It was full dark when Michael Wheatly pulled the van he’d rented into the driveway at Green Briar Farms. Sharon’s phone rang and she groaned as she read the screen.
“What’s the matter?” asked Sarah, who was sitting next to her in the first row of seats behind the driver.
They had flown in together from Washington, DC, in a private jet that Michael had chartered, to a small airport not far from the dairy Aunt Charlotte owned and lived on. Sharon had thought the private jet to be a bit much, but as Inez had pointed out, Michael was not going to fly unless it was first class, and it was going to cost almost that much to get everyone tickets, especially considering the connections involved, which also meant a lot longer trip. Sharon had conceded that Michael’s choice worked. It was barely six o’clock and they were almost at the farm, thanks to the location of the airport and Michael’s van rental.
Sharon pushed the thought away to answer her call.
“Hi, it’s Jean Nugent, at the embassy here in Sidney.”
“Oh, no,” Sharon grumbled. “You got hit with the red paint.”
“Yep. Sidney police are on the job, but no real leads.”
“We haven’t got any, either. I’ll call Wanda Dereske and let her know.”
Sharon hung up and frowned.
“Well?” Sarah asked. “What’s wrong?”
“Yeah,” said Toby. She, Jodi, and Tiffany were in the seats behind Sarah and Sharon.
“It’s minor,” Sharon grumbled. “The American embassy in Sidney, Australia, just got vandalized with some red paint this morning. Some group has been vandalizing American embassies all over the world on American holidays.”
“But Thanksgiving is tomorrow,” Toby said.
“It’s tomorrow in Australia now,” Jodi said, her eyes rolling.
“Ladies…” Michael cautioned as he stopped the van in front of a large Victorian-style house with a huge porch wrapping around it.
A minute later, the van had been emptied of its passengers. The front door to the house opened, and a tall woman with white hair beckoned the group inside.
“Great Aunt Charlotte!” Toby hollered as she ran to the door, giving the tall woman a hug.
Amid the confusion of escaping coats and greeting relatives, Sharon’s phone rang again. This time, she stepped aside and spoke in Japanese. As Sharon hung up, she saw Aunt Charlotte watching her. Charlotte’s daughter, Elaine, rolled her eyes.
“What was that all about?” Elaine snapped. She had her mother’s coloring, with dark blond hair and brown eyes, but was of average height.
“Red paint on the American Embassy in Tokyo,” Sharon said softly.
Josie, Aunt Mary’s daughter laughed. “Red paint? Sounds like those damned animal activists. Hey, Tim, love, didn’t they do something similar to the McGruder place last summer?”
Tim, Josie’s husband, looked much like his wife. Both were pleasantly round, with brown hair. They were about Sharon’s age, and Josie carried their infant son.
“They did,” said Tim. “Splashed red paint all over his house. McGruder deserved it, though. Even the factory dairies don’t treat their animals as badly as he does.”
“We haven’t walked a mile in his shoes,” Grandma Alice Wheatly said.
She had supported converting the family dairy to an organic boutique facility, and then Aunt Charlotte’s decision to make gourmet cheeses, even before that trend began. But Grandma Alice would not hear a word against their neighbors’ practices.
“Animal activists,” Sharon muttered, then looked around frantically. “I’ve got to make a call.”
“Now?” Aunt Charlotte asked, looking worried.
“’Fraid so.” Sharon grabbed her coat from the pile next to the door and hurried outside, dialing as she went. “Wanda, I think I’ve got it!”
Wanda had sounded skeptical until Sharon pointed out that the United States had yet to sign onto the global anti-animal cruelty pact, a petition several animal rights groups had been supporting.
“None of the groups supporting the pact have shown any sign of violence,” Sharon said. “But they’ve been trying to get the U.S. on board for some time now. The thinking seems to be that if even we are going to support it, then nobody else has an excuse not to.”
“Then why haven’t the vandals made any demands?” Wanda asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“I know it doesn’t, but it’s the best clue we’ve got.”
“True. Can you call Berlin? They were the first hit, so maybe it’s coming from there.”
“Sure. Oh, crap. It’s just after two in the morning there. I’ll see if I can raise somebody but can’t promise.”
“I’ll get on it on my end, too.”
Sharon made another call, then went back inside. Aunt Charlotte rushed over and helped her out of her coat.
“Your hands are like ice!” Charlotte groaned. “It’s Thanksgiving. Can’t you take a vacation?”
“I wish,” Sharon said.
A few minutes later, Sharon’s phone lit up again. It was the embassy in Beijing.
Sharon’s phone continued to light up and vibrate, and Aunt Charlotte put Sharon in the house office rather than let her niece stay out in the cold. Sharon apologized for the trouble, but there was little she could do. Johnnie Washington had to be briefed. Berlin law enforcement and intelligence had questions, and there were the other embassies to be warned. Not that they had many answers. Part of the problem was that no one knew which embassies would be hit, nor what time the vandals were going about their trouble.
Sharon protested when Aunt Charlotte insisted that Sharon share her cousin Elaine’s bed. But Charlotte would not hear of it. Elaine didn’t seem very pleased, especially when Sharon’s phone vibrated near three in the morning.
“Call,” Sharon grumbled, as she got out of bed and staggered to the door.
“It’s Thanksgiving and the middle of the night,” Elaine grumbled.
“Not in Istanbul.” Sharon sighed, then answered the phone as she slid out the door.
Actually, she suspected that the under-secretary who was calling knew very well that it was a holiday in the U.S. and what time it was there. But Mahmout loved playing games, especially when he wanted something from Sharon. He was just important enough that Sharon had to talk when he called.
She went to bed several minutes later, even more peeved. It was bad enough that Mahmout was being a pest. Berlin intelligence had called at ten that night to let Sharon know that they’d found the group behind the vandalism, and again around 12:30 that morning, to let them know they’d caught the vandals in Berlin before they’d been about to do their damage. Paris had been warned in time, as had London.
There had also been the occasional call regarding other matters, but most of those had come from contacts who’d had the grace not to call in the wee hours. Still, Sharon was awakened at seven-forty-five by a contact in Moscow who didn’t know she wasn’t in Washington.
“You poor thing,” Charlotte complained, as Sharon helped her get the turkey ready for roasting.
Sharon shrugged. “It’s normal. I mean, last night was a little unusual, but there was that embassy thing, and it got taken care of. Most folks know what time it is in Washington and don’t call except during waking hours. And I call them during their waking hours, and we take turns setting up times. It’s how it works.”
Elaine snorted as she poured another cup of coffee. “And everybody got to see what an exciting job you have.”
“Elaine!” Charlotte yelped.
Elaine shrugged and left the kitchen.
Charlotte shook her head. “I guess Elaine is jealous.”
Sharon didn’t say anything. She did have an exciting job, although, as she yawned, one that presented some issues with getting a good night’s rest at times. Elaine continued to avoid Sharon for the rest of the morning.
Dinner began in the middle of the afternoon, with everyone, including Sharon’s Aunt Mary and Uncle Eric, who had arrived around noon, from their home in Madison. There were fifteen people gathered around the dining room table. Sharon remembered even larger feasts, when Grandma Alice had hosted not only her children and their families, but several other aunts and uncles, as well. Even so, there was barely room on the table for all of the place settings and serving dishes piled high with food.
Jodi had somehow landed next to Sharon. Elaine was across the table. Aunt Charlotte sat at the head with Grandma Alice next to her. They were just finishing dinner and debating whether to eat dessert then or wait when Sharon’s phone buzzed yet again. Sharon had put off several calls already, but this time, she swallowed.
“I have to take this,” she groaned, getting up.
“Is it the boss?” Jodi asked, her eyes lighting up.
“Is it, Aunt Sharon?” Toby began bouncing up and down. “Can I say hi?”
Sharon rolled her eyes but had to swipe the call on before it went to voice mail.
“It’s Wheatly, sir,” she said. “I’m with the family now. May I have a second to get my coat, please?”
“Did I interrupt dinner?” Mark’s voice asked.
“Uh, we were just finishing, sir.” Sharon swallowed, uncomfortably aware that everyone at the table was staring at her.
“How about if I say hi to everyone to make up for it?”
“Umm.” Sharon looked at her aunt. “Just a moment, sir.” Sharon put the phone on mute. “Aunt Charlotte, that is the president. He’s offering to say hello to everybody. Would that be okay?”
Aunt Charlotte gasped, then nodded. “Of course.”
“I’ll put you on, first.” Sharon unmuted the phone. “Yeah. They’re okay saying hi. Here’s my Aunt Charlotte.” Sharon handed her phone to her aunt. “Aunt Charlotte, President Mark Jerguessen.”
Aunt Charlotte looked frantic for a second as she took the phone, then took a deep breath.
“How do you do, sir?” she asked.
The rest of the table began to hum with whispers of awe.
“He’s really nice,” Toby announced, somewhat more loudly than she should have.
Jodi giggled. Sharon glared at her and pulled the girl to her.
“You set this up, didn’t you?” Sharon whispered.
Jodi grinned. “It was Matt’s idea. The boss heard me and Tiffany talking to Matt about Elaine being such a witch.”
“She’s just a little jealous,” Sharon said.
Jodi snorted. “Anyway, Matt said maybe his uncle should call and talk to Elaine about your hours.”
“I doubt that will help.” Sharon looked up and saw Toby bouncing up and down.
“Dad, can we have my birthday party at Aunt Sharon’s?” Toby asked.
“Don’t you think you ought to ask your aunt that?” Inez said with a muffled grin.
“Yeah,” said Michael. He looked at Sharon. “It’s okay with me, but if you’d rather not have the crowd.”
Sharon nodded. “It’s okay. Maman and Dad haven’t been to the place yet, so it would be good.”
Charlotte handed the phone to Grandma Alice, then looked at Sharon, still in a daze.
“He said he liked our cheeses. You’d brought some to a potluck and he really liked the cheddar and the blue.” Charlotte looked at Sharon with a slight frown. “Do you think he meant it?”
“He totally meant it,” said Jodi.
Tiffany nodded enthusiastically. “He doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean. He’ll find some other way to be nice if he doesn’t like something.”
“And he’d asked about the cheese when he tasted it,” Sharon said.
Grandma Alice giggled, then passed the phone onto Elaine. Elaine gulped, but seemed pleased when she finally passed the phone to Uncle Eric.
And so it went until Toby got the phone.
“How do you do, sir?” she asked loudly. “Would you like to come to my birthday part next week?”
“Toby!” Michael growled as Jodi groaned loudly and Inez sniggered.
Inez looked at Sharon. “I had a feeling she was going to do that.”
Toby passed the phone to her father.
“Aunt Sharon, he said he’ll see if he can work it in.”
“I’m sure he will,” said Sharon, wondering if Mark had anything scheduled.
At least, she wouldn’t have to spend the weekend in New York, which meant time they could spend together. Which is what she told Mark, once the phone had made its way around the table and she’d gotten it back and some privacy in the house office.
“I could still be conveniently busy if you’d rather I didn’t go to the party,” Mark told her.
“I’m perfectly happy with you there,” said Sharon. She sighed suddenly. “It’s not like this, where we’re too far away from each other. At least, we’ll be in the same room for an event.”
“Yeah. I’ve really been missing you,” he said. “It’s like I’ve got everyone here that I care the most about, Dad, June, Matt. But I don’t have you. It’s really messing me up, and I don’t even have cranky relatives to bother me.”
“Elaine’s not that bad. But still, I’d much rather be with you. Anyway, I’m assuming there’s some business to discuss?”
There was, but not much, and the conversation meandered, with neither Mark nor Sharon wanting to hang up. They eventually did, and Sharon left the office thinking it was almost worth going public with their relationship not to have to do holidays and big events apart from each other.
When Sharon got back to the dining room, Elaine’s adult son Kenny had taken Josie, Inez, Jodi, Tiffany, and Toby with him to get the cows milked. Grandma Alice, Aunt Charlotte, Elaine, and Aunt Mary were in the kitchen cleaning up. Sharon went to help and was promptly shooed out of the kitchen.
“Oh, lord,” Sharon grumbled to Michael. “I hope they don’t start treating me like royalty.”
“They won’t,” Michael said. “They got used to me being famous. They’ll get used to you having a high-end friend.” He chuckled. “Way to impress the crowd, though.”
“It wasn’t me,” Sharon said. “It was sort of Jodi’s idea. She and Tiffany were talking to Matt, the president’s nephew, and I’m not sure how it went from there, but I’m pretty sure the boss was all for it and was having a grand old time talking to everyone. He really does like doing things like that.”
Sharon moved away from her brother and went to watch television with her uncle.
The next morning, her aunt invited anyone who wanted to come watch the cheese being made. Sharon was the only one who volunteered. She and Charlotte put on hair nets, rubber gloves and protective gowns. Charlotte opened a valve and let milk cascade into the huge, oblong vat.
“This takes about ten-thousand gallons,” Charlotte explained, then went on to describe the different processes.
She turned on the giant stirring paddle, then checked the temperature on the vat.
“We’ll have to watch this for a bit,” Charlotte said, leaning back and contemplating the vat. She looked at Sharon.
“He really liked the cheese?”
“Yeah, he does.” Sharon smiled. “He’s a real foodie, too. He had no idea it was your cheese when I put it on the party platter a few months ago. Then he asked me what it was because he wanted Solly, the White House chef, to order some and I had to tell him that I got it from you guys. Which means he has to get it from me, and we have to be careful how we serve it. The president can’t look like he’s favoring people he knows, especially since the last administration was so bad about doing just that.”
“Elaine will be crushed.”
“I’m sorry about that, Aunt Charlotte. Maybe we can find a way around it, like sell the cheese to someplace in Alexandria.”
Charlotte smiled. “Thanks, Sharon.”
Sharon watched as her aunt took a deep breath of the tangy air and smiled softly.
“You really like making cheese, don’t you?” Sharon said.
“Yep.” Charlotte sighed. “I don’t understand why this isn’t enough for some people.”
“You mean like my dad?”
“Sort of.” Charlotte shrugged. “I was mostly thinking about Elaine. Hate to say it, but I think that’s why she’s been so snippy to you this trip. She wants to do some sales trips, but I need help here, at least, that’s the way it’s been for a very long time. But Elaine thinks Tim can take up some of the slack, and I suppose he can. We’re doing well enough on the Internet sales, so I don’t see why we need to expand. Only Elaine, Josie, Kenny, everyone, they all think we can and should.”
“Will that make a lot more work for you?” Sharon asked.
Charlotte shook her head. “Maybe a little, but most of the packing and stuff like that, Elaine and Tim are handling.” She shrugged. “I just don’t get why there’s always this push to do more, more, more. Why can’t people just be satisfied with what they have?”
Sharon sighed. “That’s a good question. I haven’t met too many people who are happy with what they have. Although sometimes, maybe, it’s just wanting to see what all you can do. I know that’s why I work. Everyone thought I was nuts when I quit my last job to go work for the government because I could make so much more money in private industry, but it just wasn’t that challenging anymore.”
“That’s what I like about cheese. It may seem like it’s the same thing over and over again, but there’s always something new to discover or try.”
Sharon smiled. “You’ve found your passion, haven’t you?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it that. It just makes me happy and I don’t know why it doesn’t make Elaine happy. Or your dad.”
“I guess we’re all different,” Sharon said.
Charlotte got a large spoon from a drawer, dipped it in disinfectant, wiped it off, then dipped it into the milk in the vat. She gave the milk in the spoon a quick taste, then got a glass slide from next to the microscope. Sharon watched as her aunt set up the slide, then dipped a small test paper into the rest of the milk on the spoon.
Charlotte looked into the microscope, made a note, looked at the test strip, then sat back.
“Is your dad happy?” she asked after a minute.
“Very happy,” Sharon said.
Charlotte shook her head. “I don’t understand that. No one knows where he got his wanderlust from. We’ve always been happiest right where we are. Your dad, he has to keep moving.”
“I know. Maman is the one who wants to settle down.”
“That’s what makes a person happy,” Charlotte said. “You don’t have to go looking all over the place to find happiness.”
“That’s true,” Sharon said. “And if it were only about filling in some space inside of me that was lacking, I suppose traveling wouldn’t do that much for me. But I like seeing new and interesting things, talking to people who are different than me. It’s interesting and fun.”
“Hm.” Charlotte mused, then went back to testing the milk in the vat a second time.
Sometime later that evening, as they got ready for bed, Elaine approached Sharon.
“What did you say to my mom?” Elaine asked.
“We were just talking about traveling and challenging work.”
“Well, she’s suddenly decided that I can go on a few sales trips,” Elaine said. “Finally!”
“She said that you’ve been doing all right.”
Elaine’s eyes rolled. “She didn’t say anything about the hundred pounds of cheese we had to give away last month because we couldn’t sell it. I wouldn’t mind giving it away. It’s just that we have more cheese than we can sell right now. We could be doing a lot better. And it’s only going to get worse as Josie and Tim’s operation gets bigger. Mom thinks that as long as we’re not going under, who cares? But she just doesn’t get it. I want to see what we can really do. I don’t want to lose the small operation thing, but I’d like to get out there and see how far I can push it, you know?”
“I get that,” Sharon said.
Elaine looked abashed all of a sudden. “I owe you an apology. I was taking out my frustration on you and that wasn’t fair.”
Sharon shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“Well, the president said that he wants me to send some cheese to his chef. They probably can’t use it for dinners and official stuff, but he can have it privately. I think he really likes it.”
“He does,” said Sharon, with a chuckle.
Elaine turned out the light and Sharon laid back in the darkness. All she could think about was Mark, who also was content with what he had, but who also liked to stretch himself, to see what he could do. And the more she thought about Mark, the more she missed being with him. She was profoundly grateful that she and her part of the family were leaving the next day.
Late Saturday afternoon, back in Washington, Mark stretched out on the couch in Roy Hodgkiss’s TV room. Roy was settled into his favorite chair, and there was a football game on the television. It was a comfortable room, with worn furniture, books overflowing on the shelves, and a stack of toys in a corner.
As a beer commercial filled the TV screen, Mark looked down at his phone and smiled. Sharon had sent a text that she was finally home. He wondered how soon he could leave. The game was well into the third quarter and had turned into a miserable blow out.
“Your latest lady love?” Roy asked impishly.
Mark’s face colored and he shrugged.
“So, how is Lady Beverly?”
“Who?” Mark frowned. “Oh. Fine, last I heard.”
Roy’s eyebrows rose. “Ah. She’s not who you’re currently seeing.”
“No.” Mark chuckled. “That was strictly diversionary. Good to know it got past you, though.”
“I’m not sure it did,” Roy said. “You and Wheatly finally connected, didn’t you?”
“Yeah.” Mark sighed.
Roy had figured out who Mark was dating before. But those relationships hadn’t mattered as much as his relationship with Sharon. Something about Roy knowing made Mark nervous.
“I’m not saying that’s a bad thing,” Roy said. He paused. “You know, Mark, you seem pretty serious about her.”
“Have you considered going public with it?”
Mark shifted. “Oh, we have.” He shook his head. “The time isn’t right and Sharon does not want to be First Girlfriend.”
“And you’re making excuses.” Roy turned down the sound on the television, then fiddled with the remote. “If she bails on you, then maybe it’s better to know sooner rather than later.”
“I guess.” Mark winced. “Oddly enough, I’m not worried about that. I just don’t want to put her through that.”
“Come on, Mark. She’s already met your mother. She knows what she’s up against. Why don’t you give her a chance?”
“We might. I don’t know.” Mark sat up. “There are a lot of little ducks to get lined up in their row first. And it’s not just me. Like I said, Sharon really does not want the publicity.”
“Well, think about it.” Roy nodded at Mark’s phone. “And why don’t you text her back that you’re on your way to her place? This game’s going nowhere, and frankly, pal, you’re too much in love to be interesting right now.”
Mark laughed and got up.
Rose Jerguessen smiled at the text message in front of her.
“I’ve found something,” her contact had texted. “He leaves checks under the desk blotter for her.”
There was a photo attached and Rose shook her head.
“It’s something,” she texted back to her contact. “But the amount is too small. Easy to explain it away. Good work, though. Keep it up.”
Rose darkened the phone’s screen. The checks were something. Admittedly, not much, but something. Soon, she would have all she needed to finally take that Wheatly bitch down.