The next day, close to five p.m., Karen stopped by Sharon’s office on the way to her own.
“Wheaties, you want to—” She stopped. “Where are you going?”
Sharon finished putting on her coat. “Home. My brother and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner. In fact, I’ve got to hustle. He could already be there.”
“You have a brother in Washington?” Karen asked, following Sharon out of the office.
“He lives in New York, but he’s bringing my other guitar. I didn’t want to ship it or put it in checked baggage when I came out last January.”
“Okay. This is cool. You not only play a musical instrument, but you’re picky enough about it that you have more than one and you don’t want to check it.”
Sharon shook her head, smiling. “I’m not that good. This guitar is just special. My dad bought it for me for my tenth birthday. We were living in Italy, then, so he went to Spain and got it. I have another that travels with me.”
“Next time we’re in the PFZ, we’ll have to hear you play.”
“I’m not that good, Karen.” Sharon felt herself flushing. “I mostly play for myself. You know, stress reduction, like your crocheting.”
Karen rolled her eyes. “Did you have to tell June that I do it? She loved the lace and is trying to talk me into doing a few yards for her. Says she’s got a great new design.”
“That was an awfully cute suit she made you. Can you believe she cranked it out in less than one week?”
“Her dressmaker did the sewing, but, boy, that’ll teach me to open my mouth in the dressing room when she’s around.” Karen rolled her eyes.
They were near the exit.
“Look, I gotta fly,” said Sharon. “I told him six, but with my brother you never know. He has no sense of time whatsoever. He shows up late. He shows up early. One of us would have shot him by now if it weren’t for his girlfriend.”
“Okay. See you tomorrow.” Karen went back to her office, smiling softly to herself. She hadn’t forgotten about Sharon’s guitar playing and was debating how to tell the others.
Augie had an electric piano in his office, which he played when he was thinking about something. Coop was always whistling something. Karen, herself, played the violin and piano. She wondered about the others. A little Advisory Panel band would make the dread Marian Jefferson happy. Stress reduction and team building. Better yet, the boss was out of the White House for a few days on a trip to Chicago. Karen barely pondered a moment more before sending Coop an email.
Coop was a little too enthusiastic and Sharon groaned loudly when she saw his email that night after Michael and Inez had left. It had been a pleasant visit, and just long enough. Sharon adored her older brother, but he had that antsy kind of energy that usually left her rather drained after a couple hours with him. Sharon, who also loved Inez like her other sisters, often asked her how she dealt with the antsiness. Inez usually just smiled and shrugged. That night had been no different.
As Sharon mulled over Coop’s email, she decided that Coop and her brother had a lot in common. Nonetheless, the next morning, she brought her travel guitar with her to work and later to an unofficial lunch meeting in Augie’s office. Coop had come in just for the meeting and turned out to be a rather nice tenor. Ed-man did not come in, as he was not a singer, which surprised no one. Whitey did his singing as part of a Navajo group and he was also a drummer, which helped. Karen held a tune rather nicely, but it was hard to sing and play the violin at the same time. Still, the lunchtime jam session had been fun. At least until Coop passed out the sheet music for a prank on the following Tuesday. Tanks loved the idea and convinced the others it was worth doing.
Later that afternoon, Sharon got a call from the security office. A large package had arrived for her. Sharon went down to confirm that she knew the sender and to give her permission for the package to be searched. The Secret Service man promised to have it put in her office by the next morning, even though it was Saturday.
June, for her part, had been debating how to talk to Sharon about her own little scheme. Saturday morning, she decided it was time and called Sharon’s cell phone.
“I hate to ask you to come in on the weekend,” June began.
“I’m already here,” Sharon said. “I’m redecorating my office this weekend.”
“Oh? Great. I’ll be down in just a bit.”
June could hear Sharon’s voice as she approached the office.
“No, I’m looking at them right now,” Sharon was saying. “They’re fabulous… Seriously, Sarah, they’re perfect. The Outre-Meuse poster and the one from the Sparrow series… No, darling, I know you’re not going to, but you should. It’s amazing. You could make some serious money on it…”
June peeked in the open door. Sharon turned and June spotted the headset parked on her ear. The floor in front of the desk was littered with cardboard and bubble wrap. Framed art leaned against any available vertical surface. Sharon was holding a framed oil painting. June could see a lot of pink and a long black slash through the middle, but none of the details.
“You’ve totally caught her. It’s perfect, Sarah. You’ve outdone yourself, sweetie,” Sharon continued. “I’m not overdoing it. You’re great, Sarah, and you know it. Now get over yourself, already… I mean it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it… Thanks. I love you, too… Bye.”
Chuckling, Sharon switched off the headset then smiled as she saw June.
“Hi!” Sharon said.
“Hi.” June looked at the different artworks and smiled. “Wow. This is one hell of a collection.”
“That was my sister Sarah,” Sharon explained, the pride oozing from her. “She’s an artist. I asked her to pick some art for my office and this is what she sent.”
June looked at the oil in Sharon’s hand. “This is incredible. Where did she get it?”
“That’s her own work,” said Sharon. “It’s one of a series she did when our other sister, Susan, had her accident. Susan is— was a dancer. It’s hard to say now.” Sharon sniffed suddenly. “It’s still hard. It was only two summers ago.”
June reached out and held Sharon’s shoulder. “Oh, my god. I’m so sorry.”
Sharon shrugged. “Thanks. I… It’s… Hell. I’m the last person to say where Suse should be now. But anyway, Sarah, God bless her, found a way to help us all deal with it.” Sharon lifted the painting again. “She did a whole series – Sparrow Without Wings, one for each of us. We always called Susan the Sparrow because she was always flitting all over the place. She’s kind of like my brother that way. Can’t stay still.”
“There were four of you?”
Sharon laughed. “Yeah. My older brother, then me, Susan, and Sarah. And Michael has two girls, Toby and Jodi. They live with their mom.”
“Heavens!” June looked again at the painting. “So what are you going to do with this one?”
Sharon shrugged. “Good question. I know I want to paint. I was thinking green, but then this…” She looked at the oil again.
June looked around the narrow office. “Actually, I think you’re on the right track. If you go with greens on the wall, it will not only complement the pink, but I think it will make the painting really pop. Let’s see, do I have any paint chips?”
“I have some here.” Sharon handed June the collection of small cards hooked together by a metal ring.
The two debated colors for several minutes, although Sharon ultimately went with June’s suggestion to use two shades of green, with a faux chair rail in gold and orange to divide the darker green on the bottom of the wall from the lighter green on top.
“Tell you what,” June said. “Why don’t you go get the paint while I get changed and get the walls prepped?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sharon said.
“I’m totally serious.” June grinned. “One of the worst parts of being the CEO, you never get to get your hands dirty. And I love painting. Seriously. I’ll call a car for you.”
June had already grabbed Sharon’s desk phone and was dialing. “Don’t worry about it. Weekend stuff comes out of personal funds and we can prove it, if necessary. And I already helped Tanks put her office together.”
Thanks to the car, Sharon got back from the paint store in record time, happy to find that her furniture order had arrived and been inspected by the Secret Service. The new credenza, chair, and shelving waited outside the office. June was inside, putting the last bits of masking tape over what would be the faux chair rail.
It was mid-afternoon by the time the two finished with the walls, but the chair rail would have to wait until the walls had dried.
“Let’s go on up to my studio and kick back for a while,” June said.
“Okay,” Sharon replied, not sure what June was suggesting.
June led her into an elevator and it was pretty clear as they got off that they were now in the private residence. Sharon gulped.
“Yeah, it’s still freaking me out,” June said, heading for a nearby stairway. “And I’m living here. The Lincoln bedroom is that way. Want to know where my brother’s room is?”
“No!” Sharon yelped, then regretted it.
“He’s around here, someplace.” June shook her head. “You know how he keeps going on about not keeping people at work all hours? Total hypocrite. Even money, he’s in his private office right now, working away.”
“Couldn’t he be, like, watching a basketball game or something?” Sharon asked.
“Probably, but he’s still working.” June chuckled. “He hasn’t got anything else to do. Come on.”
June’s studio was a large open room with lots of windows along the long wall. There were several antique armoires in between the various windows, a drafting table at one end, curtains along the far short wall and a still life set up in one corner with an easel containing the canvas in front of it. In front of the curtains was a square riser. Three different types of sewing machines were set up along another wall, along with a pressing station and several dressmaker’s dummies. Near the door was a desk with a laptop and next to that an overstuffed couch and a couple file cabinets.
“My sanctum sanctorum,” June said, with a wave of her hand. “You know how brothers are supposed to be despised?” She shook her head. “Kinda hard to despise a brother who can put something like this together.”
“He did this?”
“Not entirely. I had most of the input. But it was his idea to make sure I had it.”
Sharon shrugged, trying to stay cool. “He’s the right kind of brother, I guess.”
“Mostly.” June waved at the couch. “Have a seat.”
“You know, it suddenly dawns on me that you came down to my office this morning because you wanted to talk to me.” Sharon flopped down.
June swallowed. “Oh, that. Yeah, I did. Listen, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but I’ve got this little project going, trying to maybe prevent some of the rumor-mongering regarding my brother and eligible females.”
“You mean the dating pool?”
Sharon tried to get up. “Oh, no. Not interested. No way, no how.”
June flopped down next to her. “Sharon. Seriously. We need you. Dan Friedman wants you to pull embassy duty. It’s perfect. You won’t need all the extra briefing and you’ll know how to handle yourself better than anybody. Plus, the whole point of the dating pool is that you’re just friends.”
“I’m not sure I want to be friends,” Sharon complained. “For crying out loud, I work for the guy. He’s my boss. How would that look?”
“Exactly. You’re there for a reason. It’s not about romance, it’s about work.” June sat back triumphantly.
Sharon groaned softly.
June touched her arm. “Seriously, Sharon. You’re safer out in the open this way.”
Sharon felt a cold chill. Mark had said the same thing once.
“I don’t get it,” she said finally.
June sighed. “Let’s just say that there’s less room for rumors to get started when you’re openly associating with my brother.”
“But don’t photographers and news people show up at embassy events?”
“They do, but nobody cares. Look what happened with Carrie Martindale. The whole reason that went crazy is that she denied she knew him. If it’s obvious you have a good reason for being with him, no one is going to give a damn.”
June held her arm. “Look, I get it about not wanting to be looked at and your privacy and all. It’s just one of those paradox things that being out in public with Mark is the best way to be ignored. Trust me, it’s the secret romance that they’re all looking for. And we do need you, Sharon. Mark’s whole thing is repairing our foreign relations. We need someone who can help him with that, not someone who might say something stupid out of ignorance.”
Sharon sighed. “There’s the trump card. Damn.”
“It’ll be public knowledge that I’m the one arranging Mark’s dates. That’ll make it even harder for any rumors to gain ground.”
“I suppose. I guess I’m in.”
June grinned. “Terrific. I’ll set you up for the Korean embassy bash on Wednesday.”
“So soon?” Sharon groaned.
“Hey, it’s repairing our foreign relations. Everyone’s been trying to get Mark to their embassy for the past three months. The South Koreans just came up in the rotation. Now, we’re talking cocktail length. From what Tanks says, all you’ve got is that blue number.”
Sharon flushed. “I’m afraid so. I do spend most of my time working, you know.”
June got up and sat down in front of the drafting table. “Blue is not a bad color for you, but I’m thinking mauve for some reason.”
“Why not?” Sharon said. “Something old-fashioned with puffed sleeves?”
June grimaced. “Yes and no. Tanks is about trends. That’s not a knock on her, by the way. That’s just who she is, and I love that about her. But you.” June looked her over again and Sharon could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “You are more about classic styling. But daring.” June clipped a sketch pad to the top of the drawing board and sharpened a pencil. “What do you love most about your body?”
“Me?” Sharon thought. “My eyes, I guess.”
“Oh, lord, hips, thighs, you name it.”
June looked her over again. “Nah. Your hips aren’t bad at all. Not according to your measurements. Your shoulders are a tad narrow. I noticed you don’t tend to carry a shoulder bag.”
“Can’t keep anything up on my shoulders.”
“Thought so.” June started sketching. “That’s good. We can go with the off-shoulder look. Hm. Sash around the hips?”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.”
June grinned and beckoned Sharon over. “Well, look at this. What do you think?”
The dress on the sketch pad was straight, but with a sash that encircled the shoulders and another that encircled the hips, and long straight sleeves.
“It’s beautiful,” Sharon gasped.
“I’ve got it!” June jumped up and rummaged through one of the armoires. “Mauve silk lace. I knew I had a sample in here. That must have been what got me thinking mauve.” She presented the roll of fabric to Sharon. “You like it?”
June held the fabric up to Sharon’s face. “It’s perfect for your coloring. I think I’ve got a fitting leotard in here. Would you mind if I draped this on you? The paint should be dry by the time we’re done.”
“It’s a way of making a pattern. I basically just pin and cut it right on you. It’s fast and it will fit like nothing you’ve ever owned before.”
“June, what are you talking about?”
“Indulging myself.” June sighed. “Look, Sharon, I don’t know if this will make sense to you or not, but I really love making clothes for other people. It’s why I do what I do. And one of my absolute favorite things to do is to make specific designs for specific people. It’s like that suit for Tanks. No way would that work on anybody else. And the glory of it was, I was able to get to know Tanks and to take what I knew about her and make that part of the design. And this dress is part of what I know about you. It is the most fun thing on the planet for me.”
“Okay,” Sharon said slowly. “I get that. It’s like when Sarah or Susan or my brother get going. It’s who they are.”
“It’s part of who I am.” June smiled softly. “I started in high school. My BFF. She was a little on the chunky side and hated that she couldn’t find clothes that fit and were cute. So I made stuff for her and it was so much fun. That’s why I went into clothing design. The only problem is that designing in a vacuum kinda sucks. I have to have somebody in mind when I’m designing or the result bites.”
“So will this dress end up in production?” Sharon grinned slyly.
“No! No way. This is yours and yours only.” June paused. “Something similar might end up in production.” She looked Sharon over again. “I could do a whole line around you. But nothing personal. I think Tanks is a little more profitable as inspiration. Clothes are about trends and she does that thing so well.”
Sharon laughed. “She does. You know, Al Eddington calls her Advisor Lite.”
June giggled. “And she’s one of the smartest people I know. Did you hear her on the gender ramifications of using sex to sell hamburgers?”
“You know how people talk about me having my finger on the pulse of the world. Tanks could run circles around me. I swear she can spot what’s coming faster than Coop can. And what Coop doesn’t know, ain’t worth knowing.”
June nodded. “And I’ve known Coop for years. Come on. Let’s get you into a leotard.”
Sharon found being draped on a tedious business, at best. And hard on the arms, which had to be held out from her side for a long time. June was sympathetic and didn’t fuss too much as Sharon shifted. The two were chatting pleasantly when there was a knock on the door and Mark suddenly entered.
“June, have you heard from Matt?” he asked, then stopped. “Oh. I didn’t know you had company.”
“I was helping Sharon paint her office,” June explained. “We’re waiting for the paint to dry so I can paint a faux chair rail. What’s up with Matt?”
“Just haven’t heard from him,” Mark said softly. “We can talk about it later.”
Suddenly serious, June looked up at him. “What happened?”
Mark glanced at Sharon. “Got a bounce back. His web address mailbox is full.” He smiled weakly at Sharon. “Probably not paying attention. We’ll talk later.”
“For sure,” June replied as she went back to pinning in earnest.
Sharon silently sighed her relief as Mark left the studio. June hadn’t seemed to notice Sharon’s fluttering heartbeat. In fact, June seemed distracted and sad.
“You okay?” Sharon asked, finally.
“Yeah.” June stopped and sat back on her heels. “No. I’m worried.” She looked up at Sharon and went back to pinning. “Matt is our nephew. Our oldest brother’s kid. We, uh, don’t get on that well with Harold and Shawna.”
“I’ve heard there’s some coolness.”
“That would about describe it. They have three kids. Mark and I, well, we’ve tried to be there for them. It’s hard because we don’t want to undermine their parents.”
“But you don’t like their parents.”
“Their parents are pretty obnoxious.” June shook her head. “They’re into appearances and as long as you look good, nothing else matters. The two older girls, Tracy and DeeDee. They bought into it. Matt. He’s sixteen. He’s a lot like Mark. Real thoughtful and everything. Only Matt’s a lot more introverted than Mark.”
“Doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d let his inbox get too full.”
June sighed. “He’s not. It’s Shawna. She’s… Controlling I guess is the way to put it. She wants Matt to hang with her idea of the right kind of kids. So she doesn’t let Matt connect with anybody she doesn’t approve of.”
“Including you and his uncle?”
“Especially us.” June jabbed a pin into the fabric with a particularly violent thrust. “It’s pretty amazing that she pulls it off, too. What with all the different ways kids have of communicating these days. But she’s got Matt totally under her thumb, not to mention control of his laptop and his cell phone. Has totally blocked all the addresses and numbers from folks she doesn’t like. And his school won’t let the kids use social networking sites or webmail. I suggested the public library, but apparently, they need a parent’s signature to let him on.”
“Can’t he borrow someone else’s laptop or phone?”
“There’s a little problem with that. Did you get an email last summer with Mark’s private cell phone number and email?”
“That was a hoax.”
“No, it wasn’t. One of Matt’s so-called friends figured out who he was emailing and calling.”
“Matt’s gotten so paranoid, he’ll barely email my dad or grandma. Which is probably the biggest problem.”
“Poor thing.” Sharon thought. “I wonder if there’s a way to set up a false personality, maybe with the right kind of avatar or something.”
“That you’d have to get past Mark and I don’t think you will. He’s dead set against undermining Matt’s parents.”
“But his mother is—”
“I know.” June picked up her scissors, gazing at Sharon thoughtfully, but as though she wasn’t seeing her. “I think Mark’s worried that if we give Shawna any real ammo, she’ll take it out on Matt.”
“That would make sense.” Sharon thought. “You know. I’ll have to think it through and do some checking, but I think I can arrange a workaround. Maybe if your brother gets worried enough, he won’t be as concerned about undermining.”
“I can only hope.”
June was done just before dinner time. Sharon declined to stay for the meal, not wanting to see Mark again.
The next morning, she was surprised to see the whole faux chair rail painted in. It was done in a complicated criss-cross pattern in orange and yellow with a dark gray background. Sharon wondered how long it had taken June to do it, and how much of June’s work had to do with her worry about her nephew. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much Sharon could do about it at that moment, so she moved her new furniture in and hung the artwork.
In New York city, Michael Wheatly sat in the tiny music room in his apartment, feeling a little lost and not quite sure what to do about it. In the two months since he and Inez had been living together, there had been considerable rockiness. The fights had been intense—and loud—but not so serious as to break them up. If anything, Inez said she’d expected them, part of the whole learning to live together process.
Still, Michael felt uncomfortable. It was true that his ex-wife had been more likely to avoid confrontations during the four years they were married. But the fights toward the end, those had been loud and ugly. Michael played his and Inez’ latest fight back through his mind, trying to find something different.
He played a few notes on the mini-grand piano in front of him and debated writing them down on the sheet music in front of him. It was about that time that he caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke. Inez must have come home. He’d been concentrating pretty intensely on his latest composition and Inez knew better than to knock when the music room door was closed. Michael felt a pang of guilt, looked at the music and decided he’d played out this latest bit of inspiration.
Inez was in the living room, smoking and looking out the apartment window without seeing anything.
“Are you home early or did I lose track of time again?” Michael asked softly.
Inez turned and snubbed out her cigarette. “Oh. I don’t know. What time is it?”
Michael looked around the living room but there were no clocks visible. There was a clock on the DVD player, but that was closed in the cabinet below the TV. The kitchen boasted clocks on the microwave, the oven and the stereo unit under one of the shelves, but that was in the kitchen.
“It’s dark,” Michael observed. “Six-ish, maybe?”
“Sounds about right.” Inez pulled her mobile phone from her pants pocket. “Six-thirty-eight, actually. You want dinner?”
“I suppose. Are you all right?”
Inez shrugged listlessly. “So-so. Maria French came by the studio today. She wants to show my work at her gallery.”
“That’s terrific.” Michael paused. “Are you worried about having enough prints developed or something?”
“No. I’ve got plenty of pictures.” Inez looked over at him and smiled sadly. “I could take some new shots for the kids at play series, but I’ve got enough for Maria’s exhibit if I don’t get to it.”
“Then what’s bothering you? You don’t smoke inside here, usually.”
“I’ve gotta quit this lousy habit.” Inez dropped the pack of cigarettes onto the window sill.
“And…?” Michael waited.
Inez looked at him. “Mama called this afternoon. She wants me to come to dinner next Sunday.”
“If we’re free, why not?”
“She wants me. You were not included in the invite.” Inez began pacing. “My ex is going to be there.”
“Mama doesn’t quite get it that Manuel left me. She wants us back together again. Even a bastard like Manuel is better than me being alone or living in sin with you.”
“I take Mama doesn’t quite get it that you’re the one who doesn’t want to get married just yet.”
Inez turned on him. “Now don’t start that with me, will you? I’m in no mood.”
“No kidding.” Michael flopped onto the couch.
Inez rolled her eyes. “And you’re still bugged about the fighting.”
“Yeah, I am.” Michael glared at her. “Sorry. I know better. I just… I don’t know. This just isn’t what I expected. I mean I didn’t expect it to be perfect and happily ever after.”
Inez rolled her eyes. “So what? It’s not all about you. If we’re going to make a go of this, you’d better get used to that idea and fast. I’ve got a real problem here. If you’re not willing to listen, then I can go elsewhere.”
“No.” Michael got up and went to her. “I’m sorry. I should be listening better. But it’s not like we can do anything about your family.”
“Like I don’t know that? It still hurts. It’s still making me crazy.”
“Then don’t let it.”
“Easy for you to say.” Inez groaned and went back to glaring out the window.
Michael came up behind. “Okay. It’s not easy. But what are you going to do? You’re not going to change them.”
“I know. I just wish they weren’t so down on you.” Inez coughed lightly. “Manuel called me today, also. Said he wants to get back together. I guess his little floozy lost her job.”
“I’m sorry, Inez.”
“You’re right. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
Michael smiled softly. “Except not get back together with him.”
“Don’t even,” Inez growled, then softened. “It’s not going to happen. I just don’t want to have to deal with it, is all.”
“Then don’t. The next time Manuel calls, hang up on him. If your mother starts in, hang up. There’s a reason those buttons are on the phone.”
Inez leaned into him. “I know. We’ll see. This is my mother we’re talking about, remember.”
Michael sighed. “Point taken. It’ll be all right, Inez, mi amor. The most important thing is that we’re here together. The rest of the world can go to hell.”
“It can.” Inez smiled. “So what did you do all day?”
Michael grinned. “Sparrow Without Wings. You want to hear it?”
“Of course, amado.” Inez shook her head and chuckled.
It was always about Michael. But sometimes, that was a good thing.