Episode 132 – Rose Makes a Plan

romance, romantic serial, romance serial, romance fictionIn her Minnesota home, Rose Jerguessen glared at her iPhone. The blasted thing had its uses, she supposed, but it was completely lacking when it came to ending calls. Swiping your finger was not nearly as satisfying as slamming the headset into its cradle.

Behind her, in the breakfast room, her friends – such as they were – were probably talking about her behind her back. Rose would review the security tapes later. Given that she was just as likely to be saying something malicious about any of them, depending on who had stepped out to go to the ladies’ room, it only made sense to keep up with what they were saying about her.

More disturbing was the news from Los Angeles. It was supposed to have been a simple operation, but apparently, that Tanaka bitch knew how to make herself look like a perfect saint. It was frustrating, really. Rose paid for the best people there were and they still couldn’t get that grasping little witch where it hurt. The best that could be hoped for was that she was distracted from going after Mark.

Rose sighed. A couple of her aides had suggested that perhaps Tanaka was not interested in Mark. It was possible. Still, her son was president – someone had to be going after him. And his head was so easily turned. It was up to her to protect him. But first, there would be some culling among her network. Then, perhaps, she would visit the White House, herself. Rose smiled to herself. Not only would she see for herself what Mark was really up to, her friends would be impressed. They’d been asking about when she’d go. Rose mulled it over. Maybe not right away, but soon. Soon.

Episode 131 – The Celebration

Later, at the celebration at the Tanaka house in San Pedro, the port area at Los Angeles’ southern edge, Sharon saw Karen off in a corner holding Kira as the young girl sobbed. The party continued on as if no one noticed, so Sharon pretended not to, either. However, she and June finally cornered Karen.

“So have you and Kira made it up?” June asked teasingly.

Karen sniffed and wiped her eyes. “More or less. She’s still grounded.” Karen sighed. “Poor kid. She took so much on herself. She said she had to make sure that Allie didn’t have to live with their dad. She wasn’t worried about herself. She didn’t like being with him. But he was really messing up Allie, calling her stupid and good for nothing and that no man would want to marry her. And Allie was apparently taking it to heart. They didn’t want to tell me because there was nothing I could do about it and they didn’t want their father to use any of my complaints as an excuse to get custody.”

“So Kira doesn’t think he’ll try again?” Sharon asked.

“He can’t,” said June.

“Well, he could try,” Karen said. “But he probably won’t get very far. According to everything I’ve heard, if he couldn’t get custody from Judge Weltzer, he won’t be able to get it from anyone. This was truly his last chance.”

“Wonder if Kira’s little press conference had any effect,” June said.

Karen and Sharon shrugged.

“That’s probably what all the talking heads are debating right now,” Karen said. “My staff volunteered to keep an eye on the pundit-o-mania so I don’t have to. I may ask for a run-down after all. But we’ll probably never know for sure. Judge Weltzer isn’t going to be saying any time soon.”

“Or admit it, even if the publicity did sway him,” Sharon said.

“This is true,” Karen replied. Then she shrugged. “I don’t know that it’ll have that much effect in the long run. And I sure hope it doesn’t. Heaven only knows what Kira will try the next time she gets pissed at me.”

Sharon and June laughed along.

“Well,” Sharon said, finally. “At least now you’ll be able to get back to normal.”

Karen laughed even harder. “Sharon, you so do not have kids. Parents do not have normal. We have crazy and less crazy.”

“All right,” Sharon put her hand on Karen’s shoulder. “Then we’ll get back to less crazy. Which doesn’t entirely reflect Washington, but what the heck.”

Episode 130 – The Custody Hearing

The next morning, Karen had gotten over her angst and seemed almost calm as she joined her attorneys at the defense table in the tiny hearing room. The lawyers surrounding her ex-husband didn’t seem quite so calm, Sharon thought.

Judge Weltzer came in and called the hearing to order. Watanabe’s lawyers began their closing argument, pushing hard on the claim that Karen had poisoned Kira and Allie against their father. In fact, they pushed so hard that Weltzer broke in.

“Do you have any proof that the defendant poisoned the children against their father?” Weltzer asked testily. “This is a court of law, not a court of what we wish were true.”

Sharon bit her lip to keep from laughing. Watanabe’s lead council, however, was not deterred, choosing to put Kira’s own attitude forth as proof.

“Please,” Weltzer snarled. “I’ve been on this bench long enough to know what it sounds like when a kid has been poisoned against a parent by the other parent. You guys have bupkes. How about some proof that Dr. Tanaka has been abusing or neglecting her kids? Oh, wait, you can’t bring that up without some serious challenges that Dr. Watanabe was always working when his girls were there for a visit.”

“Sir,” the lead council interrupted, “there’s an excellent reason for that. Dr. Watanabe didn’t want to take a chance on being accused of improper behavior by his ex-wife. She did manipulate him into letting her take the girls to Washington, DC.”

“Yeah, funny thing about that,” Weltzer scratched his forehead. “She was going to expose some behavior on her ex’s part to his superiors. Sexual misconduct, according to Ms. Kira Watanabe. And she had proof of said behavior. Dr. Tanaka, can you explain why you haven’t brought this up in the hearing?”

Karen gulped. “It was my understanding that as long as Dr. Watanabe’s improper behavior stayed at work, it didn’t fall under the confines of this hearing.”

“Hm. I understand that your boyfriend just moved in with you and the girls.”

“It’s a committed relationship, sir,” Karen replied. “Nor did we make the decision lightly. My daughters seem happy to have Hideo there.”

“Hm.” Weltzer waved at Watanabe’s attorneys to continue their argument, but didn’t seem to be listening to them. Nor did he pay much attention to the defense presented by Karen’s attorneys.

He dismissed the court for a short recess, then convened even before the two sides could start eating lunch, let alone finish.

There was a tense silence in the hearing room as Weltzer shifted in his seat and adjusted his glasses over and over again.

“First up, Dr. Tanaka,” the judge drawled slowly. “I have to say it’s pretty admirable that you haven’t said anything against your ex-husband. But you haven’t exactly been backing him up, either. You may want to think about that. Sometimes it’s the sins of omission that hurt the most.” He paused, adjusted his glasses again and shifted his papers.

Sharon looked over at Kira, who looked like she was about to go after the judge’s throat.

“Not in this case, however,” Weltzer said, speaking up just in time. “Dr. Watanabe, if your daughters have been poisoned against you, then you’re the one who has done it.” Weltzer waved his hand, stopping the vocal protest from Watanabe’s attorneys. “As I frequently note, I have been on this bench a very long time and I’ve talked to a lot of kids. So, Dr. Watanabe, it is saying something when I tell you that your daughter is one of the most angry young women I have ever met. She told me yesterday that she would take her sister and live on the streets rather than live with you, and I believe that was no idle threat. She even had a plan – not a great one, mind you.” Weltzer looked over the top of his glasses and glared at Kira. “But she had one. I assure you, it’s pretty easy to tell when a kid has been coached to say something – and your daughter had not been coached.”

“I wonder how true that is,” June whispered to Sharon.

“Don’t know,” Sharon whispered back. “It probably depends on the kid and the judge. He believes it, and that’s what counts right now.”

“I want you to understand, Dr. Watanabe,” Weltzer continued, “that your daughters are almost grown up. I am legally required to listen to and give due weight to their preferences regarding which parent they want to live with, and they have made it clear that under no circumstances do they want to live with you. You’ve got a lot of work to do to mend that relationship. So while I cannot give you custody, I will give you some hope. Dr. Tanaka will retain full custody of your daughters. But you will visit your daughters every month, under the supervision of a trained counselor and you will travel to where they are to do it. Those girls are almost adults and you can send them into adulthood believing that their father doesn’t love them, or you can work your backside off to mend what you broke. And I’m telling you, it will only get harder to fix this relationship.”

Sharon could see Karen fighting to keep her face free of emotion. Watanabe, on the other hand, was speaking angrily to his attorneys. Weltzer interrupted a couple times to clarify instructions and other points, then instructed his clerk on how the order was to be written up, and then finally gavelled the hearing adjourned. All stood as he left the bench. The quiet lasted only long enough for the judge to leave the hearing room. Then it wasn’t quite cheering, Sharon thought, but the noise was joyful as Karen was quickly surrounded by her mother, June, Kira, Allie, Tiffany and Jodi. Watanabe started to leave, then walked up to Kira and Allie.

“I only wanted you to be good Japanese daughters,” he told them. “You have no respect for our culture.”

Kira folded her arms, glared at him, then answered him in Japanese. Karen pressed her lips together very tightly, as did Watanabe, though for different reasons.

“What did she say?” June asked Sharon as Watanabe stalked off.

“That she respects her culture. He’s the one who doesn’t because to respect the culture, he must respect his daughters, and he does not.” Sharon tried to stifle her giggles.

“That girl is getting pretty scary,” June said.

Sharon nodded.

Episode 129 – Karen Vents

Karen waited just long enough to see Kira safely into the car, then shut the car’s door and watched, trembling ever so slightly as the car pulled away into the late afternoon traffic. Sharon slid up next to Karen and gently took her elbow. She looked back at the gaggle, now clustered around June, who was telling them that she couldn’t comment on the case because she didn’t want to risk violating the gag order.

“Looks like June drew the press hounds away,” Sharon said. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”

Karen swallowed. “I’m supposed to go back to my parents’ place.”

“Then that’s where we’ll go. In fact, here comes June and the car’s right here.”

In the back seat of the car, Karen sank down between June and Sharon and tried not to sob.

“What the hell was she thinking?” Karen all but shrieked. “I swear, she told them she’d run away and live on the streets before living with her dad. At least, that’s one of the things they were asking me. What was she thinking?”

“That she really doesn’t want to live with her dad?” said June, softly.

“Somebody’s bound to think I put her up to this,” Karen groaned. “Oh, crud, what if the judge thinks I did?”

June and Sharon glanced over at each other. June winced – someone had asked if Karen had put Kira up to the impromptu press conference. Sharon nodded.

“I don’t think the judge will believe that,” Sharon said. “And we’ll be there to testify that Kira’s little press conference was as big a surprise to you as it was to us.”

“But what if he does and gives George custody?”

“Then we’ll fight it,” said June calmly. “Besides, it’s been going around on Facebook and Twitter that Judge Weltzer has gotten into trouble before for giving kids over to abusive fathers. He has to have heard the chatter. Nobody is that out of touch.”

Sharon thought it entirely possible that Judge Weltzer was that out of touch, but decided it was not the time to say so.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this angry at Kira in her life,” Karen gasped. “I’m ready to kill her. I just want to shake the living daylights out of her and ask her what the hell was she thinking?”

Sharon bit her tongue. She had a pretty good idea of what Kira had been thinking – that she could manipulate the press and try the case in the public arena. The scary thing was, it looked like Kira had succeeded. Admittedly, the teen needed some work in the finer points of massaging a story. But Sharon knew there were many, many adults who couldn’t have pulled off Kira’s little coup.

Not that Karen wanted to hear that part. Because the sad truth was, the fact that Kira pulled it off so neatly would lend credence to the idea that she’d been set up to do it. Sharon held in a sigh, looked over at June and the two let Karen vent.

Episode 128 – Kira Pulls a Fast One

For Sharon, there wasn’t much time to relax, let alone wonder about Mark. First, she had to finish cleaning up, then pack for the trip. Then there was the call from China that had to be dealt with right away, plus the amendments to her report for the Advisory Board meeting that she would probably miss. Then there were the emails to her Asia expert, Katie, who would have her spin on the situation. The flight to Los Angeles was a very early one, which meant Sharon got almost no sleep. She hoped desperately she’d get the chance to nap on the plane.

And while the flight turned out to be more restful than not, Sharon did not get much shut-eye. Aside from the usual avalanche of emails demanding her attention, she was seldom able to sleep while flying. As the plane landed, Sharon put her hand up to hide a jaw-cracking yawn. She was so tired, she was almost glad not to see any of her family members waiting for her near the luggage carousels.

Still, Sharon made a point of calling Karen as soon as the airport shuttle got on the freeway toward Downtown Los Angeles. The call went straight to voicemail, so Sharon tried texting, instead. Several minutes later, Sharon’s phone beeped with the reply.

“Judge put gag order on me and George. Kira just started her interview. Allie goes right after lunch.”

Sharon pressed buttons in answer.

“I’ll check in at hotel, first, then meet you at the courthouse. Got the address?”

Three minutes later, the phone buzzed with the link. Sharon checked the directions and realized she could take L.A.’s subway directly there from the hotel. Checking in took longer than it should have, and Sharon stopped to eat lunch, but she got to the courthouse well before Allie had finished with her interview. June was already there, pacing the narrow aisle of the tiny hearing room while Karen sat stoically in the audience seats. Karen’s mother, a tiny Japanese woman with inky black hair cut short and styled in a poufy do, sat next to Karen knitting placidly. Or perhaps not so placidly, as she periodically would look up and send George Watanabe a scathing look.

Watanabe, square and angry-looking, sat with his three lawyers – two women and one man all dressed in very expensive suits. Watanabe stared straight ahead relentlessly, only shifting to glare at his watch. They remained at the table immediately in front of the judge’s bench.

Sharon looked around and finally saw Kira sitting in the back of the hearing room next to Susan, Jodi and Tiffany.

“Hey, guys,” Sharon said softly as she went over to them. She bent and gave Susan a quick hug, then hugged Jodi and Tiffany.

“Hey,” replied Susan as June came up.

“It feels like he’s taking forever,” June said.

Kira shrugged. “He’s okay.”

Sharon noticed that Kira was carrying a large manilla folder. She was about to ask the teen about it when Allie came out from behind the judge’s bench, and then the judge, The Honorable Timothy Weltzer, took his place as the rest of the room stood. Karen scrambled to get to her place at the defendants table, next to her three lawyers (all women, also wearing very expensive dark suits).

“All right,” Weltzer began as he shuffled papers and glanced at his clerk. “I’m going to adjourn this hearing for today. We’ll have final arguments tomorrow, as scheduled. I’d like to remind both the plaintiff and the responding party that there is a gag order in place. Any questions or comments? None? Good.”

Weltzer gaveled the hearing adjourned. He’d barely stepped down from the bench when Watanabe stalked out of the hearing room, his lawyers scrambling behind. The others gathered around Karen.

“It’s what we expected,” Karen said. She reached over to her daughters. “How did your interviews go?”

Kira shrugged again. “They went.”

Susan smiled and touched Karen’s arm. “I’m going to take the girls back to our hiding place for tonight. No point in riling up your ex and he hasn’t told me I can’t have them. Are you okay with that?”

Karen nodded sadly. Susan led the way out of the hearing room, and the rest of the group trailed her to the elevators. But when they got there, Kira nodded at Jodi and Tiffany.

“You know what? I think we’ll take the escalators down,” Kira said quickly. “You guys okay with that?”

“Sure,” said Susan and the girls ran off before Karen could object.

“Something’s up,” Karen muttered.

“Of course there is,” said Susan, punching the  elevator call button again.

“Do you know what it is?” Karen snapped.

“Nope.” Susan pushed the call button again.

They found out as they left the courthouse. They found Kira outside near the sidewalk surrounded by a gaggle of reporters. The young teen was standing calmly, talking as she showed the reporters the contents of her manilla folder.

Sharon put her hand over her mouth, then looked over at Karen, trying to decide what to do. Karen didn’t wait. All of her normal calm and composure fled, and she charged over to the gaggle.

“These are all the weekends last fall when my sister Allie and I were visiting my dad,” Kira was saying. “He worked the entire weekend every time. And you’ll note, as soon as we moved to DC, he stops working weekends. Except for the week we were here for Spring Break.”

“What about the allegations that your mother poisoned you against your father?” someone from the gaggle shouted.

“I am so sick of that!” Kira snapped. “My mother has never said one word against him, even when he’s putting her down all the time and telling us we’re just as stupid and mindless as she is. My mother is an intelligent woman and a kind person who wants my sister and me to have a good relationship with our father. But it’s my father who doesn’t want a relationship with us. He doesn’t even want to be around us!”

“Young lady.” Karen’s voice growled low, but loud enough to be heard over the shouted questions from the reporters. “There is a gag order in place.”

“On you and Dad,” Kira replied.

“We will not split hairs. You go with Susan. Now.”

“Dr. Tanaka!” one of the reporters cried.

“Gag order, folks,” Karen said, getting a solid grip on Kira’s arm and pulling her out of the gaggle.

The reporters continued to shout their questions as Karen led Kira to the car where Susan was waiting with Allie.

“Mom-” Kira began.

“Not now,” Karen said. “We will talk later. But you are so grounded you will be lucky if I let you out of the house before you’re fifty!”

Episode 127 – Mark and Sharon Have Dinner

The next day, back in Washington, DC, the heat descended on the city like a heavy wet woolen blanket. Even in the air-conditioning of the West Wing offices, the humidity seemed to seep in and dampen even the least good humor. Economics Advisor Dr. Eddie Cooper did his best to lighten things up by staging a mildly raucous birthday party for himself over the lunch hour, but it seemed to Sharon that the laughter and noise were more about beating back the tension of the day than good cheer on the Coop’s behalf.

It didn’t help that members of the opposition in Congress had been making snide comments about how several members of Mark’s advisory team all seemed to be having issues in their personal lives. Sharon thought the sniping was particularly unfair since it was only Karen and Warmonger who happened to be having issues, nor were the issues anything of their own making but brought on by outside circumstance.

Still, she could see that Mark was taking it rather more personally than he should have. It didn’t take long for Sharon to consider. Not that she wanted to, but it was the right thing to do. So she sent the text message to Mark and shortly received the answer – he was happy to come to dinner.

He wasn’t that happy when he arrived. Gloom closed in around him as if the humidity had taken root in his soul. Sharon had already planned on having a chopped salad with bacon and tomatoes on top, but she asked Mark to do the chopping and he went at it with rather more relish than less. That didn’t stop him from immediately cleaning her good knife. Sharon found herself smiling.

“What’s that about?” Mark asked, his eyebrow quirked.

“What?” asked Sharon.

“You’re smiling at something,” he said, turning his attention to running the towel over the dark gray blade.

“I just really appreciate the way you clean off my knives as soon as you’re done,” Sharon replied. “I noticed that the first time you came over for dinner.”

“It seems like the obvious thing to do,” Mark grumbled as he slid the knife into its spot in the knife block. “It’s a nice knife.”

It was a good knife, a basic butcher’s knife, about 8 inches long, wicked sharp, with a light tan wooden handle striped with the dark grain of the wood. Sharon had a small paring knife and a basic serrated knife as part of the set. There were a couple other dark-handled knives in the block next to the kitchen sink, but Mark had noticed that Sharon didn’t seem to use them unless Mark had gotten to the light-handled ones first.

“It’s pretty special.” Sharon gently stroked the handle of the knife. “It’s one of the few things I actually own. Let’s get dinner served.”

“Fine, but you’re going to have to finish that story while we eat.” Mark was finally smiling as he dished out the salad into bowls and Sharon poured the wine.

Sharon shrugged and they sat down. “Well, you know I don’t have a lot of things.” She waved at the room around her. “This is all my friend Carla’s stuff.”

“You have clothes,” Mark said. “I know I don’t pay that much attention, but you’re not wearing the same thing day in and day out.”

“No.” Sharon couldn’t help chuckling. “That is the nice thing about Washington power wear, though. It does all look alike, and I don’t have nearly as many suits as you might think. Besides, clothes, for me, are more of a temporary thing. I rotate stuff in and out of my wardrobe all the time. I only have a couple dresses, a few tops and some jeans that I’ve had for longer than a year or two. The rest get donated as I see new outfits I like.”

“Okay. So tell me about the knife.”

“That. Well, that’s kind of a long story.” Sharon toyed with her salad for a moment, then took a sip of wine. “I think I told you about how when I was a kid, I didn’t have a lot of stuff because we moved so often. It was just too hard to haul around all the time. So when I got my first real job out of college, I kind of went nuts. My brother Michael bought me a condo, and I spent a fortune hiring a designer and started decorating it. I was going to buy furniture, art, everything. The problem was, because of my job, I was almost never there. I was spending almost all my time on the road. And then when I was there, it didn’t feel like me. It was almost empty, but that wasn’t it, either. I did have one room finished, but it felt like corporate housing. Then after about a couple years of this, I was having some trouble with the front door key after a trip, and my next door neighbor called the cops on me. He’d never seen me before and thought I was breaking in. And he worked at home. I mean, how sad is that?”

Mark laughed. “That’s pretty sad.”

“And then shortly after that, I was at this crafts festival, and I saw that set of knives. You have to understand, what stuff I did have in the condo was pretty much off the shelf, manufactured, nothing terribly unique.”

“That explains why it looked like corporate housing.”

Sharon nodded. “Probably. I did have a couple good pieces of art. But the rest of it was pretty generic. I was about to buy the knives when I stopped and asked myself if I really needed them? And I left them. And I got back to my condo and realized that I didn’t need pretty much everything that was in there. So I made a list of everything I genuinely needed. I figured a few cooking utensils because I do like to cook, my guitars, a few books, my art, and that was pretty much it. And I really debated about the kitchen stuff, only I knew I had a longer-term assignment coming, where I was going to be in Germany for about six months, and being able to cook for myself would be a good thing. And I kept thinking about that knife set. They were hand-crafted. The knife maker was right there in the booth, showing his customers exactly how to keep the edge on them, how to clean them and keep them. So I went back to the festival and bought just the butcher knife, the paring knife, and the bread knife. And I spent the rest of that month before leaving for Germany, selling off or donating everything in that condo, except the clothes I needed and those few things on my list. And then I sold the condo and gave Michael back his money.”

“Wow.” Mark chewed thoughtfully. “That’s impressive.”

“Maybe.” Sharon shrugged. “It’s just how my life is. I keep the barest essentials, including my cast iron pan and my knives, and the guitars. The art is on loan to a couple galleries back in Orange County. I’ve got my books on my ereader now, so I don’t even have to lug those around, and a few gowns and cocktail dresses that I like. Some of it stays at my parents’ place while I’m traveling, and then when it looks like I’m going to be in one spot for longer than a few weeks, I have Mom ship stuff out to me. I’ll rent a place and if it’s unfurnished, I’ll buy a few essentials, then either sell them or donate them and I’m gone.”

“That’s pretty counter-cultural.”

“I suppose. It’s going to be really interesting being around here for any length of time. I’ve had the same job for several years, but I’ve only had a few assignments that lasted longer than six months.”

“Oh.” Mark felt something in his stomach twist.

“Funny thing is, I’ve been wanting to settle down in one spot for a while now.” Sharon glanced up at the ceiling. “Carla’s supposed to be working in Africa for the next couple years, but she’s already hinted that I can keep living here after she comes back. There’s plenty of room and I’m thinking I might.”

“That’s good to know,” said Mark, his stomach slowly unclenching.

Sharon suddenly smiled at him. “Now, it’s your turn to tell me your sad story.”

“Nah.” Mark felt his stomach clench again, but for a different reason.

“Oh, come on. You’re practically the first person I’ve met who cleans up after himself without being asked.” Sharon lightly jabbed him with her fork. “There’s got to be a reason.”

“Okay. Yeah. You can blame that one on my grandmother. My dad’s mom grew up poor. Since my family has been in the jewelry business since whatever ancestor it was came over here from Norway, my folks have been fairly comfortable. But it was my grandfather and my dad who really built the stores up into the big national chain that it is. And that’s when they got wealthy. But Grandma never quite lost that sense of… I don’t know what you call it, ordinariness, I guess. And whenever I was at Dad’s and later when I went to live with him, I was expected to clean up after myself. The first thing I do when I get out of bed in the morning is make it. It’s a habit. I can’t shower or get dressed until that bed is made.” Mark chuckled. “It drives the White House housekeeping staff nuts because I’m not supposed to do that sort of thing. But I can’t help it.”

Sharon nodded. “I know. I’ve seen the staff glaring at you when you wash the dishes. It’s like they can understand wanting to cook. But clean up after it?”

“Yeah, and speaking of.” Mark pulled out his iPhone and glared at it.. “I thought I felt that buzzing. Yep, it’s Johnnie texting. I have to get back.”

Johnetta Washington was Mark’s Chief of Staff and she seldom texted unless it was urgent.

Sharon looked for her Blackberry. “Is it anything serious?”

“So-so. It’s a late vote on one of the appropriations bills. Johnnie was just letting me know about it, but I’m thinking I’m going to have to bug Jean and Gus and get a statement turned around right away.” Mark stood with a small sigh and picked up his now empty bowl.

“Leave it,” said Sharon. “Consider it my treat. Especially since I have to catch an early flight tomorrow.”

Mark frowned as he set the bowl back down. “That’s right. You’re going out to L.A. for Karen’s hearing.”

“Yep. If you want, I can keep you posted.” Sharon got up and walked Mark to the basement door, where the secret entrance to the townhouse was. The building had been built by a randy senator from the 19th Century, who had installed a secret second door to the street for his various lady friends.

“Why don’t you?” Mark said. “And I’ve arranged to buy lunch for you guys on the day of the hearing, so don’t be surprised.”

“Okay. I’m sure Karen will appreciate it.”

There was an awkward pause, then Mark quickly turned and left. Dinner with Sharon had been extraordinarily relaxing, but thinking of her was getting very much less so.

Episode 126 – Text Session

Text Session –

Matthew: Is everything set?

Tiffany: Yes. We got the sked and J didn’t even have to hack in to get it. Kira likes the statement you wrote.

Matthew: Perfect. Tell her I said to rock on.

Tiffany: Party on, Garth.

Matthew: Party on, Wayne.

Episode 125 – Michael and Cameron Have It Out

Michael stood in his ex-wife’s kitchen and pressed his lips together. Cameron was tall and willowy, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She had just let him into the house only to inform him that Jodi and Tiffany weren’t there.

“But we agreed that I’d meet them here and we’d go visit the Watanabe girls,” Michael told her.

Cameron snorted. “I don’t think she wants to talk to you right now. Seriously, Michael? You said her name on the air twice?”

“I already apologized to her. She’s cool with it.”

“No, she’s not. She’s just saying that for your sake.”

Michael pressed his lips together again and took hold of the red granite counter top on the maplewood island. It wasn’t just about the show, Michael realized. Cameron was sincerely annoyed, but her annoyance was overlaid with self-righteousness, and that always meant trouble.

“I think I know when my kid is lying to me,” Michael growled, not entirely certain that Jodi hadn’t been fibbing a little the evening before when they talked on the phone.

“Michael, you just don’t get her.” Cameron snarled.

“Oh? And you do? Is that why she came to me for help with this whole thing with Kira and Allie?”

“She came to me.”

“Eventually. When I told her to.”

“I didn’t want her involved, in the first place!” Cameron folded her arms and glared at him. “But, no. You had to get her up to her neck in it.”

“Excuse me. She got me involved!” Michael snapped, then tried to grab onto his temper. He began pacing.

“You didn’t have to encourage her.”

“She was well past that point, and you know it.” Michael turned on his ex-wife. “Come on, Cameron. What is this really about?”

“It’s about Jodi and respecting who she is.”

“I do respect her.”

“Oh, really? You said her name twice on the air. You call that respecting her?”

“I also pointed out that she asked me to do the show to help Kira and Allie, and that I had to establish how I knew what was really going on. Which she got and you’re not getting. And that tells me something’s going on with you and not her, and I’d really appreciate it if you’d be up front with me.”

Cameron looked away, then glared at him. “I enrolled Jodi at Seaton Ladies’ Seminary so she can be with Tiffany next fall. That’s that school near DC where Merilee wants Tiffany to go.”

“But-”

“It’s done, Michael. I talked to Jodi about it last night. I told you I was going to make the final decision and I did.”

Michael stood back, shocked into silence. He had been surprised when Cameron had first told him that she was going to go with Tiffany’s mother, Merilee Sheppledorf, on Merilee’s sabbatical touring the world recording obscure folk music in danger of being lost. He’d also been ecstatic, thinking that Jodi would come to live with him and he was perfectly happy to take in Tiffany, as well.

Cameron melted a little and touched Michael’s arm. “I know you were looking forward to having Jodi come live with you, but I didn’t want her to have to choose between Tiffany and you.”

“I would have taken Tiffany in.”

“I know and so does Merilee. But the girls both got really good scholarships at Seaton and Merilee’s connections are better there. And there are enough high-profile families there that no one is going to care about who Jodi’s dad is. It will really be the best place for her.”

“But I wanted to live with her,” said Michael, feeling winded and furious and desperately hurt.

“You’ll have Toby and it’s not like you’ll be that far away. You can visit as often as you like. You can yell all you want. It’s not going to change anything. Merilee and I spent a lot of time talking it over and it’s done. The girls are going to Seaton and that’s it. Your sister will be there. It’ll be the best all around.”

But Michael was too shocked to yell. He sank into a chair from the nearby breakfast nook and just stared at Cameron.

“I just don’t understand why you don’t want me near my girls,” he finally whispered. “I’ve been a good dad. I’ve worked hard at it. I’ve supported you. I’ve never undermined you – and you can’t say that I have. But the only reason I have Toby is that she forced the issue. What have you got against me being with my own kids?”

.”They’re my girls, Michael.” Cameron sniffed and shrugged. “When you ran out on us-”

“I didn’t run out on you,” Michael growled, almost getting up. “You pushed me away. Just like you’re doing now. And I’ve wondered for a long time just how much of that really was about my career. Or was my career just a handy excuse to keep me away from my daughters? And for what reason? What?”

“It’s complicated, Michael,” Cameron’s eyes filled with tears and she sat down across from him, but looked everywhere else. “I’m not even sure I understand what all is involved or where I’m coming from. It’s just… Last spring when this all came up and Merilee asked me to go with her on her sabbatical trip, things just started to happen.”

“Happen? With what?”

Cameron looked down at her fingernails. “With me and Merilee. We’ve always been friends. But we’ve gotten really close over the past couple months. I mean, like, you know.”

“You mean, like…” Michael frowned, then suddenly realized. “You mean like gay?”

“I don’t know!” Cameron cried. “I mean, really, when I look back, it’s what makes the most sense. After we split, I never dated. I kept saying it was because I didn’t want to upset the girls, or that I preferred being with them. But I had no problems going out with my friends and leaving them. And you know I hardly dated before I met you. I kept telling myself it was because I was waiting for the right guy, but then I go and marry someone who was going to do exactly what I didn’t want.”

“My mom kind of pointed that one out,” Michael said softly. “But I guess I was too taken with you at the time to really pay attention.”

“You know, the funny thing is, when I was a kid and dreaming about raising my own family, there was never a dad around. It’s almost like I didn’t want one to be.”

Michael nodded and squeezed his eyes shut. “In other words, all that’s happened, shutting me out, is because you don’t want to share the girls.”

“Well, I…” Cameron looked around the kitchen. “I guess maybe you’re right. I love my life here. I love having my babies. And now they’re almost grown and I get to have another life. I guess I’m having a little trouble letting go.”

“A little?” Michael sighed.

“Listen, the girls don’t know about Merilee and me yet. We’re not even sure what we’re about yet, so we don’t really know what to tell them. It caught both of us off guard.”

“Okay. That’s up to you guys. But about Jodi’s school. I’ve got a perfectly good one-”

“No! Please!” Cameron looked at him for the first time, pleading instead of angry. “Merilee really wants Tiffany to go to Seaton – it’s a family thing. And I don’t want to have to make Jodi chose between you and Tiffany. And – I’m sorry, Michael, but Jodi was really looking forward to not having Toby around. Please? Can you trust me on this one?”

“How about I talk to Jodi first? But…” Michael paused and patted Cameron’s arm. “I get what you mean about Toby. She does kind of suck the air out of a room.”

“She’s her father’s daughter,” Cameron said with a tiny laugh.

Michael nodded. “At least we’ll be in the same time zone for a change.”

He left the house shortly after.

Episode 124 – Sharon and Karen React

Back in Washington, DC, Sharon and Karen were watching the show in Karen’s office, and as a diaper commercial played, both women groaned.

“Why are you groaning?” Sharon asked. “Michael made you out to look like mother of the year.”

“Now I have that live up to!” Karen cried. “I can’t afford to look like a martyr. Why where you groaning?”

“Michael mentioned Jodi’s name on the air,” Sharon said. “And mine, too, but that’s not as big a deal.”

“Try no deal at all,” Karen said. “What’s the big deal with saying Jodi’s name?”

“Oh, come on. You know how shy she is. She’ll flip. She hates it when people find who her dad is.”

Karen frowned. “I thought Jodi got on with her dad.”

“Jodi adores him,” Sharon answered and sighed. “This isn’t about that. I love Michael, too, but I hate it when people find out he’s my brother.”

“Why?”

Sharon shrugged. “When people find out you’re related to a celebrity, they get weird. They can’t help it. But it’s like suddenly the whole relationship is about your relative and not about you. It used to drive me nuts. And it’s even harder for Jodi because she hates the attention.”

“And when you’re a teenager, you’re having enough trouble separating yourself from your parents.” Karen nodded.

“Exactly.” Sharon reached over to Karen. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Of course I’m going to be okay,” Karen snarled. “We’ve only got a few more days before the hearing and it will be all over then. I’ll manage.” She paused. “But I have to admit I do appreciate the way you’ve been there for me. It’s helped a lot.”

“Of course,” said Sharon. “Why wouldn’t I be? No, don’t answer that.”

Karen managed a weak smile and then checked her phone. “Well, there’s email coming in.”

“I’ve got it, too,” Sharon said. “I’ll catch you later.”

Episode 123 – Michael Stands Up for Karen Tanaka

The next morning, in New York City, Michael Wheatly sat in a makeup chair at the studios of a national morning show, getting prepped for his appearance.

“The important thing is that we show solidarity with Dr. Watanabe,” said Neal Natoyan, a medium-sized man of dark coloring. His deep brown eyes flashed with passion.

“Did you check him out, Neal?” Michael asked, not for the first time. “Because-“

“Yeah, I checked him out,” Neal growled. “I’m not an idiot.”

Michael sighed. Natoyan wasn’t an idiot, so much as he was so hooked into his passion cause of father’s rights that he tended to overlook things. And Michael was not happy with where Natoyan stood on the issue of George Watanabe.

But there was no time and Michael, Natoyan and the host, Cheryl Giddens, who looked like she was all TV-pretty, but in fact, had a lot more substance than folks gave her credit for, were all seated around a table with the cameras ready. The stage manager signaled.

“We’re back,” Giddens said. “I’m here with Neal Natoyan, president of the Father’s Rights Association and singer Michael Wheatly, vice president of the group, to talk about the current custody battle between Dr. George Watanabe and presidential advisor Dr. Karen Tanaka. Neal, you say that the courts habitually discriminate against fathers in these battles. Why is that?”

“I think it’s part of the whole gender thing,” Neal said confidently. “We automatically assume that it’s best for kids to be with their moms, and there’s no real evidence that this is so.”

“The point of our organization,” Michael said, jumping in, “is not to keep kids from their moms, but to give fathers a fair shake in custody cases. Kids need both parents. It’s just that fathers often get overlooked in custody hearings.”

Giddens smiled. “There are those who suggest that this is a spite battle – that Dr. Watanabe is simply suing for custody to spite his ex-wife.”

“That’s always the assumption,” Neal began.

“But I definitely suspect that’s what’s happening here,” Michael cut in. “I have no reason to believe that Watanabe has any real interest in raising his daughters.”

“How can you say that?” Neal exploded. “I’ve met the man. I’ve talked with him. He wants to raise his kids and his ex is denying him that chance. Seriously, Michael. You haven’t met the man.”

“No, I haven’t,” Michael said. “And that’s exactly my problem. I’ve been trying to since last April. My daughter Jodi met and became friends with Kira and Allie Watanabe last spring. Dr. Tanaka works with my sister and that’s how they met. So like any good parent, I’ve been reaching out to Dr. Watanabe. I’ve emailed, called, and gotten absolutely no response. My ex-wife has, too. On the other hand, both Cameron and I have had multiple phone conversations and emails with Dr. Tanaka, who is a lovely person.”

“Who kidnapped her kids,” Neal shot back.

“No. The girls are gone with Dr. Watanabe’s written permission.” Michael pulled a piece of paper from his shirt pocket. “Here’s a photocopy of the permission slip that Dr. Watanabe gave my sister Susan off of his prescription pad. You’ll note there are no dates and times. And I might add, he gave Susan the permission slip after a five-minute chance meeting at a hospital fundraiser. Can you imagine giving a total stranger permission to take care of your kids just because she said her niece was friends with your kids? That’s exactly what Dr. Watanabe did.”

Giddens smiled. “I can’t imagine doing that, but maybe he knew your sister better than she thought he did. Do you know where the girls are?”

“Not specifically,” Michael shifted. “Jodi knows where they are. She and her friend Tiffany have been visiting. I am assured that they will be in court for their respective interviews on time. But Kira has made it very clear that she does not want to be with her father, and if that’s how he’s acting, I can understand why.”

“Maybe it’s because Tanaka poisoned the girls against their father,” Neal said sourly.

“That’s what we’re supposed to believe,” Michael replied. “But I have never seen any hint of it from Dr. Tanaka. My sister, Sharon, says she has never heard Dr. Tanaka bash her ex, nor has she heard of anyone saying that they’ve heard Dr. Tanaka bash her ex. And here’s the thing. I’d love to support Watanabe. I completely agree with Neal that fathers don’t get fair consideration in custody battles. But it’s guys like Watanabe who make it that much more difficult for the ninety-percent of good fathers out there. I’m not saying women don’t play similar games, but when a father does, it just makes it harder for the good guys.”

Neal looked like steam was about to blow from his ears. Giddens looked like she was going to continue the debate, but decided to heed the signal from her stage manager that it was time for a commercial break and the show’s next segment.