Episode 109 – Book Two Begins On the Way to Columbia

romance fiction, romantic fiction serialThe seat belt sign was off and President Mark Jerguessen got up from the desk in his small office on Air Force One and stood in the doorway looking out.

The seating area immediately outside his office was more or less full but still seemed empty compared to the rows of seats normally found on a jetliner. Terry Barker, his Deputy Chief of Staff sat next to a window, eye shade firmly in place. Barker, with his closely cropped light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, normally carried his significant size with the grace and authority of the former professional football player he was. But he deeply loathed flying. Next to him was speech writer Calvin Whitecross, an average-sized young Black man who was nonetheless dwarfed by Barker.

Out of the corner of his eye, Mark could see White House photographer Emil Salas setting up a shot. It was Salas’ job to document visually almost everything Mark did. Mark, however much he didn’t mind being photographed, found even the portly Salas’ most stealthy movements and the whir of the shutter release insanely distracting and banned the photographer as often as possible.

At a table in front of Whitecross and Barker, Tony Garces and Mark’s nephew Matt Jerguessen were bent over a tablet computer and keyboard, bouncing back and forth between laughing and serious conversation. Both gangling and just starting to grow into their hands and feet, Tony was dark and prone to brooding, while Matt’s lighter brown hair, green eyes, and square jaw reminded everyone of his famous uncle. Both boys, just barely 16, had been almost too squirrely to do their official jobs as Mark’s personal assistants, but Mark could hardly blame them. It was their first time on Air Force One.

Across the plane, at one of the two tables there, petite and fluffy Message Director Yesmenia Alvarez talked on her mobile phone while pounding away on her laptop.

At the next table, also deep in conversation on her mobile phone, was the real reason why Mark had left his office. Watching World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly was one of Mark’s guiltiest of guilty pleasures.

Sharon had blond hair, rich brown eyes, and a tallish, slender figure, all of which garnered plenty of attention from others. But while Mark appreciated her more obvious physical attributes, what generally stirred him was her devastating intellect and complete willingness to stand up to him. He wondered what language she was speaking at the moment – odds were against it actually being English. Sharon spoke ten different languages fluently and was conversant in several others.

Glaring, she brought the phone down from her ear and punched it off with her thumb. She glanced up at Mark and he could see she was not happy. She got up and as she approached, Mark waved her into the office.

“Sir?” she asked as he shut the door behind her.

Mark bristled inwardly at the formality, but he knew it was necessary. However deep and powerful the attraction between them – and it was mutual – a relationship could not happen.

“You looked like something’s wrong,” he said.

She shrugged delicately.  “It’s nothing we can do anything about, but it looks like Pakistan and India are getting ready to go at it again. Nobody’s talking nukes, but there have been at least a couple border skirmishes over the past few days.  Faiza’s contact at the Pakistani ministry insists that the Indians started it.  Katie’s contact swears it was the Pakistanis.  And my contact says it was probably some of both.  The good news is that Leonardo says that things are looking really good in Bogota.”

“Well, that’s nice, at least.”  Mark sighed.  “Any signs of jealousy from President Mendoza?”

Sharon smiled.  Their trip to Mexico earlier that year had almost been a disaster when it appeared that Mark’s popularity would eclipse that of the Mexican president.  They were, at that moment, headed to Columbia at the invitation of the newly inaugurated president of the country.

“I doubt it,” Sharon said.  “Mendoza seems to still be in his honeymoon phase.  He can’t appear too pro-America because he does have to keep the support from that side of the government, but the general feeling Leonardo and I and Daniel have all been getting is that most of the people on the street associate anti-American sentiment with the old regime.  And those guys were not that popular before the new party ousted them.  Since the elections, it’s all been make friends with the Americans and get their money.”

Mark chuckled.  “That’s assuming I can get Congress to cooperate.  But that is my job.”  He paused.  “How have you been doing?”

“Fine.  Why?”

“Distance.”  Mark smiled, trying to cover the sadness he felt.

Sharon sighed.  “Well enough, I suppose.  It’s been busy enough, so that’s helped.  You?”

“The same.”

“Okay.  I’d better get back out there.  You know how Yesmenia loves to speculate and she’s directly hooked in to Jean, who would love even a hint that we’ve got something going on.”

Mark chuckled.  Jean was Jean Bouyer, the Press Secretary, and Jean was intent on bringing Mark and Sharon together, no matter how much they were trying to avoid it.

“Catch you later, then,” he said softly.

Sharon smiled as she left, but inside, her stomach was in knots.  For two weeks, she and the president had been able to keep their distance in spite of the fact that she was one of his top aides.  The problem was they were fast becoming close friends, which was a good thing except that the last thing Sharon wanted was a relationship with someone whose life was on public display – and Mark’s life certainly was, which meant that hers would be, too, if they got involved with each other.

But there were times when she almost couldn’t help herself.  Yes, he was tall and amazingly good-looking, with broad shoulders, those green eyes, light brown hair and square jaw.  But while Mark was brilliant in his own way, he was surprisingly humble for someone in his position and while he didn’t often show his vulnerable side, Sharon had seen enough of it to be completely smitten.  When she was willing to admit that she was, which wasn’t often.  Worse yet, the two seemed to have an awful lot in common but were just different enough to keep things interesting.

Sharon shoved her feelings back down inside her gut as she went back to her seat on the plane. She settled in and tried to relax. The next few days were going to be anything but restful. Columbia’s recently elected and sworn-in president Carlos Mendoza was bound and determined to turn around any anti-Columbian sentiment that had been fostered by the previous U.S. administration. Hence, there was a full schedule of events and tours planned for the visit, which only began when the plane touched down in Bogota.

Episode 106 – Matt’s in Solitary

16.0817.whr_PullQuoteAs soon as Matt saw his uncle, he scrambled up from the bed, heedless that his smartphone went flying. Wordlessly, the two hugged each other, with Mark hanging on even more tightly.

After several minutes, Matt pulled away.

“How much trouble am I in?” he asked.

Mark held back a smile – he had to spot the kid points for facing up to the worst of things.

“That’s hard to say,” Mark said slowly. “What you did was incredibly stupid.”

“But I was desperate!” Matt wailed.

Mark held his hand up. “I get that. But running away was not the smartest way to deal with it. For starters, it isn’t necessarily going to solve anything. If your parents insist on you going back, I cannot keep you here. I’m legally obligated to send you.”  Mark put up his hand again as Matt started to protest. “We might be able to swing it, but it’s going to take some finesse, and your running away doesn’t help.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to do.”  Matt slumped. “I made a plan and I made sure to try to contact Aunt June or you as soon as I could. I just couldn’t get through.”

“Well, I’m not going to reward stupidity. Are we clear on that?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t particularly want to send you back to your folks, either.”  Mark sighed as his phone pinged. “Look, I’ve gotta go get some senators to play nice with each other. In the meantime, you are confined to quarters. We’ll work out the rest of your punishment later, depending on what happens with your parents.”  He bent over and grabbed Matt’s phone. “There will be no gadgets, either.”

“But I gotta let the others know I’m okay!”

“You can text Jodi and Tiffany this evening.”

“But what about Kira and Rebecca and Tony?”

“Who?”

“Kira Watanabe, Rebecca Cooper and Tony Garces. We’ve all been hanging out on video chat all spring. They’ll know about me being gone ‘cause Jodi and Tiffany will text them as soon as they can get off campus for lunch break.”

“All right. You can do a video chat tonight at six thirty.”

“Ten o’clock?  I know it’s late, but Jodi and Tiffany are on the West Coast. That’s three hours behind and they’re not always home by 3:30.”

“Six thirty. I’ll have their aunt text them and let them know they need to be home on time. I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

Mark left, pulling his phone from his pocket. The ping was from Kent, asking about lunch and another meeting. Mark sighed and dialed his answer as he headed for the elevator. After that, he called Shawna but got no answer. He also tried Harold’s number, but got no answer there, either.

Sharon got the text from Mark and immediately texted her niece about the early video chat. She also called Solly to let the chef know that there was an extra guest in the White House, which it turned out, Solly had already found out. She had already sent up a large steak, with baked potato, salad and broccoli to Matt’s room and had quizzed him on his other favorites.

“Hmph,” Solly snorted to Sharon. “Somebody’s going to have to educate that boy. I mean, I expect a teenager to want hamburgers and pizza and that stuff. But he didn’t even know you could put blue cheese dressing on a steak, never mind not knowing what a gumbo is.”

“I guess you’ve got your work cut out for you, Solly,” Sharon replied, trying not to laugh. “Did he like the blue cheese?”

“Oh, yeah. He’s not picky. I’ll give him that. But he has got some learning to do.”

“True. Listen, it’s probably not my place, but the boss is not having a very good day. Think we can come up with something to cheer him up?”

“No problem. I might even boil up some potatoes for him to mash. You want to come to dinner?”

“Only if he asks me.”

“Uh-huh. He’ll ask.”

“I’ve got to run. Thanks, Solly.”

Late that afternoon, Karen Tanaka landed in Sharon’s office and shut the door.

“You are not going to believe this,” Karen said, slumping into the chair next to Sharon’s desk.

“Believe what?”  Sharon finished yet another email, then turned to Karen.

“I know you know about Matt.”

“Yeah. I didn’t know you knew.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Jodi and Tiffany texted Kira this afternoon with the news – apparently, he’s been part of this video chat group with Coop’s kid Rebecca and Tony Garces.”

“I thought you were happy Kira has friends.”

“Not complaining about that part.”  Karen suddenly got up and began pacing. “But I am ready to kill my kid. Do you want to know why Matt was able to get away so cleanly?  It was Kira’s plan. She refuses to go to her father’s this summer. And the other kids were helping her. She said they were only going along with it so that Kira wouldn’t go off on her own.”

“Sounds about right,” said Sharon.

“What?”  Karen whirled around and planted her hands on Sharon’s desk.

“I was going to get it clarified before I talked to you about it,” Sharon said slowly. “And the only reason I was going to do that was because I didn’t want to get you upset unnecessarily. But I did see a couple things a couple weekends ago that made me wonder if something was up. Then it kind of came out in the garble I got when the girls called me this morning to tell me about Matt.”

“Oh, my god!”

“Jodi told me the only reason they weren’t saying anything was that she and Tiffany didn’t want Kira to not trust them and then get into worse trouble. I thought she was talking about Matt, but I guess he used the plan they’d come up with for Kira.”

Karen sank back into the chair. “Now what do I do?”

“I’m probably not the best person to say, but maybe nothing for now. You’ve got time before Kira has to go to her father’s. And the good news is, the plan did work.”

“That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

Sharon hesitated. “Yeah. It got Matt safely into the care of trustworthy adults. He’s with us. He’s not on the streets prostituting himself or worse.”

Karen leaned forward and put her head in her hands. “This is a nightmare.”  She looked up suddenly. “You think the boss is going to hate me because of this?”

“I don’t know. He’s pretty angry, but I think it’s mostly at his brother and sister-in-law. Did you know Matt’s been gone since Friday morning and they only noticed it today?”

“That poor kid. And Kira. You know, the worst of it is, I don’t entirely blame her. But I don’t dare encourage it.”

“No. But if the kids can put their heads together and come up with a smart way to do something insanely stupid, I’m sure we can come up with an alternative for Kira and Allie. We do have some time.”

Karen nodded and got up. “We do have that. Thanks, Share. I’d better get back to my office and see if there have been any leaks about Matt showing up on our doorstep.”

“Okay. See you.”

Mark, for his part, had a rather odd afternoon. He made several calls to his brother and sister-in-law, none of which were picked up or returned. He did call June and encouraged her to stay in California, where she was working on some project or other. After all, if Matt was going to be able to stay, he would still be in solitary confinement for a while, and if he wasn’t, he’d be gone by the time she got back to Washington.

Then he got a rather puzzling email from his brother. He replied in the affirmative and got no response to that. It being close to six-thirty at that point, he made his way up to the private quarters and Matt’s room.

Sharon was already there. She’d brought him a laptop that was set up to work with the White House wireless network, Matt having left his at home, since with all the tracking and blocking software, it was virtually useless. The two were chatting pleasantly when Mark walked in. Sharon immediately got to her feet and tried to nudge Matt to his.

“What?” Matt asked.

“Protocol,” Sharon hissed. “The President walks into a room, you stand and stay standing until directed to sit.”

Mark rolled his eyes as Matt, grinning, got to his feet. “Sit. Both of you.”  He took a deep breath. “Matt, your dad finally emailed me. He’s going to be here Wednesday morning.”

“So am I going back?” Matt asked, suddenly anxious.

“I’m guessing not, but who knows.”  Mark glanced at Sharon, then sighed. “I’m working on it. We may be able to swing it even without your folks’ permission, but it will make it a lot easier if we get it. In the meantime, you have a video chat to log into.”

Matt eagerly clicked into the chat room, hailed his friends, who noisily hailed back, then Matt picked up the laptop and swirled it slowly around the room to show everyone not only the room but who was in there. Sharon chuckled as Jodi gasped when she saw Mark.

“Hi, Aunt Sharon,” Tiffany suddenly hollered and the others sing-songed, “Hi, Aunt Sharon!” as well.

“Hi, guys,” Sharon said back. “Aren’t you going to say hi to Matt’s uncle?”

There was the sound of hissing and mumbling back and forth between Jodi and Tiffany and Kira and Rebecca (who were sharing a laptop).

“We can’t call him Uncle Mark!” someone hissed.

“Good evening, Mr. President,” said Tony, and then the others chimed in.

“I’m so glad you got there safely, Matt,” Tiffany said quickly.

“So, how much trouble are you in?” Tony asked.

The girls unilaterally began yelling at Tony, although it was Matt shouting over them that finally calmed them down.

Matt glanced up at his uncle. “I drew solitary confinement until further notice. With no gadgets.”

“Ow. That’s harsh.”

“It’s not unexpected,” said Rebecca. “What’s next?’

“We don’t know.”

As the teens chatted, Mark gestured at Sharon, who got up and joined him in the room’s doorway.

“You’ve got five minutes,” Mark announced to a chorus of protest.

But then the teens seemed to forget he was there as they returned to their conversation.

“That’s all right,” Sharon said softly to Mark. “I happen to know that Kira and Rebecca don’t have much time left, either. Parental reprisals.”

“Huh?”

“They were all in on it together, sort of,” Sharon said. She looked quickly at Matt. “Listen, Karen is freaking, but it’s connected to the custody case her ex brought against her. The court wants to enforce her ex’s visiting rights and Kira’s gone on record refusing to go. Karen’s worried you might be mad at her.”

Mark shook his head. “At Karen?  Nah. I’m not even that mad at Kira and the others. It’s just really depressing to me that Matt felt this was his only option – and it damned near was.”  He looked over at Matt. “Time’s up.”

There was another howl of protest, but Matt said goodbye, then handed over the laptop. Mark did take a moment to hug his nephew before he and Sharon left.

In the hall, he looked at Sharon. “Look, you’re already up here and in up to your neck. Want to stay for dinner?”

“Sure.”  She chuckled softly. “So much for distance.”

Mark nodded. “I think you’re safe tonight. I am in no mood for anything remotely romantic or happy. Unless it involves strangling Matt’s parents.”

Solly was waiting for them in the upstairs kitchen with a pan of potatoes that needed mashing and some chicken breasts that needed pounding flat. Mark congratulated her on her choice and set to work pounding chicken meat until it was almost translucent.

Episode 104 – Mark Gets a Little Close

Romance fiction, romance fiction serial, romantic fiction serial. romance serialIn Washington, the President and his staff had spent a very busy two weeks. First, a minor head of state had died, so Sharon had accompanied Vice President Elmira Vallegos to the funeral. Then there was the full-on revolt in one of the other Middle Eastern countries, probably fomented by the policy Mark had held to in Saudi Arabia – and which even Sharon finally had to admit had been the right course of action.

Mark also had federal budget issues to contend with, what with that phase of legislation coming due in a couple months, and he still had his education legislation that he wanted passed. So there were multiple rounds of meetings to the point that Mark found himself at Sharon’s at least five times during those two weeks, twice at PFZ parties with the rest of the Advisory Board and three times having dinner with her alone and playing chess and gin rummy just to relax.

By that Saturday, he was good and restless. The West Wing tended to be fairly empty on weekends, although Sundays there were several Muslim staff members who worked since they took off Fridays and Saturdays. Also, Sunday mornings, when the President was at church, staff members would sometimes show up to get a jump on the week. But if they were going to work Saturday or any time when the president was in the White House, the West Wing staff made a point of doing so from home simply because if they went into the office, they would more often than not get dragged into playing catch or basketball or running laps or whatever physical activity the President was in the mood for.

Sharon, he usually left alone, but when she showed up that Saturday, Mark decided to heck with it, popped up in her office and dragged her off to the White House basement, where the basketball court was.

“I hate playing basketball,” she complained as they rode down the elevator.

“Well, it’s no fun shooting hoops by myself,” Mark told her.

“I can watch and catch up on email.”

“You can play and finally learn how to do a decent lay-up.”

Sharon laughed. She was wearing a close-fitting t-shirt and jeans over a pair of running shoes. Mark was similarly attired, except that he had basketball shoes on.

As he often did when he caught a staffer working on Saturdays, he coached Sharon through the art of the lay-up, insisting that she run several drills until he was satisfied that she had it. Then he spotted her several points and the two began a game of one on one.

Once again, Mark was caught off guard by Sharon’s natural athleticism. She played hard and thanks to the points he’d spotted her, pulled ahead quickly.

“Why do I get the feeling I’ve been suckered?” he asked, gasping as she drained another three-pointer. He trotted over the area under the net to get the ball.

“You’re the one who insisted on spotting me the points,” Sharon said. She caught the ball as Mark threw it at her and went out of bounds to start play.

“Because I thought I had an unfair advantage on you,” he said. “You hate playing basketball.”

“So I’m not that competitive,”  Sharon grinned as she bounced the ball a couple times. “I didn’t think you wanted me to let you win. I could.”

“Don’t even.”  Mark grinned also.

He caught the ball as Sharon tossed it and play was on again. The two played for several minutes as Mark caught up, then began winning. Then Sharon got the ball and dribbled toward the basket. Mark shadowed her closely. She tried dodging, but he stayed close on her back, not letting her escape. Laughing, she tried dodging again, and again, and then. Mark folded his arms around her and his lips found hers.

Sharon let herself melt into the kiss, returning it, feeling the soft pressure of his mouth and the sweet saltiness of his tongue. Mark felt his heart beating out of his chest, wondering how long it could last.

Not long enough. He lifted his head and their eyes caught. Sharon smiled, then shuddered.

“Foul?” he said softly.

“Well, you are pretty sweaty.”

He moved in again and she pulled away. He sighed.

“I thought we weren’t supposed to be going there,” Sharon said.

“Well,” Mark said, helplessly as Sharon glared at him. “I guess I overstepped the boundaries again.”

“Do that often, do you?”

“Not that often,” he grumbled. “And never past propriety.”  He paused. “Well, not since high school, but then I didn’t know what I was doing.”  He paused again. “That doesn’t excuse it.”

“I wasn’t saying it did. But it doesn’t mean I’m that worried about you, either.”  Sharon plopped down onto a nearby bleacher. “Not that way, at any rate.”

“So now what?”

“What do you mean?”

Mark shrugged and picked up the basketball. “Do you still want to keep trying to be friends?  It’s been working. Or do we do the whole split-up routine, with you… I don’t know.”

“I don’t know, either.”  Sharon sniffed and shut her eyes. “I was really liking the friend thing. And I can’t quit my job.”

“You probably could.”

“Except that, it’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life and I love my work.”

“Oh, brother,” Mark sighed.

“Not that I’m blaming you.”

“I didn’t think you did.”

Sharon looked him over. “Whatever.”  She sighed. “I guess it’s time to try maintaining a little distance.”

“Just what I want to do.”  Mark dropped the basketball onto the floor, then caught it again. “But you’re right. It’s probably for the best.”

“Yep.”  Sharon pulled herself up off the bleachers and left the gym. Mark watched, wondering if he’d blown it yet again.

Episode 103 – Matt Takes a Big Risk

Romance, romantic fiction, romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romanceThe loss of his laptop and phone were only the least of the losses for Matt. There was the loss of being able to get dressed in his own bedroom – he had checked out his bathroom and there weren’t any cameras there that he could find. Not that he had let his mother know that he knew about her spy cam. It was insulting enough that she’d put an extra book on his shelf, as if she’d assumed he didn’t read enough to notice.

But worse than even the spy cam was the loss of his special email account, where not only did he have all his back email, he also had all his contact information for his friends and his relatives – the ones he really wanted, as opposed to the people his mother expected him to like. Somehow, someway, he hadn’t covered his tracks well enough and his mother’s computer guru had not only found the account, he’d shut it down.

At least, thanks to Jody and Tiffany, he’d been able to warn everyone that he was likely to be on radio silence. And for some reason, he’d memorized Tiffany’s mobile phone number. But he didn’t dare call it, mostly because when Tiffany was able to answer, he was at home in his room being spied upon.

He knew what he had to do and while he was pretty worried about how his aunt and uncle would react, he couldn’t see any other options. The trick was how to pull together the necessary cash and pay-as-you-go phone and make the right reservations without alerting his mother. She had already had his locker searched at school, and he knew she’d been going through his room even more thoroughly than before. She’d even searched his car – he’d smelled the remnants of her perfume and stale vodka.

Then, on the first of June, luck fell into Matt’s lap – one of his classmates with whom he’d been friendly was leaving school two weeks early, as she did every year to spend the summer on her father’s archaeological dig.

“They always make me do this,” she groaned. “I think it’s their way of punishing me for getting out early. Anyway, they won’t let me turn in my books until the last day, so I have to find someone who will do it for me since I’ll be in the Northwest Territories. I just leave them in my locker, so you don’t even have to keep them. All you have to do is get them and turn them in during assembly period, like usual. Here’s my combination.”

Matt agreed and began working the plan. In just under two weeks, he’d pulled almost two thousand dollars in cash from his bank account. He’d researched bus, train and plane travel and decided that not only was the bus cheaper, it wasn’t that much slower than by train and it was less conspicuous than flying. Granted, he did have a very good fake ID that Tony Garza had gotten him before things had blown up, but there seemed to be no point in pushing the issue. Matt also bought a cheap smart phone with a pay-as-you-go plan, but sighed when he realized he didn’t really have anybody to call.

The next part was a little trickier, but he decided that if he timed it right, it would be worth the risk. Fortunately, it wasn’t that unusual for him to dribble a basketball or toss a baseball around in his room. He had never had an accident with the ball before, but late Thursday night, before the last day of school, the ball slipped from his hand and hit the book shelf where the camera was. Cursing loudly for his mother’s sake, he righted the shelf and put all the fallen books back up, willy nilly, with the camera book’s spine to the wall just in case the camera was still working.

He waited for a good hour, then crept out of his bedroom and checked his mother’s room. His father was staying in St. Paul, as usual, ostensibly to be close to the State Capitol. His mother, as usual, was sound asleep and likely to remain so until fairly late in the morning, especially given the empty vodka bottle on her nightstand.

Matt packed relatively lightly. Fortunately, the last day of school was a free dress day, so he wouldn’t have to wear his uniform and jeans were allowed. It wasn’t like he was going to stay the whole day, anyway, just long enough to drop off books and get his stuff. He finished packing, left his mother a note that implied he was staying the weekend with a friend, and at the normal time, got in his car and went to school.

The morning went smoothly, and as soon as Matt thought he could get away unnoticed, he slid out and got in his car. He did stop by his bank to pull another thousand dollars out of his account. He’d practiced a story about getting a new computer, but the teller never even noticed that he was under-age and gave him the cash.

He parked his car outside the home of one of the guys his mother had always wanted him to hang with, then got his duffel bag and walked quickly away to the local bus line, and once the bus finally showed, he headed out to the Minneapolis bus station, via the local commuter train.

The freedom was both exhilarating and frightening. But he’d traveled on his own before, usually just to visit one or the other of his grandmothers, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Or at least, that’s what he told himself.

He made the bus to Chicago just in time and it wasn’t until he’d made the transfer in Chicago to the New York bus that he began to relax, and in fact, fell sound asleep. It was still a very long ride and the bus didn’t arrive in New York City until late Saturday afternoon. Stiff and a little intimidated by the rush of people and the general skankiness of the bus terminal, Matt debated calling Tiffany to see if she could get him in contact with Jody’s father, who supposedly lived in the city. But just then he saw a concert poster and remembered that Michael Wheatly was on tour someplace on the West Coast that weekend.

So Matt went ahead and headed for Times Square and after walking around a bit, found a reasonably priced hotel with free wi-fi and a computer room. From there, he looked up his aunt’s company’s address and phone number and tried to see if he could get her office. All he got was a voice recording asking him to call back later.

He sighed. There were decent odds she wasn’t even in New York at that time. He had no idea where she lived when she was in town and given the cost of hotels, he doubted he could afford to stay more than a night or two to wait for her. He did some research, then decided to wait one more day, then head to Washington, DC. At least, he had several friends there and a good idea of how to find them.

Episode 102 – The Jig is Up on Jasmine Thomas

 

romantic fiction, romance fiction, romance serial fiction, romance serial            Two days later, in Pasadena, Jody and Tiffany got called into the assistant principal’s office at their school. Mrs. Landry was a plump Black woman with tight curls in a shorter cut. Her round shape, however, belied just how tough she could be. The problem was, she wasn’t sure just how tough to be on Jody and Tiffany, who were hardly regulars in her office, even though Mrs. Landry knew them fairly well.

“Ladies,” she said. “Please be seated.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured as they sat in the chairs in front of the desk.

“I just got a call from a Mrs. Harold Jerguessen,” Mrs. Landry said. “She was trying to reach the parents of one of our students, a Jasmine Thomas. Now, we don’t have a student registered here by that name, and I told Mrs. Jerguessen that. She insisted that we did, or at least there was a Jasmine Thomas on Facebook who said she was a student here. I didn’t have much to say to that, and we hung up. But as I thought about it, I did remember a certain social studies project last year that you two were working on.”

Jody gulped and turned pale.

“We didn’t close the account,” said Tiffany. “We’re still gathering data.”

“Mm-hm,” Mrs. Landry replied.

“Most people have figured out that she’s an avatar,” Tiffany said. “They may not know who she is, but they have mostly caught on to the joke.”

“Well, Mrs. Jerguessen said that she was concerned because her son Matthew has been spending a lot of time calling and chatting with this Miss Thomas and she wanted to meet the young lady’s parents. What do you two know about that?”

“We don’t know anything,” said Tiffany.

But Mrs. Landry caught the slight emphasis on the word “know,” and pressed her lips together.

“We haven’t done anything wrong,” Tiffany said.

“No, you haven’t,” Mrs. Landry said. “But we agreed that if I got calls from parents, you’d close the account.”

“Please, Mrs. Landry,” Jody burst out. “We need to keep it open. For Matt’s sake. His mom is really mean and won’t let him call his aunt and uncle or have the friends he wants to have. And she spies on him all the time, and it’s not like he’s doing anything wrong.”

“That you know of,” said Mrs. Landry. “Well, if you want to keep Jasmine Thomas, I can’t tell you not to. But I can ask you to send her to another school. We don’t want to encourage mis-representation. Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” the girls murmured.

As soon as they were dismissed, Tiffany hurried to the edge of the school campus.

“We’ve got to text Matt and let him know his mother is onto us,” she said frantically scanning for teachers.

“Go ahead,” said Jody. “I’ll keep watch.”

Tiffany skittered through the touch screen on her phone, cursing as she mis-typed. A couple minutes later, the phone chirped as Matt’s reply arrived.

“Okay, he’s been warned. He’s going to let his uncle know and hope for the best,” Tiffany said. “We’d better get back to class before we’re spotted.”

In Minnesota, Matt put off going home as long as he could, but his mother was still waiting for him with a new phone and a new laptop. She insisted that he turn over his current models, then sent him to his room, where an even more unpleasant surprise awaited him. There was a new book on his shelf, one that had a small camera in its spine.

Episode 101 – The Driving Lesson

romance fiction, romantic fiction serial, serial fictionThe Presidential party arrived home from the Middle East on Friday with some acclaim and kudos. At the press conference, Mark insisted on congratulating Sharon and her staff, especially Faiza. But he had another surprise for Sharon up his sleeve for Saturday.

He had told her that he would send a car for her in the morning, so Sharon was not terribly surprised to find a White House official driver knocking on her door at nine a.m. She was surprised when the car pulled up to Andrews Air Force Base, then slid on through the gates and around the base buildings until it pulled up onto a deserted runway. Waiting next to the Presidential limo was Mark chatting amiably with Eddie Cooper, while Rebecca Cooper and Kira Watanabe whispered amongst themselves. Sharon wasn’t sure but thought she saw Rebecca put something into Kira’s hand. Near the limo, a small burgundy sedan sat ready.

“And there she is,” said Mark as Sharon got out of the car.

“I am, and what is this?” Sharon answered.

“We thought we’d have driving lessons today,” said Mark. “Rebecca’s almost old enough to get her license. Kira’s ready for a learner’s permit. And you don’t know how to drive yet, either. So why not have a little driving school.”

“Why not?” asked Sharon as Eddie ambled forward. “Maybe because you’re assuming that I want to learn how to drive?  And I don’t?”

“You don’t want to drive?” asked Rebecca. Both hers and Kira’s mouths all but hung open with the shock.

“What’s the problem, Wheaties?” Eddie asked, jovially.

“No problem,” Sharon answered, trying to sound pleasant in spite of her annoyance. “I get around quite nicely and thus see no reason to learn how to drive.”

“Everybody should know how to drive,” said Mark. “It’s a basic life skill.”

“I’m doing pretty darned well without it,” Sharon said. “Seriously, when was the last time either of you heard me bumming a ride?”  She paused. “I take public transportation or I call a car service. I sometimes even take cabs. Trust me, if I can make it work in Southern California, I can make it work anywhere.”

“But how can you not want to drive?” Kira said, her voice filled with the utter horror of one who has waited her entire life to get behind the wheel.

Sharon sighed. “Well, I didn’t get the chance to learn when I was younger. I was in boarding school in Switzerland when I was sixteen. Then after that, there wasn’t time while I was getting my degree. And then I was busy working and there just really wasn’t any reason to.”

Mark flashed a mischievous grin at her. “Oh, really?”

Sharon flushed. “Okay. The few times I did try to learn… Things happened. Not every time. But let’s just say driving is not my gift.”

“I get it,” said Eddie. “We got a little phobia going on here.”

“Not a phobia, just a preference.”

“Prove it,” said Mark.

“All right. Fine.”  Sharon put her hands up in defeat. “But you guys are going to regret it.”

For the first hour or so, things ran very smoothly. Rebecca even demonstrated her mastery of the three-point turnabout, while Sharon and Kira took turns driving slowly and stopping over and over again. Eddie declared that the most important part of driving was learning how to stop the car and insisted that all three students learn how to come to a smooth, controlled stop before doing anything else.

Eventually, however, he did have Sharon speed up a little. Mark was in the back seat with Kira and Rebecca while Eddie rode shotgun. He pushed Sharon to forty miles an hour when there was a loud bang, and the car careened out of control. Fortunately, there was nothing to hit on the runway, but the car didn’t stop until it rolled onto the pebbled field alongside. The airbags blew and when the dust settled, there was a brief moment of silence.

“Don’t-” began Eddie.

“I’m saying it,” snapped Sharon. “I told you so.”

Rebecca and Kira began chattering and as Eddie began to ask if everyone was all right, the back seat door slammed open.

“Sir!  Are you all right?” barked Riff Butler. “Get the medics over here!”

“I’m fine, Riff,” Mark said mildly as he shifted.

“Don’t move, sir,” Riff snapped.

“Excuse me,” snarled Mark. “There are four other people in this car, any one of whom could be injured. If I say I’m fine, I’m fine. Everybody else okay?”

There were murmurs that of general okay-ness, although Sharon did have a bloody nose. Riff continued to check Mark out until he flat out commanded Riff to look Sharon over, since she plainly had the most serious hurt, and it wasn’t even that serious. Within a minute or two, the blood flow was staunched and everyone slowly stumbled out of the car and stretched.

“May I ask what happened?” Sharon said.

“Front passenger tire blew,” one of the Secret Service agents said.

“Don’t-” began Eddie again.

“I told you so,” Sharon said anyway.

The medics cleared her first, and then checked the girls and Eddie only because Mark flat out refused help until the others were checked, much to Riff’s annoyance. Other agents were already combing the runway. One bent and picked something up, then hollered. A minute later, Riff came up with a bent piece of metal about the size of his hand.

“Looks like this is what you hit,” he said. “Hate to say it, but good thing you found it and not one of our planes.”

Sharon shuddered. “Thanks, Agent Butler, but that’s not helping.”

“I think we’ve had enough driving for one day,” Mark said.

Kira giggled. “What about getting back on the horse?  We could let Sharon drive the limo.”

Rebecca giggled as well.

Mark glanced over at Riff, who was not laughing.

“I think I’ll pass,” said Sharon. “I would like to go home and get into a clean top if I could.”

“Sure.”  Mark waved over the car Sharon had arrived in. The girls went with her and convinced Sharon to call June so that the four of them could have lunch together. Sharon insisted on inviting Rebecca’s mother, Cordelia, and Karen, as well, then called a local restaurant that could deliver lunch to her townhouse.

Back at the White House, Mark called Riff up to his study.

“Riff, I appreciate that I am the priority, but this morning was not acceptable,” Mark said. “If there are other people around in a situation, there has got to be a way to make sure everyone gets care, not just me.”

“I understand, sir,” said Riff.

“Do you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mark looked Riff over dubiously. “You know I’m getting a really stubborn vibe from you. I know you’ve done this before, but I’m not convinced you understand what I’m worried about. Do you have any clue how bad it would look if someone else died or was hurt worse because you guys were taking care of me?  Let alone how bad that would make me feel. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

“We have procedures for that, sir.”

“Then how come I haven’t seen them?”

Riff’s sigh was almost imperceptible. “I’ll take that into account, sir.”

Mark dismissed him, still feeling nettled.

At Sharon’s townhouse, the women were laughing heartily over the lesson.

“Okay,” said Karen, as she and the others piled different toppings on their hot dogs and french fries. “I have to say, it is a little weird that you don’t drive, Sharon.”

“Maybe, but it’s not like I can’t get around,” Sharon said. “Is there any more chili?”

“Here,” said Cordelia, a tall woman with dark, rich skin and straightened hair. “What I don’t get is why Eddie and Mark decided you needed to.”

“It’s gotta be a guy thing,” said Sharon. “Women I know think it’s weird, but usually leave it at that. Guys have to teach me how to drive.”

“Didn’t you ever want to drive?” Kira asked, still a little in shock that someone wouldn’t.

“You know, I don’t remember being that excited about it for some reason,” Sharon said. “I was still living in Italy when I turned 14, so you’d think it would have rubbed off on me. But then, I could get pretty much anywhere I wanted without a car, so it never really occurred to me that I needed one. And European kids aren’t usually quite as car crazy as American kids are because they can’t start driving until they’re eighteen.”

Kira and Rebecca just looked at each other and shook their heads. Later, they landed in the living room, apart from the adults, and as Sharon passed the open doorway, she couldn’t help overhearing bits and pieces of their conversation.

“Matt said he got a library card with his no problem,” Rebecca was saying.

Sharon couldn’t make out Kira’s reply.

“Well, it’ll make it harder to track you,” Rebecca said.

She looked up, saw Sharon and started. Kira bounced around, then started giggling nervously.

“As you were,” said Sharon.

But as she returned to the dining room, she wondered just what the girls had been talking about and whether Matt was June’s nephew Matt or not.

Episode 100 – Kira Plans for Trouble

That evening, Kira Watanabe signed into the video chat room. Matt was already signed in, as were Jodi and Tiffany. Tony pinged in, with Rebecca joining within seconds.

“How bad is it?” Jodi was asking.

“How bad is what?” Rebecca asked.

“All Mom would say is that I have to go to my dad’s this summer,” Kira said. “My dad is suing Mom for custody again and it’s really got her upset.”

“Sounds like you’ll have a sucky summer,” Matt sighed.

“I’m not going,” Kira said. “I’m going to run away and take Allie with me. There’s no way I am going to live with him and I am not going to let him near Allie. She doesn’t deserve that.”

“Kira, you can’t be serious,” Rebecca said. “That’s dangerous.”

“Like living with him isn’t?”

“Rebecca’s right,” Tony said. “It’s bad on the streets. I know.”

“I’ve just gotta think it through is all,” Kira said. “I’ve got money saved, so that should help. And I could probably set up some sort of web business to make more, so nobody knows how old I am.”

“You could stay with us,” Jodi said.

“Her dad could track her to us too easily,” Tiffany said. “I suppose we could sneak her past my mom, but we’d never make it past yours.”

“You know, Kira, it would be good to have some sort of grown up helping,” Tony said. “You really need somebody to help you hide and keep a roof over your head.”

“And you’ll need cash,” said Matt. “You’ll have to find a way to get your money out of your savings account without your mom noticing.”

“Actually, what you need is a plan,” Tony said. “And a back up plan in case things go wrong.”

“I know. We could hide them at my Aunt Susan’s,” said Jodi.

“Why not your dad?” Rebecca asked.

“Too straight,” Jodi and Tiffany said together.

“Tony’s right,” said Matt. “What you need is a plan and a back up plan.”

“And a back up plan after that,” Tony added.

“Okay. So how do I get one?” Kira asked.

Episode 99 – Karen’s Ex Gets Troublesome

At four o’clock the next afternoon, in Washington, June knocked on the door to Karen Tanaka’s office. It was cramped, like everyone else’s office, but it had a window looking out onto the south lawn and a more square shape. Karen had painted the walls a rich, creamy yellow and brought in a glass and brushed chrome desk, complemented by an ebony black entertainment unit on the side wall with a bank of four televisions, each on its own shelf one on top of the other. A simple ikebana arrangement of spring flowers adorned the desk. Framed photos of her daughters dotted the walls.

Karen admitted June with a listless smile.

“What’s going on?” June asked.

Karen looked away. “What do you mean?”

“Sharon texted me last night that something didn’t feel right when she called you yesterday.”  June slid onto the small black leather chair in front of the desk and set her purse on the floor next to her. “She thought something might be wrong.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it, June,” Karen said with a soft sigh.

“Okay.”  June said grabbing her purse and getting up. “I suppose I have to respect that.”

“June. Wait.”  Karen slowly put down the lid on her laptop. “I’m sorry.”

June looked down onto Karen’s desk and saw the legal papers there. Karen saw June’s eyes, then sniffed.

“Yeah, that’s a court filing,” Karen said softly. “It’s my ex. George. He’s suing for custody of the girls.”

“Ouch,” said June, slowly sitting down again.

“It’s nothing he hasn’t done before,” Karen said, slumping back in her chair. “We’ve been through this twice since the divorce.”

“And yet you were able to move here with the girls.”

Karen nodded. “He threatened to sue when I got this job, but I not so delicately pointed out that he’s already blown three court-ordered evaluations.”

“Three?”

“The first when we first got divorced, then the two other times.”

“So if he’s blown three evaluations, what are you worried about?”

“It’s always a little dicey,” Karen said. “Judges have a lot of leeway when it comes to interpreting best interests of the children and the evaluation. Which is why George keeps filing. He keeps hoping he’s going to get a sympathetic judge.”  Karen handed June the papers. “And it looks like this time he may have.”

“Oh?”  June thumbed through the papers.

“My attorney called just a bit ago. There was a surprise temporary order hearing this morning. It was just luck that I got the summons yesterday, and I called Lewis immediately. So he was able to get in on the hearing. He called just now. It is not looking good.”

“They can’t hold hearings without notifying the other side.”

“In child custody cases, they can.”  Karen came around the desk and plopped into the leather chair next to June. “It’s the temporary emergency order thing – the idea is to protect kids from a potentially violent parent.”

“But you’re not violent,” June said.

“They can do it for other reasons. According to Lewis, George’s attorneys are arguing that I brought the girls here to DC against his permission and that he signed the agreement under duress. Which he kind of did.”  Karen tightened her lips. “Lewis said this new firm that George has, they’re scorched earth specialists. And Lewis can’t prove it, but they just happened to get a judge who’s notorious for giving the fathers custody if they show the slightest interest in the kids, never mind what the evaluations show.”

“Well, the girls are old enough, the judge will have to listen to what they say, and based on what I heard last month, they’re not too excited about being with their dad.”

Karen snorted. “They’re arguing that I poisoned them against George. And the girls’ grades are down. Part of it is just the new school. Allie’s grades are coming back up. But Kira’s are still off.”

“How bad is it?”

“Just a few percentage points, but…”  Karen rolled her eyes. “I hate buying into the stereotype, but for George, anything less than 100 percent is huge. Since we got here, I haven’t been riding them that hard. And you know what?  Kira’s actually been making friends – more than she’s ever had at one time. You know, Coop’s kid Rebecca. And Sharon’s nieces, Jodi and Tiffany. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but for Kira, it’s amazing. She’s always been a loner. I just don’t know how far that’s going to go with George’s new attorneys.”

“Scorched earth specialists.”

“Figures.”  Karen slumped back again. “It’s just George’s style. The only thing Lewis and I can’t figure out is how he’s paying for them.”

June frowned. “I thought George was a doctor.”

“Head of emergency at County USC – which means he could get more elsewhere, but he’s still pulling in some good money.”  Karen shook her head. “Lewis said these guys, they’re seriously high-end, the firm you hire when you’ve got hundreds of millions in assets to protect and you can afford the long court battle to get your kids. Lewis and I keep pretty good tabs on George’s assets – it’s not like he hasn’t tried hiding money from us – and Lewis said he has no idea how George is paying for these guys.”

June suddenly reached into her purse and pulled out her tablet. Glancing at the legal papers, she quickly started typing onto the pad.

“What are you doing?” Karen asked.

June swore. “I thought as much. I just googled George’s firm and another one that I know. They’ve got a cooperative agreement. Which means I know how George is paying for them. Or rather, who’s paying them for George.”

“What?”

It was June’s turn to sniffle. “Look, Mark and I don’t talk about it much, but there is someone who has a lot invested in making trouble. This person can’t bring down Mark, so… Well, the people around Mark get hit instead. And you just got some publicity as Mark’s friend. The timing is just too suspicious.”

“You mean..?”  Karen thought. “Lewis did say that opposing council did seem to be rushing this through.”

“That picture of Mark hugging you only came out a little over a week ago.”  June fumed. “And your situation with your ex was ready made for this kind of attack.”

“You know, Lewis was saying that I might have to give up the girls because these guys are really good at digging up and slinging dirt and making even a hangnail look like major carelessness.”  Karen started crying full on. “I don’t want to lose my babies, but I can’t let them get hurt that way.”

June reached over and gently grabbed Karen’s arm. “They’re not going to. I swear. I’m not going to let these SOBs hurt you or Kira and Allie. It’s because of me and Mark that they’re involved.”

“It’s not your fault, June.”

“I know.”  June swallowed. “But, Karen, I know what it’s like to live with the wrong parent. Believe me, there’s a reason why my mother and I are estranged. I won’t let that happen to another kid.”

“But what can you do?”

“I can pay for the attorneys you’ll need to fight this.”

Karen bounced up. “June, I can’t let you do that. This could cost-”

“I know how much it could cost. Or will cost.”  June got to her feet. “I know how these guys work. They’ve got George convinced that only he can save the girls.”

“Oh, he was already convinced of that,” Karen snapped.

“Then all they had to do is gently push him into the ends justifying any means to get his kids for him. And if George is the controlling jerk I have every reason to believe he is, he bought it hook, line and sinker, and these new attorneys are going to scorch the earth and then some to get George full custody of Kira and Allie. The only thing those girls have going for them is that you’re willing to cave in rather than let them get scorched in the process. And you can’t let that happen.”

Karen looked at the ceiling. “I can take care of my girls.”

“In a fair fight, you can and then some.”  June walked over to Karen and put her hands on her shoulders. “This isn’t going to be a fair fight. They’ve already tried sneaking a temporary emergency order hearing past you and your attorney. And they got the sympathetic judge. No, we can’t prove it, but I’m pretty darned certain that was no luck of the draw.”

“How will I pay you back?”

“You’ll raise your daughters and protect them and keep them safe. And you’ll let me play auntie.”  June shrugged. “That’s all I need. Karen, money I’ve got, and more seems to keep following me. I may as well put it to some good use.”

“Won’t it hurt if it gets out that you’re paying my attorney fees?”

“We’ll find a firm that can spin anything they throw at you. Please, Karen. Like I said, I know where this is coming from and, no, it’s not my fault. But Mark and I are the reason it’s happening and if he found out, he’d be doing the same thing.”

“Oh, God.”  Karen sank into the chair in front of the desk. “I guess we’ll have to do it.”

“The first thing we’re going to have to do is get on that emergency order.”  June sat down next to her.

Karen nodded. “George wants his summer visitation rights enforced. As if I wasn’t going to. I bought the plane tickets for the girls two weeks ago. I told Kira last night she was going to have to go.”

“I’m guessing she wasn’t happy.”

“She flat out refuses to go. Good thing I’ve got until the end of June to change her mind. If I can change her mind.”

“We’ll figure something out. You’re not alone in this, Karen. You have support. I’ll be with you every step of the way. Scorched earth specialists can be beaten and it can be done without using the same tactics. You have the truth on your side and it’s pretty hard to beat that. You just can’t give in.”

Karen nodded sadly. Slowly she turned to June and the two held each other as Karen at last relented and sobbed. June started crying, too.

Episode 98 – Mark and Sharon Talk Baggage

Late the next day, Sunday, the President and staff members boarded Air Force One for a five-day tour of the Middle East. Sharon rode on board with the executive staff, while Faiza Moussel had gone on ahead to the first stop Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Monday was filled with talks, but successful ones, then there was a busy day in Jordan, and a very tense day in Palestine, Wednesday, because Mark’s visit was setting a historical precedent.

That night, after a debriefing session with the full staff in the hotel suite’s conference room, Mark left first, then quietly returned when he noticed that Sharon hadn’t left yet. She was still sitting at the conference table, talking in Spanish on her mobile phone. The room was relatively small, but decked out in gold and red, in spite of the modern furniture.

Mark stood next to the door, nodding when Sharon noticed he was there, and trying to indicate that she should finish her call. She nodded and continued her conversation for another couple minutes, then hung up and held up a finger while she made several notes.

“Yes, sir?” Sharon asked, as she finished.

“You’ve been avoiding me,” Mark said, trying to sound casual.

“It’s been pretty busy.”  Sharon fidgeted with her pen.

“Maybe. But you’ve still been avoiding me.”  Mark moved over to the table and sat down. “I’m not worried, per se. I just wanted to be sure nothing’s wrong.”

“There’s nothing any more wrong than there ever has been,” Sharon said. “I just… It…”  She looked over at him. “I just had to face facts Friday night about my issues with the unattainable. It’s my pattern. The guys I tend to fall for all seem to have some particular baggage that I just can’t work around. Mostly, they’re famous.”

“Could it be a secret longing for fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve dealt with it. It wasn’t fun and I don’t want to deal with it again. Maman says that it’s because everyone in our family, we’re all such over-achievers, that’s the kind of guy I like and a good chunk of the time, the fame is part of it.”

“Like your famous brother.”

“Yeah. The running gag until I got this job was that I was the under-achiever in the family,” Sharon smiled softly. “I think it has more to do with that I’m the only one of my sibs who isn’t an artist. I mean, it wasn’t like they thought I wasn’t doing anything. That was the joke – I was way ahead of my peers. But because Michael and Susan were both at the top of their fields and I was still just a VP with a ways still to go up the career ladder, it seemed like I wasn’t doing that much. Then when Sarah started her PhD work, plus selling through some major galleries, well, you get the picture.”

“You’re a pretty intense bunch.”

“So what’s your pattern of baggage?”  Sharon forced a smile.

“My pattern, huh?”  Mark leaned back in his chair and pressed his lips together. He debated telling her the truth, but decided it wasn’t the time. Besides, it wasn’t as though he had other issues. “I, uh, tend to do the love at first sight thing and flame out quickly.”

Sharon winced. “Oh.”

“That’s a big reason why we’re not having a relationship right now. I don’t want to do that to you.”  He smiled at her softly. “Not exactly breaking our patterns here, are we?”

“I suppose not.”  Sharon looked down at her notes.

Mark reached over and touched her hand. “Maybe it’s not the patterns that are the problem.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s you and falling for the guy who’s famous. It’s your attitude toward that fame that’s the issue, not that you shouldn’t be liking him. In my case, it’s not the falling in love that’s the problem, but rushing into it without… Without doing what we’re doing.”

“Which is?”

“Building a friendship, I hope. Learning to like each other before letting the chemistry carry us away.”

“And what about my thing with not wanting to deal with your fame?”  Sharon finally looked up and watched his eyes.

Mark yawned and rubbed the back of his neck. “Truth be told, I have no idea. But I suspect that with enough time, you’ll figure it out. And fortunately for you, time is our best option, right?”

Sharon nodded. “Assuming we can hold out. Anyway, it’s late. You’re tired and we might have an issue with Mexico again.”

“Shavings.”  Mark stood up and flinched slightly as Sharon bounced up with him. “We’d better get to bed then. Good night.”

“Good night, sir.”

He smiled as Sharon left without waiting for him.

Sharon left, dialing Washington, DC. Her conversation with Karen Tanaka was brief and to the point, which wasn’t unusual in itself. But something didn’t feel right. So Sharon texted June, who was in New York again, then went to bed.

Episode 97 – Sharon Dates Max Again

Sharon couldn’t believe she was on another date with Max Epstein. But there he was, across the cocktail table at the Press Club bar, in full monologue. He had called on Wednesday and after the Correspondents Dinner, Sharon had decided he deserved another chance. So she’d accepted and was sorely wishing she hadn’t.

“Max,” Sharon said suddenly, getting up. “Can we go for a walk?”

“Uh, sure,” Max jumped up and followed her out of the bar.

It was still early that Saturday evening. The mid-May weather was warm enough to be comfortable, but without the miserable humidity of full summer. Traffic on the street was light and the sidewalks were largely empty. There were always tourists in D.C., but the summer rush hadn’t yet begun.

“I’m thinking if we head this way, we can have dinner at Stradiman’s,” Max began as the two left the building.

Sharon put her hand on his arm and squeezed. “I’m thinking not.”

“Huh?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Max, I don’t get it. You’re a nice guy.”

Max slumped. “Oh, great. You’re dumping me.”

“Now, wait a minute!”  Sharon glared at him, then began walking. “There’s nothing here to dump. We’re friends.”

“I thought we were dating.”

Sharon shook her head. “It was borderline at best. And don’t try to bust my hump for leading you on. You didn’t even get a kiss good night those other two times.”

“So, if we’re not dating, why are you giving me the break up speech?”

Sharon winced. “Because you’re making me crazy, Max. We go out. You take over. You ramble on without listening to a word I say. And yet, you’re not like that normally. I heard you last week. You were funny. You listened to everyone else. You were great. So what gives?  Why are you such a pain in the ass to date, but perfectly fun to be around otherwise?”

“I don’t take over.”

“Max, you choose the venue. You tell me what I want off the menu. You tell me what wine to drink with it. I’m beginning to feel like I’m not necessary.”

Max slumped even further into himself. “Women like a strong decisive guy.”

“It depends on how strong and decisive,” Sharon said.

“But you called me those first two times.”

“I know.”  Sharon bit her lip. “I probably shouldn’t have. I was just…”

“Just what?”

They stopped at a street light and Sharon gazed at the traffic.

“I was just trying to prove to myself that I’m not in love with someone else.”  She suddenly growled. “And it’s not who you think it is.”

“I wasn’t thinking anything,” Max grumbled. “Why didn’t you just say so?”

“Because I didn’t want to admit it to myself.”  Sharon sniffed and blinked back tears. “I was trying to convince myself that you were closer to the kind of guy I want. But, no. I’m falling for the guy who’s unavailable again. And then I go and hurt you. I’m so sorry. I just can’t do this. I’ve tried settling and believe me, that didn’t work out. Which is probably why I’m so cranky about your control issues.”

Max snorted. “Except that you’re not the first woman to tick me off for that. I’m sorry, too. I didn’t think I was that nervous going out with you, but I always start chattering and taking over when I’m nervous.”

“Maybe we could just go out as friends.”

“No.”  Max sighed and shook his head. “If I’m really honest, it wasn’t you, per se, making me nervous. You’re just the first… Well, I got really turned around right before Christmas last year. Family crap.”

“Sounds unpleasant.”

“It was. Anyway, I thought I was past the crappy parts. You may have heard, I don’t have a good rep with women.”

“Multiple times.”

“Yeah, well, It’s kind of a problem I have. My dad was kinda down on women. He always blamed it on my mother leaving us.”  Max frowned and swallowed. “Only I found out this year that he hadn’t exactly been honest about what happened.”

“Oh, dear.”

“It gets worse. I finally decided to look for my mother – my last girlfriend said I needed to get over my mommy issues. My mother’s tried to contact me off and on since I became an adult, but I never responded because Dad had always told me how controlling and mean she was. And I was angry that she’d abandoned me. So I’m looking through the court records for their divorce and find out she left because Dad was hitting her – there were pictures. And she’d taken me with her. I was only two at the time, so I don’t remember any of this. Anyway, then I find an old warrant for Dad’s arrest on kidnapping charges. Turns out when he was transferred by the Air Force to Germany, he took me from my mother and she couldn’t get me back because the Air Force wasn’t willing to enforce the custody order. And that’s probably why Dad stayed. He couldn’t go back because of the kidnapping warrant.”

“That’s harsh.”

“Yep.”

“Have you connected with your mother yet?”

“Yeah. It’s been going really well. One of the reasons I thought I was ready to start dating again.”  Max laughed bitterly. “I’m guessing I wasn’t.”

“Well, I’m guessing my taste for the unattainable didn’t help.”  Sharon looked up and saw a small Spanish restaurant next to them. “Why don’t we just have dinner here – strictly friends and we can talk about our respective issues and why we’re terrible for each other.”

Max laughed. “Yeah, what the hell.”