Mark woke up, vaguely aware that something was drastically different, then that there was some soft blonde hair in his nose. Blinking, he smiled as he suddenly remembered where he was. Sharon stirred for a moment, then slipped out of his arms and went back to sleep. Mark reached for his iPhone. It was after three in the morning and it looked like Johnnie Washington, his chief of staff, had texted a few messages for him. Shaking off his sleepiness, he got out of bed and began gathering his clothes and getting dressed.
His iPhone vibrated with another text from Johnnie. It was about the Senate investigation into Sharon’s status as a U.S. citizen. As Mark read it, his heart sank. He looked over at the bed feeling guiltier than he had in his entire life.
Sharon stirred and rolled onto her back. Her eyes opened and fell on him.
“Leaving already?” she asked, her voice thick with sleep and good love.
“It’s after three,” Mark replied. He went over and sat next to her on the bed. “I’d better get back before someone sees me.”
“I suppose some discretion would be a good idea.” Sharon smiled, then looked at him and frowned. “Are you all right?”
“Great and not.” Mark sighed. “This was amazing and beautiful and terrific and I can’t help feeling that I’ve ruined your life.”
“Pretty nice way to be ruined,” Sharon said, reaching out to touch his cheek.
Mark pulled her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Yeah, I know. But it’s like I’ve put a target on your back in the worst way and you have no idea just how bad it is.”
“This can’t be about that ridiculous Senate investigation.”
“It might be. It depends.” Mark sighed again. “The hard part is that you, of all people, deserve the most to know what the problem is.”
“So, tell me.”
Mark winced. “Okay. Well, I guess you’ve already seen it in action. That trouble Karen had last summer with the custody suit.”
“June said that you two knew who was behind it and that it was actually directed at you.”
“Yep. That’s it. And she was only guessing that I was seeing Karen. If she knew for sure that I was seeing you…” Mark shuddered and shook his head.
“My mother. She can’t attack me directly. Fortunately, she likes the cachet she has being my mother. But since I can’t really prove that it’s her, she can and does go after the women who are close to me. Or who she thinks are close to me since I make a point of keeping it quiet when I’m seeing someone.” Mark looked down at the blanket then back at Sharon. “It’s a long and ugly story and I don’t know all of it. When my dad and my mother were dating, Mother got pregnant by another guy. From the best I can tell, he was older and married. Anyway, she convinced Dad to marry her and then let him know on their wedding night that she was already pregnant. Dad said he should have dumped her right then and there, but he felt sorry for her and wanted to make the best of it. So, he raised Harold as his own. I don’t know how, but he eventually convinced my mother to make a real marriage of it, which resulted in me. Not sure when it began to fade, but by the time she was pregnant with June, Dad knew June wasn’t his.”
“How much does June know about all this?”
Mark shrugged. “I don’t know. We really don’t talk about it. You know. Facing forward and all that crap. In any case, when June was two, Mother kicked Dad out. The only reason Dad was sticking it out was to protect June and me, since Mother was completely focused on Harold, who was ten at the time. And that’s also when things went to hell for June and me. Dad couldn’t prove that we were being abused, so he couldn’t get custody. He did manage to get a pretty generous visitation schedule, which is probably what saved us in the long run.”
“But he did get custody when you were, what, thirteen?”
“Yeah. I was president of our middle school’s student body and got to give a speech for graduation. Mother put in an appearance, then spent the rest of the afternoon criticizing how I did the speech. Then when I pointed out that Harold barely graduated from high school, she hit me in the mouth with a fistfull of rings.”
Sharon reached up and touched the tiny white line on his upper lip. “That scar.”
He nodded. “Fortunately, Dad arrived pretty soon after to pick me up and get June from school, since Mother had forgotten again. We were able to get to the hospital in time to get it stitched. And that was the last straw. Dad sued for custody and got an emergency stay to keep us. That’s also when we found out just how paranoid Mother is about people knowing how abusive she is. Dad and I made it very clear that if she ever hurt me or June again, we would tell the world.”
“Can’t you make the same threat about attacking your girlfriends?”
“I’ve tried a couple times.” Mark shook his head. “But there is a world of difference between knowing someone is doing something and being able to prove it. She swore she was innocent and I was at a place in my life where I really didn’t want people knowing about my past.” Mark shuddered. “When you think about what she did to Karen on mere speculation. And she can almost always tell I’ve started seeing someone. June calls it my happy look. They may not know who, but they know when.”
“Oh.” Sharon shifted and, clasping the covers to her chest, sat up. “Well, the only skeleton in my closet is that video I did for my brother when I was fourteen.”
“If you don’t have a skeleton, she’ll make one up. In fact, if it weren’t for some of those guys, I would almost swear that Senate investigation nonsense was coming from her.” Mark squeezed her hand. “And please don’t tell me you can face it down. I’ve heard it before and it did not feel good when they couldn’t.”
“I wasn’t going to say that,” Sharon said, although she had been thinking she might. “But given that I’m not wild about being the First Girlfriend, we could keep things as quiet as possible.”
“Except for my happy look. If you weren’t such an obvious source of it, I might go for that. No, I just need to figure something out.”
“We need to.” Sharon said. “I’m a part of this, aren’t I?”
Mark chuckled, in spite of feeling even guiltier. “Yeah. You are.” He patted her hand and got up. “Let’s keep our distance until we get back to the States. There’s got to be a way around this somehow.”
“I hope so.”
He leaned over and gently kissed her, then left the room.
Sharon sank back onto her pillows. It had been so wonderful to let her feelings go and just be with Mark. He was a tender, yet passionate lover, and remembering the feel of him sent chills down her spine and made her want him all over again. The poor thing. He was polished enough that he could convincingly play a role when necessary. But the closer Sharon got to him, the more she could see that playing the part could only last so long. The real Mark Jerguessen wore his heart on his sleeve.
Having walked with Karen through the whole custody mess the previous summer, not to mention Sharon’s own encounter with Mrs. Jerguessen a few weeks before, Sharon could well understand why Mark was so invested in protecting her from his mother. And she apparently had been successful in breaking up more than one of his relationships. There had to be a way to throw the old bitch off while keeping their new relationship a secret. Mark was right, too. With everyone in the White House trying to throw the two together, it was not going to be easy to hide.
Sharon sighed. She was going to have to be up in a couple hours to get on the train for London, which made sleep a necessity. But sleep was not going to happen.
She was only a few minutes late for breakfast the next morning and clearly not happy. June saw it and her brother’s own frosty mood and couldn’t help fretting. After the party had gotten on the train, June found her way into the seat next to Sharon.
“I’m so sorry about last night,” June whispered.
Sharon rolled her eyes and sighed. “Look, I don’t want you feeling guilty. I know you were aiding and abetting, but let’s be real. This was Geneve’s little stunt. And I know you guys meant well. So, let’s just leave it at that.”
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t want to talk about it, June,” Sharon said, her eyes starting to fill. “I really, really don’t want to talk about it. You’re fine. It wasn’t your fault. I’m not mad at you. Okay?”
“Okay.” June got up wondering what her brother had done to get Sharon that upset.
The problem was, Mark was just as upset and grumpy. But he was also very busy, trying to stay on top of what was going on back home while gearing up and studying the protocols for the visit with Britain’s Royal Family after meetings with the prime minister. The meetings took up most of that day and the next, and were followed by a state dinner at Buckingham Palace. Without the need for Sharon to translate, Mark was able to keep his distance, even though doing that only made him grumpier. As much as he’d loved being with her that night, the downside was that it only made him want her more.
The more Mark kept his distance, the grumpier Sharon got. The state dinner was the absolute worst. Someone had thought to seat Lady Beverly Stoddard next to him, and the two were getting on quite amiably. Sharon had approved the seating the month before knowing that not only was Lady Beverly a royal cousin, she was also a research scientist and her record for scandal was absolutely spotless. In fact, the only fodder she provided for the tabloids was her weight problem and her adamant refusal to marry or even date.
She was dark-haired and while not fat, her figure was still fuller than was expected of a peer’s daughter and royal cousin. Someone had convinced her to liven up her normally dowdy image that night. That was bad enough, Sharon thought. But she seemed to have brought Mark out of his funk and the two were having what looked like the time of their lives during the dancing after dinner. Not that Mark was dancing. But the two were chatting and laughing together for quite some time. And the two disappeared from the ballroom at roughly the same time.
Sharon was so disgusted that she actually debated ignoring it when the young footman whispered that the president would like to speak to her. Instead, she followed the footman out of the ballroom to a small receiving room nearby. It had all the same rococco splendor of the rest of the palace. Sharon wasn’t sure which king glowered at them from the portrait on the wall, but he looked rather Eighteenth Century. Mark had settled onto a sofa covered in blue silk, while Lady Beverly was sitting in a chair across from him.
“So you’re Sharon Wheatly,” Beverly said, delight shining in her eyes. “I’ve been wanting to meet you for ages. I want to thank you for letting your boss be my seatmate at dinner. It’s made things ever so much easier.”
“What?” Sharon’s eyes narrowed, the jealousy filling her before she could stop it.
“That’s assuming we can evaluate the potential damage state-side,” Mark said.
“I don’t get it,” Sharon said.
“The whole reason I wanted to sit next to your boss was to ease my mother’s mind,” Beverly said, giggling. “She’s terrified that I’m going to turn into a complete and miserable bore. So every now and then I try to find somebody to date and hope it turns into a small scandal. Hasn’t yet. It’s dreadfully difficult to find somebody scandalous who has something intelligent to say about single-cell organisms.”
Sharon looked at Mark. “I didn’t know you were up on single-cell organisms.”
“Just the ones in Congress,” Mark said with a smile. “But if rumors happened to link Lady Beverly and me, how much trouble do you think we could get into?”
He looked at her intently and suddenly Sharon realized there was something else going on. She glanced at Beverly.
“How much trouble is she interested in?” Sharon asked finally.
“They’ve tried attacking my academic record,” Beverly said. “Sadly, I’m rather brilliant and it never goes anywhere. They’ve tried fat shaming me. That hurts a bit, but mostly it hurts mother. Father says I shouldn’t worry. I look fine as I am. And I don’t care how I look, especially since if I were too glammed up, no one in research science would take me seriously. I’m perfectly happy as the dowdy, but brilliant cousin. But toying with the heart of the American president? My mother will be over the moon.”
“And your actual interest?” Sharon asked.
“None whatsoever,” Beverly said, and she certainly seemed sincere. “He’s a perfectly lovely gentleman, but not nearly as interested in algae as I am.”
“And you’re not trying to hide that you’re gay?” Sharon asked.
“Oh, no! Mum would be thrilled if I were.” Beverly suddenly sighed. “It’s just insanely difficult to find a man who likes me as I am, can keep up with me and can ignore who my relatives are. It’s one of the reasons I’m going to the U.S.”
“Yes. I’m joining the microbiology department at Johns Hopkins in January. I’ll be coming out near the end of the month to find a place to live and get settled, then hop back home for the hols, and then it’s blessed research, some teaching and just enough tabloid attention, I hope, so Mum can feel happy that I’m having some fun.”
Sharon looked at Mark. “And you’re asking about how much damage this can do?”
“Well, I probably should check in with Yesmenia,” Mark said. “But I can’t imagine it messing me up too much. Especially if no one is actually admitting it, which we wouldn’t. You know the policy.”
“So rumors only.” Sharon thought it over. “Rumors can be romantic and you know how folks love romance. And they love royalty and titles. On the other hand, there are those who are making it difficult because of my dual-citizenship. They might take it badly that you’re not finding someone closer to home.”
“True, but there’s also the benefits of distraction,” Mark said. “Keep the Moral Americans frothing at the mouth about who they think I might be dating and maybe they won’t notice that they’re caving in on the education initiatives.”
“There’s that.” Sharon shrugged. “So how are you planning to pull this off?”
“That’s why you’re here,” Mark said. “We’re going to slip Beverly into my room at the embassy tonight, but I’ll need a place to stay, so I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I shared your room.”
Sharon’s heart caught and she tried not to laugh. “Yeah. There’s a couch in there.”
“Oh, brilliant!” Beverly said. “I don’t even need to stay in your room, Mr. President. As long as I’m seen leaving the Embassy at some ungodly early hour, that should do the trick.”
“Well,” said Sharon. “I serve at the pleasure of the president. You know what? I’m pretty tired anyway. I think I’ll take off now and see to making up the couch in my room.”
Sharon never returned to the ballroom.
The next day, the tabloid news sites were plastered over with a photo of Lady Beverly Stoddard leaving the American Embassy in the wee hours of the morning, along with the photo of her leaving Buckingham Palace with the American President.
Mark could see that June was beside herself, but there was little time to do anything about it.
“How could you?” she snarled when she caught him alone just after breakfast.
“Camouflage, June,” Mark said quietly.
“But what about Sharon?”
“She’s fine with it. Trust me.”
June looked around quickly. “I’ve got to go.”
She hurried off, headed for Los Angeles and then New York for a brace of meetings. Mark wasn’t sure exactly how long she’d be away from Washington but couldn’t help being glad it was going to be for a while.
It was another long day and even longer night. By the time the presidential party got on board Air Force One, everyone was exhausted. Mark debated the next step then summoned Sharon to his office.
“You know everyone was watching you,” Sharon said.
“I’ve called you in here on the trip home the last few trips,” Mark said. “I think it would cause more comment if I didn’t.”
He sat down behind his desk as Sharon flopped into the chair in front of it.
“Oh, so this is work-related.” Sharon sighed as she opened her laptop.
“Sort of. Any burning points to consider before we get home?”
“Not really. All in all, it was a successful trip, especially on the government side. On the home side, I think everyone is more focused on how successful you were with Lady Beverly.” Sharon rolled her eyes as Mark chuckled. “June is really mad at you.”
“Yeah, I know. I did try to tell her it was okay”
“I told her that I really didn’t mind and to please not be mad at you. We’ll see if she gets over it.” Sharon frowned. “Aren’t you worried that your mother will try to mess up Lady Beverly?”
“I did convey that there’s someone who tends to attack the women I’m connected to and that it can get really ugly.” Mark shrugged. “She said she didn’t care.”
“Well, good for her.”
“And for us,” said Mark with a grin. “But that does bring us to the second phase. Maybe it’s time we set up some ground rules and air any expectations.”
“Well, there’s the height of romance.” Sharon looked at him fondly, nonetheless.
“Maybe not, but if we’re going to successfully keep this quiet, then we need to figure out when and where and how to see each other. Plus the whole work thing.”
Sharon scrunched her face up. “That is something to consider. My biggest work romance mistake was messing around in the office.”
“What?” Mark grinned. “Getting it on in the Oval Office is a time-honored practice.”
“Except that I don’t want to be meeting with world leaders and thinking about all the fun we had on those couches.”
Mark’s eyes swept over her even as he realized she was right. “Yeah, that could be distracting. Which means your office is out, too.”
“Very much so.” She sighed. “And I guess upstairs is out.”
“Not necessarily,” Mark said. “It will be a little harder if June is in town or Matt’s out of school, but we can make it happen. Overnights will be tough, though.”
“Especially since I tend to come into the office later than most.”
“We’ve got weekends, and there’s always your place.”
“True. Won’t June wonder if you’re not at dinner?”
“She doesn’t follow my schedule and eats on her own more often than not. And that’s when she’s here. Matt being around is going to be trickier, since we do eat together when he is. Maybe I can swing by after an event, or just stay if it’s one you’ve pulled duty for.”
“That would work.” She smiled. “I guess we’re beyond the occasional come over and cook thing?”
“I hope it’s more frequent than that, for starters.”
“I hope so, too.” She suddenly frowned. “What the hell are we getting ourselves into?”
“Ah. The expectations question.” Mark frowned, as well.
“It’s pretty hard to have expectations when you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What we’re doing, I guess, is what they used to call dating. Or steady dating.” Mark shrugged. “Does that sound right to you?”
“Sounds about right. And we should probably leave the future off the table for the time being?”
“I’m good with that. You?”
“Does this office count?” Mark looked hopeful.
Sharon sighed longingly at him, then back at the door. “I don’t want to spend too much time in here with all of them watching.”
“It won’t take that long to join the Mile-High Club.”
Sharon got up and grinned. “Who says I’m not already a member?”
Her grin fled the second she left the office. Everyone else in the cabin was suddenly busy doing something else. She decided it would help if she continued looking as grumpy as she felt about not spending more time in the president’s office.