed and put his hands on the desk. “It’s just… I’m not sure how to say this.”

Johnetta’s eyes rolled. “We always said, the best person for the job, no matter what. You’ve got to hire Wheatly.”

“I don’t want to see her made into a target for the media.”

“Well, there is that.”

“It won’t help her effectiveness.”

“Possibly.” Johnetta sighed, getting up and heading for her special door. “I think you oughta just let the media and Ms. Wheatly work it out on their own. Anyway, it’s time to get going. You’ve got the milk lobby coming in and I’ve got a ton of phone calls to make.” She opened the door and paused. “Jugs, go ahead and hire Wheatly. I’ve got a feeling she’ll be good for you.”

Mark smiled at the use of his old nickname, then sighed. “Good for me, huh? I’m afraid that may be exactly the problem.”

“Then make it the solution,” Johnetta said, then left the office.

Mark took a deep breath, then had Kent summon Sharon Wheatly to the Oval Office that very afternoon.

Sharon knew she was definitely more nervous as the guard escorted her from the guard house. Kent barely glanced at her from his desk, then pushed the intercom.

“Mr. President, Ms. Wheatly is here.”

“Please send her in.”

That raised Kent’s eyebrows, but he just glanced at Sharon and nodded toward the door.

He was alone in the office and standing behind his desk. Sharon tried not to gulp, but her insides were going again, only this time it had nothing to do with nerves.

“Hi,” Mark said softly.

There she was, this time in a dark gray dress. Her hair was up and her eyes, yes, her eyes were definitely a deep, rich brown.

“Hi,” she replied.

“Uh, please sit down.” He gestured to the couch, then waited for her to sit before sitting in the chair across from her.

“Thank you,” Sharon said.

“Well, about this job thing,” Mark started slowly, looking everywhere but at her.

“Yeah, about that.” Sharon sighed deeply.

“Yeah.” Mark swallowed. “I think we both know we have a little problem with that.”

Sharon nodded. “Without question.” She looked at him and the words came tumbling out. “Look, it’s not you. I mean, obviously, it’s you. But you, as a person, are not why I can’t do this. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“I think so. You don’t want to date the boss.”

“Oh no. I don’t care about that.” Sharon flushed. “I’ve dated my boss before. It wasn’t any big deal and we broke up and worked together for another year before I left. Everybody knew about it and nobody cared.”

“Only this time, it’s different.”

“Way different. You’re… It’s all this.” Sharon waved her hands to indicate the office. “I couldn’t take the publicity. It’s happened before. I’ve had my fifteen minutes of fame and it was the worst time of my life, bar none. I never want to go through that again.”

Mark nodded, suddenly feeling very relieved. “I can understand that, I think. And you’ve got a point. Which has really put me on the horns of a dilemma. Ms. Wheatly, I need the work you can do. You are my top candidate several times over.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Sharon blurted out. “Your personal advisors are almost all PhDs and older.”

“And not one of the folks I’ve been considering has your breadth of interest, your language skills, and most importantly, your sense of humor and your willingness to stand me down.”

“Mr. President, I can’t take this job!” Sharon squeaked, then fought to get control again. After all, she was a professional, an executive who had faced down CEOs all over the world. So what was it about this guy that had her acting like she was in high school all of a sudden?

“Yes, you can,” Mark said. “Because I don’t want you to get any publicity, either.”

“What?”

Mark got up and started pacing. “I’m not sure how to say this. But I think it’s a fairly safe and objective observation that you are an attractive woman. And, as you have just pointed out, when an attractive woman gets around me, people tend to talk about it and she gets photographed and well, you know how it goes.”

“All too well.”

“Which is why putting you in the public eye would not be good. That kind of talk can be very hard on your credibility and I can’t have that in an advisor.”

“Which is why I can’t take the job.”

“That’s exactly why you need to.” Mark turned and grinned at her.

Sharon felt her mouth open and then close. “That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Mark returned to his chair and leaned forward. “I’m laying the cards on the table, consequences be damned. There’s something going on here. You. Me. I can barely breathe, there’s so much electricity going on.”

“Me, either,” Sharon said softly.

“And obviously, there are some significant obstacles for both of us in terms of a personal relationship. For you, there’s the publicity. For me, well, let’s just say it’s a similar issue. But if we were working together, it would be out there. It would be public, true. But there would be witnesses that nothing is going on. We’re co-workers and nothing else. No story. And it will be very hard to sustain those kinds of rumors for any length of time.”

“I doubt that,” said Sharon.

Mark shrugged. “Maybe not. But without concrete evidence, it would be very hard for the media to keep it going.”

“Possibly.” Sharon felt herself weakening. “But, since the cards are on the table, what about a personal relationship? Is that definitely out?”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” Sharon winced. “I mean, I guess, this whole frisson thing between us. That’s sweet and romantic and all. But… I’m really messed up. There’s part of me that could easily do the whole romantic, falling in love thing. And I’d really want to if it weren’t for the fact that this will not be an easy breakup.”

Mark sighed. “I’m at least as messed up. I wasn’t joking during the debates when I said the last thing I was interested in was getting romantically involved while I was in office. This job is 24/7. It’s consuming like nothing else on the planet. I literally have to turn the lights out in the West Wing so folks will go home.” He paused. “But then you walked into my office, and if this is what a ton of bricks feels like, then, yeah, I got hit with them.” He looked at her. “I can’t do a relationship right now.”

“And I don’t want to risk it.” Sharon sighed. “The only thing worse would be giving you up.”

“I know.” Mark looked at her hopefully. “Think we can try to stay just friends for the next eight years?”

Sharon laughed sadly. “Do you honestly think that’s possible?”

He shrugged. “It’s possible. The work is pretty consuming, and I can’t imagine having that much time to, well, do the relationship thing, in the first place.”

“I suppose. And my Tante Berthilde always says if it’s going to last, no need to rush into it.”

“Fine. We’ll just take things really, really slowly and focus on keeping a platonic friendship between co-workers.” He stood. “So, you’ll take the job, then?”

She stood. “I guess so.”

He grinned. “Then, in the name of platonic friendship, let’s have some coffee.”

Sharon looked over at the credenza where the thermal pot was. “Ethiopian Harrar?”

“Nope. Sumatran.” Mark showed her a white ceramic crock and popped open the seal.

Sharon sniffed the beans and sighed happily. “That’s Cecil’s work, all right.”

“Yep. I’ve got the burr grinder right here. And I’ve got to buzz Johnnie. Do you mind doing the grind? For French press?”

“No problem. Where’s your water?”

“There’s an instant heat kettle.” Mark went over to his desk and buzzed. “Johnnie, need you to come in with Ms. Wheatly’s paperwork, please. And bring your mug.”

Johnetta appeared moments later, then stepped back in shock as Sharon expertly operated the grinder.

“Perfect,” Mark said, readying the carafe with the special plunger attachment that would separate the coffee from the grounds. “Sumatran mandheling, Johnnie.”

“Sumatran? And you let Ms. Wheatly touch your grinder?” Johnnie said.

Mark paused, looking guilty. “Uh, kindred spirits on the coffee front.”

Sharon caught his eyes and nodded. Discretion was in order. Already.

Inez Santiago angrily snapped her mobile phone shut and glared out at the New York City traffic.

“Mi amor?” Michael Wheatly asked, softly.

He was sitting next to her in the back seat of the limo, gently strumming his six-string classical guitar. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown eyes in a perfectly balanced face, topped off by blond hair that he was wearing a little on the longish side for the time being. Inez smiled softly at him in spite of her profound irritation. As stunningly handsome as Michael was, people were always going to be looking at him. But as long as he kept his shirt on and his hair straight, people were not as likely to recognize him.

“That was Bryce,” Inez told him.

“I got that.”

“He’s going to release that song for Sharon as the single off the new album whether we want him to or not.

Michael nodded. “I got that, too.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “Your sister is not going to like it.”

“It doesn’t mention her by name.”

“But you know how skittish she is.”

“Better than you do, amada.”

Inez shook her head and looked out at the traffic again. She hated limos and Michael did even more than she. But trying to drive through Manhattan after a very long flight was madness and a limo was more comfortable than a taxi.

It had been a dream trip. Michael’s career – which had never completely stalled – was bouncing back to life again, and the previous year had been jam-packed, at best. Then there had been the holidays – a tense week with her family, and after that, the happy, noisy chaos of his. Getting away, just the two of them together, for a month in Australia had been heaven.

Only now, they were home. Not her home. Not even his, really. They had bought a new place together – Michael’s idea. After five years together, it was about time.

“Bryce is an asshole,” Inez said quietly.

“We’ve known that for years,’ Michael replied.

“Thank God you’ve only got one more album on that contract.”

Michael shrugged. “And then what?”

“You’ve got a name. We could go independent and you’ll still get air time on the radio. Maybe we could get a special website going. Besides, by the time you get that last album made, who knows what the business will be like by then? You may never have to make a whole album at a time again.”

Michael strummed some more. “Who cares? I’m betting it’s not Bryce that’s got you on edge, anyway.”

Inez fidgeted with the cell phone.

“Am I right?” Michael asked.

“Close enough.”

“We don’t have to do this. I can buy you out of your share of the apartment.”

“And then what?” Inez smiled softly at him. “We can’t go back to the way it was before, Miguel, even if I wasn’t managing you. If I wait ‘til I’m ready, we’ll both be in our graves.”

“I thought you not being ready was why we’re not married.” Michael grinned.

Inez lightly punched his upper arm. “One step at a time, amado. Let me get used to living with you, first.”

And, sure enough, the limo pulled up in front of the Upper East Side apartment building and stopped. Inez caught her breath as Michael smiled and took her hand.

“There’s no getting used to me,” he chuckled. “But we can and will make it work.”

White House Rhapsody Chapter One

Quite a few years ago, I had a problem. I had a sweet romance novel, filled with engaging characters. But it was pretty long and the story refused to end. Plus it was really episodic in nature. Enter the Internet, and I turned it into a romantic fiction serial blog just for the fun of it.

Then I started serializing some of my fiction here on my main site and eventually it just didn’t make sense to keep a whole different site just for this one serial. So, I’m moving it here and to celebrate and help my newer fans catch up, I’m starting the story over – not in short episodes, but in chapter format. I’ll be alternating this blog with the Operation Quickline series and perhaps some of my science fiction and fantasy.

But now, for your reading enjoyment, I present Chapter One of White House Rhapsody.

At the sound of the mechanized gong, Sharon Wheatly looked up from her book and saw that the “fasten seatbelt” sign was on.

“Ladies and gentleman,” announced the flight attendant’s voice. “The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign for our final descent into Ronald Reagan National Airport. At this time, will you please make sure your tray tables are locked and that your seatbacks are in the upright position. Thank you for joining us on our flight and we hope you have a pleasant stay in our nation’s capital.”

A pleasant stay, indeed. Sharon thumped the cover of the paperback in her hand and looked out the window at the frozen ground below. Washington, DC, was having a rather mild February and there were patches of dirty earth between the white patches of snow on the mall and around the Jefferson Memorial. The barren cherry trees along the Potomac looked black against the steel-gray water.

The man next to her glanced at the Flemish title of her paperback again and smiled at her in that dumb way people did when they couldn’t speak a language. When he and Sharon had boarded in Los Angeles, he was on his mobile phone, talking to Steve (whoever that was) in such a way as to make sure both Steve and Sharon knew that he was a terribly important person. For someone in his early 40s, it was more than a little pathetic. Sharon got out her book promptly. By the time the man had hung up, she was engrossed in the silly romance and he had decided she didn’t speak English. The book had done its job well.

Normally, when reading for relaxation, Sharon preferred reading English, French or Spanish – her first languages, as she often joked, since she couldn’t remember a time when she couldn’t speak all three. But Tante Berthilde had sent the Flemish title because of Sharon’s younger sister Susan, who had been going on for over a month now about the stars aligning in Sharon’s favor. And the romance was based on a bunch of stars aligning, which was why her aunt had sent the book, even though most French-speaking Belgians pretty much had no use for Flemish, Berthilde included.

And if Sharon actually believed in such things, she would have had to agree that if not the stars, then something was aligning itself right in her life. The recent election, her old company deciding to re-structure, her friend Carla’s new job, even Susan’s accident, as devastating as that had been, all had worked together to make it an auspicious time to make the move to D.C. and the public sector.

Sharon braced herself as the plane bounced down onto the runway and shuddered as the jet engines reversed themselves to slow down. The man next to her already had his mobile phone out, then suddenly bent over toward her.

“Look, we could meet,” he said suddenly, and slowly. “I could show you…” he pointed at her. “Around Washington?” He twirled his finger.

Sharon smiled, trying to make up her mind whether to respond in English, which would make him feel appropriately stupid for making assumptions but would open up the possibility that he’d continue hitting on her or to continue to play dumb. Apparently, playing dumb was the right move, because he smiled back weakly and started dialing his phone. A minute later, the plane had barely docked at the gate and he was out of his seat and grabbing his carry-on from the overhead compartment.

Sharon sighed. Hers was the kind of problem it was impossible to complain about. Men saw her slender figure, naturally blonde full hair and her soft face and inevitably assumed she had no greater desire than to be hit on. Which is why the stupid ones inevitably did. The geeks usually stared openly, which was embarrassing enough. But the covert appraisals were the most annoying. And the jealous glares from the women.

She mostly ignored the looks while waiting for her luggage. She was used to ignoring them, but it still felt uncomfortable to be looked at.

Sharon heaved her two suitcases off the conveyor and then paused just long enough to get her coat on. She was wearing a fairly heavy sweater over her jeans and boots, but she already knew how chilly D.C. was in comparison to Los Angeles. Coat on and her carry-on slung over her shoulder, Sharon Wheatly stepped out of the air terminal and into her new life.

Mark Jerguessen, on the other hand, was taking a moment to wish fervently for his old life. He gazed out over the frozen White House grounds – a view limited to the chosen few. And now he was one of them. In fact, at not quite 40, he was among the youngest and one of the few that were single when they got elected.

“Mr. President?”

Mark winced inwardly, wondering if he’d ever get used to being addressed that way.

“Yeah, Johnnie.” He turned to his chief of staff.

Johnetta Washington, slender with dark, dark skin and short cropped hair, generally had the attitude of an established church mother about to give the young new pastor what for. Mark had chosen her as his chief of staff precisely because he could count on her to give him what for at any given time. But ever since he’d taken the oath of office, Johnnie had been treating him with the correct deference most of the time. He was trying not to mind.

“Did you hear what I said just now?” Johnnie asked.

Mark turned into the Oval Office from the window. “We were talking about replacing Andy Shepherd, and yeah, two weeks is enough time to show respect for his passing, especially since we really, really need a world affairs advisor. Go ahead and call the State Department and get the interviews started. Same process as we did last December.”

“Call State about interviews.” Johnnie finished the note on her tablet and became a little more relaxed. “You doing okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.” Mark stopped and shrugged. “Mostly. You know, I expected the pressure. But I didn’t get the isolation, all the protocols.” He shook his head. “It’s just getting used to it, is all.”

Johnnie’s eyebrows raised mischievously. “Be careful what you wish for?”

Mark chuckled. “You’re the one who always told me to dream big. And now we’re both paying for it.”

Johnnie laughed. “And how. I’ve got a meeting with Jean and the rest of the media team in about…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes ago. Any extra thoughts on the education proposal?”

“Yeah. I was making some notes before the photo session earlier.” Mark looked at his desk and sighed. “They cleared it off for the session.”

In spite of Mark’s best efforts to be transparent, his staff had a whole list of deep, dark “secrets” that it would be better to keep from the American people, not the least his tendency to keep a host of electronic gadgets and other toys on his desk. Mark punched the intercom.

“Ms. Forrest, I need my desk stuff back, please,” he announced.

“Yes, Mr. President,” replied his personal assistant. Fresh out of college and almost annoyingly eager, Gen Forrest’s job was to hold his coat, open doors, pay for things, run errands and do all the things the leader of the free world used to do for himself, but could no longer do because he was the leader of the free world.

Another line buzzed on the intercom. “Mr. President, Senator Mendoza is here.”

“And I’m leaving,” said Johnnie, heading for the door that led to her office.

“Thank you, Kent,” Mark said to the intercom. “Would you have Mr. Arlen join us, please? And hold the Senator until Mr. Arlen arrives.”

“He’s here now, Mr. President,” replied Kent. “Please remember you have a meeting with the Farmer’s Union in half an hour.”

“Thank you, Kent.”

Mark sat down at the imposing desk that had served numerous other presidents since the mid-19th Century as Ms. Forrest brought in the laptop, emailer, e-reader, tablet computer and other such items that had been earlier removed for the photo session

IM Session

swheatly531: Hi, Carla. So, have you gotten over your jet lag yet? How is Lagos?

ladycarla: Smelly, crowded, impossibly rich and heinously poor all at the same time. We have our work cut out for us. The government corruption alone is a massive obstacle – it’s probably the worst I’ve ever seen and you and I have seen some seriously corrupt governments.

swheatly531: That is scary.

ladycarla: The good news is there are several folks open to micro-loans. But it’s sure going to take the whole five years to get things up and going. Did you find the place ok?

swheatly531: No problem. Right on top of the Metro stop. It’s gorgeous, too. I don’t even think I’ll mess with the bedroom.

ladycarla: You may as well. I’ll be re-doing it as soon as I get back, and five years is an awfully long time to put up with someone else’s taste.

swheatly531: Your taste is great. I will have to add some cooking equipment to the kitchen, though.

ladycarla: So I don’t cook.

swheatly531: How come there’s a door in the basement? It looks like it goes through a tunnel.

ladycarla: lol. Forgot to tell you about that. It’s a secret entrance from the back alley. The guy who built the house was this senator who liked his women. He had the secret entrance built so he could get his hookers in and out. The real estate agent said other members of Congress have taken advantage of it over the years.

swheatly531: lol. I’ll keep that in mind if I meet any members of Congress. Off to make phone calls. Already have a lunch scheduled for tomorrow.

ladycarla: You go get ‘em.

Five days later, in an office at the State Department, a junior-level human resources officer cringed in front of the deputy secretary of state.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Wallace,” the young officer said. “But when I saw her resume, I thought it was for the White House position.”

Wallace growled. “But I sent it down in an inter-departmental envelope.”

“Like all the others.”

“But it was from me.”

“I know, sir. But everyone has been offering candidates. All the note said was that the resume was to be verified and the security background done.”

“I wanted the resume verified so that I could write up an offer of employment.”

“Well, it did get verified and the security background was done. And Ms. Fritsch did the initial interview.”

“So? Can I write up my offer?”

“Well, see, that’s the problem, sir. Wheatly made the cut. The president is supposed to interview her tomorrow.”