In Washington, the President and his staff had spent a very busy two weeks. First, a minor head of state had died, so Sharon had accompanied Vice President Elmira Vallegos to the funeral. Then there was the full-on revolt in one of the other Middle Eastern countries, probably fomented by the policy Mark had held to in Saudi Arabia – and which even Sharon finally had to admit had been the right course of action.
Mark also had federal budget issues to contend with, what with that phase of legislation coming due in a couple months, and he still had his education legislation that he wanted to be passed. So there were multiple rounds of meetings to the point that Mark found himself at Sharon’s at least five times during those two weeks, twice at PFZ parties with the rest of the Advisory Board and three times having dinner with her alone and playing chess and gin rummy just to relax.
By that Saturday, he was good and restless. The West Wing tended to be fairly empty on weekends, although Sundays there were several Muslim staff members who worked since they took off Fridays and Saturdays. Also, Sunday mornings, when the President was at church, staff members would sometimes show up to get a jump on the week. But if they were going to work Saturday, or any time when the president was in the White House, the West Wing staff made a point of doing so from home simply because if they went into the office, they would more often than not get dragged into playing catch or basketball or running laps or whatever physical activity the President was in the mood for.
Sharon, he usually left alone, but when she showed up that Saturday, Mark decided to heck with it, popped up in her office and dragged her off to the White House basement, where the basketball court was.
“I hate playing basketball,” she complained as they rode down the elevator.
“Well, it’s no fun shooting hoops by myself,” Mark told her.
“I can watch and catch up on email.”
“You can play and finally learn how to do a decent lay-up.”
Sharon laughed. She was wearing a close-fitting t-shirt and jeans over a pair of running shoes. Mark was similarly attired, except that he had basketball shoes on.
As he often did when he caught a staffer working on Saturdays, he coached Sharon through the art of the lay-up, insisting that she run several drills until he was satisfied that she had it. Then he spotted her several points and the two began a game of one on one.
Once again, Mark was caught off guard by Sharon’s natural athleticism. She played hard and thanks to the points he’d spotted her, pulled ahead quickly.
“Why do I get the feeling I’ve been suckered?” he asked, gasping as she drained another three-pointer. He trotted over the area under the net to get the ball.
“You’re the one who insisted on spotting me the points,” Sharon said. She caught the ball as Mark threw it at her and went out of bounds to start play.
“Because I thought I had an unfair advantage on you,” he said. “You hate playing basketball.”
“So I’m not that competitive.” Sharon grinned as she bounced the ball a couple times. “I didn’t think you wanted me to let you win. I could.”
“Don’t even.” Mark grinned also.
He caught the ball as Sharon tossed it and play was on again. The two played for several minutes as Mark caught up, then began winning. Then Sharon got the ball and dribbled toward the basket. Mark shadowed her closely. She tried dodging, but he stayed close on her back, not letting her escape. Laughing, she tried dodging again, and again, and then. Mark folded his arms around her and his lips found hers.
Sharon let herself melt into the kiss, returning it, feeling the soft pressure of his mouth and the sweet saltiness of his tongue. Mark felt his heart beating out of his chest, wondering how long it could last.
Not long enough. He lifted his head and their eyes caught. Sharon smiled, then shuddered.
“Foul?” he said softly.
“Well, you are pretty sweaty.”
He moved in again and she pulled away. He sighed.
“I thought we weren’t supposed to be going there,” Sharon said.
“Well,” Mark said, helplessly as Sharon glared at him. “I guess I overstepped the boundaries again.”
“Do that often, do you?”
“Not that often,” he grumbled. “And never past propriety.” He paused. “Well, not since high school, but then I didn’t know what I was doing.” He paused again. “That doesn’t excuse it.”
“I wasn’t saying it did. But it doesn’t mean I’m that worried about you, either.” Sharon plopped down onto a nearby bleacher. “Not that way, at any rate.”
“So now what?”
“What do you mean?”
Mark shrugged and picked up the basketball. “Do you still want to keep trying to be friends? It’s been working. Or do we do the whole split-up routine, with you… I don’t know.”
“I don’t know, either.” Sharon sniffed and shut her eyes. “I was really liking the friend thing. And I can’t quit my job.”
“You probably could.”
“Except that it’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life and I love my work.”
“Oh, brother,” Mark sighed.
“Not that I’m blaming you.”
“I didn’t think you did.”
Sharon looked him over. “Whatever.” She sighed. “I guess it’s time to try maintaining a little distance.”
“Just what I want to do.” Mark dropped the basketball onto the floor, then caught it again. “But you’re right. It’s probably for the best.”
“Yep.” Sharon pulled herself up off the bleachers and left the gym. Mark watched, wondering if he’d blown it yet again.
By late Monday morning, however, such thoughts were rudely shoved aside by a call from Mark’s sister-in-law. He’d almost put the call off as his day was beyond packed with meetings and photo shoots with a major speech to deliver at the national American Medical Association convention early that evening. But something made him tell Kent to put Shawna through.
“Hey, Shawna, what’s up?” Mark asked, putting her on the speaker as he looked over emails on his tablet.
“Have you heard from Matt lately?” Shawna asked a little too casually.
“No,” Mark said, resisting the profound temptation to point out that she was the reason he hadn’t.
Mark waited a moment. “Is everything okay with Matt?”
“He’s not at home. I thought maybe he tried to see you.”
“He’s not at home. Where is he?”
“If I knew do you think I’d be calling you?”
Mark groaned silently. “In other words, he’s missing. How long has he been gone?”
A text message from Sharon flashed on Mark’s screen. Mark pounded a quick text to Kent.
“He left a note Friday morning that he was going to stay at a friend’s house,” Shawna said as Sharon slipped into the Oval Office. “We haven’t seen him since then, but then the way he hides out in his room, we sometimes don’t. And Thursday night, he was playing with his basketball and broke the spy cam I put in his room.”
“A spy cam? Shawna, why in heaven’s name, are you spying on him?” Mark gritted his teeth.
“He defies me regularly. He has this friend Jasmine Thomas that no one knows who she is. And he had a secret email account. Who knows what else he’s been up to.”
“Knowing Matt, probably not much. Have you called the police?”
“I’m not going to do that!” Shawna screeched then got a hold of herself. “I know better than that, thank you very much.”
Mark looked up at Sharon, trying desperately to hold onto his temper.
“Shawna, I may have something. Can you hold for a moment?”
Mark punched the hold button on the phone then signaled Sharon.
“Sir, it’s about your nephew,” she said softly.
“Do you know where he is?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve just spoken to him. He’s here in DC. He called my niece first, and then me.”
“Bring him in.”
“Yes, sir.” Sharon paused. “Can you call security then?”
“Will do.” Mark again pounded out a quick note on his tablet, then hit the hold button on the phone as Sharon left the office. “Shawna, he’s here in Washington and it sounds like he’s safe.”
She sighed in relief. “Good.”
“One of my staff members is getting him. I don’t want to embarrass him by going myself. I’ll call you after I’ve talked to him.”
“Fine. Go ahead and undermine me again.”
“Shawna, I have bent over backward every time to support you, even when I’ve had a really hard time with that.” Mark felt his temper flaring. “You want to be undermined, I will show you undermining. You put a freaking spy cam in his bedroom for no good reason that I can see. You have repeatedly isolated this kid from the people he most wants to hang with, and then you bitch at me because I want to be supportive?”
“I’m supposed to let him keep pestering you when you’re the high and mighty president? And since when do you know anything about raising a teenager?”
“Apparently, I know more than you do since I’m the person he keeps running to when he’s had it up to his eyeballs with your repressive nonsense. But, hey, you’re his mother. I will respect that and put him on the first plane back to St. Paul. I won’t promise he’s going to stay there. But I will send him back because obviously, you know better.”
There was a click on the other end of the line. Shawna had hung up. Mark got up from his desk, took several deep breaths, then paced for a few minutes before he could get his focus back.
Sharon, for her part, hurried to the coffee shop/internet cafe where Matt said he was. Only about five blocks from the White House, it was a pretty typical place, with red bar stools lined along a counter and overstuffed sofas and chairs scattered about filled with patrons staring at laptops. Sharon looked around, searching for a teenager who, presumably, looked like the president. He found her first.
“Umm, Aunt Sharon?” asked the youth.
He had that lanky, rangy look many teen boys had, with deep green eyes like his uncle, although he was barely taller than Sharon. He had on a pair of khaki-colored cargo pants with a dark t-shirt and a plaid shirt over that, and the brittle veneer of false bravado.
“Matt?” Sharon asked back.
He nodded. “You sure look like Jodi.”
“And how would you know what Jodi looks like?” Sharon asked.
“Video chat.” Matt’s face scrunched into a perplexed frown.
“Oh. Right.” Sharon smiled, trying to look inviting. “Your uncle asked me to bring you in.”
Matt seemed to melt in front of her eyes.
Sharon scooped him into her arms. “It’s all right, Matt. You’re safe now. You’re safe.”
She held him for another minute until his shaking stopped.
“I am in so much trouble,” he sniffed.
“Yeah, probably,” Sharon said. “But let’s get you where we need to go. Where’s your stuff?”
“It’s all right here,” Matt said, disengaging. He held up his duffle bag.
“Good. Come on.”
“How mad is he?” Matt asked once they were on the street.
“Hard to say,” Sharon replied. “I mean he’s angry, but he was talking with your mother when I saw him.”
Matt strangled a sob. “Look, I had to leave. She put a spy cam in my room. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is? I couldn’t even change clothes in my own bedroom.”
“Sounds pretty horrible.”
“I don’t get it. I don’t do drugs. I don’t sleep around. I don’t get into fights. But it’s like she thinks I’m going to go off the rails at any second. And I’m not. I just don’t like the same people she does. Is that any reason to spy on me?”
Sharon sighed. “Of course not. But I’m not your mother.”
“Woh.” Matt suddenly stopped.
They had passed the k-rails blocking Pennsylvania Avenue from the area in front of the White House and were walking along the black wrought iron fence that separated the sidewalk from the North lawn and portico. Sharon found herself smiling at Matt’s awe.
“That’s really it, isn’t it?” Matt said.
“Yep. It is.”
“Man, that is so beyond awesome.” He grinned suddenly. “We’re going there, aren’t we?”
Matt suddenly paused. “I’m not sure what’s freaking me out more. That it’s the real White House or that my uncle is there waiting to kick my backside.”
Sharon patted his shoulder. “The White House part freaks us all out. As for your uncle and your backside, I can’t say he won’t, but I suspect he’ll at least be fair.”
“Fair?” Matt shook his head. “Okay, more fair than my mom, but, seriously, have you ever gotten him pissed at you? I mean really pissed?”
“Yes, and I just got pissed right back.”
“Yes, but I don’t recommend it as a strategy.” Sharon pushed him toward the guard station. “Now, let’s get it all over with.”
They first passed the entrance booth on the White House driveway, then as they entered the West Wing, security was waiting with Matt’s ID. Sharon was a little startled to see Riff Butler waiting for them, with a file folder in his hands.
“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” said the imposing African American gentleman. “The President asked me to take young Mr. Jerguessen upstairs.”
“Then I’ll leave him in your hands, Agent Butler.” Sharon turned to Matt. “Matt, this is Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, chief of security here at the White House. He’ll take you to your uncle.”
“Okay.” Matt smiled weakly at Sharon. “Um, thanks for coming to get me.”
Sharon smiled. He was a nice kid. “You’re very welcome, Matt. Good luck.”
Mark was in a meeting with five senators from the Health, Education, and Labor Pensions Committee when Gen Flowers slipped into the room and whispered in his ear.
“Thank you,” he said to Gen and got up. “Stay seated everyone. I have to step out for a few minutes.”
“A photo opp?” sniggered Senator Janet Marley, one of Mark’s opponents, although the two were friends.
Mark glared at her. “And you, more than most, know the value of that.” He got his temper back under control as the others gasped in surprise. “I shouldn’t be gone for more than twenty minutes. I realize that’s not much time, but I want to see some progress on getting this bill ready. Are we clear?”
He didn’t wait for the others to murmur their assent before heading off to the private quarters.
Riff was waiting in the upstairs hall as Mark came up the stairs. “Sir, he’s in the room, as you requested. But if I may…?”
Mark took the file folder from Riff. “What is this?”
“Your nephew, sir. There is probably good reason why he left.” Riff hesitated. “We keep dossiers on all your relatives to prevent people from using them to exploit you.”
“And this is Matt’s?” Mark opened the folder.
“The Senator and Mrs. Jerguessen’s, sir.”
Mark read over the report and whistled through his teeth. “This is not good.”
“No, sir. It is the recommendation of the Secret Service that your nephew not be returned to his parents.”
“Indeed.” Mark looked up at Riff, closed the folder and tapped it. “While I can see how this poses a threat to Matt, I don’t see how returning him to his folks poses a threat to me.”
A slight hint of a smile flickered across Riff’s face. “I got to know him during the campaign, sir. And you did ask me to show some concern for the people around you.”
Riff stepped aside and Mark paused before entering the room where Matt was. The contents of the folder made it clear that things were worse with Shawna’s drinking than Mark had thought and possibly Matt knew, and Harold’s neglect was possibly a greater blessing than hurt. Still, Mark would need their permission for Matt to stay and he’d already snapped at Shawna.
As soon as Matt saw his uncle, he scrambled up from the bed, heedless that his smartphone went flying. Wordlessly, the two hugged each other, with Mark hanging on even more tightly.
After several minutes, Matt pulled away.
“How much trouble am I in?” he asked.
Mark held back a smile – he had to spot the kid points for facing up to the worst of things.
“That’s hard to say,” Mark said slowly. “What you did was incredibly stupid.”
“But I was desperate!” Matt wailed.
Mark held his hand up. “I get that. But running away was not the smartest way to deal with it. For starters, it isn’t necessarily going to solve anything. If your parents insist on you going back, I cannot keep you here. I’m legally obligated to send you.” Mark put up his hand again as Matt started to protest. “We might be able to swing it, but it’s going to take some finesse, and your running away doesn’t help.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.” Matt slumped. “I made a plan and I made sure to try to contact Aunt June or you as soon as I could. I just couldn’t get through.”
“Well, I’m not going to reward stupidity. Are we clear on that?”
“I don’t particularly want to send you back to your folks, either.” Mark sighed as his phone pinged. “Look, I’ve gotta go get some senators to play nice with each other. In the meantime, you are confined to quarters. We’ll work out the rest of your punishment later, depending on what happens with your parents.” He bent over and grabbed Matt’s phone. “There will be no gadgets, either.”
“But I gotta let the others know I’m okay!”
“You can text Jodi and Tiffany this evening.”
“But what about Kira and Rebecca and Tony?”
“Kira Watanabe, Rebecca Cooper and Tony Garces. We’ve all been hanging out on video chat all spring. They’ll know about me being gone ‘cause Jodi and Tiffany will text them as soon as they can get off campus for lunch break.”
“All right. You can do a video chat tonight at six thirty.”
“Ten o’clock? I know it’s late, but Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast. That’s three hours behind and they’re not always home by 3:30.”
“Six thirty. I’ll have their aunt text them and let them know they need to be home on time. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”
Mark left, pulling his phone from his pocket. The ping was from Kent, asking about lunch and another meeting. Mark sighed and dialed his answer as he headed for the elevator. After that, he called Shawna but got no answer. He also tried Harold’s number, but got no answer there, either.
Sharon got the text from Mark and immediately texted her niece about the early video chat. She also called Solly to let the chef know that there was an extra guest in the White House, which it turned out, Solly had already found out. She had already sent up a large steak, with baked potato, salad and broccoli to Matt’s room and had quizzed him on his other favorites.
“Hmph,” Solly snorted to Sharon. “Somebody’s going to have to educate that boy. I mean, I expect a teenager to want hamburgers and pizza and that stuff. But he didn’t even know you could put blue cheese dressing on a steak, never mind not knowing what a gumbo is.”
“I guess you’ve got your work cut out for you, Solly,” Sharon replied, trying not to laugh. “Did he like the blue cheese?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s not picky. I’ll give him that. But he has got some learning to do.”
“True. Listen, it’s probably not my place, but the boss is not having a very good day. Think we can come up with something to cheer him up?”
“No problem. I might even boil up some potatoes for him to mash. You want to come to dinner?”
“Only if he asks me.”
“Uh-huh. He’ll ask.”
“I’ve got to run. Thanks, Solly.”
Late that afternoon, Karen Tanaka landed in Sharon’s office and shut the door.
“You are not going to believe this,” Karen said, slumping into the chair next to Sharon’s desk.
“Believe what?” Sharon finished yet another email, then turned to Karen.
“I know you know about Matt.”
“Yeah. I didn’t know you knew.”
Karen rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Jodi and Tiffany texted Kira this afternoon with the news – apparently, he’s been part of this video chat group with Coop’s kid Rebecca and Tony Garces.”
“I thought you were happy Kira has friends.”
“Not complaining about that part.” Karen suddenly got up and began pacing. “But I am ready to kill my kid. Do you want to know why Matt was able to get away so cleanly? It was Kira’s plan. She refuses to go to her father’s this summer. And the other kids were helping her. She said they were only going along with it so that Kira wouldn’t go off on her own.”
“Sounds about right,” said Sharon.
“What?” Karen whirled around and planted her hands on Sharon’s desk.
“I was going to get it clarified before I talked to you about it,” Sharon said slowly. “And the only reason I was going to do that was because I didn’t want to get you upset unnecessarily. But I did see a couple things a couple weekends ago that made me wonder if something was up. Then it kind of came out in the garble I got when the girls called me this morning to tell me about Matt.”
“Oh, my god!”
“Jodi told me the only reason they weren’t saying anything was that she and Tiffany didn’t want Kira to not trust them and then get into worse trouble. I thought she was talking about Matt, but I guess he used the plan they’d come up with for Kira.”
Karen sank back into the chair. “Now what do I do?”
“I’m probably not the best person to say, but maybe nothing for now. You’ve got time before Kira has to go to her father’s. And the good news is, the plan did work.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”
Sharon hesitated. “Yeah. It got Matt safely into the care of trustworthy adults. He’s with us. He’s not on the streets prostituting himself or worse.”
Karen leaned forward and put her head in her hands. “This is a nightmare.” She looked up suddenly. “You think the boss is going to hate me because of this?”
“I don’t know. He’s pretty angry, but I think it’s mostly at his brother and sister-in-law. Did you know Matt’s been gone since Friday morning and they only noticed it today?”
“That poor kid. And Kira. You know, the worst of it is, I don’t entirely blame her. But I don’t dare encourage it.”
“No. But if the kids can put their heads together and come up with a smart way to do something insanely stupid, I’m sure we can come up with an alternative for Kira and Allie. We do have some time.”
Karen nodded and got up. “We do have that. Thanks, Share. I’d better get back to my office and see if there have been any leaks about Matt showing up on our doorstep.”
“Okay. See you.”
Mark, for his part, had a rather odd afternoon. He made several calls to his brother and sister-in-law, none of which were picked up or returned. He did call June and encouraged her to stay in California, where she was working on some project or other. After all, if Matt was going to be able to stay, he would still be in solitary confinement for a while, and if he wasn’t, he’d be gone by the time she got back to Washington.
Then he got a rather puzzling email from his brother. He replied in the affirmative and got no response to that. It being close to six-thirty at that point, he made his way up to the private quarters and Matt’s room.
Sharon was already there. She’d brought him a laptop that was set up to work with the White House wireless network, Matt having left his at home since, with all the tracking and blocking software, it was virtually useless. The two were chatting pleasantly when Mark walked in. Sharon immediately got to her feet and tried to nudge Matt to his.
“What?” Matt asked.
“Protocol,” Sharon hissed. “The President walks into a room, you stand and stay standing until directed to sit.”
Mark rolled his eyes as Matt, grinning, got to his feet. “Sit. Both of you.” He took a deep breath. “Matt, your dad finally emailed me. He’s going to be here Wednesday morning.”
“So am I going back?” Matt asked, suddenly anxious.
“I’m guessing not, but who knows.” Mark glanced at Sharon, then sighed. “I’m working on it. We may be able to swing it even without your folks’ permission, but it will make it a lot easier if we get it. In the meantime, you have a video chat to log into.”
Matt eagerly clicked into the chat room, hailed his friends, who noisily hailed back, then Matt picked up the laptop and swirled it slowly around the room to show everyone not only the room but who was in there. Sharon chuckled as Jodi gasped when she saw Mark.
“Hi, Aunt Sharon,” Tiffany suddenly hollered and the others sing-songed, “Hi, Aunt Sharon!” as well.
“Hi, guys,” Sharon said back. “Aren’t you going to say hi to Matt’s uncle?”
There was the sound of hissing and mumbling back and forth between Jodi and Tiffany and Kira and Rebecca (who were sharing a laptop).
“We can’t call him Uncle Mark!” someone hissed.
“Good evening, Mr. President,” said Tony, and then the others chimed in.
“I’m so glad you got there safely, Matt,” Tiffany said quickly.
“So, how much trouble are you in?” Tony asked.
The girls unilaterally began yelling at Tony, although it was Matt shouting over them that finally calmed them down.
Matt glanced up at his uncle. “I drew solitary confinement until further notice. With no gadgets.”
“Ow. That’s harsh.”
“It’s not unexpected,” said Rebecca. “What’s next?’
“We don’t know.”
As the teens chatted, Mark gestured at Sharon, who got up and joined him in the room’s doorway.
“You’ve got five minutes,” Mark announced to a chorus of protest.
But then the teens seemed to forget he was there as they returned to their conversation.
“That’s all right,” Sharon said softly to Mark. “I happen to know that Kira and Rebecca don’t have much time left, either. Parental reprisals.”
“They were all in on it together, sort of,” Sharon said. She looked quickly at Matt. “Listen, Karen is freaking, but it’s connected to the custody case her ex brought against her. The court wants to enforce her ex’s visiting rights and Kira’s gone on record refusing to go. Karen’s worried you might be mad at her.”
Mark shook his head. “At Karen? Nah. I’m not even that mad at Kira and the others. It’s just really depressing to me that Matt felt this was his only option – and it damned near was.” He looked over at Matt. “Time’s up.”
There was another howl of protest, but Matt said goodbye, then handed over the laptop. Mark did take a moment to hug his nephew before he and Sharon left.
In the hall, he looked at Sharon. “Look, you’re already up here and in up to your neck. Want to stay for dinner?”
“Sure.” She chuckled softly. “So much for distance.”
Mark nodded. “I think you’re safe tonight. I am in no mood for anything remotely romantic or happy. Unless it involves strangling Matt’s parents.”
Solly was waiting for them in the upstairs kitchen with a pan of potatoes that needed mashing and some chicken breasts that needed pounding flat. Mark congratulated her on her choice and set to work pounding chicken meat until it was almost translucent.
Wednesday morning found Mark in a somewhat calmer frame of mind. Though he was still apprehensive – with Harold one never quite knew what was coming – Mark felt he’d at least had a chance to brace himself for the unpleasantness ahead.
After confirming that Harold had, indeed, gotten on the plane and that it was going to land at National Airport, Mark sent Sharon and Al Eddington to pick Harold up, apologizing ahead of time for what would probably not be a very pleasant encounter.
Sharon had dealt with all kinds of unpleasant older men and so wasn’t terribly worried about the president’s brother. Al, who had met Harold before, simply shrugged it off. After all, he and Harold probably had more in common than not, and Al seemed somewhat preoccupied.
“You okay?” Sharon asked in the car as it wound its way through the Washington traffic.
Al shrugged. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t look it.”
“Well, that’s…” Al looked over at Sharon and winced. “You’re going to just keep bugging me, aren’t you?”
“I might. Why don’t you just spill and avoid all the bugging?”
“It’s Caroline,” he sighed. “The biopsy on her lung came back positive yesterday.”
“Oh, Al, I’m so sorry.”
“They’ll be running some more tests tomorrow, but the doctor said that the prognosis is pretty decent.”
“How’s she dealing with it?”
Al snorted. “She’s great. I’m the one who’s falling apart. You know, I thought if we were going to deal with this, I was sure it was going to be breast cancer. I was ready to deal with that. But lung cancer? I’m the one who should have the lung cancer.”
“Actually, guys can get breast cancer,” Sharon said.
Al chuckled in spite of himself. “We’ll have to see about that. Thanks. And, uh, do you mind keeping this under your hat?”
“Of course,” Sharon said.
By that time, they had arrived at National Airport and were let off near the baggage claim for the flight Harold Jerguessen was on. Al saw the president’s brother first. Harold Jerguessen was tall, but with sharply receding light brown hair and thick jowls. In spite of expensive custom tailoring, his suits always seemed rumpled and ill-fitting. He carried a tan leather messenger bag that wasn’t quite bulging.
As a state senator in Minnesota, Harold used his slightly rumpled look to seem more folksy and in touch with his constituents than he actually was. He mostly rode along to election on his brother’s name and a love of publicity and a good sound bite. Harold was good at sound bites.
Al approached and greeted Harold, who responded amiably enough, but Sharon caught a flicker of annoyance in Harold’s green eyes as if he just barely tolerated Al. Al introduced Sharon.
“So why’d you bring your secretary?” Harold asked Al, as he covered Sharon with an appraising smirk.
“I’m one of Al’s colleagues on the advisory board,” Sharon said pleasantly. “Do we need to wait for your luggage?”
“Didn’t bring any with me,” Harold snarled, then turned to Al. “I’m only staying the night.”
Al had already signaled the car and it pulled around so that the three of them could get in. Harold spent the drive back to the White House chatting about nothing with Al and ignoring Sharon, who took advantage of it to surreptitiously answer a few emails.
When her phone rang, she looked at the readout and lightly coughed.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, I really have to take this,” she said.
“Ah, it’s just my kid brother,” said Harold with a forced chuckle.
“I’m afraid it’s the Chinese ambassador,” Sharon said. “Excuse me.”
She quickly switched to Chinese as Harold glowered. They pulled up at the White House and through the gate as Sharon finished her call.
Al silently dismissed her as they got out of the car.
“I’ll take you to the Oval Office, Senator,” Al said, leading the way.
When Kent announced Harold’s arrival, Mark put his tablet down and told Kent to send his brother in immediately. Harold swaggered into the office and looked around appraisingly.
“Nice set up you got here,” said Harold with a nod.
“Thank you,” said Mark. “Would you like some coffee?”
“I don’t need anything.” Harold plopped down on one of the couches and began fishing through his inside jacket pocket. “Nice piece of meat you sent to meet me at the airport.”
“She’s a valued member of my staff.” Mark remained standing behind his desk, holding on to his temper with both hands.
“And how is she in bed?” Harold pulled a cigar out and bit the end off.
“I wouldn’t know.”
Harold lit his cigar off a match and looked around. “Where’s the ashtray?”
“Since the employees chose to ban smoking indoors at the White House, I don’t have one.”
“You should have one for people who smoke. It’s rude not to.” Harold dumped the match on the coffee table and let out another puff of pungent smoke. “Anyway, I’ve got meetings on the Hill, so let’s just cut to the chase.” He got a standard letter-sized envelope out of the messenger bag and tossed it on the coffee table. “Since you’ve been wanting to undermine us ever since Matt was born, we’re going to let you have him.”
“Terms are there in that envelope.”
“I see.” Mark walked over and picked up the envelope. “All right. I’ll look these over and get back to you in the morning. I just want to be clear on everything.”
“So you’re going to take him?” Harold sounded surprised.
Mark looked his brother over. Apparently, Harold hadn’t expected Mark to want Matt.
“Yes, assuming you are okay with that. You are his father.”
“I wrote up the terms. You just sign the paperwork and we’ll be good to go.”
“I’ll do that,” said Mark, trying to keep his voice even. “See you in the morning?”
Harold struggled into a standing position. “Yes.”
“You said you had meetings. I can arrange to have dinner at whatever time is good for you. And there is a room ready for you. Breakfast is at seven or you can order it sent up at whatever time you prefer.”
Harold paused. Mark could see him mulling over the options.
“I’ll be back for dinner at seven,” he announced. “And I gotta go. See you.”
“Your Secret Service detail will have your car brought around and see you out.”
Harold snorted. “What? You can’t trust your own brother to walk around on his own?”
“Yes,” Mark said, even though he didn’t. “The detail is for your protection. Standard operating procedure around here.”
Harold snorted again and swaggered out of the office. Mark waited until the door was shut and stayed shut before calling Johnnie.
“Yes, sir?” she asked when she picked up.
“I’ve got some highly confidential papers that I need White House counsel to go over with a fine-tooth comb,” Mark told her. “I’ll send Gen with them, but I need them before the end of business. Can you let them know?”
“I most certainly can, sir.” Johnnie paused. “I saw on the run-down that Matt’s dad was supposed to come by and I think I caught a whiff of cigar smoke in the hall.”
“Need to vent?”
Mark chuckled. “Probably, but I don’t have time. In any case, he’s gone until dinner time and even odds he won’t show then. He left some papers for me to sign so that I can keep Matt here.”
“Gotcha.” Johnnie sighed. “I’ll have Voskovich sift through every letter.”
As it turned out, Mark was right and Harold did not show for dinner. He didn’t even stay the night at the White House. Matt took it philosophically and didn’t ask if Mark knew where his father was.
Mark knew, thanks to Harold’s security detail. He wasn’t sure he knew what he was going to do about it until the next morning when he had a quick meeting with Mila Voskovich, one of the attorneys that served to help represent the president with any potential legal issues. Voskovich had the changes made and the paperwork was printed out on Kent’s printer long before Harold arrived at 11 a.m., demanding to see Mark.
“Well? Did you sign those papers?” Harold said as he entered the Oval Office.
“Yes, but White House counsel insisted I make a few changes that you will need to initial,” Mark replied, picking the paperwork up off his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat?”
“Sheez, Mark. I’m your brother. You’re supposed to trust your family,” Harold complained as he stayed standing.
“Right now, I can’t enter into any contracts without approval from White House counsel,” Mark replied, not at all sure he was unable to do so.
“So much for leader of the free world,” Harold snorted. “You’re such a pansy, Mark.”
“Actually, there were only two clauses changed – the ones that have me paying you to raise your son. And, frankly, Harold, while I am only too happy to help out with Matthew, I see no reason to why I should pay you for the privilege. Now, if you’ll just initial here and here.”
Harold glared at him. “What if I don’t?”
“Harold, you were gone all night last night and you’re wearing the same suit you wore yesterday.” Mark sighed. “As in I know exactly where you went last night with your buddy Representative Chuck Meyers.”
“So you’re blackmailing me.”
Mark chuckled coldly. “I don’t have to blackmail you, Harold. But I can offer you a choice. Given that you haven’t even bothered to say hello to your own son, given your wife’s drinking problem and given your behavior last night, I think I could make an excellent case for having Matthew removed from your home. Now, I’m perfectly happy going through the courts, if I have to, but I know you’ve got a tough campaign coming up next year. So we can either do this quietly and privately, with the terms you have mostly specified, or we do it publicly.”
“You don’t want DeeDee?”
“I’m happy to have her. However, she did not come to me for help and she is close enough to 18 that it’s really moot at this point.” Mark stared Harold down.
Harold shifted uncomfortably as he thought things over, then snatched the papers from Mark’s hand and flipped through them.
“There are two copies there, one for each of us,” Mark said.
“I can see that.” Harold went over to the desk, looked for a pen, then pulled open the top drawer and got one out. “You know, Mark, one of these days, someone is going to show you up for the mean, manipulative son of a bitch that you are.”
Mark took another deep breath. “I don’t doubt it. Thank you, Harold. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting. Did you want to see Matthew?”
“I’ve got a plane to catch,” Harold grumbled as Mark looked over the papers.
He snatched the set Mark handed back to him and stormed out of the room. Mark sighed, took a very deep breath, then went to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopping only to call Jean Bouyer and ask her to keep an eye out for any potential statements from Harold.
June had her mind on only one thing as she slid out of the limousine outside of the family entrance to the White House – seeing her nephew. Which is why she didn’t see her oldest brother until he was almost, literally, on top of her. At first, Harold seemed angry, but he suddenly broke into a smile.
“June! Long time no see.” He held out his arms. “How about a hug for your big brother?”
June tried to back away, but with a whole crowd of West Wing employees and her own assistants standing around, she suddenly caved and gave Harold a quick embrace.
“Hey, Harold,” she said, choking back the sick feeling in her gut and quickly pushing away from him. “I’m so sorry. I’ve got to get upstairs.”
Harold held her for a second, then let go with a snort. “You know, it’s really sad how little respect I get from my own family.”
“I’m sorry, Harold,” June said over her shoulder as she hurried away.
Upstairs, she sent her assistants to their offices, then went on to her rooms and shut the door. She fought to get the sick feeling under control, but she still felt unclean and ugly, never mind that it was just a hug. And even then, she could have and should have simply refused. She knew she had the power to do that much. She should have. What was wrong with her that she kept giving him that much power over her?
June knew she should have reached for her phone, but unfortunately, she looked in the mirror. Fortunately, she remembered that moment very clearly. Five minutes later, she was all smiles and giving Matthew a big hug.