Tuesday, Mark entered the meeting room for the Advisory Board meeting and knew immediately that something was up. It wasn’t obvious. The group stood and chanted, as usual. But as Mark sat down the rest of the group didn’t. Instead, Augie blew a note on a pitch pipe and the group sang a chorus of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.
Mark applauded slowly at the end of the tune.
“What was that all about?” he asked.
“Today is St. Patrick’s Day,” Coop answered. “The Irish are a people with a great love of song and storytelling.”
Sharon grimaced. “Coop, you are aware that was not a real Irish tune.”
“It was written by a couple Jewish guys,” Tanks said.
“It’s not like any of you are Irish,” Coop said.
“And you are?” Ed-man asked even though he should have known better.
“Full one-quarter,” Coop replied, grinning. “My paternal grandfather was a son of the sod. Given the way Grandma talked about him, it may even have been consensual.”
“Be that as it may,” Mark interrupted. “Do any of you delinquents have a report to present?”
The meeting fell to order, but Coop was quite taken with the success of the venture and continued lobbying for a second performance.
Coop also had another announcement for the end of the meeting.
“Our esteemed boss will be joining us for lunch,” he said.
The group applauded severally, and Mark acknowledged the tribute.
“Where are we going?” Whitey asked.
“You mean who did you con into letting us in?” Ed-man added.
“Believe it or not, the National Press Club.”
The others groaned loudly.
Coop waved them down. “There will be no interviews and we have a semi-private room. And Augie had nothing to do with it besides making the suggestion. They’re just being decent. Now, if some of those other clubs get wind of it, maybe they’ll decide to stop being so snooty and let us in, as well.”
The group decided to ride in the Presidential limo for the fun of it. It was Sharon’s first time in the car and she tried not to gulp when she realized she’d be riding in it again the next night for her “date” to the South Korean embassy.
The lunch, itself, was fun and relaxing. The food was pretty good, and while Mark initially got a few stares, by and large, the group was ignored. Until the end of the lunch. Mark hurried back to the White House, and with him went Ed-man, Coop, and Whitey. Sharon, Tanks, and Augie decided to take the Metro back, since Tanks had to find a deli so she could make sandwiches for one of her daughters’ school event the next day and Augie knew where one was and Sharon wanted to know where it was, as well.
But Augie got side-tracked by a former colleague in the bar. Sharon and Karen offered to wait for him, and while they were waiting near the door, Karen nudged Sharon.
“You’re right,” Karen said with a wicked grin. “People do look at you a lot.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “I told you.”
“At least some of the guys are cute.”
“Unfortunately, they’re not the ones who try to pick me up.”
At the other end of the bar, a reporter in a tan corduroy jacket, dark plaid shirt and navy blue tie was chatting with his friend with one eye firmly on Sharon. His hair was brown and beginning to thin, especially around the temples.
“So, who’s going to try?” Karen teased. “That geek in the back?”
“Welcome to my nightmare.”
As if in response, the reporter got up and headed toward the door of the bar. However, he was reaching into his jacket pocket and actually left from the other door.
Behind her, in the foyer, Sharon could hear him talking to someone in German. Exceptionally fluent German. Karen glanced back into the foyer.
“He’s on the phone,” she said.
“Talking to somebody about getting them some tortillas,” Sharon said.
Sharon shrugged. “Mexican food is getting more popular in Europe, but it’s still pretty hard to find the good stuff.”
Augie chose that moment to come back. “Let’s get out of here.”
The women turned as the reporter in the foyer dropped his phone in his pocket. Augie, however, got pulled back into the bar. The reporter grinned as he saw the women.
“Ladies,” he said in a natural American accent. He was of average height and his waist was just on the edge of getting thick. But otherwise, he wasn’t bad to look at. “Let me guess, Dr. Karen Tanaka and Ms. Sharon Wheatly?”
Karen grinned. “You got it in one. Where’d you learn to speak German like that?”
“Dad was in the Air Force and stationed there, then took a civilian job there when I was a kid.” The reporter shrugged. “I basically grew up in Ramstein.”
“And you are?” Karen asked.
“Max Epstein, at your service.” He bowed, but with one eye on Sharon. His eyes were brown and Sharon spotted an old scar on his chin, which though clean-shaven, appeared to be losing the battle.
He addressed her in German, Sharon replied somewhat frostily and then Augie came up and glared at Epstein.
“Max, I see you’ve met my colleagues.”
“It appears I have, Gus. Good to see you again.” Max smiled and left.
“So what did you guys say?” Karen asked as they left the building.
“He was hitting on me,” Sharon grumbled.
“I can imagine,” Augie sighed.
Sharon frowned. “Have to give him points. He made an obscure reference to some German poetry. I was lucky I knew the poem.”
“Well, I wouldn’t get too excited.” Augie glared back at the club for a second. “Max is a darned good reporter, but he’s got a bad reputation with women. And in a couple cases, I know how bad.”
Karen giggled. “So we stand warned.”
“I already was,” Sharon said. “He’s the one that does that Capitol Cues column, right?”
“Yeah,” said Augie.
Sharon nodded. “Then he’s the one. He hit on my brother’s girlfriend a year or so back and seriously ticked both her and my brother off.”
“Good,” said Augie with decided finality.
Sharon and Karen looked at each other, but the truth was, there really wasn’t anything more to be said on the matter.
Max, for his part, had returned to his office and was already dialing his phone and doing a Google. It hadn’t taken much mulling over. He wasn’t sure exactly where his research on Sharon Wheatly would lead, but at the very least, she’d make one very good story.
She was supposed to be accompanying the President to the South Korean Embassy cocktail party that next night. Max grinned. An email to his buddy on the International desk and the invite to the party was as good as in his hands.
For Sharon, the upcoming do at the embassy was turning into more trouble than it was worth, in her opinion. Late Tuesday afternoon, June called her upstairs to the studio for a final fitting of the new dress, which Sharon only endured because she was able to keep reading e mails on her Blackberry. Then there was the briefing with the President on Wednesday, not to mention coordinating with the State Department on several trips coming up in the next few months. Not to mention all the other things going on in the world that she had to stay on top of.
So Sharon felt no little irritation when June called her to the media prep room at five p.m. Wednesday to get ready for the embassy party.
“The party doesn’t start ’til seven, and we don’t want to be there before seven-thirty,” Sharon complained. “I don’t need two hours to get dressed.”
“Douglas Lee is going to do your hair and makeup,” June explained. “All the other dates get done up. You should, too.”
“I can get done up in my office,” Sharon grumbled. “I don’t need fancy hair and makeup.”
“Yes, you do. Now, come on. Even Paris Hilton can’t get Douglas Lee to do her hair.” June gently led Sharon from the office.
Lee, who was stick thin with a dark ring around his shaved head, was sympathetic to Sharon’s complaints and only stopped her from reading email when he absolutely had to. Sharon, when she saw her hair curled and piled on top of her head and the makeup job, had to concede that Lee had done a terrific job. She could only hope that Mark wouldn’t notice.
But, of course, Mark did. Fortunately, when he came to pick her up at her office, he saw her first from the hallway. If she had been lovely before in business wear, she was devastating all dressed up to go out. Mark took a deep calming breath before rapping at the office door. Even better, she seemed preoccupied.
“Looks like we might be in for a bumpy evening,” she said, standing then picking up a dark burgundy cloak that matched her mauve lace dress. “It just came over from State that Qui Cho and buddies from the Taiwan mission picked up invites for the party tonight.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s hope Dan’s there.”
“He should be.” Sharon glared at the flat red leather purse June had given her to carry. It was too small for much besides her ever-present Blackberry, an ID case, and a lipstick. “I’ve got some notes so I can brief you in the car. Have you got your iPhone and do you want me buzzing you?”
“Of course. Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Sharon smiled weakly. “I serve at the pleasure of the President.”
Mark smiled and offered his arm, although inwardly, he winced.
As the presidential limo arrived at the party, he got out first, spotted where the press cameras were and put himself between them and Sharon as he helped her out. The photographers shouted out, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” loudly and over and over again, but Mark ignored them as he walked Sharon into the embassy.
Beyond that, it was a pretty normal party, except that after going through the receiving line, Sharon and Mark separated pretty quickly. They had planned it that way, to allow Mark to work the room and Sharon to observe and send instant messages to him as she spotted various people who might want to talk to him. She also chatted with various dignitaries, stopping a couple times as Mark sent her a message, requesting more information than he could get from his iPhone while talking to someone.
But the third buzz puzzled her. First off, it came from Gloryhg. Then secondly, there was the message, itself: “Buffet’s got some seriously good sweet kimchee at the end. And the bulgogi is WLF!”
As she looked up, she realized that Mark was looking at her from the other end of the room. He winked and nodded at the buffet. Sharon wasn’t sure what WLF meant, but the bulgogi was very good, as was the sweet kimchee.
It was past nine when Mark nodded again and they said their good-byes. As they left the embassy, the photogs and others were waiting along the path from the door to the limo. Mark paused long enough to answer a few questions.
“Who’s your date tonight?” someone hollered.
“My world affairs advisor, Sharon Wheatly,” Mark answered, grinning.
“Miss Wheatly,” someone else hollered from the crowd. “Who are you wearing tonight?”
“What?” Sharon backed away as she felt her Blackberry buzz. “Excuse me for a second.”
Sure enough, there was a message from Gen Flowers. Sharon glanced around and Gen was near the car, smiling. The message answered the reporter’s question.
“Oh, my dress,” Sharon replied. “It’s an original from Ms. Jerguessen’s private collection.”
“Please keep in mind,” Mark interjected, “that Ms. Wheatly isn’t just my date. She’s here as part of the team, and has put in a full night of work.”
“Mr. President, can you tell us about your objectives with the South Koreans?” another reporter bellowed above the other hollers.
Mark went on to answer questions amid the flashes from the cameras, while Sharon smiled softly and stepped back. Unfortunately, someone else wanted to know who had done her makeup and hair and Sharon couldn’t answer.
“He’s a friend of the president’s sister,” she said. “I don’t recall his name. I was finalizing the research for tonight at the time.”
“Ms. Wheatly, why mauve?” a reporter bellowed.
“I’m not answering questions about my dress,” Sharon answered and stepped back toward the limo. “This evening was about building our foreign relations, and that’s where my focus is, thank you very much.”
“And I think that will do it for tonight,” added Mark, stepping up and taking Sharon’s arm. “Thanks, everyone.”
And with that, he led Sharon to the limo and helped her in. Once the door was shut, Mark leaned back and laughed.
“Well,” he said. “Turns out you’re quite the media pro, after all.”
Sharon made a face. “Just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I want to.”
“Oh, come on. You had fun nailing them on the make-up questions.”
“No.” Sharon sighed. “Maybe a little. It’s just kinda ridiculous that I’m here as your aide and all they want to know is what lip gloss I’m using.”
“Well, you are my date.”
“As if that makes any difference. I was here to work as much as you were.”
“Well, you pulled it off.” Mark grinned and nudged her. “Looks like you had fun doing it, too.”
Sharon winced again. “Not really.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.”
Mark looked at her, puzzled. “No? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve been with women who really hate the attention and they get all stiff and you didn’t. In fact, you’re more like somebody who likes the attention.”
Sharon grimaced. “I don’t. I mean…” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”
Mark softened. “How?”
“It’s…” Sharon shrugged as she struggled to find the right words. “Okay. This is just between the two of us, right?”
“It’s not that I don’t like the attention. I’ve been getting it most of my life, and it could be a lot worse. It’s just…” Sharon swallowed. “I just feel so shallow. I hate that about myself. It’s like I’m lying or something. I don’t want to be obsessed with my looks or stuff like that, but that’s why people look at me. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about my brains and who I am as a person. But, yeah, it’s kinda cool that people think I’m good-looking.”
Mark laughed. “That doesn’t make you shallow.”
“Unless all the girls you grew up with were that shallow and all into who photographed them and they didn’t count as people unless they ended up in this tabloid or that.” Sharon shuddered. “I thought it was stupid then and I still think it’s stupid. And I hate it when I get caught up in it.”
“Ah. I hear you. There’s no question you can get pretty caught up in it all.” Mark chuckled. “But I think the fact that you hate getting caught up is a pretty good sign that you’re not going to.”
Sharon sighed. “I’d rather not deal with it in the first place. Anyway, you wanted to compare notes?”
Mark nodded, smiling but wishing they were talking about anything but work. Sharon went over some of the information she’d gathered from various folks and Mark listened dutifully. When they got to Sharon’s townhouse, Mark walked her in and shut the front door.
“It’s a little late, but I can pull some dinner together,” she said.
“No, I’m pretty well stuffed from the party.” Mark paused. “And I’ve got to get back. Riff’s already annoyed that I came in with you.”
“I just wanted to say thank you and good night, like a good date.”
“I know we were working, but, well…”
Mark bent and kissed her mouth. Sharon lost her breath and longed both to wrap her arms around him and not let go and she longed to shove him away. And it was still over too soon.
“Good night,” Mark said and opened the door.
“Good night,” Sharon whispered. She closed the door behind him still trying to savor the feel of his lips on hers.
Mark bounded down the stoop, hoping that this working date thing might be working for him.
For June, it was movie night with her buddy Douglas Lee, and even as the presidential motorcade was wending its way back to the White House, she and Doug were crashed on the couch in her sitting room, snacking on popcorn that the kitchen staff had liberally doused with mayonnaise and asiago cheese as the final credits rolled on a silly romantic comedy on June’s massive flat-panel TV.
Doug grinned. “That was a fun little flick.”
“Yeah. I was surprised it was so good,” June replied. “I mean, the previews made it look cute, but it actually had some meat, didn’t it?”
Doug yawned and stretched. “It sure did. I really appreciate you letting me up here to watch it. Now I don’t have to wait for it to come out on DVD.”
“Isn’t it still in the theaters?” June took a sip from her chardonnay.
“It is, but I’d have to go to some other city to watch it. If I tried to go see a chick flick like that in Manhattan, I’d be bombarded by clients. Or women who want to be my clients.”
Doug shrugged. “The problem is, I’m trying to slow business down.”
“I’m thinking about getting out of the hair and makeup biz, or at least, just do it for special occasions or something. May I?” Doug picked up the wine bottle and his glass.
“Help yourself.” June nibbled on a popcorn kernel. “But why?”
“I’m bored.” Doug finished pouring his wine and handed the bottle to June. “I mean, it’s still fun to do a really great cut or get the perfect style or whatever. It’s just that last week, I was going over the finances with my accountant and I realized he was more interesting than ninety-percent of the women I do. And my accountant is not that interesting a guy.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have brought you down if I’d known.”
Doug waved her off. “No. That whatshername…”
“Sharon.” June poured out the rest of the bottle into her glass without thinking about it.
“Sharon. She was great. And your other friend, Karen? I’d love to work on her. She was hysterical. It’s all the spoiled rich dames with more money than taste. And the models.” Doug rolled his eyes. “I still love doing the shows. You can really do some creative stuff. But if I have to listen to another vapid little twit blathering on about nothing.” He shuddered.
June put the popcorn bowl aside. “I guess they can be a bit much. During a show, I’m not really paying attention. So, what are you going to do instead?”
“I don’t know yet,” Doug grinned. “The hard part is going to be getting my client list down. It seems as though as soon as I tell someone I’m dropping her, she throws ridiculous amounts of money at me to keep her on. And the more I insist I don’t want it, the more she throws. You get a couple offers for a hundred thousand dollars a haircut, and that’s pretty hard to turn down.”
“Yowza. You must be sitting pretty.”
“Pretty enough that I can pretty much do what I want from here on in.”
June’s hand accidentally landed on Doug’s. He flinched. June pulled her hand away as she sighed.
“I’m sorry,” she said softly.
Doug shrugged. “It’s okay.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I gotta get over this touching thing. It’s time. It may be why I want to get away from New York. But I’m gonna do it.”
June’s heart thudded as he slowly took her hand in his.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked, not at all sure if she was.
“Yeah. I think I am.” Doug smiled at her. “I’ve racked up a couple breakthroughs lately and my therapist said I should try extending myself a little.”
“Oh. That’s great.” Feeling guilty, June looked down at the bowl. “We’ve still got a full bowl of popcorn.”
“Yeah.” Doug laughed. “At least, it wouldn’t take us both a full week to eat that much.”
June grinned back. “We did put a decent dent in this. The problem is, I’m getting full.”
“Me, too.” Doug took a small handful and began nibbling at it. “Say, June, how would you feel if I moved down here to Washington?”
“I’d keep my shop in Manhattan and come up for the shows. But the business can pretty much run itself. And maybe I can do some good here. Maybe put an end to helmet hair.”
June laughed. “That won’t happen.” She looked him over. “You’re not thinking of moving down because of me, are you?”
“Yes and no.” Doug grimaced. “I want to get out of New York because I need to and I’m thinking about here because you’re here. At least, I’d have one friend.”
“You’ve got friends in L.A.”
Doug shook his head. “If I can’t handle models and rich bitches, how far do you think I’d get with the Hollywood crowd?”
“Point taken.” June shrugged. “But do you really want to be a Washington dilletante?”
“I don’t know what I want.” Doug sighed. “I’ve been doing hair since I was eighteen and helping my mom out at the shows since I was five.”
“You got a business degree in there.”
“Yeah. To run my shop and all the other things that were coming along because of that.” Doug shook his head. “It’s time I broadened myself, explored other passions. Who knows? Maybe I want to go back to hair. Maybe I’ll just be a dilletante early retiree. Don’t know yet. But the only way I’ll be able to find out is if I get away from New York for a while. So, do you mind if I hang out down here?”
“No. I’d love it.” June smiled.
Gloryhg: Thought I’d check in. Thanks for giving me your personal address.
Swheatly531: You gave me yours. What’s WLF?
Gloryhg: Worth Living For. To die for is too negative. I had a good time tonight.
Swheatly531: For working, it wasn’t bad.
Gloryhg: I may have overstepped a boundary.
Swheatly531: When? Oh, the kiss.
Gloryhg: I’m told I do that sometimes. Overstep, I mean.
Gloryhg: You okay with it?
Gloryhg: You there?
Swheatly531: Yeah. Just thinking it over.
Gloryhg: <<sigh>> Great. Am I looking at a harassment suit?
Swheatly531: Maybe. 😉 Probably not. I hope you’re not thinking I’m ducking comment because you’re the boss.
Gloryhg: Well, that you might does worry me. I mean, one of the reasons I hired you in the first place was because I was confident you’d tell me what you thought regardless of what I might think.
Swheatly531: I just don’t know what I think right now. The boss part is a little awkward. But it’s more the whole dating thing, in general. It’s not a good time for that, you know.
Gloryhg: I know.
Swheatly531: BTW, Gloryhg???
Gloryhg: An old nickname from my college days. The Coop again. Loved poking fun at my ambitions. I got this address years and years ago and mostly forgot about it until the other one went public last summer.
Swheatly531: Well, gotta go. Want to finish some reading before getting to bed. See you tomorrow.
Gloryhg: See you tomorrow.