Episode 111 – An Assassination Attempt

romantic fiction serial, romance fiction, The levity and good feeling lasted through the next morning as the U.S. party loaded themselves into a limo motorcade that was joined by President Mendoza’s own motorcade. Mark later was hard pressed to remember where the group was headed. All he remembered was that as he got out of the limo and bent to help Sharon out, he was flattened and shoved back in by body guards. He never even heard the gun shots.

An American Secret Service agent, unnamed, was later credited with spotting Pablo Tomenco’s gun and calling it out in time for one of the Columbian agents to knock the gun askew and send the bullets skyward. Somehow, no one was hit in the attempt on both the Columbian and American presidents.

In the U.S. presidential limo, Mark realized that Sharon was underneath him and as he slowly got up, he saw that she was unconscious.

“Are you all right, sir?” asked the ever-present Riff Butler, an imposing African American man with a buzz cut and a perfect Secret Service demeanor.

“I’m fine,” Mark snapped.  “Sharon’s out.”

Mark glanced around. Calvin Whitecross was in the facing seat next to Matt. Sharon groaned and tried to pull herself up. Riff reached around the tight space and helped her up as he let out a stream of Spanish, directing Tomas, the Columbian driver, to head to the nearest hospital. Sharon responded, her Spanish far too fast for Mark to follow in spite of her grogginess, but Riff not only glared her down, he repeated the order.

At the hospital, the limo screeched into the emergency bay. Doctors, nurses and orderlies were ready with several gurneys.

“Sir, come with me,” Sharon ordered as she was lifted onto a gurney.

She started in Spanish again and the doctor motioned for Mark to join them as they rushed Sharon into the emergency room, with Riff on their heels. Matt swallowed and looked at Calvin.

“Now what?” Matt asked.

“Get out of the car?” Calvin asked.

Fortunately, an orderly who spoke English appeared in the doorway and took them to a waiting room.

“Your driver, he is parking the car someplace else,” the young Columbian said. He was short and slight, but had a firm demeanor.

Matt swallowed. “I heard shots. Did anyone else get hurt?”

“I don’t think so,” the orderly answered. “The radio for emergency, it does not say anyone is coming. I will come for you if it calls.”

“Thanks,” Matt replied.

“So I guess we wait,” Calvin said as the orderly left.

“Yeah.” Matt sighed. “Hope she’s okay.”

Calvin smiled softly. “In my experience, when they’re yelling like that, they’re okay.”

The waiting room could have been anywhere, with green and blue plastic chairs strung together in tight rows and gray walls with supposedly soothing framed pictures on them. Except that the voice coming from the TV mounted on a wall in the corner was speaking in rapid Spanish. Matt watched the images from the shooting site and tried to deduce what had happened.

Tomas, the short and fat limo driver, waddled into the waiting room. With a worried frown, he approached Matt and spoke rapidly in Spanish. All Matt caught was “La Senorita” over and over again and guessed that the driver was asking about Sharon’s condition. Matt’s mind went blank.

“No es muerto,” he finally said.

“Ay! Pero la senorita?” Tomas asked.

“No es muerto,” Matt said again, trying to remember how to say Sharon was mostly okay, especially since he knew that he knew that much Spanish.

It didn’t help. With a loud cry, Tomas went running off out of the hospital. About 20 minutes later, Matt noticed a head shot of Sharon on the TV screen with the caption “Muerta.” Dead.

An obscenity dropped from his lips. “Calvin, it’s saying Sharon Wheatly is dead.”

“What?” Calvin came over and looked at the screen. “You think?”

“Why wouldn’t they have told us?” Matt cried belligerently. “What the hell happened? Where’s that guy?”

He left the waiting room with Calvin on his heels, looking for someone to who could speak English and who knew how Sharon was doing. The two didn’t find help right away, but they found Mark and Riff waiting in an empty room.

“Oh, no!” Matt sobbed.

“Matt? What’s the matter?” Mark asked.

“Aunt Sharon… The TV said she’s dead,” Matt blinked back tears. “And she’s not here.”

“They’re doing an x-ray on her head,” Mark said. “She has a concussion, probably. They’re checking just to be sure there’s no skull fracture.”

“But the TV,” Matt gasped.

“Are you sure you understood what they were saying?” Mark asked.

“Pretty sure,” Matt said.

Mark glanced at Calvin, then glared briefly at Riff. He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and dialed out.

“Yesmenia -” he began, but was cut off. “What? No. She’s fine. I mean, she probably has a concussion, but she’s alive and cranking…  Seriously? Crap…. Even the U.S. news?…. No, no. Get out the retraction. Now. I’ll call Wheatly’s folks…. Yes, I’ve got her phone…. Just get on it, okay?”

Mark swiped off, then rolled his eyes as he dug through the plastic bag holding Sharon’s belongings. He pulled Sharon’s Blackberry free and started scrolling through her contacts.

“Her mother is Madeleine Fauvrillet,” Calvin said. “Father Robert Wheatly.”

“Here it is.” Mark connected through as Matt elbowed Calvin.

“How’d you know that?” Matt hissed playfully at Calvin, who shrugged.

Mark waited as the phone rang in California.

“Allo?” asked a worn female voice.

“Madeleine Fauvrillet?” Mark asked, stumbling over the last name a little.

“Yes. This is she.” Her voice was firm, but she sounded upset.

“This is Mark Jerguessen. It sounds like you may have heard about your daughter on the news.”

“Yes. It is kind of you to call.”

“Ma’am, it’s a false report. I was just with your daughter, and it’s no more than a concussion, maybe a skull fracture at worst. But she is most definitely alive and likely to stay that way.”

“False? She is alive!” There was a sigh, then the sound of her crying and shouting at someone in French. “Oh, grace a Dieu! Merci. I mean, thank you so much. Thank you for calling. I must call the others. Merci. I mean, thank you!’

She hung up. Mark looked at the phone. A second later, orderlies wheeled Sharon into the room.

“Why do you have my phone?” she asked.

“It’s a long story,” Mark said.

Sharon frowned at Mark as he, Matt and Calvin exchanged guilty looks. Matt suddenly sniffed and soundly hugged Sharon.

“Easy!” she yelped, then hugged him back. “What was that for?”

“I’m sorry,” Matt gasped. “I know you’re hurt, but I’m just so glad you’re alive.”

“Of course-” Sharon suddenly stopped and listened. Rapid Spanish floated over from another television elsewhere in the emergency department. “You have got to be kidding me! Oh, my god, my parents!”

Mark showed her the phone. “I just called them. Sorry to use your phone, but it was the fastest way.”

Sharon eased herself back down onto the pillows. “How the hell did this happen?”

Mark just shrugged.

Episode 110 – Sharon Gets Good News

romantic fiction serial, romance fiction, sweet romancePresident Mendoza arrived just as Air Force One touched down. Tony and Matt, who had previously been bouncing off the walls, suddenly settled down and got their ties tied and suit jackets on. Sharon smiled to herself. They were technically there as the president’s personal assistants. It was a heady job, but Mark had chosen well in spite of their youth, with both boys having just enough youthful joie de vivre to be excited about opening doors for the President but enough gravitas to behave appropriately.

Mark made his way down the airplane’s stairway to the podium and red carpet set up nearby. There was a decent-sized crowd gathered on the airport tarmac, and plenty of press, both American and Columbian. Mark greeted Mendoza, a broad-shouldered man who Sharon thought resembled Omar Sharif more than a little. Mendoza made a little welcome speech in excellent English, then Mark made his way through his speech in Spanish. Mark didn’t speak Spanish very well, but Sharon had coached him extensively, and if she was not thrilled with his accent, at least his Spanish didn’t sound forced.

After the welcome speeches, there was an early evening car tour of the city, then dinner in the presidential palace. That went late. Nonetheless, the U.S. party was up again early for tours and talks and much-needed fence mending with local farmers who had suffered at the hands of American soldiers who had been trying to take down the drug cartels. Mark strongly suspected that more than a few of the government officials and citizens they met were members of said cartels, if not the heads of such groups. Sharon didn’t say for sure, but she hinted.

She spent her day mostly observing. Her staff member who oversaw research on South America, Leonidas Bertonetti, had been in Bogota since late the week before and had made a goodly number of contacts even apart from the ones President Mendoza had set up.

The day was a whirlwind, finishing up with a particularly rowdy party with dancing and a decidedly free-flowing bar. Sharon didn’t think she’d had that much to drink, but she was feeling pretty happy.

The news from home was exceedingly good. First, Karen Tanaka, Sharon’s colleague on the president’s Advisory Panel and Sharon’s good friend, had called. Karen, also known as Tanks, had been recently sued by her ex-husband, George Watanabe, for custody of their two daughters, Kira and Allie.

Then Sharon’s sister Susan had called with her news, followed closely by their brother Michael, whose parting advice, while unsolicited (as so much of Michael’s advice was), Sharon had to concede had merit. Which turned out to be fairly convenient, since Mark suggested the two take a light walk around the grounds of the Columbian presidential palace, where the party was taking place.

Sharon was acting as Mark’s “date” that night – a frequent arrangement that made it look like Mark was bowing to the demands created by the social expectations of couplehood. But since Sharon spoke Spanish almost as well as a Mexican native, it also made her readily available as a translator when needed.

Sharon left the party first and found the walkway around the outside of the palace gardens without trouble. She was wearing a long, straight black dress with a sheer beaded overlay. Mark smiled as he saw her standing on a low retaining wall, looking out over the garden with a happy smile on her face. Her hair was pinned up.

“Hey!” she said, turning and seeing him. She lightly hopped down, took a deep breath and spun around once.

“You look exceptionally happy,” Mark said.

“I am,” she replied. “It’s been an unusually fun party and right before we left the hotel, I got some terrific news from home.”

“The Indians and the Pakistanis are making nice?”

She scrunched her face. “I wish. Nope, this was on the more personal front. Has Karen talked to you about the custody suit?”

“Not much,” Mark said. “But she’s been keeping me up to date. Last I heard, her ex got an emergency order to enforce the girls’ visit this summer.”

“Boy, did that backfire on them.” Sharon laughed. “I’m not sure how it worked out in legal terms. But Karen was going to send the girls to their dad’s for the summer and had it set up before the suit was even filed. And since she was able to prove that the emergency order was anything but an emergency, the judge got annoyed. Then Karen’s lawyers petitioned him to stop the visit based on George’s history of abusive behavior and the judge okayed it. Well, at least for the time being. There’s another hearing next week, where George’s lawyers get to respond.”

“That sounds pretty good,” Mark said. “But why stop the visit?”

“Kira’s refusing to go.”

“She’s barely fifteen. How can she refuse?”

Sharon grimaced. “Well, she can’t, technically. But remember when Matt made his unauthorized arrival in DC?”

Matt had, in fact, run away from his very unhappy home, and thanks to the plan he’d put together with Kira, Sharon’s niece Jodi and her friend Tiffany, along with Tony Garces and Rebecca Cooper, the daughter of one of Sharon and Karen’s other colleagues on the Advisory Panel, he’d arrived safely in Washington, DC.

Mark sighed. “Right. They were originally planning Kira’s getaway. They’re not still up to something, are they?”

“I have no idea. I’m trying to play it cool on the off chance someone will confide in me. In any case, with luck, the judge will keep the order in place and Kira and Allie won’t have to go to their dad’s.”

“Or wherever.” Mark smiled. “That is good news, but not normally the sort of thing that has you dancing.”

“That’s the even better news.” Sharon smiled and spun again. “My sister Susan has been commissioned to choreograph a new dance for the Artists with Disabilities Festival at the end of August, and she’s going to use my brother’s music.”

“Susan? Oh, she’s the one in the wheelchair. I mean, uses a wheelchair.”

Sharon chuckled. “Michael and I are thrilled. We didn’t think she’d go for it. It’s been barely two years since the accident and she’s been going through a really bad patch the past few months. The best we can figure is that it’s finally sinking in that her injury is permanent. She’s been pretty angry lately.”

“Wow. Wasn’t she some sort of dancer?” Mark asked.

“Lead ballerina with the Pacific Ballet, although she was getting ready to retire when the accident happened, being over 30 and all. The good news is that she can still choreograph and since the dance will be about her own journey as someone with a disability, it might help her confront some of her own issues.” Sharon smiled. “She’s really excited about it and happier than she’s been since the accident happened.”

Mark smiled. “It sounds great.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Sharon spun very, very close to him. “Better yet, my brother suggested I get a little of my own happiness, too, and I thought why not?”

She reached up and kissed him full on the mouth. Mark felt himself rejoicing, even as he worried about the two of them being seen.

“I like that kind of happiness,” he whispered as their lips parted.

Sharon’s lips were still slightly open and her breathing was just a touch heavy. “As much as I’d like otherwise, the good news is that this will go absolutely nowhere since we cannot risk being seen and someone is bound to be headed our way soon.”

Mark kissed her again, starting softly, then stronger and stronger as she responded, melting into his arms and holding him tightly against herself. However, it was he who gently pulled them apart.

“What are we going to do, Sharon?” he sighed. “This distance thing is not working. I can’t lose you as an employee. And I don’t want to lose you.”

“I don’t either.” Sharon blushed, then looked at him, her soft brown eyes almost piercing him to his soul. “And you’re not going to. We’re friends, good friends. Your sister and I are just as close. Your nephew is my buddy and he’s best friends with my niece. Our lives are so freaking tied up together that we’re sort of stuck. We just have to try to stay friends and hold out as long as we can.”

The sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel forced Mark to pull away from her. Leonidas appeared on the path with one of President Mendoza’s aides on his arm. Leonidas was young, dark and smooth, although Sharon couldn’t help wonder if he was finally getting played by the lovely young woman with the very shrewd dark eyes.

They didn’t quite notice Mark and Sharon as they slipped into the garden. Mark nodded back at the building and Sharon went ahead of him.

“I’d better stay out here a bit longer,” Mark said somewhat more loudly than he needed to. “I think I see Matt headed this way. I overheard him and Tony talking about practicing their Spanish with some of the younger ladies here.”

“I did, too,” Sharon replied. “Do you want me to take the outer loop of the garden and see if we can flush them out?”

“Sure. Why not?” Mark turned and headed away from the building as Sharon headed around the other way.

If Mark was hoping that he and Sharon would meet on the far side of the garden, it was not to be. Never mind that their “search” was actually intended to throw Leonidas off, Sharon did actually encounter Matt and Tony and three obviously over-age-eighteen young women near the entrance to the palace.

In rapid Spanish, Sharon not so gently convinced the young women that they might be better off inside back at the party.

“Aw, come on, Aunt Sharon,” Tony groaned as the women left. Tony called Sharon “aunt” simply because her niece Jodi and Jodi’s best friend Tiffany did.

“Uh-huh,” said Sharon.

“We weren’t going to do anything,” Matt complained.

“And what were you guys going to say when not doing anything turned into an international incident?” Sharon asked, her grin belying her serious tone.

“Since when does a casual snog in a garden constitute an international incident?” replied Matt, pulling himself up and acting way more confident than he felt.

Sharon laughed. “Let’s see. All three of those girls are over eighteen. You guys are not. One of them is President Mendoza’s daughter and the other two are nieces.”

“And your point is?” Tony said, trying to imitate Matt, which didn’t entirely work since after a poignant pause, he, Matt and Sharon were all doubled up with laughter.

“Seriously, Aunt Sharon,” Matt said finally. “We weren’t going to do anything, well, serious.”

“I’m sure that was your intention,” Sharon replied. “But let’s be real. Those ladies had serious written all over them. And besides, as the nearest available grown up, I have a sworn duty to keep you two from having any real fun.”

“And speaking of fun,” Tony said, “Matt’s uncle left the party right after you did.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Nice try. I have no idea where he is or what he’s up to.”

Which, she had to admit, was the truth, even if it was misleading. Still, the boys each took one of her arms and went with her back to the party.

Book One is Here!

romantic fiction serial, romance, sweet romance, fiction serialThe excitement is palpable. Here’s your chance to relax and read the first part of White House Rhapsody on your own schedule as an ebook.

While you can buy it at Amazon.com, why don’t you head over to Smashwords.com and buy it for your Kindle there? Or for any other of your reading devices.

The gang at Smashwords are very nice and are actively helping me to promote this and my other books. That’s more than I can say for that other outlet.

Either way, the ebook is $2.99 and we may soon have a print version. Sign up for my monthly missive – The Robin Goodfellow Newsletter – in the box to the right and you’ll get that and other fun news.

And next week we continue with the next episode, starting Book Two. Matt may be straightened out, but Kira Watanabe is headed for trouble. June’s little issue is going to get majorly big. Susan has a big assignment headed her way. Al Eddington is facing the challenge of his life.

As for Mark and Sharon, well, let’s just say that distance thing is not working. Not at all.

Episode 108 – The End of Book One

romantic fiction serial, romance, serial fictionIt was getting on for six-thirty that evening when Mark made his way up to the private quarters, calling June as he went. The two met in his private study. It was a smallish room, dominated by the immense flat-screen television on the wall and a sleek modern desk with a glass top and brushed steel legs. The entire desktop could be used as a touch pad screen, and there was a single black lacquered drawer under the center which contained a keyboard and several remote controls. The desk chair was brown leather and reclined. Two more similar chairs were backed up against the side wall in between a bookcase overflowing with books and various tablets and ereaders.

“I’ve got to bring you up to date on Matt,” Mark told June as he pulled out one of the chairs on the wall. “You’ve seen him already, haven’t you?”

“I spent the afternoon with him.” June sat down then glanced anxiously up at her pacing brother. “Was that okay?”

“I, uh…” Mark frowned. “I didn’t really tell you, but I was keeping him in solitary confinement as punishment for running away. I mean, we can’t reward that.”

June sighed. “I guess not, but he didn’t have a lot of options.”

“I know, I know.” The irritation in Mark’s voice grew before he could catch it. “I’m sorry. I know I’m angry. And you didn’t do anything wrong because we haven’t had a chance to talk. But we’ve got to get together on this. Just be aware, Harold’s got me more pissed off than usual.” He sighed. “He wouldn’t even say hi to Matt.”

“Yeah, I know.” June tried to blink back her tears.

“Well, the good news is, Matt doesn’t have to go back.” Mark squeezed her arm gently. “Harold and Shawna will maintain nominal custody, but we’re pretty much free to do as we see fit. I’m inclined to work Matt’s butt off this summer, then let him board at St. Ignatius Prep in the fall. But what do you think?”

June wiped her eyes and thought. “Well, aren’t Tony and Rebecca Cooper going to do some interning this summer?”

“I was going to have them do the personal assistant thing to spell Gen Flowers. And it turns out, she’s got this summer fellowship she’d like to do. With Matt here, I can let her go and either work him full-time or split hours between him, Tony and Rebecca and maybe Kira Watanabe if she’s interested.”

“She should be, but she probably won’t be here for a good chunk of the summer. Once her dad gets back from Japan, she has to go stay with him, which is another mess.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about it. Thanks for stepping up on that, by the way. Do you want me to contribute to the legal fund?” Mark went over to the desk and turned on the top.

“You’d better not,” June knotted her fingers together. “We don’t want any hints of conflict of interest.”

Mark winced and shut the top down. “You’re right.” He sank into the chair. “Anyway, back to Matt. I really feel like we need to impress on him that the running away was not a good idea, if not for him, then for Kira’s sake, if you know what I mean.”

June sighed. “Yeah, that makes sense. I just hope it doesn’t backfire on us with Kira. Karen’s really worried about her – apparently, she gets pretty stubborn.”

“Oh, I’m shocked,” Mark said dryly. “How do you feel about keeping Matt in solitary for the rest of this week, with the once nightly video conference?”

“That seems fair. Do you want him as personal assistant full-time or do you want to split hours?”

“I think they can split hours and we have to give them some time off on Sundays so they can all hang together. I want Matt to have his friends.”

“Given that’s what started this whole mess, that’s a good idea.” June smiled weakly. “I’m okay with St. Ignatius, too. Since Tony’s there, it should help Matt adjust.”

“Okay.” Mark got up. “Do you want to come with me to break it to him?”

June looked down at her mobile phone. “No. I’ve got some work to get done. I’ll go in and visit after dinner if that’s okay.”

“Sure. As much time as you want. Oh, there is a gadget restriction in effect.”

June chuckled. “Yeah, he went on about that.”

“Like I said…”

“I know. We can’t reward how he went about getting here. Does he get his stuff back at the end of the week?”

“Sure.” Mark went to the door and paused. “I hope you didn’t cut your business on the coast short.”

“No,” June said quickly. “It’s fine, Mark. Really. I needed to be here more.”

“Okay. Thanks, June. I’m sticking to not wanting your business to suffer because of being here for me. But I have to say, I really appreciate you being here.”

“I’m happy to do it.” June smiled.

Mark left, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket and texting Sharon. He checked the response just as he got to Matt’s room and smiled, then texted a quick response back.

Matt was just finishing his dinner when Mark walked in.

“Hey, Uncle Mark,” he said, scrambling to his feet.

“Sit down,” Mark said, sitting on the bed next to him. “We’ve got to talk.”

“This doesn’t sound good.”

“Well, your dad left around noon.”

“Oh.” Matt slumped and shook his head. “I suppose that’s a good thing.”

“Matt, I’m sorry about him and the way he acted. You certainly don’t deserve it,” Mark put his hand on his nephew’s back.

“Yeah, I know.”

Mark smiled softly. “I know you do, Matt. But it still hurts. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t.”

Matt swallowed, then slowly sank into quiet sobbing, leaning against his uncle. Mark held him gently and waited until the sobs eventually abated. Matt finally sniffed.

“I don’t get it,” he finally sighed. “I mean, I get that Dad’s pissed at me. I’d be pissed, too. But he didn’t even want to see me.”

“I know.”

“And I talked to Mom, but she’s really mad and I tried to apologize but she hung up on me.”

“It’s like you said, Matt. They’re pissed and that’s as much about me as it is about what you did. They’re feeling like you love me more than them.”

Matt’s face screwed up. “But they’re my parents.”

“Of course and of course you love them.” Mark shook his head and patted Matt’s shoulder. “And you love me, too. So what? It’s not a competition and I’m not out to steal your affections. But they’ve decided it is. And if you love them, then you can’t love me and if you love me, you can’t love them.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Not entirely. Has to do with our cultural paradigm, according to Karen Tanaka, and that’s hardly your parents’ fault.”

“So does this mean I’m staying here?”

“That’s the good news. Now, your parents do still have legal custody of you, but your aunt and I are pretty much in charge and I don’t think your folks are going to challenge that. Just before you start celebrating, keep in mind, you will be working this summer and then going to boarding school.”

“Working?”

“For your college fund and you’ll be working for me as my personal assistant.”

Matt brightened. “Can I get a car?”

“No. You won’t need one.”

“How about a dog?”

Mark grinned. “You’ve been talking to your grandfather, haven’t you?”

“Yeah, but it’s a good idea and I’d like a dog.”

“Well, at the moment, you’re hardly in a position to be asking for things. You will remain in solitary confinement through the weekend and you will exhibit exemplary behavior from here on in. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

Matt ducked his head, supposedly in shame, but Mark caught the grin underneath.

“That will be all, then,” Mark said, getting up. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

Matt bounced up and gave his uncle a quick hug before Mark left the room.

Mark, for his part, was still feeling rather angry and unsettled. Even as he left the hallway for the stairs, he went through the mental monolog – Matt was going to be okay, that was the important thing. It didn’t matter how badly Harold had behaved, it was Harold who had the problem, not Mark.

Mark was still going through the mental monolog as Sharon let him in through the secret basement entrance to her townhouse.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“It’s been a rocky few days,” he replied. “Let’s concentrate on getting dinner together and then maybe we can talk.”

“It’s almost done,” Sharon said. “The potatoes are fried and in the oven. The salad is made, but needs dressing and I just have to nuke the broccoli while I sauté the fish.”

“That’s good,” Mark sighed. “I can dress the salad if you don’t mind.”

“All yours.”

And, in fact, dinner, featuring tilapia fillets cooked a la Meuniere, with butter-fried new potatoes, steamed broccoli, and salad, was ready in a matter of minutes. Sharon opened a bottle of Chablis while Mark finished dishing up the food.

“So, I haven’t gotten the final word on Matt,” she asked as she placed two full wine glasses on the table next to the filled plates.

Mark sat down and slid his napkin onto his lap. “Matt’s staying. After the last two days, there’s no way I’d let him go back.” Mark paused and looked at his meal. “Fortunately, Harold didn’t push it.”

“Matt said that he hadn’t seen his dad.”

“That’s because Harold refused to see him.” Mark’s voice got very tight and low.

Sharon gaped. “He what? Oh, my God, what kind of—”  She stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry. I know he’s your brother.”

Mark started eating quickly. “That’s fine. Bash him all you want.”

He tried to look casual but saw Sharon’s soft gaze. Slowly, he swallowed.

“Look, Harold is one of the very few people on this planet who can get under my skin and make me question everything I know is right,” he said finally. “It’s kind of nice to hear someone else say what I’m usually thinking about him.”

Sharon shook her head. “He is quite the prize specimen. I know some serious Neanderthals who have more social grace than he does.” She frowned. “But to not even say hello to your own son.”

“I know,” Mark replied with a resigned sigh. “He didn’t even bother coming back to the White House last night. According to his security detail, he and his buddy Congressmember Chuck Meyers spent the night at Meyer’s favorite brothel.” Mark snorted. “It’s not even one of the better ones in town.”

“Oh?” Sharon asked.

Mark shrugged. “It’s one of those unspoken realities of the Old Boys Club. If you’re a man and you’re a legislator, you get invited to parties at whorehouses. A lot of the old farts consider it part of their perqs, and sometimes if you need to get something pushed through, you have to play on their turf. It does make it hard on some of the women legislators, but that was kind of the point. One of the reasons I don’t care to go to those kinds of parties.”

“I see.” Sharon shuddered. “It does sound like something Harold would enjoy. Yick.”

“Yeah, well, one thing about Matt being in town, I’m not going to be able to come over here for a while, unless it’s an acknowledged PFZ party.” Mark picked up his wine glass and gazed at the light yellow wine. “I mean, I assume you’d prefer we were discreet about this.”

“I haven’t told anybody if that’s what you’re asking.” Sharon paused. “I don’t know that it has to be that top secret. We are just friends.”

Mark chuckled. “You want to try and convince Eddie and the rest of the gang of that?”

“Good point. Oh, well. We were trying to keep distance, anyway.”

“Yep.” Mark took a long sip of his wine. “Let’s hear it for distance.” He sighed. “Anyway, thanks again for helping out with Matt. I really appreciate it.”

Sharon smiled. “It’s no trouble. He’s a nice kid.”

“He is.” Mark drained his glass and stood up. “And I have to get back.”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

Sharon followed Mark down to the basement and the secret entrance. He looked at her fondly, then sighed.

“I suppose one good thing about Harold is that with a brother like him, why would you dare want me?” Mark said, forcing a smile.

“Well…” Sharon started, then saw the wary look in his eyes, and decided to say the opposite of what she was about to. “You’re right. He is one hell of a disincentive.”

Mark burst into laughter and left. Sharon chuckled as she shut the door behind him, then found herself sniffing. Distance was necessary, but there was part of her that longed to hold Mark and comfort him the way she had held Matthew two days before.

Mark’s laughter also faded quickly once he was in the Presidential limo. Harold was only part of the problem and he couldn’t unleash any of that on Sharon. But he deeply wished he could.

This is the end of Book One of White House Rhapsody. Book Two will start in a couple weeks, but next week, I’ve got an exciting announcement that will run in this space. Come check it out.

Episode 107 – Harold Comes to Visit

romantic fiction serial, light romanciWednesday morning found Mark in a somewhat calmer frame of mind. Though he was still apprehensive – with Harold one never quite knew what was coming – Mark felt he’d at least had a chance to brace himself for the unpleasantness ahead.

After confirming that Harold had, indeed, gotten on the plane and that it was going to land at National Airport, Mark sent Sharon and Al Eddington to pick Harold up, apologizing ahead of time for what would probably not be a very pleasant encounter.

Sharon had dealt with all kinds of unpleasant older men and so wasn’t terribly worried about the president’s brother. Al, who had met Harold before, simply shrugged it off. After all, he and Harold probably had more in common than not, and Al seemed somewhat preoccupied.

“You okay?” Sharon asked in the car as it wound its way through the Washington traffic.

Al shrugged. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look it.”

“Well, that’s…”  Al looked over at Sharon and winced. “You’re going to just keep bugging me, aren’t you?”

“I might. Why don’t you just spill and avoid all the bugging?”

“It’s Caroline,” he sighed. “The biopsy on her lung came back positive yesterday.”

“Oh, Al, I’m so sorry.”

“They’ll be running some more tests tomorrow, but the doctor said that the prognosis is pretty decent.”

“How’s she dealing with it?”

Al snorted. “She’s great. I’m the one who’s falling apart. You know, I thought if we were going to deal with this, I was sure it was going to be breast cancer. I was ready to deal with that. But lung cancer?  I’m the one who should have the lung cancer.”

“Actually, guys can get breast cancer,” Sharon said.

Al chuckled in spite of himself. “We’ll have to see about that. Thanks. And, uh, do you mind keeping this under your hat?”

“Of course,” Sharon said.

By that time, they had arrived at National Airport and were let off near the baggage claim for the flight Harold Jerguessen was on. Al saw the president’s brother first. Harold Jerguessen was tall, but with sharply receding light brown hair and thick jowls. In spite of expensive custom tailoring, his suits always seemed rumpled and ill-fitting. He carried a tan leather messenger bag that wasn’t quite bulging.

As a state senator in Minnesota, Harold used his slightly rumpled look to seem more folksy and in touch with his constituents than he actually was. He mostly rode along to election on his brother’s name and a love of publicity and a good sound bite. Harold was good at sound bites.

Al approached and greeted Harold, who responded amiably enough, but Sharon caught a flicker of annoyance in Harold’s green eyes as if he just barely tolerated Al. Al introduced Sharon.

“So why’d you bring your secretary?” Harold asked Al, as he covered Sharon with an appraising smirk.

“I’m one of Al’s colleagues on the advisory board,” Sharon said pleasantly. “Do we need to wait for your luggage?”

“Didn’t bring any with me,” Harold snarled, then turned to Al. “I’m only staying the night.”

Al had already signaled the car and it pulled around so that the three of them could get in. Harold spent the drive back to the White House chatting about nothing with Al and ignoring Sharon, who took advantage of it to surreptitiously answer a few emails.

When her phone rang, she looked at the readout and lightly coughed.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, I really have to take this,” she said.

“Ah, it’s just my kid brother,” said Harold with a forced chuckle.

“I’m afraid it’s the Chinese ambassador,” Sharon said. “Excuse me.”

She quickly switched to Chinese as Harold glowered. They pulled up at the White House and through the gate as Sharon finished her call.

Al silently dismissed her as they got out of the car.

“I’ll take you to the Oval Office, Senator,” Al said, leading the way.

When Kent announced Harold’s arrival, Mark put his tablet down and told Kent to send his brother in immediately. Harold swaggered into the office and looked around appraisingly.

“Nice set up you got here,” said Harold with a nod.

“Thank you,” said Mark. “Would you like some coffee?”

“I don’t need anything.”  Harold plopped down on one of the couches and began fishing through his inside jacket pocket. “Nice piece of meat you sent to meet me at the airport.”

“She’s a valued member of my staff.”  Mark remained standing behind his desk, holding on to his temper with both hands.

“And how is she in bed?”  Harold pulled a cigar out and bit the end off.

“I wouldn’t know.”

Harold lit his cigar off a match and looked around. “Where’s the ashtray?”

“Since the employees chose to ban smoking indoors at the White House, I don’t have one.”

“You should have one for people who smoke. It’s rude not to.”  Harold dumped the match on the coffee table and let out another puff of pungent smoke. “Anyway, I’ve got meetings on the Hill, so let’s just cut to the chase.”  He got a standard letter-sized envelope out of the messenger bag and tossed it on the coffee table. “Since you’ve been wanting to undermine us ever since Matt was born, we’re going to let you have him.”

“Really.”

“Terms are there in that envelope.”

“I see.”  Mark walked over and picked up the envelope. “All right. I’ll look these over and get back to you in the morning. I just want to be clear on everything.”

“So you’re going to take him?”  Harold sounded surprised.

Mark looked his brother over. Apparently, Harold hadn’t expected Mark to want Matt.

“Yes, assuming you are okay with that. You are his father.”

“I wrote up the terms. You just sign the paperwork and we’ll be good to go.”

“I’ll do that,” said Mark, trying to keep his voice even. “See you in the morning?”

Harold struggled into a standing position. “Yes.”

“You said you had meetings. I can arrange to have dinner at whatever time is good for you. And there is a room ready for you. Breakfast is at seven or you can order it sent up at whatever time you prefer.”

Harold paused. Mark could see him mulling over the options.

“I’ll be back for dinner at seven,” he announced. “And I gotta go. See you.”

“Your Secret Service detail will have your car brought around and see you out.”

Harold snorted. “What?  You can’t trust your own brother to walk around on his own?”

“Yes,” Mark said, even though he didn’t. “The detail is for your protection. Standard operating procedure around here.”

Harold snorted again and swaggered out of the office. Mark waited until the door was shut and stayed shut before calling Johnnie.

“Yes, sir?” she asked when she picked up.

“I’ve got some highly confidential papers that I need White House counsel to go over with a fine-tooth comb,” Mark told her. “I’ll send Gen with them, but I need them before end of business. Can you let them know?”

“I most certainly can, sir.”  Johnnie paused. “I saw on the run-down that Matt’s dad was supposed to come by and I think I caught a whiff of cigar smoke in the hall.”

“You did.”

“Need to vent?”

Mark chuckled. “Probably, but I don’t have time. In any case, he’s gone until dinner time and even odds he won’t show then. He left some papers for me to sign so that I can keep Matt here.”

“Gotcha.”  Johnnie sighed. “I’ll have Voskovich sift through every letter.”

As it turned out, Mark was right and Harold did not show for dinner. He didn’t even stay the night at the White House. Matt took it philosophically and didn’t ask if Mark knew where his father was.

Mark knew, thanks to Harold’s security detail. He wasn’t sure he knew what he was going to do about it until the next morning when he had a quick meeting with Mila Voskovich, one of the attorneys that served to help represent the president with any potential legal issues. Voskovich had the changes made and the paperwork was printed out on Kent’s printer long before Harold arrived at 11 a.m., demanding to see Mark.

“Well?  Did you sign those papers?” Harold said as he entered the Oval Office.

“Yes, but White House counsel insisted I make a few changes that you will need to initial,” Mark replied, picking the paperwork up off his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat?”

“Sheez, Mark. I’m your brother. You’re supposed to trust your family,” Harold complained as he stayed standing.

“Right now, I can’t enter into any contracts without approval from White House counsel,” Mark replied, not at all sure he was unable to do so.

“So much for leader of the free world,” Harold snorted. “You’re such a pansy, Mark.”

“Actually, there were only two clauses changed – the ones that have me paying you to raise your son. And, frankly, Harold, while I am only too happy to help out with Matthew, I see no reason to why I should pay you for the privilege. Now, if you’ll just initial here and here.”

Harold glared at him. “What if I don’t?”

“Harold, you were gone all night last night and you’re wearing the same suit you wore yesterday.”  Mark sighed. “As in I know exactly where you went last night with your buddy Representative Chuck Meyers.”

“So you’re blackmailing me.”

Mark chuckled coldly. “I don’t have to blackmail you, Harold. But I can offer you a choice. Given that you haven’t even bothered to say hello to your own son, given your wife’s drinking problem and given your behavior last night, I think I could make an excellent case for having Matthew removed from your home. Now, I’m perfectly happy going through the courts, if I have to, but I know you’ve got a tough campaign coming up next year. So we can either do this quietly and privately, with the terms you have mostly specified, or we do it publicly.”

“You don’t want DeeDee?”

“I’m happy to have her. However, she did not come to me for help and she is close enough to 18 that it’s really moot at this point.”  Mark stared Harold down.

Harold shifted uncomfortably as he thought things over, then snatched the papers from Mark’s hand and flipped through them.

“There are two copies there, one for each of us,” Mark said.

“I can see that.”  Harold went over to the desk, looked for a pen, then pulled open the top drawer and got one out. “You know, Mark, one of these days, someone is going to show you up for the mean, manipulative son of a bitch that you are.”

Mark took another deep breath. “I don’t doubt it. Thank you, Harold. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a meeting. Did you want to see Matthew?”

“I’ve got a plane to catch,” Harold grumbled as Mark looked over the papers.

He snatched the set Mark handed back to him and stormed out of the room. Mark sighed, took a very deep breath, then went to meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopping only to call Jean Bouyer and ask her to keep an eye out for any potential statements from Harold.

June had her mind on only one thing as she slid out of the limousine outside of the family entrance to the White House – seeing her nephew. Which is why she didn’t see her oldest brother until he was almost, literally, on top of her. At first, Harold seemed angry, but he suddenly broke into a smile.

“June!  Long time no see.”  He held out his arms. “How about a hug for your big brother?”

June tried to back away, but with a whole crowd of West Wing employees and her own assistants standing around, she suddenly caved and gave Harold a quick embrace.

“Hey, Harold,” she said, choking back the sick feeling in her gut and quickly pushing away from him. “I’m so sorry. I’ve got to get upstairs.”

Harold held her for a second, then let go with a snort. “You know, it’s really sad how little respect I get from my own family.”

“I’m sorry, Harold,” June said over her shoulder as she hurried away.

Upstairs, she sent her assistants to their offices, then went on to her rooms and shut the door. She fought to get the sick feeling under control, but she still felt unclean and ugly, never mind that it was just a hug. And even then, she could have and should have simply refused. She knew she had the power to do that much. She should have. What was wrong with her that she kept giving him that much power over her?

June knew she should have reached for her phone, but unfortunately, she looked in the mirror. Fortunately, she remembered that moment very clearly. Five minutes later, she was all smiles and giving Matthew a big hug.

Episode 105 – Matt Arrives Safely

16.0810.whr_PullQuoteBy late Monday morning, however, such thoughts were rudely shoved aside by a call from Mark’s sister-in-law. He’d almost put the call off as his day was beyond packed with meetings and photo shoots with a major speech to deliver at the national American Medical Association convention early that evening. But something made him tell Kent to put Shawna through.

“Hey, Shawna, what’s up?” Mark asked, putting her on the speaker as he looked over emails on his tablet.

“Have you heard from Matt lately?” Shawna asked a little too casually.

“No,” Mark said, resisting the profound temptation to point out that she was the reason he hadn’t.

“Oh.”

Mark waited a moment. “Is everything okay with Matt?”

“He’s not at home. I thought maybe he tried to see you.”

“He’s not at home. Where is he?”

“If I knew do you think I’d be calling you?”

Mark groaned silently. “In other words, he’s missing. How long has he been gone?”

A text message from Sharon flashed on Mark’s screen. Mark pounded a quick text to Kent.

“He left a note Friday morning that he was going to stay at a friend’s house,” Shawna said as Sharon slipped into the Oval Office. “We haven’t seen him since then, but then the way he hides out in his room, we sometimes don’t. And Thursday night, he was playing with his basketball and broke the spy cam I put in his room.”

“A spy cam?  Shawna, why in heaven’s name, are you spying on him?”  Mark gritted his teeth.

“He defies me regularly. He has this friend Jasmine Thomas that no one knows who she is. And he had a secret email account. Who knows what else he’s been up to.”

“Knowing Matt, probably not much. Have you called the police?”

“I’m not going to do that!” Shawna screeched then got a hold of herself. “I know better than that, thank you very much.”

Mark looked up at Sharon, trying desperately to hold onto his temper.

“Shawna, I may have something. Can you hold for a moment?”

“I suppose.”

Mark punched the hold button on the phone then signaled Sharon.

“Sir, it’s about your nephew,” she said softly.

“Do you know where he is?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve just spoken to him. He’s here in DC. He called my niece first, and then me.”

“Bring him in.”

“Yes, sir.”  Sharon paused. “Can you call security then?”

“Will do.”  Mark again pounded out a quick note on his tablet, then hit the hold button on the phone as Sharon left the office. “Shawna, he’s here in Washington and it sounds like he’s safe.”

She sighed in relief. “Good.”

“One of my staff members is getting him. I don’t want to embarrass him by going myself. I’ll call you after I’ve talked to him.”

“Fine. Go ahead and undermine me again.”

“Shawna, I have bent over backward every time to support you, even when I’ve had a really hard time with that.”  Mark felt his temper flaring. “You want to be undermined, I will show you undermining. You put a freaking spy cam in his bedroom for no good reason that I can see. You have repeatedly isolated this kid from the people he most wants to hang with, and then you bitch at me because I want to be supportive?”

“I’m supposed to let him keep pestering you when you’re the high and mighty president?  And since when do you know anything about raising a teenager?”

“Apparently, I know more than you do since I’m the person he keeps running to when he’s had it up to his eyeballs with your repressive nonsense. But, hey, you’re his mother. I will respect that and put him on the first plane back to St. Paul. I won’t promise he’s going to stay there. But I will send him back because obviously, you know better.”

There was a click on the other end of the line. Shawna had hung up. Mark got up from his desk, took several deep breaths, then paced for a few minutes before he could get his focus back.

Sharon, for her part, hurried to the coffee shop/internet cafe where Matt said he was. Only about five blocks from the White House, it was a pretty typical place, with red bar stools lined along a counter and overstuffed sofas and chairs scattered about filled with patrons staring at laptops. Sharon looked around, searching for a teenager who, presumably, looked like the president. He found her first.

“Umm, Aunt Sharon?” asked the youth.

He had that lanky, rangy look many teen boys had, with deep green eyes like his uncle, although he was barely taller than Sharon. He had on a pair of khaki-colored cargo pants with a dark t-shirt and a plaid shirt over that, and the brittle veneer of false bravado.

“Matt?” Sharon asked back.

He nodded. “You sure look like Jodi.”

“And how would you know what Jodi looks like?” Sharon asked.

“Video chat.”  Matt’s face scrunched into a perplexed frown.

“Oh. Right.”  Sharon smiled, trying to look inviting. “Your uncle asked me to bring you in.”

Matt seemed to melt in front of her eyes.

Sharon scooped him into her arms. “It’s all right, Matt. You’re safe now. You’re safe.”

She held him for another minute until his shaking stopped.

“I am in so much trouble,” he sniffed.

“Yeah, probably,” Sharon said. “But let’s get you where we need to go. Where’s your stuff?”

“It’s all right here,” Matt said, disengaging. He held up his duffle bag.

“Good. Come on.”

“How mad is he?” Matt asked once they were on the street.

“Hard to say,” Sharon replied. “I mean he’s angry, but he was talking with your mother when I saw him.”

Matt strangled a sob. “Look, I had to leave. She put a spy cam in my room. Do you have any idea how embarrassing that is?  I couldn’t even change clothes in my own bedroom.”

“Sounds pretty horrible.”

“I don’t get it. I don’t do drugs. I don’t sleep around. I don’t get into fights. But it’s like she thinks I’m going to go off the rails at any second. And I’m not. I just don’t like the same people she does. Is that any reason to spy on me?”

Sharon sighed. “Of course not. But I’m not your mother.”

“Woh.”  Matt suddenly stopped.

They had passed the k-rails blocking Pennsylvania Avenue from the area in front of the White House and were walking along the black wrought iron fence that separated the sidewalk from the North lawn and portico. Sharon found herself smiling at Matt’s awe.

“That’s really it, isn’t it?” Matt said.

“Yep. It is.”

“Man, that is so beyond awesome.”  He grinned suddenly. “We’re going there, aren’t we?”

“Yeah.”

Matt suddenly paused. “I’m not sure what’s freaking me out more. That it’s the real White House or that my uncle is there waiting to kick my backside.”

Sharon patted his shoulder. “The White House part freaks us all out. As for your uncle and your backside, I can’t say he won’t, but I suspect he’ll at least be fair.”

“Fair?”  Matt shook his head. “Okay, more fair than my mom, but, seriously, have you ever gotten him pissed at you?  I mean really pissed?”

“Yes, and I just got pissed right back.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, but I don’t recommend it as a strategy.”  Sharon pushed him toward the guard station. “Now, let’s get it all over with.”

Security was waiting with Matt’s ID as they first passed the entrance booth on the White House driveway, then as they entered the West Wing. In fact, Sharon was a little startled to see Riff Butler waiting for them, with a file folder in his hands.

“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” said the imposing African American gentleman. “The President asked me to take young Mr. Jerguessen upstairs.”

“Then I’ll leave him in your hands, Agent Butler.”  Sharon turned to Matt. “Matt, this is Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, chief of security here at the White House. He’ll take you to your uncle.”

“Okay.”  Matt smiled weakly at Sharon. “Um, thanks for coming to get me.”

Sharon smiled. He was a nice kid. “You’re very welcome, Matt. Good luck.”

Mark was in a meeting with five senators from the Health, Education, and Labor Pensions Committee when Gen Flowers slipped into the room and whispered in his ear.

“Thank you,” he said to Gen and got up. “Stay seated everyone. I have to step out for a few minutes.”

“A photo opp?” sniggered Senator Janet Marley, who was well-known for sparring with Mark, although the two were friends.

Mark glared at her. “And you, more than most, know the value of that.”  He got his temper back under control as the others gaped in surprise. “I shouldn’t be gone for more than twenty minutes. I realize that’s not much time, but I want to see some progress on getting this bill ready. Are we clear?”

He didn’t wait for the others to murmur their assent before heading off to the private quarters.

Riff was waiting in the upstairs hall as Mark came up the stairs. “Sir, he’s in the room, as you requested. But if I may…?”

Mark took the file folder from Riff. “What is this?”

“Your nephew, sir. There is probably a good reason why he left.”  Riff hesitated. “We keep dossiers on all your relatives to prevent people from using them to exploit you.”

“And this is Matt’s?”  Mark opened the folder.

“The Senator and Mrs. Jerguessen’s, sir.”

Mark read over the report and whistled through his teeth. “This is not good.”

“No, sir. It is the recommendation of the Secret Service that your nephew not be returned to his parents.”

“Indeed.”  Mark looked up at Riff, closed the folder and tapped it. “While I can see how this poses a threat to Matt, I don’t see how returning him to his folks poses a threat to me.”

A slight hint of a smile flickered across Riff’s face. “I got to know him during the campaign, sir. And you did ask me to show some concern for the people around you.”

“Thanks.”

Riff stepped aside and Mark paused before entering the room where Matt was. The contents of the folder made it clear that things were worse with Shawna’s drinking than Mark had thought and possibly Matt knew, and Harold’s neglect was possibly a greater blessing than hurt. Still, Mark would need their permission for Matt to stay and he’d already snapped at Shawna.

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.