Sharon knew she was definitely more nervous as the guard escorted her from the guard house. Kent barely glanced at her from his desk, then pushed the intercom.
“Mr. President, Ms. Wheatly is here.”
“Please send her in.”
That raised Kent’s eyebrows, but he just glanced at Sharon and nodded toward the door.
He was alone in the office and standing behind his desk. Sharon tried not to gulp, but her insides were going again, only this time it had nothing to do with nerves.
“Hi,” Mark said softly.
There she was, this time in a dark gray dress. Her hair was up and her eyes, yes, her eyes were definitely a deep, rich brown.
“Hi,” she replied.
“Uh, please sit down.” He gestured to the couch, then waited for her to sit before sitting in the chair across from her.
“Thank you,” Sharon said.
“Well, about this job thing,” Mark started slowly, looking everywhere but at her.
“Yeah, about that.” Sharon sighed deeply.
“Yeah.” Mark swallowed. “I think we both know we have a little problem with that.”
Sharon nodded. “Without question.” She looked at him and the words came tumbling out. “Look, it’s not you. I mean, obviously, it’s you. But you, as a person, are not why I can’t do this. I don’t know if that makes sense.”
“I think so. You don’t want to date the boss.”
“Oh no. I don’t care about that.” Sharon flushed. “I’ve dated my boss before. It wasn’t any big deal and we broke up and worked together for another two years before I left. Everybody knew about it and nobody cared.”
“Only this time, it’s different.”
“Way different. You’re… It’s all this.” Sharon waved her hands to indicate the office. “I couldn’t take the publicity. It’s happened before. I’ve had my fifteen minutes and it was the worst time of my life, bar none. I never want to go through that again.”
Mark nodded, suddenly feeling very relieved. “I can understand that, I think. And you’ve got a point. Which has really put me on the horns of a dilemma. Ms. Wheatly, I need the work you can do. You are my top candidate several times over.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” Sharon blurted out. “Your personal advisors are almost all PhDs and older.”
“And not one of the folks I’ve been considering has your breadth of interest, your language skills, and most importantly, your sense of humor and your willingness to stand me down.”
“Mr. President, I can’t take this job!” Sharon squeaked, then fought to get control again. After all, she was a professional, an executive who had faced down CEOs all over the world. So what was it about this guy that had her acting like she was in high school all of a sudden?
“Yes, you can,” Mark said. “Because I don’t want you to get any publicity, either.”
Mark got up and started pacing. “I’m not sure how to say this. But I think it’s a fairly safe and objective observation that you are an attractive woman. And, as you have just pointed out, when an attractive woman gets around me, people tend to talk about it and she gets photographed and well, you know how it goes.”
“All too well.”
“Which is why putting you in the public eye would not be good. That kind of talk can be very hard on your credibility and I can’t have that in an advisor.”
“Which is why I can’t take the job.”
“That’s exactly why you need to.” Mark turned and grinned at her.
Sharon felt her mouth open and then close. “That makes no sense, whatsoever.”
Mark returned to his chair and leaned forward. “I’m laying the cards on the table, consequences be damned. There’s something going on here. You. Me. I can barely breathe, there’s so much electricity going on.”
“Me, either,” Sharon said softly.
“And obviously, there are some significant obstacles for both of us in terms of a personal relationship. For you, there’s the publicity. For me, well, let’s just say it’s a similar issue. But if we were working together, it would be out there. It would be public, true. But there would be witnesses that nothing is going on. We’re co-workers and nothing else. No story. And it will be very hard to sustain those kinds of rumors for any length of time.”
“I doubt that,” said Sharon.
Mark shrugged. “Maybe not. But without concrete evidence, it would be very hard for the media to keep it going.”
“Possibly.” Sharon felt herself weakening. “But, since the cards are on the table, what about a personal relationship? Is that definitely out?”
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t know.” Sharon winced. “I mean, I guess, this whole frisson thing between us. That’s sweet and romantic and all. But… I’m really messed up. There’s part of me that could easily do the whole romantic, falling in love thing. And I’d really want to, if it weren’t for the fact that this will not be an easy break up.”
Mark sighed. “I’m at least as messed up. I wasn’t joking during the debates when I said the last thing I was interested in was getting romantically involved while I was in office. This job is 24/7. It’s consuming like nothing else on the planet. I literally have to turn the lights out in the West Wing so folks will go home.” He paused. “But then you walked into my office, and if this is what a ton of bricks feels like, then, yeah, I got hit with them.” He looked at her. “I can’t do a relationship right now.”
“And I don’t want to risk it.” Sharon sighed. “The only thing worse would be giving you up.”
“I know.” Mark looked at her hopefully. “Think we can try to stay just friends for the next eight years?”
Sharon laughed sadly. “Do you honestly think that’s possible?”
He shrugged. “It’s possible. The work is pretty consuming, and I can’t imagine having that much time to, well, do the relationship thing, in the first place.”
“I suppose. And my Tante Berthilde always says if it’s going to last, no need to rush into it.”
“Fine. We’ll just take things really, really slowly and focus on keeping a platonic friendship between co-workers.” He stood. “So, you’ll take the job, then?”
She stood. “I guess so.”
He grinned. “Then, in the name of platonic friendship, let’s have some coffee.”
Sharon looked over at the credenza where the thermal pot was. “Ethiopian harrar?”
“Nope. Sumatran.” Mark showed her a white ceramic crock and popped open the seal.
Sharon sniffed the beans and sighed happily. “That’s Cecil’s work, all right.”
“Yep. I’ve got the burr grinder right here. And I’ve got to buzz Johnnie. Do you mind doing the grind? For French press?”
“No problem. Where’s your water?”
“There’s an instant heat kettle.” Mark went over to his desk and buzzed. “Johnnie, need you to come in with Ms. Wheatly’s paperwork, please. And bring your mug.”
Johnetta appeared moments later, then stepped back in shock as Sharon expertly operated the grinder.
“Perfect,” Mark said, readying the carafe with the special plunger attachment that would separate the coffee from the grounds. “Sumatran mandheling, Johnnie.”
“Sumatran? And you let Ms. Wheatly touch your grinder?” Johnnie said.
Mark paused, looking guilty. “Uh, kindred spirits on the coffee front.”
Sharon caught his eyes and nodded. Discretion was in order. Already.