Eddie Cooper still hadn’t worked out his mystery lunch plan by that Friday, but it didn’t make any difference, since Fridays were usually tight days for Mark. In addition to his regular meeting with the Advisory Panel, he usually ate lunch at his desk while finishing up and assessing his work for the week, then on to a regularly scheduled press conference at 2 p.m. It was all part of his plan to be more accessible and transparent. But it also gave him a chance to control what the weekend talking heads would be talking about, even before the usual Saturday radio address.
The Advisory Panel was slightly more rowdy than usual, since in celebration of the upcoming March Madness college basketball playoffs – starting that night – Coop had brought in a small plastic basketball hoop on a stand with a host of sponge balls to throw at it. Tanks scored a lucky shot by tossing one over her shoulder. Eli Weatherall was still there, but didn’t bother tossing any balls, although he did keep score. Gwen McKelvey was there and didn’t hit anything.
But things got serious quickly as Augie finished his report with a question for Mark.
“Boss, do you know a lobbyist named Carrie Martindale?”
Mark thought it over. “I don’t think so. Let me email Kent and see if she’s in my people database. Why?”
“She’s been working with the House on some proposals that sound suspiciously like your education initiative. Word’s getting around that she got them from you.”
Mark froze, then nodded.
“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Coop said quietly.
“At least you know the drill.” Mark rattled the keys on his laptop. “I’ll have Johnnie get the memo out.”
“I don’t get it,” said Mackie. “So what if you gave a lobbyist some proposals for an initiative?”
“I’m guessing it’s the implication,” Tanks said. “Less than appropriate means?”
“At the very least making out a romantic attachment, whether one exists or not,” Coop said. “That’s why the policy is not to comment in any way.”
“It’s not the first time it’s happened, nor will it be the last,” Mark said quietly.
Al Eddington sighed. “I don’t know what the issue is. It’s not like you’re married, sir. Why shouldn’t you have an active social life as long as you’re discreet about it?”
“If you could find a woman who’ll put up with the photogs and the tabloid coverage,” Tanks answered.
Augie laughed loudly. “Are you kidding? They’re lining up to sleep with our boss.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly interested in notching marks in available bedposts,” Mark grumbled. “And frankly, given my current workload, I think a social life is going to be moot for the next four years, at least. So for the sake of Ms. – what was her name again?”
“Martindale,” said Augie.
“For the sake of Ms. Martindale, let’s remember that policy is no comment even to deny any social life I may or may not have,” Mark said, glancing at his laptop screen. “Kent’s sending me the wrap it up message. Is there anything else?”
“Game time’s at 8,” said Sharon. “Please remember it’s potluck.”
Mark left, hoping fervently that the matter of Carrie Martindale would not become an issue. But it was the second question asked at the press conference.
He stood behind the podium in the press room, blue curtains and White House emblem behind him. This time, the presidential seal was hung on the front of the podium, a dark wood one with an electronic notepad screen embedded in the surface. Kent and Johnnie stood at the side of the press room, which was, as usual, jammed full with the full range of reporters, print, broadcast and even a few bloggers who’d finally earned their press credentials. Mark had a stylus in his hand to work the screen when he needed an additional fact, unless Kent or Johnnie pulled it up for him faster.
“Mr. President, how well do you know lobbyist Carrie Martindale?” reporter Gene Garrett asked, a short, graying man from a Detroit paper.
“May I ask why you want to know?” Mark asked.
“There is a rumor circulating that Ms. Martindale may have personal access to you that other lobbyists do not have,” Garrett said.
“I have no comment on any relationship I may or may not have with Ms. Martindale, or any other woman, for that matter.”
Garrett pressed. “Mr. President, you have promised transparency. Why can’t you deny or substantiate the rumor or correct it?”
“Alright, here’s the drill on this and any other similar rumors,” Mark announced. “I will not deny a relationship because there are an awful lot of people who won’t believe me anyway and the woman still gets her name dragged through the mud. I will not substantiate a relationship because that would give rise to even more speculation and attention paid to the woman, who probably doesn’t want it in the first place. The bottom line is, unless you have hard evidence of something seriously improper falling outside the realm of consenting adults, such as money changing hands, then I’m not saying anything one way or the other and I advise any woman connected to me by rumor or by actual acquaintance to do the same.”
Which settled it for the remainder of the press conference. Mark was still feeling rather grumpy about the whole situation, but at least Johnnie had the stationery ready for him when he got back to the Oval Office. He barely had time to get the note written and in an envelope when Kent announced that Ms. Wheatly had arrived for a briefing he’d requested earlier.
It was the sort of thing that was important to stay on top of, but not terribly interesting. Mark listened carefully, adding notes to the document Ms. Wheatly had posted to his personal server, but even so, he wasn’t sure whether he was more distracted by his feelings for her or his fear that those feelings would end up ruining her life.
Sharon wrapped up the briefing quickly. There really wasn’t that much to go over and she could tell the president was not entirely listening.
“Of course, if anything changes, I’ll let you know immediately,” she said, closing the lid to her laptop.
“Of course,” Mark replied. He spied the envelope on the desk and picked it up. “Ms. Wheatly, would you mind giving this to Ms. Bouyer, please? She knows what to do with it.”
“Okay.” Sharon took the simple white envelope and felt the heavy bond paper. “What is it?”
Mark sighed. “Something I fervently hope you will never get from me. It’s a note to Ms. Martindale with an apology for the situation and some tips on how to deal with the press.”
Sharon’s eyes rose. “Ah. Precisely the reason you won’t be carving a notch in my bedpost any too soon.”
“I have never met Ms. Martindale, as far as I know,” said Mark, testily. “I meet a lot of people, so it’s possible our paths have crossed, but we do not have a relationship.”
“Sorry.” Sharon backed up a little, surprised by his tone. “I wasn’t implying that you did. But if this is what happens to women you don’t even know…” She shrugged.
“Trust me, Ms. Wheatly, you’re much safer out in the open like this. The person who starts the rumors doesn’t go after people I obviously know since I almost never date women I obviously know.”
“The person who– You mean, you know who’s behind this?”
“Yes. The same person who’s been playing this game since I was first in the state legislature.”
“But it can’t be working. Even the Kelly Won rumors didn’t come close to panning out.”
Mark sighed even more deeply. “But it has ruined a few good relationships, including one I was pretty darned serious about, and that’s the point.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Mark waited, hoping Sharon wouldn’t press further, but she seemed to understand that wasn’t someplace he wanted to go.
Sharon took a deep breath. “Um, this may not be appropriate, but if not Ms. Martindale, is there anyone else that you’re hiding a relationship with?”
Mark smiled softly. “No. I’m not seeing anyone.”
And found himself biting back that he’d like to be seeing her.
“Well, I probably shouldn’t have been asking,” Sharon said. “I’ll see you tonight.”
The PFZ was crowded. In addition to the Advisory Panel members, several spouses were there, including Al’s and Coop’s. Daniel Friedman had been invited and Tanks had brought her daughters and her boyfriend. Al got soundly razzed when he produced his offering, chips and sour cream dip.
“He didn’t tell me it was a potluck,” Carolyn Eddington groaned. She was as tall and ramrod straight as her husband, but a lot more easy going, with steel gray hair and soft blue eyes.
The cheering rose in pitch as Mark scurried into the basement bearing a dark blue covered Dutch oven.
“What you got, Jugs?” the Coop demanded.
“Chili – my own personal recipe,” Mark announced opening the pot with a flourish. “I got up early this morning and threw it together. It has been cooking gently all day and is in full flower.”
“Full sear, you mean.” groaned John Whitesand. “Sheeze, Jugs, I can smell the chiles from here.”
June entered with the bag containing the sour cream, onions and cheese Mark had brought to accompany his dish. Sharon hurried upstairs, hoping there were enough bowls and spoons. There were, but just barely.
There wasn’t much room left around the television, but it didn’t really matter anyway, since at any given time at least half the group was talking with each other while the other half watched. Tanks and Coop sat through all the commercials, and debated the social and economic ramifications of the good ones.
Somewhere late in the third quarter, Sharon overheard Mark and Al discussing something, apparently unaware that she could hear them. Nonetheless, she felt her blood boiling and for the rest of the evening, she couldn’t wait until everyone – including the boss – went home.
Which was why she was even more annoyed to find that Mark was still there when she finally pushed the Coop and his wife out her front door.
“I can clean up myself,” she told him angrily.
Surprised, he stepped back. “I’m sorry?”
Sharon took a deep breath. “Okay, I can understand you being a little nettled earlier today, when I made that crack about you not notching my bedpost. But you didn’t have to tell Al that I was just another beautiful woman and it didn’t matter.”
“I didn’t—“ Mark frantically went over the evening in his head. “Oh, for crying out loud. You’re taking that completely the wrong way!”
“Then Al did, too.” Sharon did not like the shrill notes creeping into her voice, but she couldn’t help it.
“Did you hear me set him straight?”
Mark groaned. “You did, didn’t you? And you’re still mad. What is wrong with you?”
“Because I’m sick and tired of being just another beautiful woman!”
“Then you didn’t hear all of what I said.”
“I don’t care.”
“I do. Al’s the one you should be mad at, not me. He’s the one who said I should sleep with you because of your looks. What I said was that if that was the only reason I was sleeping with you, then – and only then, I might add – you would be just another beautiful woman and it wouldn’t matter.”
“I don’t want to be mad at Al,” Sharon groaned, throwing a napkin on the bar.
“Well, what good is being mad at me going to do?”
Sharon sniffed. “I need the distance.” She looked over at him. “That was great chili, by the way.”
Mark sank onto a barstool. “What are you talking about?”
“Nothing. Everything.” Agitated, Sharon prowled around the room, trying to straighten it. “I was an idiot today, okay? I should never have asked you about Martindale or whether you’ve got somebody else you’re seeing. It’s none of my damned business. And I don’t want it to be my business. And I sure as hell don’t want to end up like Martindale.”
“What do you want?” Mark asked softly.
Sharon looked at him. “Probably the same thing you want.”
Mark winced. “I don’t know about that. It wouldn’t be about the looks, and it would certainly be against my better judgment, but what I want right now may or may not get us to your bedroom.”
“I’m not picky about where.” Sharon swallowed. “But that damned better judgment clause. That’s the only reason you still have your clothes on.”
“Are you going to run away on me?” Mark braced himself.
“No.” Sharon hung her head. “I’ll tell you right now, every freaking nerve ending in my body is screaming to put as much distance between you and me as possible. At this point, Africa is not far enough.” She looked at him again. “But somehow, it just seems like that would be the worst thing I could do. That if I left now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
“Sharon, if you need to back off, then we’ll back off.” Mark swallowed. “But, please, don’t go promising that you’ll regret leaving or anything like that until–“
“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, that’s not what I’m saying,” Sharon snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not promising my life to you or any nonsense like that. What I meant is that I can’t run away now. I don’t know about tomorrow. But right now, I can’t.”
“Yeah, well, do me a favor and be careful with that not running away stuff,” Mark growled, then sighed. “I’ve heard it before. She swore she could handle it.”
“Well, I think I’ve seen what can happen,” Sharon said.
“No. You haven’t. You haven’t seen squat. And you won’t, if I have anything to say about it.” It was Mark’s turn to start pacing. “Look, I think we both know I can’t promise you won’t face some bad publicity at some point or other. None of us can and the best thing we can do is keep our noses squeaky clean just in case. And it’s not as if we’ve known each other all that long. What do we really know about each other? That we like to cook and eat and drink good coffee and wine? It’s not like we can’t be friends and take our time finding out who we are. Seriously, Sharon, you’d have to give up too much to be with me right now. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”
“And I don’t want to put you in that position.” She sighed. “I’m just wondering how long better judgment can hold out.”
“So am I.”
Mark left a few minutes later, after another awkward good-bye at the basement door.
Sharon spent the rest of the night alternating between worrying that things would be forever awkward at work and wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with Mark. So while she felt for poor Carrie Martindale when things blew up on Sunday, Sharon was glad she had something besides her boss to dwell on.
Not that the Martindale affair was that big a deal for Sharon directly. Outside of the U.S., the sexual antics, real or potential, of a sitting U.S. president were more a source of bemusement than anything, especially in those countries where it was well-known their leaders were not only cheating on their spouses but using government money to pay for their high-class call girls. That a young woman had lied about never meeting President Jerguessen barely caused any notice, which meant Sharon didn’t have to think about the issue much at all, beyond commiserating with Tanks and Augie and press secretary Jean Bouyer, who were dealing with all the fuss domestically.
For Martindale had already told reporters on Friday, before the President had made his statement about not commenting, that she had never met the man. She had always worked in the House of Representatives and had had limited contact with senators. Which she said again, Sunday morning, on one of the political talk shows, although Augie later said she should have known that something was up when she’d been asked on the show. Why have her there at all if she really didn’t know the president?
Because as soon as she affirmed she had never met President Jerguessen, she was asked to identify the people in the photo on the studio screen – a photo that clearly showed her and Mark Jerguessen shaking hands at a party of some sort. Flabbergasted, Martindale stammered that she had no clue where or when the photo had been taken and then made her second fatal error by suggesting that the show had somehow tampered with the shot to make it look as though she and the president had met.
So naturally, on Monday, everyone was talking about how if Martindale had lied about knowing the president and the two had obviously met, then how well did she really know him? Sharon found herself trying not to wonder the same thing, although there was a part of her that remembered that Mark had said that as far as he knew the two had never met. So unless someone had been doing some serious playing around with PhotoShop, the two obviously had.
It got around the White House very quickly that the boss was not happy. He kept his same schedule, sent around a memo reminding employees that they were not to comment either way on any rumored romances, but otherwise kept to himself as much as possible. Jean said at the morning press briefing that they were working on the source of the photo, and it did not appear that anyone could identify when or where it had been taken. Which while Jean did not say so and flat out denied it when she was pressed, got many assuming she was implying that the photo was a fake.
What did help was that the next day, Jean was able to announce to the press that the photo had been identified.
“It was taken at an education lobby party about 15 months ago, just before the president announced his candidacy,” she said. “The president told me it was usual for such affairs and he remembers talking with several people whose names he never got and would probably be surprised to find that he’d met them, as well. Nor is he surprised that Ms. Martindale did not remember the event, either. He was just a senator at that point and as she has pointed out, she worked with members of the House. The president would also like to point out that this sort of thing is exactly why he does not comment on potential relationships.”
Which fed the fire for another few days, although by the time Carrie Martindale showed up to the White House for a very public lunch with the President, the story was all but dead.
All but dead, June noted with some mild disgust as she perused a couple Washington society blogs. She was fairly sure her brother was not seeing anyone at the moment. Mark was beyond discreet, but June could usually tell. The funny thing was, it had looked like he was seeing someone back in early February. June decided it had either fallen through or something else had triggered his “happy” look, as she called it. Either way, something had to be done about the gossip-mongering and she thought she knew what. The problem would be convincing Mark.
That Sunday, as Mark made their brunch, June laid out her idea. As she expected, Mark was less than enthused.
“What makes you think people won’t be placing bets on who wins my hand?” he grumbled as he chopped onions to go in what would become a corned-beef hash.
“Then the joke’s on them, isn’t it?” June replied. “I mean, honestly, Mark, half the reason the damn rumors get so much ground is that you don’t date anyone publicly. If you’ve got a whole group you’re dating, then it’s pretty obvious, these are just friendly relationships. What’s even better, is that I’ll be the one overseeing who you go out with for what event, so there’ll be a lot less room for speculation.”
Mark grimaced. “Do you really want to take that on?”
“Oh, crud.” Mark shook his head with a rueful grin. “You’re just dying to, aren’t you?”
June giggled in spite of herself. “Damn skippy. I mean, I don’t want to mess with your love life. But it kinda would be fun to set you up. You could even set me up occasionally if you want.”
“Hm.” Mark focused on finely dicing a potato. “That could even things up a little.”
“Could. And I don’t mind you floating the odd name or two, just between us. It’s not like I don’t know most of your friends.”
“True.” Mark thought as he turned the heat up on the cast iron skillet, then slid some white solid fat into it.
June grimaced. “Are you using lard again?”
“It’s the unadulterated stuff, without the poly-unsaturates and lard has less of the bad fat than butter. Besides, it’s the best thing to get this hash nice and crisp the way you like it. How about Mary Karpati?”
“She’s perfect.” June nodded. “If I can get her, Tish MacDonald?”
“Your BFF. So that’s what triggered this little idea.” Mark grinned shamelessly.
“Hasn’t she been begging you to set me up with her for how long?”
June laughed. “More like how long ago. We were in high school when that happened. She’s gotten over you in a big way, although you’re okay as guys and politicians go. Think we can add Carrie Martindale to the list?”
Mark winced. “Conflict of interest.”
“You’re right. Karen Tanaka?”
“Has a boyfriend.”
“Doubt you’ll get her to go for it.” Mark held his breath, hoping that June didn’t notice the flutter in his chest. “Besides, doesn’t look good dating a subordinate.”
June sighed. “Mark, the whole point is that you’re not really dating, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s see. Who else?”
Mark left her to her musing.
Two days later, Daniel Friedman got June on the phone.
“I, uh, heard about your dating pool plan,” Daniel told her once the pleasantries were dispensed with.
“Yeah. You got someone for me?”
“I do. Only I’m thinking as a special interest date, for embassy soirees, etc. Sharon Wheatly.”
“Too perfect. But Mark said he’s concerned about what it would look like dating a subordinate.”
“She’d be there almost as his assistant and personal translator.”
“I suppose, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think she’ll go for it.”
“She’d be perfect and we won’t have to spend a lot of time briefing her. Plus, we won’t have to worry about her saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
“Well, I’ll talk to her, but don’t get too excited, Daniel. She really doesn’t like the spotlight.”
“Let me know how it goes. Maybe I’ll talk to her, too.”
“Just do me a favor and wait for me to give you the heads up.”
June hung up, not sure what to do. The problem was, Sharon would be the perfect date for embassy and other events involving foreign dignitaries. But what she’d said about not liking being looked at, June understood and was reluctant to push Sharon. Not entirely reluctant. Mark clearly liked her, although June was pretty sure he was more interested in her as a friend.
June suddenly smiled. Friendship was all well and good. But there was something about Mark and Sharon that just seemed to feel right. Maybe what the two of them needed was a nice gentle shove in the other’s direction.
Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller was only moderately annoyed as she aimed her remote at the television and hit the off button. Mark had connected with someone early on in February – she could always tell. But it must have flamed out early and fast. Still, when Walker had found that photo of Mark and that Martindale bitch, it had seemed promising. Then when Martindale denied ever meeting Mark, that had been good. Rose thought she’d caught one, finally.
But, no. Mark looked indecently triumphant as he made that ridiculous fuss over having lunch with Martindale. Rose felt slapped in the face. It wasn’t as if she did not have his best interests at heart. She was his mother, for Heaven’s sakes. She deserved a little respect for that, if no other reason. But once again, Mark was not only snubbing her but flaunting it, as well.
Rose sighed. If he wasn’t going to accept her protection and care, that was his choice. But she wasn’t going to let him ruin his life without her best effort, and if that meant making sure he kept his hands away from all but the right women, she’d do it.
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