As days went, it was a relatively easy one. Minimal negotiations in the morning, a meeting and wine tasting with a group of Californian and French winemakers gathered together for a symposium in the afternoon. Dinner was hosted by the American Embassy, and was not as formal, requiring cocktail dresses and suits rather than long dresses and tuxes.
Sharon was wearing another of Mark’s favorite dresses – a mauve lace that bared her shoulders. Mark seemed to recall it was one his sister had made for Sharon, and it made him wince. When June was feeling insecure, she made clothes for people. Apparently, she was feeling more secure about Sharon, as June hadn’t made anything for her in a while. He watched as June and Sharon laughed together over some rose champagne. That Sharon and his sister had bonded so thoroughly, in some ways, made it even harder for Mark not to love Sharon.
And Sharon had handled one of the more serious obstacles to their being together rather well without even realizing it. Not that Mark wanted her anywhere close to that particular misery.
Sharon, for her part, tried not to keep glancing over at Mark. It felt as though her conversation with Geneve the day before had wormed its way into Sharon’s very soul. Mark was so gorgeous and charming and still very guarded, and, yes, lonely. Sharon tried to believe that the loneliness was the isolation of his position. But as she’d gotten to know him, it had been pretty clear that his loneliness was as much self-imposed as forced upon him.
It was getting harder and harder to deny the attraction between them. As much as Sharon did not want to live her life in a fishbowl, it felt more and more as if it was being thrust upon her whether she wanted it or not. And it wasn’t as though she was fifteen anymore. She had to have gained some self-confidence since those awkward years.
It was getting close to ten o’clock when the guests, from various French ministries, finally left. Geneve was the only guest remaining and a new guest arrived, Sharon’s friend Carla Danford.
“Carla!” Sharon yipped before rushing over and giving her friend a big hug.
The tall, slender woman with dark kinky hair and blue eyes hugged Sharon back.
“I’m glad I was able to make it. I would have been here sooner, but there was a delay getting out of Nairobi,” she said.
“I had no idea you were coming,” Sharon said.
“That was the idea,” June said, mischief in her eyes. “Happy birthday!”
“We’re having a little birthday party for you,” June said, leading Sharon into the embassy’s sitting room.
“But I don’t need a birthday party,” Sharon protested.
“Oh, so I set up my trip to Switzerland one whole day early for nothing?” Carla said with a grin.
Sharon let herself be seated in a wingback chair next to the ornate fireplace. Coffee and chocolate eclairs were served with a candle in Sharon’s to blow out. Then there was a pile of presents to open. Sharon tried not to roll her eyes, but it was embarrassing.
Fortunately, many of the gifts were gags from the Advisory Board. Eddie Cooper had sent a tiny stuffed toy fly with a keychain on it and a car key. Al sent a text book on military strategy. Others were more meaningful. Eli, for example, sent a jar of honey from his home apiary. Jodi had taken an old tablet computer, completely refurbished it and had loaded a bunch of classic books, a few games and a couple films onto it.
Sharon laughed loudly when she saw it. “Jodi did it again. My god, she’s a wizard.”
“What do you mean?” asked June.
“It’s a game we play in my family,” Sharon said. “My mom came up with it when Michael started getting really rich. He wanted to give us all lavish presents because he could. But my sisters started feeling bad because we couldn’t keep up. So the idea was to see who could make the most awesome gift while spending the least money. And Michael really tried to win most of the time. But occasionally, he’d find out that there was something really expensive on someone’s wish list that year and he’d decide to lose. That way, he could be generous and nobody felt like he was showing off. And it was really good when my nieces came along because they really got the lesson that gift-giving is about honoring the person you’re giving to, and not spending more than anyone else.”
“How cool,” June said, whose own gift was a pair of t-shirts that had been creatively shredded and beaded.
The last box was from Mark. It was long and flat and Sharon gasped when she saw what was inside.
“My knives,” she said softly, and then looked at Mark.
“Amazing what you can find in the Internet,” Mark said. “I knew you’d lost yours during that fundraiser for the children’s home, so I thought I’d try to find a replacement set.”
Sharon looked at Mark curiously, then smiled. “That was so thoughtful of you. Thank you, sir.”
Geneve suddenly stood up and clapped her hands. “And now our cars await. We will do a tour of Paris at night, which as you know, is absolutely de rigueur.”
Sharon laughed as they were shepherded out to the cars. It came as no surprise that Sharon and Mark were pushed into one car while everyone took others. Nor was it much of a surprise that when the Presidential limousine pulled up to the Eiffel Tower, the other cars had somehow disappeared. The ever-present Riff Butler listened for a moment on his head-set before nodding at Mark and Sharon.
“We don’t have to,” said Sharon. “It’s obviously a set-up.”
Mark chuckled. “Let’s humor them. Maybe that will get them off our backs.”
The wind at the top of the tower was blowing quite strongly, forcing Sharon and Mark into the interior parts of the deck, where they found a bottle of rose Champagne and glasses waiting on a small table next to the apartment display.
The two laughed.
“Yeah, I think set-up just about describes this perfectly,” Mark said.
Sharon smiled at him. “Well, you’re not helping. Those knives?”
Mark shrugged haplessly. “I remembered the knife maker’s mark. I was actually thinking of buying some for myself when you gave away yours.”
“You knew?” Sharon looked at him in wonder.
“I saw you do it.” Mark smiled softly. “I know how special those were to you. Why didn’t you just order her a set?”
Sharon shrugged. “I think it was the moment. I guess I could just see that she wasn’t ready to believe that I really had her back. And I’d already told her, more or less, how special they were to me. So when I gave them to her, it really hit home that somebody was willing to be there for her.”
“I know. It’s really hard for kids like that to trust adults, especially. That was a hell of a sacrifice for her.”
“I don’t know,” sighed Sharon. “It’s like you said. It wasn’t like I couldn’t replace them.”
“True. But that is one of those things that makes you so damn special, Sharon.”
Her eyes filling, she looked everywhere but at him. “I can’t do it anymore.” She turned to him. “I’ve been trying to pretend that I don’t love you, that we can be just friends. But I can’t do it anymore. I can’t pretend that you’re just this guy that I like. I love you. You get me in a way that no one else does and I can’t help it.”
“I know. I love you, too, and probably always have.”
Mark leaned forward and gently slid his hand behind her head and softly, gently kissed her.
As they pulled apart, she sniffed. “Now what?”
He smiled and shrugged. “Pretend we don’t long enough to get back to the embassy?”
They kissed almost all of the way down the elevator. Sharon make a quick check to be sure she hadn’t left any lipstick on him as they passed the first level. They put on solemn faces and stood apart as the doors opened. Gesturing to Riff, Mark hurried forward with Sharon close behind.
Inside the car, Sharon giggled. Mark looked his bodyguard.
“Riff, we’re going to need some privacy back at the embassy,” he said, his hand finding Sharon’s and holding it.
“Then may I recommend Ms. Wheatly’s room. It’s the furthest away from the others,” Riff replied, his voice neutral.
Sharon blushed. “Oh, dear.”
“We’re not going to hide anything from him,” Mark told her. “And he doesn’t care, anyway.”
“I serve at your pleasure, sir.”
Still, as Sharon led Mark into her room at the embassy, Mark felt Riff slide something into his hand. He looked down, then back at Riff.
“Regarding Ms. Wheatly, it was only a matter of time, sir,” Riff said, his face utterly passive, but with a twinkle in his eye.
Inside the room, Sharon was gazing out the window. Suddenly, she whipped the drapes shut and turned to Mark.
“Are we..?” she asked, hesitating, but still smiling.
Mark’s heart nearly beat out of his chest and there was no question in his mind that they were.
“Do we have full adult consent on both sides?” he asked, nonetheless.
“There is on my part,” she said softly.
“And on mine,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Then I believe we are,” Sharon said.
She slipped up next to him and they kissed and the passion they’d been holding back for so long finally, finally was set free.
This is not the end, by any stretch. However, White House Rhapsody is going on hiatus as we move the serial over to AnneLouiseBannon.com. Thank you for your patience. And please let your friends know that they can catch up by buying Book One or by reading the archives.