It had been a notable break with precedent, but a welcome one to the Europeans, that the U.S. President’s party had been making its way around Europe by train, rather than in Air Force One. It was true that several cars on each train had to be taken over to accommodate the press, security and the presidential party, itself. The high speed trains made it almost faster than flying.
A crowd and the French President Madame Geneve de Cresy were waiting for the party in Paris President de Cresy was a tiny woman in her sixties, yet one whose presence could be felt from miles away. Mark had been looking forward to his meeting with her because the two had become friends when Mark was still in the Senate and she had been Foreign Minister. And by an odd coincidence, Sharon had also formed a friendship with the French president some years before when the company that Sharon worked for was trying to shepherd an infrastructure project through the notorious French bureaucracy. But the public welcome and speeches took precedence for the moment.
Back at the presidential palace, the private greetings began, causing a flurry of confusion, since June and Sharon were both speaking in French, Geneve was equally fluent in English, and Mark and the rest of the group didn’t know anything besides English.
Finally, things settled down enough for conversation and the group was served an early lunch.
“You know, I thought I’d finally had the big connection,” Mark told Geneve as they were sipping a perfectly smooth mushroom veloute soup. “I mean, Ms. Wheatly knows everybody, it seems like.”
“Not by a long shot,” Sharon said.
“It’s not surprising,” Geneve said. “Sharon has always been good at making friends. That’s why she was so good at her work. And still is.”
Sharon thought she caught a glint of mischief in Geneve’s eyes and sighed inwardly. So, after lunch, Sharon made a point of avoiding the French president. Not that it did much good. Geneve de Cresy was not the sort of person who had gotten to where she was because of mere charm and good luck. Indeed, it was almost universally acknowledged that if Madame de Cresy wanted something to happen, it probably would. She never bullied anyone outright, but that made her all the more powerful. Which is why Sharon, after the first afternoon conference, finally let Geneve find her alone in a conference room in the palace.
“You’ve been hiding from me since lunch,” Geneve said.
“Yes, and you know why,” Sharon replied.
“Eh, Sharon, he’s not so bad,” Geneve said. “He’s quite charming and I think you know just how charming he can be.”
“It doesn’t do me any good,” Sharon said with a snort. “He’s my boss. And back in the States, there are people who get very strange about such things, people who will hurt him.”
“So, don’t tell anyone. Knowing you, you’d like that better, anyway.”
“As if we could keep it quiet. The only gossip rags worse than ours are yours.”
Geneve laughed out right. “You could do it if you want. And why not want? I have known each of you for some time, now, and I have been trying to find a way to introduce the two of you for years.”
“Oh, come on.” It was Sharon’s turn to laugh.
“No. It’s true. I have always thought you and Mark would be a wonderful couple. But even I have to be subtle or it would all go wrong. And you two are made for each other. I can tell. And I can tell he likes you, too.”
“But, but, but…”
“Enough.” Geneve smiled softly. “Sharon, he is lonely. He has always been lonely, but it’s even worse now. And you, you make friends, but you are just as lonely as he is.”
“Why? Just because I don’t have a boyfriend?” Sharon folded her arms across her chest and tried to glare at Geneve. “It could be I’m happier that way.”
“Yes. It could be, if there were not someone special so close to you.” Geneve’s smile grew smug. “Good. You are thinking about it. My work is finished. I’ll see you later.”
The worst of it was, Geneve had gotten Sharon thinking about Mark in a way that was decidedly uncomfortable. And even while Sharon was reasonably confident that Mark felt the same way about her, there were problems. It was not a good time for either of them to be beginning that kind of relationship. Worse yet, if word got out that Sharon and Mark were dating, the blow back from the Moral Americans would be unbelievable. The group wanted to start a Senate investigation because she was simply working with him. What would they say about her dating him? It was impossible. Utterly impossible.
As for Mark, himself, it had not escaped his notice that Geneve was up to her hips in matchmaking. The only advantage he’d had is that he’d known Geneve had a friend she’d wanted him to meet, even if he hadn’t known whom. So, when Geneve whispered to him after lunch that fate had done what she couldn’t, Mark was, at first, surprised. Then, during their first conference, she glanced meaningfully at Sharon.
It was just enough to put Mark off his paces for a moment. He quickly gathered his wits together and re-focused on what was going on, fortunately, before he conceded to something he had no intention of conceding to. But that, as he later reflected, could have been part of the old bat’s plan, as Geneve was not above playing mind games when it suited her purpose, especially if she could achieve more than one of her ends at the same time.
“Low blow,” he told her as they sipped on an aperitif before the state dinner to celebrate his visit.
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked, chuckling.
“Not only are you playing matchmaker, you pointed her out at a really sensitive point in the discussion.”
Geneve shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I? You are the mighty United States of America. We are only poor little France. And you like her, as I knew you would. You are made for each other. It’s that simple.”
“Not by a long shot,” Mark grumbled. “This is not a good time for either of us. Not to mention, Sharon does not want to be famous, which she would be if she dated me.”
“So keep it quiet, like you always do.” She paused. “It’s interesting, though. That’s not the excuse she gave me earlier.”
“Oh, great. You were talking to her, too.”
“Of course, I was. You are both my friends and I want to see you both happy.” Geneve set down her drink and turned away. “Ah, Monsieur Dupont!”
She hurried over to greet her aide while Mark glared at his drink. It was a beautiful Champagne brandy. Sharon would love it, and as if Fate had been listening to his thoughts, Sharon arrived in the room with June and Yesmenia. Sharon was dressed in her favorite apricot strapless dress with the jeweled belt. Mark held his breath, trying not to think about how beautiful she looked and how she made him feel. He had thought he’d convinced himself that they were merely friends.
It was going to make the next night rather difficult, indeed. It was Sharon’s birthday the next day, and when Mark first heard about the small surprise party being planned for the evening, he had thought it a terrific idea. After all, Sharon had been working very hard. She deserved some recognition. June and Yesmenia had seen to it that the affair was going to be very low-key and intimate, given Sharon’s distaste for the spotlight. Mark had even brought a special birthday present for his “just a friend.”
Mark did not want to be thinking about a quiet relationship with Sharon. It was not in her best interests, and if the news ever broke, it would be a disaster. The only good part of Geneve’s meddling was that she’d also spoken to Sharon, which meant Sharon was as likely to be annoyed and avoiding Mark.
As Mark sipped his Champagne brandy, it was obvious that Sharon was, in fact, avoiding him. He sighed. It was the only thing worse than Geneve’s meddling.
The evening passed in a blur. Mark spent the night trying not to think about Sharon and woke up very tired and out of sorts. Sharon appeared for breakfast looking like her normal self, but something was off and Mark began to suspect that Sharon hadn’t slept much, either.
As days went, it was a relatively easy one. Minimal negotiations in the morning, a meeting and wine tasting with a group of Californian and French winemakers gathered together for a symposium in the afternoon. Dinner was hosted by the American Embassy, and was not as formal, requiring cocktail dresses and suits rather than long dresses and tuxes.
Sharon was wearing another of Mark’s favorite dresses – a mauve lace that bared her shoulders. Mark seemed to recall it was one his sister had made for Sharon, and it made him wince. When June was feeling insecure, she made clothes for people. Apparently, she was feeling more secure about Sharon, as June hadn’t made anything for her in a while. He watched as June and Sharon laughed together over some rose champagne. That Sharon and his sister had bonded so thoroughly, in some ways, made it even harder for Mark not to love Sharon.
And Sharon had handled one of the more serious obstacles to their being together rather well without even realizing it. Not that Mark wanted her anywhere close to that particular misery.
Sharon, for her part, tried not to keep glancing over at Mark. It felt as though her conversation with Geneve the day before had wormed its way into Sharon’s very soul. Mark was so gorgeous and charming and still very guarded, and, yes, lonely. Sharon tried to believe that the loneliness was the isolation of his position. But as she’d gotten to know him, it had been pretty clear that his loneliness was as much self-imposed as forced upon him.
It was getting harder and harder to deny the attraction between them. As much as Sharon did not want to live her life in a fishbowl, it felt more and more as if it was being thrust upon her whether she wanted it or not. And it wasn’t as though she was fifteen anymore. She had to have gained some self-confidence since those awkward years.
It was getting close to ten o’clock when the guests, from various French ministries, finally left. Geneve was the only guest remaining and a new guest arrived, Sharon’s friend Carla Danford.
“Carla!” Sharon yipped before rushing over and giving her friend a big hug.
The tall, slender woman with dark kinky hair and blue eyes hugged Sharon back.
“I’m glad I was able to make it. I would have been here sooner, but there was a delay getting out of Nairobi,” she said.
“I had no idea you were coming,” Sharon said.
“That was the idea,” June said, mischief in her eyes. “Happy birthday!”
“We’re having a little birthday party for you,” June said, leading Sharon into the embassy’s sitting room.
“But I don’t need a birthday party,” Sharon protested.
“Oh, so I set up my trip to Switzerland one whole day early for nothing?” Carla said with a grin.
Sharon let herself be seated in a wingback chair next to the ornate fireplace. Coffee and chocolate eclairs were served with a candle in Sharon’s to blow out. Then there was a pile of presents to open. Sharon tried not to roll her eyes, but it was embarrassing.
Fortunately, many of the gifts were gags from the Advisory Board. Eddie Cooper had sent a tiny stuffed toy fly with a keychain on it and a car key. Al sent a text book on military strategy. Others were more meaningful. Eli, for example, sent a jar of honey from his home apiary. Jodi had taken an old tablet computer, completely refurbished it and had loaded a bunch of classic books, a few games and a couple films onto it.
Sharon laughed loudly when she saw it. “Jodi did it again. My god, she’s a wizard.”
“What do you mean?” asked June.
“It’s a game we play in my family,” Sharon said. “My mom came up with it when Michael started getting really rich. He wanted to give us all lavish presents because he could. But my sisters started feeling bad because we couldn’t keep up. So, the idea was to see who could make the most awesome gift while spending the least money. And Michael really tried to win most of the time. But occasionally, he’d find out that there was something really expensive on someone’s wish list that year and he’d decide to lose. That way, he could be generous and nobody felt like he was showing off. And it was really good when my nieces came along because they really got the lesson that gift-giving is about honoring the person you’re giving to, and not spending more than anyone else.”
“How cool,” June said, whose own gift was a pair of t-shirts that had been creatively shredded and beaded.
The last box was from Mark. It was long and flat and Sharon gasped when she saw what was inside.
“My knives,” she said softly, and then looked at Mark.
“Amazing what you can find on the Internet,” Mark said. “I knew you’d lost yours during that fundraiser for the children’s home, so I thought I’d try to find a replacement set.”
Sharon looked at Mark curiously, then smiled. “That was so thoughtful of you. Thank you, sir.”
Geneve suddenly stood up and clapped her hands. “And now our cars await. We will do a tour of Paris at night, which as you know, is absolutely de rigueur.”
Sharon laughed as they were shepherded out to the cars. It came as no surprise that Sharon and Mark were pushed into one car while everyone took others. Nor was it much of a surprise that when the Presidential limousine pulled up to the Eiffel Tower, the other cars had somehow disappeared. The ever-present Riff Butler listened for a moment on his headset before nodding at Mark and Sharon.
“We don’t have to,” said Sharon. “It’s obviously a set-up.”
Mark chuckled. “Let’s humor them. Maybe that will get them off our backs.”
The wind at the top of the tower was blowing quite strongly, forcing Sharon and Mark into the interior parts of the deck, where they found a bottle of rose Champagne and glasses waiting on a small table next to the apartment display.
The two laughed.
“Yeah, I think set-up just about describes this perfectly,” Mark said.
Sharon smiled at him. “Well, you’re not helping. Those knives?”
Mark shrugged haplessly. “I remembered the knife maker’s mark. I was actually thinking of buying some for myself when you gave away yours.”
“You knew?” Sharon looked at him in wonder.
“I saw you do it.” Mark smiled softly. “I know how special those were to you. Why didn’t you just order her a set?”
Sharon shrugged. “I think it was the moment. I guess I could just see that she wasn’t ready to believe that I really had her back. And I’d already told her, more or less, how special they were to me. So, when I gave them to her, it really hit home that somebody was willing to be there for her.”
“I know. It’s really hard for kids like that to trust adults, especially. That was a hell of a sacrifice for her.”
“I don’t know,” sighed Sharon. “It’s like you said. It wasn’t like I couldn’t replace them.”
“True. But that is one of those things that makes you so damn special, Sharon.”
Her eyes filling, she looked everywhere but at him. “I can’t do it anymore.” She turned to him. “I’ve been trying to pretend that I don’t love you, that we can be just friends. But I can’t do it anymore. I can’t pretend that you’re just this guy that I like. I love you. You get me in a way that no one else does and I can’t help it.”
“I know. I love you, too, and probably always have.”
Mark leaned forward and gently slid his hand behind her head and softly, gently kissed her.
As they pulled apart, she sniffed. “Now what?”
He smiled and shrugged. “Pretend we don’t long enough to get back to the embassy?”
They kissed almost all of the way down the elevator. Sharon make a quick check to be sure she hadn’t left any lipstick on him as they passed the first level. They put on solemn faces and stood apart as the doors opened. Gesturing to Riff, Mark hurried forward with Sharon close behind.
Inside the car, Sharon giggled. Mark looked his bodyguard.
“Riff, we’re going to need some privacy back at the embassy,” he said, his hand finding Sharon’s and holding it.
“Then may I recommend Ms. Wheatly’s room. It’s the furthest away from the others,” Riff replied, his voice neutral.
Sharon blushed. “Oh, dear.”
“We’re not going to hide anything from him,” Mark told her. “And he doesn’t care, anyway.”
“I serve at your pleasure, sir.”
Still, as Sharon led Mark into her room at the embassy, Mark felt Riff slide something into his hand. He looked down, then back at Riff.
“Regarding Ms. Wheatly, it was only a matter of time, sir,” Riff said, his face utterly passive, but with a twinkle in his eye.
Inside the room, Sharon was gazing out the window. Suddenly, she whipped the drapes shut and turned to Mark.
“Are we..?” she asked, hesitating, but still smiling.
Mark’s heart nearly beat out of his chest and there was no question in his mind that they were.
“Do we have full adult consent on both sides?” he asked, nonetheless.
“There is on my part,” she said softly.
“And on mine,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Then I believe we are,” Sharon said.
She slipped up next to him and they kissed and the passion they’d been holding back for so long finally, finally was set free.
June Jerguessen was annoyed. She looked again at the photo on her tablet. It had been posted on Facebook only minutes before. Her mobile phone was on speaker so that Yesmenia and Carla could hear Karen Tanaka and Jean Bouyer on the other end, back in the U.S., where it was early evening.
“I don’t get it,” June complained. “You saw how they were looking at each other when we left, right, Yesmenia?”
“It was a lock,” Yesmenia said. “We totally had them.”
“Could Sharon have gotten ticked off?” Karen asked. “You know how she hates the whole set-up thing.”
“They knew what it was,” June growled. “They’re not stupid.”
“And Geneve completely blew past subtle,” Carla said. “I agree with June. If Sharon was going to be angry about a set-up, she would have been long before we got in the cars. And I saw them getting into the limo. She was laughing.”
“They can’t have spent any time up there,” June said. “The Marine guard was already in front of Mark’s door when we got back.”
“That means the president is in the room,” Yesmenia explained to Carla.
“I thought Sharon was probably in there with him,” June continued. “And I was just about to do my happy dance when I saw the Secret Service night guys set up around Sharon’s door.”
“Wait a minute,” Jean said. “Wouldn’t that mean the president is in there?”
“No!” Yesmenia groaned. “The Marine Corps guard would be there. The Secret Service has been guarding us at night, I suppose just in case somebody can’t get to the president, they could get hostages or something. The thing is, they don’t usually set up until one of us is in bed.”
“So with the Marine on Mark’s room and the Secret Service in the hall around Sharon’s…” June sighed deeply.
“And this picture from the Eiffel Tower,” Karen said.
June glared at the photo again. It was of Mark and Sharon getting off the elevator at the Eiffel Tower. They were both frowning and standing apart from each other.
“Oh, and here’s a text from Geneve.” June scrolled the tablet to that window. “She says the Champagne wasn’t even touched. She wants to know what happened? As if we know.”
“We better not ask Sharon,” Carla said. “She’s not going to say anything, anyway.”
“So now what?” Karen asked.
June sighed. “Back off, I guess. We don’t want them so torqued off that they start avoiding each other just to get back at us.”
Jean sighed as well. “I suppose. I thought we had them. Oh, well.”
“You know,” said Karen slowly. “It’s entirely possible that if we let them alone, they’ll find each other of their own accord.”
“They do like each other,” June said. “But I know Mark. He’s not going to do anything without some pretty hefty assurances that we’ve got his back.”
“And Sharon won’t be rushing into anything with someone as famous as he is,” said Carla. “That being said, there really isn’t anything we can do that we haven’t already done.”
“Now all we have to do is tell Eddie,” said Karen. “And I guess I’m the one who gets to.”
There was continued grumbling in sympathy for several minutes before June ended the call and the group in Paris went to bed.
From: Sarah W.
To: Family and Friends Group
I know – it’s not even Halloween, but I’m already getting commissions for holiday gifts. Which means if you want me to do something for you, you’d better get your request in right away (this means you, Michael). Seriously, you know I hate saying no to my peeps, but this year, I really, really mean it. If I get too booked up, I will not be able to do something for you. Period. Really.