Episode 36 – The Moral Americans Caucus

The meeting with the Moral Americans did little to improve Mark’s mood. He finally cut it short with a promise to think over their proposal and give them an answer the next day. Then, after several deep breaths and one Zen meditation exercise to calm himself down, he summoned Jean Bouyer and Gus Guerrero to the Oval Office. He was still trying to achieve some calm when they both arrived.

“We’ve got a problem,” he announced, after giving the two permission to take a seat in front of the desk.

Jean and Gus looked at each other.

“You mean a new one?” Jean asked. “’Cause I haven’t heard about any. You, Augie?”

Gus shook his head. “Just the usual nonsense.”

“My meeting just a few minutes ago,” Mark told them. “The one with the Moral Americans Caucus. It went well enough, however, let’s just say that their proposal has left me more than a little… nonplussed.”

“What did they want?” Gus asked.

“They want me to get married.” Mark got up and started pacing. “To a woman, of course. Even offered me four different candidates.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding!” snapped Jean.

“I think I know where this is going,” Gus said, grimly. “Did they specify to a woman?”

“Oh, yes. They think that it will show my support for marriage and encourage others to get married.”

Gus sighed. “It will do that.”

“And if I don’t start making some moves along those lines, they are fully ready to start a campaign questioning my support for marriage and average Americans.”

“How long have they been gone?” Jean asked, immediately opening her laptop and scanning the screen.

“I put them off until Friday.” Mark rolled his eyes. “Big step, lots to think about, you know.”

“Could they have forgotten about the Friday news conference?” Gus asked.

“I’d be surprised if they had,” said Jean. “They may be narrow-minded asses, but they’re not stupid. At least, I don’t think they are.”

“They’re not,” said Gus. “Which means they fully expect you to turn them down. And also means they’re pushing you to the wall on the gay marriage thing.”

“I know.” Mark sighed. “And it’s not like there aren’t other issues to focus on instead of something that should be a gimme.”

“Be nice if it were,” sighed Gus.

Mark looked over at him. “I know. It’s just you won on the legislative side. You won judicially. There ain’t much I can do besides tell the Moral Americans to get over it, already.”

“Maybe that’s what you need to do,” Jean said, smiling. “I mean, don’t blow them off. You can’t afford to look too dismissive of their concerns. Better yet, promote marriage – for all Americans, not just the straight ones.”

Mark half-smiled. “You know, that might work.” He flopped into his desk chair. “It’s just the gall of it all – get married or we’re going to make your life miserable.”

“I’ll get right on the statement,” Jean said, almost getting up expectantly.

“Go ahead,” said Mark, remembering just in time that he should dismiss her.

Jean scooted out. Gus hung back, though not entirely for reasons of protocol.

“You okay, sir?” Gus asked. “It’s not like you to let this sort of thing get under your skin.”

Mark sighed. “Yeah. It’s just other things. Have you got anything else for me?”

“Nope. If I may?”

“Yeah.” Mark sighed as he watched Gus leave.

Mark knew it wasn’t like him to let things like the Moral Americans get under his skin. In fact, under normal circumstances, Mark would normally be laughing himself silly. Except that for the first time in a very long time, he was thinking he might actually like to get married. And he wasn’t sure which was more upsetting, the fact that he was thinking that way or that the woman he wanted was pretty much off-limits.

Or was she?

Episode 35 – Mark Isn’t Happy About Max

Back at the White House, Sharon found that the president wanted to go over the previous night’s party as well as updates on a potential world tour that summer. She checked in with Kent, found the president had a few free minutes right then, so she gathered up her laptop and Blackberry and hurried over to the Oval Office.

“Good news,” she announced after being admitted.

Mark looked up from the desk and smiled. “About what?”

“North Korea. My buddy at the university in Seoul got back to me while I was at lunch.”

“Is it even daylight there yet?”

Sharon quickly calculated. “It’s, what, one-thirty now? It’s about two-thirty in the morning there. Kim’s a hard-core night owl. He used to joke that we’d make a great couple except being in the same time zone would probably kill us. Anyway, he’s the poli sci/world affairs professor I told you about.”

“Right. So what’s the good news?” Mark glanced at his laptop.

“The North Koreans are just making noise about the favoritism. Faiza called it dead-on. They have to complain to look good, but there is definitely interest in re-establishing relations with us.”

Mark smiled. “That is good news. Have you e-mailed Dan yet?”

“Not yet.” Sharon opened the lid to her laptop. “I’d just got in when I got your note and figured you’d want to hear it first, anyway.”

“Got in? Oh, that’s right. Didn’t you have some interview or something?”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “Yeah. Apparently Max Epstein thinks our world affairs policy would make a good feature.”

“It would.” Mark sighed. “Isn’t he that reporter with the bad rep regarding women?”

“Let me guess, you’ve been talking to Augie.” Sharon kept her eyes on her screen, her fingers flying over her keyboard as she wrote her e-mail.

“He called me when he heard about it from Jean.”

“It’s no big deal. Max behaved himself. Asked some good questions, too. We’ll see how the story turns out.”

Mark tried not to glare as Sharon continued working on her e-mail. After all, it was only one interview and it wasn’t as though Sharon was dating the guy. And even if she was, it wasn’t like she was going to be dating Mark, except at working functions, a thought that thoroughly depressed him. Except that all of a sudden, Sharon was asking him something about an upcoming trip to Mexico. Mark shoved his depressing thoughts aside and forced himself to focus on something besides Sharon and dating and not dating.

“Are you all right?” Sharon asked suddenly.

“Yeah. Fine.” Mark shifted uncomfortably.

“You sure?” Sharon looked him over critically. “You don’t look fine.”

“No. I’m okay.” Mark met Sharon’s skeptical glare. “Look, I’m bugged about the whole Max Epstein thing. Not that you can’t handle it.”

“Excuse me, I most certainly can.”

Mark shrugged. “I guess Augie got under my skin. He really is freaking out. He doesn’t want to see you get your heart broken.”

Sharon laughed. “There is no way Max Epstein could possibly break my heart, because I’m not going to fall in love with him.”

“And what makes you so damned sure you’re not?” Mark snapped, appalled at how angry he sounded. He met Sharon’s gaze. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Oh.” Sharon glared at her laptop. “Apparently everyone’s talking about how good we looked together.”

“Jean mentioned that.” Mark swallowed. It was all over the Washington blogs and in the Post’s gossip column. “You do take a great picture.”

“Thanks. But there’s something insanely unsettling about being on the Metro and seeing yourself on the front page of the Life Style section.”

“No one bothered you, did they?”

“No. In fact, no one seemed to notice me, for which I am profoundly grateful.”

Sharon sat back on the office couch, looking deeply saddened. Mark sighed, feeling guilty and annoyed that he couldn’t sit down next to her and hold her close.

“Mr. President,” said Kent’s voice from the intercom. “Senator Halstead and the reps from the Moral American Caucus are here for their meeting.”

“Let me finish here with Ms. Wheatly,” Mark replied, shuddering. He looked at Sharon. “If you want, we can take our time. It’s not like this is a meeting I’m excited about.”

“But they can cause you an awful lot of trouble,” said Sharon, closing her laptop. “I’ve still got to finalize my thoughts on the tour schedule as it is. I’ll finish the report and e-mail it to you and Dan this afternoon.”

“Fine. And cc it to the rest of the Advisory Board, too. I’d like get their input at tomorrow’s meeting.”

Sharon nodded and got up. The two looked at each other awkwardly for a moment, then Sharon left.

Episode 34 – Max Interviews Sharon

The day after the Korean Embassy party found Sharon back at work, as usual, intently trying to run down some information on an old European trade agreement. She had just found something that looked close when Jean Bouyer cleared her throat.

That the press secretary was a little on the round side, most people got. What startled most folks was her short stature. Bouyer tried to enhance her four feet, ten inches by always wearing at least 3-inch high heels and piling her shiny red hair on top of her head, which would have looked ridiculous on most similarly sized women. But the look probably worked for Bouyer simply because she was one of those short women who filled a room with her presence.

Sharon hadn’t had much contact with Jean beyond the odd lunchtime chat in the cafeteria, so she was a little surprised to see Jean standing in her doorway.

“Hey, Jean, what’s up?” Sharon asked, trying not to keep one eye on her laptop’s screen.

“An interview request,” Jean said.

“Huh?”

“Max Epstein wants to do a story on you.”

“Why would he want to do that?”

Jean shrugged. “I don’t really care. But Yesmenia and I talked it over and we think it’d be a really good idea.”

Yesmenia was Yesmenia Alvarez, the president’s public message head.

Sharon grimaced. “Why?”

“We’re coming up on the first one hundred days and the boss isn’t happy with what he’s been able to do so far.” Jean balanced one of her feet on the tiny little spike of her red shoe. “The one thing area where he’s really been gaining ground is the foreign relations. If we can get a story out there about that, well, that might give his first one hundred some oomph.”

Sharon sighed. “So why doesn’t Epstein talk with Dan?”

“He has, but he wants to talk to you. You want me to have Allen set it up with Julie?”

“I suppose.”

“Great. This afternoon okay?”

“Already?” Sharon gulped.

Jean started out. “Max’s deadline is tomorrow. Trust me, you want to accommodate that.”

Sharon sighed again and went back to her document, only to be interrupted again a few minutes later when Julie e-mailed her that she had a lunchtime interview with Max Epstein at a small bistro two blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sharon made a point of being on time and was somewhat pleasantly surprised to see Max at the restaurant waiting for her. It was a small place, crowded with tables, and red vinyl-covered booths along the walls. Max had secured one against the lunch rush. He got up as she approached the table, no mean feat, given the booth, and remained standing until she was seated.

“They do an incredible salmon here,” Max told Sharon as he handed her a menu.

“Hmm.” Sharon browsed, one eye on Max to see what he was up to.

The waiter approached and Sharon asked for separate checks.

“I can put this on the expense account,” Max offered.

“No can do,” said Sharon. “Too close to a conflict of interest for me.”

The waiter sighed as Sharon ordered steak, salad and fries, and an iced tea. Max ordered salmon. As the waiter left, Max pulled out his voice recorder. Sharon sighed.

“I guess my order was on the record,” she said.

Max shrugged. “Not if you don’t want it to be. I can cut some slack on that one.”

“I don’t know if it matters. I probably would have ordered the same thing, anyway.”

“Shall we start at the beginning?” Max smiled. “What got you interested in world affairs?”

He led her through most of her work history, pausing only when the waiter came with their food. Sharon had to concede that Max had done his homework.

“As I understand it, you and one of your last bosses had something going,” Max finally asked.

“Oh, so that’s it?” Sharon rolled her eyes. “You lull me into a false sense of security and pull this?”

Max grinned. “Are you saying you don’t want to answer?”

“Nah.” Sharon speared a french fry. “We kept things discreet, for obvious reasons, but it wasn’t that big a deal. We still worked together for a while after we broke up.”

“So he wasn’t the reason you left the corporate world for the public sector?” Max grinned.

Sharon shrugged. “He may have been, but not for the reason you might think. He wanted a stay-at-home wife and kids, and I didn’t want to be that kind of wife. I was tempted to try it, but I realized pretty quickly that it was more that I was getting a little burnt out on the corporate thing. I had always wanted to go into public service and the diplomatic corps, anyway. So maybe the break up started the nudge that got me here. There were other things, too.”

“Like what?”

“Um,” Sharon hesitated. “We almost lost my sister last summer, and it just reminded me that it was probably time to go after what I really wanted.”

“And what do you really want?”

“Eventually? Maybe Secretary of State. Maybe just an ambassadorship. I don’t know. I’m really loving what I’m doing now.”

“Why?”

“It’s pure research, for one thing. I don’t have to worry about developing policy. And I do get to work my diplomatic chops every so often, but it’s not my primary function, and that’s refreshing.”

“What about the reports this morning out of North Korea that the U.S is favoring South Korea, based on last night’s reception?”

Sharon smiled. “Can’t comment.” She suddenly shifted at the soft buzzing in her purse. “Hold on.” She looked at her Blackberry and grinned. “And would you believe, it looks like I know how we’re going to handle those reports.”

“How?”

“Still can’t comment. Have to get the boss to clear it, first. And Dan. I mean Secretary Friedman.”

“Speaking of your boss, all the talk today is how good you two looked together last night.”

Sharon rolled her eyes, then glared at Max. “Let’s not get started with that. I have no interest in a relationship with the man. I mean, we’re friends. He’s a really nice person. But I’d have to be nuts.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean, why? Complete loss of privacy, for starters. I’ll stay in the background, thank you.”

Max looked at her, pondering. “So you’re a free agent.”

“Don’t get too excited. I’ve heard about you.”

“Yeah.” Max suddenly sighed. “But let’s get back to your preference for the background, as you say, is that related to your brother’s fame?”

Sharon grimaced. “I was afraid you were going to ask about him.”

“I’m more asking about why you prefer the background.” Max smiled encouragingly.

“I suppose that’s legit. And, yeah, I have seen the dark side of fame. But it’s not just Michael. It’s what happens with the president, himself. I mean, the poor guy can’t even go out to get a beer with his co-workers after work. A lot of the ways you and I move around and take for granted that we can do, he can’t. That is not my idea of a way to live.”

Max nodded. He asked a couple more questions about Sharon’s personal life, but it was more in the sense of her history and what got her interested in world affairs. As Sharon got up to go, he gave her his card.

Episode 33 – June and Douglas

For June, it was movie night with her buddy Douglas Lee, and even as the presidential motorcade was wending its way back to the White House, she and Doug were crashed on the couch in her sitting room, snacking on popcorn that the kitchen staff had liberally doused with mayonnaise and asiago cheese as the final credits rolled on a silly romantic comedy on June’s massive flat-panel TV.

Doug grinned. “That was a fun little flick.”

“Yeah. I was surprised it was so good,” June replied. “I mean, the previews made it look cute, but it actually had some meat, didn’t it?”

Doug yawned and stretched. “It sure did. I really appreciate you letting me up here to watch it. Now I don’t have to wait for it to come out on DVD.”

“Isn’t it still in the theatres?” June took a sip from her chardonnay.

“It is, but I’d have to go to some other city to watch it. If I tried to go see a chick flick like that in Manhattan, I’d be bombarded by clients. Or women who want to be my clients.”

June laughed.

Doug shrugged. “The problem is, I’m trying to slow business down.”

“What?”

“I’m thinking about getting out of the hair and make-up biz, or at least, just do it for special occasions or something. May I?” Doug picked up the wine bottle and his glass.

“Help yourself.” June nibbled on a popcorn kernel. “But why?”

“I’m bored.” Doug finished pouring his wine and handed the bottle to June. “I mean, it’s still fun to do a really great cut or get the perfect style or whatever. It’s just that last week, I was going over the finances with my accountant and I realized he was more interesting than ninety-percent of the women I do. And my accountant is not that interesting a guy.”

“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have brought you down if I’d known.”

Doug waved her off. “No. That what’s-her-name…”

“Sharon.” June poured out the rest of the bottle into her glass without thinking about it.

“Sharon. She was great. And your other friend, Karen? I’d love to work on her. She was hysterical. It’s all the spoiled rich dames with more money than taste. And the models.” Doug rolled his eyes. “I still love doing the shows. You can really do some creative stuff. But if I have to listen to another vapid little twit blathering on about nothing.” He shuddered.

June put the popcorn bowl aside. “I guess they can be a bit much. During a show, I’m not really paying attention. So, what are you going to do instead?”

“I don’t know yet,” Doug grinned. “The hard part is going to be getting my client list down. It seems as though as soon as I tell someone I’m dropping her, she throws ridiculous amounts of money at me to keep her on. And the more I insist I don’t want it, the more she throws. You get a couple offers for a hundred thousand dollars a hair cut, and that’s pretty hard to turn down.”

“Yowza. You must be sitting pretty.”

“Pretty enough that I can pretty much do what I want from here on in.”

June’s hand accidentally landed on Doug’s. He flinched. June pulled her hand away as she sighed.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

Doug shrugged. “It’s okay.” He took a deep breath. “Look, I gotta get over this touching thing. It’s time. It may be why I want to get away from New York. But I’m gonna do it.”

June’s heart thudded as he slowly took her hand in his.

“Are you sure you’re up to this?” she asked, not at all sure if she was.

“Yeah. I think I am.” Doug smiled at her. “I’ve racked up a couple breakthroughs lately and my therapist said I should try extending myself a little.”

“Oh. That’s great.” Feeling guilty, June looked down at the bowl. “We’ve still got a full bowl of popcorn.”

“Yeah.” Doug laughed. “At least, it wouldn’t take us both a full week to eat that much.”

June grinned back. “We did put a decent dent in this. The problem is, I’m getting full.”

“Me, too.” Doug took a small handful and began nibbling at it. “Say, June, how would you feel if I moved down here to Washington?”

“What?”

“I’d keep my shop in Manhattan and come up for the shows. But the business can pretty much run itself. And maybe I can do some good here. Maybe put an end to helmet hair.”

June laughed. “That won’t happen.” She looked him over. “You’re not thinking of moving down because of me, are you?”

“Yes and no.” Doug grimaced. “I want to get out of New York because I need to and I’m thinking about here because you’re here. At least, I’d have one friend.”

“You’ve got friends in L.A.”

Doug shook his head. “If I can’t handle models and rich bitches, how far do you think I’d get with the Hollywood crowd?”

“Point taken.” June shrugged. “But do you really want to be a Washington dilletante?”

“I don’t know what I want.” Doug sighed. “I’ve been doing hair since I was eighteen and helping my mom out at the shows since I was five.”

“You got a business degree in there.”

“Yeah. To run my shop and all the other things that were coming along because of that.” Doug shook his head. “It’s time I broadened myself, explored other passions. Who knows? Maybe I want to go back to hair. Maybe I’ll just be a dilletante early retiree. Don’t know yet. But the only way I’ll be able to find out is if I get away from New York for a while. So, do you mind if I hang out down here?”

“No. I’d love it.” June smiled.

IM Session

Gloryhg: Hi.

Swheatly531: Hi.

Gloryhg: Thought I’d check in. Thanks for giving me your personal address.

Swheatly531: You gave me yours. What’s WLF?

Gloryhg: Worth Living For. To die for is too negative. I had a good time tonight.

Swheatly531: For working, it wasn’t bad.

Gloryhg: I may have overstepped a boundary.

Swheatly531: When? Oh, the kiss.

Gloryhg: I’m told I do that sometimes. Overstep, I mean.

Swheatly531: Oh.

Gloryhg: You okay with it?

Gloryhg: You there?

Swheatly531: Yeah. Just thinking it over.

Gloryhg: <<sigh>> Great. Am I looking at a harassment suit?

Swheatly531: Maybe. 😉 Probably not. I hope you’re not thinking I’m ducking comment because you’re the boss.

Gloryhg: Well, that you might does worry me. I mean, one of the reasons I hired you in the first place was because I was confident you’d tell me what you thought regardless of what I might think.

Swheatly531: I just don’t know what I think right now. The boss part is a little awkward. But it’s more the whole dating thing, in general. It’s not a good time for that, you know.

Gloryhg: I know.

Swheatly531: BTW, Gloryhg???

Gloryhg: An old nickname from my college days. The Coop again. Loved poking fun at my ambitions. I got this address years and years ago and mostly forgot about it until the other one went public last summer.

Swheatly531: Well, gotta go. Want to finish some reading before getting to bed. See you tomorrow.

Gloryhg: See you tomorrow.

Episode 32 – The Korean Embassy

For Sharon, the upcoming do at the embassy was turning into more trouble than it was worth, in her opinion. Late Tuesday afternoon, June called her upstairs to the studio for a final fitting of the new dress, which Sharon only endured because she was able to keep reading emails on her Blackberry. Then there was the briefing with the President on Wednesday, not to mention coordinating with the State Department on several trips coming up in the next few months. Not to mention all the other things going on in the world that she had to stay on top of.

So Sharon felt no little irritation when June called her to the media prep room at five p.m. Wednesday to get ready for the embassy party.

“The party doesn’t start ’til seven, and we don’t want to be there before seven-thirty,” Sharon complained. “I don’t need two hours to get dressed.”

“Douglas Lee is going to do your hair and make up,” June explained. “All the other dates get done up. You should, too.”

“I can get done up in my office,” Sharon grumbled. “I don’t need fancy hair and make up.”

“Yes, you do. Now, come on. Even Paris Hilton can’t get Douglas Lee to do her hair.” June gently led Sharon from the office.

Lee, who was stick thin with a dark ring around his shaved head, was sympathetic to Sharon’s complaints and only stopped her from reading e-mail when he absolutely had to. Sharon, when she saw her hair curled and piled on top of her head and the make up job, had to concede that Lee had done a terrific job. She could only hope that Mark wouldn’t notice.

But, of course, Mark did. Fortunately, when he came to pick her up at her office, he saw her first from the hallway. If she had been lovely before in business wear, she was devastating all dressed up to go out. Mark took a deep calming breath before rapping at the office door. Even better, she seemed preoccupied.

“Looks like we might be in for a bumpy evening,” she said, standing then picking up a dark burgundy cloak that matched her mauve lace dress. “It just came over from State that Qui Cho and buddies from the Taiwan mission picked up invites for the party tonight.”

Mark rolled his eyes. “Well, let’s hope Dan’s there.”

“He should be,” Sharon glared at the flat red leather purse June had given her to carry. It was too small for much besides her ever-present Blackberry, an ID case and a lipstick. “I’ve got some notes so I can brief you in the car. Have you got your iPhone and do you want me buzzing you?”

“Of course. Are you ready?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Sharon smiled weakly. “I serve at the pleasure of the President.”

Mark smiled and offered his arm, although inwardly, he winced.

As the presidential limo arrived at the party, he got out first, spotted where the press cameras were and put himself between them and Sharon as he helped her out. The photographers shouted out, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” loudly and over and over again, but Mark ignored them as he walked Sharon into the embassy.

Beyond that, it was a pretty normal party, except that after going through the receiving line, Sharon and Mark separated pretty quickly. They had planned it that way, to allow Mark to work the room and Sharon to observe and send instant messages to him as she spotted various people who might want to talk to him. She also chatted with various dignitaries, stopping a couple times as Mark sent her a message, requesting more information than he could get from his iPhone while talking to someone.

But the third buzz puzzled her. First off, it came from Gloryhg. Then secondly, there was the message, itself: “Buffet’s got some seriously good sweet kimchee at the end. And the bulgogi is WLF!”

As she looked up, she realized that Mark was looking at her from the other end of the room. He winked and nodded at the buffet. Sharon wasn’t sure what WLF meant, but the bulgogi was very good, as was the sweet kimchee.

It was past nine when Mark nodded again and they said their good-byes. As they left the embassy, the photogs and others were waiting along the path from the door to the limo. Mark paused long enough to answer a few questions.

“Who’s your date tonight?” someone hollered.

“My world affairs advisor, Sharon Wheatly,” Mark answered, grinning.

“Miss Wheatly,” someone else hollered from the crowd. “Who are you wearing tonight?”

“What?” Sharon backed away as she felt her Blackberry buzz. “Excuse me for a second.”

Sure enough, there was a message from Gen Flowers. Sharon glanced around and Gen was near the car, smiling. The message answered the reporter’s question.

“Oh, my dress,” Sharon replied. “It’s an original from Ms. Jerguessen’s private collection.”

“Please keep in mind,” Mark interjected, “that Ms. Wheatly isn’t just my date. She’s here as part of the team, and has put in a full night of work.”

“Mr. President, can you tell us about your objectives with the South Koreans?” another reporter bellowed above the other hollers.

Mark went on to answer questions amid the flashes from the cameras, while Sharon smiled softly and stepped back. Unfortunately, someone else wanted to know who had done her make up and hair and Sharon couldn’t answer.

“He’s a friend of the president’s sister,” she said. “I don’t recall his name. I was finalizing the research for tonight at the time.”

“Ms. Wheatly, why mauve?” a reporter bellowed.

“I’m not answering questions about my dress.” Sharon answered and stepped back toward the limo. “This evening was about building our foreign relations, and that’s where my focus is, thank you very much.”

“And I think that will do it for tonight,” added Mark, stepping up and taking Sharon’s arm. “Thanks, everyone.”

And with that, he led Sharon to the limo and helped her in. Once the door was shut, Mark leaned back and laughed.

“Well,” he said. “Turns out you’re quite the media pro, after all.”

Sharon made a face. “Just because I can handle it doesn’t mean I want to.”

“Oh, come on. You had fun nailing them on the make-up questions.”

“No.” Sharon sighed. “Maybe a little. It’s just kinda ridiculous that I’m here as your aide and all they want to know is what lip gloss I’m using.”

“Well, you are my date.”

“As if that makes any difference. I was here to work as much as you were.”

“Well, you pulled it off.” Mark grinned and nudged her. “Looks like you had fun doing it, too.”

Sharon winced again. “Not really.”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

“No.”

Mark looked at her, puzzled. “No? That doesn’t make sense. I’ve been with women who really hate the attention and they get all stiff and you didn’t. In fact, you’re more like somebody who likes the attention.”

Sharon grimaced. “I don’t. I mean…” She sighed. “It’s complicated.”

Mark softened. “How?”

“It’s…” Sharon shrugged as she struggled to find the right words. “Okay. This is just between the two of us, right?”

“Sure.”

“It’s not that I don’t like the attention. I’ve been getting it most of my life, and it could be a lot worse. It’s just….” Sharon swallowed. “I just feel so shallow. I hate that about myself. It’s like I’m lying or something. I don’t want to be obsessed with my looks or stuff like that, but that’s why people look at me. That’s not what I’m about. I’m about my brains and who I am as a person. But, yeah, it’s kinda cool that people think I’m good-looking.”

Mark laughed. “That doesn’t make you shallow.”

“Unless all the girls you grew up with were that shallow and all into who photographed them and they didn’t count as people unless they ended up in this tabloid or that.” Sharon shuddered. “I thought it was stupid then and I still think it’s stupid. And I hate it when I get caught up in it.”

“Ah. I hear you. There’s no question you can get pretty caught up in it all.” Mark chuckled. “But I think the fact that you hate getting caught up is a pretty good sign that you’re not going to.”

Sharon sighed. “I’d rather not deal with it in the first place. Anyway, you wanted to compare notes?”

Mark nodded, smiling but wishing they were talking about anything but work. Sharon went over some of the information she’d gathered from various folks and Mark listened dutifully. When they got to Sharon’s townhouse, Mark walked her in and shut the front door.

“It’s a little late, but I can pull some dinner together,” she said.

“No, I’m pretty well stuffed from the party.” Mark paused. “And I’ve got to get back. Riff’s already annoyed that I came in with you.”

“Then why…”

“I just wanted to say thank you and good night, like a good date.”

“Oh.”

“I know we were working, but, well…”

Mark bent and kissed her mouth. Sharon lost her breath and longed both to wrap her arms around him and not let go and she longed to shove him away. And it was still over too soon.

“Good night,” Mark said and opened the door.

“Good night,” Sharon whispered. She closed the door behind him still trying to savor the feel of his lips on hers.

Mark bounded down the stoop, hoping that this working date thing might be working for him.

Enter Max Epstein

Tuesday, Mark entered the meeting room for the Advisory Board meeting and knew immediately that something was up. It wasn’t obvious. The group stood and chanted, as usual. But as Mark sat down the rest of the group didn’t. Instead, Augie blew a note on a pitch pipe and the group sang a chorus of When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.

Mark applauded slowly at the end of the tune.

“What was that all about?” he asked.

“Today is St. Patrick’s Day,” Coop answered. “The Irish are a people with a great love of song and storytelling.”

Sharon grimaced. “Coop, you are aware that was not a real Irish tune.”

“It was written by a couple Jewish guys,” Tanks said.

“It’s not like any of you are Irish,” Coop said.

“And you are?” Ed-man asked, even though he should have known better.

“Full one-quarter,” Coop replied, grinning. “My paternal grandfather was a son of the sod. Given the way Grandma talked about him, it may even have been consensual.”

“Be that as it may,” Mark interrupted. “Do any of you delinquents have a report to present?”

The meeting fell to order, but Coop was quite taken with the success of the venture and continued lobbying for a second performance.

Coop also had another announcement for the end of the meeting.

“Our esteemed boss will be joining us for lunch,” he said.

The group applauded severally, and Mark acknowledged the tribute.

“Where are we going?” Whitey asked.

“You mean who did you con into letting us in?” Ed-man added.

“Believe it or not, the National Press Club.”

The others groaned loudly.

Coop waved them down. “There will be no interviews and we have a semi-private room. And Augie had nothing to do with it besides making the suggestion. They’re just being decent. Now, if some of those other clubs get wind of it, maybe they’ll decide to stop being so snooty and let us in, as well.”

The group decided to ride in the Presidential limo for the fun of it. It was Sharon’s first time in the car and she tried not to gulp when she realized she’d be riding in it again the next night for her “date” to the South Korean embassy.

The lunch, itself, was fun and relaxing. The food was pretty good, and while Mark initially got a few stares, by and large, the group was ignored. Until the end of the lunch. Mark hurried back to the White House, and with him went Ed-man, Coop and Whitey. Sharon, Tanks and Augie decided to take the Metro back, since Tanks had to find a deli so she could make sandwiches for one of her daughters’ school event the next day and Augie knew where one was and Sharon wanted to know where it was, as well.

But Augie got side-tracked by a former colleague in the bar. Sharon and Karen offered to wait for him, and while they were waited near the door, Karen nudged Sharon.

“You’re right,” Karen said with a wicked grin. “People do look at you a lot.”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I told you.”

“At least some of the guys are cute.”

“Unfortunately, they’re not the ones who try to pick me up.”

At the other end of the bar, a reporter in a tan corduroy jacket, dark plaid shirt and navy blue tie was chatting with his friend with one eye firmly on Sharon.

“So, who’s going to try?” Karen teased. “That geek in the back?”

“Welcome to my nightmare.”

As if in response, the reporter got up and headed toward the door of the bar. However, he was reaching inside his jacket pocket and actually left from the other door.

Behind her, in the foyer, Sharon could hear him talking to someone in German. Exceptionally fluent German. Karen glanced back into the foyer.

“He’s on the phone,” she said.

“Talking to somebody about getting them some tortillas,” Sharon said.

“Tortillas?”

Sharon shrugged. “Mexican food is getting more popular in Europe, but it’s still pretty hard to find the good stuff.”

Augie chose that moment to come back. “Let’s get out of here.”

The women turned as the reporter in the foyer snapped his phone shut. Augie, however, got pulled back into the bar. The reporter grinned as he saw the women.

“Ladies,” he said in a natural American accent. “Let me guess, Dr. Karen Tanaka and Ms. Sharon Wheatly?”

Karen grinned. “You got it in one. Where’d you learn to speak German like that?”

“Dad was in the Air Force and stationed there, then took a civilian job there when I was a kid.” The reporter shrugged. “I basically grew up in Ramstein.”

“And you are?” Karen asked.

“Max Epstein, at your service.” He bowed, but with one eye on Sharon.

He addressed her in German, Sharon replied somewhat frostily and then Augie came up and glared at Epstein.

“Max, I see you’ve met my colleagues.”

“It appears I have, Gus. Good to see you again.” Max smiled and left.

“So what did you guys say?” Karen asked as they left the building.

“He was hitting on me,” Sharon grumbled.

“I can imagine,” Augie sighed.

Sharon frowned. “Have to give him points. He made an obscure reference to some German poetry. I was lucky I knew the poem.”

“Well, I wouldn’t get too excited.” Augie glared back at the club for a second. “Max is a darned good reporter, but he’s got a bad reputation with women. And in a couple cases, I know how bad.”

Karen giggled. “So we stand warned.”

“I already was,” Sharon said. “He’s the one that does that Capitol Cues column, right?”

“Yeah,” said Augie.

Sharon nodded. “Then he’s the one. He hit on my brother’s girlfriend a year or so back and seriously ticked both her and my brother off.”

“Good,” said Augie with decided finality.

Sharon and Karen looked at each other, but the truth was, there really wasn’t anything more to be said on the matter.

Max, for his part, had returned to his office and was already dialing his phone and doing a Google. It hadn’t taken much mulling over. He wasn’t sure exactly where his research on Sharon Wheatly would lead, but at the very least, she’d make one very good story.

She was supposed to be accompanying the President to the South Korean Embassy cocktail party that next night. Max grinned. An e-mail to his buddy on the International desk and the invite to the party was as good as in his hands.

Episode 30 – Michael and Inez Fight

In New York city, Michael Wheatly sat in the tiny music room in his apartment, feeling a little lost and not quite sure what to do about it. In the two months since he and Inez had been living together, there had been considerable rockiness. The fights had been intense – and loud – but not so serious as to break them up. If anything, Inez said she’d expected them, part of the whole learning to live together process.

Still, Michael felt uncomfortable. It was true that his ex-wife had been more likely to avoid confrontations during the four years they were married. But the fights toward the end, those had been loud and ugly. Michael played his and Inez’ latest fight back through his mind, trying to find something different.

He played a few notes on the mini-grand piano in front of him and debated writing them down on the sheet music in front of him. It was about that time that he caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke. Inez must have come home. He’d been concentrating pretty intensely on his latest composition and Inez knew better than to knock when the music room door was closed. Michael felt a pang of guilt, looked at the music and decided he’d played out this latest bit of inspiration.

Inez was in the living room, smoking and looking out the apartment window without seeing anything.

“Are you home early or did I lose track of time again?” Michael asked softly.

Inez turned and snubbed out her cigarette. “Oh. I don’t know. What time is it?”

Michael looked around the living room but there were no clocks visible. There was a clock on the DVD player, but that was closed in the cabinet below the TV. The kitchen boasted clocks on the microwave, the oven and the stereo unit under one of the shelves, but that was in the kitchen.

“It’s dark,” Michael observed. “Six-ish, maybe?”

“Sounds about right.” Inez pulled her mobile phone from her pants pocket. “Six-thirty-eight, actually. You want dinner?”

“I suppose. Are you all right?”

Inez shrugged listlessly. “So-so. Maria French came by the studio today. She wants to show my work at her gallery.”

“That’s terrific.” Michael paused. “Are you worried about having enough prints developed or something?”

“No. I’ve got plenty of pictures.” Inez looked over at him and smiled sadly. “I could take some new shots for the kids at play series, but I’ve got enough for Maria’s exhibit if I don’t get to it.”

“Then what’s bothering you? You don’t smoke inside here, usually.”

“I’ve gotta quit this lousy habit.” Inez dropped the pack of cigarettes onto the window sill.

“And…?” Michael waited.

Inez looked at him. “Mama called this afternoon. She wants me to come to dinner next Sunday.”

“If we’re free, why not?”

“She wants me. You were not included in the invite.” Inez began pacing. “My ex is going to be there.”

“So?”

“Mama doesn’t quite get it that Manuel left me. She wants us back together again. Even a bastard like Manuel is better than me being alone or living in sin with you.”

“I take Mama doesn’t quite get it that you’re the one who doesn’t want to get married just yet.”

Inez turned on him. “Now don’t start that with me, will you? I’m in no mood.”

“No kidding.” Michael flopped onto the couch.

Inez rolled her eyes. “And you’re still bugged about the fighting.”

“Yeah, I am.” Michael glared at her. “Sorry. I know better. I just- I don’t know. This just isn’t what I expected. I mean I didn’t expect it to be perfect and happily ever after.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “So what? It’s not all about you. If we’re going to make a go of this, you’d better get used to that idea and fast. I’ve got a real problem here. If you’re not willing to listen, then I can go elsewhere.”

“No.” Michael got up and went to her. “I’m sorry. I should be listening better. But it’s not like we can do anything about your family.”

“Like I don’t know that? It still hurts. It’s still making me crazy.”

“Then don’t let it.”

“Easy for you to say.” Inez groaned and went back to glaring out the window.

Michael came up behind. “Okay. It’s not easy. But what are you going to do? You’re not going to change them.”

“I know. I just wish they weren’t so down on you.” Inez coughed lightly. “Manuel called me today, also. Said he wants to get back together. I guess his little floozy lost her job.”

“I’m sorry, Inez.”

“You’re right. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Michael smiled softly. “Except not get back together with him.”

“Don’t even,” Inez growled, then softened. “It’s not going to happen. I just don’t want to have to deal with it, is all.”

“Then don’t. The next time Manuel calls, hang up on him. If your mother starts in, hang up. There’s a reason those buttons are on the phone.”

Inez leaned into him. “I know. We’ll see. This is my mother we’re talking about, remember.”

Michael sighed. “Point taken. It’ll be all right, Inez, mi amor. The most important thing is that we’re here together. The rest of the world can go to hell.”

“It can.” Inez smiled. “So what did you do all day?”

Michael grinned. “Sparrow Without Wings. You want to hear it?”

“Of course, amado.” Inez shook her head and chuckled.

It was always about Michael. But sometimes, that was a good thing.

Episode 29 – The Draping Continues

Sharon found being draped on a tedious business, at best. And hard on the arms, which had to be held out from her side for a long time. June was sympathetic and didn’t fuss too much as Sharon shifted. The two were chatting pleasantly when there was a knock on the door and Mark suddenly entered.

“June, have you heard from Matt?” he asked, then stopped. “Oh. I didn’t know you had company.”

“I was helping Sharon paint her office,” June explained. “We’re waiting for the paint to dry so I can paint a faux chair rail. What’s up with Matt?”

“Just haven’t heard from him,” Mark said softly. “We can talk about it later.”

Suddenly serious, June looked up at him. “What happened?”

Mark glanced at Sharon. “Got a bounce back. His web address mail box is full.” He smiled weakly at Sharon. “Probably not paying attention. We’ll talk later.”

“For sure,” June replied as she went back to pinning in earnest.

Sharon silently sighed her relief as Mark left the studio. June hadn’t seemed to notice Sharon’s fluttering heartbeat. In fact, June seemed distracted and sad.

“You okay?” Sharon asked, finally.

“Yeah.” June stopped and sat back on her heels. “No. I’m worried.” She looked up at Sharon and went back to pinning. “Matt is our nephew. Our oldest brother’s kid. We, uh, don’t get on that well with Harold and Shawna.”

“I’ve heard there’s some coolness.”

“That would about describe it. They have three kids. Mark and I, well, we’ve tried to be there for them. It’s hard because we don’t want to undermine their parents.”

“But you don’t like their parents.”

“Their parents are pretty obnoxious.” June shook her head. “They’re into appearances and as long as you look good, nothing else matters. The two older girls, Tracy and DeeDee. They bought into it. Matt. He’s sixteen. He’s a lot like Mark. Real thoughtful and everything. Only Matt’s a lot more introverted than Mark.”

“Doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d let his inbox get too full.”

June sighed. “He’s not. It’s Shawna. She’s… Controlling I guess is the way to put it. She wants Matt to hang with her idea of the right kind of kids. So she doesn’t let Matt connect with anybody she doesn’t approve of.”

“Including you and his uncle?”

“Especially us.” June jabbed a pin into the fabric with a particularly violent thrust. “It’s pretty amazing that she pulls it off, too. What with all the different ways kids have of communicating these days. But she’s got Matt totally under her thumb, not to mention control of his laptop and his cell phone. Has totally blocked all the addresses and numbers from folks she doesn’t like. And his school won’t let the kids use social networking sites or webmail. I suggested the public library, but apparently, they need a parent’s signature to let him on.”

“Can’t he borrow someone else’s laptop or phone?”

“There’s a little problem with that. Did you get an e-mail last summer with Mark’s private cell phone number and e-mail?”

“That was a hoax.”

“No, it wasn’t. One of Matt’s so-called friends figured out who he was e-mailing and calling.”

“Oh, no.”

“Matt’s gotten so paranoid, he’ll barely e-mail my dad or grandma. Which is probably the biggest problem.”

“Poor thing.” Sharon thought. “I wonder if there’s a way to set up a false personality, maybe with the right kind of avatar or something.”

“That you’d have to get past Mark and I don’t think you will. He’s dead set against undermining Matt’s parents.”

“But his mother is-”

“I know.” June picked up her scissors, gazing at Sharon thoughtfully, but as though she wasn’t seeing her. “I think Mark’s worried that if we give Shawna any real ammo, she’ll take it out on Matt.”

“That would make sense.” Sharon thought. “You know. I’ll have to think it through and do some checking, but I think I can arrange a work-around. Maybe if your brother gets worried enough, he won’t be as concerned about undermining.”

“I can only hope.”

June was done just before dinner time. Sharon declined to stay for the meal, not wanting to see Mark again.

The next morning, she was surprised to see the whole faux chair rail painted in. It was done in a complicated criss-cross pattern in orange and yellow with a dark gray background. Sharon wondered how long it took June to do it, and how much of June’s work had to do with her worry about her nephew. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much Sharon could do about it at that moment, so she moved her new furniture in and hung the art work.

Episode 28 – June and Sharon Connect

June swallowed. “Oh that. Yeah, I did. Listen, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but I’ve got this little project going, trying to maybe prevent some of the rumor-mongering regarding my brother and eligible females.”

“You mean the dating pool?”

“Exactly.”

Sharon tried to get up. “Oh, no. Not interested. No way, no how.”

June flopped down next to her. “Sharon. Seriously. We need you. Dan Friedman wants you to pull embassy duty. It’s perfect. You won’t need all the extra briefing and you’ll know how to handle yourself better than anybody. Plus, the whole point of the dating pool is that you’re just friends.”

“I’m not sure I want to be friends,” Sharon complained. “For crying out loud, I work for the guy. He’s my boss. How would that look?”

“Exactly. You’re there for a reason. It’s not about romance, it’s about work.” June sat back triumphantly.

Sharon groaned softly.

June touched her arm. “Seriously, Sharon. You’re safer out in the open this way.”

Sharon felt a cold chill. Mark had said the same thing once.

“I don’t get it,” she said finally.

June sighed. “Let’s just say that there’s less room for rumors to get started when you’re openly associating with my brother.”

“But don’t photographers and news people show up at embassy events?”

“They do, but nobody cares. Look what happened with Carrie Martindale. The whole reason that went crazy is that she denied she knew him. If it’s obvious you have a good reason for being with him, no one is going to give a damn.”

Sharon winced.

June held her arm. “Look, I get it about not wanting to be looked at and your privacy and all. It’s just one of those paradox things that being out in public with Mark is the best way to be ignored. Trust me, it’s the secret romance that they’re all looking for. And we do need you, Sharon. Mark’s whole thing is repairing our foreign relations. We need someone who can help him with that, not someone who might say something stupid out of ignorance.”

Sharon sighed. “There’s the trump card. Damn.”

“It’ll be public knowledge that I’m the one arranging Mark’s dates. That’ll make it even harder for any rumors to gain ground.”

“I suppose. I guess I’m in.”

June grinned. “Terrific. I’ll set you up for the Korean embassy bash on Wednesday.”

“So soon?” Sharon groaned.

“Hey, it’s repairing our foreign relations. Everyone’s been trying to get Mark to their embassy for the past three months. The South Koreans just came up in the rotation. Now, we’re talking cocktail length. From what Tanks says, all you’ve got is that blue number.”

Sharon flushed. “I’m afraid so. I do spend most of my time working, you know.”

June got up and sat down in front of the drafting table. “Blue is not a bad color for you, but I’m thinking mauve for some reason.”

“Why not?” Sharon said. “Something old-fashioned with puffed sleeves?”

June grimaced. “Yes and no. Tanks is about trends. That’s not a knock on her, by the way. That’s just who she is, and I love that about her. But you.” June looked her over again and Sharon could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “You are more about classic styling. But daring.” June clipped a sketch pad to the top of the drawing board and sharpened a pencil. “What do you love most about your body?”

“Me?” Sharon thought. “My eyes, I guess.”

“And hate?”

“Oh, lord, hips, thighs, you name it.”

June looked her over again. “Nah. Your hips aren’t bad at all. Not according to your measurements. Your shoulders are a tad narrow. I noticed you don’t tend to carry a shoulder bag.”

“Can’t keep anything up on my shoulders.”

“Thought so.” June started sketching. “That’s good. We can go with the off-shoulder look. Hm. Sash around the hips?”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes!”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

June grinned and beckoned Sharon over. “Well, look at this. What do you think?”

The dress on the sketch pad was straight, but with a sash that encircled the shoulders and another that encircled the hips, and long straight sleeves.

“It’s beautiful,” Sharon gasped.

“I’ve got it!” June jumped up and rummaged through one of the armoires. “Mauve silk lace. I knew I had a sample in here. That must have been what got me thinking mauve.” She presented the roll of fabric to Sharon. “You like it?”

“It’s gorgeous.”

June held the fabric up to Sharon’s face. “It’s perfect for your coloring. I think I’ve got a fitting leotard in here. Would you mind if I draped this on you? The paint should be dry by the time we’re done.”

“Draped?”

“It’s a way of making a pattern. I basically just pin and cut it right on you. It’s fast and it will fit like nothing you’ve ever owned before.”

“June, what are you talking about?”

“Indulging myself.” June sighed. “Look, Sharon, I don’t know if this will make sense to you or not, but I really love making clothes for other people. It’s why I do what I do. And one of my absolute favorite things to do is to make specific designs for specific people. It’s like that suit for Tanks. No way would that work on anybody else. And the glory of it was, I was able to get to know Tanks and to take what I knew about her and make that part of the design. And this dress is part of what I know about you. It is the most fun thing on the planet for me.”

“Okay,” Sharon said slowly. “I get that. It’s like when Sarah or Susan or my brother get going. It’s who they are.”

“It’s part of who I am.” June smiled softly. “I started in high school. My BFF. She was a little on the chunky side and hated that she couldn’t find clothes that fit and were cute. So I made stuff for her and it was so much fun. That’s why I went into clothing design. The only problem is that designing in a vacuum kinda sucks. I have to have somebody in mind when I’m designing or the result bites.”

“So will this dress end up in production?” Sharon grinned slyly.

“No! No way. This is yours and yours only.” June paused. “Something similar might end up in production.” She looked Sharon over again. “I could do a whole line around you. But nothing personal. I think Tanks is a little more profitable an inspiration. Clothes are about trends and she does that thing so well.”

Sharon laughed. “She does. You know, Al Eddington calls her Advisor Lite.”

June giggled. “And she’s one of the smartest people I know. Did you hear her on the gender ramifications of using sex to sell hamburgers?”

“You know how people talk about me having my finger on the pulse of the world. Tanks could run circles around me. I swear, she can spot what’s coming faster than Coop can. And what Coop doesn’t know, ain’t worth knowing.”

June nodded. “And I’ve known Coop for years. Come on. Let’s get you into a leotard.”

Episode 27 – June Has a Plan

Later that afternoon, Sharon got a call from the security office. A large package had arrived for her. Sharon went down to confirm that she knew the sender and to give her permission for the package to be searched. The Secret Service man promised to have it put in her office by the next morning, even though it was Saturday.

June, for her part, had been debating how to talk to Sharon about her own little scheme. Saturday morning, she decided it was time and called Sharon’s cell phone.

“I hate to ask you to come in on the weekend,” June began.

“I’m already here,” Sharon said. “I’m redecorating my office this weekend.”

“Oh? Great. I’ll be down in just a bit.”

June could hear Sharon’s voice as she approached the office.

“No, I’m looking at them right now,” Sharon was saying. “They’re fabulous…. Seriously, Sarah, they’re perfect. The Outre-Meuse poster and the one from the Sparrow series…. No, darling, I know you’re not going to, but you should. It’s amazing. You could make some serious money on it….”

June peeked in the open door. Sharon turned and June spotted the headset parked on her ear. The floor in front of the desk was littered with cardboard and bubble wrap. Framed art leaned against any available vertical surface. Sharon was holding a framed oil painting. June could see a lot of pink and a long black slash through the middle, but none of the details.

“You’ve totally caught her. It’s perfect, Sarah. You’ve outdone yourself, sweetie,” Sharon continued. “I’m not overdoing it. You’re great, Sarah, and you know it. Now get over yourself, already…. I mean it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it…. Thanks. I love you, too…. Bye.”

Chuckling, Sharon switched off the headset then smiled as she saw June.

“Hi!” Sharon said.

“Hi.” June looked at the different art works and smiled. “Wow. This is one hell of a collection.”

“That was my sister Sarah,” Sharon explained, the pride oozing from her. “She’s an artist. I asked her to pick some art for my office and this is what she sent.”

June looked at the oil in Sharon’s hand. “This is incredible. Where did she get it?”

“That’s her own work,” said Sharon. “It’s one of a series she did when our other sister, Susan, had her accident. Susan is – was a dancer. It’s hard to say now.” Sharon sniffed suddenly. “It’s still hard. It was only last summer.”

June reached out and held Sharon’s shoulder. “Oh, my god. I’m so sorry.”

Sharon shrugged. “Thanks. I… It’s… Hell. I’m the last person to say where Suse should be now. But anyway, Sarah, God bless her, found a way to help us all deal with it.” Sharon lifted the painting again. “She did a whole series – Sparrow Without Wings, one for each of us. We always called Susan the Sparrow because she was always flitting all over the place. She’s kind of like my brother that way. Can’t stay still.”

“There were four of you?”

Sharon laughed. “Yeah. My older brother, then me, Susan, and Sarah. And Michael has two girls, Toby and Jodi. They live with their mom.”

“Heavens!” June looked again at the painting. “So what are you going to do with this one?”

Sharon shrugged. “Good question. I know I want to paint. I was thinking green, but then this…” She looked at the oil again.

June looked around the narrow office. “Actually, I think you’re on the right track. If you go with greens on the wall, it will not only complement the pink, but I think it will make the painting really pop. Let’s see, do I have any paint chips?”

“I have some here.” Sharon handed June the collection of small cards hooked together by a metal ring.

The two debated colors for several minutes, although Sharon ultimately went with June’s suggestion to use two shades of green, with a faux chair rail in gold and orange to divide the darker green on the bottom of the wall from the lighter green on top.

“Tell you what,” June said. “Why don’t you go get the paint while I get changed and get the walls prepped?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sharon said.

“I’m totally serious.” June grinned. “One of the worst parts of being the CEO, you never get to get your hands dirty. And I love painting. Seriously. I’ll call a car for you.”

“Uh…”

June had already grabbed Sharon’s desk phone and was dialing. “Don’t worry about it. Weekend stuff comes out of personal funds and we can prove it, if necessary. And I already helped Tanks put her office together.”

Thanks to the car, Sharon got back from the paint store in record time, happy to find that her furniture order had arrived and been inspected by the Secret Service. The new credenza, chair and shelving waited outside the office. June was inside, putting the last bits of masking tape over what would be the faux chair rail.

It was mid-afternoon by the time the two finished with the walls, but the chair rail would have to wait until the walls had dried.

“Let’s go on up to my studio and kick back for a while,” June said.

“Okay,” Sharon replied, not sure what June was suggesting.

June led her into an elevator and it was pretty clear as they got off that they were now in the private residence. Sharon gulped.

“Yeah, it’s still freaking me out,” June said, heading for a nearby stairway. “And I’m living here. The Lincoln bedroom is that way. Want to know where my brother’s room is?” “No!” Sharon yelped, then regretted it.

“He’s around here, someplace.” June shook her head. “You know how he keeps going on about not keeping people at work all hours? Total hypocrite. Even money, he’s in his private office right now, working away.”

“Couldn’t he be, like, watching a basketball game or something?” Sharon asked. “Probably, but he’s still working.” June chuckled. “He hasn’t got anything else to do. Come on.”

June’s studio was a large open room with lots of windows along the long wall. There were several antique armoires in between the various windows, a drafting table at one end, curtains along the far short wall and a still life set up in one corner with an easel containing the canvas in front of it. In front of the curtains was a square riser. Three different types of sewing machines were set up along another wall, along with a pressing station and several dressmaker’s dummies. Near the door was a desk with a laptop and next to that an overstuffed couch and a couple file cabinets.

“My sanctum sanctorum,” June said, with a wave of her hand. “You know how brothers are supposed to be despised?” She shook her head. “Kinda hard to despise a brother who can put something like this together.”

“He did this?”

“Not entirely. I had most of the input. But it was his idea to make sure I had it.”

Sharon shrugged, trying to stay cool. “He’s the right kind of brother, I guess.”

“Mostly.” June waved at the couch. “Have a seat.”

“You know, it suddenly dawns on me that you came down to my office this morning because you wanted to talk to me.” Sharon flopped down.