Sharon couldn’t believe she was on another date with Max Epstein. But there he was, across the cocktail table at the Press Club bar, in full monolog. He had called on Wednesday and after the Correspondents Dinner, Sharon had decided he deserved another chance. So she’d accepted and was sorely wishing she hadn’t.
“Max,” Sharon said suddenly, getting up. “Can we go for a walk?”
“Uh, sure,” Max jumped up and followed her out of the bar.
It was still early that Saturday evening. The mid-May weather was warm enough to be comfortable, but without the miserable humidity of full summer. Traffic on the street was light and the sidewalks were largely empty. There were always tourists in D.C., but the summer rush hadn’t yet begun.
“I’m thinking if we head this way, we can have dinner at Stradiman’s,” Max began as the two left the building.
Sharon put her hand on his arm and squeezed. “I’m thinking not.”
Sharon took a deep breath. “Max, I don’t get it. You’re a nice guy.”
Max slumped. “Oh, great. You’re dumping me.”
“Now, wait a minute!” Sharon glared at him, then began walking. “There’s nothing here to dump. We’re friends.”
“I thought we were dating.”
Sharon shook her head. “It was borderline at best. And don’t try to bust my hump for leading you on. You didn’t even get a kiss goodnight those other two times.”
“So, if we’re not dating, why are you giving me the breakup speech?”
Sharon winced. “Because you’re making me crazy, Max. We go out. You take over. You ramble on without listening to a word I say. And yet, you’re not like that normally. I heard you last week. You were funny. You listened to everyone else. You were great. So what gives? Why are you such a pain in the ass to date, but perfectly fun to be around otherwise?”
“I don’t take over.”
“Max, you choose the venue. You tell me what I want off the menu. You tell me what wine to drink with it. I’m beginning to feel like I’m not necessary.”
Max slumped even further into himself. “Women like a strong decisive guy.”
“It depends on how strong and decisive,” Sharon said.
“But you called me those first two times.”
“I know.” Sharon bit her lip. “I probably shouldn’t have. I was just…”
They stopped at a street light and Sharon gazed at the traffic.
“I was just trying to prove to myself that I’m not in love with someone else.” She suddenly growled. “And it’s not who you think it is.”
“I wasn’t thinking anything,” Max grumbled. “Why didn’t you just say so?”
“Because I didn’t want to admit it to myself.” Sharon sniffed and blinked back tears. “I was trying to convince myself that you were closer to the kind of guy I want. But, no. I’m falling for the guy who’s unavailable again. And then I go and hurt you. I’m so sorry. I just can’t do this. I’ve tried settling and believe me, that didn’t work out. Which is probably why I’m so cranky about your control issues.”
Max snorted. “Except that you’re not the first woman to tick me off for that. I’m sorry, too. I didn’t think I was that nervous going out with you, but I always start chattering and taking over when I’m nervous.”
“Maybe we could just go out as friends.”
“No.” Max sighed and shook his head. “If I’m really honest, it wasn’t you, per se, making me nervous. You’re just the first… Well, I got really turned around right before Christmas last year. Family crap.”
“It was. Anyway, I thought I was past the crappy parts. You may have heard, I don’t have a good rep with women.”
“Yeah, well, It’s kind of a problem I have. My dad was kinda down on women. He always blamed it on my mother leaving us.” Max frowned and swallowed. “Only I found out this year that he hadn’t exactly been honest about what happened.”
“It gets worse. I finally decided to look for my mother – my last girlfriend said I needed to get over my mommy issues. My mother’s tried to contact me off and on since I became an adult, but I never responded because Dad had always told me how controlling and mean she was. And I was angry that she’d abandoned me. So I’m looking through the court records for their divorce and find out she left because Dad was hitting her – there were pictures. And she’d taken me with her. I was only two at the time, so I don’t remember any of this. Anyway, then I find an old warrant for Dad’s arrest on kidnapping charges. Turns out when he was transferred by the Air Force to Germany, he took me from my mother and she couldn’t get me back because the Air Force wasn’t willing to enforce the custody order. And that’s probably why Dad stayed. He couldn’t go back because of the kidnapping warrant.”
“Have you connected with your mother yet?”
“Yeah. It’s been going really well. One of the reasons I thought I was ready to start dating again.” Max laughed bitterly. “I’m guessing I wasn’t.”
“Well, I’m guessing my taste for the unattainable didn’t help.” Sharon looked up and saw a small Spanish restaurant next to them. “Why don’t we just have dinner here – strictly friends and we can talk about our respective issues and why we’re terrible for each other.”
Max laughed. “Yeah, what the hell.”
Late the next day, Sunday, the President and staff members boarded Air Force One for a five-day tour of the Middle East. Sharon rode on board with the executive staff, while Faiza Moussel had gone on ahead to the first stop Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Monday was filled with talks, but successful ones, then there was a busy day in Jordan, and a very tense day in Palestine, Wednesday, because Mark’s visit was setting a historical precedent.
That night, after a debriefing session with the full staff in the hotel suite’s conference room, Mark left first, then quietly returned when he noticed that Sharon hadn’t left yet. She was still sitting at the conference table, talking in Spanish on her mobile phone. The room was relatively small, but decked out in gold and red, in spite of the modern furniture.
Mark stood next to the door, nodding when Sharon noticed he was there, and trying to indicate that she should finish her call. She nodded and continued her conversation for another couple minutes, then hung up and held up a finger while she made several notes.
“Yes, sir?” Sharon asked as she finished.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Mark said, trying to sound casual.
“It’s been pretty busy.” Sharon fidgeted with her pen.
“Maybe. But you’ve still been avoiding me.” Mark moved over to the table and sat down. “I’m not worried, per se. I just wanted to be sure nothing’s wrong.”
“There’s nothing any more wrong than there ever has been,” Sharon said. “I just… It…” She looked over at him. “I just had to face facts Friday night about my issues with the unattainable. It’s my pattern. The guys I tend to fall for all seem to have some particular baggage that I just can’t work around. Mostly, they’re famous.”
“Could it be a secret longing for fame?”
Sharon grimaced. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve dealt with it. It wasn’t fun and I don’t want to deal with it again. Maman says that it’s because everyone in our family, we’re all such over-achievers, that’s the kind of guy I like and a good chunk of the time, the fame is part of it.”
“Like your famous brother.”
“Yeah. The running gag until I got this job was that I was the underachiever in the family,” Sharon smiled softly. “I think it has more to do with that I’m the only one of my sibs who isn’t an artist. I mean, it wasn’t like they thought I wasn’t doing anything. That was the joke – I was way ahead of my peers. But because Michael and Susan were both at the top of their fields and I was still just a VP with a ways still to go up the career ladder, it seemed like I wasn’t doing that much. Then when Sarah started her Ph.D. work, plus selling through some major galleries, well, you get the picture.”
“You’re a pretty intense bunch.”
“So what’s your pattern of baggage?” Sharon forced a smile.
“My pattern, huh?” Mark leaned back in his chair and pressed his lips together. He debated telling her the truth but decided it wasn’t the time. Besides, it wasn’t as though he had other issues. “I, uh, tend to do the love at first sight thing and flame out quickly.”
Sharon winced. “Oh.”
“That’s a big reason why we’re not having a relationship right now. I don’t want to do that to you.” He smiled at her softly. “Not exactly breaking our patterns here, are we?”
“I suppose not.” Sharon looked down at her notes.
Mark reached over and touched her hand. “Maybe it’s not the patterns that are the problem.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s you and falling for the guy who’s famous. It’s your attitude toward that fame that’s the issue, not that you shouldn’t be liking him. In my case, it’s not the falling in love that’s the problem, but rushing into it without… Without doing what we’re doing.”
“Building a friendship, I hope. Learning to like each other before letting the chemistry carry us away.”
“And what about my thing with not wanting to deal with your fame?” Sharon finally looked up and watched his eyes.
Mark yawned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Truth be told, I have no idea. But I suspect that with enough time, you’ll figure it out. And fortunately for you, time is our best option, right?”
Sharon nodded. “Assuming we can hold out. Anyway, it’s late. You’re tired and we might have an issue with Mexico again.”
“Shavings.” Mark stood up and flinched slightly as Sharon bounced up with him. “We’d better get to bed then. Good night.”
“Good night, sir.”
He smiled as Sharon left without waiting for him.
Sharon left, dialing Washington, DC. Her conversation with Karen Tanaka was brief and to the point, which wasn’t unusual in itself. But something didn’t feel right. So Sharon texted June, who was in New York again, then went to bed.
At four o’clock the next afternoon, in Washington, June knocked on the door to Karen Tanaka’s office. It was cramped, like everyone else’s office, but it had a window looking out onto the south lawn and a more square shape. Karen had painted the walls a rich, creamy yellow and brought in a glass and brushed chrome desk, complemented by an ebony black entertainment unit on the side wall with a bank of four televisions, each on its own shelf one on top of the other. A simple ikebana arrangement of spring flowers adorned the desk. Framed photos of her daughters dotted the walls.
Karen admitted June with a listless smile.
“What’s going on?” June asked.
Karen looked away. “What do you mean?”
“Sharon texted me last night that something didn’t feel right when she called you yesterday.” June slid onto the small black leather chair in front of the desk and set her purse on the floor next to her. “She thought something might be wrong.”
“I don’t really want to talk about it, June,” Karen said with a soft sigh.
“Okay,” June said grabbing her purse and getting up. “I suppose I have to respect that.”
“June. Wait.” Karen slowly put down the lid on her laptop. “I’m sorry.”
June looked down onto Karen’s desk and saw the legal papers there. Karen saw June’s eyes, then sniffed.
“Yeah, that’s a court filing,” Karen said softly. “It’s my ex. George. He’s suing for custody of the girls.”
“Ouch,” said June, slowly sitting down again.
“It’s nothing he hasn’t done before,” Karen said, slumping back in her chair. “We’ve been through this twice since the divorce.”
“And yet you were able to move here with the girls.”
Karen nodded. “He threatened to sue when I got this job, but I not so delicately pointed out that he’s already blown three court-ordered evaluations.”
“The first when we first got divorced, then the two other times.”
“So if he’s blown three evaluations, what are you worried about?”
“It’s always a little dicey,” Karen said. “Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to interpreting best interests of the children and the evaluation. Which is why George keeps filing. He keeps hoping he’s going to get a sympathetic judge.” Karen handed June the papers. “And it looks like this time he may have.”
“Oh?” June thumbed through the papers.
“My attorney called just a bit ago. There was a surprise temporary order hearing this morning. It was just luck that I got the summons yesterday, and I called Lewis immediately. So he was able to get in on the hearing. He called just now. It is not looking good.”
“They can’t hold hearings without notifying the other side.”
“In child custody cases, they can.” Karen came around the desk and plopped into the leather chair next to June. “It’s the temporary emergency order thing – the idea is to protect kids from a potentially violent parent.”
“But you’re not violent,” June said.
“They can do it for other reasons. According to Lewis, George’s attorneys are arguing that I brought the girls here to DC against his permission and that he signed the agreement under duress. Which he kind of did.” Karen tightened her lips. “Lewis said this new firm that George has, they’re scorched earth specialists. And Lewis can’t prove it, but they just happened to get a judge who’s notorious for giving the fathers custody if they show the slightest interest in the kids, never mind what the evaluations show.”
“Well, the girls are old enough, the judge will have to listen to what they say, and based on what I heard last month, they’re not too excited about being with their dad.”
Karen snorted. “They’re arguing that I poisoned them against George. And the girls’ grades are down. Part of it is just the new school. Allie’s grades are coming back up. But Kira’s are still off.”
“How bad is it?”
“Just a few percentage points, but…” Karen rolled her eyes. “I hate buying into the stereotype, but for George, anything less than 100 percent is huge. Since we got here, I haven’t been riding them that hard. And you know what? Kira’s actually been making friends – more than she’s ever had at one time. You know, Coop’s kid Rebecca. And Sharon’s nieces, Jodi and Tiffany. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for Kira, it’s amazing. She’s always been a loner. I just don’t know how far that’s going to go with George’s new attorneys.”
“Scorched earth specialists.”
“Figures.” Karen slumped back again. “It’s just George’s style. The only thing Lewis and I can’t figure out is how he’s paying for them.”
June frowned. “I thought George was a doctor.”
“Head of emergency at County-USC – which means he could get more elsewhere, but he’s still pulling in some good money.” Karen shook her head. “Lewis said these guys, they’re seriously high-end, the firm you hire when you’ve got hundreds of millions in assets to protect and you can afford the long court battle to get your kids. Lewis and I keep pretty good tabs on George’s assets – it’s not like he hasn’t tried hiding money from us – and Lewis said he has no idea how George is paying for these guys.”
June suddenly reached into her purse and pulled out her tablet. Glancing at the legal papers, she quickly started typing onto the pad.
“What are you doing?” Karen asked.
June swore. “I thought as much. I just googled George’s firm and another one that I know. They’ve got a cooperative agreement. Which means I know how George is paying for them. Or rather, who’s paying them for George.”
It was June’s turn to sniffle. “Look, Mark and I don’t talk about it much, but there is someone who has a lot invested in making trouble. This person can’t bring down Mark, so… Well, the people around Mark get hit instead. And you just got some publicity as Mark’s friend. The timing is just too suspicious.”
“You mean..?” Karen thought. “Lewis did say that opposing council did seem to be rushing this through.”
“That picture of Mark hugging you only came out a little over a week ago.” June fumed. “And your situation with your ex was ready-made for this kind of attack.”
“You know, Lewis was saying that I might have to give up the girls because these guys are really good at digging up and slinging dirt and making even a hangnail look like major carelessness.” Karen started crying full on. “I don’t want to lose my babies, but I can’t let them get hurt that way.”
June reached over and gently grabbed Karen’s arm. “They’re not going to. I swear. I’m not going to let these SOBs hurt you or Kira and Allie. It’s because of me and Mark that they’re involved.”
“It’s not your fault, June.”
“I know.” June swallowed. “But, Karen, I know what it’s like to live with the wrong parent. Believe me, there’s a reason why my mother and I are estranged. I won’t let that happen to another kid.”
“But what can you do?”
“I can pay for the attorneys you’ll need to fight this.”
Karen bounced up. “June, I can’t let you do that. This could cost—”
“I know how much it could cost. Or will cost.” June got to her feet. “I know how these guys work. They’ve got George convinced that only he can save the girls.”
“Oh, he was already convinced of that,” Karen snapped.
“Then all they had to do is gently push him into the ends justifying any means to get his kids for him. And if George is the controlling jerk I have every reason to believe he is, he bought it hook, line and sinker, and these new attorneys are going to scorch the earth and then some to get George full custody of Kira and Allie. The only thing those girls have going for them is that you’re willing to cave in rather than let them get scorched in the process. And you can’t let that happen.”
Karen looked at the ceiling. “I can take care of my girls.”
“In a fair fight, you can and then some.” June walked over to Karen and put her hands on her shoulders. “This isn’t going to be a fair fight. They’ve already tried sneaking a temporary emergency order hearing past you and your attorney. And they got the sympathetic judge. No, we can’t prove it, but I’m pretty darned certain that was no luck of the draw.”
“How will I pay you back?”
“You’ll raise your daughters and protect them and keep them safe. And you’ll let me play auntie.” June shrugged. “That’s all I need. Karen, money I’ve got and more seems to keep following me. I may as well put it to some good use.”
“Won’t it hurt if it gets out that you’re paying my attorney fees?”
“We’ll find a firm that can spin anything they throw at you. Please, Karen. Like I said, I know where this is coming from and, no, it’s not my fault. But Mark and I are the reason it’s happening and if he found out, he’d be doing the same thing.”
“Oh, God.” Karen sank into the chair in front of the desk. “I guess we’ll have to do it.”
“The first thing we’re going to have to do is get on that emergency order.” June sat down next to her.
Karen nodded. “George wants his summer visitation rights enforced. As if I wasn’t going to. I bought the plane tickets for the girls two weeks ago. I told Kira last night she was going to have to go.”
“I’m guessing she wasn’t happy.”
“She flat out refuses to go. Good thing I’ve got until the end of June to change her mind. If I can change her mind.”
“We’ll figure something out. You’re not alone in this, Karen. You have support. I’ll be with you every step of the way. Scorched earth specialists can be beaten and it can be done without using the same tactics. You have the truth on your side and it’s pretty hard to beat that. You just can’t give in.”
Karen nodded sadly. Slowly she turned to June and the two held each other as Karen at last relented and sobbed. June started crying, too.
That evening, Kira Watanabe signed into the video chat room. Matt was already signed in, as were Jodi and Tiffany. Tony pinged in, with Rebecca joining within seconds.
“How bad is it?” Jodi was asking.
“How bad is what?” Rebecca asked.
“All Mom would say is that I have to go to my dad’s this summer,” Kira said. “My dad is suing Mom for custody again and it’s really got her upset.”
“Sounds like you’ll have a sucky summer,” Matt sighed.
“I’m not going,” Kira said. “I’m going to run away and take Allie with me. There’s no way I am going to live with him and I am not going to let him near Allie. She doesn’t deserve that.”
“Kira, you can’t be serious,” Rebecca said. “That’s dangerous.”
“Like living with him isn’t?”
“Rebecca’s right,” Tony said. “It’s bad on the streets. I know.”
“I’ve just gotta think it through is all,” Kira said. “I’ve got money saved, so that should help. And I could probably set up some sort of web business to make more, so nobody knows how old I am.”
“You could stay with us,” Jodi said.
“Her dad could track her to us too easily,” Tiffany said. “I suppose we could sneak her past my mom, but we’d never make it past yours.”
“You know, Kira, it would be good to have some sort of grown up helping,” Tony said. “You really need somebody to help you hide and keep a roof over your head.”
“And you’ll need cash,” said Matt. “You’ll have to find a way to get your money out of your savings account without your mom noticing.”
“Actually, what you need is a plan,” Tony said. “And a backup plan in case things go wrong.”
“I know. We could hide them at my Aunt Susan’s,” said Jodi.
“Why not your dad?” Rebecca asked.
“Too straight,” Jodi and Tiffany said together.
“Tony’s right,” said Matt. “What you need is a plan and a backup plan.”
“And a backup plan after that,” Tony added.
“Okay. So how do I get one?” Kira asked.