Jodi and Tiffany were scheduled to fly into Washington Friday evening with Jodi’s older sister Toby. Michael and Inez were to fly down from New York in time to meet them, then after Jodi and Tiffany were settled at their new school, Toby would go to New York with Michael and Inez.
Sharon had to concede that Rebecca had considerable justice on her side. There was no question that Jodi was shy and that being the center of attention made the teen very uncomfortable. And Sharon knew that while Jodi was excited about meeting the President, she was also more than a little freaked out.
The problem was, Rebecca hadn’t taken into account that the President had his own schedule, as did Michael, as did Karen Tanaka (which given that Kira didn’t drive yet, made it difficult for her to plan getting around). In addition, Rebecca had more or less assumed that Jodi and Tiffany would join Kira, Matt, Tony and herself in rotation as the President’s assistants when Gen Flowers was unavailable. It was an assumption that had Sharon concerned since neither the President nor Jodi and Tiffany had said anything about it.
So Sharon made a point of squeezing in a quick briefing with Mark late Friday afternoon
“I thought the world was more or less at peace,” Mark said as Sharon entered the Oval Office.
Ginger Peachy and Kickie Poo yipped excitedly and ran over to Sharon, who bent and patted the tiny orange dogs as Mark shushed them.
“The world is,” Sharon said. “This is a domestic issue.”
“Not your usual bailiwick.” Mark put down the tablet that he was reading and gestured at Sharon to sit down on one of the couches.
“It’s about the Big Arrival tonight and tomorrow,” Sharon said.
“Oh, that.” Mark chuckled as he got up and got two mugs from the credenza. “It’s getting to be quite the production.”
“It is.” Sharon sighed. “I have to give Rebecca credit. She is being very sensitive to Jodi’s issues, and she’s come up with a very appropriate plan.”
“It works for me,” Mark said. He finished pouring coffee into the mugs, added a dash of sugar to Sharon’s, then sat down across from her. “Eddie confirmed that they’re on board. Karen’s okay with it. Even Roy said he could get Tony there.”
“Yeah, well, Rebecca forgot one little detail.” Sharon took her mug and sipped. “Or maybe I just wasn’t in on that group of emails. She is expecting Jodi and Tiffany to join the rotation as your assistants.”
Mark laughed full out. “No. She forgot to talk to me about that, too. She is her father’s daughter. I was going to extend the offer, however.”
“You’re not just saying that?” Sharon said.
“I don’t just say things. You know that.” Mark paused as Sharon shrugged. “Okay. I suppose you have to be sure. But I really was going to ask Jodi and Tiffany to join that merry little band.”
“Are you going to be okay if Jodi decides she’d rather not?” Sharon asked.
Mark’s eyebrows lifted. “Do you think she doesn’t really want to?”
“I have no idea,” Sharon said. “I’m pretty sure Tiffany is all for it. But Jodi… You think I don’t want to be in the public eye. She’s way more shy than I am. On the other hand, she could be totally cool with it. There’s no real way of knowing.” Sharon paused. “I’m just afraid that if you ask her, she’ll say yes whether she wants to or not. Or that you’ll be annoyed if she turns you down.”
“Hm.” Mark sipped his coffee as he thought it over. “You know, it never occurred to me that she might turn the job down. Or might want to. Huh.” He finally shrugged. “It’ll be okay. I’d like to have her. She seems like a really smart kid. But I’m okay with it if she doesn’t want to.”
“Good. I’ll try to talk to her tonight, if I can get her away from her dad long enough.” Sharon quickly checked her phone. “In fact, I’d better be on my way. Do you know if Matt’s ready?”
“I’ll text him now,” said Mark, pulling out his phone. “And I think I saw a text or something that Kira was on her way in from the front gate. You sure you don’t want a car?”
“No point.” Sharon put down her mug and stood up. “Inez has already arranged for a stretch limo for the ride to the hotel. And they’ll get me to the Coopers’ tomorrow for the welcome party.”
Mark chuckled again. “Troop maneuvers.”
“No kidding. But if those kids want to move as a pack, it’s going to take troop maneuvers to do it. At least, Rebecca backed off meeting Jodi and Tiffany at the airport.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Mark got up as well.
Sharon took off, completely unaware that Mark was grinning as he watched her go. Her focus was on collecting Matt and Kira and getting them to the Metro and National Airport before Jodi and Tiffany’s plane arrived from Los Angeles.
But Susan wasn’t picking up her phone. Sharon left a brief message, sniffed, then dried her tears.
“That’s that, then,” she said. “I’d better get going.”
“Stay for dinner,” June said. “We’ll eat up here and you won’t have to be alone and depressed.”
“I’ll get to make you depressed.”
June laughed softly. “Not really.” There was a knock on the door. “And there’s dinner.”
June got up and admitted the junior usher who rolled in a cart draped with a white cloth. Two filled plates, napkins, silverware, two glasses filled part way with a red wine and the wine bottle were laid out on the top. Within seconds, the usher, a young woman with a serious face and brown hair pulled into a bun, arranged the food and service on a small table next to the couch. June thanked her and the usher left, taking the cart with her.
“What’s this?” Sharon asked.
“Spaghetti Bolognese,” June said, handing her a plate. “Solly makes a really good one. You know, the kind that’s simmered for three days.”
Sharon looked at the plate, then picked up her fork. “You know, that does sound good.”
“It is,” said June, who had already twirled up her first bite. “It’s my comfort food.”
“You have a comfort food?” Sharon asked.
“Mm-hm.” June slurped a short strand of spaghetti. “I fell in love with it in Milan. There was a little trattoria not far from the design house where I was apprenticing. Our boss did not want us going there, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t a model. It was basta on the pasta, per Signor. Which is exactly why I and all the other girls went there every chance we got. And I’ve loved it ever since. At least, when it’s done right. I’ll even eat it when I’m relapsing.”
Sharon chuckled. “How is that going, anyway?”
“Pretty well.” June winced. “I was going to talk to Carla about the incest angle before things went south back in Nigeria.”
“About the what?” Sharon gasped. “June, I had no idea.”
“Huh? Did I just say that?” June shook her head in awe. “Wow. I really must be coming around a corner.” She looked at Sharon. “I’ve never told anybody. Well, I recently told Dr. Williams. She’s the one helping me to talk about it. I was going to talk to Carla first, just as a sounding board.”
“Do you want to talk now?”
“I don’t know.” June set her plate down, then gasped as she thought of something. “It wasn’t Mark.”
“I kind of figured,” Sharon said. “Was it Harold?”
“Oh, yeah. It started when I was five and he was thirteen.” June shuddered. “Good lord, I can’t believe I’m talking about this. I haven’t even told Mark, let alone my dad. I generally try to pretend that it didn’t happen. But then things seemed to be going really well with Doug.”
“As in Douglas Lee, the hair stylist you keep siccing on me?” Sharon asked. “I thought you were just friends.”
“We are and we aren’t. Doug has serious OCD issues. It’s totally weird. He works all day with people’s hair, but he can’t stand to be touched.” June took a deep breath. “But now he wants to move past his disorder and have a real relationship with me. And I want the same. I don’t even know how I’m going to tell him. And Mark. Good lord, he is going to be so upset that I didn’t tell him sooner.”
“Probably.” said Sharon. “But, June, you’re doing the best you can. He’ll understand that, even if he doesn’t like it.”
“I suppose,” June said. “He’s been protecting me my whole life. The one time I let something slip, he lost the election.”
June sighed. “It was really awful. I was gang-raped in high school. I didn’t tell Mark because, well, I was trying not to face it. Only one of the guys came out and busted Mark for it when he was running for state senate. And it looked really bad. It’s the only election Mark has lost.”
“Oh, June!” Sharon gasped, then got a hold of herself. “That’s horrible. What? You haven’t been through enough?”
“That’s why it’s so hard to tell Mark. It could really hurt him if it got out.”
“But, June….” Sharon swallowed, debating which issue to deal with first. “My god, you’ve been dealing with some terrible shit. But, but…. Look, hiding it hasn’t helped your brother. It hasn’t helped you deal with it.”
“I know.” Tears began to fall down June’s cheeks.
Sharon put her hand on June’s arm. “I’m guessing you haven’t been wanting to deal with it all, yourself.”
“You can say that again.” June paused and took a very deep breath. “I don’t want people feeling sorry for me. And I’ve mostly gotten past it.”
“Except for your relapses.”
June sighed. “Except for those.” She looked down at her spaghetti. “I was supposed to be cheering you up.”
“You did.” Sharon shrugged. “I suppose we both needed each other today. It happens. You made me feel better. I hope I helped you feel better.”
“Yes.” June aimlessly twirled some spaghetti, then straightened and held up her glass. “We are strong women.”
Sharon tapped her glass against June’s. “We are, indeed. That’s why we can hold each other up.”
“Yeah. We can do that.”
The two turned back to their meal, with the conversation bouncing back and forth between Sharon’s grief, June trying to tell her brother about her past and all manner of topics in between. By the time Sharon left the White House, the only problem the two hadn’t entirely solved was what to do about Rebecca Cooper and the arrival of Jodi and Tiffany.
Back in his dorm room at St. Ignatius Preparatory School, Paul Marley pressed his lips together, trying not to cry. He didn’t want the other guys to catch on that he was terrified. He wished desperately that he was back in the small, but elegant apartment he usually shared with his mother, a senator from Georgia. But she was back in Georgia for the August break and had arranged for Paul to stay at the school while she was gone so that he could work out with the football team. His dad was back in Georgia, too, busy coaching the local high school team he’d coached since before Paul was born. His parents had divorced, although they barely acknowledged that they were separated. Paul and his mother spent most of their time in Washington, DC.
Up until the previous January, Paul had never questioned playing football. It was just something he did because it was expected of him. His father was a coach. His older brothers had played. Now, it was his turn. Until that idiot Ralston had missed his block and Paul had almost suffocated under four 300-pound defensive linemen.
One expected to get hit. It was a rough game. And it was hardly the first time Paul had gotten a concussion while playing. But that sensation of not being able to breathe and then blacking out – that was terrifying. Paul was not a small person. Even with some growing still to do, he was already a very muscular six feet plus, with a round, mischievous face and short blond hair.
Paul’s mother had told him he didn’t have to play, and Paul had happily skipped spring training. Problem was, his father found out and when Paul went to visit earlier that summer, his father made it plain that he was expected to shake the injury off and play. Which Paul did, unhappily, but he did.
It looked like things were going to work out, what with Matt Jerguessen joining the team. Paul’s father could hardly complain when Paul got demoted to second string when someone as good as Matt was around. Then Matt got his ass kicked off because he wanted to go to Africa with his uncle.
Paul took a deep breath. It was all Matt’s fault. And it certainly felt better being angry at him than quaking with terror inside. Yep. It was definitely Matt’s fault and Paul was going to find a way to get him back.
Matt did decide to try out for the team and early the next morning, he headed off, his Secret Service team in tow. He spent the day working out with the team and proclaimed how sore he was that evening at dinner with his uncle.
Mark grinned. “I told you not to stay on your backside all summer.”
Matt rolled his eyes. He was busy eating – more like gobbling – the feast White House Chef Yasmine Sollet had prepared. There was a whole roasted chicken, potatoes, carrots, broccoli and a salad. Like most boys his age, Matt could, and usually did, consume a goodly amount of food. But the day’s activity had kicked his appetite into overdrive and he had already cleaned his plate twice and was munching through the third quarter of the chicken.
“I’d just be even more sore,” Matt said, around a mouthful of potatoes. “Coach is, like, really tough on us. He was in everybody’s face, yelling and spitting. Man, if it weren’t for the other guys, I’d probably have left.”
“You like them?”
“Yeah. They’re a pretty good group. Especially Paul. He’s really cool. Does this sleight of hand thing.” Matt looked over the table. “You gonna eat the rest of that broccoli?”
Mark pushed the dish toward him. “Help yourself.”
“Thanks.” Matt scooped the florets onto his plate. “Anyway, a lot of the guys, they’re pretty much your garden-variety idiots. But Paul’s smart. So’s Deshawn. Although I don’t know how much longer Deshawn is going to be on the team. Coach got in his face more than anyone and some of it got borderline ugly. Deshawn said he doesn’t have to take that kind of crap, especially since his mother doesn’t want him playing football. But he’s an awesome running back.”
“Really. Do you know what position you’ll be playing?”
“First-string quarterback.” Matt struck a pose. “I’m taking Paul’s place.”
“And he’s okay with that?”
Matt shrugged. “He seems to be. Deshawn told me that Paul got his bell rung pretty badly at the end of last season and he skipped spring training. Then since he came back this summer, he’s been playing super careful. Paul said he was glad he didn’t have to listen to Coach yelling at him.”
“Sounds like your coach is an intense kind of guy. Is he okay with you taking off for the Africa trip?”
“I asked him and he said okay.” Matt looked over the table, hoping to find something else to eat.
Unfortunately, near the end of the following week, when Matt reminded the Coach that he was leaving for Lagos, Nigeria the next day, it became very obvious that Coach Helmsley wasn’t okay with the trip.
“He screamed at me for five solid minutes, Uncle Mark!” Matt paced his uncle’s study. “I swear, I thought my Secret Service guys were going to come after him.”
Mark, who had heard a similar report from the security detail earlier, nodded. “You did ask him about the trip, didn’t you?”
“Only every day. I swear, Uncle Mark. I did. He kept saying okay.”
“Well, according to the school, he can be a little hard of hearing.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “He can hear plenty good when he wants to. Ask Deshawn about that. He heard Deshawn whispering from behind a bank of lockers. That’s when Deshawn walked. I almost walked then, myself.”
“Well, the school says you can still play if you want.”
“Are you kidding?” Matt shrieked. “No way! I am done. That guy’s a psycho. I don’t want to play under that! He’s a total do-”
“Matthew, you know how I feel about that word.”
“Well, he is.” Matt looked over at his uncle with a guilty frown. “You’re not going to say I have to, are you?”
“No.” Mark folded his arms. “I think you should have checked things out a little more thoroughly before you committed to playing. But now you know. Lesson learned. Let’s move on.”
“Thanks, Uncle Mark. I’m sorry it got so screwed up. But I did tell him.”
The next morning, June ate a solid breakfast with the others, then it was time to get ready for her speech at the conference. While June’s energy and general level of giddiness made up for a lot, her physical appearance was still showing the effects of her disease. Karen volunteered to help with June’s makeup, but June finally made the decision to be as she was.
It should have been a controversial move, especially since June made a point of being honest about her condition during her speech. But somehow, she found a way to talk about starving herself with a great deal of sensitivity for the many women in the room from places where famine held sway and starvation was about politics and not about compulsive behavior.
“Any time a human being is denigrated, we all suffer,” June told the crowd. “Whether it’s the careless indifference of established prejudice or wholesale genocide. We’re seeing the effects of it every day. It’s just a matter of degree. The good news is that we have the answer right in our own hands. We can choose to love. It’s that simple. It’s not easy, but it is that simple. I am here today, once again in recovery because four women chose to love and made me see it. And I have had to choose love in the face of violence, as some of you must.”
June continued on, unaware that in the wings of the stage she was on, her brother Mark was standing with a slap-happy grin on his face.
“She’s back!” he whispered. “Thank God, she’s back!”
He looked around. Close by, Sharon and Karen were also watching June’s speech from the wings. Mark went over, caught their attention, then swooped them both into a tight hug.
“I don’t know what you two did last night, but it worked,” Mark hissed with glee.
“It wasn’t just us,” Sharon whispered. “And June is doing the hard work.”
“I’m just so relieved,” Mark whispered.
“We are, too,” Karen said. “She’s not entirely out of the woods.”
“But it will be a lot harder for her to get some steam going again,” Sharon added. “We’ll be watching out for it and she knows we’ll come after her.”
“Be my guest,” Mark said. “I haven’t seen her this happy in, well, years. This is a miracle.”
Chuckling, Karen faded back and went over to Niecy as Carla slid up to Mark and Sharon.
“I have to say, she’s rocking it,” Carla said, her voice still tinged with skepticism. “I didn’t believe she could, but she is.”
“Really?” asked Mark, his eyes narrowing.
Carla sighed. “I may have misjudged June. One of my many failings. I have no patience for poor little rich girls.”
“And yet you are one,” Sharon pointed out.
“Probably why I don’t have any patience.” Carla shrugged. “At least I had the good grace to acknowledge how well off I was.”
“That and you prefer people with substance,” Sharon said.
“And June is that,” Carla said.
“I’m glad you think so,” Mark said. “June has gotten me through some pretty rough times. I don’t know where I’d be without her.”
He noticed Sharon and Carla looking quickly at each other and realized they had some idea of how rough those times had been. He wondered how much June had told them. He trusted Sharon, but Carla was an unknown. It didn’t matter. Mark had always known it was possible that his secret would get out and was ready for when it did. If it did. The important thing right now was that June was better, if not over her relapse.
The crowd roared as June finished and Mark couldn’t stop grinning.
The speech was quite the success, and for the rest of the morning, June was followed rather relentlessly by well-wishers. She decided it was a relief when she and the rest of the Americans boarded Air Force One shortly after lunch. She was even happier when, shortly after take-off, the crew made up the beds and the lights were turned down in the cabin.
Almost 12 hours later, and a few more to go before landing, everyone on board was pretty much awake and functioning. June looked at a text on her phone and went to Mark’s office cabin.
“Come in,” Mark called.
“Mark, do you know what’s going on with Matt?” June asked, shutting the door.
“What do you mean?” Mark glanced up from his tablet.
“I’ve gotten three texts from him, begging me to not run off to New York as soon as we get in,” she said. She frowned. “He’s not planning some sort of intervention, is he?”
Mark laughed. “No. But he does have something nice planned for your birthday, and I wasn’t supposed to say that much. So please act surprised.”
“I didn’t want anything for my birthday,” June said.
“I know. But can you do me a favor and don’t spoil it for him?” Mark asked. “He’s been really worried about you.”
June sighed and ducked her head. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“June, we get it. It’s not something you can control that easily and we’re not mad at you. We’re just glad you’re back. That’s all.”
“I’m glad I’m doing better, too. And I do owe you guys an apology.”
Mark got up from his desk and folded June in a warm hug. Then the buzzing of his phone sent her back to the main cabin.
The levity and good feeling lasted through the next morning as the U.S. party loaded themselves into a limo motorcade that was joined by President Mendoza’s own motorcade. Mark later was hard pressed to remember where the group was headed. All he remembered was that as he got out of the limo and bent to help Sharon out, he was flattened and shoved back in by body guards. He never even heard the gun shots.
An American Secret Service agent, unnamed, was later credited with spotting Pablo Tomenco’s gun and calling it out in time for one of the Columbian agents to knock the gun askew and send the bullets skyward. Somehow, no one was hit in the attempt on both the Columbian and American presidents.
In the U.S. presidential limo, Mark realized that Sharon was underneath him and as he slowly got up, he saw that she was unconscious.
“Are you all right, sir?” asked the ever-present Riff Butler, an imposing African American man with a buzz cut and a perfect Secret Service demeanor.
“I’m fine,” Mark snapped. “Sharon’s out.”
Mark glanced around. Calvin Whitecross was in the facing seat next to Matt. Sharon groaned and tried to pull herself up. Riff reached around the tight space and helped her up as he let out a stream of Spanish, directing Tomas, the Columbian driver, to head to the nearest hospital. Sharon responded, her Spanish far too fast for Mark to follow in spite of her grogginess, but Riff not only glared her down, he repeated the order.
At the hospital, the limo screeched into the emergency bay. Doctors, nurses and orderlies were ready with several gurneys.
“Sir, come with me,” Sharon ordered as she was lifted onto a gurney.
She started in Spanish again and the doctor motioned for Mark to join them as they rushed Sharon into the emergency room, with Riff on their heels. Matt swallowed and looked at Calvin.
“Now what?” Matt asked.
“Get out of the car?” Calvin asked.
Fortunately, an orderly who spoke English appeared in the doorway and took them to a waiting room.
“Your driver, he is parking the car someplace else,” the young Columbian said. He was short and slight, but had a firm demeanor.
Matt swallowed. “I heard shots. Did anyone else get hurt?”
“I don’t think so,” the orderly answered. “The radio for emergency, it does not say anyone is coming. I will come for you if it calls.”
“Thanks,” Matt replied.
“So I guess we wait,” Calvin said as the orderly left.
“Yeah.” Matt sighed. “Hope she’s okay.”
Calvin smiled softly. “In my experience, when they’re yelling like that, they’re okay.”
The waiting room could have been anywhere, with green and blue plastic chairs strung together in tight rows and gray walls with supposedly soothing framed pictures on them. Except that the voice coming from the TV mounted on a wall in the corner was speaking in rapid Spanish. Matt watched the images from the shooting site and tried to deduce what had happened.
Tomas, the short and fat limo driver, waddled into the waiting room. With a worried frown, he approached Matt and spoke rapidly in Spanish. All Matt caught was “La Senorita” over and over again and guessed that the driver was asking about Sharon’s condition. Matt’s mind went blank.
“No es muerto,” he finally said.
“Ay! Pero la senorita?” Tomas asked.
“No es muerto,” Matt said again, trying to remember how to say Sharon was mostly okay, especially since he knew that he knew that much Spanish.
It didn’t help. With a loud cry, Tomas went running off out of the hospital. About 20 minutes later, Matt noticed a head shot of Sharon on the TV screen with the caption “Muerta.” Dead.
An obscenity dropped from his lips. “Calvin, it’s saying Sharon Wheatly is dead.”
“What?” Calvin came over and looked at the screen. “You think?”
“Why wouldn’t they have told us?” Matt cried belligerently. “What the hell happened? Where’s that guy?”
He left the waiting room with Calvin on his heels, looking for someone to who could speak English and who knew how Sharon was doing. The two didn’t find help right away, but they found Mark and Riff waiting in an empty room.
“Oh, no!” Matt sobbed.
“Matt? What’s the matter?” Mark asked.
“Aunt Sharon… The TV said she’s dead,” Matt blinked back tears. “And she’s not here.”
“They’re doing an x-ray on her head,” Mark said. “She has a concussion, probably. They’re checking just to be sure there’s no skull fracture.”
“But the TV,” Matt gasped.
“Are you sure you understood what they were saying?” Mark asked.
“Pretty sure,” Matt said.
Mark glanced at Calvin, then glared briefly at Riff. He pulled his mobile phone from his pocket and dialed out.
“Yesmenia -” he began, but was cut off. “What? No. She’s fine. I mean, she probably has a concussion, but she’s alive and cranking… Seriously? Crap…. Even the U.S. news?…. No, no. Get out the retraction. Now. I’ll call Wheatly’s folks…. Yes, I’ve got her phone…. Just get on it, okay?”
Mark swiped off, then rolled his eyes as he dug through the plastic bag holding Sharon’s belongings. He pulled Sharon’s Blackberry free and started scrolling through her contacts.
“Her mother is Madeleine Fauvrillet,” Calvin said. “Father Robert Wheatly.”
“Here it is.” Mark connected through as Matt elbowed Calvin.
“How’d you know that?” Matt hissed playfully at Calvin, who shrugged.
Mark waited as the phone rang in California.
“Allo?” asked a worn female voice.
“Madeleine Fauvrillet?” Mark asked, stumbling over the last name a little.
“Yes. This is she.” Her voice was firm, but she sounded upset.
“This is Mark Jerguessen. It sounds like you may have heard about your daughter on the news.”
“Yes. It is kind of you to call.”
“Ma’am, it’s a false report. I was just with your daughter, and it’s no more than a concussion, maybe a skull fracture at worst. But she is most definitely alive and likely to stay that way.”
“False? She is alive!” There was a sigh, then the sound of her crying and shouting at someone in French. “Oh, grace a Dieu! Merci. I mean, thank you so much. Thank you for calling. I must call the others. Merci. I mean, thank you!’
She hung up. Mark looked at the phone. A second later, orderlies wheeled Sharon into the room.
“Why do you have my phone?” she asked.
“It’s a long story,” Mark said.
Sharon frowned at Mark as he, Matt and Calvin exchanged guilty looks. Matt suddenly sniffed and soundly hugged Sharon.
“Easy!” she yelped, then hugged him back. “What was that for?”
“I’m sorry,” Matt gasped. “I know you’re hurt, but I’m just so glad you’re alive.”
“Of course-” Sharon suddenly stopped and listened. Rapid Spanish floated over from another television elsewhere in the emergency department. “You have got to be kidding me! Oh, my god, my parents!”
Mark showed her the phone. “I just called them. Sorry to use your phone, but it was the fastest way.”
Sharon eased herself back down onto the pillows. “How the hell did this happen?”
President Mendoza arrived just as Air Force One touched down. Tony and Matt, who had previously been bouncing off the walls, suddenly settled down and got their ties tied and suit jackets on. Sharon smiled to herself. They were technically there as the president’s personal assistants. It was a heady job, but Mark had chosen well in spite of their youth, with both boys having just enough youthful joie de vivre to be excited about opening doors for the President but enough gravitas to behave appropriately.
Mark made his way down the airplane’s stairway to the podium and red carpet set up nearby. There was a decent-sized crowd gathered on the airport tarmac, and plenty of press, both American and Columbian. Mark greeted Mendoza, a broad-shouldered man who Sharon thought resembled Omar Sharif more than a little. Mendoza made a little welcome speech in excellent English, then Mark made his way through his speech in Spanish. Mark didn’t speak Spanish very well, but Sharon had coached him extensively, and if she was not thrilled with his accent, at least his Spanish didn’t sound forced.
After the welcome speeches, there was an early evening car tour of the city, then dinner in the presidential palace. That went late. Nonetheless, the U.S. party was up again early for tours and talks and much-needed fence mending with local farmers who had suffered at the hands of American soldiers who had been trying to take down the drug cartels. Mark strongly suspected that more than a few of the government officials and citizens they met were members of said cartels, if not the heads of such groups. Sharon didn’t say for sure, but she hinted.
She spent her day mostly observing. Her staff member who oversaw research on South America, Leonidas Bertonetti, had been in Bogota since late the week before and had made a goodly number of contacts even apart from the ones President Mendoza had set up.
The day was a whirlwind, finishing up with a particularly rowdy party with dancing and a decidedly free-flowing bar. Sharon didn’t think she’d had that much to drink, but she was feeling pretty happy.
The news from home was exceedingly good. First, Karen Tanaka, Sharon’s colleague on the president’s Advisory Panel and Sharon’s good friend, had called. Karen, also known as Tanks, had been recently sued by her ex-husband, George Watanabe, for custody of their two daughters, Kira and Allie.
Then Sharon’s sister Susan had called with her news, followed closely by their brother Michael, whose parting advice, while unsolicited (as so much of Michael’s advice was), Sharon had to concede had merit. Which turned out to be fairly convenient, since Mark suggested the two take a light walk around the grounds of the Columbian presidential palace, where the party was taking place.
Sharon was acting as Mark’s “date” that night – a frequent arrangement that made it look like Mark was bowing to the demands created by the social expectations of couplehood. But since Sharon spoke Spanish almost as well as a Mexican native, it also made her readily available as a translator when needed.
Sharon left the party first and found the walkway around the outside of the palace gardens without trouble. She was wearing a long, straight black dress with a sheer beaded overlay. Mark smiled as he saw her standing on a low retaining wall, looking out over the garden with a happy smile on her face. Her hair was pinned up.
“Hey!” she said, turning and seeing him. She lightly hopped down, took a deep breath and spun around once.
“You look exceptionally happy,” Mark said.
“I am,” she replied. “It’s been an unusually fun party and right before we left the hotel, I got some terrific news from home.”
“The Indians and the Pakistanis are making nice?”
She scrunched her face. “I wish. Nope, this was on the more personal front. Has Karen talked to you about the custody suit?”
“Not much,” Mark said. “But she’s been keeping me up to date. Last I heard, her ex got an emergency order to enforce the girls’ visit this summer.”
“Boy, did that backfire on them.” Sharon laughed. “I’m not sure how it worked out in legal terms. But Karen was going to send the girls to their dad’s for the summer and had it set up before the suit was even filed. And since she was able to prove that the emergency order was anything but an emergency, the judge got annoyed. Then Karen’s lawyers petitioned him to stop the visit based on George’s history of abusive behavior and the judge okayed it. Well, at least for the time being. There’s another hearing next week, where George’s lawyers get to respond.”
“That sounds pretty good,” Mark said. “But why stop the visit?”
“Kira’s refusing to go.”
“She’s barely fifteen. How can she refuse?”
Sharon grimaced. “Well, she can’t, technically. But remember when Matt made his unauthorized arrival in DC?”
Matt had, in fact, run away from his very unhappy home, and thanks to the plan he’d put together with Kira, Sharon’s niece Jodi and her friend Tiffany, along with Tony Garces and Rebecca Cooper, the daughter of one of Sharon and Karen’s other colleagues on the Advisory Panel, he’d arrived safely in Washington, DC.
Mark sighed. “Right. They were originally planning Kira’s getaway. They’re not still up to something, are they?”
“I have no idea. I’m trying to play it cool on the off chance someone will confide in me. In any case, with luck, the judge will keep the order in place and Kira and Allie won’t have to go to their dad’s.”
“Or wherever.” Mark smiled. “That is good news, but not normally the sort of thing that has you dancing.”
“That’s the even better news.” Sharon smiled and spun again. “My sister Susan has been commissioned to choreograph a new dance for the Artists with Disabilities Festival at the end of August, and she’s going to use my brother’s music.”
“Susan? Oh, she’s the one in the wheelchair. I mean, uses a wheelchair.”
Sharon chuckled. “Michael and I are thrilled. We didn’t think she’d go for it. It’s been barely two years since the accident and she’s been going through a really bad patch the past few months. The best we can figure is that it’s finally sinking in that her injury is permanent. She’s been pretty angry lately.”
“Wow. Wasn’t she some sort of dancer?” Mark asked.
“Lead ballerina with the Pacific Ballet, although she was getting ready to retire when the accident happened, being over 30 and all. The good news is that she can still choreograph and since the dance will be about her own journey as someone with a disability, it might help her confront some of her own issues.” Sharon smiled. “She’s really excited about it and happier than she’s been since the accident happened.”
Mark smiled. “It sounds great.”
“It does, doesn’t it?” Sharon spun very, very close to him. “Better yet, my brother suggested I get a little of my own happiness, too, and I thought why not?”
She reached up and kissed him full on the mouth. Mark felt himself rejoicing, even as he worried about the two of them being seen.
“I like that kind of happiness,” he whispered as their lips parted.
Sharon’s lips were still slightly open and her breathing was just a touch heavy. “As much as I’d like otherwise, the good news is that this will go absolutely nowhere since we cannot risk being seen and someone is bound to be headed our way soon.”
Mark kissed her again, starting softly, then stronger and stronger as she responded, melting into his arms and holding him tightly against herself. However, it was he who gently pulled them apart.
“What are we going to do, Sharon?” he sighed. “This distance thing is not working. I can’t lose you as an employee. And I don’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t either.” Sharon blushed, then looked at him, her soft brown eyes almost piercing him to his soul. “And you’re not going to. We’re friends, good friends. Your sister and I are just as close. Your nephew is my buddy and he’s best friends with my niece. Our lives are so freaking tied up together that we’re sort of stuck. We just have to try to stay friends and hold out as long as we can.”
The sound of footsteps crunching on the gravel forced Mark to pull away from her. Leonidas appeared on the path with one of President Mendoza’s aides on his arm. Leonidas was young, dark and smooth, although Sharon couldn’t help wonder if he was finally getting played by the lovely young woman with the very shrewd dark eyes.
They didn’t quite notice Mark and Sharon as they slipped into the garden. Mark nodded back at the building and Sharon went ahead of him.
“I’d better stay out here a bit longer,” Mark said somewhat more loudly than he needed to. “I think I see Matt headed this way. I overheard him and Tony talking about practicing their Spanish with some of the younger ladies here.”
“I did, too,” Sharon replied. “Do you want me to take the outer loop of the garden and see if we can flush them out?”
“Sure. Why not?” Mark turned and headed away from the building as Sharon headed around the other way.
If Mark was hoping that he and Sharon would meet on the far side of the garden, it was not to be. Never mind that their “search” was actually intended to throw Leonidas off, Sharon did actually encounter Matt and Tony and three obviously over-age-eighteen young women near the entrance to the palace.
In rapid Spanish, Sharon not so gently convinced the young women that they might be better off inside back at the party.
“Aw, come on, Aunt Sharon,” Tony groaned as the women left. Tony called Sharon “aunt” simply because her niece Jodi and Jodi’s best friend Tiffany did.
“Uh-huh,” said Sharon.
“We weren’t going to do anything,” Matt complained.
“And what were you guys going to say when not doing anything turned into an international incident?” Sharon asked, her grin belying her serious tone.
“Since when does a casual snog in a garden constitute an international incident?” replied Matt, pulling himself up and acting way more confident than he felt.
Sharon laughed. “Let’s see. All three of those girls are over eighteen. You guys are not. One of them is President Mendoza’s daughter and the other two are nieces.”
“And your point is?” Tony said, trying to imitate Matt, which didn’t entirely work since after a poignant pause, he, Matt and Sharon were all doubled up with laughter.
“Seriously, Aunt Sharon,” Matt said finally. “We weren’t going to do anything, well, serious.”
“I’m sure that was your intention,” Sharon replied. “But let’s be real. Those ladies had serious written all over them. And besides, as the nearest available grown up, I have a sworn duty to keep you two from having any real fun.”
“And speaking of fun,” Tony said, “Matt’s uncle left the party right after you did.”
Sharon rolled her eyes. “Nice try. I have no idea where he is or what he’s up to.”
Which, she had to admit, was the truth, even if it was misleading. Still, the boys each took one of her arms and went with her back to the party.
The excitement is palpable. Here’s your chance to relax and read the first part of White House Rhapsody on your own schedule as an ebook.
While you can buy it at Amazon.com, why don’t you head over to Smashwords.com and buy it for your Kindle there? Or for any other of your reading devices.
The gang at Smashwords are very nice and are actively helping me to promote this and my other books. That’s more than I can say for that other outlet.
Either way, the ebook is $2.99 and we may soon have a print version. Sign up for my monthly missive – The Robin Goodfellow Newsletter – in the box to the right and you’ll get that and other fun news.
And next week we continue with the next episode, starting Book Two. Matt may be straightened out, but Kira Watanabe is headed for trouble. June’s little issue is going to get majorly big. Susan has a big assignment headed her way. Al Eddington is facing the challenge of his life.
As for Mark and Sharon, well, let’s just say that distance thing is not working. Not at all.
It was getting on for six-thirty that evening when Mark made his way up to the private quarters, calling June as he went. The two met in his private study. It was a smallish room, dominated by the immense flat-screen television on the wall and a sleek modern desk with a glass top and brushed steel legs. The entire desktop could be used as a touch pad screen, and there was a single black lacquered drawer under the center which contained a keyboard and several remote controls. The desk chair was brown leather and reclined. Two more similar chairs were backed up against the side wall in between a bookcase overflowing with books and various tablets and ereaders.
“I’ve got to bring you up to date on Matt,” Mark told June as he pulled out one of the chairs on the wall. “You’ve seen him already, haven’t you?”
“I spent the afternoon with him.” June sat down then glanced anxiously up at her pacing brother. “Was that okay?”
“I, uh…” Mark frowned. “I didn’t really tell you, but I was keeping him in solitary confinement as punishment for running away. I mean, we can’t reward that.”
June sighed. “I guess not, but he didn’t have a lot of options.”
“I know, I know.” The irritation in Mark’s voice grew before he could catch it. “I’m sorry. I know I’m angry. And you didn’t do anything wrong because we haven’t had a chance to talk. But we’ve got to get together on this. Just be aware, Harold’s got me more pissed off than usual.” He sighed. “He wouldn’t even say hi to Matt.”
“Yeah, I know.” June tried to blink back her tears.
“Well, the good news is, Matt doesn’t have to go back.” Mark squeezed her arm gently. “Harold and Shawna will maintain nominal custody, but we’re pretty much free to do as we see fit. I’m inclined to work Matt’s butt off this summer, then let him board at St. Ignatius Prep in the fall. But what do you think?”
June wiped her eyes and thought. “Well, aren’t Tony and Rebecca Cooper going to do some interning this summer?”
“I was going to have them do the personal assistant thing to spell Gen Flowers. And it turns out, she’s got this summer fellowship she’d like to do. With Matt here, I can let her go and either work him full-time or split hours between him, Tony and Rebecca and maybe Kira Watanabe if she’s interested.”
“She should be, but she probably won’t be here for a good chunk of the summer. Once her dad gets back from Japan, she has to go stay with him, which is another mess.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about it. Thanks for stepping up on that, by the way. Do you want me to contribute to the legal fund?” Mark went over to the desk and turned on the top.
“You’d better not,” June knotted her fingers together. “We don’t want any hints of conflict of interest.”
Mark winced and shut the top down. “You’re right.” He sank into the chair. “Anyway, back to Matt. I really feel like we need to impress on him that the running away was not a good idea, if not for him, then for Kira’s sake, if you know what I mean.”
June sighed. “Yeah, that makes sense. I just hope it doesn’t backfire on us with Kira. Karen’s really worried about her – apparently, she gets pretty stubborn.”
“Oh, I’m shocked,” Mark said dryly. “How do you feel about keeping Matt in solitary for the rest of this week, with the once nightly video conference?”
“That seems fair. Do you want him as personal assistant full-time or do you want to split hours?”
“I think they can split hours and we have to give them some time off on Sundays so they can all hang together. I want Matt to have his friends.”
“Given that’s what started this whole mess, that’s a good idea.” June smiled weakly. “I’m okay with St. Ignatius, too. Since Tony’s there, it should help Matt adjust.”
“Okay.” Mark got up. “Do you want to come with me to break it to him?”
June looked down at her mobile phone. “No. I’ve got some work to get done. I’ll go in and visit after dinner if that’s okay.”
“Sure. As much time as you want. Oh, there is a gadget restriction in effect.”
June chuckled. “Yeah, he went on about that.”
“Like I said…”
“I know. We can’t reward how he went about getting here. Does he get his stuff back at the end of the week?”
“Sure.” Mark went to the door and paused. “I hope you didn’t cut your business on the coast short.”
“No,” June said quickly. “It’s fine, Mark. Really. I needed to be here more.”
“Okay. Thanks, June. I’m sticking to not wanting your business to suffer because of being here for me. But I have to say, I really appreciate you being here.”
“I’m happy to do it.” June smiled.
Mark left, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket and texting Sharon. He checked the response just as he got to Matt’s room and smiled, then texted a quick response back.
Matt was just finishing his dinner when Mark walked in.
“Hey, Uncle Mark,” he said, scrambling to his feet.
“Sit down,” Mark said, sitting on the bed next to him. “We’ve got to talk.”
“This doesn’t sound good.”
“Well, your dad left around noon.”
“Oh.” Matt slumped and shook his head. “I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“Matt, I’m sorry about him and the way he acted. You certainly don’t deserve it,” Mark put his hand on his nephew’s back.
“Yeah, I know.”
Mark smiled softly. “I know you do, Matt. But it still hurts. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t.”
Matt swallowed, then slowly sank into quiet sobbing, leaning against his uncle. Mark held him gently and waited until the sobs eventually abated. Matt finally sniffed.
“I don’t get it,” he finally sighed. “I mean, I get that Dad’s pissed at me. I’d be pissed, too. But he didn’t even want to see me.”
“And I talked to Mom, but she’s really mad and I tried to apologize but she hung up on me.”
“It’s like you said, Matt. They’re pissed and that’s as much about me as it is about what you did. They’re feeling like you love me more than them.”
Matt’s face screwed up. “But they’re my parents.”
“Of course and of course you love them.” Mark shook his head and patted Matt’s shoulder. “And you love me, too. So what? It’s not a competition and I’m not out to steal your affections. But they’ve decided it is. And if you love them, then you can’t love me and if you love me, you can’t love them.”
“Not entirely. Has to do with our cultural paradigm, according to Karen Tanaka, and that’s hardly your parents’ fault.”
“So does this mean I’m staying here?”
“That’s the good news. Now, your parents do still have legal custody of you, but your aunt and I are pretty much in charge and I don’t think your folks are going to challenge that. Just before you start celebrating, keep in mind, you will be working this summer and then going to boarding school.”
“For your college fund and you’ll be working for me as my personal assistant.”
Matt brightened. “Can I get a car?”
“No. You won’t need one.”
“How about a dog?”
Mark grinned. “You’ve been talking to your grandfather, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but it’s a good idea and I’d like a dog.”
“Well, at the moment, you’re hardly in a position to be asking for things. You will remain in solitary confinement through the weekend and you will exhibit exemplary behavior from here on in. Are we clear?”
Matt ducked his head, supposedly in shame, but Mark caught the grin underneath.
“That will be all, then,” Mark said, getting up. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Matt bounced up and gave his uncle a quick hug before Mark left the room.
Mark, for his part, was still feeling rather angry and unsettled. Even as he left the hallway for the stairs, he went through the mental monolog – Matt was going to be okay, that was the important thing. It didn’t matter how badly Harold had behaved, it was Harold who had the problem, not Mark.
Mark was still going through the mental monolog as Sharon let him in through the secret basement entrance to her townhouse.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“It’s been a rocky few days,” he replied. “Let’s concentrate on getting dinner together and then maybe we can talk.”
“It’s almost done,” Sharon said. “The potatoes are fried and in the oven. The salad is made, but needs dressing and I just have to nuke the broccoli while I sauté the fish.”
“That’s good,” Mark sighed. “I can dress the salad if you don’t mind.”
And, in fact, dinner, featuring tilapia fillets cooked a la Meuniere, with butter-fried new potatoes, steamed broccoli, and salad, was ready in a matter of minutes. Sharon opened a bottle of Chablis while Mark finished dishing up the food.
“So, I haven’t gotten the final word on Matt,” she asked as she placed two full wine glasses on the table next to the filled plates.
Mark sat down and slid his napkin onto his lap. “Matt’s staying. After the last two days, there’s no way I’d let him go back.” Mark paused and looked at his meal. “Fortunately, Harold didn’t push it.”
“Matt said that he hadn’t seen his dad.”
“That’s because Harold refused to see him.” Mark’s voice got very tight and low.
Sharon gaped. “He what? Oh, my God, what kind of—” She stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry. I know he’s your brother.”
Mark started eating quickly. “That’s fine. Bash him all you want.”
He tried to look casual but saw Sharon’s soft gaze. Slowly, he swallowed.
“Look, Harold is one of the very few people on this planet who can get under my skin and make me question everything I know is right,” he said finally. “It’s kind of nice to hear someone else say what I’m usually thinking about him.”
Sharon shook her head. “He is quite the prize specimen. I know some serious Neanderthals who have more social grace than he does.” She frowned. “But to not even say hello to your own son.”
“I know,” Mark replied with a resigned sigh. “He didn’t even bother coming back to the White House last night. According to his security detail, he and his buddy Congressmember Chuck Meyers spent the night at Meyer’s favorite brothel.” Mark snorted. “It’s not even one of the better ones in town.”
“Oh?” Sharon asked.
Mark shrugged. “It’s one of those unspoken realities of the Old Boys Club. If you’re a man and you’re a legislator, you get invited to parties at whorehouses. A lot of the old farts consider it part of their perqs, and sometimes if you need to get something pushed through, you have to play on their turf. It does make it hard on some of the women legislators, but that was kind of the point. One of the reasons I don’t care to go to those kinds of parties.”
“I see.” Sharon shuddered. “It does sound like something Harold would enjoy. Yick.”
“Yeah, well, one thing about Matt being in town, I’m not going to be able to come over here for a while, unless it’s an acknowledged PFZ party.” Mark picked up his wine glass and gazed at the light yellow wine. “I mean, I assume you’d prefer we were discreet about this.”
“I haven’t told anybody if that’s what you’re asking.” Sharon paused. “I don’t know that it has to be that top secret. We are just friends.”
Mark chuckled. “You want to try and convince Eddie and the rest of the gang of that?”
“Good point. Oh, well. We were trying to keep distance, anyway.”
“Yep.” Mark took a long sip of his wine. “Let’s hear it for distance.” He sighed. “Anyway, thanks again for helping out with Matt. I really appreciate it.”
Sharon smiled. “It’s no trouble. He’s a nice kid.”
“He is.” Mark drained his glass and stood up. “And I have to get back.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Sharon followed Mark down to the basement and the secret entrance. He looked at her fondly, then sighed.
“I suppose one good thing about Harold is that with a brother like him, why would you dare want me?” Mark said, forcing a smile.
“Well…” Sharon started, then saw the wary look in his eyes, and decided to say the opposite of what she was about to. “You’re right. He is one hell of a disincentive.”
Mark burst into laughter and left. Sharon chuckled as she shut the door behind him, then found herself sniffing. Distance was necessary, but there was part of her that longed to hold Mark and comfort him the way she had held Matthew two days before.
Mark’s laughter also faded quickly once he was in the Presidential limo. Harold was only part of the problem and he couldn’t unleash any of that on Sharon. But he deeply wished he could.
This is the end of Book One of White House Rhapsody. Book Two will start in a couple weeks, but next week, I’ve got an exciting announcement that will run in this space. Come check it out.