Episode 122 – Roy Confronts Mark

That Sunday, the private quarters at the White House were all but overflowing. June had invited all of the Advisory Board, plus numerous other friends and acquaintances to celebrate and watch the fireworks over the Mall. Mark, unfortunately, had to make a couple speeches during the festivities, but Sharon was perfectly happy not to have him around. Still, he was safely ensconced in the private quarters well before dark. Sound from the Mall had been wired into the White House, and the group crowded onto the balconies overlooking the White House grounds and the adjacent Mall and Washington Monument as the first sparks whistled through the air.

Sharon also tried to keep an eye on June, who for her part, made a point of being here, there and everywhere to the point that no one could tell if she had eaten anything or not. Sharon debated talking to Karen about it, but Karen was hanging onto Hideo as if for dear life. Sharon sighed. Karen was trying to have fun, but the worry lines continued to crease her forehead for the rest of the evening.

Mark, for his part, smiled and chatted his way through the evening with only half an eye on Sharon, hoping that one of his closest friends, Roy Hodgkiss, wasn’t going to confront him about Sharon and his growing feelings for her. Unfortunately, Mark was more pre-occupied with his sister, at that moment. Which, naturally, was when Roy decided to pounce.

“She seems to be eating,” said Roy, an average-sized man with thinning light brown hair and blue eyes that remained piercing even behind his thick glasses.

“Yeah.” Mark sighed. “I saw her eating a couple of the mini corn dogs. But she’s still been pretty distant all day.” He shook his head. “At least, she seems to be having fun.”

“And you?” Roy asked.

“Mostly.” Mark smiled and waved at a friend from the Senate across the room. “If I weren’t so worried about June, I’d be having a great time.”

“That’s a tough one,” Roy replied. “Melody said if you want help with an intervention, she’ll be there.”

Mark chuckled in spite of himself. Roy’s wife Melody was not one of June’s favorite people.

“That’s our Mel,” Mark said. “Tell her I said thanks. We both know how the last one ended up. I think we’ll just have to let June work it out herself, dammit.”

“That’s the hard part,” Roy said. “But that’s why I’m here. You know you can call.”

“I do, indeed. Oh, and are we still on for lunch next week?”

“As always. I need to get away from the church politics.” Roy was a minister.

Mark laughed. Roy slid away to continue mingling as the night’s celebrations slowly ebbed. Eventually, Mark found himself alone in the room, except for the two staff members cleaning up. Mark tried to help, but they looked so distressed, he finally left them alone and went to bed.

Episode 121 – What’s Going On With George Watanabe?

As it turned out, trusting Kira was the right strategy. Not that George Watanabe tried to contact Karen. But the next day, he did issue a statement to the press that the girls were not with him and strongly hinted that Karen had kidnapped them. Karen braced herself for a visit from the FBI, but it never came. For whatever reason, George had decided not to actually make an official report.

“Which is probably just as well,” said Gus Guerrero, the media consultant member of the Advisory Board. He was a tallish man, with broad shoulders and a squarish face. His shiny black hair was just beginning to show gray at the temples, and there were a few crow’s feet around his dark brown eyes.

He, along with Sharon and Karen, was sulking in the Protocol-Free Zone, actually the basement bar in Sharon’s Georgetown townhouse that she was living in while her friend Carla did good works in Africa.

“As if trial by public opinion can’t hurt,” Karen grumbled.

“But your ex obviously can’t back it up,” Gus pointed out, “or he would have had the FBI breathing down your neck by now. This is clearly all for show.”

“The only problem is will the judge deciding this thing see that?” Sharon asked.

“It’s not just him,” Karen groaned. “Jean has gotten a boatload of requests for comments. I’ve even had a couple reporters watching my front door. It’s getting hard to work.”

“What I don’t get is why anyone would care,” Sharon said. “You’re simply an advisor, Karen. None of us is that high profile, even Gus.”

Gus shrugged as Sharon gently shoved him. “It’s possible the loyal opposition wants to make the boss look bad. Or it could work simply as a distraction.”

“Wait,” Sharon said, sitting up suddenly. “It is about making the boss look bad. Isn’t that what June said? She’s hinted before that someone was out to get him.”

“She seemed pretty certain she knew how George was getting the money for the custody fight,” Karen said. “But who would be crazy enough to attack us that way?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Gus replied. “Now, Karen, are you sure you haven’t bashed George in any way publicly?”

“Not even privately,” Karen grumbled. “It’s a waste of time. I may have complained a bit to Hideo, but he’s been pretty vocal that he hasn’t heard me bash George, never mind how tempting.”

“That’s good,” Gus said. “That seems to be the basis of George’s complaint – that you’ve poisoned the girls against him.”

“I can’t think of anybody who’s heard Karen bash George,” Sharon said, sucking on the olive that had been in her martini. “I certainly haven’t. I even got subpoenaed to say so.”

Karen pushed herself up from the bar. “Well, while I am still under legal limit, I’m going to head home. See you guys Sunday.”

“Sunday?” Sharon gasped.

“Fourth of July party at the White House,” Karen sing-songed. “Gotta get in the current time zone, girl.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. But Gus agreed that it was time for him to take off, as well.

Episode 120 – Karen Hears From Kira

Karen’s mobile phone let out a squeal from a Katy Perry tune.

“That’s Kira,” Karen said, studiously keeping her eyes on the Beltway traffic.

“Should I?” Sharon asked.

“May as well,” Karen said, obviously trying not to freak out.

Sharon dove for the phone sitting in a small well beneath the dashboard of Karen’s car.

“It’s an email,” Sharon said. “Do you want me to read it?”

Karen gritted her teeth. “I should probably pull over, but I can’t wait. Go ahead.”

“Hoo-kay.” Sharon swallowed. “It says, ‘Dear Mom; We’re safe and with a friend who’s over 18 and has Dad’s written permission to have us. Don’t want to say more, just in case. Love, Kira.’”

“Safe?” Karen gasped. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Sharon frowned and pulled out her own phone. “I’m not sure, but I’m willing to bet I know someone who does.”

“Jodi?” Karen asked.

“Yep.” Sharon dialed and put the phone on speaker.

“Uh, hi, Aunt Sharon,” came Jodi’s voice after a couple rings. It was filled with hesitation.

“Am I right in guessing that you know why I’m calling?” Sharon asked severely.

“I don’t know, specifically,” Jodi said.

“I see,” said Sharon. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Kira and Allie are, would you?”

“Um. I can’t say?”

“Really. And why not?”

“Um, because we need to give their mom plausible deniability. Makes it harder for their dad to say she kidnapped them?”

“I see.” Sharon waited.

“Uh, can I go now?” Jodi asked.

Sharon glanced over at Karen, who nodded. “Sure. But please keep me up to date on what you can’t say. Dr. Tanaka is worried.”

“I know. Thanks, Aunt Sharon.”

Sharon clicked off the call, then looked at Karen.

“Plausible deniability,” Karen grumbled. “I wonder whose bright idea was that?”

Sharon sighed. “If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say either Rebecca or Matt. But really, it could have been any of them.”

“So’s who’s the over-18 friend?”

“I have no idea.” Sharon glared at her phone. “I could try to find out.”

“No.” Karen shook her head, then flipped off a driver that had cut her off. “Sorry about that. Look. The girls are right. It’s better that I don’t know. I just have to trust them.”

Episode 119 – Sharon and Karen Pay a Sick Visit

The visit turned out to be relatively brief. Al Eddington, aka Warmonger, was the president’s military and intelligence advisor, one of the six full-time advisors on Mark Jerguessen’s full-time Advisory Board. The group worked together to keep the president on top of pretty much everything. The goal of the Board wasn’t to formulate policy – there were plenty of others who did that for him – but to act as a research group that he could turn to that wasn’t as hooked into the politics as most other advisors. Warmonger worked at home, partly because at age 70, he wanted to, and partly because he was a heavy smoker.

Unfortunately, his wife, Caroline, had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer.

“The prognosis isn’t good,” Caroline told Sharon and Karen that evening.

Her head was swathed in a colorful scarf – a sign of the chemotherapy. Thin plastic tubes adorned her nose, since she was also on an oxygen tank.

“How’s Al taking it?” Karen asked.

Caroline took a deep breath. “Total denial, but what do you expect?” She breathed again. “That’s his training.”

Sharon and Karen nodded. The three nattered on for a while longer, then Caroline sent the two others on their way. Warmonger, a tall man with gray hair and the utterly erect posture of a former member of the military, stopped them on the way to Karen’s car.

“I, uh,” he hesitated.

“It’s okay, Al,” said Karen.

“We’d do it for anybody,” said Sharon. “You are more important than just anybody.”

“I’m fine,” Al snarled, then softened. “As long as Caroline is happy. That’s what matters.”

“No kidding,” said Karen.

“Seriously, we are your servants,” Sharon said. “If there’s anything we can do, please let us know.”

“I will,” Al said.

In Karen’s car the two women rolled their eyes.

“You think he’s going to ask?” Sharon asked as Karen navigated their way around the Beltway to Sharon’s Georgetown townhouse.

“Are you crazy?” Karen said. “So not in this guy’s training.”

Sharon sighed. “I was hoping.”

“Nope,” Karen said. “We’re going to have to enlist another White guy. Maybe Eli.”

Eli Weatheral was the Advisory Board member overseeing environmental issues. Though technically a part-timer, Eli was closest to Al in age. The downside was that Eli was about as diametrically opposed to everything Al believed in as one person could get. Still, the two respected each other.

“Maybe,” Sharon said. “I hate feeling this helpless.”

Karen shrugged. “Get used to it. One thing you learn from popular culture is that it while it reflects the larger culture, it’s also constantly changing and leaving the dinosaurs behind. Al is going to be the way he is because that’s what he was taught to do. On the other hand, younger guys are learning to be more open about their feelings.” She sighed. “When they aren’t being taught to be knuckle-scraping Neanderthal frat boys.”

Episode 118 – The Girls go to L.A.

romance fiction, romantic fiction serialThe next morning, tension filled the small sedan. Hideo, a slight man with a stoop, dark hair, and a long narrow face, drove in complete silence. Sharon sat in back with Kira and Allie. Kira, who was 15, was just a hair taller than her mother but had her father’s square face and her hair cut very short in a defiant fade. Allie, not yet 13, looked more like her mother, with long straight hair and a stylish beret. The young girl filled the car with her nervous chatter, mostly about the past semester at school.

Kira, however, seemed the most calm of all. Sharon thought she looked resolute, or maybe even oddly confident, as if she had a secret (and she probably did) that would take care of everything.

She only broke down when it came time to leave her mother and pass through airport security. The terminal at National Airport was crowded with early morning commuters and tired tourists and the line for security ran back and forth several times.

“Mom, please don’t worry,” she told Karen as she held her mother tightly. “Seriously. It’s going to be okay.”

“Of course it is,” Karen said, trying not to cry. “You be good, now. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Allie burst into tears as she got her farewell hug and it took Kira’s cajoling to get her into the security line.

“Call me when you get to L.A.” Karen called.

The girls, flying as adults because they were too old for the airline’s children’s program, disappeared into the crowd. Sharon reached over and put her arm around Karen’s shoulders while Hideo held Karen from the other side. Karen, however, shook them both off.

“Let’s go,” she said, quietly. “Drop you at home, Sharon?”

“Nope.” Sharon held up her briefcase purse. “I’m going into the office. It’s been a week. Or close enough.”

“Do you mind taking the Metro?” Karen asked. “I’d rather let Hideo go on his own.”

“Sure,” said Sharon.

Hideo nodded and left for the parking garage, while Sharon and Karen walked slowly toward the Metro stop.

Sharon’s return to the office was greeted with quiet enthusiasm and repeated offers of concern that she was coming back too soon.

“I’m going to tell The Boss on you,” Eddie Cooper teased.

“Go ahead,” Sharon told him. “Like he’s going to cut short his trip just to make me stay home?”

Still, when the President called later that morning, Sharon spent several minutes reassuring him that her headache was gone and that she was getting extremely stir crazy at home.

“Seriously, I really need to get back to the office,” Sharon told Mark while scrolling through the list of emails on her laptop. “We’ve got all kinds of fun happening in Eastern Europe, it looks like Algeria has the gender thing going on again, and you did hear about the mayor of Sidney going rogue, didn’t you? The YouTube video is all over Facebook, according to Karen.”

“Silly me, I even clicked on it,” Mark sighed. “At least it’s not an issue for us. But do be aware that the European Union is getting fussy about our environmental practices again.”

“I’ve already heard. Did Raoul give you a solid briefing?”

“Yes. Good enough,” Mark grumbled. “I hate to say it, but you do a better job.”

“How’s the weather there in Portland?”

“Drizzling. It hasn’t stopped in three days. On the other hand, we did get out to the Willamette Valley. Tasted some amazing pinot noirs yesterday.”

“Sounds like fun. I’m sorry I’m not there. In any case, I can give you a more complete briefing tomorrow, if you like.”

Mark chuckled. “That would be good. And you will be receiving a few bottles for your cellar.”

“Sir, that’s not…”

“Eddie and the others are getting a few, too, so it is perfectly appropriate. I simply chose with your palate in mind. Have fun at the office.”

“Harumph.” Sharon grumbled outwardly and tried not to feel too happy about the wine coming in.

Of course, her conference with Karen early that afternoon about the viral video of the mayor of Sydney, Australia, disgracing himself while drunkenly dancing with a stripper brought Sharon back to earth quickly.

She and Karen looked at the image frozen on Karen’s laptop screen.

“You know,” Sharon said, frowning, “you really have to wonder what this guy was thinking.”

“Guys like him often say they weren’t,” said Karen. “The strongest theories are that it’s a fear of success reaction – they unconsciously shoot themselves in the foot to avoid facing their own success. Although with some of these guys, I think it’s that they feel invulnerable, that they can do anything and try to push the boundaries as far as they can to prove it.” She frowned at the image. “I’m smelling fear of success here.”

Sharon shrugged. “Possibly. I know we’ve got a Sydney trip coming up. I just can’t remember when.”

They were in Karen’s office, which was cramped, as all White House offices were, and minimally furnished with black and glass desk and pictures of Kira and Allie on the walls.

Karen’s mobile phone rang.

“It’s Kira,” she said, answering. “Hey, sweetie. How was the flight?…. Good. Can I speak to your dad?…. Oh.” Karen looked up at the four televisions on her office wall and quickly aimed a remote at one. “Well, it’s on the news. Still…. Um, okay. Can I speak to Allie, please?…. Hey, darling. I heard you had a nice fight…. Yeah, I know, honey. Go ahead with Ms. Barmwell and it will be all right…. Good. I’ll talk to you later. I love you, baby…. Hey, Kira…. Yeah, go ahead to the hospital and it will be okay…. Right, I love you, too. Bye.”

Karen swiped the phone off, her lips tightening.

“This does not sound good,” Sharon said.

“George didn’t make it to the airport to pick the girls up,” Karen said softly. “Kira said that there was a massive pile-up on one of the freeways and he had to stay at work, so he sent his secretary for them.” She gestured at one of the monitors. “As you can see, it’s on the news, so that part is legit.”

Sharon shook her head. “Still, you have to wonder.”

“Look, the girls are okay. That’s the important part.”

“You’re right.” Sharon glanced at her laptop. “Are we set on the Sydney thing?”

“Looks like.” Karen paused. “And in more fun news, Warmonger said that Caroline was finally up for visitors at the hospital. Want to go with me this evening?”

“Yeah, we really need to do that.” Sharon winced. “This does not sound fun, but maybe it will help you stop worrying about your girls.”

Karen snorted. “You are so not a parent. That being said, we do need to do the visiting the sick thing.”

Episode 117 – Karen Gets Some Bad News

romantic fiction, romance fiction, light romance, fiction serialUnfortunately, June’s brother was going to be out of reach – at least for Sharon – for the next few days. It wasn’t so much the edict that she not work, but that he was on another trip, this time to the Pacific Northwest, for an environmental action conference and an Internet conference. In fact, he wasn’t going to be back in Washington until the following Thursday, right before the Fourth of July holiday that Saturday.

So Sharon spent the next few days watching movies and mostly reading. She got some time in on her treadmill on Monday morning, but that afternoon, Karen Tanaka came by, shaking and in tears. Sharon opened her front door and let her distraught friend inside.

Karen was an average-sized woman, with a slim build, and shoulder-length glossy black hair. She was known for what the Washington elite considered trendy, but was merely more fashionably cut and somewhat more colorful than the usual black or navy suits. Her suit that afternoon was black, but she’d managed a bright red silk pocket square in the breast pocket.

“June said she’d fly down tonight,” Karen said without saying hello.

“What happened?” Sharon asked, leading Karen into the living room.

“The judge decided to uphold enforcing the visitation after all.” Karen swallowed, trying to keep control. “I’m not sure what happened. My lawyer told me, but I can’t figure it out. Something about the girls needing time with their father.”

“Do Kira and Allie know?”

Karen nodded. “That’s the worst of it. I was just at home telling them. Kira kept saying it would be okay. She wouldn’t say why, but she’s got something going on.”

“Crap. I wonder if it would be worth grilling Jodi and Tiffany.”

Karen gasped, then shook her head. “No. There is probably something up. And it’s scaring me to death. But you know what? I don’t think I want to know. Especially after Kira whispered to Allie about plausible deniability.”

Sharon looked everywhere around the living room, trying not to laugh. “That sounds like our girl.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Karen burst into tears. “I keep wondering how much worse can this get, and I keep trying to hold onto what you said when Matt ran away – about how the kids helped him get to caring adults safely. How are they going to do that this time?”

“Maybe Kira’s just resigned herself to spending time with her father.”

Karen gave Sharon The Look.

“Okay,” Sharon said. “Probably not. Do you want me to talk to her?”

“No. She’s got to pack tonight. The plane leaves really early tomorrow.”

“Tell you what. I’ll go to the airport with you.”

“Are you sure you’ll be well enough?”

“If I don’t get out from these four walls, I won’t be well enough for anything.”

Karen nodded. “Hideo’s going to drive us to the airport. We can pick you up. Five-thirty okay?”

“Should be. You gonna be okay?”

“No, but I’ll get through.” Karen got up quickly. “Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder.”

Episode 116

Romantic fiction serial, romance fiction, light romanceAt that moment, Matt bellowed hello from downstairs and came bounding up the stairs.

“Secret Service let me in,” he announced cheerfully, looking around the bedroom, his eyes lighting on the television set. “Is that your TV? Sweet.”

“Hi, to you, too, Matt,” Sharon said, chiding and chuckling at the same time.

“Hey, Aunt June, you’re here!” He bounded over and hugged his aunt, lifting her off her feet.

June yelped and laughed. “Okay, Matt. We get it. You’re a big boy now.”

“What? I can’t give my favorite aunt a big ol’ hug?” Matt teased. He started toward the bed where Sharon was, but sat down gently next to it. “I mean, I’d hug my second-favorite aunt, here, but you know, she’s got a concussion.”

Sharon sighed. “I’m not an invalid, folks!”

“Close enough,” teased Matt. “Hey, the Secret Service guy said they’re bringing lunch in a couple. Think they’re trying to make up for flattening you, Aunt Sharon?”

“Possibly,” Sharon said.

“Aunt June, you gonna stay and have lunch with us?”

“Can’t. I’ve got to go,” June said quickly.

“I thought you were going to spend the afternoon,” Sharon asked.

“Oh. Forgot to tell you. There’s a meeting in New York. In fact, I’d better take off now if I’m going to get there in time.”

“At least you get to go to work,” Sharon grumbled. “Have fun.”

“I’ll try,” June said. “I’ll call tomorrow to see how you’re getting on.”

She bustled out. Matt frowned at her as she left. He finally turned to Sharon.

“Something’s up,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

Matt got up and paced. “It’s Aunt June. It’s like she’s avoiding me or Uncle Mark or something. Especially around meal times. It’s like we’ll ask if she’s having dinner with us and all of a sudden she’s got to go to New York.”

“Have you talked to your uncle about it?”

“He just said there’s nothing we can do and to not bug her about food.”

Sharon nodded. “Yeah. That sounds about right.”

Matt looked at her. “Do you know what’s going on?”

“Not really,” Sharon said, fidgeting with a corner of the sheet. She debated briefly how much to say. “I can guess, but I don’t really know.”

“Uncle Mark looked pretty worried last night.”

“I’m sure he is.” Sharon looked down at her fingers. “Damn.”

Matt sat down next to her, anxiety rolling off him. “Aunt Sharon, what’s wrong with Aunt June?”

“It’s probably an eating disorder. I’m guessing anorexia. And she’s having a flare up. She’s probably eating some, which is how she’s fooling herself into believing she has it under control. But your uncle’s right. There isn’t much we can do. In fact, bugging her about it could make it worse. Intervention usually helps, but it has to be done the right way.”

“But anorexia, that can, like, kill you, can’t it?”

Sharon sighed. “I’m afraid it can. But June doesn’t look that sick yet. Given that anorexia usually starts in high school, and what your uncle said about it, I’m guessing she’s been through this before and gotten out of it.”

“But what if she doesn’t?”

“I’ll do the research and we’ll stage an intervention before then. I’ll even ask your uncle. He and your aunt are pretty close. He may even know what her triggers are and how we can overcome them.”

Matt nodded. “Maybe I should do some research, too.”

“Good idea. Just don’t get your hopes up. I’ve known other women with eating disorders and they’re tough to deal with. Ultimately, what June needs is professional help.”

“Then we’ll get her to it,” Matt said as his phone rang. “There’s Jodi. Wanna say hi?”

Smiling, Sharon took the phone and said hello to her niece. But in the back of her head, she couldn’t stop worrying about June.

Episode 115 – Sharon Convalesces

16-1201-whr_pullquoteThree days after the assassination attempt found Sharon safely tucked into bed in the Georgetown townhouse where she lived.

“You’re not exactly cooperating,” observed June Jerguessen, the President’s sister and Sharon’s close friend.

“I’m just so tired of being fussed over,” Sharon grumbled. “I wasn’t hurt that badly, for heaven’s sakes. And my headache is almost gone.”

“Almost,” smirked June.

She was a tall, willowy woman with the figure and face of a runway model. Her hair, light brown or dark blonde depending on one’s perspective, was growing out of its short cut. June usually went for a more natural, slightly tousled look, but Sharon thought that her hair seemed a little more tousled than normal. And there were definitely bags starting to form under June’s deep blue eyes.

“Okay,” Sharon said, keeping her observations to herself. “I get staying down until the headache is completely gone without meds. But your brother is insisting I stay down a full week and threatened to have the Secret Service cut off my Internet access if I didn’t stay offline.”

“He’s got a point about that. It’s not like he doesn’t know what a concussion can do, after playing football all through high school.”

“Well, all I’ve got to say is harrumph!” Sharon said. “The doctor in Columbia said I could ease back into work as soon as I felt like it, and whatshername, you know, the official gal at Bethesda pretty much said the same thing.”

“And the fact that you can’t remember her name says something right there,” June folded her thin arms across her small chest. “You almost always get people’s names.” She sighed. “Give it a couple more days, okay?”

“I suppose I should. But I am so bored!”

“Well, I have a pile of fluffy little mysteries for you to read, and Matt said he’d set up something or other so you can stream movies onto your TV.”

“Jodi’s going to talk him through the setup,” Sharon said. She sighed again. “I have no idea what movies are even out there.”

June pulled a piece of white paper from her purse. “Karen made you a list.”

“How’s she doing?”

June shrugged. “Okay, I guess. She’s on pins and needles with that hearing coming up Monday.”

“I thought that was just a formality.”

“They always are,” grumbled June. “And as soon as you assume that, you know what happens.”

Sharon sighed. “Too true.” She paused. “How are you doing?”

“Me? I’m fine.” And yet June said it way too quickly.

But Sharon didn’t get a chance to pursue it.

Episode 114 – Text Session

romance fiction, romantic fiction serialText session –

— Kira – we got news, but have to keep it on text.

— What up? Were you scared about your aunt?

— Totally. But our news – you don’t have to go to your dad’s.

— I know. They reversed the custody order. We did that chat.

— If it gets reversed back – you’re safe. Aunt Susan got your dad to okay taking you.

— It’s a secret, tho, so don’t tell anyone.

— How’d she do that?

— They met @ some fundraiser. He gave her a blank permission slip.

— You there?

— Yeah. That’s good news.

— But don’t tell anyone. We don’t want your dad fixing it.

— I won’t.

Episode 113 – Susan Meets George Watanabe

16-1102-whr_pullquoteIn the Orange County, California, home of her parents, Susan Wheatly’s good mood was quickly evaporating. It had been a good couple days. There was the usual rush of anxiety that she got right after accepting a choreography job, as she began to wonder how she was going to create a dance. And while the fear seemed somewhat more intense because she was now in a wheelchair, it felt a lot more normal than anything else in her life. Then there had been the horror of that afternoon, then the enormous relief that the far-away events hadn’t been an issue.

More annoying was the event she was getting ready for. It was a fundraising dinner celebrating a major addition to a local hospital. Susan’s brown hair and eyes reminded everyone of their mother, even though Susan had her father’s slimmer build. And some seriously developed arms, Susan noted with some disgust. She shifted her chair around and headed for the lift downstairs.

She was only going to the event as a favor to her friend Mira, and wouldn’t have been doing that much if it hadn’t been for her niece Jodi and her best friend Tiffany. The two girls had asked Susan to shelter their friends Kira and Allie Watanabe if they ran away to avoid staying with their father.

“Harboring runaways? I don’t think so,” Susan had told Jodi and Tiffany the week before. “That’s insanely illegal, and you have no idea how much trouble Sarah got our parents into when she tried hiding a friend at their place.”

“But, Aunt Susan, we’ve gotta do something,” Jodi pleaded.

Susan had said she’d think about it, and then Mira called, also pleading and begging for Susan to show.

“It’s turning into the fundraiser from hell,” Mira had complained. “Just today, George Watanabe, head of emergency medicine at County/USC? He not only decides to get involved, he makes this mondo donation and want his name in the program and they’re already printed! I hear he only made the donation because he needs to look good because he’s suing his ex for custody.”

Susan pondered the odds that there were multiple Watanabe’s suing their exes for custody in Southern California and decided it was worth the risk and agreed to Mira’s request.

Susan checked her mobile phone for the time. The car service was due at any second. She hoped she could check Watanabe out (assuming he was Kira and Allie’s father) and leave the dinner before the evening got too drawn out.

It was a standard hotel fundraiser. Although Susan did note there were several others in wheelchairs there, including one guy from her rehab facility who looked like he was still trying to score with her. Susan made a point of avoiding him.

She found Dr. Watanabe almost by accident when he backed into her to avoid a waiter rushing dirty dishes back to the kitchen. He was of medium height, built solidly with a square face and coal black hair. Susan introduced herself and he smiled with interest. It wasn’t a leer, but darned close.

“Watanabe,” Susan said slowly. “You wouldn’t happen to be related to Kira and Allie Watanabe, would you?”

“My daughters,” he grunted, the interest evaporating immediately. “Why?”

“My niece Jodi is friends with them. I understand they’re coming out this summer.”

“At some point, yes.”

Susan smiled. “It’d be great if we could set up some time for the kids to get together. Maybe do a sleep over or something.”

“It would, but I don’t know when they’re going to be here. My ex is being a bitch about it.”

“Well, I could email you.”

“I don’t have time for that.” Watanabe glared for a second, then dug out his prescription pad from his suit and a pen. “Tell you what. I’ll write up the permission now and you let my secretary know when you want the girls.”

He leaned over her to write on a nearby table, whipped the paper off the pad, and handed it to her, his eyes already sweeping the room and lighting on a tall blonde near the podium.

“My number’s on the pad,” he said and stalked off.

Susan looked down at the paper. Sure enough, he had granted her permission to take the girls and had not specified when or for how long. Susan wasn’t sure if she was elated or appalled. But she carefully put the paper in her purse, went to find Mira, and left the party the very second she could.

Jodi was thrilled to get the text. Susan still winced. How could anyone be so casual about where their kids went while spending huge amounts of money to get custody of them? Jodi had said the custody suit was more about Watanabe being angry at his ex. Susan shook her head. It certainly seemed that way.