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.