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.

Episode 97 – Sharon Dates Max Again

Sharon couldn’t believe she was on another date with Max Epstein. But there he was, across the cocktail table at the Press Club bar, in full monologue. He had called on Wednesday and after the Correspondents Dinner, Sharon had decided he deserved another chance. So she’d accepted and was sorely wishing she hadn’t.

“Max,” Sharon said suddenly, getting up. “Can we go for a walk?”

“Uh, sure,” Max jumped up and followed her out of the bar.

It was still early that Saturday evening. The mid-May weather was warm enough to be comfortable, but without the miserable humidity of full summer. Traffic on the street was light and the sidewalks were largely empty. There were always tourists in D.C., but the summer rush hadn’t yet begun.

“I’m thinking if we head this way, we can have dinner at Stradiman’s,” Max began as the two left the building.

Sharon put her hand on his arm and squeezed. “I’m thinking not.”

“Huh?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Max, I don’t get it. You’re a nice guy.”

Max slumped. “Oh, great. You’re dumping me.”

“Now, wait a minute!”  Sharon glared at him, then began walking. “There’s nothing here to dump. We’re friends.”

“I thought we were dating.”

Sharon shook her head. “It was borderline at best. And don’t try to bust my hump for leading you on. You didn’t even get a kiss good night those other two times.”

“So, if we’re not dating, why are you giving me the break up speech?”

Sharon winced. “Because you’re making me crazy, Max. We go out. You take over. You ramble on without listening to a word I say. And yet, you’re not like that normally. I heard you last week. You were funny. You listened to everyone else. You were great. So what gives?  Why are you such a pain in the ass to date, but perfectly fun to be around otherwise?”

“I don’t take over.”

“Max, you choose the venue. You tell me what I want off the menu. You tell me what wine to drink with it. I’m beginning to feel like I’m not necessary.”

Max slumped even further into himself. “Women like a strong decisive guy.”

“It depends on how strong and decisive,” Sharon said.

“But you called me those first two times.”

“I know.”  Sharon bit her lip. “I probably shouldn’t have. I was just…”

“Just what?”

They stopped at a street light and Sharon gazed at the traffic.

“I was just trying to prove to myself that I’m not in love with someone else.”  She suddenly growled. “And it’s not who you think it is.”

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” Max grumbled. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

“Because I didn’t want to admit it to myself.”  Sharon sniffed and blinked back tears. “I was trying to convince myself that you were closer to the kind of guy I want. But, no. I’m falling for the guy who’s unavailable again. And then I go and hurt you. I’m so sorry. I just can’t do this. I’ve tried settling and believe me, that didn’t work out. Which is probably why I’m so cranky about your control issues.”

Max snorted. “Except that you’re not the first woman to tick me off for that. I’m sorry, too. I didn’t think I was that nervous going out with you, but I always start chattering and taking over when I’m nervous.”

“Maybe we could just go out as friends.”

“No.”  Max sighed and shook his head. “If I’m really honest, it wasn’t you, per se, making me nervous. You’re just the first… Well, I got really turned around right before Christmas last year. Family crap.”

“Sounds unpleasant.”

“It was. Anyway, I thought I was past the crappy parts. You may have heard, I don’t have a good rep with women.”

“Multiple times.”

“Yeah, well, It’s kind of a problem I have. My dad was kinda down on women. He always blamed it on my mother leaving us.”  Max frowned and swallowed. “Only I found out this year that he hadn’t exactly been honest about what happened.”

“Oh, dear.”

“It gets worse. I finally decided to look for my mother – my last girlfriend said I needed to get over my mommy issues. My mother’s tried to contact me off and on since I became an adult, but I never responded because Dad had always told me how controlling and mean she was. And I was angry that she’d abandoned me. So I’m looking through the court records for their divorce and find out she left because Dad was hitting her – there were pictures. And she’d taken me with her. I was only two at the time, so I don’t remember any of this. Anyway, then I find an old warrant for Dad’s arrest on kidnapping charges. Turns out when he was transferred by the Air Force to Germany, he took me from my mother and she couldn’t get me back because the Air Force wasn’t willing to enforce the custody order. And that’s probably why Dad stayed. He couldn’t go back because of the kidnapping warrant.”

“That’s harsh.”

“Yep.”

“Have you connected with your mother yet?”

“Yeah. It’s been going really well. One of the reasons I thought I was ready to start dating again.”  Max laughed bitterly. “I’m guessing I wasn’t.”

“Well, I’m guessing my taste for the unattainable didn’t help.”  Sharon looked up and saw a small Spanish restaurant next to them. “Why don’t we just have dinner here – strictly friends and we can talk about our respective issues and why we’re terrible for each other.”

Max laughed. “Yeah, what the hell.”

Episode 96 – Rose Jerguessen Plans

Rose Jerguessen pursed her lips then looked up at the man with the thin lips, the pale, pale skin and dark, slicked back hair.

“It would appear your source has slipped up, Jensen,” she said, holding up a newspaper with the picture of Karen Tanaka and her son on the front.

Jensen pressed his lips even thinner. “My source is good.”

Was good. He got caught, remember?”

“It could be just an innocent hug.”

“You know better than that.”  Rose dropped the paper onto the coffee table in front of her. It was a magnificent mahogany piece – the only bit of color in an otherwise white room. “What have we got on her?”

Jensen flipped through a file. “An ugly divorce and a boyfriend that appears to be staying over a lot. From what my sources in California tell me, the ex is not happy about him and has been wanting custody of their daughters for a long time.”

Rose quirked an eyebrow at him. “Can you do something about the custody thing?”

“That we can do. I’ll call Elwood.”

“In the meantime, we need to alert the public to this Miss Tanaka’s fooling around. She’s obviously making a play for my son and she’s hardly suitable.”

“I agree, Ma’am.”  Jensen’s thin lips slid into an off smile.

Episode 95 – Mark’s Birthday and a Spy

The day was also special because it was Mark’s birthday. After the Advisory Board meeting, Mark spent an hour or so being interviewed by the TV anchor, then the rest of the afternoon was devoted to a party in the West Wing Mess for all the employees and a brace of TV crews.

That night and the next day, shots of Mark hugging Karen Tanaka were all over the TV news, newspapers and websites. Karen took it all with good humor, especially since the next day, a more important story broke: one of the janitors had been caught spying on the president.

“Do we know who for?” June asked Mark that Thursday at breakfast.

“We don’t know in any way provable in court,” Mark said. He looked at his sister meaningfully, then went back to looking over a briefing on his touch pad.

June sighed. “Well, at least we know who confirmed that Ashely Whitcomb rumor.”  She waited, pondering. “Do they know if there’s anyone else on the take?”

“Could be,” Mark said, still reading. “But Riff Butler said that he’s certain there isn’t, and Major Wills nearly had a heart attack when he found out and is now raking the entire staff over the coals.”  He put down the tablet. “I grant you, she’s pretty determined. But that sort of thing just doesn’t happen. The people here are proud of their jobs, and I suspect get a cheap thrill out of knowing things about us that no one, but no one will ever know.”

“I know,” sighed June. “Well, I’m heading out to New York today and probably won’t see you until you get back from the Middle East next week.”

“Okay. Enjoy your trip.”

“You, too.”  June got up and kissed Mark on the cheek before heading back to her room.

Episode 94 – The Press Comes to the White House

Monday and Tuesday turned out to be big days at the White House. One of the television networks had arranged to spend two days in the West Wing, doing a day in the life special on the new administration. Like most of her fellow staff members, Sharon regarded the crew as a nuisance, but little more. Tuesday morning, as she came in late to work, she was congratulating herself on not having done any interviews.

Coffee mug in hand, she hurried through the corridors to her office, only to get knocked into by a young woman holding the cord of a camera as the operator moved backwards. Sharon’s coffee sprayed across her cream-colored tailored top.

“Oh, my god!” exclaimed the producer, a young red-haired man wearing a white t-shirt and jeans.

Sharon forced a smile. “It happens.”

Fortunately, her office was only a few feet away and Julie came out of her cubicle to investigate.

“Good thing I stopped at the dry cleaners this morning,” Julie said, grinning. “I’ve got another suit right here.”

“Thanks.”  Sharon wiped her hand on her skirt.

“At least coffee comes out,” Julie said, reappearing with a dark brown skirt and jacket.

“Running late today?” the young producer asked Sharon.

Sharon looked up while juggling her mug, her briefcase and the clean suit. “Not so bad. It’s only nine.”

“Most folks are here by seven,” the producer said.

“So am I, usually,” Sharon replied, yawning. “But I had to be up at 3 am for a conference call with NATO.”

“That sounds cool,” the producer said, pulling out a notepad. “What was it about?”
“Sorry. Classified.”  Sharon smiled as her mobile phone buzzed.      She got her suit hung up on her office door then answered the phone. “Ja, Raoul…. Bitte.

She smiled at the TV crew, added a burst of rapid German into the phone, then shut the door.

“Sorry, guys,” Julie said. “She’s got to get ready for her ten o’clock meeting.”

Sharon’s head popped out of the door again, only this time she called softly in Chinese. Katie came running, replying in the same language.

“Woh,” said the producer. “That’s amazing.”

Julie shrugged. “It’s normal around here. Excuse me.”

Sharon was not in a better mood, when changed, she showed up at the Advisory Board meeting.

“Heard you bumped into the crew,” Eddie teased.

“I escaped without doing an interview, but the producer heard me speaking in three different languages and wants to talk with me later,” Sharon grumbled.

“And everybody’s talking about coffee stains around here,” Karen said somewhat dourly. “We can’t be that much worse than the previous administration.”

“We’re not even close,” said Al Eddington, who’d had a post in the White House with the previous president. “It’s just that we’ve got all the designer coffee around here.”

The chatter ceased as Gen Forrest opened the door to the conference room.