Episode 5 – Making the Decision

On Sundays, after attending the obligatory church service, Mark made brunch for his sister, June, who was in residence at the White House to do all the things a first lady would do had Mark been married. It was a not entirely satisfactory arrangement, since June was the very successful owner and designer of a clothing company based out of New York, which meant she had other things to do besides open pre-schools and champion non-controversial causes. So Mark, who enjoyed cooking, made his sister a nice brunch every Sunday morning.

The Sunday after his meeting with Sharon, he put together a ham steak, with asparagus and hollandaise sauce, some stone-ground grits, and a maple brioche.

“You look happy,” June observed as they began to eat.

Her hair was blondish and short and her eyes deep blue. Although June had never modeled, her face had the sort of symmetry one associated with fashion models. She also had the stature and figure of a runway model. Rumor had it, she had an eating disorder, but rumor was only partly correct. She was a recovering anorexic, and even though she was over fifteen years into her recovery, she still did not eat a lot.

“Okay.” Mark scrunched his face as he tasted the asparagus. “I don’t think I put enough butter in the hollandaise. It’s tastes too lemony.”

“The hollandaise is perfect, as always. I said you look happy.”

“And…?”

“Well, not so happy, so I know you’re not getting any.”

Mark glared at his sister. “No, I’m not getting any. And I wouldn’t discuss it with you if I were.”

June looked him over more carefully. “But something’s going on. You’re happy. I noticed it Friday, at the press conference.”

“So?”

“If I noticed, then you know who else did.”

“Oh.” Mark stopped eating as he considered what June had really been saying.

It was something they seldom talked about and when they did, it was almost always in the most oblique terms.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said finally. “And if I don’t, then she doesn’t have anything to go on.”

“Since when has that stopped her?” June delicately cut a bite of ham. “I’m already hearing whispers about Kelly Won.”

“I haven’t seen her in over five years.” Mark turned back to his meal, his appetite somewhat soured.

June shrugged. “Well, like I said… And besides, the way you’re claiming to live like a hermit while you’re in office, she may be assuming you’re bluffing.”

“She’ll have to assume. There’s nothing I can do about it. I can’t stop seeing someone that I’m not seeing in the first place.”

“Okay. But don’t be surprised if it gets ugly again.”

“I’m never surprised when it gets ugly,” Mark sighed.

He tried to stay cheerful, but June’s observation had him nettled. He really wasn’t seeing anybody. It was true that it did tend to show when he was, even when he didn’t say anything. But there was no woman in his life at that moment.

Except the previous Thursday morning he had met a very lovely – he corrected himself – a very competent, amazingly intelligent, very sweet woman. June was watching him.

“I’m not seeing anyone,” he said.

But he had been vaguely concerned about hiring Ms. Wheatly. Johnetta was pushing him to make it final and he had been putting her off, saying the final background check needed to be completed. And there was no question, she was the best for the job.

But there was something about her that just made him feel good. The trouble was, if June could see it, then to let Ms. Wheatly anywhere near him was to leave her vulnerable and exposed. He’d seen it happen before, even as far back as when he was in the state legislature, and it had been bad. And those kinds of attacks were the sort that would seriously compromise her effectiveness as an advisor.

He was still debating what to do about the situation on Monday morning when Johnetta cornered him after their first briefing of the day.

“Sir, you’ve got to make a decision and you know Wheatly is your best candidate,” Johnetta said.

“Yes and no, Johnnie,” Mark said.

“What are you talking about? The background check came through and she’s as clean as a whistle, even with past relationships.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Mark started twisting the buttons on his suit coat sleeve.

“Hands in your pocket, Sir.”

Mark sighed and put his hands on the desk. “It’s just… I’m not sure how to say this.”

Johnetta’s eyes rolled. “We always said, the best person for the job, no matter what. You’ve got to hire Wheatly.”

“I don’t want to see her made into a target for the media.”

“Well, there is that.”

“It won’t help her effectiveness.”

“Possibly.” Johnetta sighed, getting up and heading for her special door. “I think you oughta just let the media and Ms. Wheatly work it out on their own. Anyway, it’s time to get going. You’ve got the milk lobby coming in and I’ve got a ton of phone calls to make.” She opened the door and paused. “Jugs, go ahead and hire Wheatly. I’ve got a feeling she’ll be good for you.”

Mark smiled at the use of his old nickname, then sighed. “Good for me, huh? I’m afraid that may be exactly the problem.”

“Then make it the solution,” Johnetta said, then left the office.

Mark took a deep breath, then had Kent summon Sharon Wheatly to the Oval Office that very afternoon.

Episode 4 – Sharon’s Reaction

Sharon managed to hang onto her cool just long enough to get out on the street and down the block. She checked the time on her mobile phone and did some quick math. It was mid-morning in Washington

, so it was evening in Bombay and likely that Niecy was still up.

Sharon and Niecy were best friends at the all-too exclusive Swiss college prep they’d gone to. But unlike most of their classmates, she and Niecy had remained close over the years, in spite of usually being on two different continents at any given time. Sharon briefly debated calling her mother, but it was too early in California for Madeleine to be awake enough to hear her.

Sharon dialed and hoped like crazy Niecy wasn’t out raiding brothels for under-age sex slaves that night. Niecy’s day job, as she called it, was minister of education for India. But being the idealist she was, Niecy was just as likely to be out trying to save as many young girls as she could.

Niecy picked up at the first ring.

“Hallo, Sharon,” she said, cheerfully. “Did you have your interview?”

“Yes,” Sharon warbled in spite of herself.

“Was the White House as exciting as you thought it would be?”

“Way more.” And Sharon gushed out what had happened in the interview. “It was horrible, Niecy! And wonderful. I mean, there he is, checking me out and all I can think is that he’s so gorgeous and so sweet. There’s just something about this guy.”

“And what did he think about you?”

“How should I know?” Sharon groaned. “Wait. He said he had to go through channels, but that we’d be in touch.”

“That sounds very good for you, then.”

Sharon froze. “Niecy, I can’t take that job.”

“What do you mean you can’t?” Niecy was trying not to laugh. “It is your dream job. You have to take it, if it’s offered.”

“Not that it will be. It’s totally the sort of job for old men with PhDs.”

This time, Niecy did laugh. “Sharon, you have out-witted any number of old men with PhDs, and a host of other credentials, too. You should take the job.”

“But I can’t. There’s just something about him. It’s begging for disaster. I can so see myself falling for him.”

“You’ve done that before and it worked out quite nicely, as I recall.”

“This time it’s completely different. I’ve never had a man affect me this way. It’s scary, Niecy.”

“Are you afraid he won’t feel the same about you?”

“That would make it so much easier.”

“Then what’s the trouble? It’s easy if he doesn’t like you. And if he does, well, you could do a lot worse than a very handsome president of the United States, who, I have heard, is also very kind and very intelligent.”

“He certainly lived up to that.” Sharon found a bench and flopped onto it. “It would be a disaster. All my privacy, completely gone. I told you about that time with Michael’s video. It was horrible. People look at me enough, Niecy. Imagine if they had reason to look”

“That would not be very nice, I agree. But, Sharon, you will never get a better opportunity than this. It would be absolutely crazy to turn it down. And just think, you can work a couple years at the White House, and after that, you can do whatever you would like to for the rest of your life. You might be able to get an ambassadorship, or join a think tank. My goodness, dear, the world will be lining up to take you on, and you can entirely dictate your own terms. You can’t turn that down.”

“All I wanted was to travel a bit and then settle down with my books and some cats.”

“Or you could do that, too. But it will be a lot more comfortable after working at the White House, I assure you.”

“You can say that again. He’s a coffee geek.”

“So you said. And there you have it. You have something in common.”

Sharon sighed. “Just what I don’t need.”

Episode Three – The Meeting

When Kent

Jeffries called to tell Sharon she had an interview at the White House, she was only mildly surprised. She’d heard that the various cabinet offices had been helping the White House hire staffers in their respective fields.

Her first week in Washington had been relatively relaxed. It had only taken three phone calls and two lunches to secure her meeting with Mr. Wallace at the State Department. She’d been a little surprised when Ms. Fritsch had called and requested an interview, but since things were done somewhat differently in the public sector, one had to expect it.

Still, a meeting at the White House. Sharon had to work to keep a professional demeanor as she signed in at the West Gate.

“Mr. Jeffries?” asked the guard, slightly incredulously.

“Yes, Mr. Kent Jeffries.”

“I’ll have to call on that.” He turned and dialed a phone. “Mr. Jeffries, I got a Sharon Wheatly here. Says she’s here to see you…. Oh. I’ll do that. Very good, sir.”

The guard turned back to Sharon and started pulling together the visitor badge and all the other necessary paperwork. Sharon wondered why the guard was so surprised that she wanted to see Mr. Jeffries.

Another guard escorted her to the West Wing, and she couldn’t help giggling with excitement as she walked through the majestic corridors. Jeffries’ desk appeared to be in an outer office and Jeffries, himself, was short, pudgy, with dark, curly hair, glasses and the attitude absolutely necessary for a good gate-keeper. He barely glanced up from his computer as the guard introduced Sharon.

“How do you do, Mr. Jeffries,” she began.

“You’re not here to see me,” he said abruptly, as if she should have known that. His voice was as sharp and nasal as his appearance bespoke.

“All you said on the phone was that you were from the White House and that I had an interview for today at this time,” Sharon said, putting as much authority into her voice as she could.

It was a considerable amount of authority – she had terrified middle managers all over the world with that tone. Nonetheless, Jeffries remained unaffected.

“You’re here to see the president,” he said, his eyes still glued to his monitor as his fingers rattled the keyboard.

Sharon’s heart stopped. Something tugged at the back of her brain suggesting that she should know why, but the shock of hearing who her interviewer was kept the suggestion at bay. There may have been a small betraying tremor, but her outward appearance remained cool. She’d been swimming with the corporate sharks far too long to give anything away that she didn’t need to. That didn’t mean her insides weren’t roiling.

She took multiple, discreet, deep breaths, which didn’t help at all when the intercom buzzed.

“Kent, I’m ready for the candidate now,” said a voice that was more than a little familiar.

Mark was trying to get a couple more seconds in on the latest briefing on pork belly subsidies when Kent announced Ms. Sharon Wheatly and shut the door. He glanced over the top of the papers and saw legs. Shapely legs. He lowered the report and looked over the new candidate. She was wearing a suit, a lighter blue than you mostly saw on The Hill, and while it looked perfectly business-like, there was something else about it. The shape of the jacket was different – which Mark guessed meant it had style, something his sister, June, would have thumped him for missing.

Wheatly looked to be in her early 30s, and her blonde hair was pulled back instead of cut short and hair-sprayed out. But it was her eyes and her face… Standing on the other side of the room, it was hard to tell what color her eyes actually were, just that they were dark. But there was something about her.

Sharon, for her part, saw him appraising her and began to bristle, only to realize she’d been looking him over, too. He was so much better looking in person. Tall, broad-shouldered, brown hair that was just long enough on top to run her fingers through. And his eyes, which were a rich green, and something about the square jaw.

A third voice cleared itself.

“It’s good to meet you, Ms. Wheatly,” Mark said, coming around the desk. “This is Johnetta Washington, my chief of staff.”

Sharon propelled herself forward to shake hands first with the president, then with Ms. Washington.

“Good to meet you, sir. Ma’am,” Sharon replied.

“Please have a seat,” Mark continued. “Would you like some coffee?”

He dashed to the credenza next to the door. Sharon followed his gesture to the sofa in the middle of the room and sat down next to Ms. Washington.

“It’s Ethiopian,” Mark continued, painfully aware that he was chattering and helpless to stop himself. He filled three cups from a thermal pitcher on the credenza. “One of my guilty secrets. I get my own custom roast done.”

“K Street Koffee?” Sharon smiled, relieved and excited. Coffee geek-speak she could do.

“Yeah. Who else?” Mark grinned.

“I love them,” Sharon said. “It’s the only place in town I can get Kenyan Double A that hasn’t been roasted to within an inch of its life.”

Mark handed her a filled cup. “Cecil is amazing. He did some Sumatran Mandheling for me that is beyond belief.”

Sharon sipped as he gave Johnetta her cup. Johnetta glared at him meaningfully as she reached for the cream and sugar on the coffee table in front of her.

“This is so good,” Sharon said. “Maybe just a little sugar to bring out the berry notes?”

“Please.” Mark grinned again, then turned to his desk. “Let me get your resume.”

Sharon noted that there was no paper on the desk and wondered where the resume was. Mark grabbed the tablet computer, then bringing his cup, came around and sat down in a chair on the other side of the coffee table.

“So, you’re looking to join us from the private sector,” he said, after tapping the tablet with a stylus and giving the resume a quick glance. “Why the change?”

It wasn’t the question he’d intended to ask and he caught Johnetta looking at him quizzically. Sharon, however, had expected that question, and had her answer ready, but it wasn’t what came out of her mouth.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she said instead. “I mean, public service. Growing up, all my friends wanted to be models, actors, CEOs. I wanted to be a diplomat, work all over the world, bring people together.”

“And you can’t do that on the corporate side?”

“Not really.” Sharon shrugged. “I guess you can. I just got so tired of the petty egos, the power games.”

“And you’re coming to Washington to get away from that?” Mark looked at her, bemused.

“Naturally.” Sharon laughed. “I know it sounds a little out of the frying pan into the fire. But at least, here, I can pretend that I’m doing some good, making the world a better place.”

“Indeed.” Mark looked over at Johnetta and nodded.

“This is a report on some trade issues with Kuwait,” Johnetta said, handing Sharon another tablet computer. “It was prepared by one of our staffers.”

Sharon looked it over and shook her head. “Well, someone’s not watching Al Jazeera.”

“I’m sure my staff does,” said Mark.

“Yeah, the English version,” Sharon said, looking him square in the face. She pointed to a spot on the screen. “This is a common mis-translation. It’s not at all consistent with what I’ve been seeing in the original Arabic.”

“That’s right.” Mark looked at the resume again. “That’s one of your ten languages.”

He looked over at Johnetta.

“What she’s saying makes sense given the intel we got this morning,” Johnetta said.

“So how many of those ten languages are you fluent in?” Mark asked.

“All of them,” Sharon said. “That’s why I put them on the resume. I haven’t taken the proficiency tests at State yet, so I don’t know if I qualify as an official translator.” She paused. “But I’ve been able to run circles around most of the embassy translators I’ve run into.”

“Fluent in ten languages.” Mark smiled and looked over at Johnetta, who was smiling. “And I thought I was doing well, fumbling through with high school Spanish.”

“For most Americans, you are,” Sharon said. “I’ve just been multi-lingual all my life. My mom’s from the French-speaking part of Belgium. My dad’s American. And we had a Mexican nanny. So I’ve been speaking English, French and Spanish as long as I can remember. Then we moved to Germany when I was seven, so I learned German, and Italian, when we moved there. By that point, I realized I wanted to join the diplomatic corps, so I learned Russian and Japanese. And started taking Chinese around then, too. And learned Hebrew and Arabic. My biggest weakness is the African languages. I’ve only got a smattering in a couple. Although I’m working on learning Igbo. Nigeria is one of those up and coming areas.”

“Oh, it is,” said Mark, somewhat ruefully.

The suggestion that had tugged at Sharon’s brain earlier suddenly popped up front and center.

“Is this about taking Andy Shepherd’s job?” she asked suddenly.

Johnetta sat up straight. “You mean you didn’t know what this was about?”

“No. No one said anything about any specific job,” Sharon said. “When I went in to talk to Mr. Wallace, over at the State Department, last week, it was just an informational interview. Then Mrs. Fritsch called, but she never said anything about any specific job, and all she wanted to talk about was my past work. So I thought she was just trying to place me, and since I wasn’t going after any specific position, I didn’t ask. So I didn’t know what to think when Mr. Jeffries called. He didn’t even say who I’d be interviewing with.”

“Really,” said Mark, looking over at Johnetta.

“I’ll speak to Kent,” Johnetta said. “I’m sorry about that, Ms. Wheatly. Since our process is geared at finding the right people, we try to strip any potentially prejudicial information off resumes and the like. Although in the effort to not get too much information, we sometimes let out too little. More to the point, are you interested in the position?”

“Are you kidding? Talk about my dream job!” Sharon sat back and paused to gather herself together.

“It’s more a research position,” Mark said. “I’m afraid it’s not to advise on policy, per se.”

“I understand. That’s why you have the Secretary of State. “

“Right. The World Affairs Advisor mostly just keeps me updated on what’s going on around the world,” Mark said. “We’ll be meeting twice a week with the other advisors, plus whenever I need additional briefings.”

“Pure research,” sighed Sharon. “Sounds wonderful.”

The intercom buzzed. “Mr. President, the members of the River Barge Commission are waiting in the Map Room for their meeting with you.”

“I’ll be right there, Kent,” Mark addressed the air behind him, then looked at Johnetta. “River Barge Commission?”

“Essay contest grip and grin,” she replied.

“Oh, right.” He stood and Sharon and Johnetta stood with him. “Well, Ms. Wheatly, it really was a pleasure. I’ve got to go through channels, but we’ll be in touch.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sharon answered, shaking his hand. “I’ll look forward to it.”

He buzzed the intercom. “Kent, will you escort Ms. Wheatly to the gate, please?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Thank you.” He looked up. “Thank you, Ms. Wheatly.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sharon turned and left the room.

Mark looked over at Johnetta. “What the hell just happened there?”

“You don’t know?” Johnetta smiled. “Well, I’m not going to tell you, then. But the bad news is, you’ve got to hire her. She’s the only one who’s stood up to you.”

“I know,” Mark said softly.

“Come on.” Johnetta gently took his arm. “Let’s go smile pretty for the river barge people.”

Episode Two – Instant Message

IM

swheatly531: Hi, Carla. So, have you gotten over your jet lag yet? How is Lagos?

ladycarla: Smelly, crowded, impossibly rich and heinously poor all at the same time. We have our work cut out for us. The government corruption alone is a massive obstacle – it’s probably the worst I’ve ever seen and you and I have seen some seriously corrupt governments.

swheatly531: That is scary.

ladycarla: The good news is there are several folks open to micro-loans. But it’s sure going to take the whole five years to get things up and going. Did you find the place ok?

swheatly531: No problem. Right on top of the Metro stop. It’s gorgeous, too. I don’t even think I’ll mess with the bedroom.

ladycarla: You may as well. I’ll be re-doing it as soon as I get back, and five years is an awful long time to put up with someone else’s taste.

swheatly531: Your taste is great. I will have to add some cooking equipment to the kitchen, though.

ladycarla: So I don’t cook.

swheatly531: How come there’s a door in the basement? It looks like it goes through a tunnel.

ladycarla: lol. Forgot to tell you about that. It’s a secret entrance from the back alley. The guy who built the house was this senator who liked his women. He had the secret entrance built so he could get his hookers in and out. The real estate agent said other members of Congress have taken advantage of it over the years.

swheatly531: lol. I’ll keep that in mind if I meet any members of Congress. Off to make phone calls. Already have a lunch scheduled for tomorrow.

ladycarla: You go get ‘em.

Five days later, in an office at the State Department, a junior-level human resources officer cringed in front of the deputy secretary of state.

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Wallace,” the young officer said. “But when I saw her resume, I thought it was for the White House position.”

Wallace growled. “But I sent it down in an inter-departmental envelope.”

“Like all the others.”

“But it was from me.”

“I know, sir. But everyone has been offering candidates. All the note said was that the resume was to be verified and the security background done.”

“I wanted the resume verified so that I could write up an offer of employment.”

“Well, it did get verified and the security background was done. And Ms. Fritsch did the initial interview.”

“So? Can I write up my offer?”

“Well, see, that’s the problem, sir. Wheatly made the cut. The president is supposed to interview her tomorrow.”

Episode One (Reprise)

As a special December treat, I’m posting the story from the beginning on a daily-ish basis.  This is your chance to catch up on any posts you may have missed and let your friends know that they can jump in without feeling lost.  Happy Holidays!
By Anne Louise Bannon

At the sound of the mechanized gong, Sharon Wheatly looked up from her book and saw that the “fasten seat belt” sign was on.

“Ladies and gentleman,” announced the flight attendant’s voice. “The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign for our final descent into Ronald Reagan National Airport

. At this time, will you please make sure your tray tables are locked and that your seat backs are in the upright position. Thank you for joining us on our flight and we hope you have a pleasant stay in our nation’s capitol.”

A pleasant stay, indeed. Sharon thumped the cover of the paperback in her hand and looked out the window at the frozen ground below. Washington, DC, was having a rather mild February and there were patches of dirty earth between the white patches of snow on the mall and around the Jefferson Memorial. The barren cherry trees along the Potomac looked black against the steel gray water.

The man next to her glanced at the Flemish title of her paperback again and smiled at her in that dumb way people did when they couldn’t speak a language. When he and Sharon had boarded, he was on his mobile phone, talking to Steve (whoever that was) in such a way as to make sure both Steve and Sharon knew that he was a terribly important person. For someone in his early 40s, it was more than a little pathetic. Sharon got out her book promptly. By the time the man had hung up, she was engrossed in the silly romance and he had decided she didn’t speak English. The book had done its job well.

Normally, when reading for relaxation, Sharon preferred reading English, French or Spanish – her first languages, as she often joked, since she couldn’t remember a time when she couldn’t speak all three. But Tante Berthilde had sent the Flemish title because of Sharon’s younger sister Susan, who had been going on for over a month now about the stars aligning in Sharon’s favor. And the romance was based on a bunch of stars aligning, which was why her aunt had sent the book, even though most French-speaking Belgians pretty much had no use for Flemish, Berthilde included.

And if Sharon actually believed in such things, she would have had to agree that if not the stars, then something was aligning itself right in her life. The recent election, her old company deciding to re-structure, her friend Carla’s new job, even Susan’s accident, as devastating as that had been, all had worked together to make it an auspicious time to make the move to D.C. and the public sector.

Sharon braced herself as the plane bounced down onto the runway and shuddered as the jet engines reversed themselves to slow down. The man next to her already had his mobile phone out, then suddenly bent over toward her.

“Look, we could meet,” he said suddenly, and slowly. “I could show you-“ he pointed at her – “Around Washington?” He twirled his finger.

Sharon smiled, trying to make up her mind whether to respond in English, which would make him feel appropriately stupid for making assumptions but would open up the possibility that he’d continue hitting on her, or to continue to play dumb. Apparently, playing dumb was the right move, because he smiled back weakly and started dialing his phone. A minute later, the plane had barely docked at the gate and he was out of his seat and grabbing his carry on from the overhead compartment.

Sharon sighed. Hers was the kind of problem it was impossible to complain about. Men saw her slender figure, naturally blonde full hair and her soft face and inevitably assumed she had no greater desire than to be hit on. Which is why the stupid ones inevitably did. The geeks usually stared openly, which was embarrassing enough. But the covert appraisals were the most annoying. And the jealous glares from the women.

She mostly ignored the looks while waiting for her luggage. She was used to ignoring them, but it still felt uncomfortable to be looked at.

Sharon heaved her two suitcases off the conveyor and then paused just long enough to get her coat on. She was wearing a fairly heavy sweater over her jeans and boots, but she already knew how chilly D.C. was in comparison to Los Angeles. Coat on and her carry-on slung over shoulder, Sharon Wheatly stepped out of the air terminal and into her new life.

Mark Jerguesson, on the other hand, was taking a moment to wish fervently for his old life. He gazed out over the frozen White House grounds – a view limited to the chosen few. And now he was one of them. In fact, at not quite 40, he was among the youngest and one of the few that were single when they got elected.

“Mr. President?”

Mark winced inwardly, wondering if he’d ever get used to being addressed that way.

“Yeah, Johnnie.” He turned to his chief of staff.

Johnetta Washington, slender with dark, dark skin, generally had the attitude of an established church mother about to give the young new pastor what for. Mark had chosen her as his chief of staff precisely because he could count on her to give him what for at any given time. But ever since he’d taken the oath of office, Johnnie had been treating him with the correct deference most of the time. He was trying not to mind.

“Did you hear what I said just now?” Johnnie asked.

Mark turned into the Oval Office from the window. “We were talking about replacing Andy Shepherd, and yeah, two weeks is enough time to show respect for his passing, especially since we really, really need a world affairs advisor. Go ahead and call the State Department and get the interviews started. Same process as we did last December.”

“Call State about interviews.” Johnnie paused and became a little more relaxed. “You doing okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.” Mark stopped and shrugged. “Mostly. You know, I expected the pressure. But I didn’t get the isolation, all the protocols.” He shook his head. “It’s just getting used to it, is all.”

Johnnie’s eyebrows raised mischievously. “Be careful what you wish for?”

Mark chuckled. “You’re the one who always told me to dream big. And now we’re both paying for it.”

Johnnie laughed. “And how. I’ve got a meeting with Jean and the rest of the media team in about…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes ago. Any extra thoughts on the education proposal?”

“Yeah. I was making some notes before the photo session earlier.” Mark looked at his desk and sighed. “They cleared it off for the session.”

In spite of Mark’s best efforts to be transparent, his staff had a whole list of deep, dark “secrets” that it would be better to keep from the American people, not the least his tendency to keep a host of electronic gadgets and other toys on his desk. Mark punched the intercom.

“Ms. Forrest, I need my desk stuff back, please,” he announced.

“Yes, Mr. President,” replied his personal assistant. Fresh out of college and almost annoyingly eager, Gen Forrest’s job was to hold his coat, open doors, pay for things, run errands and do all the things the leader of the free world used to do for himself, but could no longer do because he was the leader of the free world.

Another line buzzed on the intercom. “Mr. President, Senator Mendoza is here.”

“And I’m leaving,” said Johnnie, heading for the door that led to her office.

“Thank you, Kent,” Mark said to the intercom. “Would you have Mr. Arlen join us, please? And hold the Senator until Mr. Arlen arrives.”

“He’s here now, Mr. President,” replied Kent. “Please remember you have a meeting with the Farmer’s Union in half an hour.”

“Thank you, Kent.”

Mark sat down at the imposing desk that had served numerous other presidents since the mid-19th Century as Ms. Forrest brought in the laptop, e-mailer, e-reader, tablet computer and other such items that had been earlier removed for the photo session.

Episode 41 – Solly and Mark Make it Up

There were those who said Major Clive Willis had served at the White House since Ulysses S. Grant. That the man was old and an old school Southern gentleman there was no doubt. He was of medium height with bright white hair, faded blue eyes and the ramrod straight spine one associated with dancers or the military. He was technically retired from the U.S. Marine Corps, which is where he began his White House service and why he kept his title. It was generally accepted that the only way he was going to leave the White House was feet first.

“Good morning, Major,” Sharon said, pleasantly. “How can I help you today?”

“Good morning, Miss Wheatly,” he replied, his Southern drawl lengthening with his displeasure. “I was not aware that we have any foreign dignitaries on the schedule in the immediate future.”

“Next month, I believe,” Sharon replied. “The reception for the new Nigerian ambassador. But that’s not why I’m here.”

“Oh, come on,” Solly growled, getting up. “The woman can come down here and consult with me on a dinner party she’s having, can’t she? Last I checked, it’s a free country.”

Major Wills looked at both women, nodded and left.

“You better get him off my back, too,” Solly grumbled softly to Sharon. “He is getting on my last nerve. I bet you anything, if I could’ve just talked straight up to Ms. Jerguessen or the President, we wouldn’t be having no problem with me not knowing what he’s taking for his own cooking. And I’d rather be talking to you about them foreign dignitaries than him any day.”

Sharon nodded. “I’ll tell Ms. Jerguessen about your concerns. But you’ve got to stop threatening to fire everybody. This is the White House. It’s due process.”

“But how am I-”

Sharon cut her off. “You can write them up. I’ll make sure you have the forms. And they will get read, and not by Major Wills. Okay?”

“Okay. But what are we going to do about the president? It’s awful hard to plan when you don’t know what’s going to turn up missing one day to the next.”

“Isn’t there someplace in the main kitchens down here where you can stash stuff?”

Solly frowned. “Hell, no. It’s too crazy and cramped down here. There’s barely room for the pastry station. Last big dinner we had, we were plating the salads in the hall. I tell you, if this weren’t the White House, I would not be here.”

Sharon thought. “It’s a pretty crazy place to work. Tell you what. Can you stick around ’til, say six-thirty, seven tonight?”

“Think so.” Solly looked over the schedule pinned to the bulletin board at the back of her office. “Ain’t nothing scheduled and the president usually likes his dinner around then, anyway. Lessee if he sent down his order yet.” She glared at the computer on her desk, then hit a couple buttons. “Nope. Nothing yet. He might be planning on cooking hisself tonight, but Major Goop says I still gotta be around, just in case.”

“Let me send an email or two.” Sharon began pressing buttons on her Blackberry. “I’ll give you a call as soon as I get an answer.”

Sharon hurried back to her office, texting as she went. June was delighted that it looked like things were resolved. Mark agreed to meet with Solly in the upstairs kitchen at 6:30 and invited Sharon to join them, which Sharon was hoping he would.

Solly, of course, already had clearance for the upper floors of the White House, since she or whichever of her cooks was on duty usually used the upstairs kitchen to prepare meals for the president and his sister. Sharon had to wait for an escort, and at 6:25 precisely, Major Wills showed up at the door to her office to take her upstairs.

Mark arrived at the same time and dismissed the major for the evening The major glanced at Sharon and left with a slight smirk on his face. Sharon started.

“Don’t worry about him,” Mark said. “It doesn’t matter what he’s thinking, he’s not going to say anything about it.”

“Still,” grumbled Sharon.

“Let me put it this way, the Major hinted that my predecessor had some preferences that would have totally blown his moral compass image and not a hint of it leaked.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Are you sure said Major didn’t make some rash assumption?”

Mark chuckled. “I, uh, found some independent confirmation in the desk.”

Solly was waiting for them in the kitchen.

“Mr. President, this is Yasmin Sollette,” Sharon said, beckoning Solly forward.

“Oh, just call me Solly,” she said, blushing.

“Solly, it’s about time we got to meet.” Mark pushed forward and grasped her hand. “I tell you, I have been thoroughly enjoying your work. The food is just fabulous. I’d love your recipe for that gumbo you made the other night.”
“That’s gumbo – a little bit of this, a little bit of that.”

Sharon cut in. “We do have an issue to work out, sir. As I mentioned in my email, Solly has been rather frustrated by the way certain ingredients have been disappearing.”

“I am so sorry, Solly,” Mark said, charm oozing from every pore. “I had no idea. I just saw all these cool ingredients.”

“Apology accepted, sir.” Solly blushed again and let out a little giggle, then collected herself and grew stern. “I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d’a known what was going on.”

“We are definitely going to have to establish some boundaries here, aren’t we?” said Mark, relaxing a little. “By the way, where are you getting that pure lard? That stuff is wonderful!”

Solly grinned. “I got an organic pig farmer down in Virginia that renders it. Cain’t really sell it, cuz of all them FDA rules, but I got some pull. I’ll get you some.”

“So I suppose, then, the issue is primarily about storage,” said Sharon. “Shall we lay out whose stuff goes where?”

Mark pulled off his suit jacket and loosened his tie while he and Solly went to work re-organizing stock and deciding what could be shared, what needed to be kept separate and how to tell when Solly was stashing something for an upcoming event or meal. Then there was the debate over who would actually cook dinner, with Solly insisting that it was, in fact, her job to do the cooking and Mark countering that after the grief he’d caused her, cooking for her would be the least he could do. Then Solly said that if he wanted to do some penance, he could play sous chef for the evening, to which Mark agreed.

Fortunately, there wasn’t an issue over the knives. Mark’s had always been kept in a special butcher block. But Solly did have to send a page downstairs for hers. In the meantime, she stood over Mark, nodding as Mark expertly minced a shallot.

“You got the technique down, but you are slow,” Solly observed. “Good thing you got this president job, cuz you wouldn’t last five minutes in a real kitchen.”

Sharon, who had been invited to stay for dinner, laughed.

Solly glared at the refrigerator, then called downstairs for some pork tenderloin, and a variety of mustard, turnip and beet greens. The ingredients showed up within minutes and Sharon was put to work, as well.

Solly saw to slicing the tenderloin into paper-thin slices, while Sharon washed spinach and mesclun for a salad. Mark washed the other greens and chopped them down for steaming, then chopped a couple small mushrooms. Solly slid slices of tenderloin into a frying pan with a little bit of butter and oil and had much of the meat ready in a few short minutes. To the pan, she added another bit of butter, then sauteed the chopped mushrooms, shallot and some garlic that Sharon had chopped. A dollop of Dijon mustard went in with a little chicken stock from the fridge. Under Solly’s direction, Mark plated the steamed greens on a platter then arranged the tenderloin slices while Sharon dressed the salad with a little olive oil and red wine vinegar.

The only other conversation going while the food was being prepared was what wine to serve with the food. Mark finally won out, and pulled a New Zealand sauvignon blanc from the refrigerator.

The meal, itself, was filled with laughter as Solly told horror story after horror story of kitchen mishaps. As Solly remarked to Sharon later, “I know he’s the boss and all, but I really like that he can be a friend, too. Know what I mean?”

“Yep,” Sharon replied, smiling to herself as the two rode down in the service elevator.

“He ain’t bad in the kitchen, either,” Solly said. “Slow, but not bad.”

“Amateur,” said Sharon.

Solly chuckled. “Yeah, but that’s a good thing. Keeps me employed.”

Sharon’s Blackberry buzzed. “What?” She burst out laughing. “It’s the boss. He sent me a shopping list.”

“I think we’re going to get along,” Solly said, grinning.

Mark, for his part, finished washing the dishes under the baleful eye of a member of the housekeeping staff. He wasn’t supposed to be cleaning anything. But old habits died hard and his paternal grandmother had always insisted that he take responsibility for cleaning up after himself. That meant he made his bed the second he left it in the morning and when he cooked something, he washed the dishes, all of which irritated the housekeeping staff no end.

He was also feeling rather pleased with himself. He’d been wondering how to invite Sharon upstairs for dinner. With Solly around to aid and abet, it wasn’t likely to cause scandal. Not that Solly would sell out. Mark paused. He hoped Solly wouldn’t sell out. He scribbled a note to check on her salary.

Episode 40 – The Chef is Not Happy

Sharon, I hate to ask you, but I’m not sure who else to call,” June said, somewhat anxiously. “Johnnie won’t touch it and Karen would totally blow up.”

“What?” said Sharon.

“It’s Solly, the chef.” June sighed. “She’s having another hissy fit and I’m stuck in New York. Can you go down and find out what’s going on?”

“Don’t you know?”

“All I know is that she’s trying to fire the entire staff again. Something about some theft. I’d call myself, but I don’t want to get Major Wills’ back up again.”

“Why can’t he handle it? He’s the chief usher. Isn’t that his department?”

June groaned. “Are you kidding? He’s terrified of her. All he’d do is fire her and that would break Mark’s heart. And Wills doesn’t want me talking to the domestic staff unless he’s present because that will undermine his authority, so you can sort of see his point.”

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.” Sharon sighed and hung up.

Yasmin Sollette was a woman whose height alone made her an imposing character. Add in an ample (though not huge) waistline and a temper that could run as hot as a broiler on high, and it was understandable why she was a rule unto herself. Her incredible talent as a cook, not to mention the ability to run a kitchen that faced the unique demands of the White House, made the temper worth dealing with, at least as far as June was concerned.

Solly’s mother was Lebanese-Asian, her father Creole-Hispanic. Her face bore the wide nose and round features of the African American side of her heritage, but her skin was very light with a slightly olive-brown hue that spoke to her Middle Eastern and Spanish roots. More often than not, her disposition was sunny and she laughed loudly and easily.

Sharon found her fuming in her office.

“Who are you?” Solly demanded when Sharon knocked on the open door.

“Ms. Jerguessen called me,” Sharon said. “I’m Sharon Wheatly.”

“Oh. I know you. Why’d she call you?”

“She’s stuck in New York. She asked me to find out what was going on.”

“What’s going on is I need to be able to fire folks what need it. That’s what’s going on.” Solly jumped to her feet and began pacing. “You can’t keep order in a kitchen when you can’t fire nobody. There’s stealing going on and I can’t fire nobody? How am I gonna find out who’s doing the stealing if I can’t scare ’em? How am I supposed to do that?”

“I’m not sure.” Sharon swallowed. “What was stolen?”

“My quail eggs!” Solly snapped, her eyes glittering angrily. “I had two dozen for the President’s luncheon on Thursday and half a dozen are gone. Not to mention some premium Serano ham. And let me tell you, somebody’s been dipping into my natural lard pretty regular, too. You think it’s easy to find this stuff? You think I can just pick it up at the local super market?”

“I’m pretty sure you can’t.” Sharon sighed. “I’m sure there’s some sort of procedure, though. Why don’t I talk to Major Willis.”

“That old poop?” Solly threw up her hands. “He’s not gonna do anything! I need to fire people, put the fear of God in ’em. That’s how you get to the truth. I got a whole list of ingredients that have gone missing since the day I started. I can’t put nothing nice in the upstairs pantry without somebody helping hisself. And I sure as hell ain’t putting it down here. Good semolina flour and somebody took the last pound right before I needed it. I need to fire people.”

“How about if we find some other way to put the fear of God in them,” Sharon said.

“Well, you better or I am walking. No point sticking around if I can’t control my own kitchen. No point at all.”

Sharon retreated, trying to remember who the luncheon on Thursday was for. She debated talking to the Major Clive Willis, who as Head Usher, oversaw all the domestic and event staff at the White House. But Willis was a stickler for protocol and domestic issues went through the First Lady’s office, never mind that there really wasn’t a First Lady. And Sharon had already ruffled the man’s feathers when she’d had her office look over the arrangements for the French foreign minister’s visit the month before.

Wincing because she knew June had other better things to do, Sharon nonetheless dialed June’s number.

“So what did you find out?” June asked.

“Well, the theft triggered it,” Sharon said. “She wants to fire the staff so that she can control the kitchen. Make everybody afraid enough that someone will snitch, presumably.”

“What got stolen?”

“Nothing that serious, just ingredients, but it seems to be ongoing. She mentioned half a dozen quail eggs, some Serano ham and some natural lard. She seemed more concerned with keeping her people under control.”

June groaned. “Half a dozen quail eggs? Cripes. I think I know who her thief is. Figures the one person we won’t be able to fire without a lot of due process.”

“Who?”

“My brother. He made quail eggs benedict for brunch last Sunday, with Serano ham.”

Sharon remembered some ravioli made with semolina the Thursday before.

“That’s right. Your brother cooks,” Sharon said, hesitantly, hoping she wasn’t giving anything away. Not that either she or Mark had explicitly decided to keep their few dinners together a secret.

June hadn’t noticed. “What a headache. And I can’t talk to her directly.”

“You can talk to your brother.”

“That I can.” June sighed. “I hate asking, Sharon, but can you talk to Solly in the meantime?”

Sharon sighed as well. “Sure. Why not?”

She hung up and went back to Solly’s office where the chef was pacing again.

“Maybe I just oughta get out of here now,” Solly grumbled, barely noticing that Sharon had returned.

“Do you really want to break the President’s heart?” Sharon asked. “He really does love your work.”

Solly harrumphed. “That’s the only reason I’ve stayed this long. But, dang, I can’t keep doing what I do if someone keeps stealing. From the President, hisself. What kind of person does that.”

“Well…” Sharon grimaced. “You know how he cooks for himself a lot. And according to Ms. Jerguessen, umm… Well, he served her quail eggs for brunch last Sunday. With Serano ham.”

“What?” Solly turned on her.

“I think your thief is the one person we can’t fire.” Sharon shrugged. “At least not for another four years.”

Solly sank into her desk chair. “I put that stuff upstairs so it wouldn’t get taken.”

“That’s probably why he thought it was okay for him to take.” Sharon smiled weakly at her. “He’s not immune to reason. Maybe we could work something out.”

There was the sound of a throat being cleared loudly and meaningfully at the door to Solly’s office. Sharon turned.

Episode 39 – Korean Embassy Aftermath

When Sharon first saw the vicious email, she knew she should have reported it to security. But since it didn’t actually threaten her with anything, she chalked it up as yet another disadvantage to fame, although in retrospect, she’d come to realize it was more her own denial operating at that point.

Max’s article was embarrassing enough as it was. The last thing Sharon wanted on the Monday morning after it ran was to hear about it. Which of course meant that the entire Advisory Board, including part-timers, had to send relentless emails, both congratulating and teasing her. Her family wasn’t much better, especially Michael, who had taken plenty of heat from her at various times in his career.

However, Sharon put most of it behind her and focused on her work. Until Tuesday, during the Advisory Board meeting, when Karen Tanaka made a point of running some video feeds from the latest late night comedy shows. Sharon had been featured on every one, and unlike Max’s article, the jokes were not about how smart she was.

“I don’t know,” chortled one comic. “Is it really a good idea to try to make peace with a woman hot enough to start a war over?”

“I finally figured out why I can’t get any hot women,” crowed another. “You gotta be president to get a woman that hot.”

Sharon sighed loudly, during one particularly obnoxious rant.

“Can I just crawl under the table and die now?” she asked plaintively.

“So that’s it,” another comedian continued. “If our former president had kept a hot chick on his arm, we’d still have our allies.”

“I think we can turn that off,” said Mark quietly.

Karen shrugged. “I know it’s sexist and demeaning, but everyone is talking about how well our foreign policy changes are going.”

“Better yet,” said Augie, “it’s all on our message.”

“Right,” grumbled Sharon. “Trust our new president because he’s a babe magnet. That really lends authority to negotiations.”

She glanced over at Mark, who was smiling softly.

“I guess I’d better use some of that authority then to bring this meeting back to order,” Mark said. “What else is going on today?”

Coop immediately took up his report.

When the late night talk show jokes about the president’s girlfriend still hadn’t let up after Tuesday night, Sharon decided it was time to take steps. Unsure at first who she should call, she found a business card on her desk from the week before. He’d started the trouble, he could help her fix it.

That Max Epstein was a little startled to get Sharon’s call would be an understatement. But he readily agreed to meet her at the latest happening watering hole Friday night. Fortunately, Mark did not have any embassy soirees that week, either.

Which meant that it should have been a smoother week for Sharon, except that Wednesday after lunch, she got a call from June.

Episode 38, Capitol Cues

CAPITAL CUES

By Max Epstein

Mai Lin Hu, wife of South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Jong Hu, was significantly impressed when President Jerguessen wished her well on her birthday last Wednesday at the reception the South Korean embassy held in the president’s honor.

Activist Gloria Park was amazed that not only did President Jerguessen know who she was, he was able to ask her knowledgeable questions regarding her issue – adoption fraud in African countries.

I saw him refer to his iPhone a couple times,” Park said. “But he was checking his facts. That he even knew to do that – wow.”

What Park did not realize is that just prior to her conversation with the president, he had received an instant message from World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly, who had presumably pointed out Park and made sure her boss knew he wanted to talk to her.

It was an interesting dance that night. The president checking his iPhone, then glancing at Wheatly. She would glance in the direction of someone else. Or she would check her Blackberry and he’d glance in the direction of another. Seconds later, he was checking his iPhone.

Wheatly later conceded that she was, indeed, providing links and other information to the president as various people at the party talked to the president.

It’s my job,” she explained. “It’s what I do. I provide critical background information to the president so that he can make appropriate and intelligent decisions.”

But according to Secretary Daniel Freedman, Wheatly’s job is a key part of President Jerguessen’s efforts to rebuild this country’s relations with other nations.

She’s our secret weapon,” Freedman said. “Okay, maybe not so secret. But Sharon is a master at keeping track of people and issues. Mrs. Hu was blown away that the president knew that it was her birthday. That was Sharon who found that out. And that may sound trivial, but something as simple as a ‘happy birthday’ at the right time can go a long way toward building the right kinds of relations we need in the world right now.”

To: Swheatly531

You witch. You may think you have him all wrapped up with a nice pretty bow. It doesn’t matter who you’ve got snowed, I know you for who you are. Witch.

Episode 37 – The Antidote

It was getting close to six-thirty when Sharon IM’d Jean about the North Koreans and heard back about the Moral Americans. Nor was she particularly surprised when, at right about the same time, a group IM from Mark came through asking if the PFZ was going to be open that night. Pretty much everyone else from the Board had other plans. So Sharon relented and invited Mark to come make dinner with her. Mark accepted, almost too quickly and the two went back and forth, debating menu items based on what they had and or Sharon could get.

Mark seemed almost cheerful as Sharon met him in the basement.

“I’ve got the broth and a portobello,” he told her, showing her the canvas bag he was holding. “And some semolina. Plus a kick-ass Tavel that if the domestic wine lobby knew I had, I’d be dead.”

“Great, I love French roses” said Sharon. She smiled then led the way up the stairs. “I’m pounding the pork cutlets now. I’ve got plenty of arugula for a salad, maybe with some tomatoes. And I found some butternut squash chunks in the fridge. If we nuke them, we could use that for the ravioli filling along with some of the portobello.”

“And I love the idea of just dropping them in the hot broth. I am starving.”

As they entered the kitchen, Mark put the bag on the counter.

“Well, you’d better get the pasta started then, said Sharon. “That’s going to take the longest. I’ve got some herbed goat cheese and crackers. We can have that while the pasta is resting.”

“Sounds good.”

Their conversation remained focused on putting the meal together, a hot chicken broth with squash and mushroom ravioli, arugula and tomato salad with artichoke hearts, and breaded pork cutlets piccatta-style with broccoli.

“You seem to be in a better mood,” Sharon said, as they finished their meal.

“I think I am,” said Mark. “I’m sorry I got so grouchy this afternoon.” He sighed deeply. “I told you I could have ditched that meeting.”

“The Moral Americans?” Sharon chuckled. “Yeah, I heard about that.”

“Even Augie agreed, they’ve got a point about my marriage encouraging weddings.”

“That’s what, a six-billion dollar industry?” Sharon smiled. “Could turn the economy around.”

Mark chuckled ruefully. “I don’t think that’s what they were after.”

“No. Really? But how is you getting married going to stop gay marriages?”

“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Mark toyed with his wine glass. “They talked about leading by example, and obviously assumed I’m straight.”

Sharon thought briefly about that one kiss. “I have reason to believe so.”

Mark smiled. “Yeah, I’m afraid I am.” He frowned. “The senator hinted that my not falling in line with their request might lead to rumors I’m gay. As if I’d be worried about people thinking that.”

“Aren’t you?”

“Nah. If I’m not going to judge a person based on their sexual orientation, why should I care if folks judge me that way? Problem is, you were right. The Moral Americans are just vocal enough to cause trouble in other ways, too. I don’t want to appease them, but I don’t want to blow them off, either.” Mark gazed off into space.

They were in the dining room, sitting at one end of the rather large table. It was a fairly large room with windows that looked out onto the street, covered with pull-down shades and gold velvet curtains. It was a more sedate version of Baroque opulence and Sharon knew that the cherry-wood table and breakfront were genuine Louise XV. She’d been with Carla on a trip to France when Carla had bought the pieces.

However, Mark’s attention was actually drawn to the chess set at the other end of the table.

“You play chess?” he asked, getting up and looking at the board.

“Yeah. I got that out this afternoon.” Sharon followed him to the end of the table. “Kim challenged me to a game earlier. I gave him the white.”

The queen’s white pawn was already moved ahead two spaces.

“That’s a bold move,” Mark said.

“Kim really likes playing his queen. He’s also really good at getting rank with his pawns.” Sharon looked at Mark. “Do you play?”

“A little. I’m not that good.”

“Neither am I,” Sharon sighed. “Kim usually whips me backwards and forwards. I think he just asks me to play to humor me. I’m going online tonight to see if I can figure out a strategy.”

Mark chuckled. “I’ve got one. Ape his moves. It’ll make him crazy.”

Sharon hesitated, but Mark made an impressive argument and the two found themselves hovering over Sharon’s laptop, searching chess sites and debating until Sharon suddenly yawned and Mark remembered that it was time to go. And both were surprised and relieved when there was no awkwardness at the basement door.

So the next day, in spite of questions about marriage and the Moral Americans, Mark was in a pretty good mood. He made his statement about supporting marriage for all Americans and re-iterated that it was, in fact, his support for marriage that was behind him still being single. He hadn’t met the right woman yet, nor was he in any position to do anything about it at that time, assuming he did meet the right woman. The press corps, most of whom saw little use in a story about a group who had lost several times over on every effort they had made to legislate their agenda, let the President off on the issue. And there were other issues of more moment.