Chapter Two

White House Rhapsody started out as a novel that wouldn’t end. The romantic fiction serial was a popular blog site on its own and it’s being featured here on my main blog.

Pull Quote from romance fiction serial White House Rhapsody, "think we can try to just stay friends for the next eight years?"

When Kent Jeffries called to tell Sharon she had an interview at the White House, she was only mildly surprised. She’d heard that the various cabinet offices had been helping the White House hire staffers in their respective fields.

Her first week in Washington had been relatively relaxed. It had only taken three phone calls and two lunches to secure her meeting with Mr. Wallace at the State Department. She’d been a little surprised when Ms. Fritsch had called and requested an interview, but since things were done somewhat differently in the public sector, one had to expect it.

Still, a meeting at the White House. Sharon had to work to keep a professional demeanor as she signed in at the West Gate.

“Mr. Jeffries?” asked the guard, slightly incredulously.

“Yes, Mr. Kent Jeffries.”

“I’ll have to call on that.” He turned and dialed a phone. “Mr. Jeffries, I got a Sharon Wheatly here. Says she’s here to see you… Oh. I’ll do that. Very good, sir.”

The guard turned back to Sharon and started pulling together the visitor badge and all the other necessary paperwork. Sharon wondered why the guard was so surprised that she wanted to see Mr. Jeffries.

Another guard escorted her to the West Wing, and she couldn’t help giggling with excitement as she walked through the majestic corridors. Jeffries’ desk appeared to be in an outer office and Jeffries, himself, was short, pudgy, with dark, curly hair, glasses and the attitude absolutely necessary for a good gate-keeper. He barely glanced up from his computer as the guard introduced Sharon.

“How do you do, Mr. Jeffries,” she began.

“You’re not here to see me,” he said abruptly as if she should have known that. His voice was as sharp and nasal as his appearance bespoke.

“All you said on the phone was that you were from the White House and that I had an interview for today at this time,” Sharon said, putting as much authority into her voice as she could.

It was a considerable amount of authority – she had terrified middle managers all over the world with that tone. Nonetheless, Jeffries remained unaffected.

“You’re here to see the president,” he said, his eyes still glued to his monitor as his fingers rattled the keyboard.

Sharon’s heart stopped. Something tugged at the back of her brain suggesting that she should know why, but the shock of hearing who her interviewer was kept the suggestion at bay. There may have been a small betraying tremor, but her outward appearance remained cool. She’d been swimming with the corporate sharks far too long to give anything away that she didn’t need to. That didn’t mean her insides weren’t roiling.

She took multiple, discreet, deep breaths, which didn’t help at all when the intercom buzzed.

“Kent, I’m ready for the candidate now,” said a voice that was more than a little familiar.

Mark was trying to get a couple more seconds in on the latest briefing on pork belly subsidies when Kent announced Ms. Sharon Wheatly and shut the door. He glanced over the top of his tablet and saw legs. Shapely legs. He lowered the tablet and looked over the new candidate. She was wearing a suit, a lighter blue than you mostly saw on The Hill, and while it looked perfectly business-like, there was something else about it. The shape of the jacket was different – which Mark guessed meant it had style, something his sister, June, would have thumped him for missing.

Wheatly looked to be in her early 30s, and her blonde hair was pulled back instead of cut short and hair-sprayed out. But it was her eyes and her face… Standing on the other side of the room, it was hard to tell what color her eyes actually were, just that they were dark. But there was something about her.

Sharon, for her part, saw him appraising her and began to bristle, only to realize she’d been looking him over, too. He was so much better looking in person. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown hair that was just long enough on top to run her fingers through. And his eyes, which were a rich green, and something about the square jaw.

A third voice cleared itself.

“It’s good to meet you, Ms. Wheatly,” Mark said, coming around the desk. “This is Johnetta Washington, my chief of staff.”

Sharon propelled herself forward to shake hands first with the president, then with Ms. Washington.

“Good to meet you, sir. Ma’am,” Sharon replied.

“Please have a seat,” Mark continued. “Would you like some coffee?”

He dashed to the credenza next to the door. Sharon followed his gesture to the sofa in the middle of the room and sat down next to Ms. Washington.

“It’s Ethiopian,” Mark continued, painfully aware that he was chattering and helpless to stop himself. He filled three cups from a thermal pitcher on the credenza. “One of my guilty secrets. I get my own custom roast done.”

“K Street Koffee?” Sharon smiled, relieved and excited. Coffee geek-speak she could do.

“Yeah. Who else?” Mark grinned.

“I love them,” Sharon said. “It’s the only place in town I can get Kenyan Double-A that hasn’t been roasted to within an inch of its life.”

Mark handed her a filled cup. “Cecil is amazing. He did some Sumatran Mandheling for me that is beyond belief.”

Sharon sipped as he gave Johnetta her cup. Johnetta glared at him meaningfully as she reached for the cream and sugar on the coffee table in front of her.

“This is so good,” Sharon said. “Maybe just a little sugar to bring out the berry notes?”

“Please.” Mark grinned again, then turned to his desk. “Let me get your resume.”

Sharon noted that there was no paper on the desk and wondered where the resume was. Mark grabbed the tablet computer, then bringing his cup, came around and sat down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table.

“So, you’re looking to join us from the private sector,” he said, after tapping the tablet and giving the resume a quick glance. “Why the change?”

It wasn’t the question he’d intended to ask and he caught Johnetta looking at him quizzically. Sharon, however, had expected that question, and had her answer ready, but it wasn’t what came out of her mouth.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said instead. “I mean, public service. Growing up, all my friends wanted to be models, actors, CEOs. I wanted to be a diplomat, work all over the world, bring people together.”

“And you can’t do that on the corporate side?”

“Not really.” Sharon shrugged. “I guess you can. I just got so tired of the petty egos, the power games.”

“And you’re coming to Washington to get away from that?” Mark looked at her, bemused.

“Naturally.” Sharon laughed. “I know it sounds a little out of the frying pan into the fire. But at least, here, I can pretend that I’m doing some good, making the world a better place.”

“Indeed.” Mark looked over at Johnetta and nodded.

“This is a report on some trade issues with Kuwait,” Johnetta said, handing Sharon another tablet computer. “It was prepared by one of our staffers.”

Sharon looked it over and shook her head. “Well, someone’s not watching Al Jazeera.”

“I’m sure my staff does,” said Mark.

“Yeah, the English version,” Sharon said, looking him square in the face. She pointed to a spot on the screen. “This is a common mistranslation. It’s not at all consistent with what I’ve been seeing in the original Arabic.”

“That’s right.” Mark looked at the resume again. “That’s one of your ten languages.”

He looked over at Johnetta.

“What she’s saying makes sense given the intel we got this morning,” Johnetta said.

“So how many of those ten languages are you fluent in?” Mark asked.

“All of them,” Sharon said. “That’s why I put them on the resume. I haven’t taken the proficiency tests at State yet, so I don’t know if I qualify as an official translator.” She paused. “But I’ve been able to run circles around most of the embassy translators I’ve run into.”

“Fluent in ten languages.” Mark smiled and looked over at Johnetta, who was smiling. “And I thought I was doing well, fumbling through with high school Spanish.”

“For most Americans, you are,” Sharon said. “I’ve just been multi-lingual all my life. My mom’s from the French-speaking part of Belgium. My dad’s American. And we had a Mexican nanny. So I’ve been speaking English, French and Spanish as long as I can remember. Then we moved to Germany when I was seven, so I learned German, and Italian, when we moved there. By that point, I realized I wanted to join the diplomatic corps, so I learned Russian and Japanese. And started taking Chinese around then, too. And learned Hebrew and Arabic. My biggest weakness is the African languages. I’ve only got a smattering in a couple. Although I’m working on learning Igbo. Nigeria is one of those up and coming areas.”

“Oh, it is,” said Mark, somewhat ruefully.

The suggestion that had tugged at Sharon’s brain earlier suddenly popped up front and center.

“Is this about taking Andy Shepherd’s job?” she asked suddenly.

Johnetta sat up straight. “You mean you didn’t know what this was about?”

“No. No one said anything about any specific job,” Sharon said. “When I went in to talk to Mr. Wallace, over at the State Department, last week, it was just an informational interview. Then Mrs. Fritsch called, but she never said anything about any specific job, and all she wanted to talk about was my past work. So I thought she was just trying to place me, and since I wasn’t going after any specific position, I didn’t ask. So I didn’t know what to think when Mr. Jeffries called. He didn’t even say who I’d be interviewing with.”

“Really,” said Mark, looking over at Johnetta.

“I’ll speak to Kent,” Johnetta said. “I’m sorry about that, Ms. Wheatly. Since our process is geared at finding the right people, we try to strip any potentially prejudicial information off resumes and the like. Although in the effort to not get too much information, we sometimes let out too little. More to the point, are you interested in the position?”

“Are you kidding? Talk about my dream job!” Sharon sat back and paused to gather herself together.

“It’s more a research position,” Mark said. “I’m afraid it’s not to advise on policy, per se.”

“I understand. That’s why you have the Secretary of State.”

“Right. The World Affairs Advisor mostly just keeps me updated on what’s going on around the world,” Mark said. “We’ll be meeting twice a week with the other advisors, plus whenever I need additional briefings.”

“Pure research,” sighed Sharon. “Sounds wonderful.”

The intercom buzzed. “Mr. President, the members of the River Barge Commission are waiting in the Map Room for their meeting with you.”

“I’ll be right there, Kent,” Mark addressed the air behind him, then looked at Johnetta. “River Barge Commission?”

“Essay contest grip and grin,” she replied.

“Oh, right.” He stood and Sharon and Johnetta stood with him. “Well, Ms. Wheatly, it really was a pleasure. I’ve got to go through channels, but we’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sharon answered, shaking his hand. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He buzzed the intercom. “Kent, will you escort Ms. Wheatly to the gate, please?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you.” He looked up. “Thank you, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sharon turned and left the room.

Mark looked over at Johnetta. “What the hell just happened there?”

“You don’t know?” Johnetta smiled. “Well, I’m not going to tell you, then. But the bad news is, you’ve got to hire her. She’s the only one who’s stood up to you.”

“I know,” Mark said softly.

“Come on.” Johnetta gently took his arm. “Let’s go smile pretty for the river barge people.”

Sharon managed to hang onto her cool just long enough to get out on the street and down the block. She checked the time on her mobile phone and did some quick math. It was mid-morning in Washington, so it was evening in New Delhi and likely that Niecy was still up.

Sharon and Niecy were best friends at the all-too-exclusive Swiss college prep they’d gone to. But unlike most of their classmates, she and Niecy had remained close over the years, in spite of usually being on two different continents at any given time. Sharon briefly debated calling her mother, but it was too early in California for Madeleine to be awake enough to hear her.

Sharon dialed and hoped like crazy Niecy wasn’t out raiding brothels for underage sex slaves that night. Niecy’s day job, as she called it, was as assistant minister of education for India. But being the idealist she was, Niecy was just as likely to be out trying to save as many young girls as she could.

Niecy picked up at the first ring.

“Hallo, Sharon,” she said, cheerfully. “Did you have your interview?”

“Yes,” Sharon warbled in spite of herself.

“Was the White House as exciting as you thought it would be?”

“Way more.” And Sharon gushed out what had happened in the interview. “It was horrible, Niecy! And wonderful. I mean, there he is, checking me out and all I can think is that he’s so gorgeous and so sweet. There’s just something about this guy.”

“And what did he think about you?”

“How should I know?” Sharon groaned. “Wait. He said he had to go through channels, but that we’d be in touch.”

“That sounds very good for you, then.”

Sharon froze. “Niecy, I can’t take that job.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” Niecy was trying not to laugh. “It is your dream job. You have to take it if it’s offered.”

“Not that it will be. It’s totally the sort of job for old men with PhDs.”

This time, Niecy did laugh. “Sharon, you have out-witted any number of old men with PhDs, and a host of other credentials, too. You should take the job.”

“But I can’t. There’s just something about him. It’s begging for disaster. I can so see myself falling for him.”

“You’ve done that before and it worked out quite nicely, as I recall.”

“This time, it’s completely different. I’ve never had a man affect me this way. It’s scary, Niecy.”

“Are you afraid he won’t feel the same about you?”

“That would make it so much easier.”

“Then what’s the trouble? It’s easy if he doesn’t like you. And if he does, well, you could do a lot worse than a very handsome president of the United States, who, I have heard, is also very kind and very intelligent.”

“He certainly lived up to that.” Sharon found a bench and flopped onto it. “It would be a disaster. All my privacy, completely gone. I told you about that time with Michael’s video. It was horrible. People look at me enough, Niecy. Imagine if they had reason to look”

“That would not be very nice, I agree. But, Sharon, you will never get a better opportunity than this. It would be absolutely crazy to turn it down. And just think, you can work a couple years at the White House, and after that, you can do whatever you would like to for the rest of your life. You might be able to get an ambassadorship, or join a think tank. My goodness, dear, the world will be lining up to take you on, and you can entirely dictate your own terms. You can’t turn that down.”

“All I wanted was to travel a bit and then settle down with my books and some cats.”

“Or you could do that, too. But it will be a lot more comfortable after working at the White House, I assure you.”

“You can say that again. He’s a coffee geek.”

“And there you have it. You have something in common.”

Sharon sighed. “Just what I don’t need.”

On Sundays, after attending the obligatory church service, Mark made brunch for his sister, June, who was in residence at the White House to do all the things a first lady would do had Mark been married. It was a not entirely satisfactory arrangement since June was the very successful owner and designer of a clothing company based out of New York, which meant she had other things to do besides open pre-schools and champion non-controversial causes. So Mark, who enjoyed cooking, made his sister a nice brunch every Sunday morning.

The Sunday after his meeting with Sharon, he put together a ham steak, with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, some stone-ground grits, and a maple brioche.

“You look happy,” June observed as they began to eat.

Her hair was blondish and short and her eyes deep blue. Although June had never modeled, her face had the sort of symmetry one associated with fashion models. She also had the stature and figure of a runway model. Rumor had it, she had an eating disorder, but the rumor was only partly correct. She was a recovering anorexic, and even though she was over fifteen years into her recovery, she still did not eat a lot.

“Okay.” Mark scrunched his face as he tasted the asparagus. “I don’t think I put enough butter in the hollandaise. It tastes too lemony.”

“The hollandaise is perfect, as always. I said you look happy.”

“And…?”

“Well, not so happy, so I know you’re not getting any.”

Mark glared at his sister. “No, I’m not getting any. And I wouldn’t discuss it with you if I were.”

June looked him over more carefully. “But something’s going on. You’re happy. I noticed it Friday, at the press conference.”

“So?”

“If I noticed, then you know who else did.”

“Oh.” Mark stopped eating as he considered what June had really been saying.

It was something they seldom talked about and when they did, it was almost always in the most oblique terms.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said finally. “And if I don’t, then she doesn’t have anything to go on.”

“Since when has that stopped her?” June delicately cut a bite of ham. “I’m already hearing whispers about Kelly Won.”

“I haven’t seen her in over five years.” Mark turned back to his meal, his appetite somewhat soured.

June shrugged. “Well, like I said… And besides, the way you’re claiming to live like a hermit while you’re in office, she may be assuming you’re bluffing.”

“She’ll have to assume. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t stop seeing someone that I’m not seeing in the first place.”

“Okay. But don’t be surprised if it gets ugly again.”

“I’m never surprised when it gets ugly,” Mark sighed.

He tried to stay cheerful, but June’s observation had him nettled. He really wasn’t seeing anybody. It was true that it did tend to show when he was, even when he didn’t say anything. But there was no woman in his life at that moment.

Except the previous Thursday morning, he had met a very lovely – he corrected himself –

a very competent, amazingly intelligent, very sweet woman. June was watching him.

“I’m not seeing anyone,” he said.

But he had been vaguely concerned about hiring Ms. Wheatly. Johnetta was pushing him to make it final and he had been putting her off, saying the final background check needed to be completed. And there was no question, she was the best for the job.

But there was something about her that just made him feel good. The trouble was, if June could see it, then to let Ms. Wheatly anywhere near him was to leave her vulnerable and exposed. He’d seen it happen before, even as far back as when he was in the state legislature, and it had been bad. And those kinds of attacks were the sort that would seriously compromise her effectiveness as an advisor.

He was still debating what to do about the situation on Monday morning when Johnetta cornered him after their first briefing of the day.

“Sir, you’ve got to make a decision and you know Wheatly is your best candidate,” Johnetta said.

“Yes and no, Johnnie,” Mark said.

“What are you talking about? The background check came through and she’s as clean as a whistle, even with past relationships.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mark started twisting the buttons on his suit coat sleeve.

“Hands in your pocket, Sir.”

Mark sighed and put his hands on the desk. “It’s just… I’m not sure how to say this.”

Johnetta’s eyes rolled. “We always said, the best person for the job, no matter what. You’ve got to hire Wheatly.”

“I don’t want to see her made into a target for the media.”

“Well, there is that.”

“It won’t help her effectiveness.”

“Possibly.” Johnetta sighed, getting up and heading for her special door. “I think you oughta just let the media and Ms. Wheatly work it out on their own. Anyway, it’s time to get going. You’ve got the milk lobby coming in and I’ve got a ton of phone calls to make.” She opened the door and paused. “Jugs, go ahead and hire Wheatly. I’ve got a feeling she’ll be good for you.”

Mark smiled at the use of his old nickname, then sighed. “Good for me, huh? I’m afraid that may be exactly the problem.”

“Then make it the solution,” Johnetta said, then left the office.

Mark took a deep breath, then had Kent summon Sharon Wheatly to the Oval Office that very afternoon.

Sharon knew she was definitely more nervous as the guard escorted her from the guard house. Kent barely glanced at her from his desk, then pushed the intercom.

“Mr. President, Ms. Wheatly is here.”

“Please send her in.”

That raised Kent’s eyebrows, but he just glanced at Sharon and nodded toward the door.

He was alone in the office and standing behind his desk. Sharon tried not to gulp, but her insides were going again, only this time it had nothing to do with nerves.

“Hi,” Mark said softly.

There she was, this time in a dark gray dress. Her hair was up and her eyes, yes, her eyes were definitely a deep, rich brown.

“Hi,” she replied.

“Uh, please sit down.” He gestured to the couch, then waited for her to sit before sitting in the chair across from her.

“Thank you,” Sharon said.

“Well, about this job thing,” Mark started slowly, looking everywhere but at her.

“Yeah, about that.” Sharon sighed deeply.

“Yeah.” Mark swallowed. “I think we both know we have a little problem with that.”

Sharon nodded. “Without question.” She looked at him and the words came tumbling out. “Look, it’s not you. I mean, obviously, it’s you. But you, as a person, are not why I can’t do this. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“I think so. You don’t want to date the boss.”

“Oh no. I don’t care about that.” Sharon flushed. “I’ve dated my boss before. It wasn’t any big deal and we broke up and worked together for another year before I left. Everybody knew about it and nobody cared.”

“Only this time, it’s different.”

“Way different. You’re… It’s all this.” Sharon waved her hands to indicate the office. “I couldn’t take the publicity. It’s happened before. I’ve had my fifteen minutes of fame and it was the worst time of my life, bar none. I never want to go through that again.”

Mark nodded, suddenly feeling very relieved. “I can understand that, I think. And you’ve got a point. Which has really put me on the horns of a dilemma. Ms. Wheatly, I need the work you can do. You are my top candidate several times over.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Sharon blurted out. “Your personal advisors are almost all PhDs and older.”

“And not one of the folks I’ve been considering has your breadth of interest, your language skills, and most importantly, your sense of humor and your willingness to stand me down.”

“Mr. President, I can’t take this job!” Sharon squeaked, then fought to get control again. After all, she was a professional, an executive who had faced down CEOs all over the world. So what was it about this guy that had her acting like she was in high school all of a sudden?

“Yes, you can,” Mark said. “Because I don’t want you to get any publicity, either.”

“What?”

Mark got up and started pacing. “I’m not sure how to say this. But I think it’s a fairly safe and objective observation that you are an attractive woman. And, as you have just pointed out, when an attractive woman gets around me, people tend to talk about it and she gets photographed and well, you know how it goes.”

“All too well.”

“Which is why putting you in the public eye would not be good. That kind of talk can be very hard on your credibility and I can’t have that in an advisor.”

“Which is why I can’t take the job.”

“That’s exactly why you need to.” Mark turned and grinned at her.

Sharon felt her mouth open and then close. “That makes no sense whatsoever.”

Mark returned to his chair and leaned forward. “I’m laying the cards on the table, consequences be damned. There’s something going on here. You. Me. I can barely breathe, there’s so much electricity going on.”

“Me, either,” Sharon said softly.

“And obviously, there are some significant obstacles for both of us in terms of a personal relationship. For you, there’s the publicity. For me, well, let’s just say it’s a similar issue. But if we were working together, it would be out there. It would be public, true. But there would be witnesses that nothing is going on. We’re co-workers and nothing else. No story. And it will be very hard to sustain those kinds of rumors for any length of time.”

“I doubt that,” said Sharon.

Mark shrugged. “Maybe not. But without concrete evidence, it would be very hard for the media to keep it going.”

“Possibly.” Sharon felt herself weakening. “But, since the cards are on the table, what about a personal relationship? Is that definitely out?”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” Sharon winced. “I mean, I guess, this whole frisson thing between us. That’s sweet and romantic and all. But… I’m really messed up. There’s part of me that could easily do the whole romantic, falling in love thing. And I’d really want to if it weren’t for the fact that this will not be an easy breakup.”

Mark sighed. “I’m at least as messed up. I wasn’t joking during the debates when I said the last thing I was interested in was getting romantically involved while I was in office. This job is 24/7. It’s consuming like nothing else on the planet. I literally have to turn the lights out in the West Wing so folks will go home.” He paused. “But then you walked into my office, and if this is what a ton of bricks feels like, then, yeah, I got hit with them.” He looked at her. “I can’t do a relationship right now.”

“And I don’t want to risk it.” Sharon sighed. “The only thing worse would be giving you up.”

“I know.” Mark looked at her hopefully. “Think we can try to stay just friends for the next eight years?”

Sharon laughed sadly. “Do you honestly think that’s possible?”

He shrugged. “It’s possible. The work is pretty consuming, and I can’t imagine having that much time to, well, do the relationship thing, in the first place.”

“I suppose. And my Tante Berthilde always says if it’s going to last, no need to rush into it.”

“Fine. We’ll just take things really, really slowly and focus on keeping a platonic friendship between co-workers.” He stood. “So, you’ll take the job, then?”

She stood. “I guess so.”

He grinned. “Then, in the name of platonic friendship, let’s have some coffee.”

Sharon looked over at the credenza where the thermal pot was. “Ethiopian Harrar?”

“Nope. Sumatran.” Mark showed her a white ceramic crock and popped open the seal.

Sharon sniffed the beans and sighed happily. “That’s Cecil’s work, all right.”

“Yep. I’ve got the burr grinder right here. And I’ve got to buzz Johnnie. Do you mind doing the grind? For French press?”

“No problem. Where’s your water?”

“There’s an instant heat kettle.” Mark went over to his desk and buzzed. “Johnnie, need you to come in with Ms. Wheatly’s paperwork, please. And bring your mug.”

Johnetta appeared moments later, then stepped back in shock as Sharon expertly operated the grinder.

“Perfect,” Mark said, readying the carafe with the special plunger attachment that would separate the coffee from the grounds. “Sumatran mandheling, Johnnie.”

“Sumatran? And you let Ms. Wheatly touch your grinder?” Johnnie said.

Mark paused, looking guilty. “Uh, kindred spirits on the coffee front.”

Sharon caught his eyes and nodded. Discretion was in order. Already.

Inez Santiago angrily snapped her mobile phone shut and glared out at the New York City traffic.

“Mi amor?” Michael Wheatly asked, softly.

He was sitting next to her in the back seat of the limo, gently strumming his six-string classical guitar. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown eyes in a perfectly balanced face, topped off by blond hair that he was wearing a little on the longish side for the time being. Inez smiled softly at him in spite of her profound irritation. As stunningly handsome as Michael was, people were always going to be looking at him. But as long as he kept his shirt on and his hair straight, people were not as likely to recognize him.

“That was Bryce,” Inez told him.

“I got that.”

“He’s going to release that song for Sharon as the single off the new album whether we want him to or not.

Michael nodded. “I got that, too.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “Your sister is not going to like it.”

“It doesn’t mention her by name.”

“But you know how skittish she is.”

“Better than you do, amada.”

Inez shook her head and looked out at the traffic again. She hated limos and Michael did even more than she. But trying to drive through Manhattan after a very long flight was madness and a limo was more comfortable than a taxi.

It had been a dream trip. Michael’s career – which had never completely stalled – was bouncing back to life again, and the previous year had been jam-packed, at best. Then there had been the holidays – a tense week with her family, and after that, the happy, noisy chaos of his. Getting away, just the two of them together, for a month in Australia had been heaven.

Only now, they were home. Not her home. Not even his, really. They had bought a new place together – Michael’s idea. After five years together, it was about time.

“Bryce is an asshole,” Inez said quietly.

“We’ve known that for years,’ Michael replied.

“Thank God you’ve only got one more album on that contract.”

Michael shrugged. “And then what?”

“You’ve got a name. We could go independent and you’ll still get air time on the radio. Maybe we could get a special website going. Besides, by the time you get that last album made, who knows what the business will be like by then? You may never have to make a whole album at a time again.”

Michael strummed some more. “Who cares? I’m betting it’s not Bryce that’s got you on edge, anyway.”

Inez fidgeted with the cell phone.

“Am I right?” Michael asked.

“Close enough.”

“We don’t have to do this. I can buy you out of your share of the apartment.”

“And then what?” Inez smiled softly at him. “We can’t go back to the way it was before, Miguel, even if I wasn’t managing you. If I wait ‘til I’m ready, we’ll both be in our graves.”

“I thought you not being ready was why we’re not married.” Michael grinned.

Inez lightly punched his upper arm. “One step at a time, amado. Let me get used to living with you, first.”

And, sure enough, the limo pulled up in front of the Upper East Side apartment building and stopped. Inez caught her breath as Michael smiled and took her hand.

“There’s no getting used to me,” he chuckled. “But we can and will make it work.”

Anne Louise Bannon

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