We’re moving the romantic fiction serial to my main blog on AnneLouiseBannon.com. Sadly, I don’t know when this will officially happen, but please sign up for my newsletter (below or to the right).
And thanks for reading!
We’re moving the romantic fiction serial to my main blog on AnneLouiseBannon.com. Sadly, I don’t know when this will officially happen, but please sign up for my newsletter (below or to the right).
And thanks for reading!
As days went, it was a relatively easy one. Minimal negotiations in the morning, a meeting and wine tasting with a group of Californian and French winemakers gathered together for a symposium in the afternoon. Dinner was hosted by the American Embassy, and was not as formal, requiring cocktail dresses and suits rather than long dresses and tuxes.
Sharon was wearing another of Mark’s favorite dresses – a mauve lace that bared her shoulders. Mark seemed to recall it was one his sister had made for Sharon, and it made him wince. When June was feeling insecure, she made clothes for people. Apparently, she was feeling more secure about Sharon, as June hadn’t made anything for her in a while. He watched as June and Sharon laughed together over some rose champagne. That Sharon and his sister had bonded so thoroughly, in some ways, made it even harder for Mark not to love Sharon.
And Sharon had handled one of the more serious obstacles to their being together rather well without even realizing it. Not that Mark wanted her anywhere close to that particular misery.
Sharon, for her part, tried not to keep glancing over at Mark. It felt as though her conversation with Geneve the day before had wormed its way into Sharon’s very soul. Mark was so gorgeous and charming and still very guarded, and, yes, lonely. Sharon tried to believe that the loneliness was the isolation of his position. But as she’d gotten to know him, it had been pretty clear that his loneliness was as much self-imposed as forced upon him.
It was getting harder and harder to deny the attraction between them. As much as Sharon did not want to live her life in a fishbowl, it felt more and more as if it was being thrust upon her whether she wanted it or not. And it wasn’t as though she was fifteen anymore. She had to have gained some self-confidence since those awkward years.
It was getting close to ten o’clock when the guests, from various French ministries, finally left. Geneve was the only guest remaining and a new guest arrived, Sharon’s friend Carla Danford.
“Carla!” Sharon yipped before rushing over and giving her friend a big hug.
The tall, slender woman with dark kinky hair and blue eyes hugged Sharon back.
“I’m glad I was able to make it. I would have been here sooner, but there was a delay getting out of Nairobi,” she said.
“I had no idea you were coming,” Sharon said.
“That was the idea,” June said, mischief in her eyes. “Happy birthday!”
“We’re having a little birthday party for you,” June said, leading Sharon into the embassy’s sitting room.
“But I don’t need a birthday party,” Sharon protested.
“Oh, so I set up my trip to Switzerland one whole day early for nothing?” Carla said with a grin.
Sharon let herself be seated in a wingback chair next to the ornate fireplace. Coffee and chocolate eclairs were served with a candle in Sharon’s to blow out. Then there was a pile of presents to open. Sharon tried not to roll her eyes, but it was embarrassing.
Fortunately, many of the gifts were gags from the Advisory Board. Eddie Cooper had sent a tiny stuffed toy fly with a keychain on it and a car key. Al sent a text book on military strategy. Others were more meaningful. Eli, for example, sent a jar of honey from his home apiary. Jodi had taken an old tablet computer, completely refurbished it and had loaded a bunch of classic books, a few games and a couple films onto it.
Sharon laughed loudly when she saw it. “Jodi did it again. My god, she’s a wizard.”
“What do you mean?” asked June.
“It’s a game we play in my family,” Sharon said. “My mom came up with it when Michael started getting really rich. He wanted to give us all lavish presents because he could. But my sisters started feeling bad because we couldn’t keep up. So the idea was to see who could make the most awesome gift while spending the least money. And Michael really tried to win most of the time. But occasionally, he’d find out that there was something really expensive on someone’s wish list that year and he’d decide to lose. That way, he could be generous and nobody felt like he was showing off. And it was really good when my nieces came along because they really got the lesson that gift-giving is about honoring the person you’re giving to, and not spending more than anyone else.”
“How cool,” June said, whose own gift was a pair of t-shirts that had been creatively shredded and beaded.
The last box was from Mark. It was long and flat and Sharon gasped when she saw what was inside.
“My knives,” she said softly, and then looked at Mark.
“Amazing what you can find in the Internet,” Mark said. “I knew you’d lost yours during that fundraiser for the children’s home, so I thought I’d try to find a replacement set.”
Sharon looked at Mark curiously, then smiled. “That was so thoughtful of you. Thank you, sir.”
Geneve suddenly stood up and clapped her hands. “And now our cars await. We will do a tour of Paris at night, which as you know, is absolutely de rigueur.”
Sharon laughed as they were shepherded out to the cars. It came as no surprise that Sharon and Mark were pushed into one car while everyone took others. Nor was it much of a surprise that when the Presidential limousine pulled up to the Eiffel Tower, the other cars had somehow disappeared. The ever-present Riff Butler listened for a moment on his head-set before nodding at Mark and Sharon.
“We don’t have to,” said Sharon. “It’s obviously a set-up.”
Mark chuckled. “Let’s humor them. Maybe that will get them off our backs.”
The wind at the top of the tower was blowing quite strongly, forcing Sharon and Mark into the interior parts of the deck, where they found a bottle of rose Champagne and glasses waiting on a small table next to the apartment display.
The two laughed.
“Yeah, I think set-up just about describes this perfectly,” Mark said.
Sharon smiled at him. “Well, you’re not helping. Those knives?”
Mark shrugged haplessly. “I remembered the knife maker’s mark. I was actually thinking of buying some for myself when you gave away yours.”
“You knew?” Sharon looked at him in wonder.
“I saw you do it.” Mark smiled softly. “I know how special those were to you. Why didn’t you just order her a set?”
Sharon shrugged. “I think it was the moment. I guess I could just see that she wasn’t ready to believe that I really had her back. And I’d already told her, more or less, how special they were to me. So when I gave them to her, it really hit home that somebody was willing to be there for her.”
“I know. It’s really hard for kids like that to trust adults, especially. That was a hell of a sacrifice for her.”
“I don’t know,” sighed Sharon. “It’s like you said. It wasn’t like I couldn’t replace them.”
“True. But that is one of those things that makes you so damn special, Sharon.”
Her eyes filling, she looked everywhere but at him. “I can’t do it anymore.” She turned to him. “I’ve been trying to pretend that I don’t love you, that we can be just friends. But I can’t do it anymore. I can’t pretend that you’re just this guy that I like. I love you. You get me in a way that no one else does and I can’t help it.”
“I know. I love you, too, and probably always have.”
Mark leaned forward and gently slid his hand behind her head and softly, gently kissed her.
As they pulled apart, she sniffed. “Now what?”
He smiled and shrugged. “Pretend we don’t long enough to get back to the embassy?”
They kissed almost all of the way down the elevator. Sharon make a quick check to be sure she hadn’t left any lipstick on him as they passed the first level. They put on solemn faces and stood apart as the doors opened. Gesturing to Riff, Mark hurried forward with Sharon close behind.
Inside the car, Sharon giggled. Mark looked his bodyguard.
“Riff, we’re going to need some privacy back at the embassy,” he said, his hand finding Sharon’s and holding it.
“Then may I recommend Ms. Wheatly’s room. It’s the furthest away from the others,” Riff replied, his voice neutral.
Sharon blushed. “Oh, dear.”
“We’re not going to hide anything from him,” Mark told her. “And he doesn’t care, anyway.”
“I serve at your pleasure, sir.”
Still, as Sharon led Mark into her room at the embassy, Mark felt Riff slide something into his hand. He looked down, then back at Riff.
“Regarding Ms. Wheatly, it was only a matter of time, sir,” Riff said, his face utterly passive, but with a twinkle in his eye.
Inside the room, Sharon was gazing out the window. Suddenly, she whipped the drapes shut and turned to Mark.
“Are we..?” she asked, hesitating, but still smiling.
Mark’s heart nearly beat out of his chest and there was no question in his mind that they were.
“Do we have full adult consent on both sides?” he asked, nonetheless.
“There is on my part,” she said softly.
“And on mine,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Then I believe we are,” Sharon said.
She slipped up next to him and they kissed and the passion they’d been holding back for so long finally, finally was set free.
This is not the end, by any stretch. However, White House Rhapsody is going on hiatus as we move the serial over to AnneLouiseBannon.com. Thank you for your patience. And please let your friends know that they can catch up by buying Book One or by reading the archives.
It had been a notable break with precedent, but a welcome one to the Europeans, that the U.S. President’s party had been making its way around Europe by train, rather than in Air Force One. It was true that several cars on each train had to be taken over to accommodate the press, security and the presidential party, itself. The high speed trains made it almost faster than flying.
A crowd and the French President Madame Geneve de Cresy were waiting for the party in Paris President de Cresy was a tiny woman in her sixties, yet one whose presence could be felt from miles away. Mark had been looking forward to his meeting with her because the two had become friends when Mark was still in the Senate and she had been Foreign Minister. And by an odd coincidence, Sharon had also formed a friendship with the French president some years before when the company that Sharon worked for was trying to shepherd an infrastructure project through the notorious French bureaucracy. But the public welcome and speeches took precedence for the moment.
Back at the presidential palace, the private greetings began, causing a flurry of confusion, since June and Sharon were both speaking in French, Geneve was equally fluent in English, and Mark and the rest of the group didn’t know anything besides English.
Finally, things settled down enough for conversation and the group was served an early lunch.
“You know, I thought I’d finally had the big connection,” Mark told Geneve as they were sipping a perfectly smooth mushroom veloute soup. “I mean, Ms. Wheatly knows everybody, it seems like.”
“Not by a long shot,” Sharon said.
“It’s not surprising,” Geneve said. “Sharon has always been good at making friends. That’s why she was so good at her work. And still is.”
Sharon thought she caught a glint of mischief in Geneve’s eyes and sighed inwardly. So, after lunch, Sharon made a point of avoiding the French president. Not that it did much good. Geneve de Cresy was not the sort of person who had gotten to where she was because of mere charm and good luck. Indeed, it was almost universally acknowledged that if Madame de Cresy wanted something to happen, it probably would. She never bullied anyone outright, but that made her all the more powerful. Which is why Sharon, after the first afternoon conference, finally let Geneve find her alone in a conference room in the palace.
“You’ve been hiding from me since lunch,” Geneve said.
“Yes, and you know why,” Sharon replied.
“Eh, Sharon, he’s not so bad,” Geneve said. “He’s quite charming and I think you know just how charming he can be.”
“It doesn’t do me any good,” Sharon said with a snort. “He’s my boss. And back in the States, there are people who get very strange about such things, people who will hurt him.”
“So, don’t tell anyone. Knowing you, you’d like that better, anyway.”
“As if we could keep it quiet. The only gossip rags worse than ours are yours.”
Geneve laughed out right. “You could do it if you want. And why not want? I have known each of you for some time, now, and I have been trying to find a way to introduce the two of you for years.”
“Oh, come on.” It was Sharon’s turn to laugh.
“No. It’s true. I have always thought you and Mark would be a wonderful couple. But even I have to be subtle or it would all go wrong. And you two are made for each other. I can tell. And I can tell he likes you, too.”
“But, but, but…”
“Enough.” Geneve smiled softly. “Sharon, he is lonely. He has always been lonely, but it’s even worse now. And you, you make friends, but you are just as lonely as he is.”
“Why? Just because I don’t have a boyfriend?” Sharon folded her arms across her chest and tried to glare at Geneve. “It could be I’m happier that way.”
“Yes. It could be, if there were not someone special so close to you.” Geneve’s smile grew smug. “Good. You are thinking about it. My work is finished. I’ll see you later.”
The worst of it was, Geneve had gotten Sharon thinking about Mark in a way that was decidedly uncomfortable. And even while Sharon was reasonably confident that Mark felt the same way about her, there were problems. It was not a good time for either of them to be beginning that kind of relationship. Worse yet, if word got out that Sharon and Mark were dating, the blow back from the Moral Americans would be unbelievable. The group wanted to start a Senate investigation because she was simply working with him. What would they say about her dating him? It was impossible. Utterly impossible.
As for Mark, himself, it had not escaped his notice that Geneve was up to her hips in matchmaking. The only advantage he’d had is that he’d known Geneve had a friend she’d wanted him to meet, even if he hadn’t known whom. So, when Geneve whispered to him after lunch that fate had done what she couldn’t, Mark was, at first, surprised. Then, during their first conference, she glanced meaningfully at Sharon.
It was just enough to put Mark off his paces for a moment. He quickly gathered his wits together and re-focused on what was going on, fortunately, before he conceded to something he had no intention of conceding to. But that, as he later reflected, could have been part of the old bat’s plan, as Geneve was not above playing mind games when it suited her purpose, especially if she could achieve more than one of her ends at the same time.
“Low blow,” he told her as they sipped on an aperitif before the state dinner to celebrate his visit.
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked, chuckling.
“Not only are you playing matchmaker, you pointed her out at a really sensitive point in the discussion.”
Geneve shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I? You are the mighty United States of America. We are only poor little France. And you like her, as I knew you would. You are made for each other. It’s that simple.”
“Not by a long shot,” Mark grumbled. “This is not a good time for either of us. Not to mention, Sharon does not want to be famous, which she would be if she dated me.”
“So keep it quiet, like you always do.” She paused. “It’s interesting, though. That’s not the excuse she gave me earlier.”
“Oh, great. You were talking to her, too.”
“Of course, I was. You are both my friends and I want to see you both happy.” Geneve set down her drink and turned away. “Ah, Monsieur Dupont!”
She hurried over to greet her aide while Mark glared at his drink. It was a beautiful Champagne brandy. Sharon would love it, and as if Fate had been listening to his thoughts, Sharon arrived in the room with June and Yesmenia. Sharon was dressed in her favorite apricot strapless dress with the jeweled belt. Mark held his breath, trying not to think about how beautiful she looked and how she made him feel. He had thought he’d convinced himself that they were merely friends.
It was going to make the next night rather difficult, indeed. It was Sharon’s birthday the next day, and when Mark first heard about the small surprise party being planned for the evening, he had thought it a terrific idea. After all, Sharon had been working very hard. She deserved some recognition. June and Yesmenia had seen to it that the affair was going to be very low-key and intimate, given Sharon’s distaste for the spotlight. Mark had even brought a special birthday present for his “just a friend.”
Mark did not want to be thinking about a quiet relationship with Sharon. It was not in her best interests, and if the news ever broke, it would be a disaster. The only good part of Geneve’s meddling was that she’d also spoken to Sharon, which meant Sharon was as likely to be annoyed and avoiding Mark.
As Mark sipped his Champagne brandy, it was obvious that Sharon was, in fact, avoiding him. He sighed. It was the only thing worse than Geneve’s meddling.
The evening passed in a blur. Mark spent the night trying not to think about Sharon and woke up very tired and out of sorts. Sharon appeared for breakfast looking like her normal self, but something was off and Mark began to suspect that Sharon hadn’t slept much, either.
The next day brought another round of talks with the Italians and some of the Eastern European leaders, with another banquet that night. From there, the Presidential party flew to Berlin, making a long day even longer, since the Germans had to at least formally greet the U.S. President before letting him and his party settle in for the night.
The next morning, while she was eating breakfast with Yesmenia, Sharon got a frantic call from one of the German foreign ministry staff members.
“Nein, nein,” she said quickly. “Ja, zer gut.” She spoke for another minute, then hung up.
“What now?” asked Yesmenia with a sigh.
“You know that visit to the African children’s home we’ve got this morning?” Sharon said. “Somebody in the States is putting it about that the Boss doesn’t like children.”
“What?” Yesmenia’s jaw dropped. “He loves kids. Who would be saying something that stupid?”
“And here’s our answer,” Sharon said as she opened her laptop. “Ashley Whitcomb. You know that blonde idiot the Moral Americans tried to set the Boss up with last May? According to Karen, she went on one of the late night talk shows and said that the President doesn’t really like kids.”
“Oh, terrific,” Yesmenia groaned. “How on earth is he going to rebut that? The more he says he does, the less the idiots are going to believe it.”
Sharon sighed. “The German foreign ministry is freaking. It was their idea to do the visit to the children’s home.”
“At least we didn’t put it on the official schedule.” Yesmenia frowned as she booted up her tablet. “Think we should cancel it?
“No way. The Boss was looking forward to it, especially since it’s not a press event.” Sharon suddenly frowned. “Which makes the timing of Whitcomb’s statement just a little bit fishy. It’s been over six months since that mess last May. Why is she talking about it now?”
Yesmenia was contemplating something else. “Maybe we could leak it that he’s at the children’s home today. Pretend that we didn’t announce it, but…”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “I think the Boss would really rather you didn’t.”
“Here’s Jean’s email. She’s saying to let the comment go. She’ll get some rebuttals in the morning DC time. Unfortunately, it’s trending on social media, but it looks like the comments on the West Coast are making fun of Whitcomb.”
“Well, I’m more worried about the Germans having conniptions,” Sharon said, closing her laptop. “They’ve been stressed out enough about this going perfectly.”
She hurried off to meet with the German foreign ministry officials, collecting Julie Ivins, her secretary, who had arrived the day before. Sharon barely had time to soothe the Germans before the U.S. party left for the special home set aside for African refugee children, most of whom had been orphaned during some widespread unrest a couple years before. Sharon made a point of getting into the limo with the president and the German Chancellor, even though the Chancellor, an averaged-sized man with a dark brown and very thick moustache, spoke perfect English.
Sharon made a point of texting Mark, then nudged him surreptitiously. When the buzzer went off on Mark’s phone, he groaned and pulled it from his pocket.
“Looks like I have to deal with this,” he sighed, smiling at the Chancellor.
Sharon kept texting. Mark frowned and pretended to text something back, then put away his phone and smiled again at the Chancellor. The two chatted pleasantly and Mark mentioned how much he’d been looking forward to the visit.
A choir of children were waiting at the home, and there was a short performance. Then Mark met with some of the home’s teachers and staff, and afterward got to spend some time playing with the children. He was not thrilled when it was announced that the press was waiting in the home’s foyer for a brief question and answer session. Sharon looked over at Yesmenia, but Yesmenia shook her head. Sharon glanced over at the German Foreign Minister and suddenly realized what had happened.
Sure enough, a German staff member made sure Mark had two of the children with him when he made his statement to the press. Not surprisingly, someone asked about Ashley Whitcomb’s statement the night before.
Mark laughed gently. “You know, people are going to believe what they want, including Ms. Whitcomb. I love kids, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I like them or not. It’s whether I’m willing to do the right thing for them, and I think my record in that regard stands on its own merit. Kids are our most important resource, no matter where we’re from, and it’s important that we protect and support them and make sure they all have access to the basics. Love, clean water, a good education, food and clothing. That’s why I’m here today. That I got to have some fun with some really wonderful young people, that’s just icing on the cake. Next question.”
Sharon laughed when she saw the text come up on her screen a couple hours later. It was from Press Secretary Jean Bouyer.
“Orphanage Press Conference, Booyah!” the text read. “Told you he’d handle it just right.”
Fortunately, at the moment, she was alone with Mark in a limo going to their next stop..
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
Sharon showed him the text. “I think this went to Yesmenia, too. She was the one who was sweating, by the way.”
“You both were,” Mark said, chuckling.
“I was sweating because of the Germans. But they seem to be happy with how things turned out.”
Mark frowned slightly. “Interesting timing, though, don’t you think?”
“Yep. Problem is, I’m not sure it was pure luck on Whitcomb’s part.”
“What do you mean?”
Sharon sighed. “I think something leaked that shouldn’t have. That trip to the orphanage was not on the media list or any of the official schedules. It could have been one of the Germans, but I can’t help wondering if this didn’t come out of my office or from someone close to it.”
“I would not be surprised if we have a mole or two,” Mark said as he looked out the window. “But I’d be surprised if it were out of your office. Unless you think Raul had something to do with it. You know, as payback for sending him home.”
Sharon shook her head. “I doubt it. The timing is off, for one thing. He couldn’t have set up that guest spot that quickly. Besides, he may be insufferable, but I don’t think he’d consider leaking something. If anything, he’d consider it beneath him to do it. Still, it’s possible, I suppose.”
“Well, we just have to get through today, and then, hopefully, Brussels won’t present any problems.”
“Don’t say that,” Sharon said with an amused groan,.
Her concern turned out to be well-founded. The next day, as the president and his party were presented to the Belgian king and queen, Sharon made a short bow before them. Fortunately, the presidential party knew ahead of time she was going to and why and why they shouldn’t do the same. But barely a half hour later, Sharon’s “gaffe” was all over social media in the U.S.
“I didn’t think anyone would notice,” Sharon complained late that afternoon to June and Yesmenia in between a meeting at NATO headquarters and a state dinner with the Belgian prime minister.
Yesmenia glared at her laptop. “Well, I’m with Jean on this one. They always notice. We should have put it out there about your dual-citizenship right up front.”
“Well, the Belgians certainly knew about it,” Sharon grumbled. “That’s why I had to bow. They would have been offended if one of their own didn’t recognize the monarch.”
“So we have to do a lot of education on dual-citizenship,” said June. “I mean, your mom did eventually become a naturalized citizen, didn’t she?”
Sharon made a face. “No, she didn’t. She never really had a chance until a few years ago, when she and Dad finally settled in the States. And they could have settled just as easily in Belgium. It was just easier, because of Dad’s pension being all tied up in the U.S. to settle there. In fact, I don’t think she’s been living in the States long enough to qualify. She just got her green card a year or so ago so that she could sell her art more easily.”
“Still, you’re a U.S. citizen because your dad was born there,” June pointed out.
“Plus, I was born there,” Sharon said. “My brother was born in Belgium, Susan and I were born in the States, because Dad’s job had moved us there, and then Sarah was born in Germany. But because Mom is Belgian, I carry both passports and have citizenship in both places.”
Unfortunately, as the news got out that Sharon was both Belgian and American, that caused almost as much of a furor, as certain groups back in the United States got upset that the president was being advised by a foreign national.
The next morning, an important conference had to be put on hold because Mark got a message over breakfast that had him steaming. Sharon, Julie Ivins, June, Yesmenia and Calvin Whitecross watched silently, as the president paced his way repeatedly around the suite’s main room.
“It’s got to be just grandstanding,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Baker.
“Calling for a Senate investigation is not grandstanding,” Mark snarled. “It’s mud-slinging, is what it is. Not only have we got an innocent member of my staff hobbled because somebody doesn’t like where her mother was born,
“Some of us do,” said Sharon, folding her arms and glaring at him.
“That’s not what I meant,” Mark growled back. “And you know it. What I meant was those freaking idiots can’t even find Belgium on a map, let alone understand that we’ve been solid allies for almost two-hundred years. Pray forgive me if I can’t remember exactly when Belgium became a political entity unto itself.”
“In 1830,” said Calvin Whitecross. “That’s the Belgian Revolution, then on July 21, 1831, with the installation of King Leopold I.”
“Are you sure it was Leopold?” Sharon asked. Calvin handed her his tablet. “Oh. I thought it was Albert I. I always get those two mixed up.”
“See?” Mark shouted, waving his hand. “Sharon can’t even keep their history straight.”
“I’m not any better at American History,” Sharon said. “I barely know who George Washington was.”
“You know, that’s all irrelevant,” Terry said. “The point is, Sharon’s dual-nationality does not present a conflict of interest. Nor does her work for us constitute hypocrisy on our part because she is an American citizen.”
“The nerve of those guys!” Mark said. “Calling us hypocrites because we called them on their questionable connections. It’s apples to oranges, even if Sharon were completely Belgian. Belgium doesn’t have a bunch of freaking nukes aimed at us.”
Terry sighed deeply. “Sir, the Senate investigation is not going to go anywhere. There’s no place for it to go. Mud-slinging or grandstanding, it just doesn’t make much difference. And Johnnie said to remind you of what she emailed.”
“Rise above.” Mark shook himself, then took a deep breath. “Fine. I will.”
“Sir, if it’s any comfort,” Yesmenia began slowly, “pretty much everyone on social media is mocking the Moral Americans for their stand. Even some of the Moral Americans are saying an investigation would be stupid.” She suddenly laughed. “And there’s a map quiz popping up to see who can find Belgium on the map.”
“That’s not going to make things easier with the Belgians,” Sharon grumbled.
Mark suddenly grinned. “But I think I know how to play this. My education initiatives. If our people find it that hard to name a major ally and find it on a map, then we need to push education even harder.”
“That might make things work with the Belgians, too,” Sharon said. “It’s as though not they haven’t figured out that a lot of what you’re dealing with is crap left over from the previous administration.”
“True,” said Mark. “But we can’t blame them for any of our issues.”
“More’s the pity,” grumbled June.
There wasn’t much more to be said on the matter, and Mark went on to his conference.
Late that night, after another state dinner, this time with the Belgian king and queen, June dragged Sharon down to the hotel lounge and ordered a glass of wine for each of them. As a waiter brought the wine, Sharon took her glass and sank into the wing-back chair she was sitting in.
“Are you sure we’re alone?” Sharon asked June.
June stood and looked around the room filled with antique chairs in conversation groups. She even checked behind the chairs closest to them.
“All clear,” June said. “Even the waiter is gone and I’m keeping an eye on the door, just in case.”
Sharon let out a huge breath. “I so cannot wait for this trip to be over. This was supposed to be the easy one.”
“Maybe that was kind of the problem,” said June. “We were so sure there wouldn’t be any trouble, we weren’t careful enough.”
“Okay, I should have been on top of the dual-citizenship thing,” Sharon said. “But pretty much everything else was stuff we couldn’t have seen coming. Even the dual-citizenship. I mean, a Senate investigation because my mom is Belgian? Seriously?”
“You’ve got a point there,” said June. “Hopefully, all the disasters will help us with the French.”
June shrugged. “We’ll be even more on our toes, because we’ll be expecting something to go wrong. So we’ll be in better shape to deal with it.”
Sharon sighed. “It is sad how much sense that makes. I just don’t understand why your brother got so torqued off about the Senate investigation threat. The Moral Americans have been threatening to investigate him since he won the election. He’s blown them off every time.”
“Really, Sharon?” June smirked. “You can’t figure this one out? Mark likes you. A lot.”
“Oh, for cripes sakes! Enough with the matchmaking.”
“It’s not about matchmaking,” June said. “It’s about reality. And everyone here can see that my brother has it bad for you.”
“Well, he’d better get over it.” Sharon put her wine glass down on the end table with a thump. “He can’t get his back up every time someone has an issue with me.”
“He can’t help it, Sharon. It’s his nature to be protective.”
“I get that, June. But he’s done this before and it gets him into trouble.”
June couldn’t help laughing. “Who’s being protective now?”
Sharon snorted and glared at her. “It makes my job harder. Not to mention, it’s really hard negotiating with someone who gets under your skin. It can’t be about me, June. When it gets to be about me or anyone else, for that matter, he can’t think straight. And, right now, he really needs to be thinking straight.”
“Wow,” said June. She smiled warmly at Sharon. “I’d heard you’d ripped him a new one in Mexico. Was this what that was about?”
“Yes.” Sharon groaned as she felt her face growing hot. “It was not fun, I’ll tell you that much. And I thought I’d gotten him past that kind of nonsense.”
“He’s not perfect, you know.”
“Yeah. I figured that one out.”
“You’re never going to get him past the protective thing, you know,” June said. “Not when that’s how we stayed alive as kids. And nothing makes him crazier than not being able to protect someone he cares about. Why do you think it was so hard for me to tell him about Harold abusing me?”
“I understand, June.” Sharon let out a deep sigh. “And it says a lot of good things about him that he does care so much for people. But things are tricky, now. He needs to be on his toes, and he can’t fly off the handle the second someone ogles me or attacks me. Or you or anyone else. Thanks to our last president, we cannot afford even the least hint that we’re going to behave like insensitive bullies. People really don’t get just how much damage that idiot did.”
“I know. Come on. Drink your wine and let’s get going. I seem to remember we have an early train to catch.”
Sharon nodded and picked up her glass.
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?”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.”
“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
“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.”