Episode 39 – Korean Embassy Aftermath

When Sharon first saw the vicious email, she knew she should have reported it to security. But since it didn’t actually threaten her with anything, she chalked it up as yet another disadvantage to fame, although in retrospect, she’d come to realize it was more her own denial operating at that point.

Max’s article was embarrassing enough as it was. The last thing Sharon wanted on the Monday morning after it ran was to hear about it. Which of course meant that the entire Advisory Board, including part-timers, had to send relentless emails, both congratulating and teasing her. Her family wasn’t much better, especially Michael, who had taken plenty of heat from her at various times in his career.

However, Sharon put most of it behind her and focused on her work. Until Tuesday, during the Advisory Board meeting, when Karen Tanaka made a point of running some video feeds from the latest late night comedy shows. Sharon had been featured on every one, and unlike Max’s article, the jokes were not about how smart she was.

“I don’t know,” chortled one comic. “Is it really a good idea to try to make peace with a woman hot enough to start a war over?”

“I finally figured out why I can’t get any hot women,” crowed another. “You gotta be president to get a woman that hot.”

Sharon sighed loudly, during one particularly obnoxious rant.

“Can I just crawl under the table and die now?” she asked plaintively.

“So that’s it,” another comedian continued. “If our former president had kept a hot chick on his arm, we’d still have our allies.”

“I think we can turn that off,” said Mark quietly.

Karen shrugged. “I know it’s sexist and demeaning, but everyone is talking about how well our foreign policy changes are going.”

“Better yet,” said Augie, “it’s all on our message.”

“Right,” grumbled Sharon. “Trust our new president because he’s a babe magnet. That really lends authority to negotiations.”

She glanced over at Mark, who was smiling softly.

“I guess I’d better use some of that authority then to bring this meeting back to order,” Mark said. “What else is going on today?”

Coop immediately took up his report.

When the late night talk show jokes about the president’s girlfriend still hadn’t let up after Tuesday night, Sharon decided it was time to take steps. Unsure at first who she should call, she found a business card on her desk from the week before. He’d started the trouble, he could help her fix it.

That Max Epstein was a little startled to get Sharon’s call would be an understatement. But he readily agreed to meet her at the latest happening watering hole Friday night. Fortunately, Mark did not have any embassy soirees that week, either.

Which meant that it should have been a smoother week for Sharon, except that Wednesday after lunch, she got a call from June.

Episode 38, Capitol Cues

CAPITAL CUES

By Max Epstein

Mai Lin Hu, wife of South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Jong Hu, was significantly impressed when President Jerguessen wished her well on her birthday last Wednesday at the reception the South Korean embassy held in the president’s honor.

Activist Gloria Park was amazed that not only did President Jerguessen know who she was, he was able to ask her knowledgeable questions regarding her issue – adoption fraud in African countries.

I saw him refer to his iPhone a couple times,” Park said. “But he was checking his facts. That he even knew to do that – wow.”

What Park did not realize is that just prior to her conversation with the president, he had received an instant message from World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly, who had presumably pointed out Park and made sure her boss knew he wanted to talk to her.

It was an interesting dance that night. The president checking his iPhone, then glancing at Wheatly. She would glance in the direction of someone else. Or she would check her Blackberry and he’d glance in the direction of another. Seconds later, he was checking his iPhone.

Wheatly later conceded that she was, indeed, providing links and other information to the president as various people at the party talked to the president.

It’s my job,” she explained. “It’s what I do. I provide critical background information to the president so that he can make appropriate and intelligent decisions.”

But according to Secretary Daniel Freedman, Wheatly’s job is a key part of President Jerguessen’s efforts to rebuild this country’s relations with other nations.

She’s our secret weapon,” Freedman said. “Okay, maybe not so secret. But Sharon is a master at keeping track of people and issues. Mrs. Hu was blown away that the president knew that it was her birthday. That was Sharon who found that out. And that may sound trivial, but something as simple as a ‘happy birthday’ at the right time can go a long way toward building the right kinds of relations we need in the world right now.”

To: Swheatly531

You witch. You may think you have him all wrapped up with a nice pretty bow. It doesn’t matter who you’ve got snowed, I know you for who you are. Witch.

Episode 37 – The Antidote

It was getting close to six-thirty when Sharon IM’d Jean about the North Koreans and heard back about the Moral Americans. Nor was she particularly surprised when, at right about the same time, a group IM from Mark came through asking if the PFZ was going to be open that night. Pretty much everyone else from the Board had other plans. So Sharon relented and invited Mark to come make dinner with her. Mark accepted, almost too quickly and the two went back and forth, debating menu items based on what they had and or Sharon could get.

Mark seemed almost cheerful as Sharon met him in the basement.

“I’ve got the broth and a portobello,” he told her, showing her the canvas bag he was holding. “And some semolina. Plus a kick-ass Tavel that if the domestic wine lobby knew I had, I’d be dead.”

“Great, I love French roses” said Sharon. She smiled then led the way up the stairs. “I’m pounding the pork cutlets now. I’ve got plenty of arugula for a salad, maybe with some tomatoes. And I found some butternut squash chunks in the fridge. If we nuke them, we could use that for the ravioli filling along with some of the portobello.”

“And I love the idea of just dropping them in the hot broth. I am starving.”

As they entered the kitchen, Mark put the bag on the counter.

“Well, you’d better get the pasta started then, said Sharon. “That’s going to take the longest. I’ve got some herbed goat cheese and crackers. We can have that while the pasta is resting.”

“Sounds good.”

Their conversation remained focused on putting the meal together, a hot chicken broth with squash and mushroom ravioli, arugula and tomato salad with artichoke hearts, and breaded pork cutlets piccatta-style with broccoli.

“You seem to be in a better mood,” Sharon said, as they finished their meal.

“I think I am,” said Mark. “I’m sorry I got so grouchy this afternoon.” He sighed deeply. “I told you I could have ditched that meeting.”

“The Moral Americans?” Sharon chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that.”

“Even Augie agreed, they’ve got a point about my marriage encouraging weddings.”

“That’s what, a six-billion dollar industry?” Sharon smiled. “Could turn the economy around.”

Mark chuckled ruefully. “I don’t think that’s what they were after.”

“No. Really? But how is you getting married going to stop gay marriages?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Mark toyed with his wine glass. “They talked about leading by example, and obviously assumed I’m straight.”

Sharon thought briefly about that one kiss. “I have reason to believe so.”

Mark smiled. “Yeah, I’m afraid I am.” He frowned. “The senator hinted that my not falling in line with their request might lead to rumors I’m gay. As if I’d be worried about people thinking that.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Nah. If I’m not going to judge a person based on their sexual orientation, why should I care if folks judge me that way? Problem is, you were right. The Moral Americans are just vocal enough to cause trouble in other ways, too. I don’t want to appease them, but I don’t want to blow them off, either.” Mark gazed off into space.

They were in the dining room, sitting at one end of the rather large table. It was a fairly large room with windows that looked out onto the street, covered with pull-down shades and gold velvet curtains. It was a more sedate version of Baroque opulence and Sharon knew that the cherry-wood table and breakfront were genuine Louise XV. She’d been with Carla on a trip to France when Carla had bought the pieces.

However, Mark’s attention was actually drawn to the chess set at the other end of the table.

“You play chess?” he asked, getting up and looking at the board.

“Yeah. I got that out this afternoon.” Sharon followed him to the end of the table. “Kim challenged me to a game earlier. I gave him the white.”

The queen’s white pawn was already moved ahead two spaces.

“That’s a bold move,” Mark said.

“Kim really likes playing his queen. He’s also really good at getting rank with his pawns.” Sharon looked at Mark. “Do you play?”

“A little. I’m not that good.”

“Neither am I,” Sharon sighed. “Kim usually whips me backwards and forwards. I think he just asks me to play to humor me. I’m going online tonight to see if I can figure out a strategy.”

Mark chuckled. “I’ve got one. Ape his moves. It’ll make him crazy.”

Sharon hesitated, but Mark made an impressive argument and the two found themselves hovering over Sharon’s laptop, searching chess sites and debating until Sharon suddenly yawned and Mark remembered that it was time to go. And both were surprised and relieved when there was no awkwardness at the basement door.

So the next day, in spite of questions about marriage and the Moral Americans, Mark was in a pretty good mood. He made his statement about supporting marriage for all Americans and re-iterated that it was, in fact, his support for marriage that was behind him still being single. He hadn’t met the right woman yet, nor was he in any position to do anything about it at that time, assuming he did meet the right woman. The press corps, most of whom saw little use in a story about a group who had lost several times over on every effort they had made to legislate their agenda, let the President off on the issue. And there were other issues of more moment.

Episode 36 – The Moral Americans Caucus

The meeting with the Moral Americans did little to improve Mark’s mood. He finally cut it short with a promise to think over their proposal and give them an answer the next day. Then, after several deep breaths and one Zen meditation exercise to calm himself down, he summoned Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero to the Oval Office. He was still trying to achieve some calm when they both arrived.

“We’ve got a problem,” he announced, after giving the two permission to take a seat in front of the desk.

Jean and Gus looked at each other.

“You mean a new one?” Jean asked. “’Cause I haven’t heard about any. You, Augie?”

Gus shook his head. “Just the usual nonsense.”

“My meeting just a few minutes ago,” Mark told them. “The one with the Moral Americans Caucus. It went well enough, however, let’s just say that their proposal has left me more than a little… nonplussed.”

“What did they want?” Gus asked.

“They want me to get married.” Mark got up and started pacing. “To a woman, of course. Even offered me four different candidates.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding!” snapped Jean.

“I think I know where this is going,” Gus said, grimly. “Did they specify to a woman?”

“Oh, yes. They think that it will show my support for marriage and encourage others to get married.”

Gus sighed. “It will do that.”

“And if I don’t start making some moves along those lines, they are fully ready to start a campaign questioning my support for marriage and average Americans.”

“How long have they been gone?” Jean asked, immediately opening her laptop and scanning the screen.

“I put them off until Friday.” Mark rolled his eyes. “Big step, lots to think about, you know.”

“Could they have forgotten about the Friday news conference?” Gus asked.

“I’d be surprised if they had,” said Jean. “They may be narrow-minded asses, but they’re not stupid. At least, I don’t think they are.”

“They’re not,” said Gus. “Which means they fully expect you to turn them down. And also means they’re pushing you to the wall on the gay marriage thing.”

“I know.” Mark sighed. “And it’s not like there aren’t other issues to focus on instead of something that should be a gimme.”

“Be nice if it were,” sighed Gus.

Mark looked over at him. “I know. It’s just you won on the legislative side. You won judicially. There ain’t much I can do besides tell the Moral Americans to get over it, already.”

“Maybe that’s what you need to do,” Jean said, smiling. “I mean, don’t blow them off. You can’t afford to look too dismissive of their concerns. Better yet, promote marriage – for all Americans, not just the straight ones.”

Mark half-smiled. “You know, that might work.” He flopped into his desk chair. “It’s just the gall of it all – get married or we’re going to make your life miserable.”

“I’ll get right on the statement,” Jean said, almost getting up expectantly.

“Go ahead,” said Mark, remembering just in time that he should dismiss her.

Jean scooted out. Gus hung back, though not entirely for reasons of protocol.

“You okay, sir?” Gus asked. “It’s not like you to let this sort of thing get under your skin.”

Mark sighed. “Yeah. It’s just other things. Have you got anything else for me?”

“Nope. If I may?”

“Yeah.” Mark sighed as he watched Gus leave.

Mark knew it wasn’t like him to let things like the Moral Americans get under his skin. In fact, under normal circumstances, Mark would normally be laughing himself silly. Except that for the first time in a very long time, he was thinking he might actually like to get married. And he wasn’t sure which was more upsetting, the fact that he was thinking that way or that the woman he wanted was pretty much off-limits.

Or was she?

Episode 35 – Mark Isn’t Happy About Max

Back at the White House, Sharon found that the president wanted to go over the previous night’s party as well as updates on a potential world tour that summer. She checked in with Kent, found the president had a few free minutes right then, so she gathered up her laptop and Blackberry and hurried over to the Oval Office.

“Good news,” she announced after being admitted.

Mark looked up from the desk and smiled. “About what?”

“North Korea. My buddy at the university in Seoul got back to me while I was at lunch.”

“Is it even daylight there yet?”

Sharon quickly calculated. “It’s, what, one-thirty now? It’s about two-thirty in the morning there. Kim’s a hard-core night owl. He used to joke that we’d make a great couple except being in the same time zone would probably kill us. Anyway, he’s the poli sci/world affairs professor I told you about.”

“Right. So what’s the good news?” Mark glanced at his laptop.

“The North Koreans are just making noise about the favoritism. Faiza called it dead-on. They have to complain to look good, but there is definitely interest in re-establishing relations with us.”

Mark smiled. “That is good news. Have you e-mailed Dan yet?”

“Not yet.” Sharon opened the lid to her laptop. “I’d just got in when I got your note and figured you’d want to hear it first, anyway.”

“Got in? Oh, that’s right. Didn’t you have some interview or something?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Apparently Max Epstein thinks our world affairs policy would make a good feature.”

“It would.” Mark sighed. “Isn’t he that reporter with the bad rep regarding women?”

“Let me guess, you’ve been talking to Augie.” Sharon kept her eyes on her screen, her fingers flying over her keyboard as she wrote her e-mail.

“He called me when he heard about it from Jean.”

“It’s no big deal. Max behaved himself. Asked some good questions, too. We’ll see how the story turns out.”

Mark tried not to glare as Sharon continued working on her e-mail. After all, it was only one interview and it wasn’t as though Sharon was dating the guy. And even if she was, it wasn’t like she was going to be dating Mark, except at working functions, a thought that thoroughly depressed him. Except that all of a sudden, Sharon was asking him something about an upcoming trip to Mexico. Mark shoved his depressing thoughts aside and forced himself to focus on something besides Sharon and dating and not dating.

“Are you all right?” Sharon asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Fine.” Mark shifted uncomfortably.

“You sure?” Sharon looked him over critically. “You don’t look fine.”

“No. I’m okay.” Mark met Sharon’s skeptical glare. “Look, I’m bugged about the whole Max Epstein thing. Not that you can’t handle it.”

“Excuse me, I most certainly can.”

Mark shrugged. “I guess Augie got under my skin. He really is freaking out. He doesn’t want to see you get your heart broken.”

Sharon laughed. “There is no way Max Epstein could possibly break my heart, because I’m not going to fall in love with him.”

“And what makes you so damned sure you’re not?” Mark snapped, appalled at how angry he sounded. He met Sharon’s gaze. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.” Sharon glared at her laptop. “Apparently everyone’s talking about how good we looked together.”

“Jean mentioned that.” Mark swallowed. It was all over the Washington blogs and in the Post’s gossip column. “You do take a great picture.”

“Thanks. But there’s something insanely unsettling about being on the Metro and seeing yourself on the front page of the Life Style section.”

“No one bothered you, did they?”

“No. In fact, no one seemed to notice me, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

Sharon sat back on the office couch, looking deeply saddened. Mark sighed, feeling guilty and annoyed that he couldn’t sit down next to her and hold her close.

“Mr. President,” said Kent’s voice from the intercom. “Senator Halstead and the reps from the Moral American Caucus are here for their meeting.”

“Let me finish here with Ms. Wheatly,” Mark replied, shuddering. He looked at Sharon. “If you want, we can take our time. It’s not like this is a meeting I’m excited about.”

“But they can cause you an awful lot of trouble,” said Sharon, closing her laptop. “I’ve still got to finalize my thoughts on the tour schedule as it is. I’ll finish the report and e-mail it to you and Dan this afternoon.”

“Fine. And cc it to the rest of the Advisory Board, too. I’d like get their input at tomorrow’s meeting.”

Sharon nodded and got up. The two looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, then Sharon left.

Episode 34 – Max Interviews Sharon

The day after the Korean Embassy party found Sharon back at work, as usual, intently trying to run down some information on an old European trade agreement. She had just found something that looked close when Jean Bouyer cleared her throat.

That the press secretary was a little on the round side, most people got. What startled most folks was her short stature. Bouyer tried to enhance her four feet, ten inches by always wearing at least 3-inch high heels and piling her shiny red hair on top of her head, which would have looked ridiculous on most similarly sized women. But the look probably worked for Bouyer simply because she was one of those short women who filled a room with her presence.

Sharon hadn’t had much contact with Jean beyond the odd lunchtime chat in the cafeteria, so she was a little surprised to see Jean standing in her doorway.

“Hey, Jean, what’s up?” Sharon asked, trying not to keep one eye on her laptop’s screen.

“An interview request,” Jean said.

“Huh?”

“Max Epstein wants to do a story on you.”

“Why would he want to do that?”

Jean shrugged. “I don’t really care. But Yesmenia and I talked it over and we think it’d be a really good idea.”

Yesmenia was Yesmenia Alvarez, the president’s public message head.

Sharon grimaced. “Why?”

“We’re coming up on the first one hundred days and the boss isn’t happy with what he’s been able to do so far.” Jean balanced one of her feet on the tiny little spike of her red shoe. “The one thing area where he’s really been gaining ground is the foreign relations. If we can get a story out there about that, well, that might give his first one hundred some oomph.”

Sharon sighed. “So why doesn’t Epstein talk with Dan?”

“He has, but he wants to talk to you. You want me to have Allen set it up with Julie?”

“I suppose.”

“Great. This afternoon okay?”

“Already?” Sharon gulped.

Jean started out. “Max’s deadline is tomorrow. Trust me, you want to accommodate that.”

Sharon sighed again and went back to her document, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when Julie e-mailed her that she had a lunchtime interview with Max Epstein at a small bistro two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sharon made a point of being on time and was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see Max at the restaurant waiting for her. It was a small place, crowded with tables, and red vinyl-covered booths along the walls. Max had secured one against the lunch rush. He got up as she approached the table, no mean feat, given the booth, and remained standing until she was seated.

“They do an incredible salmon here,” Max told Sharon as he handed her a menu.

“Hmm.” Sharon browsed, one eye on Max to see what he was up to.

The waiter approached and Sharon asked for separate checks.

“I can put this on the expense account,” Max offered.

“No can do,” said Sharon. “Too close to a conflict of interest for me.”

The waiter sighed as Sharon ordered steak, salad and fries, and an iced tea. Max ordered salmon. As the waiter left, Max pulled out his voice recorder. Sharon sighed.

“I guess my order was on the record,” she said.

Max shrugged. “Not if you don’t want it to be. I can cut some slack on that one.”

“I don’t know if it matters. I probably would have ordered the same thing, anyway.”

“Shall we start at the beginning?” Max smiled. “What got you interested in world affairs?”

He led her through most of her work history, pausing only when the waiter came with their food. Sharon had to concede that Max had done his homework.

“As I understand it, you and one of your last bosses had something going,” Max finally asked.

“Oh, so that’s it?” Sharon rolled her eyes. “You lull me into a false sense of security and pull this?”

Max grinned. “Are you saying you don’t want to answer?”

“Nah.” Sharon speared a french fry. “We kept things discreet, for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t that big a deal. We still worked together for a while after we broke up.”

“So he wasn’t the reason you left the corporate world for the public sector?” Max grinned.

Sharon shrugged. “He may have been, but not for the reason you might think. He wanted a stay-at-home wife and kids, and I didn’t want to be that kind of wife. I was tempted to try it, but I realized pretty quickly that it was more that I was getting a little burnt out on the corporate thing. I had always wanted to go into public service and the diplomatic corps, anyway. So maybe the break up started the nudge that got me here. There were other things, too.”

“Like what?”

“Um,” Sharon hesitated. “We almost lost my sister last summer, and it just reminded me that it was probably time to go after what I really wanted.”

“And what do you really want?”

“Eventually? Maybe Secretary of State. Maybe just an ambassadorship. I don’t know. I’m really loving what I’m doing now.”

“Why?”

“It’s pure research, for one thing. I don’t have to worry about developing policy. And I do get to work my diplomatic chops every so often, but it’s not my primary function, and that’s refreshing.”

“What about the reports this morning out of North Korea that the U.S is favoring South Korea, based on last night’s reception?”

Sharon smiled. “Can’t comment.” She suddenly shifted at the soft buzzing in her purse. “Hold on.” She looked at her Blackberry and grinned. “And would you believe, it looks like I know how we’re going to handle those reports.”

“How?”

“Still can’t comment. Have to get the boss to clear it, first. And Dan. I mean Secretary Friedman.”

“Speaking of your boss, all the talk today is how good you two looked together last night.”

Sharon rolled her eyes, then glared at Max. “Let’s not get started with that. I have no interest in a relationship with the man. I mean, we’re friends. He’s a really nice person. But I’d have to be nuts.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? Complete loss of privacy, for starters. I’ll stay in the background, thank you.”

Max looked at her, pondering. “So you’re a free agent.”

“Don’t get too excited. I’ve heard about you.”

“Yeah.” Max suddenly sighed. “But let’s get back to your preference for the background, as you say, is that related to your brother’s fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to ask about him.”

“I’m more asking about why you prefer the background.” Max smiled encouragingly.

“I suppose that’s legit. And, yeah, I have seen the dark side of fame. But it’s not just Michael. It’s what happens with the president, himself. I mean, the poor guy can’t even go out to get a beer with his co-workers after work. A lot of the ways you and I move around and take for granted that we can do, he can’t. That is not my idea of a way to live.”

Max nodded. He asked a couple more questions about Sharon’s personal life, but it was more in the sense of her history and what got her interested in world affairs. As Sharon got up to go, he gave her his card.

Episode 33 – June and Douglas

For June, it was movie night with her buddy Douglas Lee, and even as the presidential motorcade was wending its way back to the White House, she and Doug were crashed on the couch in her sitting room, snacking on popcorn that the kitchen staff had liberally doused with mayonnaise and asiago cheese as the final credits rolled on a silly romantic comedy on June’s massive flat-panel TV.

Doug grinned. “That was a fun little flick.”

“Yeah. I was surprised it was so good,” June replied. “I mean, the previews made it look cute, but it actually had some meat, didn’t it?”

Doug yawned and stretched. “It sure did. I really appreciate you letting me up here to watch it. Now I don’t have to wait for it to come out on DVD.”

“Isn’t it still in the theatres?” June took a sip from her chardonnay.

“It is, but I’d have to go to some other city to watch it. If I tried to go see a chick flick like that in Manhattan, I’d be bombarded by clients. Or women who want to be my clients.”

June laughed.

Doug shrugged. “The problem is, I’m trying to slow business down.”

“What?”

“I’m thinking about getting out of the hair and make-up biz, or at least, just do it for special occasions or something. May I?” Doug picked up the wine bottle and his glass.

“Help yourself.” June nibbled on a popcorn kernel. “But why?”

“I’m bored.” Doug finished pouring his wine and handed the bottle to June. “I mean, it’s still fun to do a really great cut or get the perfect style or whatever. It’s just that last week, I was going over the finances with my accountant and I realized he was more interesting than ninety-percent of the women I do. And my accountant is not that interesting a guy.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have brought you down if I’d known.”

Doug waved her off. “No. That what’s-her-name…”

“Sharon.” June poured out the rest of the bottle into her glass without thinking about it.

“Sharon. She was great. And your other friend, Karen? I’d love to work on her. She was hysterical. It’s all the spoiled rich dames with more money than taste. And the models.” Doug rolled his eyes. “I still love doing the shows. You can really do some creative stuff. But if I have to listen to another vapid little twit blathering on about nothing.” He shuddered.

June put the popcorn bowl aside. “I guess they can be a bit much. During a show, I’m not really paying attention. So, what are you going to do instead?”

“I don’t know yet,” Doug grinned. “The hard part is going to be getting my client list down. It seems as though as soon as I tell someone I’m dropping her, she throws ridiculous amounts of money at me to keep her on. And the more I insist I don’t want it, the more she throws. You get a couple offers for a hundred thousand dollars a hair cut, and that’s pretty hard to turn down.”

“Yowza. You must be sitting pretty.”

“Pretty enough that I can pretty much do what I want from here on in.”

June’s hand accidentally landed on Doug’s. He flinched. June pulled her hand away as she sighed.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

Doug shrugged. “It’s okay.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I gotta get over this touching thing. It’s time. It may be why I want to get away from New York. But I’m gonna do it.”

June’s heart thudded as he slowly took her hand in his.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked, not at all sure if she was.

“Yeah. I think I am.” Doug smiled at her. “I’ve racked up a couple breakthroughs lately and my therapist said I should try extending myself a little.”

“Oh. That’s great.” Feeling guilty, June looked down at the bowl. “We’ve still got a full bowl of popcorn.”

“Yeah.” Doug laughed. “At least, it wouldn’t take us both a full week to eat that much.”

June grinned back. “We did put a decent dent in this. The problem is, I’m getting full.”

“Me, too.” Doug took a small handful and began nibbling at it. “Say, June, how would you feel if I moved down here to Washington?”

“What?”

“I’d keep my shop in Manhattan and come up for the shows. But the business can pretty much run itself. And maybe I can do some good here. Maybe put an end to helmet hair.”

June laughed. “That won’t happen.” She looked him over. “You’re not thinking of moving down because of me, are you?”

“Yes and no.” Doug grimaced. “I want to get out of New York because I need to and I’m thinking about here because you’re here. At least, I’d have one friend.”

“You’ve got friends in L.A.”

Doug shook his head. “If I can’t handle models and rich bitches, how far do you think I’d get with the Hollywood crowd?”

“Point taken.” June shrugged. “But do you really want to be a Washington dilletante?”

“I don’t know what I want.” Doug sighed. “I’ve been doing hair since I was eighteen and helping my mom out at the shows since I was five.”

“You got a business degree in there.”

“Yeah. To run my shop and all the other things that were coming along because of that.” Doug shook his head. “It’s time I broadened myself, explored other passions. Who knows? Maybe I want to go back to hair. Maybe I’ll just be a dilletante early retiree. Don’t know yet. But the only way I’ll be able to find out is if I get away from New York for a while. So, do you mind if I hang out down here?”

“No. I’d love it.” June smiled.

IM Session

Gloryhg: Hi.

Swheatly531: Hi.

Gloryhg: Thought I’d check in. Thanks for giving me your personal address.

Swheatly531: You gave me yours. What’s WLF?

Gloryhg: Worth Living For. To die for is too negative. I had a good time tonight.

Swheatly531: For working, it wasn’t bad.

Gloryhg: I may have overstepped a boundary.

Swheatly531: When? Oh, the kiss.

Gloryhg: I’m told I do that sometimes. Overstep, I mean.

Swheatly531: Oh.

Gloryhg: You okay with it?

Gloryhg: You there?

Swheatly531: Yeah. Just thinking it over.

Gloryhg: <<sigh>> Great. Am I looking at a harassment suit?

Swheatly531: Maybe. 😉 Probably not. I hope you’re not thinking I’m ducking comment because you’re the boss.

Gloryhg: Well, that you might does worry me. I mean, one of the reasons I hired you in the first place was because I was confident you’d tell me what you thought regardless of what I might think.

Swheatly531: I just don’t know what I think right now. The boss part is a little awkward. But it’s more the whole dating thing, in general. It’s not a good time for that, you know.

Gloryhg: I know.

Swheatly531: BTW, Gloryhg???

Gloryhg: An old nickname from my college days. The Coop again. Loved poking fun at my ambitions. I got this address years and years ago and mostly forgot about it until the other one went public last summer.

Swheatly531: Well, gotta go. Want to finish some reading before getting to bed. See you tomorrow.

Gloryhg: See you tomorrow.

Episode 32 – The Korean Embassy

For Sharon, the upcoming do at the embassy was turning into more trouble than it was worth, in her opinion. Late Tuesday afternoon, June called her upstairs to the studio for a final fitting of the new dress, which Sharon only endured because she was able to keep reading emails on her Blackberry. Then there was the briefing with the President on Wednesday, not to mention coordinating with the State Department on several trips coming up in the next few months. Not to mention all the other things going on in the world that she had to stay on top of.

So Sharon felt no little irritation when June called her to the media prep room at five p.m. Wednesday to get ready for the embassy party.

“The party doesn’t start ’til seven, and we don’t want to be there before seven-thirty,” Sharon complained. “I don’t need two hours to get dressed.”

“Douglas Lee is going to do your hair and make up,” June explained. “All the other dates get done up. You should, too.”

“I can get done up in my office,” Sharon grumbled. “I don’t need fancy hair and make up.”

“Yes, you do. Now, come on. Even Paris Hilton can’t get Douglas Lee to do her hair.” June gently led Sharon from the office.

Lee, who was stick thin with a dark ring around his shaved head, was sympathetic to Sharon’s complaints and only stopped her from reading e-mail when he absolutely had to. Sharon, when she saw her hair curled and piled on top of her head and the make up job, had to concede that Lee had done a terrific job. She could only hope that Mark wouldn’t notice.

But, of course, Mark did. Fortunately, when he came to pick her up at her office, he saw her first from the hallway. If she had been lovely before in business wear, she was devastating all dressed up to go out. Mark took a deep calming breath before rapping at the office door. Even better, she seemed preoccupied.

“Looks like we might be in for a bumpy evening,” she said, standing then picking up a dark burgundy cloak that matched her mauve lace dress. “It just came over from State that Qui Cho and buddies from the Taiwan mission picked up invites for the party tonight.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s hope Dan’s there.”

“He should be,” Sharon glared at the flat red leather purse June had given her to carry. It was too small for much besides her ever-present Blackberry, an ID case and a lipstick. “I’ve got some notes so I can brief you in the car. Have you got your iPhone and do you want me buzzing you?”

“Of course. Are you ready?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Sharon smiled weakly. “I serve at the pleasure of the President.”

Mark smiled and offered his arm, although inwardly, he winced.

As the presidential limo arrived at the party, he got out first, spotted where the press cameras were and put himself between them and Sharon as he helped her out. The photographers shouted out, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” loudly and over and over again, but Mark ignored them as he walked Sharon into the embassy.

Beyond that, it was a pretty normal party, except that after going through the receiving line, Sharon and Mark separated pretty quickly. They had planned it that way, to allow Mark to work the room and Sharon to observe and send instant messages to him as she spotted various people who might want to talk to him. She also chatted with various dignitaries, stopping a couple times as Mark sent her a message, requesting more information than he could get from his iPhone while talking to someone.

But the third buzz puzzled her. First off, it came from Gloryhg. Then secondly, there was the message, itself: “Buffet’s got some seriously good sweet kimchee at the end. And the bulgogi is WLF!”

As she looked up, she realized that Mark was looking at her from the other end of the room. He winked and nodded at the buffet. Sharon wasn’t sure what WLF meant, but the bulgogi was very good, as was the sweet kimchee.

It was past nine when Mark nodded again and they said their good-byes. As they left the embassy, the photogs and others were waiting along the path from the door to the limo. Mark paused long enough to answer a few questions.

“Who’s your date tonight?” someone hollered.

“My world affairs advisor, Sharon Wheatly,” Mark answered, grinning.

“Miss Wheatly,” someone else hollered from the crowd. “Who are you wearing tonight?”

“What?” Sharon backed away as she felt her Blackberry buzz. “Excuse me for a second.”

Sure enough, there was a message from Gen Flowers. Sharon glanced around and Gen was near the car, smiling. The message answered the reporter’s question.

“Oh, my dress,” Sharon replied. “It’s an original from Ms. Jerguessen’s private collection.”

“Please keep in mind,” Mark interjected, “that Ms. Wheatly isn’t just my date. She’s here as part of the team, and has put in a full night of work.”

“Mr. President, can you tell us about your objectives with the South Koreans?” another reporter bellowed above the other hollers.

Mark went on to answer questions amid the flashes from the cameras, while Sharon smiled softly and stepped back. Unfortunately, someone else wanted to know who had done her make up and hair and Sharon couldn’t answer.

“He’s a friend of the president’s sister,” she said. “I don’t recall his name. I was finalizing the research for tonight at the time.”

“Ms. Wheatly, why mauve?” a reporter bellowed.

“I’m not answering questions about my dress.” Sharon answered and stepped back toward the limo. “This evening was about building our foreign relations, and that’s where my focus is, thank you very much.”

“And I think that will do it for tonight,” added Mark, stepping up and taking Sharon’s arm. “Thanks, everyone.”

And with that, he led Sharon to the limo and helped her in. Once the door was shut, Mark leaned back and laughed.

“Well,” he said. “Turns out you’re quite the media pro, after all.”

Sharon made a face. “Just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I want to.”

“Oh, come on. You had fun nailing them on the make-up questions.”

“No.” Sharon sighed. “Maybe a little. It’s just kinda ridiculous that I’m here as your aide and all they want to know is what lip gloss I’m using.”

“Well, you are my date.”

“As if that makes any difference. I was here to work as much as you were.”

“Well, you pulled it off.” Mark grinned and nudged her. “Looks like you had fun doing it, too.”

Sharon winced again. “Not really.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

“No.”

Mark looked at her, puzzled. “No? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve been with women who really hate the attention and they get all stiff and you didn’t. In fact, you’re more like somebody who likes the attention.”

Sharon grimaced. “I don’t. I mean…” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”

Mark softened. “How?”

“It’s…” Sharon shrugged as she struggled to find the right words. “Okay. This is just between the two of us, right?”

“Sure.”

“It’s not that I don’t like the attention. I’ve been getting it most of my life, and it could be a lot worse. It’s just….” Sharon swallowed. “I just feel so shallow. I hate that about myself. It’s like I’m lying or something. I don’t want to be obsessed with my looks or stuff like that, but that’s why people look at me. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about my brains and who I am as a person. But, yeah, it’s kinda cool that people think I’m good-looking.”

Mark laughed. “That doesn’t make you shallow.”

“Unless all the girls you grew up with were that shallow and all into who photographed them and they didn’t count as people unless they ended up in this tabloid or that.” Sharon shuddered. “I thought it was stupid then and I still think it’s stupid. And I hate it when I get caught up in it.”

“Ah. I hear you. There’s no question you can get pretty caught up in it all.” Mark chuckled. “But I think the fact that you hate getting caught up is a pretty good sign that you’re not going to.”

Sharon sighed. “I’d rather not deal with it in the first place. Anyway, you wanted to compare notes?”

Mark nodded, smiling but wishing they were talking about anything but work. Sharon went over some of the information she’d gathered from various folks and Mark listened dutifully. When they got to Sharon’s townhouse, Mark walked her in and shut the front door.

“It’s a little late, but I can pull some dinner together,” she said.

“No, I’m pretty well stuffed from the party.” Mark paused. “And I’ve got to get back. Riff’s already annoyed that I came in with you.”

“Then why…”

“I just wanted to say thank you and good night, like a good date.”

“Oh.”

“I know we were working, but, well…”

Mark bent and kissed her mouth. Sharon lost her breath and longed both to wrap her arms around him and not let go and she longed to shove him away. And it was still over too soon.

“Good night,” Mark said and opened the door.

“Good night,” Sharon whispered. She closed the door behind him still trying to savor the feel of his lips on hers.

Mark bounded down the stoop, hoping that this working date thing might be working for him.

Enter Max Epstein

Tuesday, Mark entered the meeting room for the Advisory Board meeting and knew immediately that something was up. It wasn’t obvious. The group stood and chanted, as usual. But as Mark sat down the rest of the group didn’t. Instead, Augie blew a note on a pitch pipe and the group sang a chorus of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Mark applauded slowly at the end of the tune.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

“Today is St. Patrick’s Day,” Coop answered. “The Irish are a people with a great love of song and storytelling.”

Sharon grimaced. “Coop, you are aware that was not a real Irish tune.”

“It was written by a couple Jewish guys,” Tanks said.

“It’s not like any of you are Irish,” Coop said.

“And you are?” Ed-man asked, even though he should have known better.

“Full one-quarter,” Coop replied, grinning. “My paternal grandfather was a son of the sod. Given the way Grandma talked about him, it may even have been consensual.”

“Be that as it may,” Mark interrupted. “Do any of you delinquents have a report to present?”

The meeting fell to order, but Coop was quite taken with the success of the venture and continued lobbying for a second performance.

Coop also had another announcement for the end of the meeting.

“Our esteemed boss will be joining us for lunch,” he said.

The group applauded severally, and Mark acknowledged the tribute.

“Where are we going?” Whitey asked.

“You mean who did you con into letting us in?” Ed-man added.

“Believe it or not, the National Press Club.”

The others groaned loudly.

Coop waved them down. “There will be no interviews and we have a semi-private room. And Augie had nothing to do with it besides making the suggestion. They’re just being decent. Now, if some of those other clubs get wind of it, maybe they’ll decide to stop being so snooty and let us in, as well.”

The group decided to ride in the Presidential limo for the fun of it. It was Sharon’s first time in the car and she tried not to gulp when she realized she’d be riding in it again the next night for her “date” to the South Korean embassy.

The lunch, itself, was fun and relaxing. The food was pretty good, and while Mark initially got a few stares, by and large, the group was ignored. Until the end of the lunch. Mark hurried back to the White House, and with him went Ed-man, Coop and Whitey. Sharon, Tanks and Augie decided to take the Metro back, since Tanks had to find a deli so she could make sandwiches for one of her daughters’ school event the next day and Augie knew where one was and Sharon wanted to know where it was, as well.

But Augie got side-tracked by a former colleague in the bar. Sharon and Karen offered to wait for him, and while they were waited near the door, Karen nudged Sharon.

“You’re right,” Karen said with a wicked grin. “People do look at you a lot.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I told you.”

“At least some of the guys are cute.”

“Unfortunately, they’re not the ones who try to pick me up.”

At the other end of the bar, a reporter in a tan corduroy jacket, dark plaid shirt and navy blue tie was chatting with his friend with one eye firmly on Sharon.

“So, who’s going to try?” Karen teased. “That geek in the back?”

“Welcome to my nightmare.”

As if in response, the reporter got up and headed toward the door of the bar. However, he was reaching inside his jacket pocket and actually left from the other door.

Behind her, in the foyer, Sharon could hear him talking to someone in German. Exceptionally fluent German. Karen glanced back into the foyer.

“He’s on the phone,” she said.

“Talking to somebody about getting them some tortillas,” Sharon said.

“Tortillas?”

Sharon shrugged. “Mexican food is getting more popular in Europe, but it’s still pretty hard to find the good stuff.”

Augie chose that moment to come back. “Let’s get out of here.”

The women turned as the reporter in the foyer snapped his phone shut. Augie, however, got pulled back into the bar. The reporter grinned as he saw the women.

“Ladies,” he said in a natural American accent. “Let me guess, Dr. Karen Tanaka and Ms. Sharon Wheatly?”

Karen grinned. “You got it in one. Where’d you learn to speak German like that?”

“Dad was in the Air Force and stationed there, then took a civilian job there when I was a kid.” The reporter shrugged. “I basically grew up in Ramstein.”

“And you are?” Karen asked.

“Max Epstein, at your service.” He bowed, but with one eye on Sharon.

He addressed her in German, Sharon replied somewhat frostily and then Augie came up and glared at Epstein.

“Max, I see you’ve met my colleagues.”

“It appears I have, Gus. Good to see you again.” Max smiled and left.

“So what did you guys say?” Karen asked as they left the building.

“He was hitting on me,” Sharon grumbled.

“I can imagine,” Augie sighed.

Sharon frowned. “Have to give him points. He made an obscure reference to some German poetry. I was lucky I knew the poem.”

“Well, I wouldn’t get too excited.” Augie glared back at the club for a second. “Max is a darned good reporter, but he’s got a bad reputation with women. And in a couple cases, I know how bad.”

Karen giggled. “So we stand warned.”

“I already was,” Sharon said. “He’s the one that does that Capitol Cues column, right?”

“Yeah,” said Augie.

Sharon nodded. “Then he’s the one. He hit on my brother’s girlfriend a year or so back and seriously ticked both her and my brother off.”

“Good,” said Augie with decided finality.

Sharon and Karen looked at each other, but the truth was, there really wasn’t anything more to be said on the matter.

Max, for his part, had returned to his office and was already dialing his phone and doing a Google. It hadn’t taken much mulling over. He wasn’t sure exactly where his research on Sharon Wheatly would lead, but at the very least, she’d make one very good story.

She was supposed to be accompanying the President to the South Korean Embassy cocktail party that next night. Max grinned. An e-mail to his buddy on the International desk and the invite to the party was as good as in his hands.

Episode 30 – Michael and Inez Fight

In New York city, Michael Wheatly sat in the tiny music room in his apartment, feeling a little lost and not quite sure what to do about it. In the two months since he and Inez had been living together, there had been considerable rockiness. The fights had been intense – and loud – but not so serious as to break them up. If anything, Inez said she’d expected them, part of the whole learning to live together process.

Still, Michael felt uncomfortable. It was true that his ex-wife had been more likely to avoid confrontations during the four years they were married. But the fights toward the end, those had been loud and ugly. Michael played his and Inez’ latest fight back through his mind, trying to find something different.

He played a few notes on the mini-grand piano in front of him and debated writing them down on the sheet music in front of him. It was about that time that he caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke. Inez must have come home. He’d been concentrating pretty intensely on his latest composition and Inez knew better than to knock when the music room door was closed. Michael felt a pang of guilt, looked at the music and decided he’d played out this latest bit of inspiration.

Inez was in the living room, smoking and looking out the apartment window without seeing anything.

“Are you home early or did I lose track of time again?” Michael asked softly.

Inez turned and snubbed out her cigarette. “Oh. I don’t know. What time is it?”

Michael looked around the living room but there were no clocks visible. There was a clock on the DVD player, but that was closed in the cabinet below the TV. The kitchen boasted clocks on the microwave, the oven and the stereo unit under one of the shelves, but that was in the kitchen.

“It’s dark,” Michael observed. “Six-ish, maybe?”

“Sounds about right.” Inez pulled her mobile phone from her pants pocket. “Six-thirty-eight, actually. You want dinner?”

“I suppose. Are you all right?”

Inez shrugged listlessly. “So-so. Maria French came by the studio today. She wants to show my work at her gallery.”

“That’s terrific.” Michael paused. “Are you worried about having enough prints developed or something?”

“No. I’ve got plenty of pictures.” Inez looked over at him and smiled sadly. “I could take some new shots for the kids at play series, but I’ve got enough for Maria’s exhibit if I don’t get to it.”

“Then what’s bothering you? You don’t smoke inside here, usually.”

“I’ve gotta quit this lousy habit.” Inez dropped the pack of cigarettes onto the window sill.

“And…?” Michael waited.

Inez looked at him. “Mama called this afternoon. She wants me to come to dinner next Sunday.”

“If we’re free, why not?”

“She wants me. You were not included in the invite.” Inez began pacing. “My ex is going to be there.”

“So?”

“Mama doesn’t quite get it that Manuel left me. She wants us back together again. Even a bastard like Manuel is better than me being alone or living in sin with you.”

“I take Mama doesn’t quite get it that you’re the one who doesn’t want to get married just yet.”

Inez turned on him. “Now don’t start that with me, will you? I’m in no mood.”

“No kidding.” Michael flopped onto the couch.

Inez rolled her eyes. “And you’re still bugged about the fighting.”

“Yeah, I am.” Michael glared at her. “Sorry. I know better. I just- I don’t know. This just isn’t what I expected. I mean I didn’t expect it to be perfect and happily ever after.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “So what? It’s not all about you. If we’re going to make a go of this, you’d better get used to that idea and fast. I’ve got a real problem here. If you’re not willing to listen, then I can go elsewhere.”

“No.” Michael got up and went to her. “I’m sorry. I should be listening better. But it’s not like we can do anything about your family.”

“Like I don’t know that? It still hurts. It’s still making me crazy.”

“Then don’t let it.”

“Easy for you to say.” Inez groaned and went back to glaring out the window.

Michael came up behind. “Okay. It’s not easy. But what are you going to do? You’re not going to change them.”

“I know. I just wish they weren’t so down on you.” Inez coughed lightly. “Manuel called me today, also. Said he wants to get back together. I guess his little floozy lost her job.”

“I’m sorry, Inez.”

“You’re right. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Michael smiled softly. “Except not get back together with him.”

“Don’t even,” Inez growled, then softened. “It’s not going to happen. I just don’t want to have to deal with it, is all.”

“Then don’t. The next time Manuel calls, hang up on him. If your mother starts in, hang up. There’s a reason those buttons are on the phone.”

Inez leaned into him. “I know. We’ll see. This is my mother we’re talking about, remember.”

Michael sighed. “Point taken. It’ll be all right, Inez, mi amor. The most important thing is that we’re here together. The rest of the world can go to hell.”

“It can.” Inez smiled. “So what did you do all day?”

Michael grinned. “Sparrow Without Wings. You want to hear it?”

“Of course, amado.” Inez shook her head and chuckled.

It was always about Michael. But sometimes, that was a good thing.