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