For Sharon, the upcoming do at the embassy was turning into more trouble than it was worth, in her opinion. Late Tuesday afternoon, June called her upstairs to the studio for a final fitting of the new dress, which Sharon only endured because she was able to keep reading emails on her Blackberry. Then there was the briefing with the President on Wednesday, not to mention coordinating with the State Department on several trips coming up in the next few months. Not to mention all the other things going on in the world that she had to stay on top of.
So Sharon felt no little irritation when June called her to the media prep room at five p.m. Wednesday to get ready for the embassy party.
“The party doesn’t start ’til seven, and we don’t want to be there before seven-thirty,” Sharon complained. “I don’t need two hours to get dressed.”
“Douglas Lee is going to do your hair and make up,” June explained. “All the other dates get done up. You should, too.”
“I can get done up in my office,” Sharon grumbled. “I don’t need fancy hair and make up.”
“Yes, you do. Now, come on. Even Paris Hilton can’t get Douglas Lee to do her hair.” June gently led Sharon from the office.
Lee, who was stick thin with a dark ring around his shaved head, was sympathetic to Sharon’s complaints and only stopped her from reading e-mail when he absolutely had to. Sharon, when she saw her hair curled and piled on top of her head and the make up job, had to concede that Lee had done a terrific job. She could only hope that Mark wouldn’t notice.
But, of course, Mark did. Fortunately, when he came to pick her up at her office, he saw her first from the hallway. If she had been lovely before in business wear, she was devastating all dressed up to go out. Mark took a deep calming breath before rapping at the office door. Even better, she seemed preoccupied.
“Looks like we might be in for a bumpy evening,” she said, standing then picking up a dark burgundy cloak that matched her mauve lace dress. “It just came over from State that Qui Cho and buddies from the Taiwan mission picked up invites for the party tonight.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s hope Dan’s there.”
“He should be,” Sharon glared at the flat red leather purse June had given her to carry. It was too small for much besides her ever-present Blackberry, an ID case and a lipstick. “I’ve got some notes so I can brief you in the car. Have you got your iPhone and do you want me buzzing you?”
“Of course. Are you ready?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Sharon smiled weakly. “I serve at the pleasure of the President.”
Mark smiled and offered his arm, although inwardly, he winced.
As the presidential limo arrived at the party, he got out first, spotted where the press cameras were and put himself between them and Sharon as he helped her out. The photographers shouted out, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” loudly and over and over again, but Mark ignored them as he walked Sharon into the embassy.
Beyond that, it was a pretty normal party, except that after going through the receiving line, Sharon and Mark separated pretty quickly. They had planned it that way, to allow Mark to work the room and Sharon to observe and send instant messages to him as she spotted various people who might want to talk to him. She also chatted with various dignitaries, stopping a couple times as Mark sent her a message, requesting more information than he could get from his iPhone while talking to someone.
But the third buzz puzzled her. First off, it came from Gloryhg. Then secondly, there was the message, itself: “Buffet’s got some seriously good sweet kimchee at the end. And the bulgogi is WLF!”
As she looked up, she realized that Mark was looking at her from the other end of the room. He winked and nodded at the buffet. Sharon wasn’t sure what WLF meant, but the bulgogi was very good, as was the sweet kimchee.
It was past nine when Mark nodded again and they said their good-byes. As they left the embassy, the photogs and others were waiting along the path from the door to the limo. Mark paused long enough to answer a few questions.
“Who’s your date tonight?” someone hollered.
“My world affairs advisor, Sharon Wheatly,” Mark answered, grinning.
“Miss Wheatly,” someone else hollered from the crowd. “Who are you wearing tonight?”
“What?” Sharon backed away as she felt her Blackberry buzz. “Excuse me for a second.”
Sure enough, there was a message from Gen Flowers. Sharon glanced around and Gen was near the car, smiling. The message answered the reporter’s question.
“Oh, my dress,” Sharon replied. “It’s an original from Ms. Jerguessen’s private collection.”
“Please keep in mind,” Mark interjected, “that Ms. Wheatly isn’t just my date. She’s here as part of the team, and has put in a full night of work.”
“Mr. President, can you tell us about your objectives with the South Koreans?” another reporter bellowed above the other hollers.
Mark went on to answer questions amid the flashes from the cameras, while Sharon smiled softly and stepped back. Unfortunately, someone else wanted to know who had done her make up and hair and Sharon couldn’t answer.
“He’s a friend of the president’s sister,” she said. “I don’t recall his name. I was finalizing the research for tonight at the time.”
“Ms. Wheatly, why mauve?” a reporter bellowed.
“I’m not answering questions about my dress.” Sharon answered and stepped back toward the limo. “This evening was about building our foreign relations, and that’s where my focus is, thank you very much.”
“And I think that will do it for tonight,” added Mark, stepping up and taking Sharon’s arm. “Thanks, everyone.”
And with that, he led Sharon to the limo and helped her in. Once the door was shut, Mark leaned back and laughed.
“Well,” he said. “Turns out you’re quite the media pro, after all.”
Sharon made a face. “Just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I want to.”
“Oh, come on. You had fun nailing them on the make-up questions.”
“No.” Sharon sighed. “Maybe a little. It’s just kinda ridiculous that I’m here as your aide and all they want to know is what lip gloss I’m using.”
“Well, you are my date.”
“As if that makes any difference. I was here to work as much as you were.”
“Well, you pulled it off.” Mark grinned and nudged her. “Looks like you had fun doing it, too.”
Sharon winced again. “Not really.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.”
Mark looked at her, puzzled. “No? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve been with women who really hate the attention and they get all stiff and you didn’t. In fact, you’re more like somebody who likes the attention.”
Sharon grimaced. “I don’t. I mean…” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”
Mark softened. “How?”
“It’s…” Sharon shrugged as she struggled to find the right words. “Okay. This is just between the two of us, right?”
“It’s not that I don’t like the attention. I’ve been getting it most of my life, and it could be a lot worse. It’s just….” Sharon swallowed. “I just feel so shallow. I hate that about myself. It’s like I’m lying or something. I don’t want to be obsessed with my looks or stuff like that, but that’s why people look at me. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about my brains and who I am as a person. But, yeah, it’s kinda cool that people think I’m good-looking.”
Mark laughed. “That doesn’t make you shallow.”
“Unless all the girls you grew up with were that shallow and all into who photographed them and they didn’t count as people unless they ended up in this tabloid or that.” Sharon shuddered. “I thought it was stupid then and I still think it’s stupid. And I hate it when I get caught up in it.”
Sharon sighed. “I’d rather not deal with it in the first place. Anyway, you wanted to compare notes?”
Mark nodded, smiling but wishing they were talking about anything but work. Sharon went over some of the information she’d gathered from various folks and Mark listened dutifully. When they got to Sharon’s townhouse, Mark walked her in and shut the front door.
“It’s a little late, but I can pull some dinner together,” she said.
“No, I’m pretty well stuffed from the party.” Mark paused. “And I’ve got to get back. Riff’s already annoyed that I came in with you.”
“I just wanted to say thank you and good night, like a good date.”
“I know we were working, but, well…”
Mark bent and kissed her mouth. Sharon lost her breath and longed both to wrap her arms around him and not let go and she longed to shove him away. And it was still over too soon.
“Good night,” Mark said and opened the door.
“Good night,” Sharon whispered. She closed the door behind him still trying to savor the feel of his lips on hers.
Mark bounded down the stoop, hoping that this working date thing might be working for him.