Episode 172 – Max Meets up With Susan

In the District, itself, Susan Wheatly sat at a table in the bar of one of the larger, more luxurious hotels in town. A double Manhattan and a plate of Maryland crab cakes had been placed in front of her, but her attention was riveted to her tablet which was running a video taken that afternoon.

The dance wasn’t working. Two weeks before the premiere at the Artists with Disabilities Festival and her grand debut piece was not coming together. Not even close. Susan knew better than to panic. This would hardly be the first time a piece she was choreographing got stuck. But it was the first time she wouldn’t be able to dance out the problem herself.

The video ended and Susan started it over again, only to pause it and glare at the screen. She wasn’t sure if she heard the man’s voice first or simply felt his presence.

“You’re Susan Wheatly, aren’t you?” he asked.

Susan was about to question the man’s right to ask, but then she looked up. His hair was brown, as were his eyes and there was a small scar on his chin. His tan jacket was just neat enough to be acceptable, but Susan’s eyes didn’t miss the tiny frays at the lapels and the cuffs. And even as she registered the plaid shirt under the jacket, she realized she’d met the man before.

“I’m sorry,” she began.

He held out his hand. “Max Epstein. We met last spring in Los Angeles.”

“Oh. You’re that reporter my sister’s dating or something like that.” Susan gave his hand a brief squeeze.

Was something like that,” Max sighed and sat down in the chair across the table. “We never really got off the ground and I haven’t talked to her since May? June? Somewhere in there.”

“Kicked you to the curb, did she?”

“No. Just a mutual realization that it wasn’t going to work. We’re still Facebook friends.”

“I didn’t even know she was on Facebook,” said Susan.

“She’s not real active,” Max said. “So I’m guessing you’re in town for the Artists with Disabilities Festival? I’d read you’ve got a dance on the schedule.”

“Not a good time to be asking about that,” Susan grumbled, glaring at the tablet in front of her.

“Ah. The magnum opus isn’t quite coming together yet.”

Susan sighed. “It’s early yet. Today was just the first rehearsal.”

She fiddled with the stem of her cocktail glass, wondering if she should have told Sharon she’d arrived in town.

“These things always seem like they’re going to hell, at first,” Max said gently. “But they come together by the end. At least, that’s what happens when I’ve got a big writing project.”

Susan flipped the tablet face down onto the table. “Yeah. You’re right.”

“And you’ve got crab cakes getting cold.”

Susan grinned and shoved the plate toward him. “Have one. They’re pretty darned good.”

“I know,” said Max reaching over to take one of the crispy brown cakes. “This place is known for the best crab cakes outside of Baltimore.”

“Buy you a drink?” Susan asked.

Max thought about it for a moment. “Sure. Why not?”

“And what brings you to the high rent district?” Susan asked, waving at the waiter.

“An interview. North Dakota’s governor’s in town to beg favors from the president.”

“Does not sound interesting.”

Max shrugged. “It wasn’t. So what brings you to the high rent district?”

“My brother is a rock star and very generous. So I have money and I decided that in this high stress situation, I needed some luxury to de-stress.” Susan took a long sip of her drink. She smiled, suddenly aware of what she wanted. “You want to have sex with me tonight?”

The suggestion clearly startled Max. That was all right. It had startled Susan, who in spite of being decidedly loose of late, was rarely that abrupt. He grinned.

“Sure. Why not?”

Sometime later, after drinks and crab cakes and sex, Max stirred. Susan had pulled herself upright in bed and was again staring at her tablet.

“You okay?” Max asked.

“It’s just not going right,” Susan sighed. “And I don’t know how to fix it.”

Max sat up, himself. “Well, what’s it supposed to be about?”

“About struggle and overcoming and getting back on your feet after a loss,” Susan said.

“Except you can’t get back on your feet,” Max said.

The tablet fell into Susan’s lap and she began breathing heavily. Max wasn’t sure, but thought she might be ready to hit him. Instead, she slowly broke down into sobs. He pulled her into his arms and let her cry. It took a while, but the crying eventually slowed.

“Sorry to do that to you,” Max said.

“You were just trying to help,” Susan said with a sniff. “It’s probably the first time I’ve really cried about losing my legs. I mean, I was at the point where I was going to have to think about retiring from the ballet, anyway. And I knew I wanted to choreograph. I just didn’t think I’d have to do it from a wheelchair.” She blinked back a couple tears, then let them fall. “Everyone thinks I’m being so brave and making the best of a bad situation. But I’m not. I hate the way things are. I want to dance. Really dance. And I can’t. My body won’t let me.”

“Sounds frustrating.”

Susan winced. “No shit. Of course, it’s frustrating. My brother, Michael, says it’s like watching a bird with its wings clipped. That’s why he wrote the music I’m using for the dance. It’s literally called ‘Sparrow Without Wings.’ That’s me. I’m clipped. I can’t do what I was built to do. I feel like I’m a shell of myself. Everyone tells me I should be glad I’m alive. And I guess I am. But who am I? What am I? I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be the good little crip and accept it. I’m supposed to accept that my very soul was ripped out of me and be happy? Horse shit. I’m supposed to be happy with making do? I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I just don’t. I get told that if I just accept what happened, I’ll feel better. What bullshit! There is no feeling better. This is permanent. I can see where maybe the time will come where I’ll get used to this. Or maybe it’ll be tolerable. But better? No. It’s not happening. And, damn it, I’m pissed. I’m really, really pissed. And I am sick and freaking tired of people patting me on the head and telling me to accept my reality.”

“Maybe what you need is an angrier dance,” Max said, softly.

“So I can work through my anger issues?” Susan sneered.

“No. I’m with you. I don’t think this is something you work through. You live with it. You put up with it. But you don’t work through it. And if you’re angry, then maybe that’s what needs to be in your dance.”

“Huh.” Susan picked up her tablet again and re-started the video. “I don’t want it to be just about anger. That would be too depressing. Even for me.”

“Possibly. But it can’t hurt to start there, could it?”

“I think you’ve got a point.” Susan was soon engrossed in her tablet, this time making notes.

“Maybe I should be going,” Max said softly.

Susan looked up, suddenly disappointed. “Oh. Damn. Just when I was getting to like you. Any reason you can’t stay the night? A goldfish to feed or something?”

“Not really.” Max snuggled down into the pillows. “I mean besides not having a toothbrush on me. Or fresh undies.”

“I could call the hotel’s concierge,” Susan offered.

“Nah. I don’t have to work tomorrow, so I can sleep in here and get clean clothes after I get home.”

Susan turned back to her tablet. “Mind if I keep the light on?”

Max chuckled. “Not really. I’m kind of enjoying watching you work.”

Susan rolled her eyes and kept working.

Episode 171 – The Aftermath

romantic fiction, serial fictionAs it turned out, Paul’s apology was not only accepted, he was invited to join Matt, Tony, and Deshawn at the Cooper residence for an impromptu pizza and movie party with Rebecca, the Watanabe sisters and Jodi and Tiffany. Eddie made a point of inviting Senator Marley, as well, to Sharon’s dismay. Then Eddie insisted that Sharon join the party. Karen Tanaka and her boyfriend Hideo would also be there, as would June.

In the confusion of who would ride with whom, and given that there was an extra car, Mark managed to get Sharon alone in the presidential limo with him.

“I know what you’re wondering,” Mark told her as soon as the car was in motion.

“I don’t know that it makes any difference,” Sharon said, her voice filled with frost in spite of her obvious effort to appear unconcerned.

“Janet’s not my girlfriend. We’re just good friends,” Mark said.

“Like I said, it’s not supposed to make any difference,” Sharon said, although the frost seemed to be melting a touch. “And just because you’re not seeing Senator Marley doesn’t mean you’re not seeing anyone else.”

Mark sighed. “I suppose. For the record, I’m not.”

Sharon sulked.

“Actually,” Mark said, “you’d probably know it if I was. June always does. She may not know who, but she knows when I’m seeing someone.”

Sharon looked him over, pondering the thought. “I just bet I could. But since I’m not supposed to care, it’s really a moot point, isn’t it?”

“Technically, yes,” Mark gazed out the window, trying not to say what he really wanted to say.

They reached the Coopers’ home soon after and while the teens got into a very animated debate over what movies to see, Sharon found a spot in the living room next to June.

“You do not look happy,” June said.

Sharon shrugged. “I saw your brother and Senator Marley having a touching moment together.”

“Oh. You’re jealous.” June grinned. “That’s a good sign.”

“June, I can’t get involved with him, no matter what I’d like to do. It’s not going to work.”

“Of course not, my darling.” June took a sip of her white wine. “But if it makes you feel any better, he’s not seeing anyone. I can always tell when he’s getting some, and he’s not.”

“That’s what he said.” Sharon glared at the red wine in her glass. “That sounds kind of creepy when you think about it.”

June shrugged. “Not really. He just gets this kind of happy look and I know he’s met someone. It doesn’t last too long, usually. At least, the look doesn’t and in one case, I know he was still going out with the woman in question for a long time after the look faded.”

“Huh. I wonder why other people don’t notice.”

“You have to be close to him.” June suddenly swallowed back a sigh. She glanced over at Sharon, who hadn’t noticed.

There was one other person who always noticed when Mark got his happy look and June didn’t want that person anywhere near Sharon.

Sharon had gotten a text on her phone and was absorbed in whatever it was. June smiled at her and wandered into the media room.

Episode 170 – Senator Marley

Mark left the room. But as he shut the door behind him, he saw Senator Janet Marley in the corridor. She was rather short, with blonde hair teased out into a bowl around her head – classic helmet hair, June had called it. While Marley normally wore the traditional Washington power suit, that afternoon she had on a full white shirt over jeans and ballet flats. Mark realized as he watched her pace that she reminded him a lot of Sharon. Or was it the other way around?

“Senator Marley,” he said.

“Oh. Yes, sir?” She turned and faced him.

“Would you mind stepping this way, please?” Mark said.

“Yes, sir.” Marley followed Mark down a corridor to a small alcove with a drinking fountain in it.

Both checked the hallway to make sure it was empty.

“Listen, Janet,” Mark said quickly. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got Dean Belwish on board with letting me decide how to discipline the boys. But before I accidentally undermine you, any feelings about Paul playing football?”

“Other than it’s the devil’s game and I’d be a happy woman if none of my children or grandchildren ever put pads on again?” Marley folded her arms across her chest. “That is my private opinion, however.”

Mark grinned. “I guess your constituents would have a few issues with that perspective. Which is why I think I’ve got a way to get Paul off the team more or less honorably. Problem is, I’m going to have to make it look like I’m coming down hard on him. Not to mention that he really shouldn’t be rewarded for pulling a rotten stunt like that, even if he was hoping to get in trouble and get out of playing football. So he should get a couple days of suspension and kicked off the team.”

“Suspension won’t look good on his transcripts for college.”

“But he can write about it in his entrance essay – lesson learned and all that stuff. Admissions folks eat that stuff up.”

Marley finally smiled. “Mark, I think you’ve got it. What about Rob and Duffy?”

“Two weeks of detention, but they still get to play.”

“So Paul has two days off from school and no more football. I thought you said he shouldn’t be rewarded.”

“He also has to apologize to Matt.”

Marley put her hand on Mark’s arm. “You know, Mark, I really appreciate you looking out for Paul. He needs a good man in his life.”

“Thanks.” Mark patted her hand. “He’s a good kid. Now, let me get everything buttoned down with the dean and then we can get the apology rolling.”

Neither he nor the Senator noticed that Sharon had entered the hallway. But she noticed Marley’s hand on Mark’s arm and Mark patting her hand and the warm look between the two. Sharon held her breath. It didn’t necessarily mean anything. And just because she and Mark couldn’t get together didn’t mean he should live like a hermit. Assuming that what she was seeing meant what she thought it did, even though it was just as likely that it didn’t because Mark could be warm and fuzzy with just about anybody.

Mark looked up at that moment and waved Sharon toward him.

“Ms. Wheatly,” he called. “Have you met Senator Janet Marley? Senator, this is my World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly. She and Matt have gotten to be really good friends.”

Sharon walked down the hall and shook hands with Marley. “How do you do, Senator?”

“Fine, thanks,” Marley replied, sizing Sharon up, then looking back at Mark.

“Sir, Matt is here and according to the dean, it looks like he’s been exonerated,” Sharon said, keeping half an eye on Marley. “Eddie is also on the way with Rebecca and the other girls. Apparently there was a plan to meet to get pizza or something.”

“Would you do me a favor?” Mark asked. “I’ve squared things with Paul. Would you suggest to Matt that forgiveness might be in order?”

Sharon glared briefly, then smiled. “Yes, sir.”

She turned and left. Mark watched her go, only to get a nudge in the ribs from Marley.

“I like her,” Marley said, grinning. “I think she’ll be good for you.”

“Not you, too,” Mark sighed. “Come on. Let’s get things squared away with Dean Belwish.”

Episode 169 – Mark Deals with the Boys

Romantic fiction, romance fiction, romantic serialMark left the room, almost bumping into Dean Belwish, who’d been standing at the door. Mark patted the smaller man’s shoulder and gently pushed him down the office corridor.

“Dean, I’ve got things straightened out with the store’s manager. But we now need to see to it that the boys are effectively disciplined.”

“Oh, yes, sir,” Belwish stammered. “I can call their parents, I’ve already called Senator Marley. She’s on her way. The other parents are not available at the moment.”

“How about this? Looking at the store’s video and having heard about some other issues from one of Matt’s friends, it appears that we have a case of bullying going on here.”

“Oh no, sir. We would never tolerate that here at St. Ignatius.”

“Then let’s prove it. If you’re okay with it, I’ll talk to the three boys who are here, then you and I can work out some appropriate disciplinary measures. Would that work for you?”

“And the parents?”

“If you feel you need to call them…” Mark smiled, pretty sure that calling Duffy’s and Rob’s fathers was the last thing Belwish wanted to do.

“I- I think we can avoid that,” Belwish said with a flushed smile. Small beads of sweat clung to the few hairs on top of his head.

“So where are the boys?”

“In the hearing room. Right here. We usually use the room to work out discipline problems.”

“Excellent. If you’ll excuse me. I think this would work better if you didn’t have to know what was said.”

“Oh. Good idea. Thank you, sir.” Belwish scuttled out of the way.

As Mark entered the hearing room, only Paul stood. The other two boys lounged in the black leather conference chairs. All three were situated along the long edge of a mahogany table that all but filled the room, further hemmed in by the green paint on the walls and the dour landscapes hanging there. The window at the end of the room let in very little light, thus the room was bathed in the blue haze of industrial fluorescent lighting on the ceiling.

Mark found a chair on the opposite side of the table from the boys. Of the two larger boys, one had red hair, closely cropped. The other had very full brown hair, cut to his jawbone and brushed up in front. Both wore burgundy school hoodies and bored frowns. Paul remained standing. Mark sat down and nodded at Paul, pleased that at least Paul had some sense of correct protocol. Paul sat down and began fidgeting with a pen, his face a blank.

Mark waited in silence. The brown-haired kid broke fist.

“Are you going to arrest us?” he asked, trying to look defiant and still coming off as scared.

Mark glared at the boy, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Paul’s eyes roll.

“Let me guess,” Mark said slowly and pointed at the brown-haired boy. “You are Rob Ayres. And you are Duffy McIntyre.”

Duffy, the redhead, lifted his chin. “Yeah. So?”

“I like to know to whom I am speaking, Mr. McIntyre. As for you, Mr. Ayres, no, I am not going to arrest you. I don’t have powers of arrest. I can, like any other citizen, press charges, however.”

“Won’t do you any good,” Duffy snarled. “My dad can see to it that you never get elected again.”

Mark glared at him but chuckled. “Well, Mr. McIntyre, given that your father has not donated one red cent to any of my campaigns and has been quite vocal in his opposition to me, and that I still got elected, I don’t think I’m that worried about it. You, on the other hand, might want to get a little smarter about what threats you make. Not to mention, setting up a fall game works a lot better when your target is somebody who might actually be up to something. Or that folks will believe is up to something.”

“It was Paul’s idea,” Duffy muttered.

Paul’s face remained blank, but Mark was pretty sure the stunt hadn’t been Paul’s idea.

“Hm,” Mark said. “All right, Mr. McIntyre, you and Mr. Ayres go find Dean Belwish and tell him I will deal with you two later. I want to talk some more with Mr. Marley.”

Duffy and Rob left the room quickly. Paul continued silently fidgeting with his pen. Mark looked him over thoughtfully.

“I’m guessing that Duffy or Rob came up with the idea of setting Matt up using your sleight of hand skills,” Mark said finally. “My question is why did you go along with it?”

Paul shrugged.

“I spotted you in the security video. You looked right at the camera. You knew you were caught and you were happy about it. I’ve also heard rumors that you weren’t too happy about playing on the football team this year and were pretty mad at Matt when he left the team.”

Paul remained silent.

“Look, if you want off the team, I can arrange that,” Mark said.

Paul’s eyes flickered up. “Why?”

“Like Matt, I know a thing or two about family pressure to play,” Mark said, leaning back in his seat. “So if I’m going to help, I’d like to know who’s pressuring you and why.”

“Oh.” Paul thought it over. “It’s my dad. He’s a coach back home in Georgia. He expects me to play. I tried to tell him this summer I didn’t want to, but he just told me to man up and get out there.”

Mark smiled. “So getting caught hazing someone is a manly way to get out of playing, huh?”

“It would have been better if Matt was on the team. He really is a better player than me.”

“So your dad wouldn’t get upset if you were benched?”

“He would, but he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. He’s in Georgia.”

“If he’s not here, then why worry about playing? He wouldn’t have to know you weren’t.” Mark put his hands up as Paul gave him the obvious look. “Ah. I get it. It’s your dad. Point taken. I’m just curious though, were you going to let Matt get arrested?”

Paul winced. “Duffy and Rob wanted to. I figured we’d get caught before then. ‘Cause of the cameras and all.”

“They didn’t think of that?”

Paul sighed. “They’re not exactly the brightest bulbs in the lamp.”

“Yeah. I noticed that.” Mark paused. “Where’d you learn the sleight of hand?”

“I taught myself,” Paul said, finally smiling. “I started learning card tricks out of a book when I was in fourth grade. Then I saw a guy on TV doing the pickpocket thing and that was funny. I mean, I don’t believe in stealing.” He looked at Mark. “I wouldn’t have let Matt leave the store with the stuff. Even if I was still pissed at him. It’s just not right. You’re not too mad at me, are you?”

“Well, I’m not thrilled that you were picking on my nephew. But Matt, more than most, understands making a mistake out of desperation. I will expect you to apologize to him.”

“He probably hates me.”

“I don’t know about that. He liked you before. Said you were pretty smart, compared to the other garden-variety idiots.”

Paul’s lips quirked into a rueful smile.

Mark looked him over. “I’m going to have to make this look good. Mind taking the blame as ringleader? Promise to get you off the team.”

“Sure.” Paul sat up straight. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll be on your own with Matt. But I think you’ll be okay. I will, however, attempt to nudge him toward forgiveness. In the meantime, you stay put and I’ll talk with Dean Belwish.”

Episode 165 – Warmonger has a Problem

light romance fiction, romance fiction serial, sweet romanceThe following Monday brought the sad news that Caroline Eddington had passed away. The news made for a very long week for everyone in the White House. The funeral was held on Friday. Al Eddington was his usual stoic self, which bothered Mark a lot more than he realized.

“Something just seemed off about the whole thing,” he told Sharon as the two prepared a cole slaw in Sharon’s kitchen to go with the pulled pork that Chef Solly had made and Mark had brought over.

“That’s because his daughters were completely avoiding him,” Sharon said. “All three of them. They pretty much hung onto their husbands and barely said squat to Al.”

“You think that’s what got to Al?”

Sharon paused as she sliced some red cabbage with her second-best knife. “No. I think it was Caroline dying. But he’s not showing his grief and in the process, he’s pushing his daughters away from him when he most needs them. I hope he takes some time off, but I’ve got a bad feeling he’s going to be at the Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday.”

“I told him not to come in, but he’ll be there.” Mark frowned. He thought as he shredded a small carrot onto a cutting board. “He even pointed out that there were some rumbles of genocide in Nigeria.”

“More than a few rumbles,” Sharon said. “It’s looking pretty grim, according to Bantu. But I have to agree with Al. It’s not even close to time for us be get involved militarily. For one thing, no one is asking us to come in.”

“Al seems to think no one is going to ask,” said Mark. “What the hell is he doing, keeping an eye on that?”

Sharon shrugged. “I guess it’s a distraction. But if he’s holding his grief in like it looks like he is, I am seriously not looking forward to when it all comes crashing out.”

“That is not going to be pretty.” Mark sighed. “I think I’m going to have to make a point of getting my briefings from Wanda Dereske.”

“Wanda?” Sharon asked.

“Al’s second in command,” Mark said. “I would have hired her except that Al was willing to come on board. But her contacts are almost as good as Al’s, and she’s not dealing with his issues right now.”

“I don’t think I’ve met her.”

Mark chuckled. “You need to come up for air more often. Her office is just down the corridor from yours.”

“Huh. Maybe I’ll go introduce myself on Monday. Do you want to do sandwiches with these? We can use the barbecue sauce as a dipping sauce.”

“Let’s just eat the pork as is. If you want the barbecue sauce, we can have it on the side.”

Sharon sampled a bit of meat. “Oh, my god. This is wonderful. Hm. Sauce or no sauce. I’ll just put some in this ramekin and we can dip at will.”

“Sounds good,” said Mark.

Once again, he found himself caught up in watching Sharon as she quickly laid out place settings on the counter next to the dining area. Which is why he left to go back to the White House shortly after they finished eating and cleaning up.

Sharon, for her part, was happy to see him go. It had been an uncomfortable week. And while dinner together had made things a lot more relaxed, she was still closer to Mark than she wanted to be – and not close enough.

Episode 164 – Text Chat

romance fiction, romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romanceText message chat:

Matt – Hey.

Tiffany – Hey back.

Matt – What are you doing?

Tiffany – Homework.

Tiffany – Writing an essay for American History. You?

Matt – Algebra Two word problems. Blech.

Tiffany – Do you want me to get Jodi?

Matt – Nope. Deshawn’s hel

Matt – Sorry. Deshawn’s helping me and Tony just threw a pillow at me.

Tiffany – Jodi’s trying to hack the school server. You think they’re okay with us having a thing?

Matt – They seem to be. I mean, it’s all been chats and hanging with them so far.

Tiffany – I guess. It’s getting late and I’ve still got a lab to write up.

Matt – ‘K. Love you

Tiffany – Love you.

Episode 163 – June and Doug Turn a Corner

romance fiction serial, romantic fiction, fiction serial

Elsewhere in the city, June was hanging with her longtime friend Douglas Lee. Lee, best known as a stylist for the wealthiest women of New York City, had recently abandoned the Big Apple to live in Washington, DC. Both he and June were debating moving their friendship toward a more romantic one, but both had significant issues to overcome first.

The two had started their day together visiting a gallery in Georgetown, then having lunch together. Then Doug dropped his bomb.

“June, we need to talk,” he said as the waiter cleared their plates.

The restaurant was one that clearly catered to the movers and shakers in town and favored small, sheltered booths, which were great for private deals and conversations.

June held her breath.

“Wow,” said Doug. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

June felt her stomach leap. He seemed to be proposing, but what?

Doug swallowed. “Look. I know we’ve talked about getting more of a relationship going. And I still would like to. But, here’s the thing, June. I have no idea who I am right now. I thought this move to DC would help me figure it out, but it hasn’t. I’m still confused and I don’t want you waiting for me to get my head together.”

“Oh.” June thought it over. “I wasn’t exactly waiting. It’s not like there’s anyone else in the wings.”

“But there could be,” Doug said. “The thing is, I’m leaving DC. I’m not going back to New York, but I’m going to start traveling. I have to. I need to move out of my comfort zones. I’ve never been anywhere except here and New York and I’ve gotta go check things out. You know what I mean?”

“I suppose,” said June, wondering how she should respond.

“Anyway, I’m going to be traveling – kind of all over the place. I don’t even know when I’m going to be back.” Doug began running his thumb over the handle of his fork, back and forth. “I don’t want to say this is the end for us. It’s just that I’d feel terrible if you were back here waiting for me. What if you gave up someone really good for you because I was off trying to find myself? That would be horrible.”

“Okay,” said June. “I won’t wait for you. It’s not like I don’t have issues of my own to work out.”

“Good.”

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tonight. I’m flying to Paris.” Doug suddenly slammed the fork onto the table. “Wow. I can’t believe how nervous I am. You gonna be okay?”

“I guess. Listen, let’s get the check. I probably should be getting back to work.”

“Yeah. That would probably be good.”

The two left the restaurant together but then went their separate ways with barely a kiss on the cheek. The discreet SUV pulled up next to June and the Secret Service agent watching her that day stepped up to open the back door of the car for her. June settled into the back seat feeling numb and wondering how she should be feeling.

Episode 162 – Mark Spots Sharon Up to Something

romantic fiction serial, romance fictionThe activity in the kitchen was rather frenetic, but come six o’clock, the hors-d’oeuvres were ready, the raw bar was set up, two bars for drinks were staffed by the contractor and ready, and the guests began arriving.

Mark stayed hidden in the kitchen. June found some cooks jackets and pants for Sharon and Lena to wear while setting out the buffet. Though Mark was focused on cooking, he did notice Sharon and Lena chatting as they prepped the ham, cheese, and olive plates. Sometime later, he saw Sharon talking to the home’s director and handing the woman something.

He was finishing cleaning up when he heard the director, a stately woman in her early fifties, turn on a microphone.

“Excuse me,” she announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the speeches. I’ll do my best to keep it short. As most of you know, I am Lorraine Chavez, and I am director for the Laine Children’s Home. Our mission here is to find stable, loving homes for our neediest children and to shelter those who are waiting for such homes. It’s not an easy mission, and indeed, one of our toughest challenges is how to help those of our children who are aging out of the system. In most cases, children who turn eighteen are basically cut off and turned out, and it’s no surprise when many of them end up guests of our criminal justice system. Thanks to your generous donations and time, many of our children get mentors and scholarships for college educations and get a chance to become the successes they deserve to be.”

Chavez stopped for the smattering of applause and took a sip of water.

“You are here because you are have donated already, so I’m not going to ask for more money tonight. But I will be asking again soon. Our board of directors has decided that we need a new capital campaign, not to expand our facilities, although we could use quite a few more beds. Our goal is to increase our endowment so that we can hire more counselors to help our foster families create stable homes for our children. One of the biggest problems in our foster care system is finding long-term family situations. We’ve all heard about children being bounced from home to home to home. Our goal is to prevent that. We also want to provide more mentors for our children aging out of the system. In fact, I’ve got a perfect example of what your kindness and generosity have already done. Lena, will you come out here?”

Blushing furiously and ducking her head, Lena hurried out from the kitchen in her chef’s jacket and checked pants. Chavez put her arm around the girl.

“Lena Dutton is one of our success stories. She was raised by her grandmother and the two dreamed of opening a restaurant, serving good home cooking. Sadly, her grandmother passed away when Lena was ten and Lena came into the system. In five years, Lena was placed in seven different homes and was sexually assaulted in one of them. Somehow, she has hung on to her good nature and her passion for cooking. In fact, she volunteered to assist our substitute cooks today and was responsible for hand-slicing the ham you enjoyed on your cheese platters tonight. Lena, who will age out in two weeks, recently received a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, in New York. The only problem was, it did not include her books and tools, nor did it include room and board. I am happy to announce that tonight, one of our volunteers has offered to pay for anything the scholarship doesn’t cover. We do need to find a mentor or two to help Lena make her transition from the system into normal life, but she is well on her way to success thanks to the generosity of people like you.”

In the kitchen, Mark’s head whipped up and his eyes fell on Sharon, whose attention was focused elsewhere. Chavez finished up and Lena came back to the kitchen, her eyes overflowing. As Mark gave the sink a final wipe-down, he saw Sharon out of the corner of his eyes, handing Lena a package wrapped in a towel he recognized from Sharon’s townhouse. Lena shook her head. Chavez wandered by and Sharon stopped her. The two talked and Chavez took custody of the towel-wrapped package while saying something to Lena.

Sharon also insisted that the after-party for the volunteers happen at her townhouse and the basement rec room known as the PFZ – Protocol Free Zone. Mark found an excuse to slide upstairs to Sharon’s kitchen and noticed that her special hand-forged knives were not in their spot in her butcher block.

He also managed to wrangle a dinner invite to her place the next night, a Sunday. The knives were still missing.

Monday, the city was buzzing with the rumors that it had been the President cooking for the children’s home dinner. Many scoffed simply because there were no YouTube videos posted, or even a fuzzy photo on Facebook or Twitter.

“I can’t believe no-one thought of it,” Karen told Sharon as they two ate lunch together in the White House mess.

“We were all pretty busy,” Sharon said. “Besides, everyone was probably thinking someone else was taking the pics. I hear Jean’s pretty mad.”

Jean was Jean Bouyer, the President’s press secretary.

“Fit to be tied.” said Karen, giggling. “The boss won’t let her confirm the rumors. Or deny them, either. And the eligible bachelor hashtag has been trending off the charts.”

“Yeah. I saw that. Rich, single, powerful and he cooks!” Sharon shook her head.

“Jean spent an hour in my office trying to talk me into getting the boss to confess,” Karen said, contemplating her sandwich.

Sharon speared a lettuce leaf with her fork. “I can see why he doesn’t want to own up to the children’s home. He did it because it needed doing and he does like to cook. But you know somebody will make it out to be some political maneuver.”

“That’s what I told Jean and she finally agreed. We just have to convince the boss that it’s okay to come clean on the cooking thing. Most folks know he does. And it does humanize him.”

“You sure it doesn’t make him too good to be true?”

Karen thought about it. “Nah. He’s not that good a cook.”

Episode 161 – Getting Beyond the Disaster

romantic fiction, romance serial, light romanceSharon was already packing a good-sized tote as she and everyone else hung up. Her mind was buzzing through the whole host of possibilities as she dropped evening shoes and a cocktail dress and her makeup bag into the tote. She quickly added a brush, then ran downstairs and looked at her kitchen. There wasn’t much she could bring, but she did finally wrap her good knives in a towel and added the package to the tote.

She did make one stop before heading to the Metro. On the corner near her townhouse was a small bodega and butcher shop. The butcher knew her and while he was somewhat surprised by her request, he did have an option. Sharon called Mark immediately.

“What?” asked Mark.

“Sir, I think we’ve scored some beef tenderloins. Whole ones. And a wheel of manchego cheese, plus a boatload of olives,” said Sharon. “I just need someone to pick them up.”

“Terrific. Let’s see… Gus said he’d be willing to do some running and so did Tanks. What’s the address and who’s the contact?”

Sharon gave him the information and told the butcher that he’d be getting a call. From there, she ran to the Metro stop.

Cordelia and Rebecca Cooper were waiting for her at the Vienna Metro station.

“We’re going out to the farms,” Cordelia said to Sharon as they hurried to Cordelia’s small sedan.

“Can’t I drive, Mom?” Rebecca asked.

“Are you out of your mind, girl?” Cordelia retorted. “We’ve got split second timing going on here.”

The drive into the Virginia countryside was somewhat tense, but the rewards were three country-style hams and several bushel baskets of vegetables. After checking in with Melody, the women stopped at a supermarket, then went directly to the children’s home.

Mark was already there. The kitchen proved to be quite large, with two industrial range and oven units, a full-sized commercial refrigerator that was at least half-empty and a full complement of utensils. In addition, Mark had pulled a tall warming oven from the White House kitchen.

Gus Guerrero had picked up the beef, cheese and olives from the bodega near Sharon’s townhouse and had even better news.

“A raw bar?” Sharon gasped.

“With crab, shrimp and lobster,” said Gus. “Turns out the governor’s catering company was getting desperate since it was going to be too small for the Smithsonian folks. But still, there was all this seafood already delivered. We scored it for our party, instead.” Gus let out a hearty laugh. “This whole town is going crazy. It’s only four events and a wedding. In August, no less.”

“Those three are pretty big events,” said Melody, frantically sifting through the sheets of paper on her clipboard. “But a raw bar will help. When will it be here?”

“By four,” said Gus.

It was already close to one in the afternoon when Mark and Sharon surveyed the collection of ingredients as Rebecca, Matt and an older teen from the home looked on.

“We’d better get those hams soaking,” Mark said. “But what do we do with them?”

“Do we have a slicer?” Sharon asked. “Maybe we could do paper-thin slices and serve them on plates with the cheese and olives, like tapas.”

“I don’t think we have a slicer,” Mark said, looking around the kitchen. “I suppose I could slice them by hand.”

“I can do that,” piped up the young girl from the home.

She was somewhat chunky, with dark, chocolatey skin, and about average height. Her dark eyes shone with excitement.

“Um, I’m Lena,” she said, suddenly backing off. “I really like cooking and I’m good at it. I think. I bet I could slice that ham pretty thin.”

Mark looked at Sharon, who shrugged and nodded.

“Okay,” said Mark. “We’ll give it a try. But those hams need soaking first.”

“Oh, I know,” Lena said. “My grandma used to cure her own. Had to soak them for a week before we could eat them.”

Lena set to soaking the hams in the huge two-part sink in the kitchen while Mark and Sharon debated the rest of the menu. In addition to the beef, they had six turkey breasts to consider. They finally decided to cook the beef on the stove top and bake the turkey breasts. As for sauces, Sharon talked Mark into doing a wine-based sauce for the turkey and a more traditional gravy for the beef.

“It’s not the usual sort of thing,” Sharon said.

June, for her part, had started making calls the moment her plane landed.

“The freaking Police Fund has already snagged every freaking table and chair in the city,” she complained to Karen Tanaka over the phone.

“It could be worse,” Karen said, sorting through bolts of fabric at a fabric store in the suburbs. “We could be in the middle of the social season.”

“But that’s also why we can’t get the tables and chairs,” sighed June. “I wonder if we could get away with borrowing from the White House stash.”

“Good question,” said Karen. “It is a charitable event and it is in a crisis situation. But there could be fall out from the opposition about using government resources for a private entity.”

“I wonder what the home has available.”

“I already checked. They have one long table and about twenty chairs. Wait. It’s going to be a buffet anyway, right?”

“Yes. So?”

“Why don’t we set up a few tall tables and use the home’s sofas and see if we can score some more over-stuffed furniture and make it a more relaxed, more party-like kind of thing.?”

“Great idea. We can do the hors d’oeuvres outside on the lawn, then serve dinner on the first floor, like usual, only there won’t be table settings, just furniture and a some tall tables. And let’s keep to a multi-color scheme, say rainbow pastels?”

Karen looked over the bolts of cloth and thought. “Rainbow pastels should be doable. There’s a warehouse store near here. I should be able to pick up the flatware and plates, as well.”

“And Mark says to save your receipts. We’ll get you reimbursed, okay?”

“We’ll see,” said Karen.

As it turned out, Melody had found a stock of tables and chairs from her husband, Roy’s, church. Karen was able to find enough fabric to make instant table clothes and ribbons for the chairs. She bought plates, silverware and glasses at an outlet in the Virginia suburbs. June pulled several vases and dishes from her personal collection and made centerpieces from those. Matt, Tony, Jodi, Tiffany, Rebecca and Kira were drafted to pass hors d’oeuvres, and Mark drafted his assistant Gen Flowers and a couple of her friends to serve drinks.

Episode 160 – A Social Disaster Strikes

romantic fiction, romance fiction, romantic serialThe rest of the week passed quietly. It was the end of August in Washington, and with most of the Congress still gone for the month’s break, that meant few meetings. Even Sharon had less to work on than usual and by Friday, found herself looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend and downloaded several books onto her tablet in anticipation of some extended reading time.

Which was why she was less than thrilled when her mobile phone rang around 10 that Saturday morning and the President’s number was flashing on the screen. She took a deep breath and answered.

“Sharon, we’re going to need some help here,” said Mark’s voice even before she could say hello. “Melody, are you there?”

“I’m right here, Mark.” Melody’s voice was a little faint and sounded considerably more agitated than usual.

“June?” Mark asked.

“You’ve got me for the next ten minutes,” June said on her end of the conversation. She’d spent the week in New York. “We’ll be landing soon and I’ll have to turn the phone off. Oh, my god. It’s on the news already.”

“What?” asked Sharon, searching for a TV remote. But she was in her kitchen, cleaning up after her breakfast and the nearest television was in the back study.

“It’s a complete disaster,” sniffed Melody.

“Hang on, Mel,” said Mark. “We can make this work. Sharon, the children’s home is having their big donor’s party tonight. It’s one of their most important events because they need to raise money.”

“I can’t believe it,” Melody said. “I spoke with the caterers just yesterday. They said everything was ready to go.”

“That’s what everybody’s saying,” said June. “And today, gone. Poof!”

“The catering company just went out of business overnight,” said Melody, sounding as if she was trying not to cry. “Overnight!”

“I doubt that,” said June. “But, Sharon, it’s one of the biggest companies in D.C. And they had at least three other major parties they were doing tonight and today. And a wedding. Oh, my god, that poor couple.”

“We need to focus on the donor’s dinner,” Mark said. “Solly took the weekend off and most of her crew with her to cater her niece’s wedding in New Orleans. Russell said he could do the couple’s wedding.”

“Russell?” Melody asked.

“The sous chef here at the White House,” Mark said. “Solly left him behind just in case I needed feeding. I told him to work the wedding before Melody called me about the dinner. So how many are we expecting, Mel?”

“About a hundred and fifty,” Melody said. “They delivered the wine and the liquor for the bar – I think that was a sub-contractor, which is why we have it. But there’s no food and folks are supposed to be here at 6 pm. What are we going to feed them?”

“Get a ham or two,” said Sharon. “The weather’s hot enough, you can serve it cold and a ham feeds a lot of people for minimum effort. I’ve got a double oven here, so I could bake a couple and bring them over.”

“This was supposed to be a fancy sit-down dinner,” Melody said.

“Well, it’s not going to be anymore,” said June. “Don’t stress on it, Mel. Are the decorations there?”

“Nothing. The caterer was going to do that and we don’t even have the tables and chairs.”

“June, can you handle the decorations?” Mark asked.

“Yes,” said June. “I’m texting Tanks now. Shavings. They’re telling us to turn off our phones. I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m on the ground.”

Sharon finally found her way into the study of the Georgetown townhouse where she lived and clicked on the TV.

“This looks major,” she said into her phone. “I just heard a fill-in chef say he’s going everywhere to find ingredients.”

“And Augie is texting me that that Maryland fundraiser their governor was doing tonight was canceled,” said Mark. “I wonder….”

“You think we could use their catering company?” Melody asked.

“Nope,” said Sharon. “The Smithsonian nabbed them already, according to CNN.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Mark said. “I’ve done parties before.”

“This was supposed to be a luxury sit-down dinner,” Melody whimpered.

“It’s not going to be now,” Mark said. “But if it’s making this big a splash in the news, your donors are going to be impressed if you can give them anything more than salted peanuts and a glass of wine. Sharon, how fast can you get out to Vienna?”

“What?” Sharon asked.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Mark continued, speaking very fast. “I’ll get Eddie to meet you at the Vienna station. You guys go grocery shopping out there. Even odds everyone else will be freaking out but staying in town. You pick up whatever you can and we’ll figure out the menu based on what you get. I’m thinking a basic buffet. Two hot meat dishes, a salad, some vegetables.”

“We’ll need at least one vegetarian hot dish,” said Sharon. “What about hors d’oeuvres?”

“We usually do passed hors d’oeuvres,” Melody said.

“We’ll add that to the mix,” Mark said. “Maybe the kids at the home can do the passing.”

“No,” said Melody. “This is their night, too. Believe me, it’s really important to have them as guests. That way, they interact with the donors and tell their stories. It’s really important.”

“Fine,” said Mark. “We’ll get Matt and his friends to do the serving.”

“For sure,” said Sharon. “Let’s see, that’s two, four, six. Do we want to rope in Deborah and Allie? They’re sort of part of the group even though they’re the younger sisters.”

“Why not?” Mark said.

Sharon turned off her TV and went into the guest bathroom off the kitchen. “I’m about as decent as I can be. Where are we going to cook everything?”

“We have the home’s kitchen,” said Melody. “It’s pretty big.”

“I’ll scope that out,” said Mark. “I think our biggest challenge is going to be getting the food in, then we’ll figure out how to handle it.”

“Okay,” said Sharon. “Let me get a couple things together just in case I can’t get back here. Sir, can you text Coop and tell him I’ll text him when I get to the Vienna station?”

“Already done and Eddie has texted back. Cordelia will meet you at the station, text her the second you get above ground.”

“I need the number.”

“Coming at you.” Mark chuckled. “This is going to be fun. Melody, we’ve got this one in the bag. Your job will be to keep track of who is doing what. Think you can handle it?”

“Of course,” Melody said in a voice that said she was not at all sure she could.

“Good,” said Mark. “I’ll text everyone your number and have them text you so that you’ll have all our numbers in your phone. Keep a charger and plug on you. We are going to rock this one.”