The rest of the week passed quietly. It was the end of August in Washington, and with most of the Congress still gone for the month’s break, that meant few meetings. Even Sharon had less to work on than usual and by Friday, found herself looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend and downloaded several books onto her tablet in anticipation of some extended reading time.
Which was why she was less than thrilled when her mobile phone rang around 10 that Saturday morning and the President’s number was flashing on the screen. She took a deep breath and answered.
“Sharon, we’re going to need some help here,” said Mark’s voice even before she could say hello. “Melody, are you there?”
“I’m right here, Mark.” Melody’s voice was a little faint and sounded considerably more agitated than usual.
“June?” Mark asked.
“You’ve got me for the next ten minutes,” June said on her end of the conversation. She’d spent the week in New York. “We’ll be landing soon and I’ll have to turn the phone off. Oh, my god. It’s on the news already.”
“What?” asked Sharon, searching for a TV remote. But she was in her kitchen, cleaning up after her breakfast and the nearest television was in the back study.
“It’s a complete disaster,” sniffed Melody.
“Hang on, Mel,” said Mark. “We can make this work. Sharon, the children’s home is having their big donor’s party tonight. It’s one of their most important events because they need to raise money.”
“I can’t believe it,” Melody said. “I spoke with the caterers just yesterday. They said everything was ready to go.”
“That’s what everybody’s saying,” said June. “And today, gone. Poof!”
“The catering company just went out of business overnight,” said Melody, sounding as if she was trying not to cry. “Overnight!”
“I doubt that,” said June. “But, Sharon, it’s one of the biggest companies in D.C. And they had at least three other major parties they were doing tonight and today. And a wedding. Oh, my god, that poor couple.”
“We need to focus on the donor’s dinner,” Mark said. “Solly took the weekend off and most of her crew with her to cater her niece’s wedding in New Orleans. Russell said he could do the couple’s wedding.”
“Russell?” Melody asked.
“The sous chef here at the White House,” Mark said. “Solly left him behind just in case I needed feeding. I told him to work the wedding before Melody called me about the dinner. So how many are we expecting, Mel?”
“About a hundred and fifty,” Melody said. “They delivered the wine and the liquor for the bar – I think that was a sub-contractor, which is why we have it. But there’s no food and folks are supposed to be here at 6 pm. What are we going to feed them?”
“Get a ham or two,” said Sharon. “The weather’s hot enough, you can serve it cold and a ham feeds a lot of people for minimum effort. I’ve got a double oven here, so I could bake a couple and bring them over.”
“This was supposed to be a fancy sit-down dinner,” Melody said.
“Well, it’s not going to be anymore,” said June. “Don’t stress on it, Mel. Are the decorations there?”
“Nothing. The caterer was going to do that and we don’t even have the tables and chairs.”
“June, can you handle the decorations?” Mark asked.
“Yes,” said June. “I’m texting Tanks now. Shavings. They’re telling us to turn off our phones. I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m on the ground.”
Sharon finally found her way into the study of the Georgetown townhouse where she lived and clicked on the TV.
“This looks major,” she said into her phone. “I just heard a fill-in chef say he’s going everywhere to find ingredients.”
“And Augie is texting me that that Maryland fundraiser their governor was doing tonight was cancelled,” said Mark. “I wonder….”
“You think we could use their catering company?” Melody asked.
“Nope,” said Sharon. “The Smithsonian nabbed them already, according to CNN.”
“We’ll take care of it,” Mark said. “I’ve done parties before.”
“This was supposed to be a luxury sit-down dinner,” Melody whimpered.
“It’s not going to be now,” Mark said. “But if it’s making this big a splash in the news, your donors are going to be impressed if you can give them anything more than salted peanuts and a glass of wine. Sharon, how fast can you get out to Vienna?”
“What?” Sharon asked.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Mark continued, speaking very fast. “I’ll get Eddie to meet you at the Vienna station. You guys go grocery shopping out there. Even odds everyone else will be freaking out but staying in town. You pick up whatever you can and we’ll figure out the menu based on what you get. I’m thinking a basic buffet. Two hot meat dishes, a salad, some vegetables.”
“We’ll need at least one vegetarian hot dish,” said Sharon. “What about hors d’oeuvres?”
“We usually do passed hors d’oeuvres,” Melody said.
“We’ll add that to the mix,” Mark said. “Maybe the kids at the home can do the passing.”
“No,” said Melody. “This is their night, too. Believe me, it’s really important to have them as guests. That way, they interact with the donors and tell their stories. It’s really important.”
“Fine,” said Mark. “We’ll get Matt and his friends to do the serving.”
“For sure,” said Sharon. “Let’s see, that’s two, four, six. Do we want to rope in Deborah and Allie? They’re sort of part of the group even though they’re the younger sisters.”
“Why not?” Mark said.
Sharon turned off her TV and went into the guest bathroom off the kitchen. “I’m about as decent as I can be. Where are we going to cook everything?”
“We have the home’s kitchen,” said Melody. “It’s pretty big.”
“I’ll scope that out,” said Mark. “I think our biggest challenge is going to be getting the food in, then we’ll figure out how to handle it.”
“Okay,” said Sharon. “Let me get a couple things together just in case I can’t get back here. Sir, can you text Coop and tell him I’ll text him when I get to the Vienna station?”
“Already done and Eddie has texted back. Cordelia will meet you at the station, text her the second you get above ground.”
“I need the number.”
“Coming at you.” Mark chuckled. “This is going to be fun. Melody, we’ve got this one in the bag. Your job will be to keep track of who is doing what. Think you can handle it?”
“Of course,” Melody said in a voice that said she was not at all sure she could.
“Good,” said Mark. “I’ll text everyone your number and have them text you so that you’ll have all our numbers in your phone. Keep a charger and plug on you. We are going to rock this one.”
Sharon was already packing a good-sized tote as she and everyone else hung up. Her mind was buzzing through the whole host of possibilities as she dropped evening shoes and a cocktail dress and her makeup bag into the tote. She quickly added a brush, then ran downstairs and looked at her kitchen. There wasn’t much she could bring, but she did finally wrap her good knives in a towel and added the package to the tote.
She did make one stop before heading to the Metro. On the corner near her townhouse was a small bodega and butcher shop. The butcher knew her and while he was somewhat surprised by her request, he did have an option. Sharon called Mark immediately.
“What?” asked Mark.
“Sir, I think we’ve scored some beef tenderloins. Whole ones. And a wheel of manchego cheese, plus a boatload of olives,” said Sharon. “I just need someone to pick them up.”
“Terrific. Let’s see… Gus said he’d be willing to do some running and so did Tanks. What’s the address and who’s the contact?”
Sharon gave him the information and told the butcher that he’d be getting a call. From there, she ran to the Metro stop.
Cordelia and Rebecca Cooper were waiting for her at the Vienna Metro station.
“We’re going out to the farms,” Cordelia said to Sharon as they hurried to Cordelia’s small sedan.
“Can’t I drive, Mom?” Rebecca asked.
“Are you out of your mind, girl?” Cordelia retorted. “We’ve got split second timing going on here.”
The drive into the Virginia countryside was somewhat tense, but the rewards were three country-style hams and several bushel baskets of vegetables. After checking in with Melody, the women stopped at a supermarket, then went directly to the children’s home.
Mark was already there. The kitchen proved to be quite large, with two industrial range and oven units, a full-sized commercial refrigerator that was at least half-empty and a full complement of utensils. In addition, Mark had pulled a tall warming oven from the White House kitchen.
Gus Guerrero had picked up the beef, cheese and olives from the bodega near Sharon’s townhouse and had even better news.
“A raw bar?” Sharon gasped.
“With crab, shrimp and lobster,” said Gus. “Turns out the governor’s catering company was getting desperate since it was going to be too small for the Smithsonian folks. But still, there was all this seafood already delivered. We scored it for our party, instead.” Gus let out a hearty laugh. “This whole town is going crazy. It’s only four events and a wedding. In August, no less.”
“Those three are pretty big events,” said Melody, frantically sifting through the sheets of paper on her clipboard. “But a raw bar will help. When will it be here?”
“By four,” said Gus.
It was already close to one in the afternoon when Mark and Sharon surveyed the collection of ingredients as Rebecca, Matt and an older teen from the home looked on.
“We’d better get those hams soaking,” Mark said. “But what do we do with them?”
“Do we have a slicer?” Sharon asked. “Maybe we could do paper-thin slices and serve them on plates with the cheese and olives, like tapas.”
“I don’t think we have a slicer,” Mark said, looking around the kitchen. “I suppose I could slice them by hand.”
“I can do that,” piped up the young girl from the home.
She was somewhat chunky, with dark, chocolaty skin, and about average height. Her dark eyes shone with excitement.
“Um, I’m Lena,” she said, suddenly backing off. “I really like cooking and I’m good at it. I think. I bet I could slice that ham pretty thin.”
Mark looked at Sharon, who shrugged and nodded.
“Okay,” said Mark. “We’ll give it a try. But those hams need soaking first.”
“Oh, I know,” Lena said. “My grandma used to cure her own. Had to soak them for a week before we could eat them.”
Lena set to soaking the hams in the huge two-part sink in the kitchen while Mark and Sharon debated the rest of the menu. In addition to the beef, they had six turkey breasts to consider. They finally decided to cook the beef on the stove top and bake the turkey breasts. As for sauces, Sharon talked Mark into doing a wine-based sauce for the turkey and a more traditional gravy for the beef.
“It’s not the usual sort of thing,” Sharon said.
June, for her part, had started making calls the moment her plane landed.
“The freaking Police Fund has already snagged every freaking table and chair in the city,” she complained to Karen Tanaka over the phone.
“It could be worse,” Karen said, sorting through bolts of fabric at a fabric store in the suburbs. “We could be in the middle of the social season.”
“But that’s also why we can’t get the tables and chairs,” sighed June. “I wonder if we could get away with borrowing from the White House stash.”
“Good question,” said Karen. “It is a charitable event and it is in a crisis situation. But there could be fall out from the opposition about using government resources for a private entity.”
“I wonder what the home has available.”
“I already checked. They have one long table and about twenty chairs. Wait. It’s going to be a buffet anyway, right?”
“Why don’t we set up a few tall tables and use the home’s sofas and see if we can score some more over-stuffed furniture and make it a more relaxed, more party-like kind of thing.?”
“Great idea. We can do the hors d’oeuvres outside on the lawn, then serve dinner on the first floor, like usual, only there won’t be table settings, just furniture and a some tall tables. And let’s keep to a multi-color scheme, say rainbow pastels?”
Karen looked over the bolts of cloth and thought. “Rainbow pastels should be doable. There’s a warehouse store near here. I should be able to pick up the flatware and plates, as well.”
“And Mark says to save your receipts. We’ll get you reimbursed, okay?”
“We’ll see,” said Karen.
As it turned out, Melody had found a stock of tables and chairs from her husband, Roy’s, church. Karen was able to find enough fabric to make instant table cloths and ribbons for the chairs. She bought plates, silverware and glasses at an outlet in the Virginia suburbs. June pulled several vases and dishes from her personal collection and made centerpieces from those. Matt, Tony, Jodi, Tiffany, Rebecca and Kira were drafted to pass hors d’oeuvres, and Mark drafted his assistant Gen Flowers and a couple of her friends to serve drinks. The activity in the kitchen was rather frenetic, but come six o’clock, the hors d’oeuvres were ready, the raw bar was set up, two bars for drinks were staffed by the contractor and ready, and the guests began arriving.
Mark stayed hidden in the kitchen. June found some cooks jackets and pants for Sharon and Lena to wear while setting out the buffet. Though Mark was focused on cooking, he did notice Sharon and Lena chatting as they prepped the ham, cheese and olive plates. Some time later, he saw Sharon talking to the home’s director and handing the woman something.
He was finishing cleaning up when he heard the director, a stately woman in her early fifties, turn on a microphone.
“Excuse me,” she announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the speeches. I’ll do my best to keep it short. As most of you know, I am Lorraine Chavez, and I am director for the Laine Children’s Home. Our mission here is to find stable, loving homes for our neediest children and to shelter those who are waiting for such homes. It’s not an easy mission, and indeed, one of our toughest challenges is how to help those of our children who are aging out of the system. In most cases, children who turn eighteen are basically cut off and turned out, and it’s no surprise when many of them end up guests of our criminal justice system. Thanks to your generous donations and time, many of our children get mentors and scholarships for college educations and get a chance to become the successes they deserve to be.”
Chavez stopped for the smattering of applause and took a sip of water.
“You are here because you are have donated already, so I’m not going to ask for more money tonight. But I will be asking again soon. Our board of directors has decided that we need a new capital campaign, not to expand our facilities, although we could use quite a few more beds. Our goal is to increase our endowment so that we can hire more counselors to help our foster families create stable homes for our children. One of the biggest problems in our foster care system is finding long-term family situations. We’ve all heard about children being bounced from home to home to home. Our goal is to prevent that. We also want to provide more mentors for our children aging out of the system. In fact, I’ve got a perfect example of what your kindness and generosity have already done. Lena, will you come out here?”
Blushing furiously and ducking her head, Lena hurried out from the kitchen in her chef’s jacket and checked pants. Chavez put her arm around the girl.
“Lena Dutton is one of our success stories. She was raised by her grandmother and the two dreamed of opening a restaurant, serving good home cooking. Sadly, her grandmother passed away when Lena was ten and Lena came into the system. In five years, Lena was placed in seven different homes, and was sexually assaulted in one of them. Somehow, she has hung on to her good nature and her passion for cooking. In fact, she volunteered to assist our substitute cooks today and was responsible for hand-slicing the ham you enjoyed on your cheese platters tonight. Lena, who will age out in two weeks, recently received a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, in New York. The only problem was, it did not include her books and tools, nor did it include room and board. I am happy to announce that tonight, one of our volunteers has offered to pay for anything the scholarship doesn’t cover. We do need to find a mentor or two to help Lena make her transition from the system into normal life, but she is well on her way to success thanks to the generosity of people like you.”
In the kitchen, Mark’s head whipped up and his eyes fell on Sharon, whose attention was focused elsewhere. Chavez finished up and Lena came back to the kitchen, her eyes overflowing. As Mark gave the sink a final wipe-down, he saw Sharon out of the corner of his eyes, handing Lena a package wrapped in a towel he recognized from Sharon’s townhouse. Lena shook her head. Chavez wandered by and Sharon stopped her. The two talked and Chavez took custody of the towel-wrapped package while saying something to Lena.
Sharon also insisted that the after-party for the volunteers happen at her townhouse and the basement rec room known as the PFZ – Protocol Free Zone. Mark found an excuse to slide upstairs to Sharon’s kitchen and noticed that her special hand-forged knives were not in their spot in her butcher block.
He also managed to wrangle a dinner invite to her place the next night, a Sunday. The knives were still missing.
Monday, the city was buzzing with the rumors that it had been the President cooking for the children’s home dinner. Many scoffed simply because there were no YouTube videos posted, or even a fuzzy photo on Facebook or Twitter.
“I can’t believe no-one thought of it,” Karen told Sharon as they two ate lunch together in the White House mess.
“We were all pretty busy,” Sharon said. “Besides, everyone was probably thinking someone else was taking the pics. I hear Jean’s pretty mad.”
Jean was Jean Bouyer, the President’s press secretary.
“Fit to be tied.” said Karen, giggling. “The boss won’t let her confirm the rumors. Or deny them, either. And the eligible bachelor hashtag has been trending off the charts.”
“Yeah. I saw that. Rich, single, powerful and he cooks!” Sharon shook her head.
“Jean spent an hour in my office trying to talk me into getting the boss to confess,” Karen said, contemplating her sandwich.
Sharon speared a lettuce leaf with her fork. “I can see why he doesn’t want to own up to the children’s home. He did it because it needed doing and he does like to cook. But you know somebody will make it out to be some political maneuver.”
“That’s what I told Jean and she finally agreed. We just have to convince the boss that it’s okay to come clean on the cooking thing. Most folks know he does. And it does humanize him.”
“You sure it doesn’t make him too good to be true?”
Karen thought about it. “Nah. He’s not that good a cook.”
Elsewhere in the city, June was hanging with her longtime friend Douglas Lee. Lee, best known as a stylist for the wealthiest women of New York City, had recently abandoned the Big Apple to live in Washington, DC. Both he and June were debating moving their friendship toward a more romantic one, but both had significant issues to overcome first.
The two had started their day together visiting a gallery in Georgetown, then having lunch together. Then Doug dropped his bomb.
“June, we need to talk,” he said as the waiter cleared their plates.
The restaurant was one that clearly catered to the movers and shakers in town and favored small, sheltered booths, which were great for private deals and conversations.
June held her breath.
“Wow,” said Doug. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”
June felt her stomach leap. He seemed to be proposing, but what?
Doug swallowed. “Look. I know we’ve talked about getting more of a relationship going. And I still would like to. But, here’s the thing, June. I have no idea who I am right now. I thought this move to DC would help me figure it out, but it hasn’t. I’m still confused and I don’t want you waiting for me to get my head together.”
“Oh.” June thought it over. “I wasn’t exactly waiting. It’s not like there’s anyone else in the wings.”
“But there could be,” Doug said. “The thing is, I’m leaving DC. I’m not going back to New York, but I’m going to start travelling. I have to. I need to move out of my comfort zones. I’ve never been anywhere except here and New York and I’ve gotta go check things out. You know what I mean?”
“I suppose,” said June, wondering how she should respond.
“Anyway, I’m going to be travelling – kind of all over the place. I don’t even know when I’m going to be back.” Doug began running his thumb over the handle of his fork, back and forth. “I don’t want to say this is the end for us. It’s just that I’d feel terrible if you were back here waiting for me. What if you gave up someone really good for you because I was off trying to find myself? That would be horrible.”
“Okay,” said June. “I won’t wait for you. It’s not like I don’t have issues of my own to work out.”
“So when are you leaving?”
“Tonight. I’m flying to Paris.” Doug suddenly slammed the fork onto the table. “Wow. I can’t believe how nervous I am. You gonna be okay?”
“I guess. Listen, let’s get the check. I probably should be getting back to work.”
“Yeah. That would probably be good.”
The two left the restaurant together, but then went their separate ways with barely a kiss on the cheek. The discreet SUV pulled up next to June and the Secret Service agent watching her that day stepped up to open the back door of the car for her. June settled into the back seat feeling numb and wondering how she should be feeling.
Text message chat:
Matt – Hey.
Tiffany – Hey back.
Matt – What are you doing?
Tiffany – Homework.
Tiffany – Writing an essay for American History. You?
Matt – Algebra Two word problems. Blech.
Tiffany – Do you want me to get Jodi?
Matt – Nope. Deshawn’s hel
Matt – Sorry. Deshawn’s helping me and Tony just threw a pillow at me.
Tiffany – Jodi’s trying to hack the school server. You think they’re okay with us having a thing?
Matt – They seem to be. I mean, it’s all been chats and hanging with them so far.
Tiffany – I guess. It’s getting late and I’ve still got a lab to write up.
Matt – ‘K. Love you
Tiffany – Love you.