Chapter Eighteen

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: Maybe a nice gentle nudge in the right direction.

Air Force One left Mexico very early on Friday morning and arrived back in Washington in the early afternoon. Mark had made up some ground during Thursday’s morning’s meeting with President Diego, but it had been slow going. Between that and some of the goodwill visits the party had made Thursday afternoon and evening to various factories and the local university, where a coalition of foreign students and teachers had arranged for a party, Mark was exhausted. He knew Sharon would be exhausted when she arrived later that afternoon on a somewhat later commercial flight, and her staffer Leonidas Bertonetti and Earl Wallace were still in Mexico and would be until Sunday.

So Mark emailed Sharon that the trip debriefing would happen on Monday. Sharon, still working out her feelings, was mildly annoyed at first, then realized it was just as well to wait until there were other people around before she met with the president again.

In fact, when June called on Saturday to invite Sharon to church the next morning, Sharon initially declined.

“I really should work,” Sharon said. “I’ve got my notes to prepare from the trip, plus all the stuff that I left behind.”

“You also need some rest,” June said. “And… Well, let’s just call it a mission of mercy.”

“What do you mean?”

June giggled nervously. “It’s a combination of things. You see, there’s this children’s home that Mark and I have been visiting off and on for years. It’s here in DC. Anyway, I was kind of hoping you’d come with us on Sunday and bring your guitar and play for the kids. They’d love it. I know you don’t like performing, but this would be more of a sing-a-long kind of thing. There won’t be any press there. Mark won’t let them come.”

“A sing-a-long?” Sharon sighed. “How old are the kids?”

“All ages. A lot of the teens just snarl, but we’ve had a couple other musicians come and it seems to soften them up a little.”

“Okay. How late will we be?”

June hesitated. “Well, that’s the other part. After we get back here, Mark is having a little get-together. Coop is going to be there and Karen and her kids. And…”

“And what?”

“Well, one of the ministers at our church, Roy Hodgkiss, he and Eddie Cooper are Mark’s two closest friends ever. So, Roy just got back from a one-year mission to Honduras, and he and the family are coming with us to the children’s home, then Mark is having a little party to welcome the Hodgkisses back. The kids are okay – they’re five and seven, I think. It’s Melody, Roy’s wife. Sharon, she is simply the most boring human being that has ever walked on two legs. I love Roy like a brother and I love her, as well. But you know how these things go. Mark and Roy will be yakking it up and Melody and I will be staring at each other. Maybe you can find something to talk to her about.”

“Oh, I seriously doubt that,” Sharon sighed. “Can’t Karen talk to her? She’s better with the chit-chat.”

“That’s kind of the problem,” June said. “Chit-chat is definitely not Melody’s thing. She’s, um, what you call deep.”

“Oh, great. So we’re talking solving the problems of the world?”

“In a manner of speaking. She’s… Well, you’ll see. Please?”

It was the please that did it. Sharon agreed reluctantly to meet June at the church in the morning.

The service wasn’t too bad, Sharon thought. The children’s home turned out to be a refuge for kids who were victims of parental abuse. Many of the kids were withdrawn and sullen, but June was right about the music. Sharon found she enjoyed playing for the kids and was quite surprised when the little ones began dancing. A particularly shy teen girl, slightly overweight and hiding behind dirty black hair, began singing along and even began harmonizing with Sharon. But she disappeared before Sharon could get her name.

As June had predicted, several of the teens scowled and snarled, still Mark made a point of spending a couple minutes talking to each one. The response was lukewarm, but Mark expected that.

Sharon made a point of avoiding Roy and Melody Hodgkiss after being introduced to them. Melody seemed rather shy, as it was, and very absorbed in what her two children, Mary and Stephen, were doing. As for Roy, Sharon could feel some coolness on his part, but couldn’t figure out what it was.

Mark had a feeling he knew what Roy’s response was all about, but didn’t have a chance to talk to Roy about it until the group got back to the White House. There, Eddie Cooper, his wife Delilah, and their four kids, were waiting, along with Karen Tanaka, her boyfriend, and her daughters. The Watanabe girls were busy bonding with Coop’s eldest two, Rebecca and Deborah, who were roughly the same age. Coop’s youngest two, Daniel and Elijah were closer in age to the Hodgkiss children, being eight and six, respectively.

The party was comfortable and almost loud. It was held in the private quarters, in one of the larger sitting rooms, down the hall from the Lincoln bedroom. June had set it up as a space for more casual entertaining, with large couches and armchairs in rich jewel tones and heavy-duty cotton upholstery and a minimum of antiques.

Sharon got pressed into music duty again, and her playing was pronounced cool by the Cooper girls. Mark sat somewhat apart, slouching on a couch, watching her play, until Roy approached him.

“So that’s Wheatly,” Roy observed. He was a medium-sized man, with thinning, light brown hair, glasses, piercing blue eyes and a quiet firmness about his person.

Mark nodded. “Yep.” He paused. “I’m guessing you’ve heard about her.”

“Not so much,” Roy slipped down next to Mark. “Cooper says you’ve got a thing for her.”

“I might.” Mark shrugged, then noticed Roy’s eyes boring into him. “Okay, maybe I do.”

Roy groaned. “Aw, Mark, you’ve fallen in love again, haven’t you? From the first moment you saw her. Right?”

Mark winced. “It’s different this time.”

“That’s what you said the last thirty times.”

“That is an exaggeration.”

“Which only proves my point.” Roy looked at the glass of white wine he was holding.

“It is different,” Mark said finally. “For one thing, I haven’t done squat about it.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope. She doesn’t want that kind of relationship. Doesn’t want the publicity.”

“You usually keep things pretty quiet. Why should this be different?”

Mark sighed deeply. “It’s a hell of a lot more intense than anything ever before. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time. And…  With all the publicity I get, it’s a lot easier for…  Well, you know. I don’t want to put Sharon through that.”

Roy nodded. “You don’t want to take a chance on her walking, you mean.”

“I guess that’s part of it.”

“Hm.” Roy watched Sharon as she played “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” registering in the back of his mind that she was singing in German. “Coop was saying he thought the feelings were mutual.”

“Well, like I said, it doesn’t matter,” Mark grumbled. “Neither of us want to be involved in a relationship right now, for a lot of reasons. And I’m willing to bet I haven’t heard all of Sharon’s reasons. So, it’s kind of irrelevant. She’s doing good work for me. We’re becoming good friends. She’s getting really close to June, and that’s a good thing. We’re just going to keep the status quo and that’s that.”

Roy chuckled as he got up. “That isn’t that by a long shot, buddy, and I wish you good luck because you are going to need it.”

Some minutes later, Sharon found herself wishing she were someplace else in a big way. Melody Hodgkiss, a wisp of a woman, with light brown hair and deep brown eyes magnified by thick glasses, had come out of her shell. Sharon had merely asked Melody if she were a full-time mom, which Melody confessed she was, but that she was also about to start teaching systematic theology part-time at the Wesley Theological Seminary. Unfortunately, Sharon made the mistake of asking Melody what systematic theology was.

Melody was clearly passionate – in her own quiet way – about her topic. The problem was, the topic was so arcane, Sharon could make little sense of what Melody was saying. Roy, fortunately, saw her struggling and came over.

“Hey, Mel, got your lecture going again?” he asked, clearly proud of his wife, but aware that she could be a little hard to take.

She blushed. “Oh. Yeah. I’m sorry. I forget that it’s a little hard to explain what I teach, and I get so excited about it.”

“I understand,” Sharon said, smiling weakly.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Roy. “Half the time, I don’t understand what she’s talking about and I’m in the religion business.”

“But, Roy, it’s not that difficult,” sighed Melody. She stopped. “I mean. It can be if you’re not into theology.”

“Which I’m afraid I’m not,” said Sharon. “Will you excuse me?”

June caught up with her a minute later. “I did try to warn you.”

“She’s not boring,” said Sharon. “Just obscure.”

“Well, let’s be glad Tanks didn’t get a hold of her. Given how she feels about religion, the two of them would be mud wrestling about now.”

Sharon laughed, then caught Mark watching her and sighed. “Listen, I’m going to head out. I’ve got to call Russia at two a.m. and I’d like to get a nap before I do.”

“I’m glad you came,” June said. “And you were great with the kids. It made a big difference.”

“Thanks. It was good to help.”

Sharon smiled but avoided Mark as she left. Back at her townhouse, she paced nervously. The president had been watching her most of the day. She was glad that they were becoming friends, but she wasn’t comfortable with things getting any more intense than they were. After another few minutes of pacing, she made up her mind and called Max Epstein.

Max, for his part, was surprised when he saw Sharon’s number on his caller ID but wasn’t unhappy.

“What’s up, Share?” he asked jovially.

“How’d you like to go out sometime next weekend?” Sharon asked, trying to hide the nerves in her voice.

“I’d love it. I’ll pick you up Friday night at seven-thirty.”

Sharon hesitated. “Um. How about if we meet somewhere at that time?”

“Sure,” Max said. “Meet at the Zoo Bar?”

“That sounds good. I’ll see you at seven-thirty on Friday.” Sharon rang off before Max could say any more.

She felt a little guilty, but at the same time relieved.

Monday morning brought the Mexico de-briefing with the president, Leonidas Bertonetti, Earl Wallace, Daniel Friedman, and Sharon. But it didn’t last long. Mark had a speech to give at the Gay Union’s monthly luncheon and needed time to go over his talk with his speech writer. But as Sharon and the others left, Jean Bouyer was ushered into Mark’s office.

“Just a quick one, sir,” she said. “This just got posted on the Moral American website. They’re outing Augie.”

“So? He’s been out of the closet for years,” Mark grumbled. He was in a bad enough mood, what with Sharon clearly avoiding him and having to re-hash the whole miserable Mexico trip.

“They’re dropping not so subtle hints that you’re gay, as well.”

Mark laughed. “Well, hate to disappoint them, but—”  He stopped and nodded. “Tell you, what. How about me going no comment on the issue?”

“Wouldn’t that be perceived as being ashamed?”

“Maybe.” Mark mulled it over. “Why don’t you run it past Augie? My point would be it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what our respective orientations are as long as we’re doing our jobs – which we are.”

“Okay.” Jean paused. “If I may be excused?”

“Oh, yeah. Please.”

Jean slipped out as Calvin Whitecross came in. Calvin was a young average-sized Black man with close-cropped hair who had graduated first in his class at Harvard, then started almost immediately at a political public relations firm in the District. Mark had hired him as a speechwriter early in his campaign, surprising everyone. After all, Calvin was only 25 at the time and barely three years out of school. But Calvin had not only stepped up, Mark found the young man had a gift for capturing his voice and rarely made a speech that Calvin hadn’t at least written part of at some point or other.

Mark spent half an hour going over the speech and checking in with Calvin regarding some alterations given the recent Moral Americans post. Gus Guerrero called in, also, and the three conferred on a strong response. The Gay Union received the speech well, but as Mark left the luncheon, he got several questions about his orientation.

“As it turns out, I’m straight,” Mark finally said. “But I trust that the American public can see past that and accept me as I am, without hate and narrow-mindedness. And that will be all, folks. I’m not answering any more questions.”

Not surprisingly, the comment got major play and caused something of an uproar, with both sides screaming at each other at full force.

“It’s pundit mania,” Karen complained to Sharon later than afternoon while hiding out in Sharon’s office.

Sharon shrugged. “It’s sad that it’s still such a polarizing issue. Why should it make the least bit of difference whether Jugs is straight or gay?”

Karen tagged Sharon’s shoulder. “It might make a difference to you.”

“No, it doesn’t!” Sharon snapped, startling both herself and Karen with her vehemence. She flushed, then sniffed. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m so touchy about that.”

“Maybe because you do like him?” Karen said softly.

Sharon sighed. “I like that we’re friends. I want to keep being friends. But I can’t get into a relationship with him. We work together. It’d be a disaster. And I don’t want that kind of publicity. I’m serious. Look what’s happening to poor Augie.”

“Okay. I believe you.”

“I’m glad.” Sharon sighed. “Thanks. And speaking of Augie, what are we going to do about him? Poor thing – all those people criticizing the love of his life and those two have been married longer than most straight couples.”

“I think it’s time for a PFZ party,” said Karen. “How about Friday night?”

“Can’t. I’m booked.”

Karen lifted an eyebrow but didn’t ask, to Sharon’s immense relief.

“Then let’s make it Thursday,” Karen said. “And let’s make sure Augie’s partner is invited.”

“That’s a great idea. Potluck?”

“And BYOB.”

The two women high-fived and Karen went off to email invites.

That evening, Mark took Gus upstairs to the residence to have dinner with Solly cooking and serving. Neither man was in a very good mood.

“It just sucks, man,” Gus said, sighing. “And what really gets me is that it’s my mom who’s suffering the most. And Emilio’s family. They’ve been really cool about us, but it’s not been easy for them. Hell, it was hard enough for me and Emilio, given cultural homophobia and all. But to have it out there like this. Poor mom has been getting phone calls all day. Her pastor called, for crying out loud. One of her neighbors wants to cure me.”

“I know, Gus. I’m sorry,” sighed Mark. “Who knew these schmucks would hit so low?”

“Hmmph!” Solly snorted. “Um. Beg pardon, sir.”

“Don’t worry, Solly,” Mark said, reaching over and snagging a slice of freshly cooked quesadilla. “We’re upset, too.”

Gus took a pull on his beer and shrugged. “Well, there isn’t much we can do about them. I learned a long time ago that some folks just aren’t going to listen no matter what you do. The good news is that I don’t see any real dip in your popularity numbers. It may be a bit early yet, but the polls seem to indicate that the Moral Americans went too far.”

“That would be good news,” said Mark.

“It would be except we’re not seeing a rise in your popularity, either,” said Gus, munching on a quesadilla.

Mark grinned. “Maybe if I started dating Ashley Whitcomb.”

“Ashley who?” Gus asked.

“One of the girls the Moral Americans was trying to push on me.”

Gus chuckled. “I don’t think so.” He stopped chewing for a second and thought. “You know who would send your numbers soaring if you started dating her? Sharon Wheatly.”

Mark glared. “Let’s not start that one. That is not going anywhere. That is not going to go anywhere, and I’d rather not discuss it.”

“Okay.” Gus glanced over at Solly, who shrugged.

The two men eventually ambled off to watch TV in the salon. Solly finished her clean-up, thinking as she did. Then she smiled in evil glee and pulled out her mobile phone.

The next day, gender orientation and the Moral Americans were only a secondary thought in Sharon’s mind. She had a larger, more serious issue that began with an email from her friend Carla.

“Now it makes sense,” groaned Katie Minor, Sharon’s expert on Africa and Asia, as she looked over Sharon’s shoulder in Sharon’s office. Katie shook her head in fury, her short blonde curls bobbing around her round face. “It’s like I said, the fact that they sent him here….”

“Oh, I get it,” grumbled Sharon. “I’ve got to call Solly right now.”

Katie gulped. “I’m not….”

“Katie, you’ve been all over the Chinese and their auto plant plans, not to mention the yen problem. None of us can do everything.” Sharon glanced at the phone on her desk, then at her staffer. “If I get to split your beat, what do you want to keep?”

“Asia? Please?” Katie’s blue eyes started to fill. She’d been raised in China, spoke Mandarin like Sharon spoke French, and spoke Cantonese better than Sharon did. Her Japanese was almost as good.

Sharon nodded and dialed Solly, who was not at all happy to hear that the new Nigerian ambassador, whose reception at the White House was that afternoon, was a Muslim and not a Christian, as they had originally thought.

“I’m so sorry, Solly,” Sharon said. “I think we’re mostly in the clear.”

“Mmmm.” Solly was not happy.

“You know we did think it might be possible, and I did suggest that to you early on.”

“Mmmm.”

“The Nigerians were being vague about it.”

“Then what do we have a State Department for? Huh? What about the CIA?”

“They’re the ones who let us know there might be a problem. Makindu keeps his religion pretty quiet. That and the photo with the archbishop is why we thought he was Christian. Turns out some folks in the foreign ministry office are out to get him and us. But I’ve got two sources, Solly.”

“Mmmmmmm.”

“Solly?”

“I’ll fix it. You better call old Prune Face for me, ‘cuz I am not taking any lip from him about the changes. Got me?”

“That’s the least I can do. Thanks, Solly.”

Sharon’s day didn’t get any better. Major Wills, the chief usher was not happy about the changed menu and while he forebore to say anything, Sharon could feel the frost through the phone. Then the Advisory Board meeting was sullen and angry since the group was still upset with the Moral Americans. Nor was Mark particularly pleased to hear about the mess up with the Nigerian ambassador and he let Sharon know about it during their pre-reception briefing.

“Why didn’t your staff catch it?” he demanded. “That’s why they work here.”

Sharon sighed. “Well, Katie should have. But she’s been researching three major issues going on in different parts of Asia, plus everything going on in Africa – that’s over 10 different governments, just on that continent. And the Nigerians were being cagey on purpose. They don’t like us and they really don’t like Makindu, but they can’t dump on him because he’s too popular in the south. That’s why they sent him here. And one of the reasons he’s so popular in the south is because he’s not overtly hard-core Muslim. We had a feeling something wasn’t on the up and up, but it took a while to confirm it.”

“Then why did they send us the picture of Makindu with the archbishop buddying up together?”

“To make us think he was Christian and potentially embarrass both us and him.” Sharon folded her arms. “That’s one of the reasons Katie thought something was hinky. But neither of us could get a clear answer from the Nigerian foreign ministry. And truth be told, neither of us had a lot of time to chase it down. I had the Mexico trip and Katie’s got more ground to cover than anybody else on my team.”

Mark glared at his laptop. “And Leonidas slipped up, too.”

“No, Diego pulled a fast one on us.” Sharon glared at him, then shrugged. “Although, I suppose there was the odd hint or two. But Leonidas is covering a lot of governments, too. In fact, I could use several more staffers.”

Mark glanced over at the door to Johnnie’s office. “How many?”

“I’d like to add a second person for each region, plus split Katie’s territory into two, with two people to cover whatever she doesn’t take.”

“That is not going to happen.” Mark chuckled ruefully. “Not when Operations was just in here yesterday begging me for twenty more people. And they need them, too.”

“I know.”

Mark sat back and sighed. “Set up a meeting with Johnnie. She and Steve are going over the numbers this week. You’re not going to get all you want, but they should be able to get you a few more people.”

“All right. Thanks.” Sharon waited.

Mark, who had been glaring back at his laptop, looked up and noticed her. “Anything else?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh.” Mark swore. “You can go.”

Sharon left, trying not to fret about the reception that afternoon. Mark’s mood was beyond foul – so foul that Sharon was a little startled when he turned up for the Nigerian ambassador’s arrival all smiles. At first, she wondered what had happened to boost the president’s mood but then decided to be grateful for it. Or she was until the reception was over and she met with Mark, Katie and Daniel Friedman for the post-reception briefing. While Mark was polite to everyone and especially Katie, it was clear the foul mood had returned. Then Sharon realized with a start, the mood had probably never left him.

Sharon mulled that over while waiting for Johnnie to finish her meeting. It was as if Mark could summon it up at will, which made her really wonder how much of his pleasant behavior was cover for something darker. She’d seen flashes of temper in him before. But the ability to so completely fake the pleasant demeanor on command suddenly made her feel a little wary of him. Perhaps her date that Friday was more than just convenient.

She pushed her concerns out of her mind and spent the next half hour going over budget and staffing issues with Johnnie. Upon her return to her office, she called her staff together.

“Well, the bad news is that we’re not going to get all the extra staff that we need,” Sharon told Faiza, Katie, Raul, Leonidas, and Julie. They groaned collectively. “But the good news is that we are going to get two new researchers and one new administrative assistant. Human resources said they’ll be sending up the new assistant tomorrow morning. Katie, you’ve got your wish. I’m re-assigning you to Asia, including India. Faiza, I’m going to need you to expand your focus to Northern Africa, especially the Islamic states, and as far east as Pakistan.”

Faiza looked over at Katie. “I’ve been wanting to, anyway.”

“But how are we going to work the cubicles?” Raul asked, shaking his bald head anxiously. “We don’t have enough room for Leonidas and me in the same one as it is.”

Leonidas, who was sitting slightly behind Raul, rolled his eyes.

Sharon sighed. “Well, that’s going to be up to you guys. There is a new office that’s been freed up. It’s just in the basement. I was thinking of moving one of the new researchers in with Katie and Faiza since that person will be covering Africa and there is some room.”

“I’ll go to the basement,” said Raul with the kind of noble air that could only mean martyrdom.

“Are you sure, Raul?” Sharon asked. “I don’t want you feeling like you’ve been banished.”

“I will be perfectly happy down there,” Raul said. “I will be able to concentrate.”

He glanced back at Leonidas who kept his face passive, but Sharon knew darned well there had been some teasing going on. She sighed. Raul could be pretty insufferable, but he had a wonderfully strong grip on Europe.

“So, we’re getting an Africa expert,” Raul continued. “Does this mean I’m going to get some help with Europe?”

Sharon bit her lip. “A little. The other new person will be covering Canada, Australia and the rest of the Pacific Islands. But that’ll free me up to help you with Europe. Keep in mind, Raul, they’re admittedly active, but you do have fewer governments, overall, to watch.”

Raul simply nodded with his perpetual long-suffering frown. Sharon dismissed the group shortly after. She knew she projected confidence, but wasn’t at all sure she felt that way.

She was even less sure the next morning when Julie introduced Dianne Bowen. Dianne was a mousy-looking woman, about average height, although her posture was stooped enough she looked shorter. Her hair was brown. She wore dark horned-rim glasses and a frown that, as Sharon thought about it, reminded her of Raul.

However, the difference between Dianne and Raul, as Julie noted when she met with Sharon after introducing Dianne to the rest of the staff, is that while both were utterly convinced that they knew everything, Raul thought he was above the rules, Dianne lived and breathed them.

“That’s going to be awkward around here,” Sharon sighed. “Did Leonidas behave himself?”

“Leonidas? Has he ever?” Julie rolled her eyes. “The good news is that Dianne is completely impervious to his oh-so-dubious charm.”

“Aren’t most women?” Sharon said.

“I gotta give her credit. She shut him down. Cited chapter and verse from the employee handbook on sexual harassment. Even quoted the page and paragraph numbers.” Julie grinned. “I looked it up, too. She got it dead on.”

“Okay. That’s impressive.”

Julie bit her lip. “It should be. The only problem is that she has not got one iota of anything resembling a sense of humor. Worse yet, Dr. Cooper wandered by and starting teasing and she got all sniffy. She was polite, but as soon as Dr. Cooper was gone, she asked me why nobody in this part of the office had any respect for the place.”

“What did you tell her?”

“That the teasing and joking was simply stress relief so that we can all focus on what’s really important. I don’t know if she bought it, but she didn’t argue.”

Sharon shook her head. “If my guess is right, she won’t. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have problems. Should I send her back and see if we can get someone else?”

“I don’t know.” Julie frowned. “I think it’s only fair to give her a chance. Maybe she’s just nervous. She is a new hire from outside.”

“Fair enough,” said Sharon. “Now, we have some schedule issues to work out, don’t we?”

“Here’s a list of the embassy lunches and times. I know you said first come, first served, but these three all arrived on the same day.”

Sharon turned her attention to the email Julie had sent her.

That night, at the PFZ, the party was mildly rowdy and Sharon’s basement was full. Gwen McKelvey had arrived early from MIT and Eli Weatherall was in town, as well. Neither had dates, even though both were single. In fact, it seemed as though the two were getting exceptionally friendly.

Gus chuckled about it with Mark and Sharon at the bar.

“Who’d a thought it?” Gus said, then took a sip of beer. “Romance blooms in the White House.”

Mark glowered, but Gus didn’t notice.

“Speaking of romance,” Gus continued, “Sharon, I hear you’ve got another date with Max Epstein.”

“You do?” Mark glanced at her, realizing his expression was sharper than he’d expected.

“Tomorrow night,” Sharon replied, ignoring Mark. “We’re just meeting for drinks.”

Across the room, Jean Bouyer was chatting with Coop and June.

“Gus just asked Sharon about her date with Epstein,” she reported. “The boss does not look happy.”

June glanced over at her brother and Sharon. “No, he doesn’t.” She looked at Jean. “How can you tell what they’re saying?”

Jean laughed. “You didn’t know? I read lips. I’ve been deaf all my life.”

“You don’t sound like it,” Coop said.

“I’ve got some hearing and I got hearing aids when I was still fairly young. And my mom coached me pretty heavily. And I’ve got a cochlear implant, which makes a big difference.  But since my dad is deaf, I learned to sign and read lips, too.”

“What’s my brother saying now?”

Jean shrugged. “Can’t tell. He’s turned away from me.”

Gus had moved on and Mark wasn’t saying much of anything.

“You’re jealous, aren’t you?” Sharon asked him softly while picking at a spot on the bar.

“Not really. At least, not the way you think.” Mark glared sullenly at his glass of wine.

“Oh?”

Mark snorted. “Look, I can’t ask you to live like a nun simply because we can’t have a relationship. Even if we wanted to, we can’t.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Because of what happened to Gus. I can’t expose you to that.”

“What makes you think I’m not going to be the target of rumors anyway?”

“Yeah, but it’s worse when there’s something there to grab onto. You don’t want that and I don’t want to put you through it. So while I’m not worried about Epstein carrying you away, I’m not too thrilled that he gets to go out with you and I don’t.”

“Fair enough.” Sharon looked up. “Jean’s staring at us again.”

“She’s reading our lips, which is why I have my back to her.”

“Oh, that’s right.” Sharon smiled at Jean and gave her a little wave.

Jean turned back to Coop and June as Gus wandered up. “Looks like the boss is on to me.”

“So what’s going on?” Gus asked.

“We were snooping on my brother and Sharon,” said June. “Not sure what they were saying since Jean could only catch part of what Sharon said.”

“Anything?” Gus asked.

Jean shook her head. “It looked pretty innocuous. Something about Sharon getting caught in rumors.”

“That might have a lot to do with why nothing’s happening,” said Coop. “But it sure would be nice if those two would get together.”

“Coop, there’s nothing we can do,” June said.

“Why not?” Jean asked, her tone bordering on indignant. “That’s what friends are for, I thought. Maybe a nice gentle nudge in the right direction.”

June sighed. “What if Sharon doesn’t want the publicity? I mean, I seriously doubt they could keep it a secret.”

“I wouldn’t tell,” Coop said. “I haven’t before. But June does have a point. It’s going to be a lot harder now to keep things under wraps.” He smiled at Jean, who looked utterly deflated. “That doesn’t mean we can’t hope, pray, and very subtly nudge them along.”

“You? Subtle?” Gus laughed loudly. “Since when?”

Coop spread his hands in acquiescence.

June put her hand on Jean’s shoulder. “Look, I know how frustrating it is, seeing the two of them. I mean, they’re as close to made for each other as two people can get. But, uh, they do work together – you know how awkward that can get. With Mark being the big boss and all, that might be even worse, publicity-wise.”

She shot a quick, but meaningful look at Coop.

“I think we can trust the boss to make the right decision,” Coop said.

“And if he doesn’t, Sharon will whip him into line,” Gus said.

Email conversation:

From: FreeMJ@whatsis.net

To: JazzyT@windlive.com

Hey, Tiffany –

Thanks for emailing me back yesterday. Figures, my school library doesn’t have those books. The librarian said they were college level and wanted to know why I was interested in them. Total snark, I swear. I’m trying to do a research paper. Duh. So why can’t I use college level books if I want? It’s bad enough my teacher won’t let me use Internet sources. Says he doesn’t want me quoting Facebook. Why do teachers think we’re so stupid?

So, how’s it going out there? Tell Jodi I said hi.

Matt.

From: JazzyT@windlive.com

To: MattJ@livewire.com

Hey, Matt.

Jodi says hi back atcha. Oh, and thanks for sending that link for that game. Totally fun. Can’t wait to meet you in the gaming room.

Stuff here got more than a little weird today. Mom wants to go on a sabbatical starting this summer, tracing folk music that’s about to be lost because the people who sing/play it are dying out. I mean, I get that it’s necessary work, but I can’t go with her. So it looks like I’ll be living with Jodi and her mom. Or maybe Jodi’s dad, which would be immensely cool, since he lives in New York. Except Toby will be there, but she’s okay. It all depends on whether Cameron (Jodi’s mom) decides to go with my mom to help out. And also if Jodi’s mom can get someone to take care of her music store. And if Jodi’s mom decides she can let go of her kids. I, personally, think she’s torqued off enough at Jodi’s dad for taking Toby in that she’ll dump Jodi and me on him just to spite him. Hard to say.

How’s it going in your neck of the frozen woods?

Tiffany.

Anne Louise Bannon

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.

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