It was getting on for six-thirty that evening when Mark made his way up to the private quarters, calling June as he went. The two met in his private study. It was a smallish room, dominated by the immense flat-screen television on the wall and a sleek modern desk with a glass top and brushed steel legs. The entire desktop could be used as a touch pad screen, and there was a single black lacquered drawer under the center which contained a keyboard and several remote controls. The desk chair was brown leather and reclined. Two more similar chairs were backed up against the side wall in between a bookcase overflowing with books and various tablets and ereaders.
“I’ve got to bring you up to date on Matt,” Mark told June as he pulled out one of the chairs on the wall. “You’ve seen him already, haven’t you?”
“I spent the afternoon with him.” June sat down then glanced anxiously up at her pacing brother. “Was that okay?”
“I, uh…” Mark frowned. “I didn’t really tell you, but I was keeping him in solitary confinement as punishment for running away. I mean, we can’t reward that.”
June sighed. “I guess not, but he didn’t have a lot of options.”
“I know, I know.” The irritation in Mark’s voice grew before he could catch it. “I’m sorry. I know I’m angry. And you didn’t do anything wrong because we haven’t had a chance to talk. But we’ve got to get together on this. Just be aware, Harold’s got me more pissed off than usual.” He sighed. “He wouldn’t even say hi to Matt.”
“Yeah, I know.” June tried to blink back her tears.
“Well, the good news is, Matt doesn’t have to go back.” Mark squeezed her arm gently. “Harold and Shawna will maintain nominal custody, but we’re pretty much free to do as we see fit. I’m inclined to work Matt’s butt off this summer, then let him board at St. Ignatius Prep in the fall. But what do you think?”
June wiped her eyes and thought. “Well, aren’t Tony and Rebecca Cooper going to do some interning this summer?”
“I was going to have them do the personal assistant thing to spell Gen Flowers. And it turns out, she’s got this summer fellowship she’d like to do. With Matt here, I can let her go and either work him full-time or split hours between him, Tony and Rebecca and maybe Kira Watanabe if she’s interested.”
“She should be, but she probably won’t be here for a good chunk of the summer. Once her dad gets back from Japan, she has to go stay with him, which is another mess.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about it. Thanks for stepping up on that, by the way. Do you want me to contribute to the legal fund?” Mark went over to the desk and turned on the top.
“You’d better not,” June knotted her fingers together. “We don’t want any hints of conflict of interest.”
Mark winced and shut the top down. “You’re right.” He sank into the chair. “Anyway, back to Matt. I really feel like we need to impress on him that the running away was not a good idea, if not for him, then for Kira’s sake, if you know what I mean.”
June sighed. “Yeah, that makes sense. I just hope it doesn’t backfire on us with Kira. Karen’s really worried about her – apparently, she gets pretty stubborn.”
“Oh, I’m shocked,” Mark said dryly. “How do you feel about keeping Matt in solitary for the rest of this week, with the once nightly video conference?”
“That seems fair. Do you want him as personal assistant full-time or do you want to split hours?”
“I think they can split hours and we have to give them some time off on Sundays so they can all hang together. I want Matt to have his friends.”
“Given that’s what started this whole mess, that’s a good idea.” June smiled weakly. “I’m okay with St. Ignatius, too. Since Tony’s there, it should help Matt adjust.”
“Okay.” Mark got up. “Do you want to come with me to break it to him?”
June looked down at her mobile phone. “No. I’ve got some work to get done. I’ll go in and visit after dinner if that’s okay.”
“Sure. As much time as you want. Oh, there is a gadget restriction in effect.”
June chuckled. “Yeah, he went on about that.”
“Like I said…”
“I know. We can’t reward how he went about getting here. Does he get his stuff back at the end of the week?”
“Sure.” Mark went to the door and paused. “I hope you didn’t cut your business on the coast short.”
“No,” June said quickly. “It’s fine, Mark. Really. I needed to be here more.”
“Okay. Thanks, June. I’m sticking to not wanting your business to suffer because of being here for me. But I have to say, I really appreciate you being here.”
“I’m happy to do it.” June smiled.
Mark left, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket and texting Sharon. He checked the response just as he got to Matt’s room and smiled, then texted a quick response back.
Matt was just finishing his dinner when Mark walked in.
“Hey, Uncle Mark,” he said, scrambling to his feet.
“Sit down,” Mark said, sitting on the bed next to him. “We’ve got to talk.”
“This doesn’t sound good.”
“Well, your dad left around noon.”
“Oh.” Matt slumped and shook his head. “I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“Matt, I’m sorry about him and the way he acted. You certainly don’t deserve it,” Mark put his hand on his nephew’s back.
“Yeah, I know.”
Mark smiled softly. “I know you do, Matt. But it still hurts. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t.”
Matt swallowed, then slowly sank into quiet sobbing, leaning against his uncle. Mark held him gently and waited until the sobs eventually abated. Matt finally sniffed.
“I don’t get it,” he finally sighed. “Yeah, I get that Dad’s pissed at me. I’d be pissed, too. But he didn’t even want to see me.”
“And I talked to Mom, but she’s really mad and I tried to apologize but she hung up on me.”
“It’s like you said, Matt. They’re pissed and that’s as much about me as it is about what you did. They’re feeling like you love me more than them.”
Matt’s face screwed up. “But they’re my parents.”
“Of course and of course you love them.” Mark shook his head and patted Matt’s shoulder. “And you love me, too. So what? It’s not a competition and I’m not out to steal your affections. But they’ve decided it is. And if you love them, then you can’t love me and if you love me, you can’t love them.”
“Not entirely. Has to do with our cultural paradigm, according to Karen Tanaka, and that’s hardly your parents’ fault.”
“So does this mean I’m staying here?”
“That’s the good news. Now, your parents do still have legal custody of you, but your aunt and I are pretty much in charge and I don’t think your folks are going to challenge that. Just before you start celebrating, keep in mind, you will be working this summer and then going to boarding school.”
“For your college fund and you’ll be working for me as my personal assistant.”
Matt brightened. “Can I get a car?”
“No. You won’t need one.”
“How about a dog?”
Mark grinned. “You’ve been talking to your grandfather, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but it’s a good idea and I’d like a dog.”
“Well, at the moment, you’re hardly in a position to be asking for things. You will remain in solitary confinement through the weekend and you will exhibit exemplary behavior from here on in. Are we clear?”
Matt ducked his head, supposedly in shame, but Mark caught the grin underneath.
“That will be all, then,” Mark said, getting up. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Matt bounced up and gave his uncle a quick hug before Mark left the room.
Mark, for his part, was still feeling rather angry and unsettled. Even as he left the hallway for the stairs, he went through the mental monolog – Matt was going to be okay, that was the important thing. It didn’t matter how badly Harold had behaved, it was Harold who had the problem, not Mark.
Mark was still going through the mental monolog as Sharon let him in through the secret basement entrance to her townhouse.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“It’s been a rocky few days,” he replied. “Let’s concentrate on getting dinner together and then maybe we can talk.”
“It’s almost done,” Sharon said. “The potatoes are fried and in the oven. The salad is made, but needs dressing and I just have to nuke the broccoli while I sauté the fish.”
“That’s good,” Mark sighed. “I can dress the salad if you don’t mind.”
And, in fact, dinner, featuring tilapia fillets cooked a la Meuniere, with butter-fried new potatoes, steamed broccoli, and salad, was ready in a matter of minutes. Sharon opened a bottle of Chablis while Mark finished dishing up the food.
“So, I haven’t gotten the final word on Matt,” she asked as she placed two full wine glasses on the table next to the filled plates.
Mark sat down and slid his napkin onto his lap. “Matt’s staying. After the last two days, there’s no way I’d let him go back.” Mark paused and looked at his meal. “Fortunately, Harold didn’t push it.”
“Matt said that he hadn’t seen his dad.”
“That’s because Harold refused to see him.” Mark’s voice got very tight and low.
Sharon gaped. “He what? Oh, my God, what kind of—” She stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry. I know he’s your brother.”
Mark started eating quickly. “That’s fine. Bash him all you want.”
He tried to look casual but saw Sharon’s soft gaze. Slowly, he swallowed.
“Look, Harold is one of the very few people on this planet who can get under my skin and make me question everything I know is right,” he said finally. “It’s kind of nice to hear someone else say what I’m usually thinking about him.”
Sharon shook her head. “He is quite the prize specimen. I know some serious Neanderthals who have more social grace than he does.” She frowned. “But to not even say hello to your own son.”
“I know,” Mark replied with a resigned sigh. “He didn’t even bother coming back to the White House last night. According to his security detail, he and his buddy Congressmember Chuck Meyers spent the night at Meyer’s favorite brothel.” Mark snorted. “It’s not even one of the better ones in town.”
“Oh?” Sharon asked.
Mark shrugged. “It’s one of those unspoken realities of the Old Boys Club. If you’re a man and you’re a legislator, you get invited to parties at whorehouses. A lot of the old farts consider it part of their perqs, and sometimes if you need to get something pushed through, you have to play on their turf. It does make it hard on some of the women legislators, but that was kind of the point. One of the reasons I don’t care to go to those kinds of parties.”
“I see.” Sharon shuddered. “It does sound like something Harold would enjoy. Yick.”
“Yeah, well, one thing about Matt being in town, I’m not going to be able to come over here for a while, unless it’s an acknowledged PFZ party.” Mark picked up his wine glass and gazed at the light yellow wine. “I mean, I assume you’d prefer we were discreet about this.”
“I haven’t told anybody if that’s what you’re asking.” Sharon paused. “I don’t know that it has to be that top secret. We are just friends.”
Mark chuckled. “You want to try and convince Eddie and the rest of the gang of that?”
“Good point. Oh, well. We were trying to keep distance, anyway.”
“Yep.” Mark took a long sip of his wine. “Let’s hear it for distance.” He sighed. “Anyway, thanks again for helping out with Matt. I really appreciate it.”
Sharon smiled. “It’s no trouble. He’s a nice kid.”
“He is.” Mark drained his glass and stood up. “And I have to get back.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Sharon followed Mark down to the basement and the secret entrance. He looked at her fondly, then sighed.
“I suppose one good thing about Harold is that with a brother like him, why would you dare want me?” Mark said, forcing a smile.
“Well…” Sharon started, then saw the wary look in his eyes, and decided to say the opposite of what she was about to. “You’re right. He is one hell of a disincentive.”
Mark burst into laughter and left. Sharon chuckled as she shut the door behind him, then found herself sniffing. Distance was necessary, but there was part of her that longed to hold Mark and comfort him the way she had held Matthew two days before.
Mark’s laughter also faded quickly once he was in the Presidential limo. Harold was only part of the problem and he couldn’t unleash any of that on Sharon. But he deeply wished he could.
Here ends Book One of White House Rhapsody. The story is ongoing, however, and will continue in a few months with Book Two. In the meantime, I’ll be featuring a new Operation Quickline story, Sad Lisa.