It was a full day’s ride out to the village, and it was almost dark by the time the group arrived. The villagers had prepared a welcoming party with dancing and music around a roaring fire. There was a small banquet and Michael took great pains to explain to the reporters and the President’s party that because of the new well, the villagers were able to grow enough food to host the party.
After that, the party grew relaxed and noisy. Sharon noticed that Mark had slipped away. She found him at the edge of the huts, gazing into the night sky.
“It’s usually me who takes off for a breather,” she said, quietly.
Mark turned his head to look at her, then shrugged. “I suppose we should change it up occasionally. Besides, I had some business to do.”
“Oh, dear.” Sharon backed away. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“I’m done.” Mark’s gaze went back to the sky. “I was just appreciating the quiet for a moment.”
Sharon waited for a moment. “Are we okay?”
“I don’t know. It’s been a rocky week.” Mark glanced back at her, then sighed. “I just can’t help wondering what else you haven’t told me in the cause of plausible deniability.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“The worst of it is, I know damn well Warmonger has been playing that game with me, and I made it clear from the start that I don’t want anyone hiding stuff or whatever for any reason, especially that one.”
Sharon frowned. “You did? I don’t recall you saying anything about that.”
“I did. At the very first Advisory Board meeting.” Mark stopped. “Which you weren’t at.”
“Still, I suppose I could have figured it out that’s not your style.” Sharon said. She took a deep breath. “The irony is, I have a terrible time getting some of my CIA contacts to tell me things because they know I’ll turn right around and tell you. Makes it damned hard to get you good information.”
“I’ve got to trust you, Sharon,” Mark said.
“I know. I didn’t think I was breaking faith. But I’m sure that doesn’t help.”
It was Mark’s turn to frown. “It does and it doesn’t.”
“So what do we do if something similar comes up, where the only way I can get the right intel is to give you plausible deniability?”
“I can’t imagine…” Mark shook his head. “You know what? It’s going to happen again. Silly me. I keep thinking I’m in control of this game.”
“You are, at least in terms of the big picture. It’s some of the minor skirmishes that are the issue.” Sharon walked a little closer. “I think the idea will be to let you know there’s something going on along those lines and see if you think it’s dire enough that it’s worth playing along.”
“That’s reasonable. I hate it, but it’s reasonable.”
“And now that I know the policy, I promise not to make those kinds of decisions without checking in with you, first.”
“Thanks.” Mark smiled softly at her. Once again, he felt his breath catch at the sight of her, her brown eyes glistening in the starlight, her voice soft and low. He looked up again, not wanting to feel what he was feeling. “It’s something else out here, isn’t it?”
“It’s beautiful.” Sharon smiled. “It’s my first time out in the bush. It’s austere, but it is gorgeous.”
Music and laughter roared from the fire ring. Sharon looked back at the group.
“Um, I don’t know if I should be asking this, but…” She bit her lower lip. “Things have been pretty tense between you and my brother. Did he say something?”
“No, he hasn’t.” Mark ducked his head. “That may have been my fault. I just got this vibe that he was going to go all protective on me and I probably over-reacted.”
Sharon shot a quick glare back at the fire. “Hm. He didn’t exactly under-react. I think I’ve got an older brother to thump.”
“We’d better get back,” Mark said suddenly. “And, uh, I’m glad we had this chat. I feel better.”
Sharon nodded, smiling softly to herself and Mark strode back to the party. Even as she was glad he’d pulled away at that moment, having him so distant had felt even worse. She didn’t need either feeling. She lingered a few minutes longer and was just about to turn back to the party when she heard someone coming toward her.