Episode 107 – Harold Comes to Visit

romantic fiction serial, light romanciWednesday morning found Mark in a somewhat calmer frame of mind. Though he was still apprehensive – with Harold one never quite knew what was coming – Mark felt he’d at least had a chance to brace himself for the unpleasantness ahead.

After confirming that Harold had, indeed, gotten on the plane and that it was going to land at National Airport, Mark sent Sharon and Al Eddington to pick Harold up, apologizing ahead of time for what would probably not be a very pleasant encounter.

Sharon had dealt with all kinds of unpleasant older men and so wasn’t terribly worried about the president’s brother. Al, who had met Harold before, simply shrugged it off. After all, he and Harold probably had more in common than not, and Al seemed somewhat preoccupied.

“You okay?” Sharon asked in the car as it wound its way through the Washington traffic.

Al shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look it.”

“Well, that’s…”  Al looked over at Sharon and winced. “You’re going to just keep bugging me, aren’t you?”

“I might. Why don’t you just spill and avoid all the bugging?”

“It’s Caroline,” he sighed. “The biopsy on her lung came back positive yesterday.”

“Oh, Al, I’m so sorry.”

“They’ll be running some more tests tomorrow, but the doctor said that the prognosis is pretty decent.”

“How’s she dealing with it?”

Al snorted. “She’s great. I’m the one who’s falling apart. You know, I thought if we were going to deal with this, I was sure it was going to be breast cancer. I was ready to deal with that. But lung cancer?  I’m the one who should have the lung cancer.”

“Actually, guys can get breast cancer,” Sharon said.

Al chuckled in spite of himself. “We’ll have to see about that. Thanks. And, uh, do you mind keeping this under your hat?”

“Of course,” Sharon said.

By that time, they had arrived at National Airport and were let off near the baggage claim for the flight Harold Jerguessen was on. Al saw the president’s brother first. Harold Jerguessen was tall, but with sharply receding light brown hair and thick jowls. In spite of expensive custom tailoring, his suits always seemed rumpled and ill-fitting. He carried a tan leather messenger bag that wasn’t quite bulging.

As a state senator in Minnesota, Harold used his slightly rumpled look to seem more folksy and in touch with his constituents than he actually was. He mostly rode along to election on his brother’s name and a love of publicity and a good sound bite. Harold was good at sound bites.

Al approached and greeted Harold, who responded amiably enough, but Sharon caught a flicker of annoyance in Harold’s green eyes as if he just barely tolerated Al. Al introduced Sharon.

“So why’d you bring your secretary?” Harold asked Al, as he covered Sharon with an appraising smirk.

“I’m one of Al’s colleagues on the advisory board,” Sharon said pleasantly. “Do we need to wait for your luggage?”

“Didn’t bring any with me,” Harold snarled, then turned to Al. “I’m only staying the night.”

Al had already signaled the car and it pulled around so that the three of them could get in. Harold spent the drive back to the White House chatting about nothing with Al and ignoring Sharon, who took advantage of it to surreptitiously answer a few emails.

When her phone rang, she looked at the readout and lightly coughed.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, I really have to take this,” she said.

“Ah, it’s just my kid brother,” said Harold with a forced chuckle.

“I’m afraid it’s the Chinese ambassador,” Sharon said. “Excuse me.”

She quickly switched to Chinese as Harold glowered. They pulled up at the White House and through the gate as Sharon finished her call.

Al silently dismissed her as they got out of the car.

“I’ll take you to the Oval Office, Senator,” Al said, leading the way.

When Kent announced Harold’s arrival, Mark put his tablet down and told Kent to send his brother in immediately. Harold swaggered into the office and looked around appraisingly.

“Nice set up you got here,” said Harold with a nod.

“Thank you,” said Mark. “Would you like some coffee?”

“I don’t need anything.”  Harold plopped down on one of the couches and began fishing through his inside jacket pocket. “Nice piece of meat you sent to meet me at the airport.”

“She’s a valued member of my staff.”  Mark remained standing behind his desk, holding on to his temper with both hands.

“And how is she in bed?”  Harold pulled a cigar out and bit the end off.

“I wouldn’t know.”

Harold lit his cigar off a match and looked around. “Where’s the ashtray?”

“Since the employees chose to ban smoking indoors at the White House, I don’t have one.”

“You should have one for people who smoke. It’s rude not to.”  Harold dumped the match on the coffee table and let out another puff of pungent smoke. “Anyway, I’ve got meetings on the Hill, so let’s just cut to the chase.”  He got a standard letter-sized envelope out of the messenger bag and tossed it on the coffee table. “Since you’ve been wanting to undermine us ever since Matt was born, we’re going to let you have him.”

“Really.”

“Terms are there in that envelope.”

“I see.”  Mark walked over and picked up the envelope. “All right. I’ll look these over and get back to you in the morning. I just want to be clear on everything.”

“So you’re going to take him?”  Harold sounded surprised.

Mark looked his brother over. Apparently, Harold hadn’t expected Mark to want Matt.

“Yes, assuming you are okay with that. You are his father.”

“I wrote up the terms. You just sign the paperwork and we’ll be good to go.”

“I’ll do that,” said Mark, trying to keep his voice even. “See you in the morning?”

Harold struggled into a standing position. “Yes.”

“You said you had meetings. I can arrange to have dinner at whatever time is good for you. And there is a room ready for you. Breakfast is at seven or you can order it sent up at whatever time you prefer.”

Harold paused. Mark could see him mulling over the options.

“I’ll be back for dinner at seven,” he announced. “And I gotta go. See you.”

“Your Secret Service detail will have your car brought around and see you out.”

Harold snorted. “What?  You can’t trust your own brother to walk around on his own?”

“Yes,” Mark said, even though he didn’t. “The detail is for your protection. Standard operating procedure around here.”

Harold snorted again and swaggered out of the office. Mark waited until the door was shut and stayed shut before calling Johnnie.

“Yes, sir?” she asked when she picked up.

“I’ve got some highly confidential papers that I need White House counsel to go over with a fine-tooth comb,” Mark told her. “I’ll send Gen with them, but I need them before end of business. Can you let them know?”

“I most certainly can, sir.”  Johnnie paused. “I saw on the run-down that Matt’s dad was supposed to come by and I think I caught a whiff of cigar smoke in the hall.”

“You did.”

“Need to vent?”

Mark chuckled. “Probably, but I don’t have time. In any case, he’s gone until dinner time and even odds he won’t show then. He left some papers for me to sign so that I can keep Matt here.”

“Gotcha.”  Johnnie sighed. “I’ll have Voskovich sift through every letter.”

As it turned out, Mark was right and Harold did not show for dinner. He didn’t even stay the night at the White House. Matt took it philosophically and didn’t ask if Mark knew where his father was.

Mark knew, thanks to Harold’s security detail. He wasn’t sure he knew what he was going to do about it until the next morning when he had a quick meeting with Mila Voskovich, one of the attorneys that served to help represent the president with any potential legal issues. Voskovich had the changes made and the paperwork was printed out on Kent’s printer long before Harold arrived at 11 a.m., demanding to see Mark.

“Well?  Did you sign those papers?” Harold said as he entered the Oval Office.

“Yes, but White House counsel insisted I make a few changes that you will need to initial,” Mark replied, picking the paperwork up off his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

“Sheez, Mark. I’m your brother. You’re supposed to trust your family,” Harold complained as he stayed standing.

“Right now, I can’t enter into any contracts without approval from White House counsel,” Mark replied, not at all sure he was unable to do so.

“So much for leader of the free world,” Harold snorted. “You’re such a pansy, Mark.”

“Actually, there were only two clauses changed – the ones that have me paying you to raise your son. And, frankly, Harold, while I am only too happy to help out with Matthew, I see no reason to why I should pay you for the privilege. Now, if you’ll just initial here and here.”

Harold glared at him. “What if I don’t?”

“Harold, you were gone all night last night and you’re wearing the same suit you wore yesterday.”  Mark sighed. “As in I know exactly where you went last night with your buddy Representative Chuck Meyers.”

“So you’re blackmailing me.”

Mark chuckled coldly. “I don’t have to blackmail you, Harold. But I can offer you a choice. Given that you haven’t even bothered to say hello to your own son, given your wife’s drinking problem and given your behavior last night, I think I could make an excellent case for having Matthew removed from your home. Now, I’m perfectly happy going through the courts, if I have to, but I know you’ve got a tough campaign coming up next year. So we can either do this quietly and privately, with the terms you have mostly specified, or we do it publicly.”

“You don’t want DeeDee?”

“I’m happy to have her. However, she did not come to me for help and she is close enough to 18 that it’s really moot at this point.”  Mark stared Harold down.

Harold shifted uncomfortably as he thought things over, then snatched the papers from Mark’s hand and flipped through them.

“There are two copies there, one for each of us,” Mark said.

“I can see that.”  Harold went over to the desk, looked for a pen, then pulled open the top drawer and got one out. “You know, Mark, one of these days, someone is going to show you up for the mean, manipulative son of a bitch that you are.”

Mark took another deep breath. “I don’t doubt it. Thank you, Harold. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting. Did you want to see Matthew?”

“I’ve got a plane to catch,” Harold grumbled as Mark looked over the papers.

He snatched the set Mark handed back to him and stormed out of the room. Mark sighed, took a very deep breath, then went to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopping only to call Jean Bouyer and ask her to keep an eye out for any potential statements from Harold.

June had her mind on only one thing as she slid out of the limousine outside of the family entrance to the White House – seeing her nephew. Which is why she didn’t see her oldest brother until he was almost, literally, on top of her. At first, Harold seemed angry, but he suddenly broke into a smile.

“June!  Long time no see.”  He held out his arms. “How about a hug for your big brother?”

June tried to back away, but with a whole crowd of West Wing employees and her own assistants standing around, she suddenly caved and gave Harold a quick embrace.

“Hey, Harold,” she said, choking back the sick feeling in her gut and quickly pushing away from him. “I’m so sorry. I’ve got to get upstairs.”

Harold held her for a second, then let go with a snort. “You know, it’s really sad how little respect I get from my own family.”

“I’m sorry, Harold,” June said over her shoulder as she hurried away.

Upstairs, she sent her assistants to their offices, then went on to her rooms and shut the door. She fought to get the sick feeling under control, but she still felt unclean and ugly, never mind that it was just a hug. And even then, she could have and should have simply refused. She knew she had the power to do that much. She should have. What was wrong with her that she kept giving him that much power over her?

June knew she should have reached for her phone, but unfortunately, she looked in the mirror. Fortunately, she remembered that moment very clearly. Five minutes later, she was all smiles and giving Matthew a big hug.

Episode 106 – Matt’s in Solitary

16.0817.whr_PullQuoteAs soon as Matt saw his uncle, he scrambled up from the bed, heedless that his smartphone went flying. Wordlessly, the two hugged each other, with Mark hanging on even more tightly.

After several minutes, Matt pulled away.

“How much trouble am I in?” he asked.

Mark held back a smile – he had to spot the kid points for facing up to the worst of things.

“That’s hard to say,” Mark said slowly. “What you did was incredibly stupid.”

“But I was desperate!” Matt wailed.

Mark held his hand up. “I get that. But running away was not the smartest way to deal with it. For starters, it isn’t necessarily going to solve anything. If your parents insist on you going back, I cannot keep you here. I’m legally obligated to send you.”  Mark put up his hand again as Matt started to protest. “We might be able to swing it, but it’s going to take some finesse, and your running away doesn’t help.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”  Matt slumped. “I made a plan and I made sure to try to contact Aunt June or you as soon as I could. I just couldn’t get through.”

“Well, I’m not going to reward stupidity. Are we clear on that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t particularly want to send you back to your folks, either.”  Mark sighed as his phone pinged. “Look, I’ve gotta go get some senators to play nice with each other. In the meantime, you are confined to quarters. We’ll work out the rest of your punishment later, depending on what happens with your parents.”  He bent over and grabbed Matt’s phone. “There will be no gadgets, either.”

“But I gotta let the others know I’m okay!”

“You can text Jodi and Tiffany this evening.”

“But what about Kira and Rebecca and Tony?”

“Who?”

“Kira Watanabe, Rebecca Cooper and Tony Garces. We’ve all been hanging out on video chat all spring. They’ll know about me being gone ‘cause Jodi and Tiffany will text them as soon as they can get off campus for lunch break.”

“All right. You can do a video chat tonight at six thirty.”

“Ten o’clock?  I know it’s late, but Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast. That’s three hours behind and they’re not always home by 3:30.”

“Six thirty. I’ll have their aunt text them and let them know they need to be home on time. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

Mark left, pulling his phone from his pocket. The ping was from Kent, asking about lunch and another meeting. Mark sighed and dialed his answer as he headed for the elevator. After that, he called Shawna but got no answer. He also tried Harold’s number, but got no answer there, either.

Sharon got the text from Mark and immediately texted her niece about the early video chat. She also called Solly to let the chef know that there was an extra guest in the White House, which it turned out, Solly had already found out. She had already sent up a large steak, with baked potato, salad and broccoli to Matt’s room and had quizzed him on his other favorites.

“Hmph,” Solly snorted to Sharon. “Somebody’s going to have to educate that boy. I mean, I expect a teenager to want hamburgers and pizza and that stuff. But he didn’t even know you could put blue cheese dressing on a steak, never mind not knowing what a gumbo is.”

“I guess you’ve got your work cut out for you, Solly,” Sharon replied, trying not to laugh. “Did he like the blue cheese?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s not picky. I’ll give him that. But he has got some learning to do.”

“True. Listen, it’s probably not my place, but the boss is not having a very good day. Think we can come up with something to cheer him up?”

“No problem. I might even boil up some potatoes for him to mash. You want to come to dinner?”

“Only if he asks me.”

“Uh-huh. He’ll ask.”

“I’ve got to run. Thanks, Solly.”

Late that afternoon, Karen Tanaka landed in Sharon’s office and shut the door.

“You are not going to believe this,” Karen said, slumping into the chair next to Sharon’s desk.

“Believe what?”  Sharon finished yet another email, then turned to Karen.

“I know you know about Matt.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know you knew.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Jodi and Tiffany texted Kira this afternoon with the news – apparently, he’s been part of this video chat group with Coop’s kid Rebecca and Tony Garces.”

“I thought you were happy Kira has friends.”

“Not complaining about that part.”  Karen suddenly got up and began pacing. “But I am ready to kill my kid. Do you want to know why Matt was able to get away so cleanly?  It was Kira’s plan. She refuses to go to her father’s this summer. And the other kids were helping her. She said they were only going along with it so that Kira wouldn’t go off on her own.”

“Sounds about right,” said Sharon.

“What?”  Karen whirled around and planted her hands on Sharon’s desk.

“I was going to get it clarified before I talked to you about it,” Sharon said slowly. “And the only reason I was going to do that was because I didn’t want to get you upset unnecessarily. But I did see a couple things a couple weekends ago that made me wonder if something was up. Then it kind of came out in the garble I got when the girls called me this morning to tell me about Matt.”

“Oh, my god!”

“Jodi told me the only reason they weren’t saying anything was that she and Tiffany didn’t want Kira to not trust them and then get into worse trouble. I thought she was talking about Matt, but I guess he used the plan they’d come up with for Kira.”

Karen sank back into the chair. “Now what do I do?”

“I’m probably not the best person to say, but maybe nothing for now. You’ve got time before Kira has to go to her father’s. And the good news is, the plan did work.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

Sharon hesitated. “Yeah. It got Matt safely into the care of trustworthy adults. He’s with us. He’s not on the streets prostituting himself or worse.”

Karen leaned forward and put her head in her hands. “This is a nightmare.”  She looked up suddenly. “You think the boss is going to hate me because of this?”

“I don’t know. He’s pretty angry, but I think it’s mostly at his brother and sister-in-law. Did you know Matt’s been gone since Friday morning and they only noticed it today?”

“That poor kid. And Kira. You know, the worst of it is, I don’t entirely blame her. But I don’t dare encourage it.”

“No. But if the kids can put their heads together and come up with a smart way to do something insanely stupid, I’m sure we can come up with an alternative for Kira and Allie. We do have some time.”

Karen nodded and got up. “We do have that. Thanks, Share. I’d better get back to my office and see if there have been any leaks about Matt showing up on our doorstep.”

“Okay. See you.”

Mark, for his part, had a rather odd afternoon. He made several calls to his brother and sister-in-law, none of which were picked up or returned. He did call June and encouraged her to stay in California, where she was working on some project or other. After all, if Matt was going to be able to stay, he would still be in solitary confinement for a while, and if he wasn’t, he’d be gone by the time she got back to Washington.

Then he got a rather puzzling email from his brother. He replied in the affirmative and got no response to that. It being close to six-thirty at that point, he made his way up to the private quarters and Matt’s room.

Sharon was already there. She’d brought him a laptop that was set up to work with the White House wireless network, Matt having left his at home, since with all the tracking and blocking software, it was virtually useless. The two were chatting pleasantly when Mark walked in. Sharon immediately got to her feet and tried to nudge Matt to his.

“What?” Matt asked.

“Protocol,” Sharon hissed. “The President walks into a room, you stand and stay standing until directed to sit.”

Mark rolled his eyes as Matt, grinning, got to his feet. “Sit. Both of you.”  He took a deep breath. “Matt, your dad finally emailed me. He’s going to be here Wednesday morning.”

“So am I going back?” Matt asked, suddenly anxious.

“I’m guessing not, but who knows.”  Mark glanced at Sharon, then sighed. “I’m working on it. We may be able to swing it even without your folks’ permission, but it will make it a lot easier if we get it. In the meantime, you have a video chat to log into.”

Matt eagerly clicked into the chat room, hailed his friends, who noisily hailed back, then Matt picked up the laptop and swirled it slowly around the room to show everyone not only the room but who was in there. Sharon chuckled as Jodi gasped when she saw Mark.

“Hi, Aunt Sharon,” Tiffany suddenly hollered and the others sing-songed, “Hi, Aunt Sharon!” as well.

“Hi, guys,” Sharon said back. “Aren’t you going to say hi to Matt’s uncle?”

There was the sound of hissing and mumbling back and forth between Jodi and Tiffany and Kira and Rebecca (who were sharing a laptop).

“We can’t call him Uncle Mark!” someone hissed.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” said Tony, and then the others chimed in.

“I’m so glad you got there safely, Matt,” Tiffany said quickly.

“So, how much trouble are you in?” Tony asked.

The girls unilaterally began yelling at Tony, although it was Matt shouting over them that finally calmed them down.

Matt glanced up at his uncle. “I drew solitary confinement until further notice. With no gadgets.”

“Ow. That’s harsh.”

“It’s not unexpected,” said Rebecca. “What’s next?’

“We don’t know.”

As the teens chatted, Mark gestured at Sharon, who got up and joined him in the room’s doorway.

“You’ve got five minutes,” Mark announced to a chorus of protest.

But then the teens seemed to forget he was there as they returned to their conversation.

“That’s all right,” Sharon said softly to Mark. “I happen to know that Kira and Rebecca don’t have much time left, either. Parental reprisals.”

“Huh?”

“They were all in on it together, sort of,” Sharon said. She looked quickly at Matt. “Listen, Karen is freaking, but it’s connected to the custody case her ex brought against her. The court wants to enforce her ex’s visiting rights and Kira’s gone on record refusing to go. Karen’s worried you might be mad at her.”

Mark shook his head. “At Karen?  Nah. I’m not even that mad at Kira and the others. It’s just really depressing to me that Matt felt this was his only option – and it damned near was.”  He looked over at Matt. “Time’s up.”

There was another howl of protest, but Matt said goodbye, then handed over the laptop. Mark did take a moment to hug his nephew before he and Sharon left.

In the hall, he looked at Sharon. “Look, you’re already up here and in up to your neck. Want to stay for dinner?”

“Sure.”  She chuckled softly. “So much for distance.”

Mark nodded. “I think you’re safe tonight. I am in no mood for anything remotely romantic or happy. Unless it involves strangling Matt’s parents.”

Solly was waiting for them in the upstairs kitchen with a pan of potatoes that needed mashing and some chicken breasts that needed pounding flat. Mark congratulated her on her choice and set to work pounding chicken meat until it was almost translucent.

Episode 105 – Matt Arrives Safely

16.0810.whr_PullQuoteBy late Monday morning, however, such thoughts were rudely shoved aside by a call from Mark’s sister-in-law. He’d almost put the call off as his day was beyond packed with meetings and photo shoots with a major speech to deliver at the national American Medical Association convention early that evening. But something made him tell Kent to put Shawna through.

“Hey, Shawna, what’s up?” Mark asked, putting her on the speaker as he looked over emails on his tablet.

“Have you heard from Matt lately?” Shawna asked a little too casually.

“No,” Mark said, resisting the profound temptation to point out that she was the reason he hadn’t.

“Oh.”

Mark waited a moment. “Is everything okay with Matt?”

“He’s not at home. I thought maybe he tried to see you.”

“He’s not at home. Where is he?”

“If I knew do you think I’d be calling you?”

Mark groaned silently. “In other words, he’s missing. How long has he been gone?”

A text message from Sharon flashed on Mark’s screen. Mark pounded a quick text to Kent.

“He left a note Friday morning that he was going to stay at a friend’s house,” Shawna said as Sharon slipped into the Oval Office. “We haven’t seen him since then, but then the way he hides out in his room, we sometimes don’t. And Thursday night, he was playing with his basketball and broke the spy cam I put in his room.”

“A spy cam?  Shawna, why in heaven’s name, are you spying on him?”  Mark gritted his teeth.

“He defies me regularly. He has this friend Jasmine Thomas that no one knows who she is. And he had a secret email account. Who knows what else he’s been up to.”

“Knowing Matt, probably not much. Have you called the police?”

“I’m not going to do that!” Shawna screeched then got a hold of herself. “I know better than that, thank you very much.”

Mark looked up at Sharon, trying desperately to hold onto his temper.

“Shawna, I may have something. Can you hold for a moment?”

“I suppose.”

Mark punched the hold button on the phone then signaled Sharon.

“Sir, it’s about your nephew,” she said softly.

“Do you know where he is?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve just spoken to him. He’s here in DC. He called my niece first, and then me.”

“Bring him in.”

“Yes, sir.”  Sharon paused. “Can you call security then?”

“Will do.”  Mark again pounded out a quick note on his tablet, then hit the hold button on the phone as Sharon left the office. “Shawna, he’s here in Washington and it sounds like he’s safe.”

She sighed in relief. “Good.”

“One of my staff members is getting him. I don’t want to embarrass him by going myself. I’ll call you after I’ve talked to him.”

“Fine. Go ahead and undermine me again.”

“Shawna, I have bent over backward every time to support you, even when I’ve had a really hard time with that.”  Mark felt his temper flaring. “You want to be undermined, I will show you undermining. You put a freaking spy cam in his bedroom for no good reason that I can see. You have repeatedly isolated this kid from the people he most wants to hang with, and then you bitch at me because I want to be supportive?”

“I’m supposed to let him keep pestering you when you’re the high and mighty president?  And since when do you know anything about raising a teenager?”

“Apparently, I know more than you do since I’m the person he keeps running to when he’s had it up to his eyeballs with your repressive nonsense. But, hey, you’re his mother. I will respect that and put him on the first plane back to St. Paul. I won’t promise he’s going to stay there. But I will send him back because obviously, you know better.”

There was a click on the other end of the line. Shawna had hung up. Mark got up from his desk, took several deep breaths, then paced for a few minutes before he could get his focus back.

Sharon, for her part, hurried to the coffee shop/internet cafe where Matt said he was. Only about five blocks from the White House, it was a pretty typical place, with red bar stools lined along a counter and overstuffed sofas and chairs scattered about filled with patrons staring at laptops. Sharon looked around, searching for a teenager who, presumably, looked like the president. He found her first.

“Umm, Aunt Sharon?” asked the youth.

He had that lanky, rangy look many teen boys had, with deep green eyes like his uncle, although he was barely taller than Sharon. He had on a pair of khaki-colored cargo pants with a dark t-shirt and a plaid shirt over that, and the brittle veneer of false bravado.

“Matt?” Sharon asked back.

He nodded. “You sure look like Jodi.”

“And how would you know what Jodi looks like?” Sharon asked.

“Video chat.”  Matt’s face scrunched into a perplexed frown.

“Oh. Right.”  Sharon smiled, trying to look inviting. “Your uncle asked me to bring you in.”

Matt seemed to melt in front of her eyes.

Sharon scooped him into her arms. “It’s all right, Matt. You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

She held him for another minute until his shaking stopped.

“I am in so much trouble,” he sniffed.

“Yeah, probably,” Sharon said. “But let’s get you where we need to go. Where’s your stuff?”

“It’s all right here,” Matt said, disengaging. He held up his duffle bag.

“Good. Come on.”

“How mad is he?” Matt asked once they were on the street.

“Hard to say,” Sharon replied. “I mean he’s angry, but he was talking with your mother when I saw him.”

Matt strangled a sob. “Look, I had to leave. She put a spy cam in my room. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is?  I couldn’t even change clothes in my own bedroom.”

“Sounds pretty horrible.”

“I don’t get it. I don’t do drugs. I don’t sleep around. I don’t get into fights. But it’s like she thinks I’m going to go off the rails at any second. And I’m not. I just don’t like the same people she does. Is that any reason to spy on me?”

Sharon sighed. “Of course not. But I’m not your mother.”

“Woh.”  Matt suddenly stopped.

They had passed the k-rails blocking Pennsylvania Avenue from the area in front of the White House and were walking along the black wrought iron fence that separated the sidewalk from the North lawn and portico. Sharon found herself smiling at Matt’s awe.

“That’s really it, isn’t it?” Matt said.

“Yep. It is.”

“Man, that is so beyond awesome.”  He grinned suddenly. “We’re going there, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

Matt suddenly paused. “I’m not sure what’s freaking me out more. That it’s the real White House or that my uncle is there waiting to kick my backside.”

Sharon patted his shoulder. “The White House part freaks us all out. As for your uncle and your backside, I can’t say he won’t, but I suspect he’ll at least be fair.”

“Fair?”  Matt shook his head. “Okay, more fair than my mom, but, seriously, have you ever gotten him pissed at you?  I mean really pissed?”

“Yes, and I just got pissed right back.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, but I don’t recommend it as a strategy.”  Sharon pushed him toward the guard station. “Now, let’s get it all over with.”

Security was waiting with Matt’s ID as they first passed the entrance booth on the White House driveway, then as they entered the West Wing. In fact, Sharon was a little startled to see Riff Butler waiting for them, with a file folder in his hands.

“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” said the imposing African American gentleman. “The President asked me to take young Mr. Jerguessen upstairs.”

“Then I’ll leave him in your hands, Agent Butler.”  Sharon turned to Matt. “Matt, this is Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, chief of security here at the White House. He’ll take you to your uncle.”

“Okay.”  Matt smiled weakly at Sharon. “Um, thanks for coming to get me.”

Sharon smiled. He was a nice kid. “You’re very welcome, Matt. Good luck.”

Mark was in a meeting with five senators from the Health, Education, and Labor Pensions Committee when Gen Flowers slipped into the room and whispered in his ear.

“Thank you,” he said to Gen and got up. “Stay seated everyone. I have to step out for a few minutes.”

“A photo opp?” sniggered Senator Janet Marley, who was well-known for sparring with Mark, although the two were friends.

Mark glared at her. “And you, more than most, know the value of that.”  He got his temper back under control as the others gaped in surprise. “I shouldn’t be gone for more than twenty minutes. I realize that’s not much time, but I want to see some progress on getting this bill ready. Are we clear?”

He didn’t wait for the others to murmur their assent before heading off to the private quarters.

Riff was waiting in the upstairs hall as Mark came up the stairs. “Sir, he’s in the room, as you requested. But if I may…?”

Mark took the file folder from Riff. “What is this?”

“Your nephew, sir. There is probably a good reason why he left.”  Riff hesitated. “We keep dossiers on all your relatives to prevent people from using them to exploit you.”

“And this is Matt’s?”  Mark opened the folder.

“The Senator and Mrs. Jerguessen’s, sir.”

Mark read over the report and whistled through his teeth. “This is not good.”

“No, sir. It is the recommendation of the Secret Service that your nephew not be returned to his parents.”

“Indeed.”  Mark looked up at Riff, closed the folder and tapped it. “While I can see how this poses a threat to Matt, I don’t see how returning him to his folks poses a threat to me.”

A slight hint of a smile flickered across Riff’s face. “I got to know him during the campaign, sir. And you did ask me to show some concern for the people around you.”

“Thanks.”

Riff stepped aside and Mark paused before entering the room where Matt was. The contents of the folder made it clear that things were worse with Shawna’s drinking than Mark had thought and possibly Matt knew, and Harold’s neglect was possibly a greater blessing than hurt. Still, Mark would need their permission for Matt to stay and he’d already snapped at Shawna.

Episode 104 – Mark Gets a Little Close

Romance fiction, romance fiction serial, romantic fiction serial. romance serialIn Washington, the President and his staff had spent a very busy two weeks. First, a minor head of state had died, so Sharon had accompanied Vice President Elmira Vallegos to the funeral. Then there was the full-on revolt in one of the other Middle Eastern countries, probably fomented by the policy Mark had held to in Saudi Arabia – and which even Sharon finally had to admit had been the right course of action.

Mark also had federal budget issues to contend with, what with that phase of legislation coming due in a couple months, and he still had his education legislation that he wanted passed. So there were multiple rounds of meetings to the point that Mark found himself at Sharon’s at least five times during those two weeks, twice at PFZ parties with the rest of the Advisory Board and three times having dinner with her alone and playing chess and gin rummy just to relax.

By that Saturday, he was good and restless. The West Wing tended to be fairly empty on weekends, although Sundays there were several Muslim staff members who worked since they took off Fridays and Saturdays. Also, Sunday mornings, when the President was at church, staff members would sometimes show up to get a jump on the week. But if they were going to work Saturday or any time when the president was in the White House, the West Wing staff made a point of doing so from home simply because if they went into the office, they would more often than not get dragged into playing catch or basketball or running laps or whatever physical activity the President was in the mood for.

Sharon, he usually left alone, but when she showed up that Saturday, Mark decided to heck with it, popped up in her office and dragged her off to the White House basement, where the basketball court was.

“I hate playing basketball,” she complained as they rode down the elevator.

“Well, it’s no fun shooting hoops by myself,” Mark told her.

“I can watch and catch up on email.”

“You can play and finally learn how to do a decent lay-up.”

Sharon laughed. She was wearing a close-fitting t-shirt and jeans over a pair of running shoes. Mark was similarly attired, except that he had basketball shoes on.

As he often did when he caught a staffer working on Saturdays, he coached Sharon through the art of the lay-up, insisting that she run several drills until he was satisfied that she had it. Then he spotted her several points and the two began a game of one on one.

Once again, Mark was caught off guard by Sharon’s natural athleticism. She played hard and thanks to the points he’d spotted her, pulled ahead quickly.

“Why do I get the feeling I’ve been suckered?” he asked, gasping as she drained another three-pointer. He trotted over the area under the net to get the ball.

“You’re the one who insisted on spotting me the points,” Sharon said. She caught the ball as Mark threw it at her and went out of bounds to start play.

“Because I thought I had an unfair advantage on you,” he said. “You hate playing basketball.”

“So I’m not that competitive,”  Sharon grinned as she bounced the ball a couple times. “I didn’t think you wanted me to let you win. I could.”

“Don’t even.”  Mark grinned also.

He caught the ball as Sharon tossed it and play was on again. The two played for several minutes as Mark caught up, then began winning. Then Sharon got the ball and dribbled toward the basket. Mark shadowed her closely. She tried dodging, but he stayed close on her back, not letting her escape. Laughing, she tried dodging again, and again, and then. Mark folded his arms around her and his lips found hers.

Sharon let herself melt into the kiss, returning it, feeling the soft pressure of his mouth and the sweet saltiness of his tongue. Mark felt his heart beating out of his chest, wondering how long it could last.

Not long enough. He lifted his head and their eyes caught. Sharon smiled, then shuddered.

“Foul?” he said softly.

“Well, you are pretty sweaty.”

He moved in again and she pulled away. He sighed.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to be going there,” Sharon said.

“Well,” Mark said, helplessly as Sharon glared at him. “I guess I overstepped the boundaries again.”

“Do that often, do you?”

“Not that often,” he grumbled. “And never past propriety.”  He paused. “Well, not since high school, but then I didn’t know what I was doing.”  He paused again. “That doesn’t excuse it.”

“I wasn’t saying it did. But it doesn’t mean I’m that worried about you, either.”  Sharon plopped down onto a nearby bleacher. “Not that way, at any rate.”

“So now what?”

“What do you mean?”

Mark shrugged and picked up the basketball. “Do you still want to keep trying to be friends?  It’s been working. Or do we do the whole split-up routine, with you… I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, either.”  Sharon sniffed and shut her eyes. “I was really liking the friend thing. And I can’t quit my job.”

“You probably could.”

“Except that, it’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life and I love my work.”

“Oh, brother,” Mark sighed.

“Not that I’m blaming you.”

“I didn’t think you did.”

Sharon looked him over. “Whatever.”  She sighed. “I guess it’s time to try maintaining a little distance.”

“Just what I want to do.”  Mark dropped the basketball onto the floor, then caught it again. “But you’re right. It’s probably for the best.”

“Yep.”  Sharon pulled herself up off the bleachers and left the gym. Mark watched, wondering if he’d blown it yet again.

Episode 103 – Matt Takes a Big Risk

Romance, romantic fiction, romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romanceThe loss of his laptop and phone were only the least of the losses for Matt. There was the loss of being able to get dressed in his own bedroom – he had checked out his bathroom and there weren’t any cameras there that he could find. Not that he had let his mother know that he knew about her spy cam. It was insulting enough that she’d put an extra book on his shelf, as if she’d assumed he didn’t read enough to notice.

But worse than even the spy cam was the loss of his special email account, where not only did he have all his back email, he also had all his contact information for his friends and his relatives – the ones he really wanted, as opposed to the people his mother expected him to like. Somehow, someway, he hadn’t covered his tracks well enough and his mother’s computer guru had not only found the account, he’d shut it down.

At least, thanks to Jody and Tiffany, he’d been able to warn everyone that he was likely to be on radio silence. And for some reason, he’d memorized Tiffany’s mobile phone number. But he didn’t dare call it, mostly because when Tiffany was able to answer, he was at home in his room being spied upon.

He knew what he had to do and while he was pretty worried about how his aunt and uncle would react, he couldn’t see any other options. The trick was how to pull together the necessary cash and pay-as-you-go phone and make the right reservations without alerting his mother. She had already had his locker searched at school, and he knew she’d been going through his room even more thoroughly than before. She’d even searched his car – he’d smelled the remnants of her perfume and stale vodka.

Then, on the first of June, luck fell into Matt’s lap – one of his classmates with whom he’d been friendly was leaving school two weeks early, as she did every year to spend the summer on her father’s archaeological dig.

“They always make me do this,” she groaned. “I think it’s their way of punishing me for getting out early. Anyway, they won’t let me turn in my books until the last day, so I have to find someone who will do it for me since I’ll be in the Northwest Territories. I just leave them in my locker, so you don’t even have to keep them. All you have to do is get them and turn them in during assembly period, like usual. Here’s my combination.”

Matt agreed and began working the plan. In just under two weeks, he’d pulled almost two thousand dollars in cash from his bank account. He’d researched bus, train and plane travel and decided that not only was the bus cheaper, it wasn’t that much slower than by train and it was less conspicuous than flying. Granted, he did have a very good fake ID that Tony Garza had gotten him before things had blown up, but there seemed to be no point in pushing the issue. Matt also bought a cheap smart phone with a pay-as-you-go plan, but sighed when he realized he didn’t really have anybody to call.

The next part was a little trickier, but he decided that if he timed it right, it would be worth the risk. Fortunately, it wasn’t that unusual for him to dribble a basketball or toss a baseball around in his room. He had never had an accident with the ball before, but late Thursday night, before the last day of school, the ball slipped from his hand and hit the book shelf where the camera was. Cursing loudly for his mother’s sake, he righted the shelf and put all the fallen books back up, willy nilly, with the camera book’s spine to the wall just in case the camera was still working.

He waited for a good hour, then crept out of his bedroom and checked his mother’s room. His father was staying in St. Paul, as usual, ostensibly to be close to the State Capitol. His mother, as usual, was sound asleep and likely to remain so until fairly late in the morning, especially given the empty vodka bottle on her nightstand.

Matt packed relatively lightly. Fortunately, the last day of school was a free dress day, so he wouldn’t have to wear his uniform and jeans were allowed. It wasn’t like he was going to stay the whole day, anyway, just long enough to drop off books and get his stuff. He finished packing, left his mother a note that implied he was staying the weekend with a friend, and at the normal time, got in his car and went to school.

The morning went smoothly, and as soon as Matt thought he could get away unnoticed, he slid out and got in his car. He did stop by his bank to pull another thousand dollars out of his account. He’d practiced a story about getting a new computer, but the teller never even noticed that he was under-age and gave him the cash.

He parked his car outside the home of one of the guys his mother had always wanted him to hang with, then got his duffel bag and walked quickly away to the local bus line, and once the bus finally showed, he headed out to the Minneapolis bus station, via the local commuter train.

The freedom was both exhilarating and frightening. But he’d traveled on his own before, usually just to visit one or the other of his grandmothers, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Or at least, that’s what he told himself.

He made the bus to Chicago just in time and it wasn’t until he’d made the transfer in Chicago to the New York bus that he began to relax, and in fact, fell sound asleep. It was still a very long ride and the bus didn’t arrive in New York City until late Saturday afternoon. Stiff and a little intimidated by the rush of people and the general skankiness of the bus terminal, Matt debated calling Tiffany to see if she could get him in contact with Jody’s father, who supposedly lived in the city. But just then he saw a concert poster and remembered that Michael Wheatly was on tour someplace on the West Coast that weekend.

So Matt went ahead and headed for Times Square and after walking around a bit, found a reasonably priced hotel with free wi-fi and a computer room. From there, he looked up his aunt’s company’s address and phone number and tried to see if he could get her office. All he got was a voice recording asking him to call back later.

He sighed. There were decent odds she wasn’t even in New York at that time. He had no idea where she lived when she was in town and given the cost of hotels, he doubted he could afford to stay more than a night or two to wait for her. He did some research, then decided to wait one more day, then head to Washington, DC. At least, he had several friends there and a good idea of how to find them.

Episode 102 – The Jig is Up on Jasmine Thomas

 

romantic fiction, romance fiction, romance serial fiction, romance serial            Two days later, in Pasadena, Jody and Tiffany got called into the assistant principal’s office at their school. Mrs. Landry was a plump Black woman with tight curls in a shorter cut. Her round shape, however, belied just how tough she could be. The problem was, she wasn’t sure just how tough to be on Jody and Tiffany, who were hardly regulars in her office, even though Mrs. Landry knew them fairly well.

“Ladies,” she said. “Please be seated.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured as they sat in the chairs in front of the desk.

“I just got a call from a Mrs. Harold Jerguessen,” Mrs. Landry said. “She was trying to reach the parents of one of our students, a Jasmine Thomas. Now, we don’t have a student registered here by that name, and I told Mrs. Jerguessen that. She insisted that we did, or at least there was a Jasmine Thomas on Facebook who said she was a student here. I didn’t have much to say to that, and we hung up. But as I thought about it, I did remember a certain social studies project last year that you two were working on.”

Jody gulped and turned pale.

“We didn’t close the account,” said Tiffany. “We’re still gathering data.”

“Mm-hm,” Mrs. Landry replied.

“Most people have figured out that she’s an avatar,” Tiffany said. “They may not know who she is, but they have mostly caught on to the joke.”

“Well, Mrs. Jerguessen said that she was concerned because her son Matthew has been spending a lot of time calling and chatting with this Miss Thomas and she wanted to meet the young lady’s parents. What do you two know about that?”

“We don’t know anything,” said Tiffany.

But Mrs. Landry caught the slight emphasis on the word “know,” and pressed her lips together.

“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Tiffany said.

“No, you haven’t,” Mrs. Landry said. “But we agreed that if I got calls from parents, you’d close the account.”

“Please, Mrs. Landry,” Jody burst out. “We need to keep it open. For Matt’s sake. His mom is really mean and won’t let him call his aunt and uncle or have the friends he wants to have. And she spies on him all the time, and it’s not like he’s doing anything wrong.”

“That you know of,” said Mrs. Landry. “Well, if you want to keep Jasmine Thomas, I can’t tell you not to. But I can ask you to send her to another school. We don’t want to encourage mis-representation. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured.

As soon as they were dismissed, Tiffany hurried to the edge of the school campus.

“We’ve got to text Matt and let him know his mother is onto us,” she said frantically scanning for teachers.

“Go ahead,” said Jody. “I’ll keep watch.”

Tiffany skittered through the touch screen on her phone, cursing as she mis-typed. A couple minutes later, the phone chirped as Matt’s reply arrived.

“Okay, he’s been warned. He’s going to let his uncle know and hope for the best,” Tiffany said. “We’d better get back to class before we’re spotted.”

In Minnesota, Matt put off going home as long as he could, but his mother was still waiting for him with a new phone and a new laptop. She insisted that he turn over his current models, then sent him to his room, where an even more unpleasant surprise awaited him. There was a new book on his shelf, one that had a small camera in its spine.

Episode 101 – The Driving Lesson

romance fiction, romantic fiction serial, serial fictionThe Presidential party arrived home from the Middle East on Friday with some acclaim and kudos. At the press conference, Mark insisted on congratulating Sharon and her staff, especially Faiza. But he had another surprise for Sharon up his sleeve for Saturday.

He had told her that he would send a car for her in the morning, so Sharon was not terribly surprised to find a White House official driver knocking on her door at nine a.m. She was surprised when the car pulled up to Andrews Air Force Base, then slid on through the gates and around the base buildings until it pulled up onto a deserted runway. Waiting next to the Presidential limo was Mark chatting amiably with Eddie Cooper, while Rebecca Cooper and Kira Watanabe whispered amongst themselves. Sharon wasn’t sure but thought she saw Rebecca put something into Kira’s hand. Near the limo, a small burgundy sedan sat ready.

“And there she is,” said Mark as Sharon got out of the car.

“I am, and what is this?” Sharon answered.

“We thought we’d have driving lessons today,” said Mark. “Rebecca’s almost old enough to get her license. Kira’s ready for a learner’s permit. And you don’t know how to drive yet, either. So why not have a little driving school.”

“Why not?” asked Sharon as Eddie ambled forward. “Maybe because you’re assuming that I want to learn how to drive?  And I don’t?”

“You don’t want to drive?” asked Rebecca. Both hers and Kira’s mouths all but hung open with the shock.

“What’s the problem, Wheaties?” Eddie asked, jovially.

“No problem,” Sharon answered, trying to sound pleasant in spite of her annoyance. “I get around quite nicely and thus see no reason to learn how to drive.”

“Everybody should know how to drive,” said Mark. “It’s a basic life skill.”

“I’m doing pretty darned well without it,” Sharon said. “Seriously, when was the last time either of you heard me bumming a ride?”  She paused. “I take public transportation or I call a car service. I sometimes even take cabs. Trust me, if I can make it work in Southern California, I can make it work anywhere.”

“But how can you not want to drive?” Kira said, her voice filled with the utter horror of one who has waited her entire life to get behind the wheel.

Sharon sighed. “Well, I didn’t get the chance to learn when I was younger. I was in boarding school in Switzerland when I was sixteen. Then after that, there wasn’t time while I was getting my degree. And then I was busy working and there just really wasn’t any reason to.”

Mark flashed a mischievous grin at her. “Oh, really?”

Sharon flushed. “Okay. The few times I did try to learn… Things happened. Not every time. But let’s just say driving is not my gift.”

“I get it,” said Eddie. “We got a little phobia going on here.”

“Not a phobia, just a preference.”

“Prove it,” said Mark.

“All right. Fine.”  Sharon put her hands up in defeat. “But you guys are going to regret it.”

For the first hour or so, things ran very smoothly. Rebecca even demonstrated her mastery of the three-point turnabout, while Sharon and Kira took turns driving slowly and stopping over and over again. Eddie declared that the most important part of driving was learning how to stop the car and insisted that all three students learn how to come to a smooth, controlled stop before doing anything else.

Eventually, however, he did have Sharon speed up a little. Mark was in the back seat with Kira and Rebecca while Eddie rode shotgun. He pushed Sharon to forty miles an hour when there was a loud bang, and the car careened out of control. Fortunately, there was nothing to hit on the runway, but the car didn’t stop until it rolled onto the pebbled field alongside. The airbags blew and when the dust settled, there was a brief moment of silence.

“Don’t-” began Eddie.

“I’m saying it,” snapped Sharon. “I told you so.”

Rebecca and Kira began chattering and as Eddie began to ask if everyone was all right, the back seat door slammed open.

“Sir!  Are you all right?” barked Riff Butler. “Get the medics over here!”

“I’m fine, Riff,” Mark said mildly as he shifted.

“Don’t move, sir,” Riff snapped.

“Excuse me,” snarled Mark. “There are four other people in this car, any one of whom could be injured. If I say I’m fine, I’m fine. Everybody else okay?”

There were murmurs that of general okay-ness, although Sharon did have a bloody nose. Riff continued to check Mark out until he flat out commanded Riff to look Sharon over, since she plainly had the most serious hurt, and it wasn’t even that serious. Within a minute or two, the blood flow was staunched and everyone slowly stumbled out of the car and stretched.

“May I ask what happened?” Sharon said.

“Front passenger tire blew,” one of the Secret Service agents said.

“Don’t-” began Eddie again.

“I told you so,” Sharon said anyway.

The medics cleared her first, and then checked the girls and Eddie only because Mark flat out refused help until the others were checked, much to Riff’s annoyance. Other agents were already combing the runway. One bent and picked something up, then hollered. A minute later, Riff came up with a bent piece of metal about the size of his hand.

“Looks like this is what you hit,” he said. “Hate to say it, but good thing you found it and not one of our planes.”

Sharon shuddered. “Thanks, Agent Butler, but that’s not helping.”

“I think we’ve had enough driving for one day,” Mark said.

Kira giggled. “What about getting back on the horse?  We could let Sharon drive the limo.”

Rebecca giggled as well.

Mark glanced over at Riff, who was not laughing.

“I think I’ll pass,” said Sharon. “I would like to go home and get into a clean top if I could.”

“Sure.”  Mark waved over the car Sharon had arrived in. The girls went with her and convinced Sharon to call June so that the four of them could have lunch together. Sharon insisted on inviting Rebecca’s mother, Cordelia, and Karen, as well, then called a local restaurant that could deliver lunch to her townhouse.

Back at the White House, Mark called Riff up to his study.

“Riff, I appreciate that I am the priority, but this morning was not acceptable,” Mark said. “If there are other people around in a situation, there has got to be a way to make sure everyone gets care, not just me.”

“I understand, sir,” said Riff.

“Do you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mark looked Riff over dubiously. “You know I’m getting a really stubborn vibe from you. I know you’ve done this before, but I’m not convinced you understand what I’m worried about. Do you have any clue how bad it would look if someone else died or was hurt worse because you guys were taking care of me?  Let alone how bad that would make me feel. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

“We have procedures for that, sir.”

“Then how come I haven’t seen them?”

Riff’s sigh was almost imperceptible. “I’ll take that into account, sir.”

Mark dismissed him, still feeling nettled.

At Sharon’s townhouse, the women were laughing heartily over the lesson.

“Okay,” said Karen, as she and the others piled different toppings on their hot dogs and french fries. “I have to say, it is a little weird that you don’t drive, Sharon.”

“Maybe, but it’s not like I can’t get around,” Sharon said. “Is there any more chili?”

“Here,” said Cordelia, a tall woman with dark, rich skin and straightened hair. “What I don’t get is why Eddie and Mark decided you needed to.”

“It’s gotta be a guy thing,” said Sharon. “Women I know think it’s weird, but usually leave it at that. Guys have to teach me how to drive.”

“Didn’t you ever want to drive?” Kira asked, still a little in shock that someone wouldn’t.

“You know, I don’t remember being that excited about it for some reason,” Sharon said. “I was still living in Italy when I turned 14, so you’d think it would have rubbed off on me. But then, I could get pretty much anywhere I wanted without a car, so it never really occurred to me that I needed one. And European kids aren’t usually quite as car crazy as American kids are because they can’t start driving until they’re eighteen.”

Kira and Rebecca just looked at each other and shook their heads. Later, they landed in the living room, apart from the adults, and as Sharon passed the open doorway, she couldn’t help overhearing bits and pieces of their conversation.

“Matt said he got a library card with his no problem,” Rebecca was saying.

Sharon couldn’t make out Kira’s reply.

“Well, it’ll make it harder to track you,” Rebecca said.

She looked up, saw Sharon and started. Kira bounced around, then started giggling nervously.

“As you were,” said Sharon.

But as she returned to the dining room, she wondered just what the girls had been talking about and whether Matt was June’s nephew Matt or not.

Episode 100 – Kira Plans for Trouble

That evening, Kira Watanabe signed into the video chat room. Matt was already signed in, as were Jodi and Tiffany. Tony pinged in, with Rebecca joining within seconds.

“How bad is it?” Jodi was asking.

“How bad is what?” Rebecca asked.

“All Mom would say is that I have to go to my dad’s this summer,” Kira said. “My dad is suing Mom for custody again and it’s really got her upset.”

“Sounds like you’ll have a sucky summer,” Matt sighed.

“I’m not going,” Kira said. “I’m going to run away and take Allie with me. There’s no way I am going to live with him and I am not going to let him near Allie. She doesn’t deserve that.”

“Kira, you can’t be serious,” Rebecca said. “That’s dangerous.”

“Like living with him isn’t?”

“Rebecca’s right,” Tony said. “It’s bad on the streets. I know.”

“I’ve just gotta think it through is all,” Kira said. “I’ve got money saved, so that should help. And I could probably set up some sort of web business to make more, so nobody knows how old I am.”

“You could stay with us,” Jodi said.

“Her dad could track her to us too easily,” Tiffany said. “I suppose we could sneak her past my mom, but we’d never make it past yours.”

“You know, Kira, it would be good to have some sort of grown up helping,” Tony said. “You really need somebody to help you hide and keep a roof over your head.”

“And you’ll need cash,” said Matt. “You’ll have to find a way to get your money out of your savings account without your mom noticing.”

“Actually, what you need is a plan,” Tony said. “And a back up plan in case things go wrong.”

“I know. We could hide them at my Aunt Susan’s,” said Jodi.

“Why not your dad?” Rebecca asked.

“Too straight,” Jodi and Tiffany said together.

“Tony’s right,” said Matt. “What you need is a plan and a back up plan.”

“And a back up plan after that,” Tony added.

“Okay. So how do I get one?” Kira asked.

Episode 99 – Karen’s Ex Gets Troublesome

At four o’clock the next afternoon, in Washington, June knocked on the door to Karen Tanaka’s office. It was cramped, like everyone else’s office, but it had a window looking out onto the south lawn and a more square shape. Karen had painted the walls a rich, creamy yellow and brought in a glass and brushed chrome desk, complemented by an ebony black entertainment unit on the side wall with a bank of four televisions, each on its own shelf one on top of the other. A simple ikebana arrangement of spring flowers adorned the desk. Framed photos of her daughters dotted the walls.

Karen admitted June with a listless smile.

“What’s going on?” June asked.

Karen looked away. “What do you mean?”

“Sharon texted me last night that something didn’t feel right when she called you yesterday.”  June slid onto the small black leather chair in front of the desk and set her purse on the floor next to her. “She thought something might be wrong.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it, June,” Karen said with a soft sigh.

“Okay.”  June said grabbing her purse and getting up. “I suppose I have to respect that.”

“June. Wait.”  Karen slowly put down the lid on her laptop. “I’m sorry.”

June looked down onto Karen’s desk and saw the legal papers there. Karen saw June’s eyes, then sniffed.

“Yeah, that’s a court filing,” Karen said softly. “It’s my ex. George. He’s suing for custody of the girls.”

“Ouch,” said June, slowly sitting down again.

“It’s nothing he hasn’t done before,” Karen said, slumping back in her chair. “We’ve been through this twice since the divorce.”

“And yet you were able to move here with the girls.”

Karen nodded. “He threatened to sue when I got this job, but I not so delicately pointed out that he’s already blown three court-ordered evaluations.”

“Three?”

“The first when we first got divorced, then the two other times.”

“So if he’s blown three evaluations, what are you worried about?”

“It’s always a little dicey,” Karen said. “Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to interpreting best interests of the children and the evaluation. Which is why George keeps filing. He keeps hoping he’s going to get a sympathetic judge.”  Karen handed June the papers. “And it looks like this time he may have.”

“Oh?”  June thumbed through the papers.

“My attorney called just a bit ago. There was a surprise temporary order hearing this morning. It was just luck that I got the summons yesterday, and I called Lewis immediately. So he was able to get in on the hearing. He called just now. It is not looking good.”

“They can’t hold hearings without notifying the other side.”

“In child custody cases, they can.”  Karen came around the desk and plopped into the leather chair next to June. “It’s the temporary emergency order thing – the idea is to protect kids from a potentially violent parent.”

“But you’re not violent,” June said.

“They can do it for other reasons. According to Lewis, George’s attorneys are arguing that I brought the girls here to DC against his permission and that he signed the agreement under duress. Which he kind of did.”  Karen tightened her lips. “Lewis said this new firm that George has, they’re scorched earth specialists. And Lewis can’t prove it, but they just happened to get a judge who’s notorious for giving the fathers custody if they show the slightest interest in the kids, never mind what the evaluations show.”

“Well, the girls are old enough, the judge will have to listen to what they say, and based on what I heard last month, they’re not too excited about being with their dad.”

Karen snorted. “They’re arguing that I poisoned them against George. And the girls’ grades are down. Part of it is just the new school. Allie’s grades are coming back up. But Kira’s are still off.”

“How bad is it?”

“Just a few percentage points, but…”  Karen rolled her eyes. “I hate buying into the stereotype, but for George, anything less than 100 percent is huge. Since we got here, I haven’t been riding them that hard. And you know what?  Kira’s actually been making friends – more than she’s ever had at one time. You know, Coop’s kid Rebecca. And Sharon’s nieces, Jodi and Tiffany. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for Kira, it’s amazing. She’s always been a loner. I just don’t know how far that’s going to go with George’s new attorneys.”

“Scorched earth specialists.”

“Figures.”  Karen slumped back again. “It’s just George’s style. The only thing Lewis and I can’t figure out is how he’s paying for them.”

June frowned. “I thought George was a doctor.”

“Head of emergency at County USC – which means he could get more elsewhere, but he’s still pulling in some good money.”  Karen shook her head. “Lewis said these guys, they’re seriously high-end, the firm you hire when you’ve got hundreds of millions in assets to protect and you can afford the long court battle to get your kids. Lewis and I keep pretty good tabs on George’s assets – it’s not like he hasn’t tried hiding money from us – and Lewis said he has no idea how George is paying for these guys.”

June suddenly reached into her purse and pulled out her tablet. Glancing at the legal papers, she quickly started typing onto the pad.

“What are you doing?” Karen asked.

June swore. “I thought as much. I just googled George’s firm and another one that I know. They’ve got a cooperative agreement. Which means I know how George is paying for them. Or rather, who’s paying them for George.”

“What?”

It was June’s turn to sniffle. “Look, Mark and I don’t talk about it much, but there is someone who has a lot invested in making trouble. This person can’t bring down Mark, so… Well, the people around Mark get hit instead. And you just got some publicity as Mark’s friend. The timing is just too suspicious.”

“You mean..?”  Karen thought. “Lewis did say that opposing council did seem to be rushing this through.”

“That picture of Mark hugging you only came out a little over a week ago.”  June fumed. “And your situation with your ex was ready made for this kind of attack.”

“You know, Lewis was saying that I might have to give up the girls because these guys are really good at digging up and slinging dirt and making even a hangnail look like major carelessness.”  Karen started crying full on. “I don’t want to lose my babies, but I can’t let them get hurt that way.”

June reached over and gently grabbed Karen’s arm. “They’re not going to. I swear. I’m not going to let these SOBs hurt you or Kira and Allie. It’s because of me and Mark that they’re involved.”

“It’s not your fault, June.”

“I know.”  June swallowed. “But, Karen, I know what it’s like to live with the wrong parent. Believe me, there’s a reason why my mother and I are estranged. I won’t let that happen to another kid.”

“But what can you do?”

“I can pay for the attorneys you’ll need to fight this.”

Karen bounced up. “June, I can’t let you do that. This could cost-”

“I know how much it could cost. Or will cost.”  June got to her feet. “I know how these guys work. They’ve got George convinced that only he can save the girls.”

“Oh, he was already convinced of that,” Karen snapped.

“Then all they had to do is gently push him into the ends justifying any means to get his kids for him. And if George is the controlling jerk I have every reason to believe he is, he bought it hook, line and sinker, and these new attorneys are going to scorch the earth and then some to get George full custody of Kira and Allie. The only thing those girls have going for them is that you’re willing to cave in rather than let them get scorched in the process. And you can’t let that happen.”

Karen looked at the ceiling. “I can take care of my girls.”

“In a fair fight, you can and then some.”  June walked over to Karen and put her hands on her shoulders. “This isn’t going to be a fair fight. They’ve already tried sneaking a temporary emergency order hearing past you and your attorney. And they got the sympathetic judge. No, we can’t prove it, but I’m pretty darned certain that was no luck of the draw.”

“How will I pay you back?”

“You’ll raise your daughters and protect them and keep them safe. And you’ll let me play auntie.”  June shrugged. “That’s all I need. Karen, money I’ve got, and more seems to keep following me. I may as well put it to some good use.”

“Won’t it hurt if it gets out that you’re paying my attorney fees?”

“We’ll find a firm that can spin anything they throw at you. Please, Karen. Like I said, I know where this is coming from and, no, it’s not my fault. But Mark and I are the reason it’s happening and if he found out, he’d be doing the same thing.”

“Oh, God.”  Karen sank into the chair in front of the desk. “I guess we’ll have to do it.”

“The first thing we’re going to have to do is get on that emergency order.”  June sat down next to her.

Karen nodded. “George wants his summer visitation rights enforced. As if I wasn’t going to. I bought the plane tickets for the girls two weeks ago. I told Kira last night she was going to have to go.”

“I’m guessing she wasn’t happy.”

“She flat out refuses to go. Good thing I’ve got until the end of June to change her mind. If I can change her mind.”

“We’ll figure something out. You’re not alone in this, Karen. You have support. I’ll be with you every step of the way. Scorched earth specialists can be beaten and it can be done without using the same tactics. You have the truth on your side and it’s pretty hard to beat that. You just can’t give in.”

Karen nodded sadly. Slowly she turned to June and the two held each other as Karen at last relented and sobbed. June started crying, too.

Episode 98 – Mark and Sharon Talk Baggage

Late the next day, Sunday, the President and staff members boarded Air Force One for a five-day tour of the Middle East. Sharon rode on board with the executive staff, while Faiza Moussel had gone on ahead to the first stop Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Monday was filled with talks, but successful ones, then there was a busy day in Jordan, and a very tense day in Palestine, Wednesday, because Mark’s visit was setting a historical precedent.

That night, after a debriefing session with the full staff in the hotel suite’s conference room, Mark left first, then quietly returned when he noticed that Sharon hadn’t left yet. She was still sitting at the conference table, talking in Spanish on her mobile phone. The room was relatively small, but decked out in gold and red, in spite of the modern furniture.

Mark stood next to the door, nodding when Sharon noticed he was there, and trying to indicate that she should finish her call. She nodded and continued her conversation for another couple minutes, then hung up and held up a finger while she made several notes.

“Yes, sir?” Sharon asked, as she finished.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Mark said, trying to sound casual.

“It’s been pretty busy.”  Sharon fidgeted with her pen.

“Maybe. But you’ve still been avoiding me.”  Mark moved over to the table and sat down. “I’m not worried, per se. I just wanted to be sure nothing’s wrong.”

“There’s nothing any more wrong than there ever has been,” Sharon said. “I just… It…”  She looked over at him. “I just had to face facts Friday night about my issues with the unattainable. It’s my pattern. The guys I tend to fall for all seem to have some particular baggage that I just can’t work around. Mostly, they’re famous.”

“Could it be a secret longing for fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve dealt with it. It wasn’t fun and I don’t want to deal with it again. Maman says that it’s because everyone in our family, we’re all such over-achievers, that’s the kind of guy I like and a good chunk of the time, the fame is part of it.”

“Like your famous brother.”

“Yeah. The running gag until I got this job was that I was the under-achiever in the family,” Sharon smiled softly. “I think it has more to do with that I’m the only one of my sibs who isn’t an artist. I mean, it wasn’t like they thought I wasn’t doing anything. That was the joke – I was way ahead of my peers. But because Michael and Susan were both at the top of their fields and I was still just a VP with a ways still to go up the career ladder, it seemed like I wasn’t doing that much. Then when Sarah started her PhD work, plus selling through some major galleries, well, you get the picture.”

“You’re a pretty intense bunch.”

“So what’s your pattern of baggage?”  Sharon forced a smile.

“My pattern, huh?”  Mark leaned back in his chair and pressed his lips together. He debated telling her the truth, but decided it wasn’t the time. Besides, it wasn’t as though he had other issues. “I, uh, tend to do the love at first sight thing and flame out quickly.”

Sharon winced. “Oh.”

“That’s a big reason why we’re not having a relationship right now. I don’t want to do that to you.”  He smiled at her softly. “Not exactly breaking our patterns here, are we?”

“I suppose not.”  Sharon looked down at her notes.

Mark reached over and touched her hand. “Maybe it’s not the patterns that are the problem.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s you and falling for the guy who’s famous. It’s your attitude toward that fame that’s the issue, not that you shouldn’t be liking him. In my case, it’s not the falling in love that’s the problem, but rushing into it without… Without doing what we’re doing.”

“Which is?”

“Building a friendship, I hope. Learning to like each other before letting the chemistry carry us away.”

“And what about my thing with not wanting to deal with your fame?”  Sharon finally looked up and watched his eyes.

Mark yawned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Truth be told, I have no idea. But I suspect that with enough time, you’ll figure it out. And fortunately for you, time is our best option, right?”

Sharon nodded. “Assuming we can hold out. Anyway, it’s late. You’re tired and we might have an issue with Mexico again.”

“Shavings.”  Mark stood up and flinched slightly as Sharon bounced up with him. “We’d better get to bed then. Good night.”

“Good night, sir.”

He smiled as Sharon left without waiting for him.

Sharon left, dialing Washington, DC. Her conversation with Karen Tanaka was brief and to the point, which wasn’t unusual in itself. But something didn’t feel right. So Sharon texted June, who was in New York again, then went to bed.