Episode 176 – Susan’s Big Night

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

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

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

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

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

“But what if–” Susan began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Max was there, waiting for her.

“Well?” she asked.

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

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I did.”

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

“Sure. Want me to push?”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

Episode 175 – Sharon’s Quandary

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

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

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

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

“Sure. Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

“Sounds like something’s escalating.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay. And you want me to..?”

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

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

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

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

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

Mark laughed and Sharon left the Oval Office.

Episode 174 – Al is Grieving

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

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

“That’s nonsense,” Al suddenly snapped.

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

“He’s an idiot!” Al snarled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I get it. I’ll be fine.”

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

Al frowned. “Is that an order?”

“Yes, it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen and Mackie shook their heads.

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

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

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

“I owe you an apology,” he grumbled.

“Accepted,” said Sharon.

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

They murmured their acceptances and Al stalked off.

“You think Jugs..?” Karen asked.

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

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

“So now what?” Karen asked.

“Just let him be,” Gus said.

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

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

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

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

Episode 172 – Max Meets up With Susan

In the District, itself, Susan Wheatly sat at a table in the bar of one of the larger, more luxurious hotels in town. A double Manhattan and a plate of Maryland crab cakes had been placed in front of her, but her attention was riveted to her tablet which was running a video taken that afternoon.

The dance wasn’t working. Two weeks before the premiere at the Artists with Disabilities Festival and her grand debut piece was not coming together. Not even close. Susan knew better than to panic. This would hardly be the first time a piece she was choreographing got stuck. But it was the first time she wouldn’t be able to dance out the problem herself.

The video ended and Susan started it over again, only to pause it and glare at the screen. She wasn’t sure if she heard the man’s voice first or simply felt his presence.

“You’re Susan Wheatly, aren’t you?” he asked.

Susan was about to question the man’s right to ask, but then she looked up. His hair was brown, as were his eyes and there was a small scar on his chin. His tan jacket was just neat enough to be acceptable, but Susan’s eyes didn’t miss the tiny frays at the lapels and the cuffs. And even as she registered the plaid shirt under the jacket, she realized she’d met the man before.

“I’m sorry,” she began.

He held out his hand. “Max Epstein. We met last spring in Los Angeles.”

“Oh. You’re that reporter my sister’s dating or something like that.” Susan gave his hand a brief squeeze.

Was something like that,” Max sighed and sat down in the chair across the table. “We never really got off the ground and I haven’t talked to her since May? June? Somewhere in there.”

“Kicked you to the curb, did she?”

“No. Just a mutual realization that it wasn’t going to work. We’re still Facebook friends.”

“I didn’t even know she was on Facebook,” said Susan.

“She’s not real active,” Max said. “So I’m guessing you’re in town for the Artists with Disabilities Festival? I’d read you’ve got a dance on the schedule.”

“Not a good time to be asking about that,” Susan grumbled, glaring at the tablet in front of her.

“Ah. The magnum opus isn’t quite coming together yet.”

Susan sighed. “It’s early yet. Today was just the first rehearsal.”

She fiddled with the stem of her cocktail glass, wondering if she should have told Sharon she’d arrived in town.

“These things always seem like they’re going to hell, at first,” Max said gently. “But they come together by the end. At least, that’s what happens when I’ve got a big writing project.”

Susan flipped the tablet face down onto the table. “Yeah. You’re right.”

“And you’ve got crab cakes getting cold.”

Susan grinned and shoved the plate toward him. “Have one. They’re pretty darned good.”

“I know,” said Max reaching over to take one of the crispy brown cakes. “This place is known for the best crab cakes outside of Baltimore.”

“Buy you a drink?” Susan asked.

Max thought about it for a moment. “Sure. Why not?”

“And what brings you to the high rent district?” Susan asked, waving at the waiter.

“An interview. North Dakota’s governor’s in town to beg favors from the president.”

“Does not sound interesting.”

Max shrugged. “It wasn’t. So what brings you to the high rent district?”

“My brother is a rock star and very generous. So I have money and I decided that in this high stress situation, I needed some luxury to de-stress.” Susan took a long sip of her drink. She smiled, suddenly aware of what she wanted. “You want to have sex with me tonight?”

The suggestion clearly startled Max. That was all right. It had startled Susan, who in spite of being decidedly loose of late, was rarely that abrupt. He grinned.

“Sure. Why not?”

Sometime later, after drinks and crab cakes and sex, Max stirred. Susan had pulled herself upright in bed and was again staring at her tablet.

“You okay?” Max asked.

“It’s just not going right,” Susan sighed. “And I don’t know how to fix it.”

Max sat up, himself. “Well, what’s it supposed to be about?”

“About struggle and overcoming and getting back on your feet after a loss,” Susan said.

“Except you can’t get back on your feet,” Max said.

The tablet fell into Susan’s lap and she began breathing heavily. Max wasn’t sure, but thought she might be ready to hit him. Instead, she slowly broke down into sobs. He pulled her into his arms and let her cry. It took a while, but the crying eventually slowed.

“Sorry to do that to you,” Max said.

“You were just trying to help,” Susan said with a sniff. “It’s probably the first time I’ve really cried about losing my legs. I mean, I was at the point where I was going to have to think about retiring from the ballet, anyway. And I knew I wanted to choreograph. I just didn’t think I’d have to do it from a wheelchair.” She blinked back a couple tears, then let them fall. “Everyone thinks I’m being so brave and making the best of a bad situation. But I’m not. I hate the way things are. I want to dance. Really dance. And I can’t. My body won’t let me.”

“Sounds frustrating.”

Susan winced. “No shit. Of course, it’s frustrating. My brother, Michael, says it’s like watching a bird with its wings clipped. That’s why he wrote the music I’m using for the dance. It’s literally called ‘Sparrow Without Wings.’ That’s me. I’m clipped. I can’t do what I was built to do. I feel like I’m a shell of myself. Everyone tells me I should be glad I’m alive. And I guess I am. But who am I? What am I? I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be the good little crip and accept it. I’m supposed to accept that my very soul was ripped out of me and be happy? Horse shit. I’m supposed to be happy with making do? I don’t see how that’s going to happen. I just don’t. I get told that if I just accept what happened, I’ll feel better. What bullshit! There is no feeling better. This is permanent. I can see where maybe the time will come where I’ll get used to this. Or maybe it’ll be tolerable. But better? No. It’s not happening. And, damn it, I’m pissed. I’m really, really pissed. And I am sick and freaking tired of people patting me on the head and telling me to accept my reality.”

“Maybe what you need is an angrier dance,” Max said, softly.

“So I can work through my anger issues?” Susan sneered.

“No. I’m with you. I don’t think this is something you work through. You live with it. You put up with it. But you don’t work through it. And if you’re angry, then maybe that’s what needs to be in your dance.”

“Huh.” Susan picked up her tablet again and re-started the video. “I don’t want it to be just about anger. That would be too depressing. Even for me.”

“Possibly. But it can’t hurt to start there, could it?”

“I think you’ve got a point.” Susan was soon engrossed in her tablet, this time making notes.

“Maybe I should be going,” Max said softly.

Susan looked up, suddenly disappointed. “Oh. Damn. Just when I was getting to like you. Any reason you can’t stay the night? A goldfish to feed or something?”

“Not really.” Max snuggled down into the pillows. “I mean besides not having a toothbrush on me. Or fresh undies.”

“I could call the hotel’s concierge,” Susan offered.

“Nah. I don’t have to work tomorrow, so I can sleep in here and get clean clothes after I get home.”

Susan turned back to her tablet. “Mind if I keep the light on?”

Max chuckled. “Not really. I’m kind of enjoying watching you work.”

Susan rolled her eyes and kept working.

Episode 171 – The Aftermath

romantic fiction, serial fictionAs it turned out, Paul’s apology was not only accepted, he was invited to join Matt, Tony, and Deshawn at the Cooper residence for an impromptu pizza and movie party with Rebecca, the Watanabe sisters and Jodi and Tiffany. Eddie made a point of inviting Senator Marley, as well, to Sharon’s dismay. Then Eddie insisted that Sharon join the party. Karen Tanaka and her boyfriend Hideo would also be there, as would June.

In the confusion of who would ride with whom, and given that there was an extra car, Mark managed to get Sharon alone in the presidential limo with him.

“I know what you’re wondering,” Mark told her as soon as the car was in motion.

“I don’t know that it makes any difference,” Sharon said, her voice filled with frost in spite of her obvious effort to appear unconcerned.

“Janet’s not my girlfriend. We’re just good friends,” Mark said.

“Like I said, it’s not supposed to make any difference,” Sharon said, although the frost seemed to be melting a touch. “And just because you’re not seeing Senator Marley doesn’t mean you’re not seeing anyone else.”

Mark sighed. “I suppose. For the record, I’m not.”

Sharon sulked.

“Actually,” Mark said, “you’d probably know it if I was. June always does. She may not know who, but she knows when I’m seeing someone.”

Sharon looked him over, pondering the thought. “I just bet I could. But since I’m not supposed to care, it’s really a moot point, isn’t it?”

“Technically, yes,” Mark gazed out the window, trying not to say what he really wanted to say.

They reached the Coopers’ home soon after and while the teens got into a very animated debate over what movies to see, Sharon found a spot in the living room next to June.

“You do not look happy,” June said.

Sharon shrugged. “I saw your brother and Senator Marley having a touching moment together.”

“Oh. You’re jealous.” June grinned. “That’s a good sign.”

“June, I can’t get involved with him, no matter what I’d like to do. It’s not going to work.”

“Of course not, my darling.” June took a sip of her white wine. “But if it makes you feel any better, he’s not seeing anyone. I can always tell when he’s getting some, and he’s not.”

“That’s what he said.” Sharon glared at the red wine in her glass. “That sounds kind of creepy when you think about it.”

June shrugged. “Not really. He just gets this kind of happy look and I know he’s met someone. It doesn’t last too long, usually. At least, the look doesn’t and in one case, I know he was still going out with the woman in question for a long time after the look faded.”

“Huh. I wonder why other people don’t notice.”

“You have to be close to him.” June suddenly swallowed back a sigh. She glanced over at Sharon, who hadn’t noticed.

There was one other person who always noticed when Mark got his happy look and June didn’t want that person anywhere near Sharon.

Sharon had gotten a text on her phone and was absorbed in whatever it was. June smiled at her and wandered into the media room.

Episode 170 – Senator Marley

Mark left the room. But as he shut the door behind him, he saw Senator Janet Marley in the corridor. She was rather short, with blonde hair teased out into a bowl around her head – classic helmet hair, June had called it. While Marley normally wore the traditional Washington power suit, that afternoon she had on a full white shirt over jeans and ballet flats. Mark realized as he watched her pace that she reminded him a lot of Sharon. Or was it the other way around?

“Senator Marley,” he said.

“Oh. Yes, sir?” She turned and faced him.

“Would you mind stepping this way, please?” Mark said.

“Yes, sir.” Marley followed Mark down a corridor to a small alcove with a drinking fountain in it.

Both checked the hallway to make sure it was empty.

“Listen, Janet,” Mark said quickly. “I’m pretty sure I’ve got Dean Belwish on board with letting me decide how to discipline the boys. But before I accidentally undermine you, any feelings about Paul playing football?”

“Other than it’s the devil’s game and I’d be a happy woman if none of my children or grandchildren ever put pads on again?” Marley folded her arms across her chest. “That is my private opinion, however.”

Mark grinned. “I guess your constituents would have a few issues with that perspective. Which is why I think I’ve got a way to get Paul off the team more or less honorably. Problem is, I’m going to have to make it look like I’m coming down hard on him. Not to mention that he really shouldn’t be rewarded for pulling a rotten stunt like that, even if he was hoping to get in trouble and get out of playing football. So he should get a couple days of suspension and kicked off the team.”

“Suspension won’t look good on his transcripts for college.”

“But he can write about it in his entrance essay – lesson learned and all that stuff. Admissions folks eat that stuff up.”

Marley finally smiled. “Mark, I think you’ve got it. What about Rob and Duffy?”

“Two weeks of detention, but they still get to play.”

“So Paul has two days off from school and no more football. I thought you said he shouldn’t be rewarded.”

“He also has to apologize to Matt.”

Marley put her hand on Mark’s arm. “You know, Mark, I really appreciate you looking out for Paul. He needs a good man in his life.”

“Thanks.” Mark patted her hand. “He’s a good kid. Now, let me get everything buttoned down with the dean and then we can get the apology rolling.”

Neither he nor the Senator noticed that Sharon had entered the hallway. But she noticed Marley’s hand on Mark’s arm and Mark patting her hand and the warm look between the two. Sharon held her breath. It didn’t necessarily mean anything. And just because she and Mark couldn’t get together didn’t mean he should live like a hermit. Assuming that what she was seeing meant what she thought it did, even though it was just as likely that it didn’t because Mark could be warm and fuzzy with just about anybody.

Mark looked up at that moment and waved Sharon toward him.

“Ms. Wheatly,” he called. “Have you met Senator Janet Marley? Senator, this is my World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly. She and Matt have gotten to be really good friends.”

Sharon walked down the hall and shook hands with Marley. “How do you do, Senator?”

“Fine, thanks,” Marley replied, sizing Sharon up, then looking back at Mark.

“Sir, Matt is here and according to the dean, it looks like he’s been exonerated,” Sharon said, keeping half an eye on Marley. “Eddie is also on the way with Rebecca and the other girls. Apparently there was a plan to meet to get pizza or something.”

“Would you do me a favor?” Mark asked. “I’ve squared things with Paul. Would you suggest to Matt that forgiveness might be in order?”

Sharon glared briefly, then smiled. “Yes, sir.”

She turned and left. Mark watched her go, only to get a nudge in the ribs from Marley.

“I like her,” Marley said, grinning. “I think she’ll be good for you.”

“Not you, too,” Mark sighed. “Come on. Let’s get things squared away with Dean Belwish.”

Episode 169 – Mark Deals with the Boys

Romantic fiction, romance fiction, romantic serialMark left the room, almost bumping into Dean Belwish, who’d been standing at the door. Mark patted the smaller man’s shoulder and gently pushed him down the office corridor.

“Dean, I’ve got things straightened out with the store’s manager. But we now need to see to it that the boys are effectively disciplined.”

“Oh, yes, sir,” Belwish stammered. “I can call their parents, I’ve already called Senator Marley. She’s on her way. The other parents are not available at the moment.”

“How about this? Looking at the store’s video and having heard about some other issues from one of Matt’s friends, it appears that we have a case of bullying going on here.”

“Oh no, sir. We would never tolerate that here at St. Ignatius.”

“Then let’s prove it. If you’re okay with it, I’ll talk to the three boys who are here, then you and I can work out some appropriate disciplinary measures. Would that work for you?”

“And the parents?”

“If you feel you need to call them…” Mark smiled, pretty sure that calling Duffy’s and Rob’s fathers was the last thing Belwish wanted to do.

“I- I think we can avoid that,” Belwish said with a flushed smile. Small beads of sweat clung to the few hairs on top of his head.

“So where are the boys?”

“In the hearing room. Right here. We usually use the room to work out discipline problems.”

“Excellent. If you’ll excuse me. I think this would work better if you didn’t have to know what was said.”

“Oh. Good idea. Thank you, sir.” Belwish scuttled out of the way.

As Mark entered the hearing room, only Paul stood. The other two boys lounged in the black leather conference chairs. All three were situated along the long edge of a mahogany table that all but filled the room, further hemmed in by the green paint on the walls and the dour landscapes hanging there. The window at the end of the room let in very little light, thus the room was bathed in the blue haze of industrial fluorescent lighting on the ceiling.

Mark found a chair on the opposite side of the table from the boys. Of the two larger boys, one had red hair, closely cropped. The other had very full brown hair, cut to his jawbone and brushed up in front. Both wore burgundy school hoodies and bored frowns. Paul remained standing. Mark sat down and nodded at Paul, pleased that at least Paul had some sense of correct protocol. Paul sat down and began fidgeting with a pen, his face a blank.

Mark waited in silence. The brown-haired kid broke fist.

“Are you going to arrest us?” he asked, trying to look defiant and still coming off as scared.

Mark glared at the boy, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw Paul’s eyes roll.

“Let me guess,” Mark said slowly and pointed at the brown-haired boy. “You are Rob Ayres. And you are Duffy McIntyre.”

Duffy, the redhead, lifted his chin. “Yeah. So?”

“I like to know to whom I am speaking, Mr. McIntyre. As for you, Mr. Ayres, no, I am not going to arrest you. I don’t have powers of arrest. I can, like any other citizen, press charges, however.”

“Won’t do you any good,” Duffy snarled. “My dad can see to it that you never get elected again.”

Mark glared at him but chuckled. “Well, Mr. McIntyre, given that your father has not donated one red cent to any of my campaigns and has been quite vocal in his opposition to me, and that I still got elected, I don’t think I’m that worried about it. You, on the other hand, might want to get a little smarter about what threats you make. Not to mention, setting up a fall game works a lot better when your target is somebody who might actually be up to something. Or that folks will believe is up to something.”

“It was Paul’s idea,” Duffy muttered.

Paul’s face remained blank, but Mark was pretty sure the stunt hadn’t been Paul’s idea.

“Hm,” Mark said. “All right, Mr. McIntyre, you and Mr. Ayres go find Dean Belwish and tell him I will deal with you two later. I want to talk some more with Mr. Marley.”

Duffy and Rob left the room quickly. Paul continued silently fidgeting with his pen. Mark looked him over thoughtfully.

“I’m guessing that Duffy or Rob came up with the idea of setting Matt up using your sleight of hand skills,” Mark said finally. “My question is why did you go along with it?”

Paul shrugged.

“I spotted you in the security video. You looked right at the camera. You knew you were caught and you were happy about it. I’ve also heard rumors that you weren’t too happy about playing on the football team this year and were pretty mad at Matt when he left the team.”

Paul remained silent.

“Look, if you want off the team, I can arrange that,” Mark said.

Paul’s eyes flickered up. “Why?”

“Like Matt, I know a thing or two about family pressure to play,” Mark said, leaning back in his seat. “So if I’m going to help, I’d like to know who’s pressuring you and why.”

“Oh.” Paul thought it over. “It’s my dad. He’s a coach back home in Georgia. He expects me to play. I tried to tell him this summer I didn’t want to, but he just told me to man up and get out there.”

Mark smiled. “So getting caught hazing someone is a manly way to get out of playing, huh?”

“It would have been better if Matt was on the team. He really is a better player than me.”

“So your dad wouldn’t get upset if you were benched?”

“He would, but he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it. He’s in Georgia.”

“If he’s not here, then why worry about playing? He wouldn’t have to know you weren’t.” Mark put his hands up as Paul gave him the obvious look. “Ah. I get it. It’s your dad. Point taken. I’m just curious though, were you going to let Matt get arrested?”

Paul winced. “Duffy and Rob wanted to. I figured we’d get caught before then. ‘Cause of the cameras and all.”

“They didn’t think of that?”

Paul sighed. “They’re not exactly the brightest bulbs in the lamp.”

“Yeah. I noticed that.” Mark paused. “Where’d you learn the sleight of hand?”

“I taught myself,” Paul said, finally smiling. “I started learning card tricks out of a book when I was in fourth grade. Then I saw a guy on TV doing the pickpocket thing and that was funny. I mean, I don’t believe in stealing.” He looked at Mark. “I wouldn’t have let Matt leave the store with the stuff. Even if I was still pissed at him. It’s just not right. You’re not too mad at me, are you?”

“Well, I’m not thrilled that you were picking on my nephew. But Matt, more than most, understands making a mistake out of desperation. I will expect you to apologize to him.”

“He probably hates me.”

“I don’t know about that. He liked you before. Said you were pretty smart, compared to the other garden-variety idiots.”

Paul’s lips quirked into a rueful smile.

Mark looked him over. “I’m going to have to make this look good. Mind taking the blame as ringleader? Promise to get you off the team.”

“Sure.” Paul sat up straight. “Thank you, sir.”

“You’ll be on your own with Matt. But I think you’ll be okay. I will, however, attempt to nudge him toward forgiveness. In the meantime, you stay put and I’ll talk with Dean Belwish.”

Episode 165 – Warmonger has a Problem

light romance fiction, romance fiction serial, sweet romanceThe following Monday brought the sad news that Caroline Eddington had passed away. The news made for a very long week for everyone in the White House. The funeral was held on Friday. Al Eddington was his usual stoic self, which bothered Mark a lot more than he realized.

“Something just seemed off about the whole thing,” he told Sharon as the two prepared a cole slaw in Sharon’s kitchen to go with the pulled pork that Chef Solly had made and Mark had brought over.

“That’s because his daughters were completely avoiding him,” Sharon said. “All three of them. They pretty much hung onto their husbands and barely said squat to Al.”

“You think that’s what got to Al?”

Sharon paused as she sliced some red cabbage with her second-best knife. “No. I think it was Caroline dying. But he’s not showing his grief and in the process, he’s pushing his daughters away from him when he most needs them. I hope he takes some time off, but I’ve got a bad feeling he’s going to be at the Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday.”

“I told him not to come in, but he’ll be there.” Mark frowned. He thought as he shredded a small carrot onto a cutting board. “He even pointed out that there were some rumbles of genocide in Nigeria.”

“More than a few rumbles,” Sharon said. “It’s looking pretty grim, according to Bantu. But I have to agree with Al. It’s not even close to time for us be get involved militarily. For one thing, no one is asking us to come in.”

“Al seems to think no one is going to ask,” said Mark. “What the hell is he doing, keeping an eye on that?”

Sharon shrugged. “I guess it’s a distraction. But if he’s holding his grief in like it looks like he is, I am seriously not looking forward to when it all comes crashing out.”

“That is not going to be pretty.” Mark sighed. “I think I’m going to have to make a point of getting my briefings from Wanda Dereske.”

“Wanda?” Sharon asked.

“Al’s second in command,” Mark said. “I would have hired her except that Al was willing to come on board. But her contacts are almost as good as Al’s, and she’s not dealing with his issues right now.”

“I don’t think I’ve met her.”

Mark chuckled. “You need to come up for air more often. Her office is just down the corridor from yours.”

“Huh. Maybe I’ll go introduce myself on Monday. Do you want to do sandwiches with these? We can use the barbecue sauce as a dipping sauce.”

“Let’s just eat the pork as is. If you want the barbecue sauce, we can have it on the side.”

Sharon sampled a bit of meat. “Oh, my god. This is wonderful. Hm. Sauce or no sauce. I’ll just put some in this ramekin and we can dip at will.”

“Sounds good,” said Mark.

Once again, he found himself caught up in watching Sharon as she quickly laid out place settings on the counter next to the dining area. Which is why he left to go back to the White House shortly after they finished eating and cleaning up.

Sharon, for her part, was happy to see him go. It had been an uncomfortable week. And while dinner together had made things a lot more relaxed, she was still closer to Mark than she wanted to be – and not close enough.

Episode 164 – Text Chat

romance fiction, romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romanceText message chat:

Matt – Hey.

Tiffany – Hey back.

Matt – What are you doing?

Tiffany – Homework.

Tiffany – Writing an essay for American History. You?

Matt – Algebra Two word problems. Blech.

Tiffany – Do you want me to get Jodi?

Matt – Nope. Deshawn’s hel

Matt – Sorry. Deshawn’s helping me and Tony just threw a pillow at me.

Tiffany – Jodi’s trying to hack the school server. You think they’re okay with us having a thing?

Matt – They seem to be. I mean, it’s all been chats and hanging with them so far.

Tiffany – I guess. It’s getting late and I’ve still got a lab to write up.

Matt – ‘K. Love you

Tiffany – Love you.

Episode 163 – June and Doug Turn a Corner

romance fiction serial, romantic fiction, fiction serial

Elsewhere in the city, June was hanging with her longtime friend Douglas Lee. Lee, best known as a stylist for the wealthiest women of New York City, had recently abandoned the Big Apple to live in Washington, DC. Both he and June were debating moving their friendship toward a more romantic one, but both had significant issues to overcome first.

The two had started their day together visiting a gallery in Georgetown, then having lunch together. Then Doug dropped his bomb.

“June, we need to talk,” he said as the waiter cleared their plates.

The restaurant was one that clearly catered to the movers and shakers in town and favored small, sheltered booths, which were great for private deals and conversations.

June held her breath.

“Wow,” said Doug. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

June felt her stomach leap. He seemed to be proposing, but what?

Doug swallowed. “Look. I know we’ve talked about getting more of a relationship going. And I still would like to. But, here’s the thing, June. I have no idea who I am right now. I thought this move to DC would help me figure it out, but it hasn’t. I’m still confused and I don’t want you waiting for me to get my head together.”

“Oh.” June thought it over. “I wasn’t exactly waiting. It’s not like there’s anyone else in the wings.”

“But there could be,” Doug said. “The thing is, I’m leaving DC. I’m not going back to New York, but I’m going to start traveling. I have to. I need to move out of my comfort zones. I’ve never been anywhere except here and New York and I’ve gotta go check things out. You know what I mean?”

“I suppose,” said June, wondering how she should respond.

“Anyway, I’m going to be traveling – kind of all over the place. I don’t even know when I’m going to be back.” Doug began running his thumb over the handle of his fork, back and forth. “I don’t want to say this is the end for us. It’s just that I’d feel terrible if you were back here waiting for me. What if you gave up someone really good for you because I was off trying to find myself? That would be horrible.”

“Okay,” said June. “I won’t wait for you. It’s not like I don’t have issues of my own to work out.”

“Good.”

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tonight. I’m flying to Paris.” Doug suddenly slammed the fork onto the table. “Wow. I can’t believe how nervous I am. You gonna be okay?”

“I guess. Listen, let’s get the check. I probably should be getting back to work.”

“Yeah. That would probably be good.”

The two left the restaurant together but then went their separate ways with barely a kiss on the cheek. The discreet SUV pulled up next to June and the Secret Service agent watching her that day stepped up to open the back door of the car for her. June settled into the back seat feeling numb and wondering how she should be feeling.