Episode 127 – Mark and Sharon Have Dinner

The next day, back in Washington, DC, the heat descended on the city like a heavy wet woolen blanket. Even in the air-conditioning of the West Wing offices, the humidity seemed to seep in and dampen even the least good humor. Economics Advisor Dr. Eddie Cooper did his best to lighten things up by staging a mildly raucous birthday party for himself over the lunch hour, but it seemed to Sharon that the laughter and noise were more about beating back the tension of the day than good cheer on the Coop’s behalf.

It didn’t help that members of the opposition in Congress had been making snide comments about how several members of Mark’s advisory team all seemed to be having issues in their personal lives. Sharon thought the sniping was particularly unfair since it was only Karen and Warmonger who happened to be having issues, nor were the issues anything of their own making but brought on by outside circumstance.

Still, she could see that Mark was taking it rather more personally than he should have. It didn’t take long for Sharon to consider. Not that she wanted to, but it was the right thing to do. So she sent the text message to Mark and shortly received the answer – he was happy to come to dinner.

He wasn’t that happy when he arrived. Gloom closed in around him as if the humidity had taken root in his soul. Sharon had already planned on having a chopped salad with bacon and tomatoes on top, but she asked Mark to do the chopping and he went at it with rather more relish than less. That didn’t stop him from immediately cleaning her good knife. Sharon found herself smiling.

“What’s that about?” Mark asked, his eyebrow quirked.

“What?” asked Sharon.

“You’re smiling at something,” he said, turning his attention to running the towel over the dark gray blade.

“I just really appreciate the way you clean off my knives as soon as you’re done,” Sharon replied. “I noticed that the first time you came over for dinner.”

“It seems like the obvious thing to do,” Mark grumbled as he slid the knife into its spot in the knife block. “It’s a nice knife.”

It was a good knife, a basic butcher’s knife, about 8 inches long, wicked sharp, with a light tan wooden handle striped with the dark grain of the wood. Sharon had a small paring knife and a basic serrated knife as part of the set. There were a couple other dark-handled knives in the block next to the kitchen sink, but Mark had noticed that Sharon didn’t seem to use them unless Mark had gotten to the light-handled ones first.

“It’s pretty special.” Sharon gently stroked the handle of the knife. “It’s one of the few things I actually own. Let’s get dinner served.”

“Fine, but you’re going to have to finish that story while we eat.” Mark was finally smiling as he dished out the salad into bowls and Sharon poured the wine.

Sharon shrugged and they sat down. “Well, you know I don’t have a lot of things.” She waved at the room around her. “This is all my friend Carla’s stuff.”

“You have clothes,” Mark said. “I know I don’t pay that much attention, but you’re not wearing the same thing day in and day out.”

“No.” Sharon couldn’t help chuckling. “That is the nice thing about Washington power wear, though. It does all look alike, and I don’t have nearly as many suits as you might think. Besides, clothes, for me, are more of a temporary thing. I rotate stuff in and out of my wardrobe all the time. I only have a couple dresses, a few tops and some jeans that I’ve had for longer than a year or two. The rest get donated as I see new outfits I like.”

“Okay. So tell me about the knife.”

“That. Well, that’s kind of a long story.” Sharon toyed with her salad for a moment, then took a sip of wine. “I think I told you about how when I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of stuff because we moved so often. It was just too hard to haul around all the time. So when I got my first real job out of college, I kind of went nuts. My brother Michael bought me a condo, and I spent a fortune hiring a designer and started decorating it. I was going to buy furniture, art, everything. The problem was, because of my job, I was almost never there. I was spending almost all my time on the road. And then when I was there, it didn’t feel like me. It was almost empty, but that wasn’t it, either. I did have one room finished, but it felt like corporate housing. Then after about a couple years of this, I was having some trouble with the front door key after a trip, and my next door neighbor called the cops on me. He’d never seen me before and thought I was breaking in. And he worked at home. I mean, how sad is that?”

Mark laughed. “That’s pretty sad.”

“And then shortly after that, I was at this crafts festival, and I saw that set of knives. You have to understand, what stuff I did have in the condo was pretty much off the shelf, manufactured, nothing terribly unique.”

“That explains why it looked like corporate housing.”

Sharon nodded. “Probably. I did have a couple good pieces of art. But the rest of it was pretty generic. I was about to buy the knives when I stopped and asked myself if I really needed them? And I left them. And I got back to my condo and realized that I didn’t need pretty much everything that was in there. So I made a list of everything I genuinely needed. I figured a few cooking utensils because I do like to cook, my guitars, a few books, my art, and that was pretty much it. And I really debated about the kitchen stuff, only I knew I had a longer-term assignment coming, where I was going to be in Germany for about six months, and being able to cook for myself would be a good thing. And I kept thinking about that knife set. They were hand-crafted. The knife maker was right there in the booth, showing his customers exactly how to keep the edge on them, how to clean them and keep them. So I went back to the festival and bought just the butcher knife, the paring knife, and the bread knife. And I spent the rest of that month before leaving for Germany, selling off or donating everything in that condo, except the clothes I needed and those few things on my list. And then I sold the condo and gave Michael back his money.”

“Wow.” Mark chewed thoughtfully. “That’s impressive.”

“Maybe.” Sharon shrugged. “It’s just how my life is. I keep the barest essentials, including my cast iron pan and my knives, and the guitars. The art is on loan to a couple galleries back in Orange County. I’ve got my books on my ereader now, so I don’t even have to lug those around, and a few gowns and cocktail dresses that I like. Some of it stays at my parents’ place while I’m traveling, and then when it looks like I’m going to be in one spot for longer than a few weeks, I have Mom ship stuff out to me. I’ll rent a place and if it’s unfurnished, I’ll buy a few essentials, then either sell them or donate them and I’m gone.”

“That’s pretty counter-cultural.”

“I suppose. It’s going to be really interesting being around here for any length of time. I’ve had the same job for several years, but I’ve only had a few assignments that lasted longer than six months.”

“Oh.” Mark felt something in his stomach twist.

“Funny thing is, I’ve been wanting to settle down in one spot for a while now.” Sharon glanced up at the ceiling. “Carla’s supposed to be working in Africa for the next couple years, but she’s already hinted that I can keep living here after she comes back. There’s plenty of room and I’m thinking I might.”

“That’s good to know,” said Mark, his stomach slowly unclenching.

Sharon suddenly smiled at him. “Now, it’s your turn to tell me your sad story.”

“Nah.” Mark felt his stomach clench again, but for a different reason.

“Oh, come on. You’re practically the first person I’ve met who cleans up after himself without being asked.” Sharon lightly jabbed him with her fork. “There’s got to be a reason.”

“Okay. Yeah. You can blame that one on my grandmother. My dad’s mom grew up poor. Since my family has been in the jewelry business since whatever ancestor it was came over here from Norway, my folks have been fairly comfortable. But it was my grandfather and my dad who really built the stores up into the big national chain that it is. And that’s when they got wealthy. But Grandma never quite lost that sense of… I don’t know what you call it, ordinariness, I guess. And whenever I was at Dad’s and later when I went to live with him, I was expected to clean up after myself. The first thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning is make it. It’s a habit. I can’t shower or get dressed until that bed is made.” Mark chuckled. “It drives the White House housekeeping staff nuts because I’m not supposed to do that sort of thing. But I can’t help it.”

Sharon nodded. “I know. I’ve seen the staff glaring at you when you wash the dishes. It’s like they can understand wanting to cook. But clean up after it?”

“Yeah, and speaking of.” Mark pulled out his iPhone and glared at it.. “I thought I felt that buzzing. Yep, it’s Johnnie texting. I have to get back.”

Johnetta Washington was Mark’s Chief of Staff and she seldom texted unless it was urgent.

Sharon looked for her Blackberry. “Is it anything serious?”

“So-so. It’s a late vote on one of the appropriations bills. Johnnie was just letting me know about it, but I’m thinking I’m going to have to bug Jean and Gus and get a statement turned around right away.” Mark stood with a small sigh and picked up his now empty bowl.

“Leave it,” said Sharon. “Consider it my treat. Especially since I have to catch an early flight tomorrow.”

Mark frowned as he set the bowl back down. “That’s right. You’re going out to L.A. for Karen’s hearing.”

“Yep. If you want, I can keep you posted.” Sharon got up and walked Mark to the basement door, where the secret entrance to the townhouse was. The building had been built by a randy senator from the 19th Century, who had installed a secret second door to the street for his various lady friends.

“Why don’t you?” Mark said. “And I’ve arranged to buy lunch for you guys on the day of the hearing, so don’t be surprised.”

“Okay. I’m sure Karen will appreciate it.”

There was an awkward pause, then Mark quickly turned and left. Dinner with Sharon had been extraordinarily relaxing, but thinking of her was getting very much less so.

Episode 126 – Text Session

Text Session –

Matthew: Is everything set?

Tiffany: Yes. We got the sked and J didn’t even have to hack in to get it. Kira likes the statement you wrote.

Matthew: Perfect. Tell her I said to rock on.

Tiffany: Party on, Garth.

Matthew: Party on, Wayne.

Episode 125 – Michael and Cameron Have It Out

Michael stood in his ex-wife’s kitchen and pressed his lips together. Cameron was tall and willowy, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She had just let him into the house only to inform him that Jodi and Tiffany weren’t there.

“But we agreed that I’d meet them here and we’d go visit the Watanabe girls,” Michael told her.

Cameron snorted. “I don’t think she wants to talk to you right now. Seriously, Michael? You said her name on the air twice?”

“I already apologized to her. She’s cool with it.”

“No, she’s not. She’s just saying that for your sake.”

Michael pressed his lips together again and took hold of the red granite counter top on the maplewood island. It wasn’t just about the show, Michael realized. Cameron was sincerely annoyed, but her annoyance was overlaid with self-righteousness, and that always meant trouble.

“I think I know when my kid is lying to me,” Michael growled, not entirely certain that Jodi hadn’t been fibbing a little the evening before when they talked on the phone.

“Michael, you just don’t get her.” Cameron snarled.

“Oh? And you do? Is that why she came to me for help with this whole thing with Kira and Allie?”

“She came to me.”

“Eventually. When I told her to.”

“I didn’t want her involved, in the first place!” Cameron folded her arms and glared at him. “But, no. You had to get her up to her neck in it.”

“Excuse me. She got me involved!” Michael snapped, then tried to grab onto his temper. He began pacing.

“You didn’t have to encourage her.”

“She was well past that point, and you know it.” Michael turned on his ex-wife. “Come on, Cameron. What is this really about?”

“It’s about Jodi and respecting who she is.”

“I do respect her.”

“Oh, really? You said her name twice on the air. You call that respecting her?”

“I also pointed out that she asked me to do the show to help Kira and Allie, and that I had to establish how I knew what was really going on. Which she got and you’re not getting. And that tells me something’s going on with you and not her, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d be up front with me.”

Cameron looked away, then glared at him. “I enrolled Jodi at Seaton Ladies’ Seminary so she can be with Tiffany next fall. That’s that school near DC where Merilee wants Tiffany to go.”

“But-”

“It’s done, Michael. I talked to Jodi about it last night. I told you I was going to make the final decision and I did.”

Michael stood back, shocked into silence. He had been surprised when Cameron had first told him that she was going to go with Tiffany’s mother, Merilee Sheppledorf, on Merilee’s sabbatical touring the world recording obscure folk music in danger of being lost. He’d also been ecstatic, thinking that Jodi would come to live with him and he was perfectly happy to take in Tiffany, as well.

Cameron melted a little and touched Michael’s arm. “I know you were looking forward to having Jodi come live with you, but I didn’t want her to have to choose between Tiffany and you.”

“I would have taken Tiffany in.”

“I know and so does Merilee. But the girls both got really good scholarships at Seaton and Merilee’s connections are better there. And there are enough high-profile families there that no one is going to care about who Jodi’s dad is. It will really be the best place for her.”

“But I wanted to live with her,” said Michael, feeling winded and furious and desperately hurt.

“You’ll have Toby and it’s not like you’ll be that far away. You can visit as often as you like. You can yell all you want. It’s not going to change anything. Merilee and I spent a lot of time talking it over and it’s done. The girls are going to Seaton and that’s it. Your sister will be there. It’ll be the best all around.”

But Michael was too shocked to yell. He sank into a chair from the nearby breakfast nook and just stared at Cameron.

“I just don’t understand why you don’t want me near my girls,” he finally whispered. “I’ve been a good dad. I’ve worked hard at it. I’ve supported you. I’ve never undermined you – and you can’t say that I have. But the only reason I have Toby is that she forced the issue. What have you got against me being with my own kids?”

.”They’re my girls, Michael.” Cameron sniffed and shrugged. “When you ran out on us-”

“I didn’t run out on you,” Michael growled, almost getting up. “You pushed me away. Just like you’re doing now. And I’ve wondered for a long time just how much of that really was about my career. Or was my career just a handy excuse to keep me away from my daughters? And for what reason? What?”

“It’s complicated, Michael,” Cameron’s eyes filled with tears and she sat down across from him, but looked everywhere else. “I’m not even sure I understand what all is involved or where I’m coming from. It’s just… Last spring when this all came up and Merilee asked me to go with her on her sabbatical trip, things just started to happen.”

“Happen? With what?”

Cameron looked down at her fingernails. “With me and Merilee. We’ve always been friends. But we’ve gotten really close over the past couple months. I mean, like, you know.”

“You mean, like…” Michael frowned, then suddenly realized. “You mean like gay?”

“I don’t know!” Cameron cried. “I mean, really, when I look back, it’s what makes the most sense. After we split, I never dated. I kept saying it was because I didn’t want to upset the girls, or that I preferred being with them. But I had no problems going out with my friends and leaving them. And you know I hardly dated before I met you. I kept telling myself it was because I was waiting for the right guy, but then I go and marry someone who was going to do exactly what I didn’t want.”

“My mom kind of pointed that one out,” Michael said softly. “But I guess I was too taken with you at the time to really pay attention.”

“You know, the funny thing is, when I was a kid and dreaming about raising my own family, there was never a dad around. It’s almost like I didn’t want one to be.”

Michael nodded and squeezed his eyes shut. “In other words, all that’s happened, shutting me out, is because you don’t want to share the girls.”

“Well, I…” Cameron looked around the kitchen. “I guess maybe you’re right. I love my life here. I love having my babies. And now they’re almost grown and I get to have another life. I guess I’m having a little trouble letting go.”

“A little?” Michael sighed.

“Listen, the girls don’t know about Merilee and me yet. We’re not even sure what we’re about yet, so we don’t really know what to tell them. It caught both of us off guard.”

“Okay. That’s up to you guys. But about Jodi’s school. I’ve got a perfectly good one-”

“No! Please!” Cameron looked at him for the first time, pleading instead of angry. “Merilee really wants Tiffany to go to Seaton – it’s a family thing. And I don’t want to have to make Jodi chose between you and Tiffany. And – I’m sorry, Michael, but Jodi was really looking forward to not having Toby around. Please? Can you trust me on this one?”

“How about I talk to Jodi first? But…” Michael paused and patted Cameron’s arm. “I get what you mean about Toby. She does kind of suck the air out of a room.”

“She’s her father’s daughter,” Cameron said with a tiny laugh.

Michael nodded. “At least we’ll be in the same time zone for a change.”

He left the house shortly after.

Episode 124 – Sharon and Karen React

Back in Washington, DC, Sharon and Karen were watching the show in Karen’s office, and as a diaper commercial played, both women groaned.

“Why are you groaning?” Sharon asked. “Michael made you out to look like mother of the year.”

“Now I have that live up to!” Karen cried. “I can’t afford to look like a martyr. Why where you groaning?”

“Michael mentioned Jodi’s name on the air,” Sharon said. “And mine, too, but that’s not as big a deal.”

“Try no deal at all,” Karen said. “What’s the big deal with saying Jodi’s name?”

“Oh, come on. You know how shy she is. She’ll flip. She hates it when people find who her dad is.”

Karen frowned. “I thought Jodi got on with her dad.”

“Jodi adores him,” Sharon answered and sighed. “This isn’t about that. I love Michael, too, but I hate it when people find out he’s my brother.”

“Why?”

Sharon shrugged. “When people find out you’re related to a celebrity, they get weird. They can’t help it. But it’s like suddenly the whole relationship is about your relative and not about you. It used to drive me nuts. And it’s even harder for Jodi because she hates the attention.”

“And when you’re a teenager, you’re having enough trouble separating yourself from your parents.” Karen nodded.

“Exactly.” Sharon reached over to Karen. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Of course I’m going to be okay,” Karen snarled. “We’ve only got a few more days before the hearing and it will be all over then. I’ll manage.” She paused. “But I have to admit I do appreciate the way you’ve been there for me. It’s helped a lot.”

“Of course,” said Sharon. “Why wouldn’t I be? No, don’t answer that.”

Karen managed a weak smile and then checked her phone. “Well, there’s email coming in.”

“I’ve got it, too,” Sharon said. “I’ll catch you later.”

Episode 123 – Michael Stands Up for Karen Tanaka

The next morning, in New York City, Michael Wheatly sat in a makeup chair at the studios of a national morning show, getting prepped for his appearance.

“The important thing is that we show solidarity with Dr. Watanabe,” said Neal Natoyan, a medium-sized man of dark coloring. His deep brown eyes flashed with passion.

“Did you check him out, Neal?” Michael asked, not for the first time. “Because-“

“Yeah, I checked him out,” Neal growled. “I’m not an idiot.”

Michael sighed. Natoyan wasn’t an idiot, so much as he was so hooked into his passion cause of father’s rights that he tended to overlook things. And Michael was not happy with where Natoyan stood on the issue of George Watanabe.

But there was no time and Michael, Natoyan and the host, Cheryl Giddens, who looked like she was all TV-pretty, but in fact, had a lot more substance than folks gave her credit for, were all seated around a table with the cameras ready. The stage manager signaled.

“We’re back,” Giddens said. “I’m here with Neal Natoyan, president of the Father’s Rights Association and singer Michael Wheatly, vice president of the group, to talk about the current custody battle between Dr. George Watanabe and presidential advisor Dr. Karen Tanaka. Neal, you say that the courts habitually discriminate against fathers in these battles. Why is that?”

“I think it’s part of the whole gender thing,” Neal said confidently. “We automatically assume that it’s best for kids to be with their moms, and there’s no real evidence that this is so.”

“The point of our organization,” Michael said, jumping in, “is not to keep kids from their moms, but to give fathers a fair shake in custody cases. Kids need both parents. It’s just that fathers often get overlooked in custody hearings.”

Giddens smiled. “There are those who suggest that this is a spite battle – that Dr. Watanabe is simply suing for custody to spite his ex-wife.”

“That’s always the assumption,” Neal began.

“But I definitely suspect that’s what’s happening here,” Michael cut in. “I have no reason to believe that Watanabe has any real interest in raising his daughters.”

“How can you say that?” Neal exploded. “I’ve met the man. I’ve talked with him. He wants to raise his kids and his ex is denying him that chance. Seriously, Michael. You haven’t met the man.”

“No, I haven’t,” Michael said. “And that’s exactly my problem. I’ve been trying to since last April. My daughter Jodi met and became friends with Kira and Allie Watanabe last spring. Dr. Tanaka works with my sister and that’s how they met. So like any good parent, I’ve been reaching out to Dr. Watanabe. I’ve emailed, called, and gotten absolutely no response. My ex-wife has, too. On the other hand, both Cameron and I have had multiple phone conversations and emails with Dr. Tanaka, who is a lovely person.”

“Who kidnapped her kids,” Neal shot back.

“No. The girls are gone with Dr. Watanabe’s written permission.” Michael pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “Here’s a photocopy of the permission slip that Dr. Watanabe gave my sister Susan off of his prescription pad. You’ll note there are no dates and times. And I might add, he gave Susan the permission slip after a five-minute chance meeting at a hospital fundraiser. Can you imagine giving a total stranger permission to take care of your kids just because she said her niece was friends with your kids? That’s exactly what Dr. Watanabe did.”

Giddens smiled. “I can’t imagine doing that, but maybe he knew your sister better than she thought he did. Do you know where the girls are?”

“Not specifically,” Michael shifted. “Jodi knows where they are. She and her friend Tiffany have been visiting. I am assured that they will be in court for their respective interviews on time. But Kira has made it very clear that she does not want to be with her father, and if that’s how he’s acting, I can understand why.”

“Maybe it’s because Tanaka poisoned the girls against their father,” Neal said sourly.

“That’s what we’re supposed to believe,” Michael replied. “But I have never seen any hint of it from Dr. Tanaka. My sister, Sharon, says she has never heard Dr. Tanaka bash her ex, nor has she heard of anyone saying that they’ve heard Dr. Tanaka bash her ex. And here’s the thing. I’d love to support Watanabe. I completely agree with Neal that fathers don’t get fair consideration in custody battles. But it’s guys like Watanabe who make it that much more difficult for the ninety-percent of good fathers out there. I’m not saying women don’t play similar games, but when a father does, it just makes it harder for the good guys.”

Neal looked like steam was about to blow from his ears. Giddens looked like she was going to continue the debate, but decided to heed the signal from her stage manager that it was time for a commercial break and the show’s next segment.

Episode 122 – Roy Confronts Mark

That Sunday, the private quarters at the White House were all but overflowing. June had invited all of the Advisory Board, plus numerous other friends and acquaintances to celebrate and watch the fireworks over the Mall. Mark, unfortunately, had to make a couple speeches during the festivities, but Sharon was perfectly happy not to have him around. Still, he was safely ensconced in the private quarters well before dark. Sound from the Mall had been wired into the White House, and the group crowded onto the balconies overlooking the White House grounds and the adjacent Mall and Washington Monument as the first sparks whistled through the air.

Sharon also tried to keep an eye on June, who for her part, made a point of being here, there and everywhere to the point that no one could tell if she had eaten anything or not. Sharon debated talking to Karen about it, but Karen was hanging onto Hideo as if for dear life. Sharon sighed. Karen was trying to have fun, but the worry lines continued to crease her forehead for the rest of the evening.

Mark, for his part, smiled and chatted his way through the evening with only half an eye on Sharon, hoping that one of his closest friends, Roy Hodgkiss, wasn’t going to confront him about Sharon and his growing feelings for her. Unfortunately, Mark was more pre-occupied with his sister, at that moment. Which, naturally, was when Roy decided to pounce.

“She seems to be eating,” said Roy, an average-sized man with thinning light brown hair and blue eyes that remained piercing even behind his thick glasses.

“Yeah.” Mark sighed. “I saw her eating a couple of the mini corn dogs. But she’s still been pretty distant all day.” He shook his head. “At least, she seems to be having fun.”

“And you?” Roy asked.

“Mostly.” Mark smiled and waved at a friend from the Senate across the room. “If I weren’t so worried about June, I’d be having a great time.”

“That’s a tough one,” Roy replied. “Melody said if you want help with an intervention, she’ll be there.”

Mark chuckled in spite of himself. Roy’s wife Melody was not one of June’s favorite people.

“That’s our Mel,” Mark said. “Tell her I said thanks. We both know how the last one ended up. I think we’ll just have to let June work it out herself, dammit.”

“That’s the hard part,” Roy said. “But that’s why I’m here. You know you can call.”

“I do, indeed. Oh, and are we still on for lunch next week?”

“As always. I need to get away from the church politics.” Roy was a minister.

Mark laughed. Roy slid away to continue mingling as the night’s celebrations slowly ebbed. Eventually, Mark found himself alone in the room, except for the two staff members cleaning up. Mark tried to help, but they looked so distressed, he finally left them alone and went to bed.

Episode 121 – What’s Going On With George Watanabe?

As it turned out, trusting Kira was the right strategy. Not that George Watanabe tried to contact Karen. But the next day, he did issue a statement to the press that the girls were not with him and strongly hinted that Karen had kidnapped them. Karen braced herself for a visit from the FBI, but it never came. For whatever reason, George had decided not to actually make an official report.

“Which is probably just as well,” said Gus Guerrero, the media consultant member of the Advisory Board. He was a tallish man, with broad shoulders and a squarish face. His shiny black hair was just beginning to show gray at the temples, and there were a few crow’s feet around his dark brown eyes.

He, along with Sharon and Karen, was sulking in the Protocol-Free Zone, actually the basement bar in Sharon’s Georgetown townhouse that she was living in while her friend Carla did good works in Africa.

“As if trial by public opinion can’t hurt,” Karen grumbled.

“But your ex obviously can’t back it up,” Gus pointed out, “or he would have had the FBI breathing down your neck by now. This is clearly all for show.”

“The only problem is will the judge deciding this thing see that?” Sharon asked.

“It’s not just him,” Karen groaned. “Jean has gotten a boatload of requests for comments. I’ve even had a couple reporters watching my front door. It’s getting hard to work.”

“What I don’t get is why anyone would care,” Sharon said. “You’re simply an advisor, Karen. None of us is that high profile, even Gus.”

Gus shrugged as Sharon gently shoved him. “It’s possible the loyal opposition wants to make the boss look bad. Or it could work simply as a distraction.”

“Wait,” Sharon said, sitting up suddenly. “It is about making the boss look bad. Isn’t that what June said? She’s hinted before that someone was out to get him.”

“She seemed pretty certain she knew how George was getting the money for the custody fight,” Karen said. “But who would be crazy enough to attack us that way?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Gus replied. “Now, Karen, are you sure you haven’t bashed George in any way publicly?”

“Not even privately,” Karen grumbled. “It’s a waste of time. I may have complained a bit to Hideo, but he’s been pretty vocal that he hasn’t heard me bash George, never mind how tempting.”

“That’s good,” Gus said. “That seems to be the basis of George’s complaint – that you’ve poisoned the girls against him.”

“I can’t think of anybody who’s heard Karen bash George,” Sharon said, sucking on the olive that had been in her martini. “I certainly haven’t. I even got subpoenaed to say so.”

Karen pushed herself up from the bar. “Well, while I am still under legal limit, I’m going to head home. See you guys Sunday.”

“Sunday?” Sharon gasped.

“Fourth of July party at the White House,” Karen sing-songed. “Gotta get in the current time zone, girl.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. But Gus agreed that it was time for him to take off, as well.

Episode 120 – Karen Hears From Kira

Karen’s mobile phone let out a squeal from a Katy Perry tune.

“That’s Kira,” Karen said, studiously keeping her eyes on the Beltway traffic.

“Should I?” Sharon asked.

“May as well,” Karen said, obviously trying not to freak out.

Sharon dove for the phone sitting in a small well beneath the dashboard of Karen’s car.

“It’s an email,” Sharon said. “Do you want me to read it?”

Karen gritted her teeth. “I should probably pull over, but I can’t wait. Go ahead.”

“Hoo-kay.” Sharon swallowed. “It says, ‘Dear Mom; We’re safe and with a friend who’s over 18 and has Dad’s written permission to have us. Don’t want to say more, just in case. Love, Kira.’”

“Safe?” Karen gasped. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Sharon frowned and pulled out her own phone. “I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet I know someone who does.”

“Jodi?” Karen asked.

“Yep.” Sharon dialed and put the phone on speaker.

“Uh, hi, Aunt Sharon,” came Jodi’s voice after a couple rings. It was filled with hesitation.

“Am I right in guessing that you know why I’m calling?” Sharon asked severely.

“I don’t know, specifically,” Jodi said.

“I see,” said Sharon. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Kira and Allie are, would you?”

“Um. I can’t say?”

“Really. And why not?”

“Um, because we need to give their mom plausible deniability. Makes it harder for their dad to say she kidnapped them?”

“I see.” Sharon waited.

“Uh, can I go now?” Jodi asked.

Sharon glanced over at Karen, who nodded. “Sure. But please keep me up to date on what you can’t say. Dr. Tanaka is worried.”

“I know. Thanks, Aunt Sharon.”

Sharon clicked off the call, then looked at Karen.

“Plausible deniability,” Karen grumbled. “I wonder whose bright idea was that?”

Sharon sighed. “If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say either Rebecca or Matt. But really, it could have been any of them.”

“So’s who’s the over-18 friend?”

“I have no idea.” Sharon glared at her phone. “I could try to find out.”

“No.” Karen shook her head, then flipped off a driver that had cut her off. “Sorry about that. Look. The girls are right. It’s better that I don’t know. I just have to trust them.”

Episode 119 – Sharon and Karen Pay a Sick Visit

The visit turned out to be relatively brief. Al Eddington, aka Warmonger, was the president’s military and intelligence advisor, one of the six full-time advisors on Mark Jerguessen’s full-time Advisory Board. The group worked together to keep the president on top of pretty much everything. The goal of the Board wasn’t to formulate policy – there were plenty of others who did that for him – but to act as a research group that he could turn to that wasn’t as hooked into the politics as most other advisors. Warmonger worked at home, partly because at age 70, he wanted to, and partly because he was a heavy smoker.

Unfortunately, his wife, Caroline, had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer.

“The prognosis isn’t good,” Caroline told Sharon and Karen that evening.

Her head was swathed in a colorful scarf – a sign of the chemotherapy. Thin plastic tubes adorned her nose, since she was also on an oxygen tank.

“How’s Al taking it?” Karen asked.

Caroline took a deep breath. “Total denial, but what do you expect?” She breathed again. “That’s his training.”

Sharon and Karen nodded. The three nattered on for a while longer, then Caroline sent the two others on their way. Warmonger, a tall man with gray hair and the utterly erect posture of a former member of the military, stopped them on the way to Karen’s car.

“I, uh,” he hesitated.

“It’s okay, Al,” said Karen.

“We’d do it for anybody,” said Sharon. “You are more important than just anybody.”

“I’m fine,” Al snarled, then softened. “As long as Caroline is happy. That’s what matters.”

“No kidding,” said Karen.

“Seriously, we are your servants,” Sharon said. “If there’s anything we can do, please let us know.”

“I will,” Al said.

In Karen’s car the two women rolled their eyes.

“You think he’s going to ask?” Sharon asked as Karen navigated their way around the Beltway to Sharon’s Georgetown townhouse.

“Are you crazy?” Karen said. “So not in this guy’s training.”

Sharon sighed. “I was hoping.”

“Nope,” Karen said. “We’re going to have to enlist another White guy. Maybe Eli.”

Eli Weatheral was the Advisory Board member overseeing environmental issues. Though technically a part-timer, Eli was closest to Al in age. The downside was that Eli was about as diametrically opposed to everything Al believed in as one person could get. Still, the two respected each other.

“Maybe,” Sharon said. “I hate feeling this helpless.”

Karen shrugged. “Get used to it. One thing you learn from popular culture is that it while it reflects the larger culture, it’s also constantly changing and leaving the dinosaurs behind. Al is going to be the way he is because that’s what he was taught to do. On the other hand, younger guys are learning to be more open about their feelings.” She sighed. “When they aren’t being taught to be knuckle-scraping Neanderthal frat boys.”

Episode 118 – The Girls go to L.A.

romance fiction, romantic fiction serialThe next morning, tension filled the small sedan. Hideo, a slight man with a stoop, dark hair, and a long narrow face, drove in complete silence. Sharon sat in back with Kira and Allie. Kira, who was 15, was just a hair taller than her mother but had her father’s square face and her hair cut very short in a defiant fade. Allie, not yet 13, looked more like her mother, with long straight hair and a stylish beret. The young girl filled the car with her nervous chatter, mostly about the past semester at school.

Kira, however, seemed the most calm of all. Sharon thought she looked resolute, or maybe even oddly confident, as if she had a secret (and she probably did) that would take care of everything.

She only broke down when it came time to leave her mother and pass through airport security. The terminal at National Airport was crowded with early morning commuters and tired tourists and the line for security ran back and forth several times.

“Mom, please don’t worry,” she told Karen as she held her mother tightly. “Seriously. It’s going to be okay.”

“Of course it is,” Karen said, trying not to cry. “You be good, now. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Allie burst into tears as she got her farewell hug and it took Kira’s cajoling to get her into the security line.

“Call me when you get to L.A.” Karen called.

The girls, flying as adults because they were too old for the airline’s children’s program, disappeared into the crowd. Sharon reached over and put her arm around Karen’s shoulders while Hideo held Karen from the other side. Karen, however, shook them both off.

“Let’s go,” she said, quietly. “Drop you at home, Sharon?”

“Nope.” Sharon held up her briefcase purse. “I’m going into the office. It’s been a week. Or close enough.”

“Do you mind taking the Metro?” Karen asked. “I’d rather let Hideo go on his own.”

“Sure,” said Sharon.

Hideo nodded and left for the parking garage, while Sharon and Karen walked slowly toward the Metro stop.

Sharon’s return to the office was greeted with quiet enthusiasm and repeated offers of concern that she was coming back too soon.

“I’m going to tell The Boss on you,” Eddie Cooper teased.

“Go ahead,” Sharon told him. “Like he’s going to cut short his trip just to make me stay home?”

Still, when the President called later that morning, Sharon spent several minutes reassuring him that her headache was gone and that she was getting extremely stir crazy at home.

“Seriously, I really need to get back to the office,” Sharon told Mark while scrolling through the list of emails on her laptop. “We’ve got all kinds of fun happening in Eastern Europe, it looks like Algeria has the gender thing going on again, and you did hear about the mayor of Sidney going rogue, didn’t you? The YouTube video is all over Facebook, according to Karen.”

“Silly me, I even clicked on it,” Mark sighed. “At least it’s not an issue for us. But do be aware that the European Union is getting fussy about our environmental practices again.”

“I’ve already heard. Did Raoul give you a solid briefing?”

“Yes. Good enough,” Mark grumbled. “I hate to say it, but you do a better job.”

“How’s the weather there in Portland?”

“Drizzling. It hasn’t stopped in three days. On the other hand, we did get out to the Willamette Valley. Tasted some amazing pinot noirs yesterday.”

“Sounds like fun. I’m sorry I’m not there. In any case, I can give you a more complete briefing tomorrow, if you like.”

Mark chuckled. “That would be good. And you will be receiving a few bottles for your cellar.”

“Sir, that’s not…”

“Eddie and the others are getting a few, too, so it is perfectly appropriate. I simply chose with your palate in mind. Have fun at the office.”

“Harumph.” Sharon grumbled outwardly and tried not to feel too happy about the wine coming in.

Of course, her conference with Karen early that afternoon about the viral video of the mayor of Sydney, Australia, disgracing himself while drunkenly dancing with a stripper brought Sharon back to earth quickly.

She and Karen looked at the image frozen on Karen’s laptop screen.

“You know,” Sharon said, frowning, “you really have to wonder what this guy was thinking.”

“Guys like him often say they weren’t,” said Karen. “The strongest theories are that it’s a fear of success reaction – they unconsciously shoot themselves in the foot to avoid facing their own success. Although with some of these guys, I think it’s that they feel invulnerable, that they can do anything and try to push the boundaries as far as they can to prove it.” She frowned at the image. “I’m smelling fear of success here.”

Sharon shrugged. “Possibly. I know we’ve got a Sydney trip coming up. I just can’t remember when.”

They were in Karen’s office, which was cramped, as all White House offices were, and minimally furnished with black and glass desk and pictures of Kira and Allie on the walls.

Karen’s mobile phone rang.

“It’s Kira,” she said, answering. “Hey, sweetie. How was the flight?…. Good. Can I speak to your dad?…. Oh.” Karen looked up at the four televisions on her office wall and quickly aimed a remote at one. “Well, it’s on the news. Still…. Um, okay. Can I speak to Allie, please?…. Hey, darling. I heard you had a nice fight…. Yeah, I know, honey. Go ahead with Ms. Barmwell and it will be all right…. Good. I’ll talk to you later. I love you, baby…. Hey, Kira…. Yeah, go ahead to the hospital and it will be okay…. Right, I love you, too. Bye.”

Karen swiped the phone off, her lips tightening.

“This does not sound good,” Sharon said.

“George didn’t make it to the airport to pick the girls up,” Karen said softly. “Kira said that there was a massive pile-up on one of the freeways and he had to stay at work, so he sent his secretary for them.” She gestured at one of the monitors. “As you can see, it’s on the news, so that part is legit.”

Sharon shook her head. “Still, you have to wonder.”

“Look, the girls are okay. That’s the important part.”

“You’re right.” Sharon glanced at her laptop. “Are we set on the Sydney thing?”

“Looks like.” Karen paused. “And in more fun news, Warmonger said that Caroline was finally up for visitors at the hospital. Want to go with me this evening?”

“Yeah, we really need to do that.” Sharon winced. “This does not sound fun, but maybe it will help you stop worrying about your girls.”

Karen snorted. “You are so not a parent. That being said, we do need to do the visiting the sick thing.”