Episode 26 – Karen Makes a Plan

The next day, close to five p.m., Karen stopped by Sharon’s office on the way to her own.

“Wheaties, you want to-” She stopped. “Where are you going?”

Sharon finished putting on her coat. “Home. My brother and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner. In fact, I’ve got to hustle. He could already be there.”

“You have a brother in Washington?” Karen asked, following Sharon out of the office.

“He lives in New York, but he’s bringing my other guitar. I didn’t want to ship it or put it in checked baggage when I came out last January.”

“Okay. This is cool. You not only play a musical instrument, but you’re picky enough about it that you have more than one and you don’t want to check it.”

Sharon shook her head, smiling. “I’m not that good. This guitar is just special. My dad bought it for me for my tenth birthday. We were living in Italy, then, so he went to Spain and got it. I have another that travels with me.”

“Next time we’re in the PFZ, we’ll have to hear you play.”

“I’m not that good, Karen.” Sharon felt herself flushing. “I mostly play for myself. You know, stress reduction, like your crocheting.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Did you have to tell June that I do it? She loved the lace and is trying to talk me into doing a few yards for her. Says she’s got a great new design.”

“That was an awfully cute suit she made you. Can you believe she cranked it out in less than one week?”

“Her dressmaker did the sewing, but, boy, that’ll teach me to open my mouth in the dressing room when she’s around.” Karen rolled her eyes.

They were near the exit.

“Look, I gotta fly,” said Sharon. “I told him six, but with my brother you never know. He has no sense of time whatsoever. He shows up late. He shows up early. One of us would have shot him by now if it weren’t for his girlfriend.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow.” Karen went back to her office, smiling softly to herself. She hadn’t forgotten about Sharon’s guitar playing and was debating how to tell the others.

Augie had an electric piano in his office, which he played when he was thinking about something. Coop was always whistling something. Karen, herself, played the violin and piano. She wondered about the others. A little Advisory Panel band would make the dread Marian Jefferson happy. Stress reduction and team building. Better yet, the boss was out of the White House for a few days on a trip to Chicago. Karen barely pondered a moment more before sending Coop an e-mail.

Coop was a little too enthusiastic and Sharon groaned loudly when she saw his e-mail that night after Michael and Inez had left. It had been a pleasant visit, and just long enough. Sharon adored her older brother, but he had that antsy kind of energy that usually left her rather drained after a couple hours with him. Sharon, who also loved Inez like her other sisters, often asked her how she dealt with the antsiness. Inez usually just smiled and shrugged. That night had been no different.

As Sharon mulled over Coop’s e-mail, she decided that Coop and her brother had a lot in common. Nonetheless, the next morning, she brought her travel guitar with her to work and later to an unofficial lunch meeting in Augie’s office. Coop had come in just for the meeting and turned out to be a rather nice tenor. Ed-man did not come in, as he was not a singer, which surprised no one. Whitey did his singing as part of a Navajo group and he was also a drummer, which helped. Karen held a tune rather nicely, but it was hard to sing and play violin at the same time. Still, the lunch-time jam session had been fun. At least until Coop passed out the sheet music for a prank on the following Tuesday. Tanks loved the idea and convinced the others it was worth doing.

Episode 25 – Meet Rose Jerguessen

Rose Jerguessen was only moderately annoyed as she aimed her remote at the television and hit the off button. Mark had connected with someone early on in February – she could always tell. But it must have flamed out early and fast. Still, when Walker had found that photo of Mark and that Martindale bitch, it had seemed promising. Then when Martindale denied ever meeting Mark, that had been good. Rose thought she’d caught one, finally.

But, no. Mark looked indecently triumphant as he made that ridiculous fuss over having lunch with Martindale. Rose felt slapped in the face. It wasn’t as if she did not have his best interests at heart. She was his mother, for Heaven’s sakes. She deserved a little respect for that, if no other reason. But once again, Mark was not only snubbing her, but flaunting it, as well.

Rose sighed. If he wasn’t going to accept her protection and care, that was his choice. But she wasn’t going to let him ruin his life without her best effort, and if that meant making sure he kept his hands away from all but the right women, she’d do it.

IM Session –

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Swheatly531: What up?

Obstractin: Mchl jst left sd 2 tell u he’ll brng ur geet tmrrw

Swheatly531: Sarah, will you please learn to use vowels?

Obstractin: Nt when Im thmbin it

Swheatly531: What???

Obstractin: Thumbing it Im on crackbrry

Swheatly531: Ah. I guess I’m just used to using all the letters on mine. Can’t chance a misunderstanding.

Obstractin: ur art in mail eta Frdy

Swheatly531: thanks

Episode 24 – June Puts Together a Plan

Not that the Martindale affair was that big a deal for Sharon directly. Outside of the U.S., the sexual antics of a sitting U.S. president, real or potential, were more a source of bemusement than anything, especially in those countries where it was well-known their leaders were not only cheating on their spouses but using government money to pay for their high-class call girls. That a young woman had lied about never meeting President Jerguessen barely caused any notice, which meant Sharon didn’t have to think about the issue much at all, beyond commiserating with Tanks and Augie and press secretary Jean Bouyer, who were dealing with all the fuss domestically.

For Martindale had already told reporters on Friday, before the President had made his statement about not commenting, that she had never met the man. She had always worked in the House of Representatives and had had limited contact with senators. Which she said again, Sunday morning, on one of the political talk shows, although Augie later said she should have known that something was up when she’d been asked on the show. Why have her there at all if she really didn’t know the president?

Because as soon as she affirmed she had never met President Jerguessen, she was asked to identify the people in the photo on the studio screen – a photo that clearly showed her and Mark Jerguessen shaking hands at a party of some sort. Flabbergasted, Martindale stammered that she had no clue where or when the photo had been taken and then made her second fatal error by suggesting that the show had somehow tampered with the shot to make it look as though she and the president had met.

So naturally, on Monday, everyone was talking about how if Martindale had lied about knowing the president and the two had obviously met, then how well did she really know him? Sharon found herself trying not to wonder the same thing, although there was a part of her that remembered that Mark had said that as far as he knew the two had never met. So unless someone had been doing some serious playing around with PhotoShop, the two obviously had.

It got around the White House very quickly that the boss was not happy. He kept his same schedule, sent around a memo reminding employees that they were not to comment either way on any rumored romances, but otherwise, kept to himself as much as possible. Jean said at the morning press briefing that they were working on the source of the photo, and it did not appear that anyone could identify when or where it had been taken. Which while Jean did not say so and flat out denied it when she was pressed, got many assuming she was implying that the photo was a fake.

What did help was that the next day, she was able to announce to the press that the photo had been identified.

“It was taken at an education lobby party about 15 months ago, just before the president announced his candidacy,” Jean said. “The president told me it was the usual for such affairs and he remembers talking with several people whose names he never got and would probably be surprised to find that he’d met them, as well. Nor is he surprised that Ms. Martindale did not remember the event, either. He was just a senator at that point and as she has pointed out, she worked with members of the House. The president would also like to point out that this sort of thing is exactly why he does not comment on potential relationships.”

Which fed the fire for another few days, although by the time Carrie Martindale showed up to the White House for a very public lunch with the President, the story was all but dead.

All but dead, June noted with some mild disgust as she perused a couple Washington society blogs. She was fairly sure her brother was not seeing anyone at the moment. Mark was beyond discreet, but June could usually tell. The funny thing was, it had looked like he was back in early February. June decided it had either fallen through or something else had triggered his “happy” look, as she called it. Either way, something had to be done about the gossip-mongering and she thought she knew what. The problem would be convincing Mark.

That Sunday, as Mark made their brunch, June laid out her idea. As she expected, Mark was less than enthused.

“What makes you think people won’t be placing bets on who wins my hand?” he grumbled as he chopped onions to go in what would become a corned-beef hash.

“Then the joke’s on them, isn’t it?” June replied. “I mean, honestly, Mark, half the reason the damn rumors get so much ground is that you don’t date anyone publicly. If you’ve got a whole group you’re dating, then it’s pretty obvious, these are just friendly relationships. What’s even better, is that I’ll be the one over-seeing who you go out with for what event, so there’ll be a lot less room for speculation.”

Mark grimaced. “Do you really want to take that on?”

“Honestly?”

“Oh, crud.” Mark shook his head with a rueful grin. “You’re just dying to, aren’t you?”

June giggled in spite of herself. “Damn skippy. I mean, I don’t want to mess with your love life. But it kinda would be fun to set you up. You could even set me up occasionally, if you want.”

“Hm.” Mark focused on finely dicing a potato. “That could even things up a little.”

“Could. And I don’t mind you floating the odd name or two, just between us. It’s not like I don’t know most of your friends.”

“True.” Mark thought as he turned the heat up on the cast iron skillet, then slid some white solid fat into it.

June grimaced. “Are you using lard again?”

“It’s the unadulterated stuff, without the poly-unsaturates and lard has less of the bad fat than butter. Besides, it’s the best thing to get this hash nice and crisp the way you like it. How about Mary Karpati?”

“She’s perfect.” June nodded. “If I can get her, Tish MacDonald?”

“Your BFF. So that’s what triggered this little idea.” Mark grinned shamelessly.

“What?”

“Hasn’t she been begging you to set me up with her for how long?”

June laughed. “More like how long ago. We were in high school when that happened. She’s gotten over you in a big way, although you’re okay as guys and politicians go. Think we can add Carrie Martindale to the list?”

Mark winced. “Conflict of interest.”

“You’re right. Karen Tanaka?”

“Has a boyfriend.”

“Sharon Wheatly?”

“Doubt you’ll get her to go for it.” Mark held his breath, hoping that June didn’t notice the flutter in his chest. “Besides, doesn’t look good dating a subordinate.”

June sighed. “Mark, the whole point is that you’re not really dating, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s see. Who else?”

Mark left her to her musing.

Two days later, Daniel Friedman got June on the phone.

“I, uh, heard about your dating pool plan,” Daniel told her once the pleasantries were dispensed with.

“Yeah. You got someone for me?”

“I do. Only I’m thinking as a special interest date, for embassy soirees, etc. Sharon Wheatly.”

“Too perfect. But Mark said he’s concerned about what it would look like dating a subordinate.”

She’d be there almost as his assistant and personal translator.”

I suppose, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think she’ll go for it.”

“She’d be perfect and we won’t have to spend a lot of time briefing her. Plus, we won’t have to worry about her saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

“Well, I’ll talk to her, but don’t get too excited, Daniel. She really doesn’t like the spotlight.”

“Let me know how it goes. Maybe I’ll talk to her, too.”

“Just do me a favor and wait for me to give you the heads up.”

June hung up, not sure what to do. The problem was, Sharon would be the perfect date for embassy and other events involving foreign dignitaries. But what she’d said about not liking being looked at, June understood and was reluctant to push Sharon. Not entirely reluctant. Mark clearly liked her, although June was pretty sure he was more interested in her as a friend.

June suddenly smiled. Friendship was all well and good. But there was something about Mark and Sharon that just seemed to feel right. Maybe what the two of them needed was a nice gentle shove in the other’s direction.

Episode 23 – Mark and Sharon Get into a Tiff

The PFZ was crowded. In addition to the Advisory Panel members, several spouses were there, including Al’s and Coop’s. Daniel Friedman had been invited and Tanks had brought her daughters and her boyfriend. Al got soundly razzed when he produced his offering, chips and sour cream dip.

“He didn’t tell me it was a potluck,” Carolyn Eddington groaned. She was as tall and ramrod straight as her husband, but a lot more easy going, with steel gray hair and soft blue eyes.

The cheering rose in pitch as Mark scurried into the basement bearing a dark blue covered Dutch oven.

“What you got, Jugs?” the Coop demanded.

“Chili – my own personal recipe,” Mark announced opening the pot with a flourish. “I got up early this morning and threw it together. It has been cooking gently all day and is in full flower.”

“Full sear, you mean.” groaned John Whitesand. “Sheeze, Jugs, I can smell the chiles from here.”

June entered with the bag containing the sour cream, onions and cheese Mark had brought to accompany his dish. Sharon hurried upstairs, hoping there were enough bowls and spoons. There were, but just barely.

There wasn’t much room left around the television, but it didn’t really matter anyway, since at any given time at least half the group was talking with each other while the other half watched. Tanks and Coop sat through all the commercials, and debated the social and economic ramifications of the good ones.

Somewhere late in the third quarter, Sharon overheard Mark and Al discussing something, apparently unaware that she could hear them. Nonetheless, she felt her blood boiling and for the rest of the evening, she couldn’t wait until everyone – including the boss – went home.

Which was why she was even more annoyed to find that Mark was still there when she finally pushed the Coop and his wife out her front door.

“I can clean up myself,” she told him angrily.

Surprised, he stepped back. “I’m sorry?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Okay, I can understand you being a little nettled earlier today, when I made that crack about you not notching my bedpost. But you didn’t have to tell Al that I was just another beautiful woman and it didn’t matter.”

“I didn’t-“ Mark frantically went over the evening in his head. “Oh, for crying out loud. You’re taking that completely the wrong way!”

“Then Al did, too.” Sharon did not like the shrill notes creeping into her voice, but she couldn’t help it.

“Did you hear me set him straight?”

Sharon snorted.

Mark groaned. “You did, didn’t you? And you’re still mad. What is wrong with you?”

“Because I’m sick and tired of being just another beautiful woman!”

“Then you didn’t hear all of what I said.”

“I don’t care.”

“I do. Al’s the one you should be mad at, not me. He’s the one who said I should sleep with you because of your looks. What I said was that if that was the only reason I was sleeping with you, then – and only then, I might add – you would be just another beautiful woman and it wouldn’t matter.”

“I don’t want to be mad at Al,” Sharon groaned, throwing a napkin on the bar.

“Well, what good is being mad at me going to do?”

Sharon sniffed. “I need the distance.” She looked over at him. “That was great chili, by the way.”

Mark sank onto a barstool. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Everything.” Agitated, Sharon prowled around the room, trying to straighten it. “I was an idiot today, okay? I should never have asked you about Martindale or whether you’ve got somebody else you’re seeing. It’s none of my damned business. And I don’t want it to be my business. And I sure as hell don’t want to end up like Martindale.”

“What do you want?” Mark asked softly.

Sharon looked at him. “Probably the same thing you want.”

Mark winced. “I don’t know about that. It wouldn’t be about the looks, and it would certainly be against my better judgment, but what I want right now may or may not get us to your bedroom.”

“I’m not picky about where.” Sharon swallowed. “But that damned better judgment clause. That’s the only reason you still have your clothes on.”

“Are you going to run away on me?” Mark braced himself.

“No.” Sharon hung her head. “I’ll tell you right now, every freaking nerve ending in my body is screaming to put as much distance between you and me as possible. At this point, Africa is not far enough.” She looked at him again. “But somehow, it just seems like that would be the worst thing I could do. That if I left now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

“Sharon, if you need to back off, then we’ll back off.” Mark swallowed. “But, please, don’t go promising that you’ll regret leaving or anything like that until-“

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, that’s not what I’m saying,” Sharon snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not promising my life to you or any nonsense like that. What I meant is that I can’t run away now. I don’t know about tomorrow. But right now, I can’t.”

“Yeah, well, do me a favor and be careful with that not running away stuff,” Mark growled, then sighed. “I’ve heard it before. She swore she could handle it.”

“Well, I think I’ve seen what can happen,” Sharon said.

“No. You haven’t. You haven’t seen squat. And you won’t, if I have anything to say about it.” It was Mark’s turn to start pacing. “Look, I think we both know I can’t promise you won’t face some bad publicity at some point or other. None of us can and the best thing we can do is keep our noses squeaky clean just in case. And it’s not as if we’ve known each other all that long. What do we really know about each other? That we like to cook and eat and drink good coffee and wine? It’s not like we can’t be friends and take our time finding out who we are. Seriously, Sharon, you’d have to give up too much to be with me right now. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“And I don’t want to put you in that position.” She sighed. “I’m just wondering how long better judgment can hold out.”

“So am I.”

Mark left a few minutes later, after another awkward good-bye at the basement door.

Sharon spent the rest of the night alternating between worrying that things would be forever awkward at work and wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with Mark. So while she felt for poor Carrie Martindale when things blew up on Sunday, Sharon was glad she had something besides her boss to dwell on.

Episode 22 – Mark Catches Some Heat

Eddie Cooper still hadn’t worked out his mystery lunch plan by that Friday, but it didn’t make any difference, since Fridays were usually tight days for Mark. In addition to his regular meeting with the Advisory Panel, he usually ate lunch at his desk while finishing up and assessing his work for the week, then on to a regularly scheduled press conference at 2 p.m. It was all part of his plan to be more accessible and transparent. But it also gave him a chance to control what the weekend talking heads would be talking about, even before the usual Saturday radio address.

The Advisory Panel was slightly more rowdy than usual, since in celebration of the upcoming March Madness college basketball play-offs – starting that night – Coop had brought in a small plastic basketball hoop on a stand with a host of sponge balls to throw at it. Tanks scored a lucky shot by tossing one over her shoulder. Eli Weatherall was still there, but didn’t bother tossing any balls, although he did keep score. Gwen McKelvey was there and didn’t hit anything.

But things got serious quickly as Augie finished his report with a question for Mark.

“Boss, do you know a lobbyist named Carrie Martindale?”

Mark thought it over. “I don’t think so. Let me e-mail Kent and see if she’s in my people database. Why?”

“She’s been working with the House on some proposals that sound suspiciously like your education initiative. Word’s getting around that she got them from you.”

Mark froze, then nodded.

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Coop said quietly.

“At least you know the drill.” Mark rattled the keys on his laptop. “I’ll have Johnnie get the memo out.”

“I don’t get it,” said Mackie. “So what if you gave a lobbyist some proposals for an initiative?”

“I’m guessing it’s the implication,” Tanks said. “Less than appropriate means?”

“At the very least making out a romantic attachment, whether one exists or not,” Coop said. “That’s why the policy is not to comment in any way.”

“It’s not the first time it’s happened, nor will it be the last,” Mark said quietly.

Al Eddington sighed. “I don’t know what the issue is. It’s not like you’re married, sir. Why shouldn’t you have an active social life as long as you’re discreet about it?”

“If you could find a woman who’ll put up with the photogs and the tabloid coverage,” Tanks answered.

Augie laughed loudly. “Are you kidding? They’re lining up to sleep with our boss.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly interested in notching marks in available bedposts,” Mark grumbled. “And frankly, given my current work load, I think a social life is going to be moot for the next four years, at least. So for the sake of Ms. – what was her name again?”

“Martindale,” said Augie.

“For the sake of Ms. Martindale, let’s remember that policy is no comment even to deny any social life I may or may not have,” Mark said, glancing at his laptop screen. “Kent’s sending me the wrap it up message. Is there anything else?”

“Game time’s at 8,” said Sharon. “Please remember it’s potluck.”

Mark left, hoping fervently that the matter of Carrie Martindale would not become an issue. But it was the second question asked at the press conference.

He stood behind the podium in the press room, blue curtains and White House emblem behind him. This time, the presidential seal was hung on the front of the podium, a dark wood one with an electronic notepad screen embedded in the surface. Kent and Johnnie stood at the side of the press room, which was, as usual, jammed full with the full range of reporters, print, broadcast and even a few bloggers who’d finally earned their press credentials. Mark had a stylus in his hand to work the screen when he needed an additional fact, unless Kent or Johnnie pulled it up for him faster.

“Mr. President, how well do you know lobbyist Carrie Martindale?” reporter Glenn Garrett asked, a short, graying man from a Miami paper, known for his searing commentary and beat-up wardrobe.

“May I ask why you want to know?” Mark asked.

“There is a rumor circulating that Ms. Martindale may have personal access to you that other lobbyists do not have,” Garrett said. “Like in your bedroom.”

Nervous laughter rippled through the room. Everyone knew Garrett had a gift for the crass, although he usually toned it down out of respect for the office.

“I have no comment on any relationship I may or may not have with Ms. Martindale, or any other woman, for that matter.”

Garrett pressed. “Mr. President, you have promised transparency. Why can’t you deny or substantiate the rumor or correct it?”

“Alright, here’s the drill on this and any other similar rumors,” Mark announced. “I will not deny a relationship because there are an awful lot of people who won’t believe me anyway and the woman still gets her name dragged through the mud. I will not substantiate a relationship because that would give rise to even more speculation and attention paid to the woman, who probably doesn’t want it in the first place. The bottom line is, unless you have hard evidence of something seriously improper falling outside the realm of consenting adults, such as money changing hands, then I’m not saying anything one way or the other and I advise any woman connected to me by rumor or by actual acquaintance to do the same.”

Which settled it for the remainder of the press conference. Mark was still feeling rather grumpy about the whole situation, but at least Johnnie had the stationery ready for him when he got back to the Oval Office. He barely had time to get the note written and in an envelope when Kent announced Ms. Wheatly had arrived for a briefing he’d requested earlier.

It was the sort of thing that was important to stay on top of, but not terribly interesting. Mark listened carefully, adding notes to the document Ms. Wheatly had posted to his personal server, but even so, he wasn’t sure whether he was more distracted by his feelings for her or his fear that those feelings would end up ruining her life.

Sharon wrapped up the briefing quickly. There really wasn’t that much to go over and she could tell the president was not entirely listening.

“Of course, if anything changes, I’ll let you know immediately,” she said, closing the lid to her laptop.

“Of course,” Mark replied. He spied the envelope on the desk and picked it up. “Ms. Wheatly, would you mind giving this to Ms. Bouyer, please? She knows what to do with it.”

“Okay.” Sharon took the simple white envelope and felt the heavy bond paper. “What is it?”

Mark sighed. “Something I fervently hope you will never get from me. It’s a note to Ms. Martindale with an apology for the situation and some tips on how to deal with the press.”

Sharon’s eyes rose. “Ah. Precisely the reason you won’t be carving a notch in my bedpost any too soon.”

“I have never met Ms. Martindale, as far as I know,” said Mark, testily. “I meet a lot of people, so it’s possible our paths have crossed, but we do not have a relationship.”

“Sorry.” Sharon backed up a little, surprised by his tone. “I wasn’t implying that you did. But if this is what happens to women you don’t even know…” She shrugged.

“Trust me, Ms. Wheatly, you’re much safer out in the open like this. The person who starts the rumors doesn’t go after people I obviously know since I almost never date women I obviously know.”

“The person who- You mean, you know who’s behind this?”

“Yes. The same person who’s been playing this game since I was first in the state legislature.”

“But it can’t be working. Even the Kelly Won rumors didn’t come close to panning out.”

Mark sighed even more deeply. “But it has ruined a few good relationships, including one I was pretty darned serious about, and that’s the point.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Mark waited, hoping Sharon wouldn’t press further, but she seemed to understand that wasn’t someplace he wanted to go.

Sharon took a deep breath. “Um, this may not be appropriate, but if not Ms. Martindale, is there anyone else that you’re hiding a relationship with?”

Mark smiled softly. “No. I’m not seeing anyone.”

And found himself biting back that he’d like to be seeing her.

“Well, I probably shouldn’t have been asking,” Sharon said. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Episode 21 – IM Session and Meet Young Jodi

IM Session
ChknCoop: Well, you’re finally back online.

Gloryhg: I had some reading to do. What’re you bothering me for?

ChknCoop: Just checking in to see how things went tonight.

Gloryhg: You were there. They went great.

ChknCoop: And it was totally Wheaties’ idea. Of course, I’m working on the lunch thang – proving to be a bit more of a wrangle, but we’ll get there.

Gloryhg: Sounds good. I appreciate the efforts. Listen, I’ve still got a lot of the education initiative to go over before tomorrow’s meeting with the Senate committee. See you tomorrow.

Out on the West Coast, late in the afternoon at an exclusive all-girls high school in Pasadena, Jodi Wheatly sat on the edge of a planter next to the school’s pick up zone with her best friend Tiffany Sheppledorf.

Jodi, at age 14, was on the cusp of blossoming into as rare a beauty as her Aunt Sharon – a fact that numerous relatives remarked upon with appalling regularity. They both had the same blonde hair and brown eyes and basically the same retiring temperament and intense intellect, although while Sharon excelled in languages and diplomacy, Jodi much preferred math and science. Tiffany had Jodi’s slim build, but also had lots of dark curly hair that she wore long. Both wore braces. Both were identified gifted, with Tiffany shooting to become a Renaissance woman, equally well-versed in the humanities, arts and sciences.

Jodi’s older sister Toby stood nearby, surrounded by a gaggle of her girlfriends. The pitch and loudness were at full teenage high. Toby, at 16, had shed her braces, had shed glasses in favor of contact lenses, had brown hair and blue eyes and a tendency toward a more revealing wardrobe than modest. Athletic and outgoing, some were surprised to find that she and Jodi were related.

Toby and her friends were chattering about who was sleeping with whom, who liked whom, who should like whom and why it was all a gross injustice. Jodi just glared down the driveway.

At least Mr. Perkins said we could be lab partners for the project,” Tiffany said softly.

Yeah.” Jodi sighed.

You don’t want to do all the work again, do you?”

I’m glad about that, Tif, it’s just…” Jodi winced as one of the girls screeched about something. “I don’t know how Toby stands it.”

Stands what?”

Everybody looking at her, having to be the center of attention all the time.” Jodi shook her head. “Ms. Wallace had to ask me about Aunt Sharon. Thank God, she didn’t say anything in front of the class.”

Well, it is kinda cool having an aunt working in the White House.”

Totally not. It’s almost as bad as having a rock star for a dad. Dude, if anybody finds out, it’ll be so embarrassing. Everyone will be asking me for the president’s autograph. I’ll bet Aunt Sharon never even sees him.”

Oh, come on. Most of those kids are far too shallow to care about the president.”

Jodi glared at Tiffany. “Except this isn’t just any president. It’s super young, super cute, super single Mark Jerguessen. Even Toby knew who he was.”

Dude. You’ve got a point.” Tiffany sighed.

Jodi groaned and checked her cell phone for the time. “Toby, what time did you say Mom was coming?”

She’ll get here.” Toby rolled her eyes and turned back to her friends.

You didn’t even text her, did you?” Jodi’s jaw dropped in anger, although she knew she should have expected Toby to forget. “You were supposed to text her when cheerleading practice was over. Mom’s gonna be so pissed at you.”

She knows when practice is over. Get over it.”

Never mind. I’ll do it.” Jodi slumped as she thumbed the characters into her phone and nodded at Tiffany.. “You’d better text your mom. We are going to be so late.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Mom’s not going to be home. She pulled a night class for the next term.”

Tiffany lived alone with her mother, a history professor at the local university, in a house across the street from where Jodi, Toby and their mother, Cameron Dykstra, lived. Cameron owned a music store in the arts district near the university.

Mom’s on her way.” Jodi sighed. “She sounds pissed already. I swear, Toby’s torquing her off on purpose.”

You think?” Tiffany grinned. “Wanna eat at my place?”

Oh, like I want to eat at mine. Toby and Mom are going to be fighting all night.”

Maybe then your mom won’t remember my mom’s not home.”

Jodi’s phone chirped and she looked at the screen. “I’m guessing she already remembered. She says you’re having dinner with us.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Well, if your mom and Toby are fighting, we can surf the Congressional Quarterly site without her knowing.”

I can’t..” Jodi grimaced. “She’s got it blocked and the last time I hacked around it, she made me promise not to.”

We’ll use my laptop. That way, you’re not hacking around her block and I’ve got the emergency screen with the Jonas Brothers site on it. That way she’ll think we’re being nice and normal.”

Dude.” sighed Jodi, feeling only slightly less miserable.

Episode 20 – The PFZ Opens

Friday, the Secret Service came through for Sharon’s plan, which surprised her, but as the nameless young woman in the black dress suit explained to her, Sharon was asking about a single contained space as opposed to going out in public.

She took the weekend to get everything set up, then sent a memo to the rest of the Advisory Panel inviting everyone out for a post-work drink at the new venue on Tuesday evening. Environmental activist and part-time advisor Eli Weatherall was in town, as well, and agreed to join the crew. Sharon also invited Johnnie, who declined in favor of seeing her husband, Tyronne, who was a curator at the Natural History Museum.

Mark seemed a little down when Sharon reminded the group at the end of the meeting about drinks that evening.

Hey, boss, did we say you’re not invited?” Coop said, grinning in delighted evil.

And did you get the bar cleared with security?” Mark asked, aware something was up, but feeling nettled nonetheless.

As a matter of fact, we did,” Coop replied. “We even had Kent clear your schedule, so you can leave at 6:30. You just check with your man. You’ll see.”

Mark nodded, wondering what was going on, but wasn’t entirely surprised when Riff Butler, a large man of African American descent and an utterly passive face, came to the office door at 6:30. Riff was the Secret Service agent in charge of Mark’s personal protection unit. Mark put him off to finish some reading, but finally got his coat from Gen Forrest, dismissed her and followed Riff to a medium-sized dark sedan with tinted windows.

Not the usual car,” Mark noted.

No, sir,” replied Riff.

Nor was Mark let off at the usual well-lit entrance. In fact, if Riff and the rest of his usual team hadn’t been there, Mark might have been more than a little scared as the car pulled into a dark alley behind some Georgian-style townhomes. Even as the car stopped, Riff waited a moment and he and another team member, dark-suited and non-descript as they all were, quickly got out of the car, hustled Mark out and behind a fence with an iron gate.

They walked down a short tunnel and then down several stairs. Riff opened the door, but didn’t follow.

The room had the same ambient light as a comfortable bar. Mark couldn’t quite make out the background music under the chatter. There was a pool table with a good light hanging over it, then two couches facing a huge flat-panel television set, and then at the opposite end of the room, was a bar. The Advisory Panel was gathered around it, with Sharon behind the bar, tending.

Well, look what the cat drug in,” Augie announced cheerfully.

Here, here!” Coop added as he and the others came over and grouped around Mark. “Now that we are all here, we can officially open our own little joint. Jugsy, with your permission, this will be a Protocol-Free Zone. No Hail to the Chief, no yes, sirs, no standing when you come in. And definitely no applause unless you really earn it. You okay with that?”

Mark gaped, then grinned. “More than okay.” He looked around. “Ed-man, you okay with it?”

Al Eddington sighed. “Well, even the generals like to let their hair down occasionally. Why not the Commander-in-Chief?”

Hot diggety,” sighed Mark. Grinning, he suddenly felt more relaxed than he’d had in months. Certainly since before his presidential campaign had begun in earnest. “What do we got for drinks?”

I’ve got a full bar,” said Sharon. “Just so Ed-man can have a girly drink when he wants one. But I thought to christen the occasion, we could start with a little champagne.”

She got the real French stuff, too,” chuckled Johnny Whitesand.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t call it champagne if it wasn’t.”

Karen laughed. “Whitey, it’s a wine snob thing.”

Sharon also had several snacks out on the bar, as well, including a couple of beautifully arranged plates of what Ed-man referred to as fancy cold cuts and Sharon called charcuterie. There were also cut vegetables with hummus dip for Eli, who was a vegan and even some cheddar cheese popcorn.

After a couple minutes arguing over the name – they later decided to call it the Protocol-Free Zone, or PFZ – they toasted the new venue and went on to chatter and just have a good time.

Holy crap, that’s good pate!” Mark exclaimed suddenly, his mouth still full.

Ed-man proceeded to tease Mark about girly-meat and Mark ended up challenging Ed-man to an arm-wrestling contest. Loser cleaned the bar ware. It was a reasonably even match, but Ed-man lost. Mark stood.

Now, as a real man, I’ll go ahead and clean the bar ware,” Mark announced.

But both he and Ed-man did it together. Sharon ran up and downstairs several times, returning left over snacks to the kitchen above.

Where the heck are we?” Mark asked suddenly.

My place,” said Sharon, busy gathering the last plate with its remains of saucisson and little pickles and good Nicoise olives. “We’re in the basement. It works because of the secret floozie entrance some Senator put in years ago. The Secret Service can get you in and out of here without anyone knowing.”

Cool.” Mark wasn’t sure how to take the news. On one hand, he was thrilled to have someplace where he could relax and not “be” the president. On the other, he wasn’t sure just how close he wanted to be to Sharon.

Or he knew how close he wanted to be to Sharon, but wasn’t sure if he should even be thinking along those lines. The last thing either of them needed was for the wrong person to start wondering about the two of them.

The others said good-bye to him as he made ready to head out the back with Riff. Sharon showed the others out upstairs, feeling decidedly mixed about their being gone. Or more, rather sad that Mark was gone, and not at all happy that she didn’t want him to leave.

Which added to how startled she was when she went downstairs one last time to pick up and found Mark.

What are you still doing here?” she blurted out. “I’m sorry. I meant, I thought you’d gone.”

Mark shrugged. “Can’t leave yet. There’s a homeless person in the alley and the team is waiting for Metro P.D. to roust him out first. They don’t want anyone seeing the comings and goings if they don’t have to and they can’t do the rousting without folks knowing they’re there.”

Oh. Any idea how long?”

Nope.”

Oh.” Sharon nodded. “Oh, what the heck. When I was at the deli today, I picked up a rib-eye. I was going to cut it in half, anyway. So would you like to stay for dinner?”

Mark glanced behind him, where Riff was waiting in the shadows. “I suppose that’d be okay. Can I help you put it together?”

Sure. Why not?” Sharon said as she headed upstairs.

Mark followed along, whistling softly in appreciation as he saw the kitchen. Sharon laughed.

I’m renting the place from my friend Carla,” she explained. “And Carla is so not a cook. But when she did up the kitchen, she put in all top-of-the-line appliances and everything, except cookware. It was completely useless until I bought all the pots and tools.”

The room was done in soft maple-wood modern cabinets with brownish gray granite counter-tops. The appliances were all stainless steel or black. The sink was built into an island facing into the dining room, with a long butcher’s block work table between the island and the back wall, where a six-burner stove sat under a gleaming beaten copper hood.

Sharon opened one of the double-sided extra wide doors on the refrigerator.

Let’s see,” she said rummaging through the produce bin at the bottom. “I’ve got some bag greens, those will be good for a salad, and some par-boiled new potatoes. Perfect.”

Sounds good.”

Classic bistro fare,” said Sharon, turning from the fridge with the bag, the meat still in its paper wrapper, and a plastic container in her hands and bumping the door closed with her hip.

I noticed you’ve mostly got ingredients in there,” said Mark, smiling.

Except I don’t cook much during the week,” said Sharon, setting everything on the worktable. “I mostly do up stuff that I freeze on weekends, then pull together a pre-fab salad and some extra veggies week nights. Assuming I’m not eating out somewhere. When it’s just yourself, it doesn’t make much sense to go whole hog all the time.”

What can I do?”

Sharon looked at him. “Well, how about putting together the salad?”

Sure.” Mark went back to the fridge and starting rummaging around, himself. “Hey, you’ve got some ‘shrooms in here. Would you like a sauce to go with that steak? And gorgonzola crumbles, that’ll make a nice vinaigrette and it’ll go great with the meat.”

That sounds good.” Sharon was impressed in spite of herself. “Tell you what. Why don’t you pick a bottle of wine? I’ve got a cellar over there.”

Mark noticed the two refrigerator-like cabinets, one on top of the other next to the wall by the stairs. Sharon, for her part, had started slicing the steak horizontally, but had one eye on what Mark would do next. He went straight for the top cellar, then bent and looked through the smoky glass at the bottom cellar.

Not a lot of whites in here,” he chuckled, feeling very pleased.

Obviously, Sharon knew her way around wines, and it was nice being on the same plain as someone else for a change. Most of Mark’s colleagues didn’t share his passion when it came to food and wine. If they did the wine thing, it was all too often for the show. Mark opened the top cellar and was pleased to find a wide variety of good reds, including a couple he knew darned well came with bargain prices, further confirmation that Sharon was buying what she thought tasted good.

I haven’t got much of a collection,” Sharon said. “I’ve only been here a month. In fact, I only had a couple bottles until this weekend. But I figured while I was stocking the bar, I might as well stock my cellars.”

Hm. Jordan cab,” said Mark, looking at a bottle. “Way too young, though.”

I’ve been feeling optimistic about being around here long enough to open that.” Sharon was digging through the fridge again.

Ah. A Rubicon. Oh. Infanticide. Shavings.” Mark put the bottle back. “Ah. L. Preston red. Say, isn’t that that one little place in Sonoma with the brick oven and the home-pressed olive oil?”

You’ve been there?” Sharon looked at him with a happy grin.

Years ago, but I really liked it.”

I’ve been a member of their wine club for years. My mom ships stuff to me so we can get past the interstate shipping laws.”

Mark nodded. “I’ve been pushing for that one for years. But you would not believe the hold the distribution lobby’s got on some folks. This should be just light enough for a good pan sauce.”

I’ve got shallots and garlic on the counter here next to the sink.”

Shallots. Great. And knives?”

Next to the sink. I’ll go ahead and wash the greens.” Sharon pulled a black cast iron skillet from a cabinet next to the stove.

That is beautifully seasoned,” said Mark.

A thing of beauty. It was my grandmother’s in Belgium. I got one and my sister Susan got one. Sarah and my nieces will have to wait for my mother to give up hers.” Sharon grabbed a gleaming chrome skillet from the same cabinet. “Here’s one for the steaks.”

With both pans on the stove, Sharon set about heating some natural lard in the cast iron skillet and when it was just hot enough, she carefully dropped in several tiny new potatoes from her plastic container. Mark, in the meantime, had sliced the mushrooms that Sharon had already cleaned, and had a shallot and a couple cloves of garlic finely diced.

The two shifted around as Sharon went to clean the greens and Mark expertly measured extra virgin olive oil and a red wine vinegar into a bowl and whisked them together. Sharon turned the potatoes, which were just getting a lovely golden crust on them and put the two steaks on.

How well do you like your meat?” she asked, sprinkling kosher salt over the sizzling steaks.

Just threaten it with the flame,” said Mark, smiling as he breathed in the smell of grilling beef.

Sharon grinned. A minute later, the steaks were turned and Sharon turned the oven on to warm. Mark was gathering the final ingredients for his sauce, including some beef broth from a box in the fridge and corn starch, which he mixed with some water in a tiny bowl.

Once the steaks were in the oven keeping warm, Mark slapped a tiny pat of butter into the gleaming steak pan and swirled it around. Then, turning down the heat, he lifted the pan to cool for a moment, and tossed in the mushroom slices, the shallots, cooked those for a minute, added the garlic, waited just long enough for the rich scent of garlic to flavor the air, then poured in a generous slurp of wine.

Yikes, you’re confident,” Sharon observed.

I’ve singed my eyebrows before,” Mark conceded as he scraped the bottom of the pan to mix any leftover bits from the steaks into the heating liquid. “But that bottle was cool enough, I figured I was safe.”

Sharon went back to pulling out plates, silverware, napkins and glasses from her cupboards. She set a couple placemats on the counter between the dining room and the sink. Then she mixed the salad in the dressing Mark had made, added the gorgonzola crumbles and divided the portions onto the plates. A second later, she had warm potatoes on the side, and Mark had the sauce ready to be spooned over the steaks.

She poured the wine as Mark set the plates on the placemats, next to the silverware. Sharon mmm’d loudly over the sauce, while Mark groaned with pleasure over the crispy brown potatoes. Laughing, they focused on eating, talking about other places and meals they’d loved. Sharon wasn’t quite the omnivore Mark was – he’d eaten chocolate-covered ants in South America. But she was quite pleased to realize how many tastes they had in common.

It just boils down to living well,” said Mark after a contemplative sip of his wine. “It’s the simple basics of life. Anybody can stuff food in their face to fuel up. And you do have to balance taking care of yourself with enjoying the good stuff. But there are two kinds of people I just don’t get, the folks who are afraid of their food and the folks who don’t even think about it. I mean how could you not think about something that tastes this good?”

It’s called being shut off from yourself, I guess,” said Sharon. “I sort of get the fear thing. I mean, my dad has to watch out for his cholesterol and I have another friend who’s diabetic. But the assumption that anything that tastes good can’t be good for you.” She shook her head. “Or that it should be untouched by human hands or it’s not safe. I worked food service for two weeks in college. I couldn’t handle people freaking when I touched their food bare-handed and I had just washed my hands.”

Mark looked down at his empty plate. His wine glass was mostly empty, as well.

I guess it’s time for me to head out,” he said softly.

You’re not driving, are you?”

Mark snorted. “No.”

Sharon poured some of the bottle into her glass then got the cork and stuffed it into the bottle. “Why don’t you take this with you? I can’t drink the rest of it and I don’t want to waste it. I mean, I’ve got one of those vacu-vin goodies that’ll suck the air out so it won’t go bad, but I just as soon you took it.”

Thanks.” Mark chuckled. “What are the odds I’ll get tagged for an open-container?”

Sharon shrugged and followed Mark downstairs to the basement. Riff was waiting in the shadows.

Riff, did you want something to eat?” Sharon called out, suddenly anxious.

No, Ma’am. We got something. Sir? We’re ready when you are.” He disappeared out the door.

Mark paused. “Well. Thanks for a lovely dinner and a really nice evening.”

You’re welcome. I had a good time, too.”

There was an awkward pause. Sharon suddenly smiled and moved back.

I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said.

Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

Mark turned and left, feeling both elated and unsatisfied.

Sharon pounded up the stairs, rather annoyed with herself for letting Mark up there and thoroughly thrilled that they’d been so compatible. There weren’t many people she let cook with her. Mark had even remembered without being told to run the knife blade over the sharpening steel before he used it and had cleaned the knife before putting it back in the block.

She put the used dishes in the dishwasher and scrubbed out the potato pan and the other skillet before heading upstairs to her bedroom and turning on her laptop. She started an e-mail to her friend, Niecy, but then stopped. What was there to say? Yes, it looked like she and Mark could be good friends, but Sharon was determined that it go no further. Absolutely determined.

Episode 19 – June Goes Shopping

Tuesday after Monsieur Sartimes’ visit, June got permission to go shopping. She waited just long enough for the Advisory Panel to finish its meeting and caught Sharon and Karen as they left.

Sharon protested that she had to work, but Karen grabbed her arm.

What else have we got crackberries for?” Karen asked, waving her e-mail phone. “We can e-mail in between trying things on. And you need clothes.”

That settles it, then,” said June, saluting with her Blackberry, as well.

Let me get mine,” Sharon said with a rueful grin.

They did not have a lot of time because the Secret Service insisted that June be back in the White House before five p.m. And even though it was Sharon who needed new clothes, it was Karen who did most of the trying on. The problem was, Karen was just a hair too short to wear regular sizes and just a hair too tall to wear petites.

That’s why I buy so much,” she explained. “If it comes to close to fitting, I’m not letting it go. I can’t afford to. Look at this suit. It would be adorable on me if it fit.”

June took the blue pant suit with short sleeves and looked it over critically. “The pockets on the jacket are kind of boring. You know, if we gathered this section along here and let the gathers work into the pocket opening, that would add interest. I like the shawl collar, but these standard square sleeves. Puffed would definitely do better, and, Karen, you could really pull them off.”

Really? I mean, I love those cute little round sleeves, but aren’t they too little-girly?” Karen asked.

With your ‘tude?” Sharon teased.

You’ve got presence,” said June. “You know, I’ve got some silk shantung in my studio that’s not far off this shade. I bet it would look great on you, Karen.”

Okay,” said Karen, puzzled.

We’ll get your measurements when we get back,” June said, dialing a number on her phone. “Ellie, please remind me to get Karen Tanaka’s measurements when we get back…. Thanks.”

Karen and Sharon exchanged puzzled glances. But June had been serious about getting Karen’s measurements and took Sharon’s, as well.

Just for the files,” June said, airily giving Sharon the once over.

What are you gonna do?” Karen asked.

Indulge myself,” said June. But before she could explain further, her assistant pulled her aside and the two talked quickly. “Damn. Listen, girls, gotta fly”

And she dashed off.

Episode 18 – Introducing Matt

Another time zone away, practice was running late. Matt Jerguessen waited in the stands while his coach raised hell with his teammates, his raspy bass voice booming through the rafters. It was only a matter of time before Coach Winslow came and raised hell with him. Matt wasn’t sure it mattered.

Just-turned sixteen years old, he was supposed to be the sophomore miracle for his prep school team in Minnesota. Matt was supposed to be a lot of things, but at the moment, he didn’t care to be anything. He just wanted to be left alone.

Coach Winslow finished his harangue and the team went back to their drills, accompanied by squeaking shoes, thudding balls and murmured complaints. Winslow shook his head and started up the bleachers. He had years of experience working with privileged youth. Matt seemed to be a pretty typical angry young man and yet not. The kid hadn’t filled out yet and still had that lanky but awkward look about him. He’d look a lot like his famous uncle in a few years, especially with those deep green eyes. Girls seemed to melt around Matt, but he was barely aware of it. Or if he was, he was curiously disinterested. Winslow wondered briefly if Matt was gay, but that didn’t feel right, either.

Matt?” he asked gently as he approached the boy.

Yes, sir.”

What’s going on?”

Matt stared straight ahead. “Sir?”

Cut the crap, Jerguessen. You’re laying down on me. We both know you can do better. What’s going on?”

Matt shrugged.

Are you trying to tell me you don’t want to be here?”

Give me one good reason why I should.”

You owe it to your team?”

Matt didn’t reply.

Winslow sighed. “If you don’t want to be here-“

Coach, I gotta be here. Okay? I’ll try harder.”

Who’s telling you you have to be here?”

Nobody,” Matt murmured.

Coach nodded. “Unless it’s understood that your folks want you to be on the team.”

Matt stayed silent. Of course, his folks wanted him on the team. It’s all his dad talked about. Not that his dad ever showed for games or anything.

You know, I could drop you,” Winslow said.

You could?” Matt’s eyes glinted with a spark of interest.

But I can’t imagine that’d make anything easier for you at home.”

They don’t care about me at home,” grumbled Matt. “As long as I don’t do anything public.”

Which getting kicked off the basketball team would be.”

Matt sighed. “Probably.”

Look, Matt. It’s not like this is the first time I’ve seen a case like yours. Folks want you to make a good name, but don’t seem to care about you.”

Matt shrugged.

But one thing I’ve noticed about you is you really like playing. When you’re not in one of your moods.”

Matt shrugged again.

I need you, Matt. You’ve got skills and when you’re not feeling sorry for yourself, you’re a damn good player. Can’t that be enough for you?”

Dunno.”

Isn’t there anybody you can talk to?”

Used to be able to talk to my uncle.”

So why can’t you now?”

Uh, hello? President of the United States? I don’t think he’s got time for me.”

Have you tried?”

His old e-mail’s down. The one he had in the Senate. Mom won’t let me have the new one. Assuming she even knows it. And she changed our Internet provider, so my old e-mail’s dead. And it’s not like you can just call up the White House and ask to talk to the president. I tried. They didn’t believe me.”

What about your dad?”

Are you kidding? He hates my uncle. And he doesn’t talk to me, anyway.”

Look, Matt, there’s gotta be some way you can get through. You’ve just gotta put your mind to it. You’ve got your grandfather and great-grandmother. I see them here all the time. And don’t you have an aunt?”

Yeah.”

So keep trying. I know if you put your mind to it, you can find a way through. In the meantime, I need you to get on your game. You’re a good player and a good kid. So what if some parts of your life suck? Make the best of what you’ve got going for you and it won’t matter that your parents don’t seem to care about you.”

I s’pose.”

All right. Now get down there and give me twenty laps.”

Yessir.”

Matt, still feeling sullen and out of sorts, made his way down the bleachers to the gym floor to begin his laps. His teammates hooted derisively and he flipped them the bird. Aunt June was sympathetic, but didn’t really have any answers for him and he didn’t have her e-mail address, anyway. His grandfather and great-grandma were nice enough, too, but barely knew what e-mail was, let alone Uncle Mark’s address. Uncle Mark was the only people on the planet who really seemed to understand him and his mother had made damned sure he was out of reach.

Coach was right. There were other ways than e-mail and telephone to reach Uncle Mark. It would take some planning and saving. Matt debated just using the credit card his mother had given him, but knew if he spent too much at once, his mother would get called and that would blow everything. It would take a little research and the right timing. In the meantime, he could just play basketball.

IM Session

Swheatly531: Got a question for you.

Ladycarla: What up?

Swheatly531: Just noticed you got a really nice pool table and bar in your basement, mind if I add on?

Ladycarla: What do you have in mind?

Swheatly531: Just a big-screen TV and a couple couches. There’s room. I measured.

Ladycarla: Sure, but why?

Swheatly531: Believe it or not, it’s officially top-secret, but it has something to do with that hidden entrance down there.

Ladycarla: Niecy said you still had the hots for him.

Swheatly531: Won’t do me much good with the rest of the Advisory Panel hanging around, which is the point. Gotta fly.

Episode 17 – A Cocktail Party

If Sharon didn’t pay much attention to the looks as she entered the reception at the State Department, it was only because she was so used to people looking at her. Yet, she couldn’t shake the feeling there was something else behind them, at least from the women, beyond the usual jealous glances. It didn’t matter. She had other things to think about and stayed focused on greeting Monsieur Sartimes and chatting with him and the French ambassador for a bit.

After the president had joined them, Sharon moved away and all but ran into June. Which is when Sharon realized that her odd feeling about the other women looking at her wasn’t just an odd feeling. June’s dress may have been pink, but it was exactly the same as Sharon’s otherwise, right down to the gold arrowheads shot through the sheer pink fabric.

June, for her part, started laughing.

“Oh, Sharon, please forgive me,” June hissed, trying to stifle her giggles.

“I’ve got your dress on!” Sharon gasped.

“Yes. But it’s my fault.”

“Huh?”

But at that second, one of the butlers whispered something in June’s ear.

June groaned. “Gotta deal with this now. We’ll talk later. It’s not your fault.”

June scurried off as Sharon stood, trying to digest what had just happened, let alone figure out why June would feel guilty about the mix-up.

Daniel Friedman wandered up at that point.

“It seems to be going well,” he observed blandly.

“Uh. Yeah.” Sharon swallowed. “Anyone talking about the food?”

“Mostly about how good it is. Looks like we dodged that bullet.”

“Good.” Sharon’s voice came out a lot more tense than she’d planned.

“You okay?” Friedman asked

“Fine. Great.”

The president wandered up. “Looks like everything’s going really well, Daniel.”

“Sure seems to be,” Friedman replied. “Um. Did you hear about the menu changes?”

“No. Should I have?” Mark grabbed an hors d’oeuvre off a passing tray and popped it in his mouth.

“No, sir,” said Sharon quickly. “As long as you and Monsieur Sartimes are happy, who cares?”

“Tuna tartare?” said Mark, grinning. “Definitely some wasabi action on the endive? I’m happy and I hear Sartimes is chowing down like a pro.”

Sharon glanced downwards and saw something definitely wrong.

“Sir? Can I confer with you outside, please?”

“Sure,” Mark replied. “You got a headset on I can’t see?”

Sharon smiled. “It’s not that kind of problem. Sir?”

Mark glanced at Friedman. The two shrugged and Mark followed Sharon from the room.

Sharon wandered quickly through the halls, trying each door. “There’s gotta be an open conference room somewhere.”

Puzzled, Mark followed obediently until Sharon found a door that opened. She sighed in relief when it opened into a conference room and not a men’s room.

“Ms. Wheatly?” Mark asked, expectantly.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve got a button missing on dinner jacket,” Sharon said, opening her purse. It was a small rhinestone affair, but big enough for what she needed. “On the sleeve.”

Mark sighed. “Oh. Yeah. I fidget with them. Johnnie’s always on my backside for tearing them off.”

“I think I might have a close enough match here,” Sharon said, pulling out her sewing kit.

“I’ve got it right here.” Trying to hide his flush, Mark pulled the button from his pants’ pocket.

“Well, that makes life easier.” Sharon smiled. “Don’t worry. You wouldn’t believe the number of executives I’ve saved just because I keep a sewing kit on me. May I have your jacket, please?”

Mark pulled his off and handed it to her. “Johnnie’s always telling me to keep my hands in my pockets.”

“Obviously, you’re listening,” Sharon said, then tried not to wince as she took the jacket and pulled out a chair from the conference table so she could get to work.

“Bad habits. What can I say?” Mark smiled.

He allowed himself a covert glance at Sharon. She bent over his sleeve, presumably concentrating on the job at hand. Yes, she was gorgeous. But that was almost a distraction. Granted, her interest in seeing him well-groomed had as much to do with her professional duties as anything else. Yet, there was something. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something special.

Which, of course, is why at that exact moment, June chose to burst into the room.

Mark, they’re looking for you,” she began, then saw what was going on. “Oh. For heaven’s sakes. Can’t you keep your hands off your sleeves? For crying out loud. You’re a grown man!”

I will endeavor to do better,” Mark said, pleasantly.

June rolled her eyes. “You say that every time. I don’t think you’re really trying.”

It’s irrelevant now,” said Sharon, biting off the thread. “It’s taken care of. Although why more men don’t carry sewing kits is beyond me. It would make my life easier.”

Mark took his jacket back and put it on. “I’ll put it on my to-do list.”

Get yourself back in there. It’s speech time,” said June, pushing him out the door. As soon as her brother was gone, she turned to Sharon. “Well. Thank you. I swear, it’s scary how often he tears his buttons off. Everyone thinks he’s the proverbial cucumber and no one ever notices how many times the buttons go missing on his suit jackets.”

It’s not all that uncommon,” Sharon said, ducking her head as she put the sewing kit back together. “It’s why I learned to pack my little kit.”

June giggled. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be laughing. You must be horribly embarrassed.”

It’s a little awkward on my first night out.”

It’s my fault. I forgot I put this design into production.”

Sharon looked at her, completely perplexed. “I’m sorry? I just got it today.”

It’s a Design by JJ, right?”

I have no idea.” Sharon stopped and thought about it. “I just didn’t have any cocktail dresses and this was the first one that appealed to me.”

She grabbed the back of her dress and tried to wriggle around to look at the tag.

It’s mine,” said June, laughing. “Are you serious? You had no clue?”

Sharon sighed. “I used to be better at the label game. I’m sorry.”

Don’t be.” June smiled warmly. “I hate label freaks, although I have to confess, they’ve been pretty good for business.”

Sharon took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. That makes how many times I’ve messed up tonight?”

Messed up?” June looked at her. “Oh, Sharon, I’m not mad at you. Actually, I’m pretty complimented. You bought the dress because you genuinely liked it. That’s the best compliment I’ve gotten all year.”

I’m glad you think so.” Sharon sighed. “I’m beginning to thing Tanks was right. This White House thing is pretty freaky.”

June laughed outright. “Pretty freaky? Good lord, it’s absolutely crazy-making! I didn’t get this messed up dressing Helen freaking Mirren for the Oscars.”

You’re not upset, then?”
“Why? Because you have such exquisite good taste?
Sharon sniffed and giggled. “Well, if you’re not upset, then to heck with the rest of them.”

To heck with them, indeed. Shall we return together, arm in arm? That will really get the old gossip mill going.”

Sharon instinctively shrank back. “Oh, lord. Oh, what the hell. The men haven’t noticed. You’re not peeved. Why should I care?”

You do, don’t you?’ June said softly.

Sharon shrugged. “You’d think I’d be used to the looking and the rumors and all that stuff by now. Funny thing is, I don’t think you ever get used to it.”

June shook her head. “You don’t get over it. But you do get used to it. You can get used to a lot of things. Trust me.”

Think your brother is ever going to get used to being president?” Sharon blurted out.

Yipes. Where did that come from?”

Sharon blushed. “I can’t believe I just said that.” She sighed. “It’s funny. I just can’t help noticing how sad he seems every time the rest of the Advisory Panel talks about going out to lunch together and he can’t come with us.”

Actually, I’ve noticed that, too.” June frowned. “It’s kinda weird, really. Mark is the original every day guy. So it’s totally amazing to me that he’s gotten as far as he has. I mean, the kind of ego you need to pull off a presidential campaign. Mark doesn’t have that. He does have drive, I’ll give him that.”

Probably accounts for it.”

Probably. But he’s been having a couple problems settling in.”

I, uh, talked to Coop about it the other day. He said he’d see what he could do. There’s a bunch of private clubs around the area. Coop said he’d talk to the Secret Service guys and the clubs, so maybe…”

Maybe,” June said. “What’d be really great is a good hide-out with a secret entrance or something.”

The light went on in Sharon’s head. “Yeah. He likes basketball, right?”

June laughed. “He loves sports, period. The guy will watch curling, for crying out loud.”

Curling’s kinda fun,” said Sharon. “Now, if he was into watching badminton, I’d really be worried.”

June laughed even harder and Sharon joined in.

Think you can face ‘em?” June asked, finally.

If you can, I can,” Sharon said.

So arm in arm, the two returned to the party. Across the room, Mark saw the two enter. Again, he felt his stomach flutter at the sight of her. And she was with June, no less, and the two really seemed to like each other. Mark smiled to himself. How perfect could one woman be?