The next few days found Sharon tied up with Halloween preparations, thanks to Eddie Cooper’s wicked sense of humor. Mark, as promised, came over twice that week, and while the first night had been a little awkward at first, they soon relaxed.
“You know, it’s kind of nice,” Sharon remarked during the second visit as they snuggled on the couch in the living room, each with a glass of wine.
“This is very nice,” Mark said before nibbling her earlobe.
“Yes, but what I was thinking is that we’re still friends. You know how it goes. You become lovers and all of a sudden all the relaxing and nice parts get all sucked up in the passion.”
“Well, I’m hoping for a little passion tonight.”
“We will.” Sharon relaxed into his caress. “But it’s nice to have both, since that first flush of passion never lasts.”
“That’s true.” Mark took her wineglass from her hand and got up. “And at the moment I’d like to give it as much of a run for the money as I can. Shall we?”
Sharon laughed and they went upstairs.
The next day, a Friday and the day before Halloween, Mark could have sworn he heard muffled laughter and shushing behind the door of the conference room right before going in for the Advisory Board meeting. He looked at Gen Flowers, who shrugged. She opened the door and gasped. Mark hesitated and then entered.
Standing around the table were all nine of the Advisory Board members, or at least, that’s who Mark assumed were there. Each one was wearing an identical suit, shirt and tie, and a rubber mask of Mark’s own face. Mark stood, stunned for a moment, then doubled over laughing.
“We even have one for you, sir,” said the doppelganger on his left. The dark hands and voice made it clear that it was Eddie Cooper.
“Aw, thanks, guys!” Mark sat down and the others joined him as he put his mask. “How’d you get this stunt past the Secret Service?”
“We put the masks on after we all got inside the room,” Eddie said.
“And no one leaves the room with a mask on,” Al’s voice grumbled from another mask.
“Fair enough,” said Mark. “Now, shall we attempt to bring this meeting to order?”
Reports were given and considering the silliness, more was achieved than might have been expected. White House photographer Emil Salas got several shots of the multiple presidents and the group photo went viral, much to Jean Bouyer’s joy.
Later that afternoon, Mark called Sharon into his office.
“Thanks for calling me in,” Sharon told him as he made coffee for the two of them. “If you hadn’t, I was going to request it.”
“Tomorrow is an American holiday,” she said. “I just double checked with Dan Friedman, and all of our Embassies are on high alert. The vandalism thing?”
“Oh. Right. Thanks for updating me. But it doesn’t seem that serious.”
Sharon frowned. “It isn’t, except that it’s been escalating. We even had a few hits on Columbus Day, and that’s hardly celebrated anymore.”
“Worth keeping an eye on but forgive me if I don’t put it at the top of my worry list.”
“You shouldn’t. That’s Dan’s and my job.”
“Anything else?” Mark’s grin grew a little lacivious. “Because if there isn’t, I’ve got something for you.”
“I thought we agreed no office sex,” Sharon said, kind of hoping to break that rule after all.
Mark sighed. “No. I’ve got this for you. You may just want to pretend you don’t have it, though.”
He handed her a laminated card. Sharon turned it over.
“Open access to upstairs?” She smiled at him. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Mark chuckled guiltily. “Actually, I didn’t. It was Riff Butler’s idea. He even knows how you can get there without the rest of the West Wing seeing you. But tonight, we can’t. Matt’s coming in from school to help me get my costume together for the Coopers’ big Halloween party tomorrow night.”
“Oh.” Sharon sighed. “Oh well. June’s been texting me all day about putting mine together.” She rolled her eyes. “I really hate dressing up.”
Mark’s eyes narrowed. “She hasn’t been suggesting you go as Martha Washington, has she?”
“Let me guess. Matt’s trying to get you to go as George?”
“Well, don’t worry. I already said no, no way, absolutely not, uh-uh. So you can do George, if you like. I made it clear to June that I did not want to be the second half of any kind of pair.”
“I’m surprised they’re still trying.”
Sharon shrugged. “Well, I will admit June’s heart hasn’t been in it lately. I think she’s figured out that you and Lady Beverly aren’t an ongoing thing. But she can’t figure out how and when you got some and she’s pretty well convinced it wasn’t with me.”
“I haven’t seen her since London, so I can’t tell you what’s going on. She’ll be in tomorrow. I’ll have to find a way to keep our little secret from her.” Mark looked at her.
“I’m sure it will be all right.”
“Then I think that’s all.” Mark offered her a sweet, but quick kiss and she left.
The next day was the big Halloween party at the Coopers. It was an annual affair and well-known for all kinds of surprises and silliness. This particular year, masks and anything obscuring one’s features were banned at the request of the Secret Service. To make life easier on the guests, Mark, Matt and June arrived before six p.m. and well before the 8 o’clock start time. So Mark, who was wearing a dark suit, anyway, got out his president mask and answered the door to the trick or treaters that were coming around.
“Are you the president?” asked one little girl.
“Yes, I am,” Mark told her while June tried not to laugh in the background.
“Honey, he’s only pretending to be the president,” her mother told her.
“No, I really am,” Mark told her.
The woman looked up at the doorway and sighed in disgust. “Oh, this is the Cooper place. I should have known.”
Mark laughed as the woman repeated to her daughter the difference between pretend and real. Most of the rest of the kids didn’t know who the mask represented, but a few of the older kids remarked on it and laughed about getting tricks or treats from the president.
“At least, they didn’t make any snide comments about government giveaways,” Eddie said.
Right before eight o’clock, Mark pulled off his mask and put on an ear wire and pair of sunglasses, instead.
“See?” he said, standing next to Riff and another agent. “I blend right in.”
The general consensus was that he didn’t, but most thought it was a reasonably funny gag. Matt had chosen to dress up as Superman, while June dressed up as Queen Elizabeth I. Sharon wore a white shirt and pants with straw leggings and a tall green hat shaped like leaves.
“What is that?” asked Eddie with a giggle.
“It’s a traditional Belgian festival costume,” Sharon said. “Les Porais de Tilff.”
Eddie cocked his head to one side. “It kind of looks like a green onion.”
“It’s not,” Sharon said blithely.
Although she did confess to June and Karen somewhat later that Eddie’s guess wasn’t all that bad.
“It’s a leek,” Sharon said. “I almost didn’t wear it, because I didn’t want to tell Eddie I’m dressed up as a vegetable. But I couldn’t think of anything else and I figured I could get away with the old national costume thing.”
Karen, who was wearing a formal kimono, giggled. “Yeah. They can’t poke fun if it’s your ancestry.”
June suddenly looked around. “Did Mark leave?”
Sharon looked at her watch. “It’s after eleven.” She looked around. “I don’t see Johnnie, either. You think something’s up back at the office?”
“She always leaves early,” Karen said and shrugged.
Sharon yawned. “You know, I think I’m going to pack it in, too. See you guys on Monday?”
“Sure,” said Karen.
“Bye,” said June.
She and Karen watched as Sharon slipped through the remaining crowd toward the door. June shook her head.
“She has just been a mess since Paris,” June said, sadly.
“I don’t think she’s been that bad,” Karen said. “But you’re, right. She’s off. The question is, is it bad enough for us to talk to her about it?”
June shrugged. “Probably not. Not that she let up on me.”
“That was a little more dire,” Karen said. “Let’s give it a couple more months.”
Sharon, for her part, yawned again once she was seated in the car she’d called and watched the lights passing on the way back into the city. She yawned again as she entered the townhouse, then greeted Mark, who’d been waiting for her there.
“That’s the one problem I’m having,” she told Mark, as they snuggled for a moment. “Between you and all the calls I’ve had to make this week, I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep.”
“Well, we did decide I’d spend the night,” Mark said, as he slipped out of his jacket. “And, truth be told, it has not been an easy week.”
Sharon nodded. Several U.S. embassies had been vandalized that day, with the Berlin embassy getting the worst damage of all. If Mark hadn’t been working so hard on his education initiatives, which were coming up for a vote soon, he might have been more worried. Either way, the two went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.
Around two a.m., Sharon woke up. She had a call to make to the German foreign ministry. But before she could get her phone off her nightstand, she noticed Mark standing by the window, looking out through the sheer curtains covering it.
“Everything okay?” she asked softly.
“Hmm?” Mark started, then looked at her, sighed, and returned to looking out the window. “Yeah. I just can’t sleep. I keep thinking about the education vote.”
“That’s coming up next week.”
“Yeah. The caucus is asking for some compromises that I really don’t like. On the other hand, the compromises could get the support we need from the other side of the aisle.” He sighed. “It’s one of those things you have to do, but I can’t help wondering if I really need to this time.” He looked over at her. “I didn’t wake you up, did I?”
“No. I have to call Berlin about the vandalism yesterday.” Sharon struggled to get sat up. “Tell you what. The call won’t take too long. Why don’t I get it over with while you continue your watch, then you can come back to bed and talk this out?”
Mark smiled softly. “You’re not supposed to be advising me on domestic issues.”
“I’m not advising you,” Sharon said, smiling as well. “I’m going to listen to you complain about how those meanies in the opposition are messing up your beautiful piece of legislation.”
He found himself chuckling. “I was wondering how we were going to handle that potential bit of conflict.”
“I suppose there might be a bit of overlap here and there,” Sharon said. “But we’ve always managed to keep the lines drawn before. And it’s not like I don’t already have a security clearance.”
“That’s true. Why don’t you make your call?”
Mark turned back to the window, listening to the now familiar rumble of Sharon speaking in a language he did not understand. He’d wondered how much he’d tell her about what he was thinking about. In other relationships, he never said anything, particularly when the issue was fairly sensitive security-wise. But Sharon was not only in a position where she was already cleared, she had also provided an out for the problem. Again, she was proving to be far different than any other woman he’d dated.
Sarah Wheatly looked at the huge pile of mail that had once again accumulated. She hoped there was nothing dire in the mass of circulars, ads and coupons. She’d throw the whole mess away, but she’d done that once and had accidentally thrown away a registered letter from the IRS and it had taken quite a bit of time and money to convince the IRS that, yes, she really was absent-minded enough to sign for a letter then forget to open it.
She’d been absorbed in a new project and every second she could spare from whatever commissions she’d committed to was focused on her latest canvas. She looked at the mail and debated turning on her email, but that was probably even more backed up.
A week or so before, friends and family members had texted her offering congratulations on something or other, but she hadn’t paid any attention to it. Her voice mailbox was overflowing, also, mostly with requests for portrait commissions, even though her outgoing message plainly said that she was booked solid through the early part of the following year, but if they wanted to get into the system, they could file an application on her website.
Sarah looked over at the new canvas. It was a landscape – at least, that’s how she saw it. Others would probably look at it as a mixed-media commentary on the state of the human soul or some such other nonsense. It didn’t matter. Sarah was finally pleased with it. Maybe. Either way, it was at that stage where the best thing she could do was not to look at it anymore. She put a cover over it and turned back to the pile on her sofa.
Maybe the next thing to do would be to go through the mail. It was pleasantly mindless work, if puzzling. So many of the letters were requests for commissions. There was also a large white envelope from some luxury publications company. Frowning, Sarah opened the envelope.
The letter was dated three weeks before and congratulated her on being featured as the top portrait artist in the country in the magazine’s Best Of issue. Sarah frowned even more. She vaguely remembered talking to some writer the previous spring. She knew she had a knack for painting portraits and, according to her friends, had done some fairly high-level executives over the past couple years. But top portrait artist? How ridiculous.
She tossed the magazine aside and went back to sorting. There was a letter from the White House, which must be from Sharon. Although Sharon knew to text Sarah, so why would she be writing a letter? Sarah debated tossing it aside, but then opened it.
It was from a Dana Wall, office of the East Wing, arts, history, and environment specialist. Sarah had been added to the short list of artists being considered for doing the official presidential portrait and Wall needed a proposal and preliminary sketches by the end of November.
“Crap,” said Sarah. “As if I don’t have enough to do.”
Still. It was the White House. Sarah wondered if her sister knew this Dana Wall person and debated asking Sharon if she’d had anything to do with the letter. The letter didn’t mention Sharon but did mention the magazine story. It was possible that Sharon had nothing to with it, which Sarah was hoping. One of the miseries of being the youngest sister was that everyone believed everything you achieved was with the help of the famous older siblings. Plus Sarah had her mother, who was also an artist. It was why Sarah was known as Sarah W even to the point that few people thought she had a last name.
Sarah sighed, got out her phone and called Dana Wall. Wall, a man, was pleasant, but harassed. He welcomed Sarah.
“I’m just so glad you called,” Wall told her. “You were on my personal short list, but Mrs. Scott, she’s the head of the volunteer oversight committee, she had her own list and the other volunteers backed her. I was so happy when you got that Best Of rating. At least, you can pull off photo-realism with some artistry. Now Mrs. Scott is screaming that we should have had you on the short list all along, and her husband, he’s that senator out of Florida, has been making noise about how disorganized we are.”
“I guess I’m the disorganized one,” said Sarah with a sigh.
“Don’t worry about it. Several of the Scott nominees haven’t sent in their proposals yet and they had even more time. One of them withdrew because he didn’t want to participate in the blind jury.” Wall hesitated. “The proposals will be judged blind by a panel made up of two curators from the National Gallery, one art critic, and two members of the volunteer committee. I hope that’s not a problem.”
Sarah snorted. “Are you kidding? A blind jury is perfect. I mean, it would be awesome to do the official portrait. Don’t get me wrong. But if you want to know the truth, I only started doing portraits to pick up some extra cash while I was in grad school. I’m glad that people seem to like what I do, but it’s not really my primary thing. So, if I don’t get it, I don’t get it. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I do.” Wall laughed. “Thank you for being so cooperative. We’ll be announcing the short list the first part of December. Will that give you enough time?”
Sarah quailed, looking at the pile of mail and the list of commissions. “Sure. I should be able to get that to you.”
Swiping the phone off, Sarah looked at the pile of mail again. She had more commissions than she could complete before the end of the year and now she had to squeeze in this new project? She shook her head and got back to work.
YAlvarez: Hey, Jean, just heard Senator Scott going off on us because we didn’t have a Sarah W on the short list for official presidential portrait.
JBouyer: What? Who’s Sarah W?
YAlvarez: According to Good Things, that luxury magazine, she’s the best portrait artist in the country.
JBouyer: Did you call the East Wing?
YAlvarez: Yes. Per Dana Wall, she was on the short list, but the committee headed by Scott’s wife didn’t want her. Only she does now.
JBouyer: That’s… so not convenient. Can’t really do anything about it. Keep an eye on it for me, please?
YAlavarez: Will do.