The Europe trip was one of the longer trips the President had made. The goal was to develop a series of cooperative measures on the climate, trade, and technology protocols. The five capital cities that had been selected were based on their friendliness to the U.S., so it looked like it was going to be a fairly relaxed trip.
However, the party’s first night in Rome proved otherwise, even though it shouldn’t have. One of June’s friends, an American model named Nina Collodi, whose uncle was the Italian Foreign Minister, had seemed the ideal date for that evening. Nina had served as Mark’s date fairly regularly back in the States, so she knew what to expect. In addition, her Italian was as flawless as any other native’s, since she’d learned it from her parents, who had emigrated to the U.S. before she was born.
Collodi met the Presidential party during their first morning in Rome. She was tall, olive-skinned, with stunning shiny black hair. Sharon made a point of briefing Collodi, but, as a result, missed what should have been a minor meeting between Italian Foreign Ministry and U.S. State Department staff members.
Which was why, many hours later, when Sharon, Yesmenia and June were enjoying a huge bowl of spaghetti, Sharon got a text and gasped.
“We’ve got a problem,” she announced.
“Why? What?” Yesmenia asked.
“If I’m reading this right, the Transportation Minister took offense that Nina is Signor Montefiori’s niece,” Sharon answered.
“Why would he?” asked Yesmenia. “Even their president seemed pretty proud of Nina.”
“Signor Roscano is about to be indicted,” Sharon replied.
“This is Italy,” June said, slurping a last strand of pasta. “Someone’s always about to be indicted.”
“Yeah, but apparently, it just came out today that the indictment is over some pretty egregious nepotism on Roscano’s part,” said Sharon, glaring at her Blackberry. “Why didn’t I know about this?”
Yesmenia sighed as she picked up her purse. “Possibly the same reason I didn’t. We were doing something else when the news broke.”
“If it broke,” grumbled Sharon, texting as fast as she could. “I’d better head back to the hotel.” Her phone buzzed. “Wait. Raul says he’d heard a hint of the issue during today’s meeting that I missed because I was briefing Nina.”
June frowned. “Is it my imagination, or does that sound like he’s blaming you for missing the meeting?”
“Raul always sounds like he’s blaming someone for something,” Sharon said, still glaring at her phone. “Your brother is not going to be happy.”
June shrugged and looked at Yesmenia. “Why don’t we go soothe his feathers and leave Sharon to soothe the Italians’?”
“Best thing we can do,” said Yesmenia.
“I’ve got a staffer to rake over the coals first,” said Sharon.
But as she got up to go, her phone rang and she began speaking rapidly in Italian.
Back at the hotel, she glared at Raul.
“It was just a hint,” said the tall, balding man with the dour face. “This is Italy. Someone is always being indicted for something.”
“Raul, you know better than to take that attitude,” Sharon said.
“But none of the Italian population cares, not even the rest of the cabinet,” Raul said.
“Well, if you’re the one being indicted, you care. And you know damn well, the problem isn’t whether it’s a significant issue or not. It’s about how we appear to the rest of the world, and the last thing we can afford, especially after the last administration, is to appear as if we’re insensitive.” Sharon paced for a few minutes, then looked over the upcoming schedule on her laptop. “I’m going to have to send you home. Randy can take over for you here.”
“That’s my job,” Raul said, stopping just short of whining.
“And you didn’t do it,” Sharon said. “Furthermore, Raul, if you blow it one more time, I will have to fire you, I don’t care how good your contacts are. And, yes, this is a formal notification. I’ve already emailed Human Resources. Are we clear?”
“Are we clear?” Sharon repeated.
“Yes, we are.” Raul turned and stalked off.
Sharon gathered herself together and made her way to the suite where Mark was staying.
“Well?” he asked as Sharon entered.
Sharon looked around the room. Yesmenia, June, the president’s official personal assistant Gen Flowers, the Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Barker, and speechwriter Calvin Whitecross were scattered about the sitting area, looking at her expectantly.
“Prime Minister Dellacandro laughed. She thinks the whole thing is hysterical,” Sharon said. “Signor Roscano has been mollified.”
“What did you tell him?” Mark asked.
Sharon looked a little guilty. “That is was Signor Montefiori’s idea that we have his niece accompany you, which it partly was. Montefiori is already angry with Roscano for making a fuss, and grossly offended that we would have passed over his niece just because Roscano’s about to be indicted. So, per Signora Dellacandro’s suggestion, I’m letting them fight it out.”
Mark suddenly laughed. “Seriously? Can we afford to do that?”
“I think so. Signor Montefiori was claiming credit for you having Nina with you, in the first place. So we can go with that. If it makes things difficult for him in the face of Roscano’s legal troubles, that’s essentially his problem. We can’t be responsible for their in-fighting, especially if one of them is claiming responsibility for Nina. And nothing has been officially announced. The rumor about the indictment only got out today, and this has been in the works for some time. We can claim some unfortunate timing, say we’re sorry that it hurt Signor Roscano’s feelings, and emphasize that we want to continue our good relations with the country of Italy.”
Yesmenia was typing furiously on her laptop. “The timing was way bad, but we don’t want to apologize if it’s not our fault. Why don’t we say that we regret that the timing of Ms. Collodi’s appearance turned out to be so awkward?”
Mark looked at Sharon. “Ms. Wheatly?”
“Perfect,” said Sharon.
Mark sank back in his chair and chuckled. “This was supposed to be the easy trip.”
“It may yet be,” Sharon said. “I, uh, had to send Raul home.”
“Good,” said Terry, a tall, blonde man. “He is such a pain in the butt.”
“But that does mean I’m a little short-staffed, since I’ll only have Randy,” Sharon said.
“Have your assistant fly out tonight,” Mark said. “I’ll call State and have them bring over a couple translators for her.”
“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Sharon said. “I’d rather have Randy interfacing with the Europeans. That way, Julie can stay focused on keeping me on task. Besides, her French is actually very good, and after Berlin, we have Brussels and Paris, so we’ll be good there.”
“All right,” said Mark standing up. “Then let’s get rolling so we can get some sleep. Tomorrow is another long day.”
The next day brought another round of talks with the Italians and some of the Eastern European leaders, with another banquet that night. From there, the Presidential party flew to Berlin, making a long day even longer, since the Germans had to at least formally greet the U.S. President before letting him and his party settle in for the night.
The next morning, while she was eating breakfast with Yesmenia, Sharon got a frantic call from one of the German foreign ministry staff members.
“Nein, nein,” she said quickly. “Ja, zer gut.” She spoke for another minute, then hung up.
“What now?” asked Yesmenia with a sigh.
“You know that visit to the African children’s home we’ve got this morning?” Sharon said. “Somebody in the States is putting it about that the Boss doesn’t like children.”
“What?” Yesmenia’s jaw dropped. “He loves kids. Who would be saying something that stupid?”
“And here’s our answer,” Sharon said as she opened her laptop. “Ashley Whitcomb. You know that blonde idiot the Moral Americans tried to set the Boss up with last May? According to Karen, she went on one of the late night talk shows and said that the President doesn’t really like kids.”
“Oh, terrific,” Yesmenia groaned. “How on earth is he going to rebut that? The more he says he does, the less the idiots are going to believe it.”
Sharon sighed. “The German foreign ministry is freaking. It was their idea to do the visit to the children’s home.”
“At least we didn’t put it on the official schedule.” Yesmenia frowned as she booted up her tablet. “Think we should cancel it?
“No way. The Boss was looking forward to it, especially since it’s not a press event.” Sharon suddenly frowned. “Which makes the timing of Whitcomb’s statement just a little bit fishy. It’s been over six months since that mess last May. Why is she talking about it now?”
Yesmenia was contemplating something else. “Maybe we could leak it that he’s at the children’s home today. Pretend that we didn’t announce it, but…”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “I think the Boss would really rather you didn’t.”
“Here’s Jean’s email. She’s saying to let the comment go. She’ll get some rebuttals in the morning DC time. Unfortunately, it’s trending on social media, but it looks like the comments on the West Coast are making fun of Whitcomb.”
“Well, I’m more worried about the Germans having conniptions,” Sharon said, closing her laptop. “They’ve been stressed out enough about this going perfectly.”
She hurried off to meet with the German foreign ministry officials, collecting Julie Ivins, her secretary, who had arrived the day before. Sharon barely had time to soothe the Germans before the U.S. party left for the special home set aside for African refugee children, most of whom had been orphaned during some widespread unrest a couple years before. Sharon made a point of getting into the limo with the president and the German Chancellor, even though the Chancellor, an averaged-sized man with a dark brown and very thick moustache, spoke perfect English.
Sharon made a point of texting Mark, then nudged him surreptitiously. When the buzzer went off on Mark’s phone, he groaned and pulled it from his pocket.
“Looks like I have to deal with this,” he sighed, smiling at the Chancellor.
Sharon kept texting. Mark frowned and pretended to text something back, then put away his phone and smiled again at the Chancellor. The two chatted pleasantly and Mark mentioned how much he’d been looking forward to the visit.
A choir of children were waiting at the home, and there was a short performance. Then Mark met with some of the home’s teachers and staff, and afterward got to spend some time playing with the children. He was not thrilled when it was announced that the press was waiting in the home’s foyer for a brief question and answer session. Sharon looked over at Yesmenia, but Yesmenia shook her head. Sharon glanced over at the German Foreign Minister and suddenly realized what had happened.
Sure enough, a German staff member made sure Mark had two of the children with him when he made his statement to the press. Not surprisingly, someone asked about Ashley Whitcomb’s statement the night before.
Mark laughed gently. “You know, people are going to believe what they want, including Ms. Whitcomb. I love kids, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I like them or not. It’s whether I’m willing to do the right thing for them, and I think my record in that regard stands on its own merit. Kids are our most important resource, no matter where we’re from, and it’s important that we protect and support them and make sure they all have access to the basics. Love, clean water, a good education, food and clothing. That’s why I’m here today. That I got to have some fun with some really wonderful young people, that’s just icing on the cake. Next question.”
Sharon laughed when she saw the text come up on her screen a couple hours later. It was from Press Secretary Jean Bouyer.
“Orphanage Press Conference, Booyah!” the text read. “Told you he’d handle it just right.”
Fortunately, at the moment, she was alone with Mark in a limo going to their next stop.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
Sharon showed him the text. “I think this went to Yesmenia, too. She was the one who was sweating, by the way.”
“You both were,” Mark said, chuckling.
“I was sweating because of the Germans. But they seem to be happy with how things turned out.”
Mark frowned slightly. “Interesting timing, though, don’t you think?”
“Yep. Problem is, I’m not sure it was pure luck on Whitcomb’s part.”
“What do you mean?”
Sharon sighed. “I think something leaked that shouldn’t have. That trip to the orphanage was not on the media list or any of the official schedules. It could have been one of the Germans, but I can’t help wondering if this didn’t come out of my office or from someone close to it.”
“I would not be surprised if we have a mole or two,” Mark said as he looked out the window. “But I’d be surprised if it were out of your office. Unless you think Raul had something to do with it. You know, as payback for sending him home.”
Sharon shook her head. “I doubt it. The timing is off, for one thing. He couldn’t have set up that guest spot that quickly. Besides, he may be insufferable, but I don’t think he’d consider leaking something. If anything, he’d consider it beneath him to do it. Still, it’s possible, I suppose.”
“Well, we just have to get through today, and then, hopefully, Brussels won’t present any problems.”
“Don’t say that,” Sharon said with an amused groan,.
Her concern turned out to be well-founded. The next day, as the president and his party were presented to the Belgian king and queen, Sharon made a short bow before them. Fortunately, the presidential party knew ahead of time she was going to and why and why they shouldn’t do the same. But barely a half hour later, Sharon’s “gaffe” was all over social media in the U.S.
“I didn’t think anyone would notice,” Sharon complained late that afternoon to June and Yesmenia in between a meeting at NATO headquarters and a state dinner with the Belgian prime minister.
Yesmenia glared at her laptop. “Well, I’m with Jean on this one. They always notice. We should have put it out there about your dual-citizenship right up front.”
“Well, the Belgians certainly knew about it,” Sharon grumbled. “That’s why I had to bow. They would have been offended if one of their own didn’t recognize the monarch.”
“So, we have to do a lot of education on dual-citizenship,” said June. “I mean, your mom did eventually become a naturalized citizen, didn’t she?”
Sharon made a face. “No, she didn’t. She never really had a chance until a few years ago, when she and Dad finally settled in the States. And they could have settled just as easily in Belgium. It was just easier, because of Dad’s pension being all tied up in the U.S. to settle there. In fact, I don’t think she’s been living in the States long enough to qualify. She just got her green card a year or so ago so that she could sell her art more easily.”
“Still, you’re a U.S. citizen because your dad was born there,” June pointed out.
“Plus, I was born there,” Sharon said. “My brother was born in Belgium, Susan and I were born in the States, because Dad’s job had moved us there, and then Sarah was born in Germany. But because Mom is Belgian, I carry both passports and have citizenship in both places.”
Unfortunately, as the news got out that Sharon was both Belgian and American, that caused almost as much of a furor, as certain groups back in the United States got upset that the president was being advised by a foreign national.
The next morning, an important conference had to be put on hold because Mark got a message over breakfast that had him steaming. Sharon, Julie Ivins, June, Yesmenia and Calvin Whitecross watched silently, as the president paced his way repeatedly around the suite’s main room.
“It’s got to be just grandstanding,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Baker.
“Calling for a Senate investigation is not grandstanding,” Mark snarled. “It’s mud-slinging, is what it is. Not only have we got an innocent member of my staff hobbled because somebody doesn’t like where her mother was born, the Belgians are royally offended that one of their own is catching heat. And it’s Belgium, for pity’s sakes. It’s not like half of the last administration’s ties to the Chinese government. Nobody gives a crap about Belgium.”
“Some of us do,” said Sharon, folding her arms and glaring at him.
“That’s not what I meant,” Mark growled back. “And you know it. What I meant was those freaking idiots can’t even find Belgium on a map, let alone understand that we’ve been solid allies for almost two-hundred years. Pray forgive me if I can’t remember exactly when Belgium became a political entity unto itself.”
“In 1830,” said Calvin Whitecross. “That’s the Belgian Revolution, then on July 21, 1831, with the installation of King Leopold I.”
“Are you sure it was Leopold?” Sharon asked. Calvin handed her his tablet. “Oh. I thought it was Albert I. I always get those two mixed up.”
“See?” Mark shouted, waving his hand. “Sharon can’t even keep their history straight.”
“I’m not any better at American History,” Sharon said. “I barely know who George Washington was.”
“You know, that’s all irrelevant,” Terry said. “The point is Sharon’s dual-nationality does not present a conflict of interest. Nor does her work for us constitute hypocrisy on our part because she is an American citizen.”
“The nerve of those guys!” Mark said. “Calling us hypocrites because we called them on their questionable connections. It’s apples to oranges, even if Sharon were completely Belgian. Belgium doesn’t have a bunch of freaking nukes aimed at us.”
Terry sighed deeply. “Sir, the Senate investigation is not going to go anywhere. There’s no place for it to go. Mud-slinging or grandstanding, it just doesn’t make much difference. And Johnnie said to remind you of what she emailed.”
“Rise above.” Mark shook himself, then took a deep breath. “Fine. I will.”
“Sir, if it’s any comfort,” Yesmenia began slowly, “pretty much everyone on social media is mocking the Moral Americans for their stand. Even some of the Moral Americans are saying an investigation would be stupid.” She suddenly laughed. “And there’s a map quiz popping up to see who can find Belgium on the map.”
“That’s not going to make things easier with the Belgians,” Sharon grumbled.
Mark suddenly grinned. “But I think I know how to play this. My education initiatives. If our people find it that hard to name a major ally and find it on a map, then we need to push education even harder.”
“That might make things work with the Belgians, too,” Sharon said. “It’s as though not they haven’t figured out that a lot of what you’re dealing with is crap left over from the previous administration.”
“True,” said Mark. “But we can’t blame them for any of our issues.”
“More’s the pity,” grumbled June.
There wasn’t much more to be said on the matter, and Mark went on to his conference.
Late that night, after another state dinner, this time with the Belgian king and queen, June dragged Sharon down to the hotel lounge and ordered a glass of wine for each of them. As a waiter brought the wine, Sharon took her glass and sank into the wing-back chair she was sitting in.
“Are you sure we’re alone?” Sharon asked June.
June stood and looked around the room filled with antique chairs in conversation groups. She even checked behind the chairs closest to them.
“All clear,” June said. “Even the waiter is gone and I’m keeping an eye on the door, just in case.”
Sharon let out a huge breath. “I so cannot wait for this trip to be over. This was supposed to be the easy one.”
“Maybe that was kind of the problem,” said June. “We were so sure there wouldn’t be any trouble, we weren’t careful enough.”
“Okay, I should have been on top of the dual-citizenship thing,” Sharon said. “But pretty much everything else was stuff we couldn’t have seen coming. Even the dual-citizenship. I mean, a Senate investigation because my mom is Belgian? Seriously?”
“You’ve got a point there,” said June. “Hopefully, all the disasters will help us with the French.”
June shrugged. “We’ll be even more on our toes because we’ll be expecting something to go wrong. So, we’ll be in better shape to deal with it.”
Sharon sighed. “It is sad how much sense that makes. I just don’t understand why your brother got so torqued off about the Senate investigation threat. The Moral Americans have been threatening to investigate him since he won the election. He’s blown them off every time.”
“Really, Sharon?” June smirked. “You can’t figure this one out? Mark likes you. A lot.”
“Oh, for cripes sakes! Enough with the matchmaking.”
“It’s not about matchmaking,” June said. “It’s about reality. And everyone here can see that my brother has it bad for you.”
“Well, he’d better get over it.” Sharon put her wine glass down on the end table with a thump. “He can’t get his back up every time someone has an issue with me.”
“He can’t help it, Sharon. It’s his nature to be protective.”
“I get that, June. But he’s done this before and it gets him into trouble.”
June couldn’t help laughing. “Who’s being protective now?”
Sharon snorted and glared at her. “It makes my job harder. Not to mention, it’s really hard negotiating with someone who gets under your skin. It can’t be about me, June. When it gets to be about me or anyone else, for that matter, he can’t think straight. And, right now, he really needs to be thinking straight.”
“Wow,” said June. She smiled warmly at Sharon. “I’d heard you’d ripped him a new one in Mexico. Was this what that was about?”
“Yes.” Sharon groaned as she felt her face growing hot. “It was not fun, I’ll tell you that much. And I thought I’d gotten him past that kind of nonsense.”
“He’s not perfect, you know.”
“Yeah. I figured that one out.”
“You’re never going to get him past the protective thing, you know,” June said. “Not when that’s how we stayed alive as kids. And nothing makes him crazier than not being able to protect someone he cares about. Why do you think it was so hard for me to tell him about Harold abusing me?”
“I understand, June.” Sharon let out a deep sigh. “And it says a lot of good things about him that he does care so much for people. But things are tricky, now. He needs to be on his toes, and he can’t fly off the handle the second someone ogles me or attacks me. Or you or anyone else. Thanks to our last president, we cannot afford even the least hint that we’re going to behave like insensitive bullies. People really don’t get just how much damage that idiot did.”
“I know. Come on. Drink your wine and let’s get going. I seem to remember we have an early train to catch.”
Sharon nodded and picked up her glass.