Sharon ended up going to the annual White House Press Correspondents Dinner that Saturday night after all. Eli Weatherall asked her to go with him, since his date, Gwendolyn Mackie, was accompanying Mark. The two joined Gus Guerrero and his husband Emilio Juarez, as well as Karen Tanaka and her boyfriend Hideo Matsumoto, a professor of Asian History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. Karen was unexpectedly giggly.
The Coopers were at the next table over with their eldest daughter Rebecca and Tony Garces, a tall, almost scrawny Hispanic boy with an easy smile. Seated with them, so that his back was to Sharon, was Max Epstein.
The room was packed so tightly that Sharon could almost hear everything Max said. He was alone that night. Given the rumble of his voice, then Tony’s voice, then the roars of laughter from the table, Sharon got the impression that Max and Tony were going head to head in a comedy routine.
“It wasn’t quite head to head,” Cordelia Cooper said in the ladies room, right before the speeches started. “Max is hysterical. I don’t know why you’re not seeing him more often. He’s wonderful fun. And so willing to listen.”
Sharon shook her hands before reaching for the hand towels next to the sink and looked at in puzzlement at Cordelia. Karen, who was waiting, giggled.
“Max?” Sharon asked. “Listening?”
“Yeah. He even let Rebecca choose dessert for him. Why are you looking so funny?”
“That’s not the Max I know,” Sharon said. “He had to run everything on the dates we went on. And listen? I had to fight to get a word in edgewise.”
Karen cocked her head to the side. “Maybe it was a date thing.”
Sharon shrugged. “Maybe. And speaking of, you seem pretty excited about your date.”
Karen giggled helplessly. “Hideo, that sweetie. We’re going to New York next weekend. He even let me plan it all out and he said I could take him shopping. Okay, only for an afternoon.”
“That’s still pretty good.” Sharon grinned.
“He’s sansei, like me,” Karen said, referring to the Japanese American tradition of counting the generation from ancestral immigration to the U.S. “Okay, Hideo’s grandparents were a lot older than mine were when they immigrated from Japan, so his grandfather is a lot more old school. That’s why Hideo’s father caved in and agreed to give Hideo a Japanese name. But Hideo’s mother is pretty Americanized – I think she’s sansei, herself – and she wasn’t about to put up with that whole proper Japanese woman nonsense from Hideo’s father. So Hideo’s a regular modern guy, all into equal partnership.”
“Wow. That sounds great. I’m so glad you’re happy.” Sharon smiled. “Dare I ask how Kira and Allie are taking it?”
“Allie adores Hideo.” Karen finished drying her hands. “Kira seems to like him well enough, but she’s at that aloof age, anyway. She’s more interested in meeting up online with Jody and Tiffany. And Rebecca, and that cute Tony Garces kid and I believe even June’s nephew.”
“It’s quite the crew,” said Cordelia.
Karen giggled again. “It’s the most friends Kira has had at one time in her life. Not exactly the extrovert is my girl.”
Sharon smiled as they left the room.
Later, after the speeches, as people got up from the tables, gently maneuvering around chairs and each other, Sharon bumped into Max.
“Hey, Sharon,” Max said, grinning at her. “Did you have fun tonight?”
“I had a great time. It was a lot of fun.”
“What did you think of your boss’s remarks?”
Sharon smiled, somewhat hesitant and ready to be interrupted. “He did really well. He’s always had pretty good timing. That’s why he did so well on the late night talk shows during the campaign.”
“I agree,” said Max. “I don’t know why no one else seemed to notice that.”
“Hey, Max. Uh, Sharon,” said Gus, coming up with Emilio and Eli in tow. “You still okay with us heading over to the PFZ for post-prandial relaxing?”
“Yes,” said Sharon. “In fact, I’ve already texted for my car.”
“A bunch of us were going to meet for drinks,” Max said. He waved at Gus, Sharon, Emilio and Eli. “Did you want to join us?”
Gus slapped him on the back. “Nah. We got tagged by the boss to head to our super-secret hideout so he can join us.”
“Maybe next time, Max,” Sharon said, leaning over and kissing him on the cheek. “I’ll see the rest of you guys over there.”
Up on stage, Mark was busy shaking hands, but not too busy to miss Sharon reaching over and kissing Max on the cheek. He grinned and came back to himself, hoping no one had noticed.
But Mackie had.
“What’s with you and Wheaties?” she asked Mark in the limo on the way to the PFZ.
“What do you mean?” Mark asked although he was fairly certain he knew exactly what Mackie meant.
The older woman chuckled. “When Wheaties kissed that guy on the cheek, it’s not like you didn’t notice. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were jealous.”
“Nah,” Mark replied, hoping he sounded casual. “I’m more worried about Epstein. He hasn’t got a real good reputation with the ladies, you know.”
“I think Sharon’s a big girl.”
“I know.” Mark sighed and looked at Mackie. “Does this mean you’re in on it, too?”
Mackie frowned. “In on what?”
“The big conspiracy to get me and Wheaties together.”
“No. But I’d like to be.” Mackie patted Mark’s shoulder. “I get it. You don’t want to be set up.”
“That and there are some very good reasons why it’s not something that’s going to happen,” sighed Mark. “Seriously, Mackie. We’ve discussed it. We kind of had to. We’re just not in a position to do anything about a relationship and may never be.”
Mackie settled back in the limo seat. Mark looked sideways at her, wondering if she was going to take him seriously.
“Looks like the press is onto your gadget habit,” Mackie said suddenly. “And speaking of, have I got something coming up for you.”
Mark chuckled and sat back and listened.
Monday and Tuesday turned out to be big days at the White House. One of the television networks had arranged to spend two days in the West Wing, doing a day in the life special on the new administration. Like most of her fellow staff members, Sharon regarded the crew as a nuisance, but little more. Tuesday morning, as she came in late to work, she was congratulating herself on not having done any interviews.
Coffee mug in hand, she hurried through the corridors to her office, only to get knocked into by a young woman holding the cord of a camera as the operator moved backward. Sharon’s coffee sprayed across her cream-colored tailored top.
“Oh, my god!” exclaimed the producer, a young red-haired man wearing a white t-shirt and jeans.
Sharon forced a smile. “It happens.”
Fortunately, her office was only a few feet away and Julie came out of her cubicle to investigate.
“Good thing I stopped at the dry cleaners this morning,” Julie said, grinning. “I’ve got another suit right here.”
“Thanks.” Sharon wiped her hand on her skirt.
“At least coffee comes out,” Julie said, reappearing with a dark brown skirt and jacket.
“Running late today?” the young producer asked Sharon.
Sharon looked up while juggling her mug, her briefcase, and the clean suit. “Not so bad. It’s only nine.”
“Most folks are here by seven,” the producer said.
“So am I, usually,” Sharon replied, yawning. “But I had to be up at 3 am for a conference call with NATO.”
“That sounds cool,” the producer said, pulling out a notepad. “What was it about?”
“Sorry. Classified.” Sharon smiled as her mobile phone buzzed. She got her suit hung up on her office door then answered the phone. “Ja, Raul… Bitte.”
She smiled at the TV crew, added a burst of rapid German into the phone, then shut the door.
“Sorry, guys,” Julie said. “She’s got to get ready for her ten o’clock meeting.”
Sharon’s head popped out of the door again, only, this time, she called softly in Chinese. Katie came running, replying in the same language.
“Woh,” said the producer. “That’s amazing.”
Julie shrugged. “It’s normal around here. Excuse me.”
Sharon was not in a better mood when changed, she showed up at the Advisory Board meeting.
“Heard you bumped into the crew,” Eddie teased.
“I escaped without doing an interview, but the producer heard me speaking in three different languages and wants to talk with me later,” Sharon grumbled.
“And everybody’s talking about coffee stains around here,” Karen said somewhat dourly. “We can’t be that much worse than the previous administration.”
“We’re not even close,” said Al Eddington, who’d had a post in the White House with the previous president. “It’s just that we’ve got all the designer coffee around here.”
The chatter ceased as Gen Forrest opened the door to the conference room.
The day was also special because it was Mark’s birthday. After the Advisory Board meeting, Mark spent an hour or so being interviewed by the TV anchor, then the rest of the afternoon was devoted to a party in the West Wing Mess for all the employees and a brace of TV crews.
That night and the next day, shots of Mark hugging Karen Tanaka were all over the TV news, newspapers and websites. Karen took it all with good humor, especially since the next day, a more important story broke: one of the janitors had been caught spying on the president.
“Do we know who for?” June asked Mark that Thursday at breakfast.
“We don’t know in any way provable in court,” Mark said. He looked at his sister meaningfully, then went back to looking over a briefing on his touchpad.
June sighed. “Well, at least we know who confirmed that Ashely Whitcomb rumor.” She waited, pondering. “Do they know if there’s anyone else on the take?”
“Could be,” Mark said, still reading. “But Riff Butler said that he’s certain there isn’t, and Major Wills nearly had a heart attack when he found out and is now raking the entire staff over the coals.” He put down the tablet. “I grant you, she’s pretty determined. But that sort of thing just doesn’t happen. The people here are proud of their jobs, and I suspect get a cheap thrill out of knowing things about us that no one, but no one will ever know.”
“I know,” sighed June. “Well, I’m heading out to New York today and probably won’t see you until you get back from the Middle East next week.”
“Okay. Enjoy your trip.”
“You, too.” June got up and kissed Mark on the cheek before heading back to her room.
Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller pursed her lips then looked up at the man with the thin lips, the pale, pale skin, and dark, slicked-back hair.
“It would appear your source has slipped up, Jensen,” she said, holding up a newspaper with the picture of Karen Tanaka and her son on the front.
Jensen pressed his lips even thinner. “My source is good.”
“Was good. He got caught, remember?”
“It could be just an innocent hug.”
“You know better than that.” Rose dropped the paper onto the coffee table in front of her. It was a magnificent mahogany piece – the only bit of color in an otherwise white room. “What have we got on her?”
Jensen flipped through a file. “An ugly divorce and a boyfriend that appears to be staying over a lot. From what my sources in California tell me, the ex is not happy about him and has been wanting custody of their daughters for a long time.”
Rose quirked an eyebrow at him. “Can you do something about the custody thing?”
“That we can do. I’ll call Elwood.”
“In the meantime, we need to alert the public to this Miss Tanaka’s fooling around. She’s obviously making a play for my son and she’s hardly suitable.”
“I agree, Ma’am.” Jensen’s thin lips slid into an off smile.