It had been a notable break with precedent, but a welcome one to the Europeans, that the U.S. President’s party had been making its way around Europe by train, rather than in Air Force One. It was true that several cars on each train had to be taken over to accommodate the press, security and the presidential party, itself. The high speed trains made it almost faster than flying.
A crowd and the French President Madame Geneve de Cresy were waiting for the party in Paris President de Cresy was a tiny woman in her sixties, yet one whose presence could be felt from miles away. Mark had been looking forward to his meeting with her because the two had become friends when Mark was still in the Senate and she had been Foreign Minister. And by an odd coincidence, Sharon had also formed a friendship with the French president some years before when the company that Sharon worked for was trying to shepherd an infrastructure project through the notorious French bureaucracy. But the public welcome and speeches took precedence for the moment.
Back at the presidential palace, the private greetings began, causing a flurry of confusion, since June and Sharon were both speaking in French, Geneve was equally fluent in English, and Mark and the rest of the group didn’t know anything besides English.
Finally, things settled down enough for conversation and the group was served an early lunch.
“You know, I thought I’d finally had the big connection,” Mark told Geneve as they were sipping a perfectly smooth mushroom veloute soup. “I mean, Ms. Wheatly knows everybody, it seems like.”
“Not by a long shot,” Sharon said.
“It’s not surprising,” Geneve said. “Sharon has always been good at making friends. That’s why she was so good at her work. And still is.”
Sharon thought she caught a glint of mischief in Geneve’s eyes and sighed inwardly. So, after lunch, Sharon made a point of avoiding the French president. Not that it did much good. Geneve de Cresy was not the sort of person who had gotten to where she was because of mere charm and good luck. Indeed, it was almost universally acknowledged that if Madame de Cresy wanted something to happen, it probably would. She never bullied anyone outright, but that made her all the more powerful. Which is why Sharon, after the first afternoon conference, finally let Geneve find her alone in a conference room in the palace.
“You’ve been hiding from me since lunch,” Geneve said.
“Yes, and you know why,” Sharon replied.
“Eh, Sharon, he’s not so bad,” Geneve said. “He’s quite charming and I think you know just how charming he can be.”
“It doesn’t do me any good,” Sharon said with a snort. “He’s my boss. And back in the States, there are people who get very strange about such things, people who will hurt him.”
“So, don’t tell anyone. Knowing you, you’d like that better, anyway.”
“As if we could keep it quiet. The only gossip rags worse than ours are yours.”
Geneve laughed out right. “You could do it if you want. And why not want? I have known each of you for some time, now, and I have been trying to find a way to introduce the two of you for years.”
“Oh, come on.” It was Sharon’s turn to laugh.
“No. It’s true. I have always thought you and Mark would be a wonderful couple. But even I have to be subtle or it would all go wrong. And you two are made for each other. I can tell. And I can tell he likes you, too.”
“But, but, but…”
“Enough.” Geneve smiled softly. “Sharon, he is lonely. He has always been lonely, but it’s even worse now. And you, you make friends, but you are just as lonely as he is.”
“Why? Just because I don’t have a boyfriend?” Sharon folded her arms across her chest and tried to glare at Geneve. “It could be I’m happier that way.”
“Yes. It could be, if there were not someone special so close to you.” Geneve’s smile grew smug. “Good. You are thinking about it. My work is finished. I’ll see you later.”
The worst of it was, Geneve had gotten Sharon thinking about Mark in a way that was decidedly uncomfortable. And even while Sharon was reasonably confident that Mark felt the same way about her, there were problems. It was not a good time for either of them to be beginning that kind of relationship. Worse yet, if word got out that Sharon and Mark were dating, the blow back from the Moral Americans would be unbelievable. The group wanted to start a Senate investigation because she was simply working with him. What would they say about her dating him? It was impossible. Utterly impossible.
As for Mark, himself, it had not escaped his notice that Geneve was up to her hips in matchmaking. The only advantage he’d had is that he’d known Geneve had a friend she’d wanted him to meet, even if he hadn’t known whom. So, when Geneve whispered to him after lunch that fate had done what she couldn’t, Mark was, at first, surprised. Then, during their first conference, she glanced meaningfully at Sharon.
It was just enough to put Mark off his paces for a moment. He quickly gathered his wits together and re-focused on what was going on, fortunately, before he conceded to something he had no intention of conceding to. But that, as he later reflected, could have been part of the old bat’s plan, as Geneve was not above playing mind games when it suited her purpose, especially if she could achieve more than one of her ends at the same time.
“Low blow,” he told her as they sipped on an aperitif before the state dinner to celebrate his visit.
“Whatever do you mean?” she asked, chuckling.
“Not only are you playing matchmaker, you pointed her out at a really sensitive point in the discussion.”
Geneve shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I? You are the mighty United States of America. We are only poor little France. And you like her, as I knew you would. You are made for each other. It’s that simple.”
“Not by a long shot,” Mark grumbled. “This is not a good time for either of us. Not to mention, Sharon does not want to be famous, which she would be if she dated me.”
“So keep it quiet, like you always do.” She paused. “It’s interesting, though. That’s not the excuse she gave me earlier.”
“Oh, great. You were talking to her, too.”
“Of course, I was. You are both my friends and I want to see you both happy.” Geneve set down her drink and turned away. “Ah, Monsieur Dupont!”
She hurried over to greet her aide while Mark glared at his drink. It was a beautiful Champagne brandy. Sharon would love it, and as if Fate had been listening to his thoughts, Sharon arrived in the room with June and Yesmenia. Sharon was dressed in her favorite apricot strapless dress with the jeweled belt. Mark held his breath, trying not to think about how beautiful she looked and how she made him feel. He had thought he’d convinced himself that they were merely friends.
It was going to make the next night rather difficult, indeed. It was Sharon’s birthday the next day, and when Mark first heard about the small surprise party being planned for the evening, he had thought it a terrific idea. After all, Sharon had been working very hard. She deserved some recognition. June and Yesmenia had seen to it that the affair was going to be very low-key and intimate, given Sharon’s distaste for the spotlight. Mark had even brought a special birthday present for his “just a friend.”
Mark did not want to be thinking about a quiet relationship with Sharon. It was not in her best interests, and if the news ever broke, it would be a disaster. The only good part of Geneve’s meddling was that she’d also spoken to Sharon, which meant Sharon was as likely to be annoyed and avoiding Mark.
As Mark sipped his Champagne brandy, it was obvious that Sharon was, in fact, avoiding him. He sighed. It was the only thing worse than Geneve’s meddling.
The evening passed in a blur. Mark spent the night trying not to think about Sharon and woke up very tired and out of sorts. Sharon appeared for breakfast looking like her normal self, but something was off and Mark began to suspect that Sharon hadn’t slept much, either.