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White House Rhapsody – Chapter Twenty-Nine

Pull Quote for romantic fiction blog White House Rhapsody: Carla? You there?

The following Monday brought a return to the usual crazy at the White House. Still, Sharon was uneasy. June had left the Tanaka homestead in Los Angeles pretty early in the celebration and was supposedly in New York tending to her fashion clothing design business. Sharon hadn’t wanted to say anything during the celebration. So, that Monday, in between emails concerning new tariffs being considered by the European Union and the latest efforts to stem the ivory trade in Africa and China, Sharon fretted and finally decided to swing by Karen’s office.

“Hey,” Karen said, looking up from her glass desk. Karen’s office was modern minimalist with a decided nod to Japanese style. “Looks like our court decision on Friday barely raised a blip.” Karen nodded at the black shelf with four television sets stacked one on top of the other. “They were more excited about a 15-year-old giving a press conference.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Does Kira know what kind of stir she raised?”

“Don’t know,” Karen said. “Fortunately, she’s grounded, which includes a full media black-out. That doesn’t mean Allie hasn’t told her. I also told Kira that I expect her to talk to me first before alerting the media. She agreed. So why are you here? EU tariffs?”

“We should probably look at that from your perspective,” Sharon sighed. “Actually, I’m here about June.”

“She was eating,” said Karen. “Until we won.”

“And then she disappeared again.” Sharon made a face. “Which means that while she was helping you, she was putting her own issues on the back burner, but as soon as that was resolved, she’s back in relapse.”

“Are you sure it’s anorexia?” Karen asked.

Sharon shrugged. “As sure as I can be. Heaven knows, I saw enough of it in secondary school.”

“Secondary? Is that, like, high school?”

“Basically. It was a boarding school in Switzerland for really rich girls. My dad had called in a few favors while he and his firm were rebuilding some government building and the infrastructure in Prague.”

“Oh, that’s right. Your dad’s a civil engineer specializing in historic buildings.”

“That’s it. So instead of high school, my sister Susan and I went to a boarding school for very high profile young women in Berne. And with all those very spoiled, very image-conscious teen girls, anorexia was epidemic. And after that, at UCLA,” Sharon shuddered. “I was so hoping I wouldn’t have to do another intervention. You want to talk about something that is seriously not fun.”

“Hm.” Karen tapped her desk with a pen. “That means you could get June-”

“I’ve never led one,” Sharon said quickly. “And it’s always different depending on the person’s triggers and how open they are to recovery, all those things. You really have to know what you’re doing.”

“You know what? I know a shrink in Los Angeles who might be able to help. We’ve worked together before on a couple academic papers on culture and body image.”

“And we should probably talk to Boss Jugs,” Sharon added. “He might know what her triggers are.”

“Oh boy, that’s going to be fun.”

“Yeah, especially if he’s prone to keeping it under wraps. It’s one of those things families try to pretend isn’t happening.”

Karen shook her head. “That’s not generally the boss’s style. I mean, it could be.”

Sharon thought it over. “He is pretty open, but he can hold back, too. You want to call Kent and set up an appointment or shall I?”

“Do you mind?” Karen looked at her desk sadly. “I’m way backed up.”

“No problem. And I can cover any fees your shrink friend needs, too.”

“We’ll see what we can work out,” Karen said.

As it turned out, Kent Jeffries, the administrative assistant and gatekeeper for the President, couldn’t find a space in Mark’s schedule until late Thursday afternoon. Sharon and Karen met in the foyer of the Oval Office, neither really in the mood for the coming discussion. Sharon had her laptop and Karen had her tablet.

For his part, Mark knew the second he saw their faces that this was not going to be a pleasant meeting. He got them seated on one of the two facing tan silk sofas, prepared some coffee, then took his seat in the chair at the head of the group, blue silk jack-something-or-other, June had called it. The material on the upholstery had a paisley design woven in.

“Well?” he asked slowly.

“It’s about June,” Sharon said getting right to the point.

“We’re concerned about her, as her friends,” Karen said quickly.

“Sir, there’s no easy way to say this, but based on her behavior this past month or two, we believe that she’s suffering a relapse of anorexia nervosa.”

Mark nodded and sighed. “You noticed.”

“Actually,” Sharon said, “I noticed as early as late last month. But I’ve known a lot of women with anorexia, so I can spot the signs pretty quickly. And Matt was asking questions a few weeks ago.”

“I see.” Mark pressed his lips together and nodded again. “Have you talked to her about it?”

“Not yet,” said Karen.

“Look, Sir,” Sharon cut in. “We know that it’s one of those conditions that makes the person with it pretty resistant to facing it.”

“But there’s a lot of good research that shows the right kind of intervention has a high success rate,” Karen added.

“No. Not an intervention.” Mark suddenly got up and began pacing. “The last time we tried that, June totally blew us off and ended up in the hospital.”

“Sir, that’s probably why she landed in the hospital,” Karen said. “It could have been a lot worse.”

Sharon looked at him. “I’m guessing you’ve been through this before.”

“Yeah. We have.” Mark shook his head and shuddered a little. “It’s the watching it that’s the hard part, knowing that you can’t do anything.”

“Which of June’s friends participated that time you had trouble?” Sharon asked.

“June really doesn’t have that many close friends,” Mark said. “It was me, my dad and her buddy Doug. You know, the hair stylist.”

Too well, Sharon wanted to say, but bit her tongue.

“All guys?” Karen looked at her tablet. “We’re going to propose something different. It’s an all-female group, including me, Sharon, her friend Niecy and her friend Carla.”

“Carla’s had her own problems with anorexia,” Sharon explained. “She’s pretty much over it, thank God, but she can speak to June in ways even I can’t. And I’ve done more than a few interventions for the disease.”

“We’ve also got a psychologist in Los Angeles who’s helping us plan the intervention and giving us pointers, things to look out for,” Karen said.

“Do you have any idea what kind of chance you’re taking?” Mark asked, his voice thick with pain.

“Not that much of one, Sir,” Sharon said. “It’s not generally the sort of thing that makes people worse, even though they can get pretty resistant. People who don’t respond are usually not going to respond to anything. You still don’t want to go in without any planning or without consulting a professional first.”

“Which we’ve done,” Karen added. “Plus, Sharon and Carla have experience with the disease. I’m doing the additional research.”

“We need to know what her triggers are,” Sharon said. “What sets her off.”

Mark stopped pacing and thought. “I don’t know,” he finally gasped. “She simply won’t talk about things. Dad and I have tried. She did a fair amount of therapy after we went to live with our father. But she just doesn’t talk. She wouldn’t even talk to our grandmother.”

“That may be why she hasn’t had very many close friends,” Karen said, looking at Sharon.

“Well, she does now,” Sharon said firmly, then stood. “Thank you for your time, Sir. Karen and I will keep you updated.”

Karen stood also, then put her hand on Mark’s arm. “Sir, she was there for me when I most needed someone. We’re going to take very good care of her. It’s the least I can do.”

Mark swallowed. “Uh, thanks,” he whispered, then recovered himself just enough to dismiss the women.

Alone, he sank onto the couch. Neither Sharon nor Karen had asked for his permission to stage the intervention. They had merely asked for his perspective, which meant they were focused on helping June. He knew he should be terrified, and he was afraid. He knew he should be angry, but he wasn’t. If anything, it felt as though the two women had slipped in and quietly lifted a huge boulder off the pile on his shoulders.

Sharon, for her part, didn’t really have that much time to think about the upcoming intervention. On Sunday, the president and his staff left for Tokyo, Japan. The day and a half of talks there were followed by two full and difficult days in Beijing, China, a day in Shanghai, then the party landed in New Delhi, India. While Mark did have a few meetings scheduled in New Delhi, the focus of the trip was the World Conference of Women being held that weekend. June had been scheduled to deliver the keynote speech on that Saturday morning, and Sharon was happy to see that June had already checked into the hotel when the President and his party arrived.

Still, there were several morning meetings with the Indian prime minister. Mark couldn’t help but notice as Sharon and a small Indian woman with a full round figure winked at each other during an early meeting with the prime minister and his full cabinet.

The actual reunion, however, happened in the hotel lobby where the president and his staff were staying. Mark saw Sharon slipping away from the entourage toward the same round-ish woman, and the next thing he heard were the quiet, but distinct squeals of two women greeting each other.

Sharon and the other woman finally finished hugging each other, then Sharon brought her friend over to Mark.

“Sir,” Sharon said, happily. “I would like to introduce to you one of my dearest friends in all the world, Niecy Bagdha. She was in our meetings earlier because she is the Assistant Minister of Education for the country.”

Niecy was dressed in a red sari, flecked with tiny streaks of saffron, but Mark noticed that her forehead was clear and unmarked. She pressed her palms together and bowed slightly.

“Namaste, Mr. President,” she said politely. But Mark noticed a rather irreverent gleam in her eyes.

He pressed his palms together. “Namaste and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Bagdha replied.

“Niecy and I went to secondary school together,” Sharon explained.

She was about to say more when Mark’s attention was pulled away by Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Barker, whose size alone made him hard to ignore. By the time Mark turned back, Sharon had pulled her friend away.

“So that’s him,” Niecy was saying to Sharon as Sharon pulled her toward the elevators.

“Don’t say it,” Sharon said.

“You’re right. He’s even more handsome in person,” Niecy said, nonetheless.

Sharon groaned. “Niece, please let’s not talk about it.”

“Why not? He’s a beautiful man. He seems very nice. And I did catch him looking your way more than once during the meeting. And it wasn’t about translating.”

Sharon glared down at her friend. “It’s not going to happen. Period. Neither of us can afford to be in a relationship now. He’s got an entire country to run.”

“And you?” Niecy’s eyes twinkled with mischief.

“Um, Niecy, he’s my boss. Can you point to where in the employee manual that it says falling in love with your boss is a good idea? I don’t think you can because we both know it’s a lousy idea. It’s a terrible idea. It’s a world-class stupid idea.”

“And methinks you doth protest too much,” Niecy giggled. She held up her hand. “But we’ll leave it there.” An elevator door opened and Niecy gently tugged Sharon on board. “Carla arrived last night and said I should bring you up soon as I could get away.”

Sharon sighed. “She’s not happy about this, is she?”

“She has conceded that she only knows your friend June by reputation.” Niecy paused. “And she said the whole intervention thing may be bringing up some past pain.”

“I’d be surprised if it didn’t,” Sharon grumbled, looking up at the display counting off the floors as they passed them.

“I’d be worried if she didn’t say so,” Niecy said. “But she’s talking about it, which is the best sign. Oh, did I tell you about our lunch together last month? We had the best time. But the poor thing, she still can’t eat even the mildest of spices.”

“Niecy, given your asbestos mouth, that’s not saying much. Even I can’t eat half the things you call mild,” Sharon snorted.

Niecy let out a small, high-pitched sound that in anyone else would qualify as a snort. The elevator doors opened at just that moment and Niecy led the way out and down the hall.

The room door was opened by a tall, slender woman, of mixed-race origins. Her hair was full and long and slightly kinky, but just a shade off of dark black. Her skin was the color of caramel and her eyes were a striking blue.

“Well, if it isn’t my tenant,” she exclaimed, then reached forward and warmly hugged Sharon.

Carla Danford was the daughter of a well-placed Connecticut lawyer and the over-achieving daughter of an Atlanta city politician. Carla’s parents had met in law school and against all odds had married, kept a solid relationship and highly successful careers, not to mention maintaining their respective social statuses among their own.

Unlike Niecy, who as the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Indian government was also a child of privilege, Carla had found her social status uncomfortable and hadn’t really seemed to come to terms with it. She and Sharon had met when the two were doing graduate work at UCLA in International Marketing. Carla had already tried medical school and law school. She stayed with International Marketing just long enough to get her degree, then threw herself into philanthropic work with a variety of Non-Governmental Organizations. Her current job was setting up a micro-loan program in Nigeria for the women in the bush areas, which was why Sharon was living in Carla’s Georgetown townhouse.

“It’s so good to see you, Carla,” Sharon said.

“And how is my place?”

“Pretty much the same as you left it,” Sharon replied. “I did add some cookware.”

“You mean the kitchen is actually getting some use?” Carla laughed. “We’d better not tell my mother. She’ll have a heart attack from the shock.”

Niecy let out a high-pitched almost snort. “You could just hire a cook, you know.”

Sharon’s phone buzzed and she looked at it. “That’s Karen. She and June are all checked in.”

“So when is this all supposed to go down?” Carla said with a deep sigh.

“We can bring up dinner at any time,” Sharon said. “Karen’s picked a movie from the hotel’s list, so we can relax first and get to know each other. Then we’ll find a way to ease into the conversation.”

Which was exactly how things went down. The party had been set up as a slumber party for June’s birthday, which was the next day. However, as soon as Sharon brought up Carla’s struggles with anorexia, June figured out what was really happening.

“I really don’t think this is necessary,” June protested. “I can get myself out of my funk. I’ve done it before.”

“I’m sure you have,” said Carla. “But you don’t have to do it alone this time.”

“I’m not in that bad a shape,” June said.

Sharon gently laid her arms across June’s shoulders. “You are, June. We can all see it.  And we don’t want that for you.”

“June, we love you,” Karen said. “All we want is the best for you.”

“And you’ve got some pretty powerful women walking with you,” Carla said. “Sharon and Niecy walked with me through my recovery and they are scary good.”

“But it’s not that big a deal,” said June.

The conversation continued in that vein for almost an hour as the four women slowly helped June face the reality that she was in trouble.

“I can get out of this,” June finally said, weakly.

“Of course you can,” Sharon said. “We know you’ve done it before. But this time, you won’t be doing it alone.”

“Really?” June asked with tears starting to slip down her cheeks. “Nobody’s ever been there for me. I mean, except Mark, and he can’t know about this yet.”

“Is that why you don’t talk to him about what’s bothering you?” Karen asked, glancing over at Sharon as if to ask whether they should tell June that Mark was fully aware of her relapse.

June sniffed and nodded. “He’s protected me all my life. I’ve got to protect him.”

“That’s an awful lot to carry by yourself,” Sharon said.

“But it’s what I’ve had to do,” June said.

“Not anymore,” Karen said. “You know, June, you were there for me at one of the worst times in my life. How can I not step up for you?”

Sharon suddenly remembered something June had said months before about her brother and sister-in-law: “They may hate Mark on that side of the family, but they don’t even notice me.” Perhaps, Sharon thought, that was the key.

“June, look at us,” Sharon said softly. “We’re here. I know there are a lot of people who’ve chosen to ignore you, who don’t care that you even exist. But we do.”

“My mother couldn’t be bothered to pick me up from school,” June all but whispered. “She never paid attention to me. Mark pretty much raised me – and he was just a little kid. He’s the one who got me from school, who made sure I took a bath, fed me. My dad would when we were with him. But Mother made sure that didn’t happen too often.” June looked up. “And that’s not even the worst of it. But we can’t let it get out because folks would use it against Mark.”

“They were bad enough about your mother during the election,” Karen said.

“Can you believe it?” June sniffed. “It doesn’t look good to be a survivor of child abuse, never mind that it’s made Mark one of the strongest people I know, and one of the most compassionate.”

“And so are you,” Sharon said. “You are incredibly generous. You’re smart and one hell of a businesswoman. And we are here because we love and care about you and we are not going to forget to pick you up.”

The floodgates opened and June burst into sobs, a deep cry that racked her entire body. The four other women gathered even closer and held June as she cried. Eventually, the sobs slowed, and June gasped, then smiled through the tears still streaming down her cheeks.

“I think we’re past the worst of it,” Niecy said. “Do you feel better?”

“Yes,” June said.

“There’s still plenty of work to do,” Carla said, grabbing and holding onto June’s hands. “We need to get you into therapy.”

“We’ve got a really good therapist, too,” Karen said. “I’ve worked with her on some academic projects, but she’s got an amazing reputation and she’s really, really discreet.”

“Sharon, what time is it in Los Angeles?” Niecy asked.

“It’s what? Eleven fifteen here?” Sharon calculated quickly. “It’s about 10:45 in the morning there.”

“Dr. Williams said she’d be available all day,” Karen said.

“Shanetta Williams?” June asked and laughed. “I’m already seeing her.” June gulped, then giggled. “She said I’d probably relapse while we were working. I even remember her-” June gasped. “Where’s my phone? I’ve gotta talk to her. I remember what triggered it. I remember!”

Sharon handed June her phone, while Carla smiled and Niecy called down to room service for a smoothie shake. June grabbed her phone and frantically dialed, wandering off to the bathroom. By the time the shake arrived, June wandered back into the room, saying “Uh-huh,” repeatedly into the phone. She took the shake, sucked on the straw, then wandered right back to the bathroom.

It wasn’t a long conversation and the five women, while jubilant, were also pretty tired by the time June had hung up. And even though Carla had her own room in the hotel, she decided to spend the night in June’s suite, along with the others.

The next morning, June ate a solid breakfast with the others, then it was time to get ready for her speech at the conference. While June’s energy and general level of giddiness made up for a lot, her physical appearance was still showing the effects of her disease. Karen volunteered to help with June’s make-up, but June finally made the decision to be as she was.

It should have been a controversial move, especially since June made a point of being honest about her condition during her speech. But somehow, she found a way to talk about starving herself with a great deal of sensitivity for the many women in the room from places where famine held sway and starvation was about politics and not about compulsive behavior.

“Any time a human being is denigrated, we all suffer,” June told the crowd. “Whether it’s the careless indifference of established prejudice or wholesale genocide. We’re seeing the effects of it every day. It’s just a matter of degree. The good news is that we have the answer right in our own hands. We can choose to love. It’s that simple. It’s not easy, but it is that simple. I am here today, once again in recovery because four women chose love and made me see it. And I have had to choose love in the face of violence, as some of you must.”

June continued on, unaware that in the wings of the stage she was on, her brother Mark was standing with a slap-happy grin on his face.

“She’s back!” he whispered. “Thank God, she’s back!”

He looked around. Close by, Sharon and Karen were also watching June’s speech from the wings. Mark went over, caught their attention, then swooped them both into a tight hug.

“I don’t know what you two did last night, but it worked,” Mark hissed with glee.

“It wasn’t just us,” Sharon whispered. “And June is doing the hard work.”

“I’m just so relieved,” Mark whispered.

“We are, too,” Karen said. “She’s not entirely out of the woods.”

“But it will be a lot harder for her to get some steam going again,” Sharon added. “We’ll be watching out for it and she knows we’ll come after her.”

“Be my guest,” Mark said. “I haven’t seen her this happy in, well, years. This is a miracle.”

Chuckling, Karen faded back and went over to Niecy as Carla slid up to Mark and Sharon.

“I have to say, she’s rocking it,” Carla said, her voice still tinged with skepticism. “I didn’t believe she could, but she is.”

“Really?” asked Mark, his eyes narrowing.

Carla sighed. “I may have misjudged June. One of my many failings. I have no patience for poor little rich girls.”

“And yet you are one,” Sharon pointed out.

“Probably why I don’t have any patience.” Carla shrugged. “At least I had the good grace to acknowledge how well off I was.”

“That and you prefer people with substance,” Sharon said.

“And June is that,” Carla said.

“I’m glad you think so,” Mark said. “June has gotten me through some pretty rough times. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”

He noticed Sharon and Carla looking quickly at each other and realized they had some idea of how rough those times had been. He wondered how much June had told them. He trusted Sharon, but Carla was an unknown. It didn’t matter. Mark had always known it was possible that his secret would get out and was ready for when it did. If it did. The important thing right now was that June was better, if not over her relapse.

The crowd roared as June finished and Mark couldn’t stop grinning.

The speech was quite the success, and for the rest of the morning, June was followed rather relentlessly by well-wishers. She decided it was a relief when she and the rest of the Americans boarded Air Force One shortly after lunch. She was even happier when, shortly after take-off, the crew made up the beds and the lights were turned down in the cabin.

Almost 12 hours later, and a few more to go before landing, everyone on board was pretty much awake and functioning. June looked at a text on her phone and went to Mark’s office cabin.

“Come in,” Mark called.

“Mark, do you know what’s going on with Matt?” June asked, shutting the door.

“What do you mean?” Mark glanced up from his tablet.

“I’ve gotten three texts from him, begging me to not run off to New York as soon as we get in,” she said. She frowned. “He’s not planning some sort of intervention, is he?”

Mark laughed. “No. But he does have something nice planned for your birthday, and I wasn’t supposed to say that much. So please act surprised.”

“I didn’t want anything for my birthday,” June said.

“I know. But can you do me a favor and don’t spoil it for him?” Mark asked. “He’s been really worried about you.”

June sighed and ducked her head. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“June, we get it. It’s not something you can control that easily and we’re not mad at you. We’re just glad you’re back. That’s all.”

“I’m glad I’m doing better, too. And I do owe you guys an apology.”

“Apology accepted.”

Mark got up from his desk and folded June in a warm hug. Then the buzzing of his phone sent her back to the main cabin.

The birthday celebration started almost as soon as the Marine One helicopter landed on the White House pad. June was surrounded by Advisory Board members, Douglas Lee, the Cooper and Watanabe girls, the Hodgkisses and June’s father, Thomas. She was surprised by the party, in spite of having had some warning. But Matt’s surprise didn’t end with the party.

“We’ve got dogs,” the teen announced proudly about mid-way through the festivities.

The party had been set up in the Sculpture Garden, which was well-shielded from the tourists wending their way through the public rooms downstairs at the White House.

“What?” Mark asked.

“You said okay, Uncle Mark,” Matt said. “And Grandpa hired the guy to help take care of them.”

It was about this time that June and the rest of the party became aware of an extended yapping on the lawn side of the garden.

“We’ve got dogs,” Matt announced again, more loudly and looking expectantly at a gap in the hedge, again on the lawn side of the garden.

Finally, a shaggy yellow lab mix and a sleek black short-hair came trotting into the garden, accompanied by loud yipping from two orangish-balls of fur at their feet.

“Meet Lady and Shalla,” said Matt, over the yapping. He pointed at the yellow dog and the black dog respectively.

Lady and Shalla came over and stood next to the boy, with Lady’s shoulder coming even with Matt’s hip and Shalla’s shoulder topping his waist.

Matt bent and scooped up the two much smaller dogs. One had long, straight fur and a pointed nose, and the other had curly fur, clipped fairly close to his body, and a somewhat more squared-off nose. Each barely filled out Matt’s hand, and the two kept barking and barking.

“And this is Ginger Peachy,” Matt said, holding up the long straight-hair, “and this is Kickie Poo. These are for you, Aunt June.”

“All four?” June asked, trying to smile and failing.

“No!” said Matt. “Well, they’re all kind of all of ours. See, Grandpa rescued them all and he said I could have one and Uncle Mark said that would be cool, and then I thought it would be great if you could have a dog, too, Aunt June, and Grandpa said you liked dogs, but that you couldn’t really have a big one, and, uh, I couldn’t really pick just one, and so we all have dogs.”

“I see,” said Mark, looking over at his father.

Thomas’ grin was less than innocent, and Mark had the feeling the older man had brought all four dogs knowing darned well that they would all end up at the White House.

“So, I’ve got a pomeranian and a poodle,” said June. She again tried to smile and just barely failed. “Who named them?”

“I dunno,” Matt said.

“They were given up by an older woman who had to go into a care facility and couldn’t take them with her,” said Thomas. He took the still-yapping dogs from Matt. “They’ve been a little excitable, but they should settle down soon.”

But as soon as Thomas approached June, the two tiny dogs both started growling and baring their teeth. June drew back.

“Oh, dear,” she said as Lady came up and nuzzled her.

Lady whined softly and June automatically began stroking the soft golden fur on her head.

“Huh,” said Thomas. “Looks like your dog picked you, June.”

“So what do we do with those little ones?” Mark asked.

Still focused on June and Lady, Thomas handed the toy dogs off to Mark.

“Quiet,” Mark growled at the two tiny dogs, and much to everyone’s surprise, they quieted. “What the hell am I supposed to do with these?”

“They’re dogs, son,” said Thomas. “What do you think?”

“Those aren’t dogs,” said Eddie Cooper, laughing. “Those are snacks for big dogs.”

“Hush, Eddie,” hissed his wife Cordelia.

Sharon tried to keep a straight face and failed. The problem was, the dogs were not what anyone would consider “presidential.” That did not stop Mark from getting attached to them, as Gus Guerrero fretted to Sharon two days later, as they shared lunch in the White House mess after the Advisory Board meeting and before the big press conference introducing the new White House dogs.

“The Moral Americans are going to have a field day,” Gus sighed. “Ginger and Kickie couldn’t be more stereotypically gay.”

“So?” Sharon replied. “I thought the boss’s gender orientation wasn’t an issue.”

“Except that the Moral Americans keep making an issue of it, and do we really want to give them more ammo?” Gus asked.

“Why not focus on the adoption angle?” Sharon said. “That should make the adoption advocates happy.”

“They’ll be wetting their pants in ecstasy.”

“At least somebody will be happy, then.”

Mark handled the issue by going with the reality that the two toy dogs did not fit the image. The conference was held in the Sculpture Garden. Shalla and Lady were introduced to approving ahs. Then Mark brought out Ginger and Kickie, as he was still the only person in the White House who could handle the dogs and get them to stay quiet for any length of time.

“These little guys represent why you shouldn’t give dogs as gifts,” Mark told the reporters. “My nephew, Matt, had picked out Ginger Peachy and Kickie Poo as a gift for my sister June. Now, the only reason he was able to do this is that I agreed to back him up if for, whatever reason, his choices didn’t work well. And they didn’t. June prefers larger dogs and bonded with Lady instead. So, as I agreed, I got Ginger and Kickie. Not exactly the dogs or the names I would have picked for myself, but we seem to be getting on surprisingly well. I will not be changing their names, though I would love to, because while they don’t look like it, they’re actually older dogs. Ginger is 9 and Kickie is 10. They were previously owned by an older woman who had to go into a care facility. My dad, who rescued them, could probably tell you more about her. As many of you know, dogs this age are very hard to adopt out, even small ones. So, I’m glad I was able to step up for these little guys. Lady and Shalla, of course, will still be making the rounds with me, as well, so I’ll be getting my big dog fix. And I have to say, I am really grateful to Matt for thinking of this. One of the few annoyances of my past work is that I haven’t been able to have critters around. I was just too busy. But now, as president, I can keep my little yes men with me.” He held the two small dogs up. “Seriously, these two boys about the only beings on the planet who are happy to see me without an agenda. Everyone needs a little unreserved adulation in their lives, don’t you think? Now, any questions?”

There was the usual flurry, and Gus was relieved when very few of them were about Ginger and Kickie. One reporter asked about Mark’s response to cat lovers, and Mark replied that loving dogs didn’t mean he couldn’t love cats, as well, and that cats were next up on the pet plan. But that was about as awkward as it got. Naturally, however, the late-night comedians got in hours’ worth of digs about Ginger and Kickie, but most of it was good-natured. Furthermore, there were enough editorials about what a great thing the president had done in adopting the two dogs that the Moral Americans couldn’t really say much about the dogs without looking ridiculous.

Oddly enough, the one group that did get upset was a pet adoption group. They took umbrage that Mark referred to Ginger and Kickie as his “little yes men,” although they were not terribly clear on why that was offensive. Mark had Jean Bouyer release a generic apology and the whole thing blew over within hours. Jean also released a photo of Mark walking through the halls of the White House. The photo looked like many such photos of Mark walking around, surrounded by his usual entourage, except that Mark had a black soft-sided doggie carrier slung over his shoulder, with Ginger and Kickie’s small heads poking out, bright orange against the black carrier and Mark’s dark suit.

The carrier turned out to be a necessity. Ginger and Kickie were so small, that even on a leash, there were good odds they’d get trampled by one of the people walking with Mark. Mark had also set up a small fenced-off area in the Oval Office for the two dogs, although the two usually ran loose. But if there was a meeting, then the dogs were penned in to keep people from accidentally stepping on them.

And as it turned out, Ginger and Kickie weren’t the only surprise. Shalla, the tall, black short-hair, decided she liked hanging around the West Wing and was as likely to be snoozing in one of the offices there as she was in her kennel. Staff had been warned not to feed her and to keep an alert eye on any office snacks, since Shalla was perfectly capable of pulling food off of desks and would sometimes snatch a tidbit from someone’s hand. And while most of the staff was perfectly happy to welcome Shalla to their cubicles with pats and smiles, there was the odd staff member who either had allergies or just wasn’t that fond of dogs. Sharon’s second secretary, Dianne Bowen, was afraid of dogs, in general, and was out and out terrified of the very large Shalla.

“Which is ridiculous,” pointed out Sharon’s first secretary, Julie, a few days after the dogs had arrived.

She and Sharon had just gotten Diane calmed down after Shalla’s latest visit and were hiding in Sharon’s office. Shalla was napping in a nearby corner.

“I can understand being a little nervous,” Julie continued. “Shalla’s pretty big. But come on. She’s nothing but a big old love muffin.”

Sharon couldn’t help chuckling. “I know. But apparently there was a childhood trauma with Diane.”

“I suppose,” Julie grumbled.

Sharon sighed. “Isn’t it getting any better between you two?”

“I’m trying,” Julie said. “But, Sharon, she has no sense of humor. She wants everything done her way. And she has no patience with people who don’t speak English.”

“I know.” Sharon frowned. “But she’s great on getting reports done. And there really isn’t much I can do about her personality if her work’s up to par, and except for the phones, it is.”

“And it’s not fair to ruin her career because she’s a rule-bound prissy witch.” Julie rolled her eyes. “Sometimes it sucks to be the good guys.”

Sharon laughed. She looked over at Shalla. The dog stirred as Julie left the office. Sharon’s mobile phone rang as Shalla got up, shook and began to pace. Sharon decided that she could talk to the aide in Johannisberg about the President’s upcoming visit while taking the dog outside as easily as talking in the office. It wasn’t a particularly difficult discussion, just one focused on the complex logistics of such a visit and one Sharon had already had with another aide from the South African foreign ministry. So she murmured soothingly into the phone as she led the large black dog from her office to a door leading out toward the South lawn.

She wasn’t the first staffer to do so, and there was a small box near the door filled with tennis balls and other dog toys. Shalla wandered around the grass nearby and watered a small tree. Then she bounded back to Sharon, who was ready with a tennis ball.

Sharon tossed the ball, her other hand holding the phone to her ear. Shalla yipped excitedly and tore after the ball. Sharon was still talking as the dog scampered up, ball in mouth. Sharon snapped her fingers and held out her hand. Shalla deposited the ball, Sharon threw it again, and Shalla ran after.

As Sharon tossed the ball for the fourth time, Matt sauntered up from around one corner or another, Sharon didn’t see which one. The teen was dressed in cargo shorts and a plaid shirt, this being one of his days off from working for his uncle. Sharon waved at him as she finished the call, then made her notes.

“Hey,” Matt said, with something less than his usual enthusiasm. “Playing with Shalla, huh?”

“More or less,” Sharon replied.

She looked him over, pondering. Matt was usually insatiably curious about her calls, but this time, his gaze remained fixated on the dog running toward them, ball in mouth.

“What’s up?” Sharon asked as Shalla dropped the tennis ball into Matt’s hand.

Matt drew back and threw the ball well into the trees surrounding the lawn. Shalla yipped and ran after it.

“Nothing much,” Matt said and winced. “Well, you know, family weirdness.”

“With your aunt and uncle?” Sharon asked.

“They’re fine.” Matt paused, looking out over the lawn in the direction Shalla had run. “It’s my mom. We’ve been emailing. Not a lot, you know. But some.”

“Really.” Sharon debated how to approach the revelation. From what she’d gathered, Matt’s estrangement from his parents was pretty firm, and just because there was some thawing in the relationship didn’t mean it was a good thing from the teen’s perspective.


“Is it a good thing?”

“I guess.” Matt scrunched up his face. “I mean, it’s not like I want my mom to hate me. Anyway, I called her today.”

“That’s good.”

“Oh, yeah. She asked about my new school and all. And I told her about football tryouts. And she didn’t say I had to, which she totally would have before, but she did say if I played football, it might make things easier with my dad.”

“So when are tryouts?”

“Anytime, really. I was thinking of going out tomorrow morning. But I don’t know. I mean, I like playing, but I hate it when I have to.”

Sharon nodded. Shalla came running back. Sharon got the ball and tossed it again. Shalla hurried after.

“That makes sense,” Sharon said. “Did you want to play before your mom suggested it?”

“Yeah, I sort of did.” Matt shrugged. “It’s a lot of fun.”

“It might help you make new friends,” Sharon said. “Have you talked to your uncle about it?”

“He’s been pretty busy today. Has that whole running the country thing going on, you know?” Matt grinned.

Sharon smiled. “Yes, I know.”

“Uncle Mark would probably like it if I did play football,” Matt said. “You know, that staying active and healthy thing.

“He might, although you can get hurt pretty badly playing football.”

“He played football and I know he likes the game.”

“I’m sure he does and you certainly know him better than I do.” Sharon watched as Shalla returned and plopped down at her feet. “But it has been my experience that as soon as you assume you know what your uncle is going to do, he does the exact opposite.”

Matt guffawed. “Yep. That’s Uncle Mark.”

“Listen, Matt.” Sharon put her hand on Matt’s shoulder. “I don’t know how your uncle will feel about you playing. But ultimately, there is only one reason you should and it has nothing to do with your uncle, with your parents, with anyone. You play because you want to play. You’re not going to be competitive if your heart’s not in it. And if your heart isn’t in it, there’s really no point. There are too many other ways to stay active and healthy and meet people and all that.”

“Huh. That makes sense.”

“Good. Now I’ve got to get back in and get some work done.”

“Okay, Aunt Sharon.” Matt gave her a quick hug.

Matt did decide to try out for the team and early the next morning, he headed off, his Secret Service team in tow. He spent the day working out with the team and proclaimed how sore he was that evening at dinner with his uncle.

Mark grinned. “I told you not to stay on your backside all summer.”

Matt rolled his eyes. He was busy eating – more like gobbling – the feast White House Chef Yasmine Sollet had prepared. There was a whole roasted chicken, potatoes, carrots, broccoli and a salad. Like most boys his age, Matt could, and usually did, consume a goodly amount of food. But the day’s activity had kicked his appetite into overdrive and he had already cleaned his plate twice and was munching through the third quarter of the chicken.

“I’d just be even more sore,” Matt said, around a mouthful of potatoes. “Coach is, like, really tough on us. He was in everybody’s face, yelling and spitting. Man, if it weren’t for the other guys, I’d probably have left.”

“You like them?”

“Yeah. They’re a pretty good group. Especially Paul. He’s really cool. Does this sleight of hand thing.” Matt looked over the table. “You gonna eat the rest of that broccoli?”

Mark pushed the dish toward him. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks.” Matt scooped the florets onto his plate. “Anyway, a lot of the guys, they’re pretty much your garden-variety idiots. But Paul’s smart. So’s Deshawn. Although I don’t know how much longer Deshawn is going to be on the team. Coach got in his face more than anyone and some of it got borderline ugly. Deshawn said he doesn’t have to take that kind of crap, especially since his mother doesn’t want him playing football. But he’s an awesome running back.”

“Really. Do you know what position you’ll be playing?”

“First-string quarterback.” Matt struck a pose. “I’m taking Paul’s place.”

“And he’s okay with that?”

Matt shrugged. “He seems to be. Deshawn told me that Paul got his bell rung pretty badly at the end of last season and he skipped spring training. Then since he came back this summer, he’s been playing super careful. Paul said he was glad he didn’t have to listen to Coach yelling at him.”

“Sounds like your coach is an intense kind of guy. Is he okay with you taking off for the Africa trip?”

“I asked him and he said okay.” Matt looked over the table, hoping to find something else to eat.

Unfortunately, near the end of the following week, when Matt reminded the Coach that he was leaving for Lagos, Nigeria the next day, it became very obvious that Coach Helmsley wasn’t okay with the trip.

“He screamed at me for five solid minutes, Uncle Mark!” Matt paced his uncle’s study. “I swear, I thought my Secret Service guys were going to come after him.”

Mark, who had heard a similar report from the security detail earlier, nodded. “You did ask him about the trip, didn’t you?”

“Only every day. I swear, Uncle Mark. I did. He kept saying okay.”

“Well, according to the school, he can be a little hard of hearing.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “He can hear plenty good when he wants to. Ask Deshawn about that. He heard Deshawn whispering from behind a bank of lockers. That’s when Deshawn walked. I almost walked then, myself.”

“Well, the school says you can still play, if you want.”

“Are you kidding?” Matt shrieked. “No way! I am done. That guy’s a psycho. I don’t want to play under that! He’s a total do-”

“Matthew, you know how I feel about that word.”

“Well, he is.” Matt looked over at his uncle with a guilty frown. “You’re not going to say I have to, are you?”

“No.” Mark folded his arms. “I think you should have checked things out a little more thoroughly before you committed to playing. But now you know. Lesson learned. Let’s move on.”

“Thanks, Uncle Mark. I’m sorry it got so screwed up. But I did tell him.”

“I’m sure you did. Now, let’s go get dinner.”

Back in his dorm room at St. Ignatius Preparatory School, Paul Marley pressed his lips together, trying not to cry. He didn’t want the other guys to catch on that he was terrified. He wished desperately that he was back in the small, but elegant apartment he usually shared with his mother, a senator from Georgia. But she was back in Georgia for the August break, and had arranged for Paul to stay at the school while she was gone so that he could work out with the football team. His dad was back in Georgia, too, busy coaching the local high school team he’d coached since before Paul was born. His parents had divorced, although they barely acknowledged that they were separated. Paul and his mother spent most of their time in Washington, DC.

Up until the previous January, Paul had never questioned playing football. It was just something he did because it was expected of him. His father was a coach. His older brothers had played. Now, it was his turn. Until that idiot Ralston had missed his block and Paul had almost suffocated under four 300-pound defensive linemen.

One expected to get hit. It was a rough game. And it was hardly the first time Paul had gotten a concussion while playing. But that sensation of not being able to breathe and then blacking out – that was terrifying. Paul was not a small person. Even with some growing still to do, he was already a very muscular six feet plus, with a round, mischievous face and short blond hair.

Paul’s mother had told him he didn’t have to play, and Paul had happily skipped spring training. Problem was, his father found out and when Paul went to visit earlier that summer, his father made it plain that he was expected to shake the injury off and play. Which Paul did, unhappily, but he did.

It looked like things were going to work out, what with Matt Jerguessen joining the team. Paul’s father could hardly complain when Paul got demoted to second string when someone as good as Matt was around. Then Matt got his ass kicked off because he wanted to go to Africa with his uncle.

Paul took a deep breath. It was all Matt’s fault. And it certainly felt better being angry at him than quaking with terror inside. Yep. It was definitely Matt’s fault and Paul was going to find a way to get him back.

Facebook Chat

Carla: Hey, Sharon. Looks like everything’s set on our end.

Sharon: Great. We appreciate the help.

Carla: I can’t wait for you guys to get here. It’s been so frickin’ tense lately.

Sharon: It hasn’t gotten any better?

Carla: Why do you think I agreed to do June’s intervention. Trust me, that was a picnic compared to here.

Sharon: oh goodie.

Carla: The government wants to look good, so they’ve put the clamps down on the militia groups – not that I like how they’re doing it. But it does mean it’s been safer on the streets.

Carla: Uh-oh.

Sharon: What?

Sharon: Carla? You there?

Please talk to me. I'd love to hear from you.

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