Karen Tanaka Explains It All

By nine-thirty, Sharon had her report amended and filed onto the server. Which was just as well because Karen Tanaka popped up in the office door right about that time.

“The boss asked me to bring you to the meeting,” Tanaka said. “I thought we could swing by the cafeteria first and get some coffee or something.”

“Or something.” Sharon stood up and re-filled her mug. “Sounds good. Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about your laptop. Your assistant can bring it over before the meeting starts.”

“Sure.” Taking her mug, Sharon left the office. “Julie?”

“No problem.”

Sharon paused and looked at Tanaka. “Are you sure that’s okay? I got the impression from the guy that brought me the laptop that to let it out of my sight was tantamount to high treason.”

Tanaka laughed and rolled her eyes. “Consider Julie your second set of eyes.” She led the way down a nearby corridor. “By the way, who was your computer guy?”

“I have no idea,” said Sharon. “He never said his name. But he was tall and wore a dark suit.”

“Oh, that really narrows it down. They’re all tall and wear dark suits.”

“Ooh. Kinda creepy.”

“You said it.” Tanaka led Sharon through a pair of swinging double doors into a large, brightly-lit room with plastic and chrome tables and chair, and a steam table line at one end.

Tanaka went straight for the nook bearing air pots, other coffee paraphernalia and a basket piled high with plastic-wrapped Danish.

“The food’s pretty good here,” Tanaka said. “So’s the coffee, believe it or not. Turns out the boss is a coffee geek and a foodie. Rumor has it, he ran rough-shod over the budget office to get some real food in here and buys the coffee, himself.”

“A foodie, too, huh?” Sharon mused.

Tanaka turned on her. “You knew about the coffee?”

Sharon flushed. “It came up in the interview.”

Tanaka looked at Sharon’s mug and nodded. “You know, that doesn’t surprise me. He’s real good at making you feel right at home. With me, it was the food thing. We met at some campaign event at school, someone had set up this really bad sushi bar. And we both laughed at how trite it was. So when he called me in for the interview last December, he had brought in eel and octopus and some of the nicest sashimi you’ve ever tasted.” Tanaka filled a mug from one of the airpots. “The guy can even use chopsticks. He’ll be great if we get over to Asia. I’m kinda surprised he asked me to bring you to the meeting. He usually brings the newbies in, himself.”

“Really.” Sharon didn’t say anything more, but in the back of her mind, she decided she was relieved. If the president was still feeling the effects of that all too strange meeting, then she was perfectly happy he was keeping his distance.

Tanaka led her over to a table. “By the way, you played it perfectly with the Coop this morning.”

“I did?” Sharon sat down, trying to hide her fear.

“Oh, yeah.” Tanaka paused long enough to grab a few danishes from the basket and drop them on the table. “Here’s the thing. The idea behind the Advisory Board is interactivity.”

“Yeah, I’d heard.”

“But that doesn’t mean we’re all on the same page, opinion-wise. We all joke that the boss took Doris Kearns Goodwin too seriously.”

“Oh. You mean that historian who wrote that book about Lincoln’s cabinet.”

“Yeah, that Lincoln purposely stacked with people he didn’t agree with. The boss did the same, not only with the cabinet, but with the Advisory Board, too. Consider, you’ve got the Ed-man.”

“Dr. Eddington.”

Tanaka nodded. “Yeah. That guy is a hard-core Libertarian, for crying out loud. The only role for government is military and postal service, and he’d privatize the postal service if he thought he could. On the other end of the spectrum is Whitey, John Whitesand. Government should pay for everything. Both of these guys are hyper-intelligent, both are convinced they’re right. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Sharon hesitated. “I got the impression from Ms. Washington that everyone got along really well.”

“Whitey and the Ed-man are best friends.”

“Huh?”

“They are. That’s the genius of the Coop.” Tanaka stuffed half a danish in her mouth. “He was aiming at me, by the way. Guy can’t hit the broad side of a barn.”

“I don’t get it,” said Sharon, who had decided to abandon reason and was attacking another danish, herself.

“It’s all the practical jokes and teasing. So no one takes him or herself that seriously. Then it becomes all about the work. No one has to stick to their territory because their ego is at stake. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t agree with you because it’s not about you.”

“Oh, I get it. It’s like corporate games retreats.”

Tanaka laughed very loudly. “I’m sorry. It’s kind of the same idea, but I wouldn’t say so in front of the others.”

“Why not?”

Tanaka looked around and leaned in conspiratorially. “Because of Her. Marian Jefferson. The boss brought her in to run operations, and she’s really good. Kicked the stuffing out of the policy office and got it running worth something. And she actually got the budget office straightened out. And one of the ways she got those two offices working was that she had everyone, including the press office, do the corporate games thing.”

Sharon winced. “They are pretty effective.”

“And you look like you just tasted some bad wasabi.”

“I don’t really like them, myself.”

“None of us advisory folks do. It’s one of the reasons why the Ed-man works at home. So Ms. Jefferson finally tells the president that it’s only fair that the advisory group do the games and team building thing.”

Sharon’s eyebrows lifted. “I’m getting the impression it didn’t go over well.”

“Ed-man flat out refused to show and sent out a notice to his staff that they didn’t have to, either. The rest of us dragged our sorry butts in that Saturday.” Tanaka shook her head and chuckled. “Coop was out and out docile, wouldn’t tease her, wouldn’t make faces, nothing. Until she gets us doing this stupid group project – we were supposed to build something out of snow. As soon as her back is turned, Coop says we should divide up into our respective sub-groups, each build our own fort and have a snowball fight. Ms. Jefferson had a cow. He just ignored her and we had the baddest snowball fight you ever saw. Coop damn near got frost bit when I rubbed his nose in it. That’s why he was aiming at me this morning. But that’s also how I know you played it right. He threatened to get you back. I’ve noticed. He doesn’t play jokes on people he doesn’t respect. He just ignores them. And advisory folks get that. We’re not here to toe the line and play nice. We’re here to think and to help the president get the best information he can get. Ed-man said it’s kinda like the Marines. They tear you down, then build you back up the way they want you. Coop tears you down, but then he builds you back up as part of something bigger than yourself.”

Sharon sat back. “Okay. That’s not quite what I expected, but that’s interesting.”

“Yep, but that’s part of the boss’s genius, too. He knows how to pick the right kind of people. We haven’t had a bad apple yet.”

Sharon stuffed back a momentary qualm then looked up at the clock. “Well, I guess it’s baptism of fire time.”

Tanaka grinned. “Good. You’re terrified. Coop will be so happy with me.”

Meeting the Staff

What had she done? Sharon had dropped the snow down Cooper’s neck on instinct. And she had built her career on having razor-sharp instincts and the ability to take risks. Only, Sharon suddenly realized, the reason she hadn’t been afraid to take risks was that she had never worried about losing whatever job she’d held at the time. It had never mattered before because she had a fabulously wealthy rock star brother who would have been happy to support her. The fact that she and her sisters preferred to make their own way was their choice. And she had put away some serious money and made some excellent investments, which meant work was almost a matter of preference these days.

But now things were very, very different, she realized with a shock. For the first time in her life, she now had a job that she wanted to keep. Assuming Dr. Cooper would let her.

Sharon shook it off. Being scared wasn’t the answer. She had a staff coming in and research to finalize, not to mention an office to set up.

She looked around and cringed a little. She’d heard West Wing offices were cramped, and the windowless room was certainly that: wide and shallow with a fairly large dark wood desk in the center that faced the door. There wasn’t room for chairs in front, but there was a couch along one of the narrow walls, with empty bookshelves over the couch. On the facing narrow wall was a chalkboard and more shelves under that. Everything was painted a dull, institutional egg-shell color, contrasting with the dark gray institutional carpet.

It wasn’t directly behind the desk because there wouldn’t have been room, but along the back wall of the office and to the side nearest the couch, was a dark wood credenza that short of matched the desk. On top of that was a rather nice coffeemaker, a better than average grinder, and a couple bottles of water. Next to those was a brown bag folded over and hand-labeled, from K-Street Koffee, Kenyan AA. The soft scent of roasted coffee beans tickled Sharon’s nose. She picked up the note.

Some of Cecil’s best for a fellow fan,” it said in a cramped scribble. “Welcome to the team.”

Sharon smiled. It was a nice touch and somehow, just right. She looked at the grinder. It wasn’t one of the top-of-the-line burr grinders like the president had in his office, that would have been too much. But it wasn’t your basic cheap model, either. Just enough to say welcome without any inappropriate overtones. Personal enough to show thoughtfulness, but not enough to imply a deeper intimacy was apparent or wanted.

There was only one thing to do and Sharon did it. In no time, some of the Kenyan AA had been ground and the coffeemaker was happily dripping away, filling the office with a comforting scent. Further inspection of the credenza revealed mugs, spoons, and sugar. There was even a small refrigerator at the end of the credenza that Sharon hadn’t seen at first and, sure enough, a small carton each of cream and milk were inside. Somebody else must have put those there.

With coffee on the brew, Sharon turned to unpacking her box, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. A young African American man dressed in a dark suit stood politely in the doorway.

I’m here with your laptop, ma’am,” he said quietly. “If you’ve got a second, I can show you how to get on the system and get your passwords set up.”

May as well,” Sharon said.

He came in and gently placed the computer on her desk, along with a sheet of paper.

“I also need you to sign this. It’s giving the Secret Service permission to enter your home and install secure wi-fi there.”

“Oh, okay.”

And so it went on. In fact, the young man was still working with her when the first of her staff members began to filter in shortly before eight a.m. The printer was down the hall and around the corner, partly because staffers were being strongly encouraged to do as much electronically as possible.

“Notes, memos, everything will be coming via e-mail,” the young man said.

“Good. I think I’d better send one right now. Now, where was that list of my group’s e-mails?”

The young man disappeared shortly after, just as Sharon turned to thank him and ask his name. It seemed odd, but Sharon was more than distracted a moment later by the sound of someone clattering into the cubicle outside her door, muttering curses and other foul imprecations on the city’s subway system. Sharon stepped out of her office and into the cubicle. It was crammed with two desks, each facing opposite walls, and filled with the usual office paraphernalia, much of which was empty for the time being. The young female someone who had just come in was busy stripping off her coat as fast as she could while digging through the box on her desk to find something.

“Oh, hi,” she said, noticing Sharon. She was in her mid-twenties and dressed in a dark skirt and tan blouse that was somewhat more chic than the usual Washington business-wear. She pulled a hangar from the box and hung her coat on it. Her hair was long, brown and in a thick braid down her back. “I’m Julie. Think the boss knows I’m late?”

“I’m sure I do,” said Sharon.

Julie groaned and flopped into her chair. “I left early. I swear I did. But there was a killer pothole on the freeway, had traffic all backed up all the way to the Metro station. Then the freaking train just sat there for twenty minutes. Apparently there was a problem at the Pentagon stop.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“At the moment, no. Are you one of the researchers?”

Julie laughed. “Heck, no! I’m not smart enough for that. I’m your assistant.”

“Great. Good to meet you. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Julie Ivins.”

“Actually, Julie, I just realized there is something you can help me with. I want to have a quick staff meeting in about ten minutes and we need to figure out how we’re going to get everyone into my office. And staff meeting will always include you unless I say otherwise.”

“Sure, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Call me Sharon.”

Julie grinned. “Okay.” She got up. “It’s going to be tricky. Would you believe you got one of the bigger offices?”

Sharon looked at her, surprised. “I thought you were just starting today.”

“Working for you, yeah. But I’ve been at the White House for about seven years now.”

“I thought every administration re-staffed.”

“Us clerical stiffs are always here. There’re some assistants in budget who’ve been here through three administrations already. I was working for one of the speechwriters before. I’m really liking the new president. You know, they dim the lights in the evening as the sun goes down? So people will actually go home at night? The president says he wants people to stay fresh and they can’t be fresh if they’re constantly burning the midnight oil.”

“Oh,” said Sharon. “Well, let’s figure out the meeting situation.”

It took Julie five seconds to look over Sharon’s office, propose a solution, then get the chairs needed to make it work. They were older, dark wood and decidedly old-fashioned. Sharon wondered how long the chairs had been in the building. They looked like they might have been new when Calvin Coolidge was president.

Sharon’s four staff researchers were pleasant enough and seemed to respond to her well. Faiza Moussel was a tall, slender woman with intense dark eyes. She wore a bright green and yellow hajib over her hair, and was otherwise conservatively dressed in a tan suit with slacks. She had been born and raised in the U.S., but her parents were Algerian. She focused mostly on the Middle East and Asia.

Katie Minor was as short, stout and fair as Faiza was dark, tall and slender. Katie’s area of expertise was Africa, although she was interested in Asia, as well. Raoul Mendoza was a dour-looking older man with a bald top and dark hair underneath. He focused on Europe, Canada and Australia. Leonidas Bertonetti was the South American expert, a handsome man in his mid-thirties with dark hair and a very Italian smoothness, probably because his family, though long in Argentina, was of Italian ancestry.

The meeting was very short and in less than half an hour, everyone had gone back to her or his desk to do some final updates.

Sharon’s First Day Starts

Very early that next morning had Sharon walking up to the White House employee entrance with her stomach in knots. The afternoon before, she had been led around the West Wing by Ms. Washington, first to complete the box loads of virtual paperwork – the forms were actually on the computer – then to see her office. Ms. Washington said that Sharon’s predecessor had hired a staff, but since he had passed before the office could begin functioning, they hadn’t been officially working.

The office, itself, was made up of a pod of cubicles clustered, more or less, around her main office. The staff included four researchers and a personal assistant. Ms. Washington had said that she would see to calling the staff members and telling them to come in the next day. Then Ms. Washington slapped a flash drive with samples of the rest of the advisory team’s reports into Sharon’s hand and sent her on her way.

Sharon had spent the night poring over the reports. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t expected to present one on her very first day on the job, she still was determined to make a good impression.

Now, as she approached the guard gate at 6:30 a.m., she swallowed and put on her formidable best. So what if her stomach was doing loop the loops and that soft malevolent voice in the back of her brain whispered that it had all been a dream and the second she presented herself at the gate she would be immediately arrested for impersonating a successful woman?

Fortunately, the guard at the gate had no clue what the malevolent voice was saying and handed Sharon her temporary badge, explaining that she would need to go straight from the gate to the security office so that she could pick up her permanent badge and ID.

Great. Thanks.”

Sharon flashed the guard a smile, but he didn’t see. He was too busy waving in another woman behind her.

The woman was fairly short but carried herself with authority. Her hair was shiny, deep black and perfectly straight, falling just below her shoulders. She wore a dark wooly top coat over black dress slacks and boots, with a matching fuzzy hat perched on the top of her head. She stopped as she saw Sharon fumbling with her box and her temp badge.

Are you Wheatly?” the woman asked. She was Asian, with an oval face that belied her age.

Uh, yeah. How did you know?”

Newbie badge, box. You’re moving in.” The woman held out her right hand, which was covered with a black kid glove. “I’m Karen Tanaka.”

Oh. You research pop culture.” Sharon shook the offered hand and then readjusted her box.

Tanaka’s right eyebrow lifted. “And you’re up on your homework. That’s good. You’ll need to be on your toes around here.”

I’ve done it before.”

Tanaka laughed. “Yeah. We all have. But there’s nothing like this. Don’t let the guys fool you. We’re all a little freaked out about being here. Even the boss. But they keep saying we’ll get used to it. Come on. I’ll show you around.”

They started off toward the side door of the all-too famous building. There had been a good snow the night before and the lawn was glittering with a fresh foot or so.

Thanks,” Sharon said. “I figured there might be some early arrivals, but I was hoping to get in first.”

You almost made it. Most of us don’t get in until seven or so. The boss said that he doesn’t want a lot of working late, either. He wants the entire staff out of the office by seven p.m. unless absolutely necessary.”

I’d heard that.”

Tanaka nodded. “It’s a good idea, in theory. Keeps us more well-rounded, prevents tunnel-vision.”

And does it work?”

Mostly. I’m early today because my kid had to be at school early for some planning meeting.”

Sharon remembered that Tanaka was a single mom with two children, one in middle school, one a freshman in high school. Sharon was about to ask for more details when a snow ball caught her hard in the back of the neck. Sharon yelped and Tanaka whirled.

Behind them, an average-sized Black man in a tan trench coat and an ugly tweed hat approached them from the gate. There were still remnants of snow on his dark, woolen gloves.

Coop!” Tanaka hollered. “What the heck do you think you’re doing? I got the newbie with me.”

Coop grinned, his teeth mostly white against his dark skin with an even darker pencil-line mustache on his upper lip.

I meant to hit you,” he hollered back, good-naturedly.

Karen, smiling, rolled her eyes and let out a long-suffering sigh.

Ignore him,” she told Sharon.

But Sharon knew that one ignored Dr. Edward Cooper at one’s peril. And it wasn’t because he was President Jerguesson’s best friend. Dr. Cooper was fairly widely acknowledged as being a beyond brilliant economist. He was also fairly widely acknowledged for his tendency toward practical jokes.

So you’re the newbie,” Cooper said as he came up to the two women. “Welcome. I’m Eddie Cooper.”

Sharon finished brushing snow off the back of her neck. “Thanks. I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

Making an early start, huh?”

Yeah. It doesn’t hurt on a first day,” Sharon said. They were almost to the door.

Don’t make a habit of it,” Cooper answered, grinning. “You’ll end up old and ugly like me.”

Sharon grinned in spite of herself. Cooper was 46 years old and hardly unattractive, not that that mattered. He was married and had a huge number of children, by all reports.

Sharon dropped her badge and bent quickly to pick it up. Cooper dove, as well, but Sharon got the badge first. She also got a nice chunk of ice, which she quickly slipped underneath the collar of his suit. Cooper yelped as the ice hit the warmth of his skin, but he stood up, laughing.

Man, that’s cold!” he said.

Tanaka laughed hard. “Wheatly, you and I are going to be very good friends.”

She held up her hand for a high five and Sharon swatted it.

Be that as it may,” said Cooper, still smiling. “Both you ladies better remember, you’re playing in the big leagues now.”

And he swooped inside the West Wing entrance.

Tanaka laughed again, but it was more than a little hesitant. “Yipes. We’re in for it.”

Oh.” Sharon swallowed her own fear. “Well. He’ll have to be very careful if he wants to mess with me.”

Tanaka opened the office door. “I like your spirit. Good luck, but I like your spirit.”

She pointed Sharon to the security office, then went on to her own. Sharon finished the final computer forms and got her badge and ID and directions to her own office.

It was blessedly empty. Sharon set her box on her new desk and fell into the padded, but aging swivel chair, all pretense at being strong and formidable gone.

Moving In

Inez Santiago angrily snapped her mobile phone shut and glared out at the New York City traffic.

“Mi amor?” Michael Wheatly asked, softly.

He was sitting next to her in the back seat of the limo, gently strumming his six-string classical guitar. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown eyes in a perfectly balanced face, topped off by blond hair that he was wearing a little on the longish side for the time being. Inez smiled softly at him in spite of her profound irritation. As stunningly handsome as Michael was, people were always going to be looking at him. But as long as he kept his shirt on and his hair straight, people were not as likely to recognize him.

“That was Bryce,” Inez told him.

“I got that.”

“He’s going to release that song for Sharon as the single off the new album whether we want him to or not.
Michael nodded. “I got that, too.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “Your sister is not going to like it.”

“It doesn’t mention her by name.”

“But you know how skittish she is.”

“Better than you do, Amada.”

Inez shook her head and looked out at the traffic again. She hated limos and Michael did even more than she. But trying to drive through Manhattan after a very long flight was madness and a limo was more comfortable than a taxi.

It had been a dream trip. Michael’s career – which had never completely stalled – was bouncing back to life again, and the previous year had been jam-packed, at best. Then there had been the holidays – a tense week with her family, and after that, the happy, noisy chaos of his. Getting away, just the two of them together, for a month in Australia had been heaven.

Only now, they were home. Not her home. Not even his, really. They had bought a new place together – Michael’s idea. After five years together, it was about time.

“Bryce is an asshole,” Inez said quietly.

“We’ve known that for years,’ Michael replied.

“Thank God you’ve only got one more album on that contract.”

Michael shrugged. “And then what?”

“You’ve got a name. We could go independent and you’ll still get air time on the radio. Maybe we could get a website going. Besides, by the time you get that last album made, who knows what the business will be like by then? You may never have to make a whole album at a time again.”

Michael strummed some more. “Who cares? I’m betting it’s not Bryce that’s got you on edge, anyway.”

Inez fidgeted with the cell phone.

“Am I right?” Michael asked.

“Close enough.”

“We don’t have to do this. I can buy you out of your share of the apartment.”

“And then what?” Inez smiled softly at him. “We can’t go back to the way it was before, Miguel, even if I wasn’t managing you. If I wait ‘til I’m ready, we’ll both be in our graves.”

“I thought you not being ready was why we’re not married.” Michael grinned.

Inez lightly punched his upper arm. “One step at a time, amado. Let me get used to living with you, first.”

And, sure enough, the limo pulled up in front of the Upper East Side apartment building and stopped. Inez caught her breath as Michael smiled and took her hand.

“There’s no getting used to me,” he chuckled. “But we can and will make it work.”

Working Together

Sharon knew she was definitely more nervous as the guard escorted her from the guard house. Kent barely glanced at her from his desk, then pushed the intercom.

“Mr. President, Ms. Wheatly is here.”

“Please send her in.”

That raised Kent’s eyebrows, but he just glanced at Sharon and nodded toward the door.

He was alone in the office and standing behind his desk. Sharon tried not to gulp, but her insides were going again, only this time it had nothing to do with nerves.

“Hi,” Mark said softly.

There she was, this time in a dark gray dress. Her hair was up and her eyes, yes, her eyes were definitely a deep, rich brown.

“Hi,” she replied.

“Uh, please sit down.” He gestured to the couch, then waited for her to sit before sitting in the chair across from her.

“Thank you,” Sharon said.

“Well, about this job thing,” Mark started slowly, looking everywhere but at her.

“Yeah, about that.” Sharon sighed deeply.

“Yeah.” Mark swallowed. “I think we both know we have a little problem with that.”

Sharon nodded. “Without question.” She looked at him and the words came tumbling out. “Look, it’s not you. I mean, obviously, it’s you. But you, as a person, are not why I can’t do this. I don’t know if that makes sense.”

“I think so. You don’t want to date the boss.”

“Oh no. I don’t care about that.” Sharon flushed. “I’ve dated my boss before. It wasn’t any big deal and we broke up and worked together for another two years before I left. Everybody knew about it and nobody cared.”

“Only this time, it’s different.”

“Way different. You’re… It’s all this.” Sharon waved her hands to indicate the office. “I couldn’t take the publicity. It’s happened before. I’ve had my fifteen minutes and it was the worst time of my life, bar none. I never want to go through that again.”

Mark nodded, suddenly feeling very relieved. “I can understand that, I think. And you’ve got a point. Which has really put me on the horns of a dilemma. Ms. Wheatly, I need the work you can do. You are my top candidate several times over.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Sharon blurted out. “Your personal advisors are almost all PhDs and older.”

“And not one of the folks I’ve been considering has your breadth of interest, your language skills, and most importantly, your sense of humor and your willingness to stand me down.”

“Mr. President, I can’t take this job!” Sharon squeaked, then fought to get control again. After all, she was a professional, an executive who had faced down CEOs all over the world. So what was it about this guy that had her acting like she was in high school all of a sudden?

“Yes, you can,” Mark said. “Because I don’t want you to get any publicity, either.”

“What?”

Mark got up and started pacing. “I’m not sure how to say this. But I think it’s a fairly safe and objective observation that you are an attractive woman. And, as you have just pointed out, when an attractive woman gets around me, people tend to talk about it and she gets photographed and well, you know how it goes.”

“All too well.”

“Which is why putting you in the public eye would not be good. That kind of talk can be very hard on your credibility and I can’t have that in an advisor.”

“Which is why I can’t take the job.”

“That’s exactly why you need to.” Mark turned and grinned at her.

Sharon felt her mouth open and then close. “That makes no sense, whatsoever.”

Mark returned to his chair and leaned forward. “I’m laying the cards on the table, consequences be damned. There’s something going on here. You. Me. I can barely breathe, there’s so much electricity going on.”

“Me, either,” Sharon said softly.

“And obviously, there are some significant obstacles for both of us in terms of a personal relationship. For you, there’s the publicity. For me, well, let’s just say it’s a similar issue. But if we were working together, it would be out there. It would be public, true. But there would be witnesses that nothing is going on. We’re co-workers and nothing else. No story. And it will be very hard to sustain those kinds of rumors for any length of time.”

“I doubt that,” said Sharon.
Mark shrugged. “Maybe not. But without concrete evidence, it would be very hard for the media to keep it going.”

“Possibly.” Sharon felt herself weakening. “But, since the cards are on the table, what about a personal relationship? Is that definitely out?”

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know.” Sharon winced. “I mean, I guess, this whole frisson thing between us. That’s sweet and romantic and all. But… I’m really messed up. There’s part of me that could easily do the whole romantic, falling in love thing. And I’d really want to, if it weren’t for the fact that this will not be an easy break up.”

Mark sighed. “I’m at least as messed up. I wasn’t joking during the debates when I said the last thing I was interested in was getting romantically involved while I was in office. This job is 24/7. It’s consuming like nothing else on the planet. I literally have to turn the lights out in the West Wing so folks will go home.” He paused. “But then you walked into my office, and if this is what a ton of bricks feels like, then, yeah, I got hit with them.” He looked at her. “I can’t do a relationship right now.”

“And I don’t want to risk it.” Sharon sighed. “The only thing worse would be giving you up.”

“I know.” Mark looked at her hopefully. “Think we can try to stay just friends for the next eight years?”

Sharon laughed sadly. “Do you honestly think that’s possible?”

He shrugged. “It’s possible. The work is pretty consuming, and I can’t imagine having that much time to, well, do the relationship thing, in the first place.”

“I suppose. And my Tante Berthilde always says if it’s going to last, no need to rush into it.”

“Fine. We’ll just take things really, really slowly and focus on keeping a platonic friendship between co-workers.” He stood. “So, you’ll take the job, then?”

She stood. “I guess so.”

He grinned. “Then, in the name of platonic friendship, let’s have some coffee.”

Sharon looked over at the credenza where the thermal pot was. “Ethiopian harrar?”

“Nope. Sumatran.” Mark showed her a white ceramic crock and popped open the seal.

Sharon sniffed the beans and sighed happily. “That’s Cecil’s work, all right.”

“Yep. I’ve got the burr grinder right here. And I’ve got to buzz Johnnie. Do you mind doing the grind? For French press?”

“No problem. Where’s your water?”

“There’s an instant heat kettle.” Mark went over to his desk and buzzed. “Johnnie, need you to come in with Ms. Wheatly’s paperwork, please. And bring your mug.”

Johnetta appeared moments later, then stepped back in shock as Sharon expertly operated the grinder.

“Perfect,” Mark said, readying the carafe with the special plunger attachment that would separate the coffee from the grounds. “Sumatran mandheling, Johnnie.”

“Sumatran? And you let Ms. Wheatly touch your grinder?” Johnnie said.

Mark paused, looking guilty. “Uh, kindred spirits on the coffee front.”

Sharon caught his eyes and nodded. Discretion was in order. Already.

Making the Decision

On Sundays, after attending the obligatory church service, Mark made brunch for his sister, June, who was in residence at the White House to do all the things a first lady would do had Mark been married. It was a not entirely satisfactory arrangement, since June was the very successful owner and designer of a clothing company based out of New York, which meant she had other things to do besides open pre-schools and champion non-controversial causes. So Mark, who enjoyed cooking, made his sister a nice brunch every Sunday morning.

The Sunday after his meeting with Sharon, he put together a ham steak, with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, some stone-ground grits, and a maple brioche.

“You look happy,” June observed as they began to eat.

Her hair was blondish and short and her eyes deep blue. Although June had never modeled, her face had the sort of symmetry one associated with fashion models. She also had the stature and figure of a runway model. Rumor had it, she had an eating disorder, but rumor was only partly correct. She was a recovering anorexic, and even though she was over fifteen years into her recovery, she still did not eat a lot.

“Okay.” Mark scrunched his face as he tasted the asparagus. “I don’t think I put enough butter in the hollandaise. It’s tastes too lemony.”

“The hollandaise is perfect, as always. I said you look happy.”

“And…?”

“Well, not so happy, so I know you’re not getting any.”

Mark glared at his sister. “No, I’m not getting any. And I wouldn’t discuss it with you if I were.”

June looked him over more carefully. “But something’s going on. You’re happy. I noticed it Friday, at the press conference.”

“So?”

“If I noticed, then you know who else did.”

“Oh.” Mark stopped eating as he considered what June had really been saying.

It was something they seldom talked about and when they did, it was almost always in the most oblique terms.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said finally. “And if I don’t, then she doesn’t have anything to go on.”

“Since when has that stopped her?” June delicately cut a bite of ham. “I’m already hearing whispers about Kelly Won.”

“I haven’t seen her in over five years.” Mark turned back to his meal, his appetite somewhat soured.

June shrugged. “Well, like I said… And besides, the way you’re claiming to live like a hermit while you’re in office, she may be assuming you’re bluffing.”

“She’ll have to assume. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t stop seeing someone that I’m not seeing in the first place.”

“Okay. But don’t be surprised if it gets ugly again.”

“I’m never surprised when it gets ugly,” Mark sighed.

He tried to stay cheerful, but June’s observation had him nettled. He really wasn’t seeing anybody. It was true that it did tend to show when he was, even when he didn’t say anything. But there was no woman in his life at that moment.

Except the previous Thursday morning he had met a very lovely – he corrected himself – a very competent, amazingly intelligent, very sweet woman. June was watching him.

“I’m not seeing anyone,” he said.

But he had been vaguely concerned about hiring Ms. Wheatly. Johnetta was pushing him to make it final and he had been putting her off, saying the final background check needed to be completed. And there was no question, she was the best for the job.

But there was something about her that just made him feel good. The trouble was, if June could see it, then to let Ms. Wheatly anywhere near him was to leave her vulnerable and exposed. He’d seen it happen before, even as far back as when he was in the state legislature, and it had been bad. And those kinds of attacks were the sort that would seriously compromise her effectiveness as an advisor.

He was still debating what to do about the situation on Monday morning when Johnetta cornered him after their first briefing of the day.

“Sir, you’ve got to make a decision and you know Wheatly is your best candidate,” Johnetta said.

“Yes and no, Johnnie,” Mark said.

“What are you talking about? The background check came through and she’s as clean as a whistle, even with past relationships.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mark started twisting the buttons on his suit coat sleeve.

“Hands in your pocket, Sir.”

Mark sighed and put his hands on the desk. “It’s just… I’m not sure how to say this.”

Johnetta’s eyes rolled. “We always said, the best person for the job, no matter what. You’ve got to hire Wheatly.”

“I don’t want to see her made into a target for the media.”

“Well, there is that.”

“It won’t help her effectiveness.”

“Possibly.” Johnetta sighed, getting up and heading for her special door. “I think you oughta just let the media and Ms. Wheatly work it out on their own. Anyway, it’s time to get going. You’ve got the milk lobby coming in and I’ve got a ton of phone calls to make.” She opened the door and paused. “Jugs, go ahead and hire Wheatly. I’ve got a feeling she’ll be good for you.”

Mark smiled at the use of his old nickname, then sighed. “Good for me, huh? I’m afraid that may be exactly the problem.”

“Then make it the solution,” Johnetta said, then left the office.

Mark took a deep breath, then had Kent summon Sharon Wheatly to the Oval Office that very afternoon.

Sharon’s Reaction

Sharon managed to hang onto her cool just long enough to get out on the street and down the block. She checked the time on her mobile phone and did some quick math. It was mid-morning in Washington, so it was evening in Bombay and likely that Niecy was still up.

Sharon and Niecy were best friends at the all-too exclusive Swiss college prep they’d gone to. But unlike most of their classmates, she and Niecy had remained close over the years, in spite of usually being on two different continents at any given time. Sharon briefly debated calling her mother, but it was too early in California for Madeleine to be awake enough to hear her.

Sharon dialed and hoped like crazy Niecy wasn’t out raiding brothels for under-age sex slaves that night. Niecy’s day job, as she called it, was minister of education for India. But being the idealist she was, Niecy was just as likely to be out trying to save as many young girls as she could.

Niecy picked up at the first ring.

“Hallo, Sharon,” she said, cheerfully. “Did you have your interview?”

“Yes,” Sharon warbled in spite of herself.

“Was the White House as exciting as you thought it would be?”

“Way more.” And Sharon gushed out what had happened in the interview. “It was horrible, Niecy! And wonderful. I mean, there he is, checking me out and all I can think is that he’s so gorgeous and so sweet. There’s just something about this guy.”

“And what did he think about you?”

“How should I know?” Sharon groaned. “Wait. He said he had to go through channels, but that we’d be in touch.”

“That sounds very good for you, then.”

Sharon froze. “Niecy, I can’t take that job.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” Niecy was trying not to laugh. “It is your dream job. You have to take it, if it’s offered.”

“Not that it will be. It’s totally the sort of job for old men with PhDs.”

This time, Niecy did laugh. “Sharon, you have out-witted any number of old men with PhDs, and a host of other credentials, too. You should take the job.”

“But I can’t. There’s just something about him. It’s begging for disaster. I can so see myself falling for him.”

“You’ve done that before and it worked out quite nicely, as I recall.”

“This time it’s completely different. I’ve never had a man affect me this way. It’s scary, Niecy.”

“Are you afraid he won’t feel the same about you?”

“That would make it so much easier.”

“Then what’s the trouble? It’s easy if he doesn’t like you. And if he does, well, you could do a lot worse than a very handsome president of the United States, who, I have heard, is also very kind and very intelligent.”

“He certainly lived up to that.” Sharon found a bench and flopped onto it. “It would be a disaster. All my privacy, completely gone. I told you about that time with Michael’s video. It was horrible. People look at me enough, Niecy. Imagine if they had reason to look”

“That would not be very nice, I agree. But, Sharon, you will never get a better opportunity than this. It would be absolutely crazy to turn it down. And just think, you can work a couple years at the White House, and after that, you can do whatever you would like to for the rest of your life. You might be able to get an ambassadorship, or join a think tank. My goodness, dear, the world will be lining up to take you on, and you can entirely dictate your own terms. You can’t turn that down.”

“All I wanted was to travel a bit and then settle down with my books and some cats.”

“Or you could do that, too. But it will be a lot more comfortable after working at the White House, I assure you.”

“You can say that again. He’s a coffee geek.”

“So you said. And there you have it. You have something in common.”

Sharon sighed. “Just what I don’t need.”

The Meeting

When Kent Jeffries called to tell Sharon she had an interview at the White House, she was only mildly surprised. She’d heard that the various cabinet offices had been helping the White House hire staffers in their respective fields.

Her first week in Washington had been relatively relaxed. It had only taken three phone calls and two lunches to secure her meeting with Mr. Wallace at the State Department. She’d been a little surprised when Ms. Fritsch had called and requested an interview, but since things were done somewhat differently in the public sector, one had to expect it.

Still, a meeting at the White House. Sharon had to work to keep a professional demeanor as she signed in at the West Gate.

“Mr. Jeffries?” asked the guard, slightly incredulously.

“Yes, Mr. Kent Jeffries.”

“I’ll have to call on that.” He turned and dialed a phone. “Mr. Jeffries, I got a Sharon Wheatly here. Says she’s here to see you…. Oh. I’ll do that. Very good, sir.”

The guard turned back to Sharon and started pulling together the visitor badge and all the other necessary paperwork. Sharon wondered why the guard was so surprised that she wanted to see Mr. Jeffries.

Another guard escorted her to the West Wing, and she couldn’t help giggling with excitement as she walked through the majestic corridors. Jeffries’ desk appeared to be in an outer office and Jeffries, himself, was short, pudgy, with dark, curly hair, glasses and the attitude absolutely necessary for a good gate-keeper. He barely glanced up from his computer as the guard introduced Sharon.

“How do you do, Mr. Jeffries,” she began.

“You’re not here to see me,” he said abruptly, as if she should have known that. His voice was as sharp and nasal as his appearance bespoke.

“All you said on the phone was that you were from the White House and that I had an interview for today at this time,” Sharon said, putting as much authority into her voice as she could.

It was a considerable amount of authority – she had terrified middle managers all over the world with that tone. Nonetheless, Jeffries remained unaffected.

“You’re here to see the president,” he said, his eyes still glued to his monitor as his fingers rattled the keyboard.

Sharon’s heart stopped. Something tugged at the back of her brain suggesting that she should know why, but the shock of hearing who her interviewer was kept the suggestion at bay. There may have been a small betraying tremor, but her outward appearance remained cool. She’d been swimming with the corporate sharks far too long to give anything away that she didn’t need to. That didn’t mean her insides weren’t roiling.

She took multiple, discreet, deep breaths, which didn’t help at all when the intercom buzzed.

“Kent, I’m ready for the candidate now,” said a voice that was more than a little familiar.

Mark was trying to get a couple more seconds in on the latest briefing on pork belly subsidies when Kent announced Ms. Sharon Wheatly and shut the door. He glanced over the top of the papers and saw legs. Shapely legs. He lowered the report and looked over the new candidate. She was wearing a suit, a lighter blue than you mostly saw on The Hill, and while it looked perfectly business-like, there was something else about it. The shape of the jacket was different – which Mark guessed meant it had style, something his sister, June, would have thumped him for missing.

Wheatly looked to be in her early 30s, and her blonde hair was pulled back instead of cut short and hair-sprayed out. But it was her eyes and her face… Standing on the other side of the room, it was hard to tell what color her eyes actually were, just that they were dark. But there was something about her.

Sharon, for her part, saw him appraising her and began to bristle, only to realize she’d been looking him over, too. He was so much better looking in person. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown hair that was just long enough on top to run her fingers through. And his eyes, which were a rich green, and something about the square jaw.

A third voice cleared itself.

“It’s good to meet you, Ms. Wheatly,” Mark said, coming around the desk. “This is Johnetta Washington, my chief of staff.”

Sharon propelled herself forward to shake hands first with the president, then with Ms. Washington.

“Good to meet you, sir. Ma’am,” Sharon replied.

“Please have a seat,” Mark continued. “Would you like some coffee?”

He dashed to the credenza next to the door. Sharon followed his gesture to the sofa in the middle of the room and sat down next to Ms. Washington.

“It’s Ethiopian,” Mark continued, painfully aware that he was chattering and helpless to stop himself. He filled three cups from a thermal pitcher on the credenza. “One of my guilty secrets. I get my own custom roast done.”

“K Street Koffee?” Sharon smiled, relieved and excited. Coffee geek-speak she could do.

“Yeah. Who else?” Mark grinned.

“I love them,” Sharon said. “It’s the only place in town I can get Kenyan Double A that hasn’t been roasted to within an inch of its life.”

Mark handed her a filled cup. “Cecil is amazing. He did some Sumatran Mandheling for me that is beyond belief.”

Sharon sipped as he gave Johnetta her cup. Johnetta glared at him meaningfully as she reached for the cream and sugar on the coffee table in front of her.

“This is so good,” Sharon said. “Maybe just a little sugar to bring out the berry notes?”

“Please.” Mark grinned again, then turned to his desk. “Let me get your resume.”

Sharon noted that there was no paper on the desk and wondered where the resume was. Mark grabbed the tablet computer, then bringing his cup, came around and sat down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table.

“So, you’re looking to join us from the private sector,” he said, after tapping the tablet with a stylus and giving the resume a quick glance. “Why the change?”

It wasn’t the question he’d intended to ask and he caught Johnetta looking at him quizzically. Sharon, however, had expected that question, and had her answer ready, but it wasn’t what came out of her mouth.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said instead. “I mean, public service. Growing up, all my friends wanted to be models, actors, CEOs. I wanted to be a diplomat, work all over the world, bring people together.”

“And you can’t do that on the corporate side?”

“Not really.” Sharon shrugged. “I guess you can. I just got so tired of the petty egos, the power games.”

“And you’re coming to Washington to get away from that?” Mark looked at her, bemused.

“Naturally.” Sharon laughed. “I know it sounds a little out of the frying pan into the fire. But at least, here, I can pretend that I’m doing some good, making the world a better place.”

“Indeed.” Mark looked over at Johnetta and nodded.

“This is a report on some trade issues with Kuwait,” Johnetta said, handing Sharon another tablet computer. “It was prepared by one of our staffers.”

Sharon looked it over and shook her head. “Well, someone’s not watching Al Jazeera.”

“I’m sure my staff does,” said Mark.

“Yeah, the English version,” Sharon said, looking him square in the face. She pointed to a spot on the screen. “This is a common mis-translation. It’s not at all consistent with what I’ve been seeing in the original Arabic.”

“That’s right.” Mark looked at the resume again. “That’s one of your ten languages.”

He looked over at Johnetta.

“What she’s saying makes sense given the intel we got this morning,” Johnetta said.

“So how many of those ten languages are you fluent in?” Mark asked.

“All of them,” Sharon said. “That’s why I put them on the resume. I haven’t taken the proficiency tests at State yet, so I don’t know if I qualify as an official translator.” She paused. “But I’ve been able to run circles around most of the embassy translators I’ve run into.”

“Fluent in ten languages.” Mark smiled and looked over at Johnetta, who was smiling. “And I thought I was doing well, fumbling through with high school Spanish.”

“For most Americans, you are,” Sharon said. “I’ve just been multi-lingual all my life. My mom’s from the French-speaking part of Belgium. My dad’s American. And we had a Mexican nanny. So I’ve been speaking English, French and Spanish as long as I can remember. Then we moved to Germany when I was seven, so I learned German, and Italian, when we moved there. By that point, I realized I wanted to join the diplomatic corps, so I learned Russian and Japanese. And started taking Chinese around then, too. And learned Hebrew and Arabic. My biggest weakness is the African languages. I’ve only got a smattering in a couple. Although I’m working on learning Igbo. Nigeria is one of those up and coming areas.”

“Oh, it is,” said Mark, somewhat ruefully.

The suggestion that had tugged at Sharon’s brain earlier suddenly popped up front and center.

“Is this about taking Andy Shepherd’s job?” she asked suddenly.

Johnetta sat up straight. “You mean you didn’t know what this was about?”

“No. No one said anything about any specific job,” Sharon said. “When I went in to talk to Mr. Wallace, over at the State Department, last week, it was just an informational interview. Then Mrs. Fritsch called, but she never said anything about any specific job, and all she wanted to talk about was my past work. So I thought she was just trying to place me, and since I wasn’t going after any specific position, I didn’t ask. So I didn’t know what to think when Mr. Jeffries called. He didn’t even say who I’d be interviewing with.”

“Really,” said Mark, looking over at Johnetta.

“I’ll speak to Kent,” Johnetta said. “I’m sorry about that, Ms. Wheatly. Since our process is geared at finding the right people, we try to strip any potentially prejudicial information off resumes and the like. Although in the effort to not get too much information, we sometimes let out too little. More to the point, are you interested in the position?”

“Are you kidding? Talk about my dream job!” Sharon sat back and paused to gather herself together.

“It’s more a research position,” Mark said. “I’m afraid it’s not to advise on policy, per se.”

“I understand. That’s why you have the Secretary of State. “

“Right. The World Affairs Advisor mostly just keeps me updated on what’s going on around the world,” Mark said. “We’ll be meeting twice a week with the other advisors, plus whenever I need additional briefings.”

“Pure research,” sighed Sharon. “Sounds wonderful.”

The intercom buzzed. “Mr. President, the members of the River Barge Commission are waiting in the Map Room for their meeting with you.”

“I’ll be right there, Kent,” Mark addressed the air behind him, then looked at Johnetta. “River Barge Commission?”

“Essay contest grip and grin,” she replied.

“Oh, right.” He stood and Sharon and Johnetta stood with him. “Well, Ms. Wheatly, it really was a pleasure. I’ve got to go through channels, but we’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sharon answered, shaking his hand. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He buzzed the intercom. “Kent, will you escort Ms. Wheatly to the gate, please?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you.” He looked up. “Thank you, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sharon turned and left the room.

Mark looked over at Johnetta. “What the hell just happened there?”

“You don’t know?” Johnetta smiled. “Well, I’m not going to tell you, then. But the bad news is, you’ve got to hire her. She’s the only one who’s stood up to you.”

“I know,” Mark said softly.

“Come on.” Johnetta gently took his arm. “Let’s go smile pretty for the river barge people.”

Instant Message

IM

swheatly531: Hi, Carla. So, have you gotten over your jet lag yet? How is Lagos?

ladycarla: Smelly, crowded, impossibly rich and heinously poor all at the same time. We have our work cut out for us. The government corruption alone is a massive obstacle – it’s probably the worst I’ve ever seen and you and I have seen some seriously corrupt governments.

swheatly531: That is scary.

ladycarla: The good news is there are several folks open to micro-loans. But it’s sure going to take the whole five years to get things up and going. Did you find the place ok?

swheatly531: No problem. Right on top of the Metro stop. It’s gorgeous, too. I don’t even think I’ll mess with the bedroom.

ladycarla: You may as well. I’ll be re-doing it as soon as I get back, and five years is an awful long time to put up with someone else’s taste.

swheatly531: Your taste is great. I will have to add some cooking equipment to the kitchen, though.

ladycarla: So I don’t cook.

swheatly531: How come there’s a door in the basement? It looks like it goes through a tunnel.

ladycarla: lol. Forgot to tell you about that. It’s a secret entrance from the back alley. The guy who built the house was this senator who liked his women. He had the secret entrance built so he could get his hookers in and out. The real estate agent said other members of Congress have taken advantage of it over the years.

swheatly531: lol. I’ll keep that in mind if I meet any members of Congress. Off to make phone calls. Already have a lunch scheduled for tomorrow.

ladycarla: You go get ‘em.

Five days later, in an office at the State Department, a junior-level human resources officer cringed in front of the deputy secretary of state.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Wallace,” the young officer said. “But when I saw her resume, I thought it was for the White House position.”

Wallace growled. “But I sent it down in an inter-departmental envelope.”

“Like all the others.”

“But it was from me.”

“I know, sir. But everyone has been offering candidates. All the note said was that the resume was to be verified and the security background done.”

“I wanted the resume verified so that I could write up an offer of employment.”

“Well, it did get verified and the security background was done. And Ms. Fritsch did the initial interview.”

“So? Can I write up my offer?”

“Well, see, that’s the problem, sir. Wheatly made the cut. The president is supposed to interview her tomorrow.”

Chapter One

At the sound of the mechanized gong, Sharon Wheatly looked up from her book and saw that the “fasten seat belt” sign was on.

“Ladies and gentleman,” announced the flight attendant’s voice. “The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign for our final descent into Ronald Reagan National Airport. At this time, will you please make sure your tray tables are locked and that your seat backs are in the upright position. Thank you for joining us on our flight and we hope you have a pleasant stay in our nation’s capitol.”

A pleasant stay, indeed. Sharon thumped the cover of the paperback in her hand and looked out the window at the frozen ground below. Washington, DC, was having a rather mild February and there were patches of dirty earth between the white patches of snow on the mall and around the Jefferson Memorial. The barren cherry trees along the Potomac looked black against the steel gray water.

The man next to her glanced at the Flemish title of her paperback again and smiled at her in that dumb way people did when they couldn’t speak a language. When he and Sharon had boarded, he was on his mobile phone, talking to Steve (whoever that was) in such a way as to make sure both Steve and Sharon knew that he was a terribly important person. For someone in his early 40s, it was more than a little pathetic. Sharon got out her book promptly. By the time the man had hung up, she was engrossed in the silly romance and he had decided she didn’t speak English. The book had done its job well.

Normally, when reading for relaxation, Sharon preferred reading English, French or Spanish – her first languages, as she often joked, since she couldn’t remember a time when she couldn’t speak all three. But Tante Berthilde had sent the Flemish title because of Sharon’s younger sister Susan, who had been going on for over a month now about the stars aligning in Sharon’s favor. And the romance was based on a bunch of stars aligning, which was why her aunt had sent the book, even though most French-speaking Belgians pretty much had no use for Flemish, Berthilde included.

And if Sharon actually believed in such things, she would have had to agree that if not the stars, then something was aligning itself right in her life. The recent election, her old company deciding to re-structure, her friend Carla’s new job, even Susan’s accident, as devastating as that had been, all had worked together to make it an auspicious time to make the move to D.C. and the public sector.

Sharon braced herself as the plane bounced down onto the runway and shuddered as the jet engines reversed themselves to slow down. The man next to her already had his mobile phone out, then suddenly bent over toward her.

“Look, we could meet,” he said suddenly, and slowly. “I could show you-“ he pointed at her – “Around Washington?” He twirled his finger.

Sharon smiled, trying to make up her mind whether to respond in English, which would make him feel appropriately stupid for making assumptions but would open up the possibility that he’d continue hitting on her, or to continue to play dumb. Apparently, playing dumb was the right move, because he smiled back weakly and started dialing his phone. A minute later, the plane had barely docked at the gate and he was out of his seat and grabbing his carry on from the overhead compartment.

Sharon sighed. Hers was the kind of problem it was impossible to complain about. Men saw her slender figure, naturally blonde full hair and her soft face and inevitably assumed she had no greater desire than to be hit on. Which is why the stupid ones inevitably did. The geeks usually stared openly, which was embarrassing enough. But the covert appraisals were the most annoying. And the jealous glares from the women.

She mostly ignored the looks while waiting for her luggage. She was used to ignoring them, but it still felt uncomfortable to be looked at.

Sharon heaved her two suitcases off the conveyor and then paused just long enough to get her coat on. She was wearing a fairly heavy sweater over her jeans and boots, but she already knew how chilly D.C. was in comparison to Los Angeles. Coat on and her carry-on slung over shoulder, Sharon Wheatly stepped out of the air terminal and into her new life.

Mark Jerguesson, on the other hand, was taking a moment to wish fervently for his old life. He gazed out over the frozen White House grounds – a view limited to the chosen few. And now he was one of them. In fact, at not quite 40, he was among the youngest and one of the few that were single when they got elected.

“Mr. President?”

Mark winced inwardly, wondering if he’d ever get used to being addressed that way.

“Yeah, Johnnie.” He turned to his chief of staff.

Johnetta Washington, slender with dark, dark skin, generally had the attitude of an established church mother about to give the young new pastor what for. Mark had chosen her as his chief of staff precisely because he could count on her to give him what for at any given time. But ever since he’d taken the oath of office, Johnnie had been treating him with the correct deference most of the time. He was trying not to mind.

“Did you hear what I said just now?” Johnnie asked.

Mark turned into the Oval Office from the window. “We were talking about replacing Andy Shepherd, and yeah, two weeks is enough time to show respect for his passing, especially since we really, really need a world affairs advisor. Go ahead and call the State Department and get the interviews started. Same process as we did last December.”

“Call State about interviews.” Johnnie paused and became a little more relaxed. “You doing okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.” Mark stopped and shrugged. “Mostly. You know, I expected the pressure. But I didn’t get the isolation, all the protocols.” He shook his head. “It’s just getting used to it, is all.”

Johnnie’s eyebrows raised mischievously. “Be careful what you wish for?”

Mark chuckled. “You’re the one who always told me to dream big. And now we’re both paying for it.”

Johnnie laughed. “And how. I’ve got a meeting with Jean and the rest of the media team in about…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes ago. Any extra thoughts on the education proposal?”

“Yeah. I was making some notes before the photo session earlier.” Mark looked at his desk and sighed. “They cleared it off for the session.”

In spite of Mark’s best efforts to be transparent, his staff had a whole list of deep, dark “secrets” that it would be better to keep from the American people, not the least his tendency to keep a host of electronic gadgets and other toys on his desk. Mark punched the intercom.

“Ms. Forrest, I need my desk stuff back, please,” he announced.

“Yes, Mr. President,” replied his personal assistant. Fresh out of college and almost annoyingly eager, Gen Forrest’s job was to hold his coat, open doors, pay for things, run errands and do all the things the leader of the free world used to do for himself, but could no longer do because he was the leader of the free world.

Another line buzzed on the intercom. “Mr. President, Senator Mendoza is here.”

“And I’m leaving,” said Johnnie, heading for the door that led to her office.

“Thank you, Kent,” Mark said to the intercom. “Would you have Mr. Arlen join us, please? And hold the Senator until Mr. Arlen arrives.”

“He’s here now, Mr. President,” replied Kent. “Please remember you have a meeting with the Farmer’s Union in half an hour.”

“Thank you, Kent.”

Mark sat down at the imposing desk that had served numerous other presidents since the mid-19th Century as Ms. Forrest brought in the laptop, e-mailer, e-reader, tablet computer and other such items that had been earlier removed for the photo session.