The flight to Los Angeles wasn’t particularly full. Sharon, Michael, and Inez sat in a center section in the first-class cabin, a luxury Sharon seldom indulged in, but a necessity for Michael. Still, Sharon had to concede, as she sat back in the bigger seats and stretched out her legs, that first class had its compensations.
Michael had headphones on even before the plane took off and was soon in his own little world, switching through the channels on the seat back TV. Inez dozed for a bit, then as the flight attendants served drinks, she and Sharon began chatting.
“You sure you’re okay about Toby living with you guys?” Sharon asked, finally. “You seemed so ambivalent about it last night.”
“Oh, it’s not Toby,” Inez said, glancing at Michael, who clearly hadn’t heard a word. “Seriously, it isn’t. I adore her and we’ve always gotten along well. It’s just… My biological clock, you know?”
Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I thought you didn’t want kids.”
“I thought I didn’t either.” Inez smiled. “But now there’s Michael and he’s such a great dad. I see some of my friends with their babies and I can’t help thinking how nice it would be.” She shrugged. “Maybe not.”
“Michael want to?”
“He’s warming to the idea, I think. He doesn’t want to start over, and he’s afraid we’ll split and he’ll be parenting from a distance again.”
“I can’t blame him for that.” Sharon shook her head. “If there was anything that Cameron did that made me mad, it’s the way she didn’t want Michael around as much as he wanted.”
Inez nodded. “Well, I’m pretty sure Michael and I won’t split. And even if we do, I hope I have the good sense not to keep him from his kids. Those girls adore him.”
“Yeah.” Sharon nodded and sighed.
Inez nodded as well and the two lapsed into silence. Sharon found herself musing about babies and having one and was rather startled to realize that she was seeing Mark Jerguessen in the background as the father. She looked over at Inez, who had started dozing again. Sharon shook her head to clear her mind and picked up a book, hoping somehow that she could exorcise that last image.
Sharon felt somewhat wrung out by the time she followed Michael and Inez off the plane at Los Angeles International airport. Michael already had his phone out and was dialing.
“We’re down,” he told the person on the other end. “Terrific. We’ll meet you at the baggage claim… Uh-huh. Cool. See you there.”
“Meet who?” asked Sharon, shifting her carry-on.
“Sarah and Susan,” Michael said, grinning. “Suse said she can take me to their car while you and Inez get the bags.”
Sharon glared at him as she addressed Inez. “Amazing how he always manages to get out of tiresome little chores like that.”
“I know,” said Inez. “One of these days.”
“What?” Michael asked.
As the three spilled into the waiting area next to the baggage claim, Sharon spotted Sarah first. Her youngest sister was bouncing up and down and waving. Sharon cringed, hoping that people wouldn’t recognize who she was waving at. Michael didn’t seem to mind and scooped Sarah up in his arms as the young woman ran his way.
“How’s the baby!” he teased.
Sarah slapped his arm. “Michael, put me down!”
She was about Sharon’s height and mostly slender. Her hair that day was its natural light brown and cut shaggy and short. She had a small dimple in her nose where she’d worn a nose ring until piercing got popular.
“Hey, Sarah,” said Sharon, as Sarah pounced on her.
“It’s great to see you!” Sarah crowed.
“You’re looking abnormally normal,” Inez said as she got her hug.
Sarah was, in capri jeans and a paint-splattered t-shirt.
She shrugged. “Why not? I’ve got my artist cred. Hey, Suse! Here they are.”
“No kidding,” Susan said back, being almost on top of them.
Somewhat paler than she’d been before her accident, Susan still carried herself like the dancer she was, at least from the waist up. Her left arm was in a brace, but she sat in a yellow-striped racing wheelchair. Her brown hair had also been cropped and she wore a black top and jeans. Sharon bent to hug her.
“Good to see you, Suse,” she said softly.
“Good to see you.” Susan grinned. “And since Sarah here has done such a great job of attracting all kinds of attention, I’d better get the Swelled Head to the car before we get swamped by autograph seekers.”
“And he wonders…” Sharon sighed, spotting the furtive looks aimed at Michael as people in the crowd tried to figure out who he was.
“I’m not attracting attention,” Sarah said. “My god, we’re in an airport. You expect people to holler and hug and all that.”
“It’s not like they’ve been gone that long,” Susan replied. “We saw them at Christmas. That was only a few months ago.”
“Come on, Suse,” said Michael. “Let’s get to the car.”
After the luggage was collected, the group reunited at the older Honda Accord that was actually their parents’ car. Michael had bought more recent models for his parents, but they kept the older car as a backup for when their children visited. Michael did help load the trunk with Sharon’s suitcase, Sharon’s and Michael’s guitars, and Susan’s chair.
Still chattering, Sarah drove from the airport, first out to Pasadena and Michael’s weekend condo, so that he and Inez could spend the afternoon with Jodi (it being Jodi’s birthday that day) before Jodi celebrated with her mother and grandparents from that side of the family. From there, Sarah drove Sharon and Susan to their parents’ home in Placentia, a small suburb in the north of Orange County.
It was a comfortable, two-story house, with dark wood siding and white trim. The lawn was carefully kept and the jacaranda tree that had been a twig when the Wheatlys first bought the place was now a decent-sized tree. The early spring air was just right but the tree still had another month before its distinctive purple blooms would show. Sarah pulled the car into the garage and left the garage door open as she got Susan’s chair from the trunk.
“Usually, I just toss it in the back seat,” Susan grumbled as she took the chair from Sarah and opened it. “I’m getting really sick of this being driven around stuff. I gotta get Michael to buy me one of those hand-control cars. Maybe one of those hybrids.”
Sharon yawned. “Yeah. Where are Maman and Dad?”
Sarah grinned. “Maman’s scoping out the site for her latest. She and Dad will be installing it all week. Share, you are so gonna freak out when you see it – and don’t ask. I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
Madeleine Wheatly had always been a sculptor. With her children grown and her husband’s job not moving them all over the place, she had finally found the opportunity to follow her passion for the truly large and was developing quite a following for her huge public art pieces – the kinds of metallic sculpture found in parks and on city plazas.
Sharon hefted her suitcase out of the car and followed Susan and Sarah into the house to a chorus of barking from her parents’ two dogs, then banished to the back yard. Sharon had never lived there, at least not for any length of time. Her parents had bought the house when Sharon was in her second year of college and Sarah was just starting high school. It was a large place with five bedrooms upstairs, and a living room, dining room, kitchen, family room and den downstairs. The den, however, had been transformed into a studio for Madeleine and was where she did most of her preliminary work and smaller sculptures.
When friends of the family asked Madeleine why she and Robert had bought such a huge house when they only had Sarah at home and soon to leave, herself, Madeleine always smiled and said that she needed room for her grandchildren. What she had meant, as Sharon and her siblings knew full well, was that Madeleine not only wanted enough space so that the whole family could visit but also to accommodate any relatives from Belgium or Wisconsin, where her husband was from.
Nonetheless, Sharon did have a room that was more or less hers. Still feeling a tad groggy from the flight and the time change, she pulled her suitcase upstairs to her room and dropped it next to the bed. It had a floral print bedspread on it, which complimented the light green walls and the white French provincial furniture in the room.
The two shaggy tan mutts known as Coco and Mimi burst into the room. They were medium-sized. Coco was almost twelve years old and her formerly dark muzzle had gone white, but Mimi was only four and still very rambunctious. Sharon petted them both fondly.
As she came downstairs with the dogs on her heels, she noted that the living room looked the same as it had for the past few years – with red and gold striped drapes, black sofas and Sarah’s collage/mural along the back wall featuring a landscape view of the city of Liege, Belgium, from the scenic overlook at the north of the city.
But as Sharon made her way into the open family room and kitchen area, she noticed that the family room and dining room in the house had changed significantly. The red and gold drapes, similar to the ones in the living room were gone, and the dining room was mostly decked out in chartreuse and yellows, while the family room had mostly white and yellow furniture and drapes.
“Did Maman redecorate again?” Sharon asked her sisters, who were lounging in the family room.
Susan rolled her eyes and bent to scratch Coco’s head. “Oh, yeah. I think it was the Hennesseys. They gave her that Trojan flag for Christmas and I’m pretty sure that sent her over the edge.”
Sharon sighed and shook her head. It was a common problem. Madeleine used red and gold in her home décor in honor of the Wallonie, the French-speaking part of Belgium, where she was from. Unfortunately, too many people interpreted that as meaning the family were fans of the USC Trojans, whose colors were red and gold. Given that all of Madeleine’s children, except Susan, had gotten at least part of their education at UCLA (aka USC’s crosstown rivals), it was not a happy misconception.
The phone rang and Sarah grabbed it.
“Michael!” she groaned. “How lame can you get? Go to hell, jackass.”
And she slammed the phone down.
“What was that all about?” Susan asked.
“Our idiot brother,” said Sarah. “He said, ‘Office of the President for Ms. Sharon Wheatly.’ Like we were going to fall for that.”
Sharon gulped and looked down at her hands. “Merde!”
“What?” asked Susan.
“My phone. It’s in my purse upstairs,” Sharon said. “That’s probably why he’s calling here.”
“You mean?” Sarah asked. “Share, you gotta be kidding. It was Michael, I swear.”
“Not bloody likely,” Sharon said. “The boss makes his own phone calls and even if he didn’t, his secretary is a guy.”
“No way,” Sarah said.
The phone rang again and Sharon dove for it.
“Hello?” she asked.
“Office of the president for Ms. Sharon Wheatly,” said the all too familiar voice on the other end.
“Good afternoon, sir, this is Ms. Wheatly,” she replied as Sarah gulped.
The voice on the other end broke down in laughter.
“That—” he gasped. “That’s one of the best responses I’ve gotten in a while.”
“I see,” Sharon said, keeping her voice calm and trying to ignore the stares of her two sisters.
“Coop’s kids were pretty fun for a while,” Mark said, finally getting a grip on his laughter. “But now they’re all blasé about the president calling their house.”
“How can I help you today, sir?” Sharon asked.
“We had a man at the town hall meeting who brought up something I think we’ll want to cover when we’re in Mexico,” said Mark. He was touring the Midwest, attending town hall meetings and making speeches to enlist support for his education initiatives.
“Sure. Let me get something to write with.” Sharon looked frantically at the phone niche – basically a cabinet and desk unit tucked just inside the kitchen where it could be easily reached from both the kitchen and the family room. The desk surface was littered with magazines and sketches, but no notepaper and the pen cup held only a small paintbrush and two metal cocktail stir sticks. Sharon covered the mouthpiece and looked at her sisters. “I need a notepad and pen.”
Susan pointed at Sarah, who tried to look innocent. Sharon sighed. She at least knew where the notepads had gone and had a very good idea where all the pens and pencils had disappeared to, as well.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but you’ve caught us a little off-guard here,” Sharon said.
Mark chuckled guiltily. “Uh, that was kind of the idea. Why don’t I call your mobile?”
“That’d be perfect,” Sharon said. “But give me a few minutes to get upstairs so I can get it out of my purse.”
“Sure thing,” said Mark and he disconnected.
“I thought you were on vacation,” Susan said.
“There’s no such thing when you work at the White House,” Sharon said, hurrying back up the stairs. “And, Sarah, don’t even think about grabbing any of my notepads.”
Sarah waved the notepad she was working on at that moment. “Too late.”
Sharon groaned. “You better have left me one with some paper in it.”
“Of course,” said Sarah turning back to the small legal pad, on which she was drawing a set of eagles at different positions on each page, effectively animating the majestic bird in flight.
Sharon quickly and quietly shut the door to her room, grabbed her mobile phone from its pocket in her purse and turned it on. A minute later, it was ringing.
“Wheatly,” she said, clicking the answer button.
“Let me guess, we’re in a better place to talk?” Mark said from his end of the line.
“Yes and hopefully, my rotten sister hasn’t stolen all my notepads.” Sharon dug through her purse, having found a pen, but still couldn’t put her hands on a notepad.
“The one who called me a jerk?” Mark began laughing again.
“I’m so sorry about that. She thought you were my brother.”
“Ah. Michael’s your brother. That was a pretty priceless reaction.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t have the mobile on.”
“I wouldn’t have known. I called the house first.”
Sharon frowned. “In other words, you called the house specifically to freak my family out.”
Mark chuckled. “Yeah. Me bad boy. It’s one of the few cheap thrills I have left.”
“I could have done without it.” Sharon glared at her purse, then emptied it out on the bed. “That little brat. She got all of them.”
“My sister Sarah.” Sharon flopped onto the bed. “It’s one of the few downsides of having artists in the family. My mom is constantly picking up a pen or pencil, doing a quick sketch for some piece she wants to cast, then getting distracted. She wears her hair on top of her head, and sticks the pen or pencil in her hair and go does whatever. So all the pens and pencils end up in her bathroom or in her studio. Dad picks them up, too, and wanders off with them. But Sarah’s the worst offender. Not only does she grab all the pencils and scatters them hither and yon, she steals notepads to make flip books out of them.”
Sharon sighed. “They’re little books that when you flip through the pages, you get some animated mini-film on them?”
“Oh, yeah. Those are cool.”
“Well, Sarah loves doing them. She used to do a lot of animation when she was in high school. And because she loves what she calls found art, she grabs whatever notepads she can get her hands on and makes flipbooks out of them.” Sharon started going through the exterior pockets on her suitcase. “She really likes those little notepads the realtors always give out – she can crank out a flipbook out of one of those is a couple hours and the paper is just heavy enough. And my mini-legal pads are her second favorite, for some reason. It only takes her a couple days.”
“What does she do with them when she’s done?”
“Sells them. They’re surprisingly popular for doodles on ripped off notepads, but that’s because Sarah’s really good. Sometimes she colors them, sometimes she just does pencil drawings. But she gets some good money from them and she’s been going really crazy of late, because she donates the sales money to spinal cord injury research. For my other sister. Anyway, what was the point you wanted for the Mexicans?”
“Oh, I already emailed it to you.”
“Good. I’ll get right on it.”
“No rush. How’s the homecoming been so far?”
Sharon shrugged. “I’ve just barely gotten here.”
“I won’t keep you, then. Talk to you again soon.” Mark disconnected.
He gently set the phone back down on the desktop, gazing around at the office suite on Air Force One, where he was sitting. Given the huge amount of resources involved in getting him from one place to another, Mark had been trying to balance the need to be out where folks could connect with him with his commitment not to squander resources. It had taken some doing to convince the Air Force not to fly a second plane as back up every time he left Washington, but that had meant stationing multiple versions of the Air Force One plane at several key locations.
Mark tapped the Danish modern blond-wood desk again. June had overseen getting the plane re-decorated since the inauguration and the office had been done over in soothing blues with creamy tan accents. At least, that’s what June had told Mark. He looked around the office and had to concede June was right again.
He wondered what June would have to say about Sharon. He knew the two were getting to be pretty close friends. He also liked to think he and Sharon were getting to be good friends. He sighed, wondering why he’d bothered to call Sharon back when he could have just as easily sent the information via email and, in fact, had just done so. He frowned. He knew why he had. He’d wanted to hear her voice, wanted to chat with her just for the fun of it. And he didn’t want to think about not seeing her for the rest of the week.
The intercom buzzed.
“Mr. President?” asked the young Marine serving as his valet that trip, Corporal Evans. “You asked me to call you when it’s time to go.”
“Thanks, Corporal.” Mark stood carefully, balanced himself on his crutches and hitched up his jeans.
He was headed for a dinner-time meet and greet at a bar in Texas – enemy territory, Tanks had joked. Still, he’d gotten some good ideas from these kinds of events and they did build good will. And Mark knew he’d need a lot of it to put his education proposals in place. Sighing, he left the office, took the cowboy hat from Corporal Evans and headed out
In Pasadena, things were considerably less sanguine. Michael paced in the kitchen in Cameron’s home. It was one of those large country kitchens, with red granite counter tops and maple wood cabinets and matching wood floors. Michael paced between the island in the middle, while Cameron and Inez sat in the adjacent matching breakfast nook.
“Look, Cameron, we already told her she could come live with me,” Michael said. “All the conditions are spelled out in the paperwork. What more do you want?”
“I want my daughter to live with me,” Cameron said, her voice shaking with emotion. “What part of that don’t you get?”
Michael turned on her. “Don’t I get? I’ve been wanting to live with my daughter for most of her life.”
“You’ll have the girls in Africa with you this summer.” Cameron folded her arms stubbornly.
“They don’t want to go to Africa,” Michael snarled. “Jodi danced around it all afternoon. Practically spoiled her own birthday because she doesn’t want to go to Africa. Toby has been begging me not to take her since the idea came up.”
“Well then, maybe you ought to do something else this summer,” Cameron said.
“It’s work and it’s for a good cause.”
Cameron rolled her eyes. “Right. Your work. It always comes first. Before the girls. Before me.”
“Don’t even start that,” Michael growled back. “Don’t even. Just because your dad put his life on hold doesn’t mean he did the right thing.”
“He acted responsibly,” Cameron fought to keep her voice from rising and failed.
“And resented you for it,” Michael shot back. “Which you spent endless hours complaining about. Excuse me if I don’t want to make the same mistake. Excuse me if I think it’s possible to balance taking care of kids and living a dream. Oh, wait. That’s not going to happen because if it did, we wouldn’t be divorced and I wouldn’t be constantly fighting you to spend more time with my two children. Like a responsible father.”
“Miguel, vas.” Inez said suddenly.
Michael glared at Cameron, then took Inez’ advice and stalked off.
Cameron sniffed. “He’s so frickin’ stubborn.”
“He is,” Inez said. “But he’s also got a point. Cameron, I know you love your babies and I know why. They’re wonderful girls. But he loves them, too.”
“Then why isn’t he willing to sacrifice anything for them?” Cameron said, her tears finally falling. “It’s always his career. Always.”
“That’s not true, Cameron.” Inez laid her hand on Cameron’s arm. “He gave up several dates this week so he could be here for Jodi’s birthday. He’s always done that. It used to make me crazy when he’d insist on flying back here every other weekend so he could be with his girls. It’s tough booking somebody who does that.”
“But why couldn’t he just settle down with us?”
Inez shook her head. “As if that would have helped? Come on, Cameron. I’ve seen you and your dad together. It’s not pretty.”
“My dad made a necessary sacrifice.”
“Because your mom made him. And it nearly killed him and trashed your relationship with him because he couldn’t help resenting you and your mom for making him work in a music store instead of performing.”
Cameron frowned. “Well, he’s performing now.”
“And why does that surprise you?” Inez smiled. “Frankly, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did. Which says a lot about how much he loves you.” She sighed. “I shouldn’t be saying this, but I once asked Michael why he didn’t give up the touring and all that, like you wanted him to. He told me your father told him not to.”
Cameron snorted. “That sounds like Dad.”
“Well? Who do you have a better relationship with? Your mom?”
“I wish.” Cameron wiped at her eyes. “She’s still trying to raise my kids for me.”
“So how well do you think it worked? Your parents gave up their dreams and everything else to raise you right and made themselves miserable in the process, not to mention totally alienating you. Do you want that to happen to you and Toby?”
Cameron squeezed her eyes shut. “Of course, I don’t. I just wish there was another way.”
Inez smiled and patted her arm. “Yeah. I know. It sucks. But at least you have your daughters. It’s not unlikely that the best I’ll get is the chance to share them with you. And they are very good girls.”
“Thanks.” Cameron let out a bitter chuckle. “Until they get stubborn. Then they’re just like their dad.” She sniffed again. “Where’s the paperwork?”
“Right here and here’s a pen.”