Episode 181 – Disaster in Italy

The Europe trip was one of the longer trips the President had made. The goal was to develop a series of cooperative measures on the climate, trade and technology protocols. The five capital cities that had been selected were based on their friendliness to the U.S., so it looked like it was going to be a fairly relaxed trip.

However, the party’s first night in Rome proved otherwise, even though it shouldn’t have. One of June’s friends, an American model named Nina Collodi, whose uncle was the Italian Foreign Minister, had seemed the ideal date for that evening. Nina had served as Mark’s date fairly regularly back in the States, so she knew what to expect. In addition, her Italian was as flawless as any other native’s, since she’d learned it from her parents, who had emigrated to the U.S. before she was born.

Collodi met the Presidential party during their first morning in Rome. She was tall, olive-skinned, with stunning shiny black hair. Sharon made a point of briefing Collodi, but, as a result, missed what should have been a minor meeting between Italian Foreign Ministry and U.S. State Department staff members.

Which was why, many hours later, when Sharon, Yesmenia and June were enjoying a huge bowl of spaghetti, Sharon got a text and gasped.

“We’ve got a problem,” she announced.

“Why? What?” Yesmenia asked.

“If I’m reading this right, the Transportation Minister took offense that Nina is Signor Montefiori’s niece,” Sharon answered.

“Why would he?” asked Yesmenia. “Even their president seemed pretty proud of Nina.”

“Signor Roscano is about to be indicted,” Sharon replied.

“This is Italy,” June said, slurping a last strand of pasta. “Someone’s always about to be indicted.”

“Yeah, but apparently, it just came out today that the indictment is over some pretty egregious nepotism on Roscano’s part,” said Sharon, glaring at her Blackberry. “Why didn’t I know about this?”

Yesmenia sighed as she picked up her purse. “Possibly the same reason I didn’t. We were doing something else when the news broke.”

“If it broke,” grumbled Sharon, texting as fast as she could. “I’d better head back to the hotel.” Her phone buzzed. “Wait. Raul says he’d heard a hint of the issue during today’s meeting that I missed because I was briefing Nina.”

June frowned. “Is it my imagination, or does that sound he’s blaming you for missing the meeting?”

“Raul always sounds like he’s blaming someone for something,” Sharon said, still glaring at her phone. “Your brother is not going to be happy.”

June shrugged and looked at Yesmenia. “Why don’t we go soothe his feathers and leave Sharon to soothe the Italians’?”

“Best thing we can do,” said Yesmenia.

“I’ve got a staffer to rake over the coals first,” said Sharon.

But as she got up to go, her phone rang and she began speaking rapidly in Italian.

Back at the hotel, she glared at Raul.

“It was just a hint,” said the tall, balding man with the dour face. “This is Italy. Someone is always being indicted for something.”

“Raul, you know better than to take that attitude,” Sharon said.

“But none of the Italian population cares, not even the rest of the cabinet,” Raul said.

“Well, if you’re the one being indicted, you care. And you know damn well, the problem isn’t whether it’s a significant issue or not. It’s about how we appear to the rest of the world, and the last thing we can afford, especially after the last administration, is to appear as if we’re insensitive.” Sharon paced for a few minutes, then looked over the upcoming schedule on her laptop. “I’m going to have to send you home. Randy can take over for you here.”

“That’s my job,” Raul said, stopping just short of whining.

“And you didn’t do it,” Sharon said. “Furthermore, Raul, if you blow it one more time, I will have to fire you, I don’t care how good your contacts are. And, yes, this is a formal notification. I’ve already emailed Human Resources. Are we clear?”

Raul sniffed.

“Are we clear?” Sharon repeated.

“Yes, we are.” Raul turned and stalked off.

Sharon gathered herself together and made her way to the suite where Mark was staying.

“Well?” he asked as Sharon entered.

Sharon looked around the room. Yesmenia, June, the president’s official personal assistant Gen Flowers, the Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Barker, and speechwriter Calvin Whitecross were scattered about the sitting area, looking at her expectantly.


“Prime Minister Dellacandro laughed. She thinks the whole thing is hysterical,” Sharon said. “Signor Roscano has been mollified.”

“What did you tell him?” Mark asked.

Sharon looked a little guilty. “That is was Signor Montefiori’s idea that we have his niece accompany you, which it partly was. Montefiori is already angry with Roscano for making a fuss, and grossly offended that we would have passed over his niece just because Roscano’s about to be indicted. So, per Signora Dellacandro’s suggestion, I’m letting them fight it out.”

Mark suddenly laughed. “Seriously? Can we afford to do that?”

“I think so. Signor Montefiori was claiming credit for you having Nina with you, in the first place. So we can go with that. If it makes things difficult for him in the face of Roscano’s legal troubles, that’s essentially his problem. We can’t be responsible for their in-fighting, especially if one of them is claiming responsibility for Nina. And nothing has been officially announced. The rumor about the indictment only got out today, and this has been in the works for some time. We can claim some unfortunate timing, say we’re sorry that it hurt Signor Roscano’s feelings, and emphasize that we want to continue our good relations with the country of Italy.”

Yesmenia was typing furiously on her laptop. “The timing was way bad, but we don’t want to apologize if it’s not our fault. Why don’t we say that we regret that the timing of Ms. Collodi’s appearance turned out to be so awkward?”

Mark looked at Sharon. “Ms. Wheatly?”

“Perfect,” said Sharon.

Mark sank back in his chair and chuckled. “This was supposed to be the easy trip.”

“It may yet be,” Sharon said. “I, uh, had to send Raul home.”

“Good,” said Terry, a tall, blonde man. “He is such a pain in the butt.”

“But that does mean I’m a little short-staffed, since I’ll only have Randy,” Sharon said.

“Have your assistant fly out tonight,” Mark said. “I’ll call State and have them bring over a couple translators for her.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Sharon said. “I’d rather have Randy interfacing with the Europeans. That way, Julie can stay focused on keeping me on task. Besides, her French is actually very good, and after Berlin, we have Brussels and Paris, so we’ll be good there.”

“All right,” said Mark standing up. “Then let’s get rolling so we can get some sleep. Tomorrow is another long day.”

Episode 180 – Getting Ready for Europe

Romantic fiction serial,

Back in the Oval Office, Mark was taking a meeting with White House Head of Operations Marian Jefferson. She was not an imposing woman, about average size, with light coffee skin and dark gray hair cut even with her chin and parted on the side. Mark often wondered how she managed to work her magic, because she was a genius at quelling turf wars, goading reluctant department heads into trying something new, and re-organizing an office’s work-flow for greater productivity. Her one weakness, which she readily admitted, was dealing with the creative and intuitive personalities of the advisory group.

“They are the most productive group in the White House,” Mark pointed out. “If they weren’t, I’d have you raking them over the coals.”

“I wouldn’t do that, sir,” Marian replied. “But there are times when I cannot make exceptions, and the weekly group heads meeting is very important to keep everybody up to date.”

“And the advisory group would argue that they not only already know what everyone else is working on, they’re way ahead of them.”

Marian sighed. “And I know they are. However, it is getting harder and harder to get Mr. Llewellyn to the meeting and he most needs to be there.

Earl Llewellyn was the head of the Budget Office, and while an expert at budgeting and crunching numbers, he was also rather famously anti-social and prone to seeing everything from his own peculiar perspective, then acting shocked and insulted when someone didn’t.

“And not having the advisory group represented just makes it easier for him to skip,” Mark nodded. “All right. You’ve got a point. I’ll get a couple reps from the advisory group.”

Marian thanked him and was dismissed. Mark checked in with Riff Butler and found out that Rose had well and truly left the White House and was on her way to the airport. And there was another tidbit of news, as well.

Mark called Sharon in for a briefing later that afternoon.

“Some of the other group heads are complaining that the advisory group is not represented at the weekly group heads meeting,” Mark told her apologetically.

“Oh, no,” Sharon groaned. “Let me guess. You want me to start showing?”

“You and Johnny Whitesand are the most diplomatic. And Eddie just isn’t around often enough.”

“Plus he and Earl Llewellyn are a match made in Hell.” Sharon closed her eyes and grimaced. “All right. I’ll do it.”

“And one other fun thing before we get down to business.” Mark hesitated a moment. “I heard my mother dropped by your office for a visit this morning.”

Sharon chuckled grimly. “Yeah. No surprise, she was not thrilled by Saturday night, but seemed to have appreciated the brinkmanship. She still warned me off you. Said she was protecting her son.”

Mark nodded. “What did you say?”

“That it was pointless since I didn’t particularly want to hook up with you, but if she wanted to protect you from me, she could.”

“You what?” Mark laughed. “Good for you.”

“It did seem to throw her off-stride,” Sharon said, fidgeting with her laptop. “Of course, she also pointed out that I don’t want her as an enemy.”

“You don’t.” Mark sighed. “She can cause some pretty nasty trouble.” He paused, debating whether he should say more. “In any case, you said the right thing. I mean other women have denied being interested in me and she hasn’t believed it. But I don’t think anyone has given her permission to protect me anyway.”

“I just hope I haven’t made things worse for you,” Sharon said.

Mark again debated saying more, but decided to hold off. “I doubt you have. It’s a long story, but you’re fine. Don’t worry.”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Good. I also have a briefing for you. We leave on Wednesday for Rome and the Western European tour.”

“Already?” Mark sighed and looked at the laptop on the coffee table, with the buzzing iPhone next to it. “I was hoping to be further ahead than this before we left.”

Sharon nodded and opened her laptop.

Two hours later, she fretted as she sat in the huge conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. She sat toward the back, trying to unobtrusively check her email and answer text messages while Earl Llewellyn droned on about his latest budget discovery. He was a tall, scrawny man, whose head was balding, but whose remaining dark gray hair looked remarkably unkempt.

“Any questions?” he asked, glaring as if he dared anyone to comment.

Sharon frowned. “Mr. Llewellyn, do you have Dr. Cooper’s updated figures?”

He sniffed haughtily. “My figures are perfectly up to date.”

Sharon flashed a weak smile, debated challenging him since she was looking at the more up-to-date figures on her laptop, then decided to let it go and have Eddie email the updates to Llewellyn.

As they finally left the board room, Message Director Yesmenia Alvarez came up to her, giggling.

“Looks like you just made an enemy,” she said.

“Oh, crud,” sighed Sharon. “I seem to be doing a lot of that today.”

“Don’t worry about Screwy Llewy,” Yesmenia said with a wink.

“What?”

“That’s what we call him behind his back. Trust me, even his team hates him. But he’s really good at what he does. When he has the right data.”

“I got that.”

Yesmenia grimaced. “Too bad you can’t fire someone for being a jerk.”

“Yeah. I’ve got a problem like that in my office, too.” Sharon looked down the hall, then at Yesmenia. “Are you ready for Wednesday?”

“The big Europe trip?” Yesmenia all but bounced up and down. “I can’t wait. And, hey, you and I have a night off in Rome.”

“That’s right. Nina Collodi pulled duty.” Sharon looked thoughtful.

“And I know an awesome little trattoria not far from the Coliseum.”

“I know plenty of awesome little trattorie all over Rome.” Sharon grinned. “I guess we’re just going to have to do the trattoria smack down that night.”

“Woo-hoo!” Yesmenia squeaked. “We are going to have so much fun.”

“Listen, I’ve got to get back to work. All that last minute stuff. Not to mention the rest of the world to keep track of.”

Yesmenia laughed and Sharon hurried back to her office in the West Wing.

Episode 179 – Rose’s Visist

That Wednesday, with great fanfare, Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller arrived at the White House. Mark made a point of doing the photo op with her, but as soon as he’d shown her up to the Lincoln Bedroom, he quietly told her that he had a lot to do and probably would not have a lot of time for her. Rose sniffed at that, but inwardly, she was pleased. More room for her own agenda.

Her first stop was the East Wing offices, where she was quite pleased to meet Major Wills, the chief usher. The smallish Southern gentleman and former Marine was as malleable as clay.

Sharon had no idea of what was coming that Thursday afternoon. The first storm hit with an angry phone call from Solly, the White House Chef.

“That Major Goop, he is on my last nerve again,” Solly complained. “He comes in here, all in my face, telling me there’s a new menu for Saturday night. One the president’s mother came up with. He’s got pate de foie gras on here. You can’t serve that to teenagers.”

“You can’t serve that period,” Sharon said. “The animal rights people will be all over it. What’s on the rest of it?”

“I just emailed it to you. I don’t know where I’m going to get some of these ingredients.”

“It’s here.” Sharon glared at her laptop screen. “Veal marsala? Good lord, I’ve got three vegans coming.”

“He said it came directly from the president’s mother, and you know how he hates it that your office gets last word on things like this.”

“And things like this menu are precisely why my office does.” Sharon closed her eyes and thought. “Look, Solly, hang on. I’m going to check in with Holly and see what we can do about this.”

Holly Damiano was the East Wing Events Coordinator. Her job was to oversee any dinners, receptions, performances, whatever, that happened at the White House. She, too, had occasionally butted heads with Major Wills, but usually deferred to him. As Sharon hung up with the chef, Holly, an average-size brunette with some healthy padding, slid into Sharon’s office.

“What, in Heaven’s name, is going on?” Holly demanded as she flopped into the chair next to Sharon’s desk. “I thought we had Saturday all worked out.”

“We did,” said Sharon. “What’s going on at your end?”

“The president’s mother wants everything re-done. She couldn’t change the guest list, but she re-did the seating arrangements. We’re now having a sit-down dinner instead of a buffet. Major Wills has already signed the Marine orchestra to play.”

“What? We have a contract with Kid Casey for the entertainment.”

“Well, Mrs. Miller has decided that’s too raucous. An orchestra is more appropriate for an ambassador’s reception.”

“That’s exactly what Ambassador Bruchner didn’t want. And we have a signed contract with Kid Casey. You can’t bag on a signed contract.” Sharon put her head in her hands.

“Should we talk to the president?”

“No!” Sharon tried not to sound as desperate as she felt. She had talked with June right after June had left for New York. June had strongly suggested that her brother was probably not feeling any particular warmth for their mother at that time. “All right. Let’s think about this. There has to be a way we can let her think we’re doing things her way, then do an end run that will keep the teens happy. Best of both worlds, right?”

Holly looked a little skeptical, but nodded.

And Sharon and Holly did work out a plan. Sharon had to call her brother, Michael, and ask him to help, but since he was friends with Deshawn Colley’s parents, Leon (aka rapper Big Dog) and Shireen, and since they had arranged for Deshawn’s older brother Kid Casey to entertain, it made life easier. Somewhat.

Sharon and Holly did eventually brief the president, who gave them permission to do as they saw fit. Mark, for his part, was impressed by the effort to keep the party on track while keeping his mother happy. He was about to tell Sharon that it didn’t matter when he remembered that Holly was also present and not as intimately familiar with the problems in his family.

The night of the party, Matt got tasked with keeping his grandmother busy until the party started and she couldn’t change anything. She had made one sweep of the State Dining Room before Matt took over. That gave Holly just enough time to re-do the seating arrangements, even though it was still a sit-down dinner. Michael and Inez arrived early. They had dropped Toby off to spend the night with Susan, which Sharon had to assume had more to do with Toby’s recent crush on the president than keeping Susan company. Leon and Shireen Colley showed up with their son Douglas, better known as Kid Casey, shortly after.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Sharon hissed at her brother.

“Got it wired, sis.” Michael said, as he squired Douglas to the backstage area of the East Room.

Shireen Colley, a generously-proportioned woman with a gap in her front teeth, patted Sharon’s arm.

“It is so wired,” Shireen said. “You don’t have a thing to worry about.”

Five minutes later, the president and his mother came down to the Blue Room, where the guests would be received and hors d’oeuvres passed.

Most of the hors d’oeuvres were based on Rose’s menu. But Solly had snuck in a couple more teen-friendly items, such as fried mac and cheese balls and miniature cheeseburgers. If the president’s mother noticed, Sharon couldn’t tell. Holly slid into the Blue Room and nodded at Sharon. The seating plan had been re-arranged.

Sharon held her breath as the party filtered into the State Dining Room. Karsa had originally been seated with the president and Ambassador Bruchner, a small but stout man with dark blond hair. She had hung close to her father during the hors d’oeuvres, even as Matt and Jodi had tried to engage the girl, who had a rounded figure, long blonde hair and horned-rim glasses. Jodi had some success because she did speak some German. In the dining room, Karsa found herself seated with Matt, Jodi, and the rest of their friends. The adults, including the president and his mother, Ambassador Bruchner, Sharon, Michael and Inez, and Leon and Shireen Colley, along with Karen Tanaka and Hideo Matsumoto, and the Coopers, were at another table altogether. What Sharon hoped Mrs. Jergeussen didn’t notice was that their table was getting mostly her menu, while the teens were offered the original menu.

The other teens, mostly kids from several local schools, didn’t really seem to notice Karsa or even Matt and his crew. They chatted in nervous knots as classical music, from the Marine Corps orchestra, was piped in. Sharon was gratified to notice that the table where Karsa, Matt, Jodi and Tiffany, and the others were was the most animated in the room. Better yet, Karsa seemed to be smiling and enjoying herself.

As dinner ended, the group was shuffled to the East Room, where chairs and a stage had been set up with the Marine Corps Orchestra sitting on it. Most of the teens saw it and groaned audibly. But as soon as they got settled, the conductor came on and the music he started was to a very modern, pulsing beat. Michael winked at Sharon. A second later, Kid Casey came on, rapping and even singing along with the orchestra. The teens were on their feet, especially Karsa. Matt, Tony Garces and Paul Marley were all nudging and otherwise teasing Deshawn Colley.

The concert lasted just long enough. Most of the teens filtered out, but Karsa and Matt and their friends lingered. Senator Marley, who had shown up just in time for the finale, was smiling as her son Paul hunkered down with the other youngsters.

“He’s having the time of his life,” Janet said, grinning.

“Ja,” said Ambassador Bruchner. “So is Karsa.”

Karsa and Jodi came running up, both babbling in German. Ambassador Bruchner responded and the two went running back to the others waiting.

“They want to go to the American History Museum tomorrow,” he announced, happily.

“They do?” asked Michael. “How do we make that happen?”

Sharon laughed. “Don’t stress, big brother. They probably have it all worked out. In fact, I think the expedition was already in the works before tonight.”

“They’re pretty independent,” Mark interjected. “I’ll double check later, but I’m pretty sure they’ve worked all the details out.”

Michael glared at his sister. “Sharon, were you aware this sort of thing was going on?”

“Yes,” said Sharon. “And I’m insanely proud of Jodi. She’s managing beautifully. They’re good, responsible kids. And come on, Michel. How many teens do you know want to hang out at the American History Museum?”

Michael glanced over at the group, which while tightly grouped together, still had fallen into smaller sub-groups which were all animatedly discussing something or other.

Rose wandered up, followed by Karen and Hideo.

“Ah, Mrs. Jerguessen!,” said Ambassador Bruchner, stepping forward and bowing. “This has been the most delightful evening. Having an orchestra with the young rapper. What a wonderful idea.”

Sharon smiled. “We couldn’t have done it without Mrs. Jerguessen’s help. She was quite an inspiration.”

Fortunately, Mark was standing behind his mother. Sharon could see the puzzled frown on his face.

“Miss Wheatly gives me far too much credit,” Rose said, smiling also. But Sharon was pretty sure she saw some significant frost in her eyes.

The next day, Mark extended an invitation to his mother to attend church services together, which she accepted. Matt had chosen to sleep in and then go straight to meet his friends at the American History Museum. Rose maintained a frosty silence when they were in the car.

However, on the way back to the White House after services, Rose shifted.

“If I were to report some insubordination on the part of your staff, I don’t suppose you’d do anything about it,” she sniffed suddenly.

Mark paused. “What happened?”

“I was humiliated,” Rose said. “Here I was, trying to help facilitate a proper ambassadorial reception, and your staff completely changed my menu behind my back, re-arranged the seats. And that ridiculous concert. What an affront to our German friends.”

Mark briefly debated telling her that his staff had bent over backwards not to humiliate her, not to mention that one of them even complimented her, never mind that the last minute changes had made life difficult for everyone. It would do no good and he was past fighting with her. Or so he liked to think.

“I’ll look into it,” he said. “And the appropriate staffers will be disciplined.”

“Hmph.” Rose was clearly not satisfied. “You might want to start with that little Wheatly bitch.”

Mark smiled, trying to cover the ice in his gut. He suddenly knew what his mother was really fishing for. He didn’t dare protest too much or too little.

“I said I’ll look into it,” he answered and glared out the window.

Fortunately, they pulled up to the White House. Rose went to her room. Mark went to his study, paced for a few moments, then made a phone call.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Sharon’s voice answered. “How can I help you?”

Mark took a deep breath. “I just thought I’d better warn you, my mother was not happy about last night.”

“Well, we didn’t think she’d be entirely,” Sharon said.

“Except that she just strongly hinted that I fire you. Not that I’m going to.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Perhaps. I did say that it wasn’t worth trying to work around her.”

“I know. But not trying wasn’t going to make things any better. And I feel better that we at least tried.”

“We’ll go with that, then.” Mark sighed. “And, uh, don’t stress if she happens to say anything to you about the event.”

“Thanks for reassuring me.” Sharon paused. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No. Thanks.” He hung up.

Sharon looked at the phone, feeling vaguely disgusted with herself. Mark had sounded so down that she’d wanted to chat a little longer in the hopes of cheering him up. It was not to be.

The next day, Sharon was solidly concentrating on the next looming issue when Julie announced that Mrs. Jerguessen wanted to see her. Sharon stood as Rose entered her office.

“How can I help you today?” Sharon asked.

Rose looked around at the walls, then pursed her lips.

“Perhaps I can help you,” Rose said finally. “That was quite the coup you pulled the other night.”

“I’m sorry if it wasn’t quite what you’d requested,” Sharon replied. “We assumed you were not aware that the ambassador did not want a traditional reception.”

“Indeed.” Rose looked Sharon in the eye. “It would seem that you and I have a great deal in common. Both wanting to see the right thing done. Willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. Which is why you should be careful, my dear. I will protect my son.”

Sharon smiled softly. “Please do.”

“Is that a challenge?” Rose smiled.

“Not really.” Sharon took a deep breath. “I don’t expect you to understand this, but as nice a person as your son is, I have absolutely no interest in being First Girlfriend. Or First Lady, for that matter.”

“You’re right. I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want to live my life in a fishbowl.” Sharon shrugged. “So any attempts on your part to protect your son from me will be pretty much pointless since I have no interest in him in the first place. However, do what you feel is necessary.”

Rose paused. “I will. And be warned. I am not someone you want as an enemy.”

“I understand, Mrs. Jerguessen.”

Rose left and Sharon took a deep breath. However, she did not see Rose talking to Dianne Bowen and Dianne escorted the president’s mother out to her waiting car.

Episode 178 – June Tells Mark

By the end of Monday, an announcement out of Minneapolis sent the White House staff scurrying. June first heard about it when Major Wills appeared in her East Wing office that afternoon.

“I want to confirm any special requests or orders regarding your mother’s visit this week,” said the Chief Usher.

He was a smallish man, with gray hair and the ramrod erect posture of the former Marine he was.

“My mother?’ June asked, her stomach clenching.

“Yes. She announced that she would be coming in on Wednesday” Major Wills said, with an injured sniff.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” June said. She clenched her teeth against the gagging feeling in her throat. “Does the president know?”

“I’d assumed you’d invited her,” Major Wills said.

“If we had, we would have told you about it,” June said, trying not to sound snippy. Clearly, the problematic relationship with their mother was something the Major could not grasp. “I’ll talk to the president. In the meantime, please prepare a guest room for her. She can have the Lincoln bedroom, if you feel that’s appropriate.”

“Very well, Miss Jerguessen.” The major nodded and left.

June picked up her mobile only to find that her brother had texted her. She hurried over to the West Wing. Kent Jeffries, the president’s secretary, announced her, then reminded the president that he had a briefing with Sharon Wheatly in a few minutes.

“Hey,” said Mark, looking up from a tablet as she entered.

“Major Wills just gave me the news,” June said.

“That’s why I called you in here. How do you want to spin it?”

June took a deep breath. “I don’t care. I’m not going to be here.”

“Okay, but…” Mark looked at her more carefully. “June, what’s going on?”

June swallowed. “I’m not going to be here. I’ve just decided I can’t be around her right now.”

Mark got up and came around the desk. “Why not? I mean, I get why not, but you’ve always managed before. What’s different now?”

“Oh, dear,” June’s voice wavered as she tried not to break down in sobs. “Mark, you are going to be so mad at me.” She took a deep breath. “I just can’t deal with what she let happen. When we were kids. I mean, I’m finally trying to deal with it and I just can’t deal with it and her.”

“Is there something else..?” Mark asked. “You know, besides…”

June nodded. “Harold. He molested me. Full on sex. Night after night. It started when I was five.” She slid onto a couch, the tears finally flowing. “I couldn’t tell you, I was so afraid of what he’d do to you. Then, after Dad got us out of there, I blocked it out. I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. It’s just that I’d relapsed during the campaign and then Doug and I were thinking about getting together. So I was trying to get up the nerve to tell you, then that other relapse. And I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you what happened ever since. You have to believe me.”

Mark sat down next her and pulled her close. “I believe you.”

How he kept himself together, he had no idea. He only knew he had to for June’s sake. June cried only for a few minutes longer, then sat up and wiped her eyes.

“I really was trying to tell you,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“Are you mad?”

“Not at you,” Mark said. “Well, not much. I get it – you couldn’t. But I do wish you’d found a way.”

“I didn’t want to hurt you, Mark.”

“I know. We’ll get past this. It’s more important that you’re dealing with it and talking about it.”

“Mr. President,” Kent’s voice broke into the room. “Ms Wheatly is here.”

Mark swore softly. “Listen, before you head out to wherever, can we talk tonight?”

“Sure.”

“Good.” Mark raised his voice. “Please send her in, Kent.”

June stood as Sharon walked into the Oval Office. Sharon noticed immediately that something had happened.

“I told him,” June said to Sharon as she left.

The door shut behind her, Sharon looked over at Mark, still sitting on the couch, and realized what had happened.

Mark looked up at her. “You knew. About June.”

“Uh, yeah. It kind of slipped out about a month ago.”

“Am I the last to know?” Mark snarled.

“I doubt it. As far as I know, I’m the only person she’s talked to about it. And that was an accident. She was looking for a way to tell you.”

Mark turned on her. “You couldn’t have said something to me?”

Sharon stepped back, startled by his vehemence.

“Seriously,” Mark bounced up and began pacing furiously. “Why couldn’t she had said something to me? Why do I have to stay in the dark? Only the worst thing in the world happens to my baby sister and I get to be the last to find out. How could you have kept this from me? Huh? How?”

“She said she was going to tell you and I agreed that it would be better coming from her.” Sharon took a deep breath and tried not to get angry, as it was obvious that Mark was not actually angry with her. “I’m sure it hurts to find out this way and this late, but June has been having a very difficult time dealing with it.”

“I know,” said Mark, his knuckles white in his fists. “I know and I can’t be pissed at her because of that.”

“Then why not be pissed at the person who deserves it?” Sharon said softly.

“I am!” Mark roared, then stopped at looked at her guiltily. “And that’s not you. I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Your sister just told you that she’d been molested by your older brother for years.”

“It’s not like I didn’t suspect.” Mark went back to pacing. “How could I not? We even asked her about it, but she acted like it had never happened and I never talked to her about it again. I tried so hard to protect her, damn it.”

“The way June tells it, you did a darned good job, when you were being just as abused as she was.”

“Not that way. I didn’t get that. I took plenty of other shit, but not that.” Mark pressed his lips together as a tear rolled down his cheek. “That poor kid. She’s gotten the worst of everything and she still comes back fighting. She’s still kind and loving. Hell, she was more worried about me when she told me. How…?”

“She had you and you both had a loving father and grandmother and other kind people who reached out to you. At least, I’m guessing that’s what happened. That’s how kids in your position generally get past that kind of damage.”

Mark snorted. “You know, I’m really glad we’ve never had to fly the survivor flag. It’s nothing to be proud of, trust me. You survive because you have no other option. And you’re right. I did have my dad, who made it very clear to me that I had two ways to deal with things. I could let it turn me into a bitter, angry person, or I could find a way to forgive and rise above it. But there are times when I just want to be bitter and angry and nuke the piss out of my mother and brother. Oh, crap. That’s what started this. My mother’s coming to visit.”

“It was kind of you to invite her.”

“I didn’t.” Mark took a deep breath. “That’s why the announcement came out of Minnesota. She knows that I can’t say she isn’t without looking really bad.” He took a deep breath. “And there really isn’t much either of us can do about it. So. You have a briefing for me?”

“Yes. Just a quick update on Saturday’s party for Karsa Bruchner.”

“The German ambassador’s kid. And we’re doing this because..?”

“He did not want a reception for himself. He’s already had his meeting with you. But the German government was acting a little miffed, as if we were blowing them off.”

“So we offered him a birthday party for his daughter, who is having a little trouble adjusting and making friends.” Mark flopped onto the couch and waved. “I remember now.”

“All right. So we have our RSVPs. Kid Casey, the entertainment, has been passed by security. Dan Friedman loves the compromise and both his sources and mine agree that the Germans are pleased as punch with it, too. We’ve got some hints of terrorist activity in France and Russia, but nothing much to go on. You might want to ask Ed-Man about it, though.”

Mark leaned back and closed his eyes. Sharon paused, and then went on with her briefing.

Mark later found June in the private quarters dining room and was relieved to see that she was eating a salad.

“First course,” she said, pushing the bowl at him. “Hope you don’t mind that I started ahead of you. Didn’t know when you were coming up.”

“No, it’s fine.” He sat down, put his napkin on his lap and looked at the bowl. “I’m sorry I got upset.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” she said. “Of course, it’s only been a few months since I started admitting it to myself.”

“Like you haven’t been through enough.”

June shrugged. “Well, it’s like Dad always says, it’s not the hand you’re dealt, it’s how you choose to play it. Look, I can’t promise it’s all going to be happily ever after. But I really think I’m through the worst of it and I’m… all right.”

“You know, you are probably one of the strongest people I have ever met in my life. I mean, I don’t want this going public for the same reasons you don’t. At the same time, I would not mind being able to tell the world just how incredible you are.”

“At least, I get to tell everybody just how awesome you are,” June replied with a grin.

Episode 177

The following week, Sharon felt as though all was back to normal, at least until Friday’s Advisory Board meeting. During a discussion over some mild unpleasantness in a small African country, Al made a joke about how the U.S. should just bomb them and be done with it. The room fell silent for a few minutes. Al, realizing he had gone too far, apologized and reiterated that he had been making a joke.

“The problem is,” Karen told Sharon at lunch later that day, “I don’t think anyone actually believed he was joking.”

“Al has always had a very dry sense of humor,” Sharon pointed out. “But, no, he may not have been. I guess we’re still dealing with the anger.”

“It’s not going to blow over quickly.” Karen made a face at her salad. “I’m done with this. By the way, been hearing some exciting stuff about your sister.”

“Besides the awesome reviews for her dance?” Sharon asked, with a grin.

“Yeah, like piles of job offers.”

Sharon nodded. “She’s gotten some incredible ones. Last I heard, though, she wants to stay here in D.C. She says she has a place to live here.”

“Good for her.”

“I’d agree, but she’s acting really cagey for some reason.” Sharon shook her head. “She doesn’t sound unhappy, but there’s something she’s not telling me and I can’t figure out what.”

“Well, at least with her in town you’ll be able to see each other more often.”

“Maybe. She gets plenty busy on her own.”

Karen got up. “See you tomorrow?”

Sharon grabbed her phone and scrolled to her calendar. “Why? It’s Saturday, right?”

“Come on, Sharon, you promised.”

“I did not. I said I’d think about it.”

“You said you’d do it.” Karen grinned. “Seriously. It’ll get the guys off your back.”

“And who’s paying for the damage to any vehicles?”

“There’s not going to be any damage.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure about that.”

“Sharon, that’s exactly why you need to do this. You can’t spend your life living in fear.”

“I’m not living in fear. I’m just… Cursed. That’s all.”

“No, you’re not. So, we’ll see you tomorrow.”

Sharon sighed as Karen left. Karen was, in fact, right. But the last thing Sharon wanted to do was drive. It didn’t matter. The next day, accompanied by Karen, Kira and June, Sharon found herself behind the wheel of Karen’s Toyota Camry, practicing in a mostly empty Metro parking lot at the end of one of the lines.

The reality was, Sharon could drive, as in she knew how. But she had little confidence and tended to react to everything going on around her as if it was all going to blow up at any second. Which, as far as Sharon was concerned, it would.

June wouldn’t buy it and soon Sharon was on the quiet suburban streets, heading out along a two-lane country highway.

“So where are we going?” Sharon asked.

“You need motivation,” June said. “We’re going to Loudoun County and the wineries there. Get us there safely and we’ll buy the wine and Kira can drive back.”

Which Sharon did. The drive was pleasant and only took a little over an hour. Pastures and lush, green hills slid by. June directed Sharon to the parking lot of a medium-sized winery once they reached the Hillsboro area. Following Karen’s instructions, Sharon even managed to parallel park under a tree on the edge of the parking lot.

The four women had just left the car and headed toward the tasting room when they heard a very loud crack and whoosh. They turned just in time to see the tree crash onto Karen’s car, splattering glass and branches all over and breaking the windows of the cars on either side of Karen’s.

“Okay,” said Karen softly. “I’ll buy it. You’re cursed.”

“She did get us here safely,” June said.

“I’ll buy the wine,” said Sharon, pulling out her Blackberry. “And call the car service.”

June looked at the small troop of black-suited Secret Service agents running up.

“You won’t need to do that,” June sighed. “But I could use some wine.”

“So could I,” said Kira, with a grin.

“Nice try,” Karen said, glaring at and nudging her daughter. “How do you explain this to your insurance? I was teaching my friend how to drive and it turns out she’s cursed?”

Others from inside the tasting room were wandering out to the parking lot, including the owners of the cars that had also been damaged and the winery owner. One of the car owners, a tall, beefy man with a red face and balding head began screaming at the winery owner while pointing at the car in front of Karen’s.

“He ought to be thankful that’s not his car in the middle,” someone said.

“Is that Secret Service?” someone else asked.

June, who was wearing a baseball cap over her hair, slid on the pair of sunglasses she’d just taken off before the tree fell over. She nodded and the plain clothes detail slipped around the little group and spirited them away, leaving their suited fellows to deal with Karen’s car and the winery.

The good news was that the incident somehow escaped the notice of the media. The winery’s insurance took care of the damage to the cars, even if Sharon tried to insist that she was technically liable. But even Karen wouldn’t accept that and took the whole episode philosophically.

Episode 176 – Susan’s Big Night

By Friday, the rest of the Wheatly clan descended on the Nation’s Capitol. Sharon did go so far as to arrange a special tour of the White House for her parents and the rest of the family. However, she was happy to leave the actual tour guide duties to Jodi and Tiffany, especially since a flare up of potential hostilities in Dubai took most of her focus that day.

“I’m so sorry, Maman,” she told her mother. “But it is one of the more annoying realities of my job that if something is going to happen, it will be on the day I least want it to.”

“It is how things happen, ma choux,” Madeleine said. “As it is, I am glad to see Jodi coming out of her shell. We should be proud of her.”

Saturday was an easier day, but by that afternoon, Sharon found herself caught up in getting Susan ready for the gala at which her dance would appear. Susan was less than cooperative. But June stepped in and practically dragged Susan from the rehearsal hall.

“Your dancers need time to rest,” June insisted. “And you have to look good for tonight.”

“But what if–” Susan began.

“No buts,” said June. “There is nothing you can do now that will help. If anything, you’re probably making your dancers more nervous than not. You’ve done the hard work. Now let it happen. I’ve seen the piece. It’s wonderful. Let it go and get glammed up for your date with my brother.”

Susan wasn’t entirely convinced, but finally wheeled herself meekly behind June to the waiting limo that took them back to the hotel where Susan would have been staying if she hadn’t moved out. Her whole family was there, but there was little time. Soon the presidential limo arrived and Mark came to the door of the suite to be introduced and take Susan out to the car.

“Phoof!” Madeleine Wheatly hissed as soon as Susan was gone. “She is as bad as Michel before a big show. It’s no wonder I’ve never liked performing.”

“I’m not that bad,” Michael protested.

“No, you’re worse,” said Inez. “And the stakes aren’t as high anymore for you.”

“They sure are if I don’t want to end up on the casino circuit,” Michael grumbled.

Susan, for her part, was beyond nervous. However, Mark immediately realized her nervousness was not about him, for a change, and found it refreshing.

“June tells me it’s a really good dance,” he told Susan before they got to the theater.

“Really?” Susan groaned. “It feels like my entire life is up for grabs.”

Mark nodded. “I know what that feels like. And I remember when I lost that one campaign, it sure felt like my career was over. But a very wise friend of mine pointed out something that I think you’ll get more than most folks.”

“What?”

“Everything is almost never up for grabs. Granted, life happens. You know that better than most. But it doesn’t mean game over. You find a new direction. You try again. You try to correct whatever mistakes you made. But this dance is not your last chance. Whatever happens tonight, you will go away from the experience with options. Maybe not the options you wanted. Maybe, and I happen to think this is more likely, with more options than you’ll know what to do with. And you’ll come out a better, stronger person no matter what.”

Susan suddenly sniffed and blinked back tears. “You’d think I’d be strong enough by now.”

“Are any of us?” He reached and patted her shoulder. “Look, I think the reason you’re so nervous now is that you’ve put it all out there on that stage. And that’s usually a good sign that you’ve done something special. I really believe that.”

“You’re not going to get me to calm down,” Susan said with a annoyed chuckle. “I don’t care how right you are. And you are right. But, damn it. I have a right to be nervous.”

“Yep.” Mark looked out the window as the limo pulled up in front of the Kennedy Center. “But we’ve got to go make nice now. Can you manage it?”

Susan looked out the window and took a deep breath. “Yep. Let’s go make nice.”

There was a buffet reception before the performance set up in the foyer of the theatre. Art from all the other festival participants lined the walls. Susan did her fair share of schmoozing, but it was almost unendurable. The night crawled. Then there were the other performances, all of them quite wonderful. But Susan couldn’t pay any attention. Her dance was the last on the program. All she wanted was to go first and get it over with, but she had to wait.

And then it was time. She was seated in the presidential box next to Mark. Her family surrounding her. As the light came up on the stage with the two dancers, she felt her mother’s hand on one shoulder and her father’s hand on the other. Her sister Sharon was on her other side from the president, and Sharon gently took her hand. June was on the president’s other side and smiling at her. Just beyond her, Michael gave her a big grin and a thumb’s up, and Inez waved. Sarah, on the other side of Sharon, put her hands together and signalled her support, with Jodi, Tiffany, and Toby all waving. Only one person was missing, Susan realized with a start. But that would come later. She hoped.

The sad, crashing notes of Sparrow Without Wings, by Michael Wheatly, started. There was anger, with the one dancer pinned to the ground through the whole dance and the other fighting her. The was despair and frustration and slowly but surely, there was growth, and as the music swelled to its finish, the two dancers were moving together, the one still pinned to the floor, but the other moving along, going where the pinned dancer couldn’t. The dance ended. There was a brief hush, then the auditorium exploded with applause and cheering. The dancers took their bows, then waved at Susan in the box. She was surrounded by family members and the president, all, like the rest of the audience, on their feet, applauding with abandon.

It was sometime before the audience quieted enough to let everyone go. Susan made her way through the closing reception, accepting congratulations and even a few business cards. But Madeleine noticed that her daughter was wilting and nudged Mark, who agreed and collected her.

Susan told Mark to stay in the car as they came up to the hotel. He did help her out and into her chair, and she rolled into the lobby alone. Apart from the crowd outside, no one really noticed her and she wheeled herself into the bar.

Max was there, waiting for her.

“Well?” she asked.

“You nailed it,” he said with a happy grin on his face. “That was just unbelievable. Not a dry eye in the house.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Good. I’m beat. Let’s go home before my family gets here.”

“Sure. Want me to push?”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

Episode 175 – Sharon’s Quandary

Romance fiction, Romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romance

Two days later, Sharon asked for an afternoon briefing with Mark. After clearing it with Kent, his secretary, Sharon entered the Oval Office. Mark tossed a couple treats to Ginger and Kickie in their little pen as she entered.

“They’re not growling,” Sharon said, in slight amazement.

“It’s our new training protocol,” Mark said. He spooned coffee grounds into the French press. “You up for some Kenyan today?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“So what’s up?” Mark asked. He poured hot water over the grounds and watched it for a minute.

“I don’t know that it’s anything,” Sharon said. “And Dan Friedman may have already talked to you about it. He called me this afternoon and I just got a funny feeling.”

Mark poured out the coffee and settled on the Oval Office couch. “Okay. Should I be worried?”

“Probably not.” Sharon accepted her cup and sipped. “The CIA doesn’t think it’s anything. Last May, on Memorial Day, our Embassy in Berlin was vandalised. Just some red paint thrown on the windows, but clearly done on purpose. Then on July Fourth, it happened again, only in addition to Berlin, our embassies in Paris and Stockholm were hit the same way. Then on Labor Day, more red paint and more embassies, six of them, including Berlin and the others.”

“Sounds like something’s escalating.”

“Yeah, and it’s all over the place.” Sharon fidgeted with her cup. “Moscow, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires. No clue as to who’s doing it or why.”

Mark shrugged. “I’ll have Johnnie check it out. It’s pretty odd, but doesn’t sound too bad. Maybe we can get some surveillance for the next big holiday.”

“Dan said he’s already on it,” Sharon said. “But I thought I’d better update you in case it escalates some more.”

“Thanks.” Mark shifted. “How are you doing with Al?”

“Except for that one blow-up, fine.” Sharon’s brow creased. “Did he say anything to you?”

“No. He’s not said much of anything, except for strictly work-related stuff.” Mark shifted. “Have you or anyone else on the Board been up to anything to help him?”

“There really isn’t much we can do,” Sharon sighed. “He has to work it out on his own. But to change the subject completely, you do know you’re taking my sister to the big gala performance for the Arts and the Disabled Festival Saturday night, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. June said she’s choreographing a dance for the finale.”

“Yeah.” Sharon sighed. “She’s been too busy to even say hi to me this week. And she’s not staying at a hotel. Or she’s avoiding telling me where she’s staying. It’s weird. She’s not that secretive.”

Mark grinned. “Does this mean you’re hoping I’ll ferret out her secrets.”

“No.” Sharon chuckled. “Just one more thing to worry about, I guess. Or rather… How do I say this? She’s been trying to prove that she’s back to normal. No, that’s not it. Look, this is going to sound horribly crass, but she’s been hitting on anything male within reach. So you may get propositioned.”

“Okay. And you want me to..?”

“Oh, hell.” Sharon sank her head into her hands. “I can’t tell you what to do about it. It’s not like you don’t get propositioned regularly, I’m sure. You’re both adults. You make up your own mind.”

“But you’d rather I didn’t go along with it.”

Sharon put her coffee cup down on the table. “It’s not just me being jealous. At least, I don’t think it is. I’m just worried about her. If what Sarah, our other sister, says is true, Susan’s acting out and in not a very healthy way. But I don’t want you letting her down, either. That would hurt her, too.”

Mark nodded. “I get what you’re saying. But like you said, I get propositioned pretty regularly and I do know how to let a woman down gently. Even someone as vulnerable as you say your sister is. It should be interesting.”

“Frankly, I hope it isn’t,” Sharon sighed.

Mark laughed and Sharon left the Oval Office.

Vicissitude Alert

Life Happens, right? Alas, I’ve had to put White House Rhapsody on hiatus until probably September.

Please note – some exciting changes are in store, including a move to my regular blog on annelouisebannon.com. But don’t worry – that won’t happen for another year and not before we’re at a good stopping place for
Book Two.

To keep on top of everything, please sign up for blog alerts on the Robin Goodfellow Newsletter, in the column on the right side of your screen, or below the posts, if you’re on your phone.

Episode 174 – Al is Grieving

Less than a week after his wife’s funeral, Al Eddington made a point of showing up at the Thursday Advisory Board meeting. He was greeted warmly by the group. Sharon, sitting next to him, at one point, reached over and touched his arm. He yanked it away.

Some minutes later, Sharon made a comment on Chinese armaments.

“That’s nonsense,” Al suddenly snapped.

“I got it from my usual source,” Sharon said. “He’s been pretty accurate.”

“He’s an idiot!” Al snarled.

“Al, what’s going on?” Mark asked, cautiously.

“Nothing. Nothing at all.” Al shifted uncomfortably.

Mark moved the meeting forward quickly, asking Sharon for a private briefing. As the meeting broke up, he pulled Al aside.

“Al, you didn’t have to come in today,” Mark said.

“It’s better than staying at home,” Al grumbled. “Look, I’ll be fine. I’m better off keeping active.”

“That may be,” said Mark. “But I don’t want you distracted. It’s hard on the team.”

“I get it. I’ll be fine.”

“Well, do us a favor and take tomorrow off. I get not wanting to hang around the house, but you need to be someplace else for the time being.”

Al frowned. “Is that an order?”

“Yes, it is.”

The next day, a sense of relief rippled through the room when it became obvious that Al was not going to show. The meeting moved on in a timely fashion, and after it broke up, Sharon, Karen, Mackie and Gus met at a local restaurant for lunch.

“So is it true Jugs banned Al from the meeting?” Mackie asked as she frowned at the menu.

“That’s the rumor,” Karen said. She laid her menu down and leaned on the table. “You should have seen him go after Sharon yesterday.”

“He’s entitled to his opinion,” Sharon said, then buried her head back in the menu.

The waiter appeared and everyone ordered, then chit-chatted until the food arrived.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Gus asked Sharon as he dug into a good-sized salad.

Sharon glared at her pork cutlet. “I’m raw, I guess. I know Al doesn’t always agree with what I come up with, but he’s never been that harsh before. It really caught me off guard.”

Mackie frowned. “He did seem really angry at the funeral. Would it be safe to say he’s not dealing with his grief well?”

“He’s not dealing with it at all,” said Karen between bites of a smaller chicken Caesar salad. “I talked to his daughters at the gathering afterwards. He’s been pushing them away, yelling at the grandkids. His eldest suggested he go to grief counseling and he almost threw her out of the funeral.”

“It’s really hard for guys like Al,” Gus said. “He’s had to keep himself buttoned up all his life. The only acceptable emotion for him to show is anger.”

“It’s worse than that,” said Karen. “He’s feeling guilty. At least, his daughters think so.”

“That makes sense,” Sharon said. “He’s been smoking so long and Caroline was the one to get lung cancer. He probably feels like he gave it to her.”

“You could almost say that he did,” said Mackie. “I don’t have the stats on second-hand smoke to hand, but I’ve read that it’s worse than the actual smoking.”

Gus reached for his phone. “I could look it up.” He paused. “Nah. What’s the point? And besides, Caroline did choose to live with him smoking like that.”

“That’s kind of irrelevant,” said Sharon. “The bigger question is what do we do to help him? I’m not wild about playing bullseye for his target practice, but if it will help him get past the anger stage.”

Karen and Mackie shook their heads.

“There really isn’t much we can do,” Mackie said.

“Plus he shouldn’t be allowed to abuse you just because he’s upset,” Karen added.

Which put a slight pall on the lunch. However, when the group got back to the White House, Al was waiting in Sharon’s office.

“I owe you an apology,” he grumbled.

“Accepted,” said Sharon.

Al looked up and saw Gus, Mackie and Karen. “I guess I owe you guys, too.”

They murmured their acceptances and Al stalked off.

“You think Jugs..?” Karen asked.

Sharon shrugged. “Maybe he’s getting past his angry stage.”

“I doubt it,” said Gus. “He’s just getting a better grip on it, is all.”

“So now what?” Karen asked.

“Just let him be,” Gus said.

The following Tuesday, Al didn’t show up for the Advisory Board meeting until it was almost over. It was Gus’s birthday that day, so there was a small party for lunch. Afterwards, Al announced that he’d asked Mark for an office in the West Wing.

“It’ll be easier to keep on top of things,” he said. “And I don’t have to hang around an empty house all day.”

“Maybe you could get a dog,” Eli offered.

Al glared, then forced a smile. “We’ll see.”

Episode 173 – IM Session

PaulDaMan: Just want to say thanks and sorry again.

MattJ: It’s okay. I get why it happened.

PaulDaMan: I had a really good time. And the girls are really cool, too. I really liked Kira.

MattJ: Good luck. I mean, she’s the greatest, but given what just happened with her dad, I’m guessing she’s not interested in dating right now.

PaulDaMan: Oh, well. I probably shouldn’t, either. See you Monday.