The seating area immediately outside his office was more or less full but still seemed empty compared to the rows of seats normally found on a jetliner. Terry Barker, his Deputy Chief of Staff sat next to a window, eye shade firmly in place. Barker, with his closely cropped light brown hair and piercing blue eyes, normally carried his significant size with the grace and authority of the former professional football player he was. But he deeply loathed flying. Next to him was speech writer Calvin Whitecross, an average-sized young Black man who was nonetheless dwarfed by Barker.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mark could see White House photographer Emil Salas setting up a shot. It was Salas’ job to document visually almost everything Mark did. Mark, however much he didn’t mind being photographed, found even the portly Salas’ most stealthy movements and the whir of the shutter release insanely distracting and banned the photographer as often as possible.
At a table in front of Whitecross and Barker, Tony Garces and Mark’s nephew Matt Jerguessen were bent over a tablet computer and keyboard, bouncing back and forth between laughing and serious conversation. Both gangling and just starting to grow into their hands and feet, Tony was dark and prone to brooding, while Matt’s lighter brown hair, green eyes, and square jaw reminded everyone of his famous uncle. Both boys, just barely 16, had been almost too squirrely to do their official jobs as Mark’s personal assistants, but Mark could hardly blame them. It was their first time on Air Force One.
Across the plane, at one of the two tables there, petite and fluffy Message Director Yesmenia Alvarez talked on her mobile phone while pounding away on her laptop.
At the next table, also deep in conversation on her mobile phone, was the real reason why Mark had left his office. Watching World Affairs Advisor Sharon Wheatly was one of Mark’s guiltiest of guilty pleasures.
Sharon had blond hair, rich brown eyes, and a tallish, slender figure, all of which garnered plenty of attention from others. But while Mark appreciated her more obvious physical attributes, what generally stirred him was her devastating intellect and complete willingness to stand up to him. He wondered what language she was speaking at the moment – odds were against it actually being English. Sharon spoke ten different languages fluently and was conversant in several others.
Glaring, she brought the phone down from her ear and punched it off with her thumb. She glanced up at Mark and he could see she was not happy. She got up and as she approached, Mark waved her into the office.
“Sir?” she asked as he shut the door behind her.
Mark bristled inwardly at the formality, but he knew it was necessary. However deep and powerful the attraction between them – and it was mutual – a relationship could not happen.
“You looked like something’s wrong,” he said.
She shrugged delicately. “It’s nothing we can do anything about, but it looks like Pakistan and India are getting ready to go at it again. Nobody’s talking nukes, but there have been at least a couple border skirmishes over the past few days. Faiza’s contact at the Pakistani ministry insists that the Indians started it. Katie’s contact swears it was the Pakistanis. And my contact says it was probably some of both. The good news is that Leonardo says that things are looking really good in Bogota.”
“Well, that’s nice, at least.” Mark sighed. “Any signs of jealousy from President Mendoza?”
Sharon smiled. Their trip to Mexico earlier that year had almost been a disaster when it appeared that Mark’s popularity would eclipse that of the Mexican president. They were, at that moment, headed to Columbia at the invitation of the newly inaugurated president of the country.
“I doubt it,” Sharon said. “Mendoza seems to still be in his honeymoon phase. He can’t appear too pro-America because he does have to keep the support from that side of the government, but the general feeling Leonardo and I and Daniel have all been getting is that most of the people on the street associate anti-American sentiment with the old regime. And those guys were not that popular before the new party ousted them. Since the elections, it’s all been make friends with the Americans and get their money.”
Mark chuckled. “That’s assuming I can get Congress to cooperate. But that is my job.” He paused. “How have you been doing?”
“Distance.” Mark smiled, trying to cover the sadness he felt.
Sharon sighed. “Well enough, I suppose. It’s been busy enough, so that’s helped. You?”
“Okay. I’d better get back out there. You know how Yesmenia loves to speculate and she’s directly hooked in to Jean, who would love even a hint that we’ve got something going on.”
Mark chuckled. Jean was Jean Bouyer, the Press Secretary, and Jean was intent on bringing Mark and Sharon together, no matter how much they were trying to avoid it.
“Catch you later, then,” he said softly.
Sharon smiled as she left, but inside, her stomach was in knots. For two weeks, she and the president had been able to keep their distance in spite of the fact that she was one of his top aides. The problem was they were fast becoming close friends, which was a good thing except that the last thing Sharon wanted was a relationship with someone whose life was on public display – and Mark’s life certainly was, which meant that hers would be, too, if they got involved with each other.
But there were times when she almost couldn’t help herself. Yes, he was tall and amazingly good-looking, with broad shoulders, those green eyes, light brown hair and square jaw. But while Mark was brilliant in his own way, he was surprisingly humble for someone in his position and while he didn’t often show his vulnerable side, Sharon had seen enough of it to be completely smitten. When she was willing to admit that she was, which wasn’t often. Worse yet, the two seemed to have an awful lot in common but were just different enough to keep things interesting.
Sharon shoved her feelings back down inside her gut as she went back to her seat on the plane. She settled in and tried to relax. The next few days were going to be anything but restful. Columbia’s recently elected and sworn-in president Carlos Mendoza was bound and determined to turn around any anti-Columbian sentiment that had been fostered by the previous U.S. administration. Hence, there was a full schedule of events and tours planned for the visit, which only began when the plane touched down in Bogota.