Chapter Nineteen

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 romantic fiction serial White House Rhapsody: Of course, you may end up regretting that

Some points, Sharon remembered her father saying (usually in reference to some fanatical religious groups), were simply not worth proving. She smiled vaguely at Max Epstein as he went on about some column he’d written years before, wondering what point she’d been trying to prove when she’d called Max. That she wasn’t in love with Mark Jerguessen?

She nodded and sipped her wine, working at looking more interested than she was in Max’s soliloquy. The sad thing was that Max wasn’t that bad, except for his penchant for taking over a conversation or a situation. That was kind of the problem with having a yen for someone untouchable, such as the boss, Sharon mused. One tended to make up for it by doing all sorts of untenable things and trying to convince oneself that those things weren’t so bad. Such as listening to Max drone on.

Just drinks, she’d said. If only it were and not some hair-brained scheme to prove to herself that she was just another single woman with no interest in yet another man whose lifestyle would make her crazy in a nano-second.

“So what do you think?” Max suddenly asked. “Totally off the record, of course.”

“About?” Sharon suddenly blushed. “I’m sorry, Max. I was thinking about work. We’ve got that Mid-East trip this week.”

“That’s what I was talking about. Ashley Whitcomb is going to be at the Children for Peace conference in Jerusalem on Thursday. The one your boss is supposed to be speaking at.”

“Okay. Who’s Ashley Whitcomb?”

Max cocked a condescending eyebrow at her. “You don’t know?”

“No. That’s why I asked.”

“She’s that former Miss America who’s supposed to be seeing your boss on the sly.”

Sharon laughed. “Are you kidding? Where’d you hear that?”

“It’s all over the place.” Max swept his arm out as if to include everyone else in the bar.

As he went on to explain just why Sharon should have known this, Sharon let her mind wander again. She knew she had no reason to be jealous, although she couldn’t help wondering who Ashley Whitcomb was and how the president would have met her.

Instead of asking Max, however, she simply let out a huge yawn, apologized to Max profusely and made her escape.

The next morning, she and Karen went running along the Potomac.

“It’s one of those things you simply have to do,” Karen had explained. “You see it in all the movies.”

So Sharon met Karen at a bend not far from the Lincoln Memorial and the two took off. The famed cherry trees were just losing their blooms and a light mist hovered over the river as the early morning sun popped in and out of the clouds.

“So what’s with this Ashley Whitcomb rumor?” Sharon asked.

“It’s been floating around since Wednesday or so, I think,” Karen replied. “Things really started buzzing yesterday afternoon, though. The boss is supposed to be interested in her.”

“But who is she? I mean, besides a former Miss America.”

“She was a teacher for a year or so, but then about four years ago, she used the whole Miss America thing to get a book published about being nice to children and puppies. Come on. You saw it.”

“If it was in English, probably not,” Sharon said, gasping a little. “Four years ago, I wasn’t spending a lot of time in the States.”

“It spent some time on the bestseller lists,” Karen said. “But it was all about her name. Trust me. I tried to read it. It was like trying to make sense out of cotton candy. I found out who her ghost writer was and she said the experience was enough to almost make her want to give up ghostwriting. Whitcomb’s an idiot. According to the ghost, not only did Whitcomb have trouble stringing a coherent thought together, she still insisted on having complete control of the project. Worse yet, she made the ghost sign away all rights to the book and never even mentioned her in the acknowledgments. And once, when the ghost admitted she was actually the writer, Whitcomb tried to sue her for plagiarism. Can you believe that? Whitcomb couldn’t even sue for the right thing. The ghost told me the biggest reason she settled was that she didn’t want it to get out that she’d written that piece of junk.”

“Doesn’t sound like somebody our boss would like,” Sharon said.

Karen gasped and snorted. “Not really. But she makes great arm candy, especially since she does so much child advocacy work. Mostly fundraisers and speeches, as far as I can tell. But apparently, she sells event tickets. Put her on as the keynote and people fork the cash over.”

“So what’s up with the rumors?”

“That.” Karen waved for a stop. “Like I said, it really started buzzing yesterday. The Children for Peace conference. She wasn’t going to be there. Except yesterday afternoon, she suddenly got signed on as a panelist. The kicker is that one Senator Eamon Halstead called in a favor or two and got her signed up all of a sudden.”

“Isn’t he one of the big Moral Americans Caucus guys?”

“He’s the chair.” Karen took a long pull on her water bottle.

“But what has that got to do with the boss, except that he’s going to be at the conference, too?”

“Everything. Everyone knows the boss doesn’t date anyone he obviously knows.” Karen bent forward, pushing her chest against her legs.

“Oh. Huh.”

Karen pushed herself up and then bent backward. “It’s not like the guy has been celibate all these years. But he’s real good at keeping it quiet. Even June doesn’t know who all he’s dated.” She looked over the path. “I think we need to pick up our pace. You game?”

“Sure.”

Sharon was not at all sure and spent the remainder of the run trying not to gasp too hard. Still, Karen’s words echoed ruthlessly through her head. So everyone knew the president didn’t date anyone he obviously knew. Well, he’d said as much, as had June, on more than one occasion. So she was safe – the very word he’d used, as a matter of fact. The question was did she want to be safe in that respect?

Back at the White House, Mark was in the desk chair behind the elegant glass-topped table that made up his desk in his private study upstairs. He lounged comfortably into the soft dark brown leather, but his arms were folded and his expression stern. In front of him, on the other side of the desk stood Randy Nash and Yasmin Sollette.

Randy was a tall African American man in his early 30’s. A member of the Secret Service security detail at the White House, his broad shoulders and chest were more the result of working out and staying in shape. However, it didn’t take much imagination to figure out what he’d look like if he ever let himself go. He wore the traditional dark suit, but his shirt carried the faintest hint of lavender rather than regulation white and his tie was a darker shade of lavender.

Solly was in her starched white chef’s coat and pull-on cotton canvas pants, this time gaily decorated with American flags on a dark blue background. Her plastic clogs were bright red. She was thinking that it was not fun to have President Mark Jerguessen annoyed with her.

“Sir,” Randy said, “you did say to provide our friend with a name.”

“But, Solly, that was a private conversation,” Mark growled.

“I understand, sir,” Solly said, drawing herself up with an injured sniff. “Did I share any part of it? I did not. I only got the idea is all.” She suddenly grinned. “And it was a good one, you gotta say that.”

Mark sighed and shook his head. “Well, I suppose Ashley Whitcomb is as good a target as any. I’m not comfortable with the idea of setting someone up that way, though.”

“Sir, our friend is not going to fall for some fake name,” Randy said.

“So why not take it out on somebody who’s making your life miserable?” Solly asked. “Them We-Think-We’re-So-Moral-Americans are just begging to be shown up. They want you to marry one of their girls, well, let’s just set ‘em up to think that and let it all blow up in their faces.”

“It’s too late now,” Mark said. “I guess we’re going to find out just how moral Miss Whitcomb really is. Any luck finding that other leak?”

“Getting there, sir,” Randy said. “We’ve had our eyes on several of the new hires, but there’s also one or two of the established staff who’ve expressed some displeasure that they didn’t get to retire when you took office. Based on some of the potential bits and pieces of the rumors, we think it’s probably with the janitorial staff.”

“I see. Well, keep looking.” Mark shifted up in his chair, then noticed the pair still waiting for him. “And you’re dismissed.”

He slouched back down as soon as the two were gone. He wasn’t surprised that there was a spy on the staff – maybe even more than one. He was just glad that Solly was willing to play decoy. Now, hopefully, no one would get hurt.

It wasn’t as though either he or Sharon had a lot of time to think about rumors about beauty queens. By Sunday, both Mark and Sharon were on Air Force One flying to Egypt. Faiza had gone ahead the day before. Sharon did allow herself a few minutes of excitement that she was, at last, on the fabled plane, then forced her attention to her work.

When Air Force One landed in Cairo, late that evening Cairo time, all was in readiness – the Egyptian prime minister’s limousine pulled up just as the plane taxied to a stop. There were the usual greetings and speeches. Faiza did most of the translation, being somewhat more adept at Arabic than Sharon.

The trip was somewhat controversial. Mark was in trouble at home for agreeing to visit the Egyptian president, Mr. Al Zabawi, given that the man was essentially a dictator whose record on human rights abuses was spotty at best. But the next day’s meetings went well enough, and at the end of them, Mark was able to suggest that there might be some progress in the human rights arena, thus proving his point that it was better to talk to the man than snub him.

The next day, the Americans flew to Luxor for a special tour of the archeological sites there, accompanied by both the Egyptian president and the head of the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities, Dr. Rahad Mohammed. As the sun set that day, the group finished by crossing the Nile by boat.

Sharon found Mark leaning on a railing watching the West Bank growing more distant.

“Good work today, boss,” she said.

“Thanks.” Mark took a deep, very satisfied breath and smiled. “Looks like we dodged a bullet with Dr. Mohammed.”

Dr. Mohammed, in addition to being one of the world’s premiere authorities on Ancient Egypt, was also, unfortunately, a rabid anti-Semite. He’d been added to the Luxor tour at the last minute and the Americans couldn’t exactly refuse since he was such an expert.

“So far,” Sharon said. “He’s not going to be at the reception tonight, which is a good thing. I overheard him going on that he had to get back to a new find. But we’ve got our statements ready in case he does shoot off his mouth in front of the press.”

Mark looked over at Sharon, noting how the setting sun gave her face a warm glow.

“I had fun today,” he said. “Whatever else he is, Dr. Mohammed’s pretty interesting.”

“I’d heard some of it before when I was here last,” Sharon said. “But he certainly had an interesting spin on it all. Any chance you can talk the Metropolitan Museum of Art to give back their antiquities?”

“Doubt it.” Mark chuckled. “Not even sure I want to get involved in that mess.”

“It is their history.”

“I agree, but…”  Mark grinned, rolling his eyes. “That’s whole lot of trouble with people I’d rather stay friends with, if you know what I mean.” He stole a sideways glance at Sharon. “You did a good job these past two days, too.”

“Thanks.”

There was a pause as the two watch the river sliding past. Then Sharon groaned and put her phone to her ear.

“What?” Mark asked.

“That’s a photographer in that little boat there,” Sharon said. “I’m pretty sure he got shots of the two of us.”

“We’re talking business,” Mark replied. “And we don’t comment, anyway. So?”

“Yeah.” Sharon pulled the phone from her ear and dismally looked at the read-out.

Not that there was any response yet – if there were to be one, she wouldn’t see it for a good many hours yet. The news media would be bad enough. The rest of the advisory panel would be merciless.

Sure enough, the Egyptian papers had the picture of Mark and Sharon on all the front pages, as did all the papers in Tel Aviv – where the Children for Peace Conference was being held, starting that next day. In fact, the picture was all over the Internet, though Sharon was glad to see that a shot of her with her phone to her ear was also included. Better yet, the Israelis didn’t seem to consider her merely arm candy.

But that could have been because Ashley Whitcomb had not only shown up but had made a point of sticking close to Mark at the reception at the end of the first day of the conference. And Whitcomb, if anything, seemed to like being arm candy.

It wasn’t anything Mark hadn’t dealt with before. But Whitcomb didn’t seem to get the subtle hints, so Mark found himself leaning more heavily on Sharon than he might have otherwise. She didn’t say anything as he repeatedly asked her to translate between various delegates and dignitaries.

“You know, he speaks English very well,” Sharon said about a French education minister that Mark pointed out.

“I know,” Mark sighed. “But you have said that talking to people in their own language makes me look more accommodating and approachable.”

“What about that picture of us on the boat?”

Mark grimaced. “Point taken.”

Bracing himself, he approached Monsieur Renault and was not at all surprised to find Ashley Whitcomb already chatting with the education minister. A minute later, Monsieur Renault excused himself and Mark found himself alone with Whitcomb.

She was the classic All-American blonde, almost tall enough to look Mark in the eye thanks to a pair of platform spiked heels, with a slim, almost bony body encased in a lightly sparkled hip-hugging strapless black cocktail dress.

“You seem to be following me tonight,” Mark said mildly.

“I thought it would be nice to get to know you,” Ashley replied, flashing her perfect smile that up close looked almost too white to be real. “After all.”

“You’ve heard the rumors, then.” Mark nodded. “I don’t comment at all. It blows over faster that way.”

Ashley giggled. “I didn’t say I wanted them to blow over. And it’s not like we don’t have anything in common. We both care about children.”

“Yes.” Mark looked at her without saying anything more.

Ashley giggled again, but there was an edge to it. “So. Is there a reason you’re not interested in me?”

Mark glanced down at her breasts. “It’s not that I’m not interested. I just don’t want to get you into trouble. The rumors aren’t any big deal now, but they will get worse and if there’s anything you’ve done that makes you look bad, it will become public.”

“I can handle it.” Feeling confident again, Ashley straightened and smiled.

“And I see no reason to put you in that position. However, if you really want to go out, I’ll email my sister and she can put you into the rotation.”

“Oh. I suppose that would be nice.”

Mark pulled out his iPhone. “Great. I’ll let June know. What’s your email address?”

Ashley stammered it out, then hesitated as Mark strode off. Sure enough, that Miss Wheatly was at his side again, presumably translating between the president and the Israeli Prime Minister. Half an hour later, Ashley made a point of circulating around to where Sharon was standing.

“Hi. I’m Ashley Whitcomb,” she said, shifting her champagne flute to shake Sharon’s hand.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“I know. You work very closely with the president, I see.”

Sharon looked around for Mark. “On a trip like this, I do. Other times, not so much.”

“Maybe I should start some rumors about you,” Ashley said with a little giggle.

“Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Ashley tossed her blonde hair over her perfectly tanned shoulder. “Somebody started them about me and I’ve only just met the man today. You work with him. Must be something going on.”

“That would be highly inappropriate, Ms. Whitcomb. He is my boss. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m needed to translate again.”

Ashley, however, was nothing if not persistent. The next day, she pulled a couple favors and managed to get a seat next to Mark during lunch. He chatted pleasantly with her, and later, during the cocktail hour before the conference banquet, he let her hang alongside him and didn’t seek Sharon out unless he genuinely needed her. Mark even put his arm around Ashley’s shoulders during the photo op before dinner.

Sharon, for her part, wasn’t entirely amused and felt even more annoyed that she was so disgruntled by Mark’s behavior. Still, she didn’t say anything until the U.S. party was back on Air Force One and the plane was in the air, and she only did because Mark called her back into his office on the plane.

He had kicked his shoes off, his black formal bow tie lay in a heap on the kidney-shaped blonde wood desk. His tux jacket hung precariously off the back of the tan leather desk chair. The chair reclined and swiveled, and Mark was reclining and had his feet up on the edge of the desk.

“Go ahead, plop it down,” he said, pointing at a smaller leather chair bolted into the floor in front of the desk.

Sharon had already taken her hair down and changed into jeans and a sweatshirt from UCLA. She looked down at her top.

“I didn’t think you were going to call me,” she said, sitting down in the chair and balancing her laptop on her knees. “I’d’ve put a suit or a dress on.”

Mark lightly snorted. “I don’t care. The only reason I haven’t changed is that I got a call from Admiral Kogen right when we got on board.”

“You did?” Sharon frowned as she reached for her Blackberry. “I haven’t heard about anything getting ready to blow up.”

“Nothing is.” Mark stretched, with his arms reaching above his head. “Turns out he just wanted to lobby for that new submarine project and the Senate is voting right about now. I thought it was a little late.”

“It’s only 4:30-ish there.”

Mark nodded and pulled out his iPhone. “Ah. You’re right.”

“Which is not why you called me in here.”

Mark chuckled and he pressed the screen buttons. “No. I don’t want to do a full de-brief on the trip, but thought since we’ve got to try and stay awake for a couple hours to get back on Washington time, maybe we could pull together the bullet points to focus on for when we do.”

“Sure.” Sharon opened her laptop and powered it up. “I guess the top thing is the Ashley Whitcomb rumors. You didn’t exactly help dispel them this afternoon.”

“No.” Mark chuckled, then shivered. “That was actually Augie’s idea. Halstead got a few minutes of the news cycle yesterday whining about me being gay again. So we made it pretty obvious I’m hetero and went ahead and used their girl to do it with. Kind of undermines his credibility, don’t you think?”

“You did an awfully good job of it,” Sharon said, then realized her tone was a lot more sour than she’d anticipated.

“Whitcomb seemed to think so.” Mark stopped as he saw the look on Sharon’s face, then burst into laughter. “I don’t believe it. You’re jealous.”

Sharon glared at him. “I didn’t say that.”

“But you are.” Mark grinned, then choked his laughs back. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh. But come on. As many times as you’ve gotten on my case about it?”

“It’s not like I have anything to be jealous of,” Sharon grumbled. “She’s a classic fluff-head.”

“That doesn’t change anything.” Mark pulled his feet from the desk and leaned forward. His smile was softer now.

“I don’t want to be jealous with you. And, and it’s like you said to me last week. Just because we can’t have a relationship doesn’t mean you should have to live like a hermit. And I know you don’t, anyway.”

“I’m not seeing anybody right now, on the sly or otherwise.”

“And how would I know?”

Mark let out an utterly rueful sigh. “You would. Trust me. The same way June and… Well, others always know.”

“Right.” Sharon closed the lid on her laptop. “I’m not sure I buy that. You’re good at hiding.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like last week, with Mr. Makindu. You were in as foul a mood as I’ve ever seen anybody in, and yet, you were all smiles, Mr. Personality, while you were meeting with him.”

“Would you have rather I hadn’t put it on?”

“It’s not that.” Sharon rapped her nails nervously on the laptop lid. “It’s just that it was like you were a second person, you know?”

“And what if I have to be sometimes?” Mark’s eyes watched her intently.

Sharon sighed and looked back at him. “I suppose you do.”

“It’s not something I like about myself.” Mark looked away, wondering how much to say. “But it can be useful. Such as when I need to make a certain Nigerian ambassador feel welcome.”

“Hm.” Sharon leaned forward. Her elbow slid onto the desk as she put her chin in her hand. “And where’s the real Mark Jerguessen in all of this?”

Mark gazed unseeing at one of the dark portholes in the plane’s side wall. “That is and remains an excellent question. I like to think I’m fairly self-aware. Part of maintaining the whole moral compass thing.” He glanced over at Sharon. “Now, you, on the other hand, don’t hide diddley. You’re discreet, but I never have to wonder where you stand on anything.”

Sharon let out a strangled snort. “You’re probably the first person to tell me that. People are always telling me to stop hiding.”

“June said you don’t talk much about yourself.”

“What’s the point?”

Mark waited for her to continue, then grinned. “To get to know you?”

“You don’t seem to be having any problems with that.”

“In some ways. In some ways, not.”

His eyes caught hers and they gazed at each other. Sharon felt drawn in and warm, knowing full well that all Mark wanted to do in that moment was to kiss her, just as Mark knew that she wanted to kiss him just as badly and that if they did, it wasn’t going to stop.

“Sometimes,” Mark said very softly, “I just want to say to hell with it and…”

“I know.” Sharon smiled. “Sometimes I do, too. And to think that I told Ashley Whitcomb that having an affair with you would be highly inappropriate.”

Mark sighed and pulled back. “Maybe, maybe not. But I suspect it wouldn’t be smart right now.”

Sharon gathered her laptop and stood. “It would certainly undermine Halstead’s credibility on the whole gay thing.” She paused. “You know, people do talk about us. Whitcomb even said there had to be something going on. She wanted to start some rumors.”

“You going to be okay if she does?”

“I hope so.” Sharon looked at him. “But it’s not just Whitcomb. Tanks was teasing me about it.”

“Oh. So she’s part of the conspiracy, too.”

“What?”

Mark laughed. “There’s a conspiracy on to get us together. I’m pretty sure Coop’s involved. And June, and Augie and Jean. Possibly Johnnie.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Sharon felt herself gape and quickly shut her mouth.

“You think this is the first time Coop’s come up with something like this?” Mark sat back in his chair. “And just for the record, he has never succeeded.”

“Even on the sly?”

“Nope. Not once.”

“Good.” Sharon stopped. “I’m not sure if I find that reassuring or depressing.”

“Come to think of it, me either. But if you don’t mind, we’ve been close enough to that discussion already tonight. I don’t want to go there again.” He yawned.

“Any other bullet points to think about for the debriefing?” Sharon asked.

“That.” Mark pulled out a drawer and picked up a laptop. “We’ve got the Egyptian human rights concessions, and…  Tell you what. Why don’t you write up a list and email it to me? I’ll have Kent set up the de-briefing for Monday morning. That’ll give us time to get over the jet lag, coordinate with Daniel and pull some ideas together.”

“Great.” Sharon swallowed back a yawn, herself. “I’ll see you on the ground, then.”

She turned to go, then Mark’s laugh stopped her.

“What?” She turned.

“You didn’t wait for me to dismiss you.” Mark grinned at her happily.

“Oh! I’m so sorry, sir!” Sharon gasped, utterly horrified that she hadn’t.

“No, no, no!” Mark got up, excited. “You don’t get it. I’m so damn glad you didn’t. I know it’s protocol. I know it’s important. But I am so sick of everyone waiting around for my command.”

“Oh.”

“I don’t think it’d be a good idea if you walked away in front of other people.” Mark smiled softly. “Rumors, you know.”

“No. Of course not.”

“But if it’s just the two of us, would you mind terribly just leaving when it’s time to go? Please?”

Sharon smiled. “No problem.” She paused, then looked at him with a wicked glint in her eye. “Of course, you may end up regretting that.”

“Or you might.” Mark’s grin was equally wicked.

“Good night, sir.”

“Good night, Ms. Wheatly.”

In New York City, in the VIP departure lounge at JFK airport, Michael hung up his cell phone with a perplexed frown. He turned to Inez, who was involved in her own call and held up a finger to ask him to wait.

“Okay…” she told someone on the other end. “No. That sounds great… Well, we really appreciate it. We want it to be the best possible for everyone… Terrific. We’ll talk to you tomorrow then… Thanks. Good-bye.” Inez snapped her phone shut with a satisfied sigh, then looked at Michael. “Okay. You’ve got dancers for both songs, and no one has to run off and work with a celebrity. They’ve got some pros they’re auditioning for next season for Hard Town Saturday Night and no blonds. They’ll work off the dubs and it’ll pre-tape right before the show on Tuesday to allow for the rest of the band to set up and break down before the elimination show starts.”

“Yeah. Like last time,” Michael said, distracted.

Inez was too absorbed in her notes to notice. “You’ve got three pairs dancing to Sharon’s Song – they’re all eliminated pros, so you’ll have all Monday to work with them, but you won’t be able to get into the actual space until Tuesday. We’ll be meeting with the music director all day Saturday to nail down the arrangement. Have you cleared Toby and Jodi with their mom?”

“Yu-eah.” Michael fidgeted with his phone. “That’s the weird thing.”

Inez finally looked up. “Is something wrong?”

“Yes. Have no clue what, but Jodi was right. There is definitely something going on with Cameron.”

“There’s not going to be trouble with the girls playing with you, is there?”

“None what so ever. She didn’t even put in a pro forma protest. She just said the girls could do whatever they wanted.” Michael chuckled. “Jodi said no way. Tiffany doesn’t really want to, either. And, naturally, Toby was all over it. I’ll put her on the grand piano and let her sing back up.”

“That’ll work.” Inez frowned. “And Cameron’s not upset?”

“She said she had other things to worry about. Jodi says she’s scared about something, but Cameron keeps insisting she’s just distracted. So, naturally, Jodi’s scared to death.”

“Well, Cameron’s good at suffering in silence, then getting pissed because no one’s noticed.”

“I don’t think that’s what’s going on this time.” Michael shrugged. “But we’re not going to find out any too darned soon.”

A uniformed desk clerk approached them. “Excuse me, Mr. Wheatly, Ms. Santiago? Your flight is boarding now.”

“Great. Thanks.” Michael stood and gathered up his flight bag as Inez did the same.

The flight was mundane and there was a car service waiting when they got off the plane in Los Angeles. Friday afternoon, Michael tried to convince Jodi and Tiffany to play their cellos for his performance on the Celebrity Dance Off elimination show that coming Tuesday night, but both refused. Jodi didn’t say much about what was going on with her mother, but Tiffany did find some time to talk to Inez.

“Jodi thinks it’s something else bugging her mom,” Tiffany explained while Jodi tried to teach Michael how to make his ereader work. “And I have to say there may be. But I know she’s at least thinking about selling the music store.”

“What?” Inez all but gaped.

“Well, my mom got this great fellowship to go out and record vanishing folk music from all these different cultures all over the world and she asked Cameron to go with her. And Cameron’s been thinking about doing it.”

“Really. Like after Jodi’s in college?”

“No. Next fall.” Tiffany bit her lip. “I mean, Cameron says she’s gotta stay here and take care of Jodi and me, ‘cause I can’t go. And she swears she would never sell the store. But you can just tell she’s thinking about it.”

“How does Jodi feel about her mom going away?”

“I’m pretty sure she doesn’t think it’ll happen.” Tiffany pushed her glasses up her nose. “She’d probably be okay. I mean, she’s been looking forward to having Toby with you guys next fall. But it’s not like she’d be upset if we had to live with you guys. I mean her. I mean…”

Inez put her arm around Tiffany’s shoulders. “Of course, you’re welcome to stay with us. You’re just as much a part of this family as I am and we both know how that works.”

“I know.” Tiffany bit her lip again. “I just heard you were worried about Jodi and me being together all the time.”

“I’m worried about Jodi being so dependent on you,” Inez said, giving Tiffany a reassuring squeeze. “That’s a totally different thing than not wanting you around. And I do want you around. Okay?”

“Thanks.” Tiffany sighed. “I’m sorry. I was just being emotional.”

Inez laughed. “Then you’re being normal, and sometimes that’s a good thing.”

Tiffany smiled.

Saturday and Sunday everyone was absorbed in getting music, meeting with the people from the show, rehearsing and watching rehearsals. Inez noticed that in all the busyness both Jodi and Toby grew increasingly more relaxed, even though neither of them mentioned their mother.

Late Monday morning, both Michael and Inez completely forgot about Cameron in light of a more serious problem – the dance to go with Michael’s second number was not working. So Michael decided it was time to take a chance.

Susan, however, was not happy when she heard what Michael wanted.

“What kind of an ass are you?” she hollered so loudly through Michael’s phone that Inez heard her from eight feet away.

“I’m a desperate one, Suze,” Michael said. “And Mom said you’d been going to your old dance studio, so I thought maybe. I really need you.” Michael turned away from the group of six dancers huddled at the other end of the rehearsal studio – a bland room with one mirrored wall and wooden floors. “I can’t talk to them. I don’t speak their language and the dance is just not coming together. I mean, it looks good, but it doesn’t work. Susan, you’re the only person I know who can talk to them. Please?”

Susan’s language blistered the airwaves, but she eventually agreed to drive to the rehearsal studio and see what she could do.

“Do I get paid?” she snarled.

“Of course,” Michael said. “Union scale. Full day.”

“Will they pay for a demonstrator?”

“Same deal. No problem.”

“We’ll be there in an hour.” Susan hung up, strongly suspecting that the day’s wages would be coming out of Michael’s own pocket. Fine with her, she decided, him having the nerve asking her to help him with dancing when she couldn’t dance anymore.

Her therapist had suggested going to the dance studio, not to brood, but to help her face her grief over losing her ability to walk, let alone dance. He’d pointed out that she was going to see people dance again, she couldn’t realistically avoid it. She might as well adapt and see what she could do.

And she’d been able to help, running basic exercises for some of the new classes. Dina Cruz, about the only dancer friend that had visited Susan in the hospital, and the only one who wasn’t afraid of Susan, had volunteered to act as a demonstrator and the two were developing some excellent shorthand together.

But this would be different. Newer, younger dancers didn’t seem to care that she was in a wheelchair. They weren’t close enough to Susan’s accident or old enough to worry about what could happen to them. It was Susan’s old friends and colleagues who mostly avoided her, superstitious that an accident like hers could just as easily happen to them. And now, Susan would be working with more established pros and she couldn’t help wondering how they’d react to taking direction from someone who couldn’t even stand.

And it was true that there were some puzzled looks when Michael introduced the six dancers to his sister and told them she was there to help them with the dance. Susan quickly got the upper hand, though, when she spotted the problem after the first run-through.

“You’re doing a pretty couples dance,” Susan said.

“It’s a love song,” said Ivan, the lead dancer – a tall, willowy man with built-out shoulders and dark tousled hair.

“But it’s about a woman who has love right in front of her and won’t go after it,” Susan replied. She reached out her hand, palm down, with a dancer’s natural extension and grace. “It’s not the reaching out, it’s the yearning.”

She reached again, this time with her palm up. Ivan and the others gaped.

“That’s it!” Ivan said. “We’ve gotta change everything.”

“Wait a minute,” Susan said. “Let me think. Michael, can we move you and the piano? What about the strings?”

“Jodi and Tiff didn’t go for it,” Michael answered, smiling as he saw Susan literally coming to life.

It didn’t matter. Susan was already pointing to dancers and positioning them. Smiling, they went willingly.

Susan was still pushing everyone around when Jodi, Toby, and Tiffany arrived with Inez. Susan barely acknowledged they were there before ordering Toby into place at the piano. Inez looked at Michael and the two laughed.

“She’s all over the place,” Inez whispered to him.

“I don’t think I’ve seen her this happy since the accident,” Jodi whispered. “Is this really going to work?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Michael. “It was just a matter of time.”

“Grandmere and Grandpa are coming to the show, right?”

“They are now.” Michael looked over at Inez.

“I’m on it.” Inez grinned as she opened her mobile phone. “Think we can get Sarah and Sharon out?”

“Sharon said she had a big group of friends coming over to watch,” Michael said. “But call her, anyway.”

As it turned out, neither Sharon nor Sarah could get away to see the show in person. But it didn’t matter. Michael and Inez decided against telling them about Susan. It would make for one incredible surprise.

At home in her kitchen, Cameron Dykstra closed her laptop lid, then put her head down on her arms and cried. All the fear, all the relief washed over her in one wave of sobs after another.

It was a cyst – an ovarian cyst and not a tumor. She’d been so afraid, but not willing to tell anyone about the tests, lest they be forced to worry about her. Especially the girls. Cameron had already noticed that Jodi was worried.

But everything was fine. The cyst had been removed on Saturday – Cameron had scheduled the laparoscopic procedure and biopsy that day when the girls were going to be with their father so they wouldn’t be upset. Her mother had driven her to the hospital that morning and then home on Sunday, and the girls were too absorbed with their father’s big appearance on that stupid dancing show to pay much attention to how Cameron was. They’d even forgotten it was Cameron’s birthday. Which was just as well, Cameron decided.

It wasn’t cancer. Cameron, terrified that she was on the brink of dying, was going to live. All she had to do was pick up and carry on. Just like her mother had said. Life would go back to normal and all would be well. Or the same as it had been before.

Cameron sighed. She had a good life. She had her daughters, her work at the store. It wasn’t quite the life she’d planned, in those days before Michael, and, yes, even after they’d met and fallen in love.

She opened the laptop again and looked at the email on the screen. Her mother had emailed her father – a surprise in itself since her mother rarely mentioned the man let alone talked to him. Her father, Lee, had emailed back, still unaware that the growth was benign.

Cammie, honey, I’m really sorry to hear about your possible tumor. Believe me, all my energy is praying for it to be benign. I know we’ve had our ups and downs and there is a pile of regrets on my plate over each and every problem.

You’ve worked so hard for your girls and given them a good stable life. You have a lot to be proud of on that score. I just pray that you don’t regret giving up your life in the process. That was always the one thing I was afraid of —that you’d make the same mistake I did. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not about where or how many places you live, but how much love you give your kids. And you’ve obviously given your girls a lot, a lot of love.

If this turns out to be the actual crisis, I promise I’ll be there for you. You deserve that much. If it’s just a scare – as I pray that it will be – then please think of it as the gift of a new life. A new chance to live – maybe the same way, maybe in a whole new way.

Love, Dad.

A whole new way. Cameron blinked back another rush of tears. Her dad was right. This was like a second chance at living. And even if she’d escaped this time, would she be so lucky the next?

When she was afraid she was dying, her first thought was for Toby and Jodi and how she’d never see Toby win the Best Actress Oscar. Or Jodi the Nobel Peace Prize. Cameron laughed through her tears as she remembered that conversation about two years before. Her girls were so very clear about what they wanted for their lives, blissfully unaware of how easily and quickly that vision could and probably would change. Which brought Cameron’s second great regret about possibly dying – that she had given up all of her dreams to raise her daughters, dreams she had planned on taking up again once the girls were grown.

And now she had the chance to chase those dreams again. It had been so long, Cameron wasn’t even sure what those dreams were anymore, let alone if they were at all valid. Michael was begging to have more time with the girls. He already had Toby starting in the fall.

Cameron slapped the lid down on her laptop and picked up the phone.

“Happy birthday to me,” she whispered as she dialed Tiffany’s mother, Merilee Sheppledorf.

Anne Louise Bannon

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