Episode 30 – Michael and Inez Fight

In New York city, Michael Wheatly sat in the tiny music room in his apartment, feeling a little lost and not quite sure what to do about it. In the two months since he and Inez had been living together, there had been considerable rockiness. The fights had been intense – and loud – but not so serious as to break them up. If anything, Inez said she’d expected them, part of the whole learning to live together process.

Still, Michael felt uncomfortable. It was true that his ex-wife had been more likely to avoid confrontations during the four years they were married. But the fights toward the end, those had been loud and ugly. Michael played his and Inez’ latest fight back through his mind, trying to find something different.

He played a few notes on the mini-grand piano in front of him and debated writing them down on the sheet music in front of him. It was about that time that he caught a faint whiff of cigarette smoke. Inez must have come home. He’d been concentrating pretty intensely on his latest composition and Inez knew better than to knock when the music room door was closed. Michael felt a pang of guilt, looked at the music and decided he’d played out this latest bit of inspiration.

Inez was in the living room, smoking and looking out the apartment window without seeing anything.

“Are you home early or did I lose track of time again?” Michael asked softly.

Inez turned and snubbed out her cigarette. “Oh. I don’t know. What time is it?”

Michael looked around the living room but there were no clocks visible. There was a clock on the DVD player, but that was closed in the cabinet below the TV. The kitchen boasted clocks on the microwave, the oven and the stereo unit under one of the shelves, but that was in the kitchen.

“It’s dark,” Michael observed. “Six-ish, maybe?”

“Sounds about right.” Inez pulled her mobile phone from her pants pocket. “Six-thirty-eight, actually. You want dinner?”

“I suppose. Are you all right?”

Inez shrugged listlessly. “So-so. Maria French came by the studio today. She wants to show my work at her gallery.”

“That’s terrific.” Michael paused. “Are you worried about having enough prints developed or something?”

“No. I’ve got plenty of pictures.” Inez looked over at him and smiled sadly. “I could take some new shots for the kids at play series, but I’ve got enough for Maria’s exhibit if I don’t get to it.”

“Then what’s bothering you? You don’t smoke inside here, usually.”

“I’ve gotta quit this lousy habit.” Inez dropped the pack of cigarettes onto the window sill.

“And…?” Michael waited.

Inez looked at him. “Mama called this afternoon. She wants me to come to dinner next Sunday.”

“If we’re free, why not?”

“She wants me. You were not included in the invite.” Inez began pacing. “My ex is going to be there.”

“So?”

“Mama doesn’t quite get it that Manuel left me. She wants us back together again. Even a bastard like Manuel is better than me being alone or living in sin with you.”

“I take Mama doesn’t quite get it that you’re the one who doesn’t want to get married just yet.”

Inez turned on him. “Now don’t start that with me, will you? I’m in no mood.”

“No kidding.” Michael flopped onto the couch.

Inez rolled her eyes. “And you’re still bugged about the fighting.”

“Yeah, I am.” Michael glared at her. “Sorry. I know better. I just- I don’t know. This just isn’t what I expected. I mean I didn’t expect it to be perfect and happily ever after.”

Inez rolled her eyes. “So what? It’s not all about you. If we’re going to make a go of this, you’d better get used to that idea and fast. I’ve got a real problem here. If you’re not willing to listen, then I can go elsewhere.”

“No.” Michael got up and went to her. “I’m sorry. I should be listening better. But it’s not like we can do anything about your family.”

“Like I don’t know that? It still hurts. It’s still making me crazy.”

“Then don’t let it.”

“Easy for you to say.” Inez groaned and went back to glaring out the window.

Michael came up behind. “Okay. It’s not easy. But what are you going to do? You’re not going to change them.”

“I know. I just wish they weren’t so down on you.” Inez coughed lightly. “Manuel called me today, also. Said he wants to get back together. I guess his little floozy lost her job.”

“I’m sorry, Inez.”

“You’re right. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Michael smiled softly. “Except not get back together with him.”

“Don’t even,” Inez growled, then softened. “It’s not going to happen. I just don’t want to have to deal with it, is all.”

“Then don’t. The next time Manuel calls, hang up on him. If your mother starts in, hang up. There’s a reason those buttons are on the phone.”

Inez leaned into him. “I know. We’ll see. This is my mother we’re talking about, remember.”

Michael sighed. “Point taken. It’ll be all right, Inez, mi amor. The most important thing is that we’re here together. The rest of the world can go to hell.”

“It can.” Inez smiled. “So what did you do all day?”

Michael grinned. “Sparrow Without Wings. You want to hear it?”

“Of course, amado.” Inez shook her head and chuckled.

It was always about Michael. But sometimes, that was a good thing.

Episode 29 – The Draping Continues

Sharon found being draped on a tedious business, at best. And hard on the arms, which had to be held out from her side for a long time. June was sympathetic and didn’t fuss too much as Sharon shifted. The two were chatting pleasantly when there was a knock on the door and Mark suddenly entered.

“June, have you heard from Matt?” he asked, then stopped. “Oh. I didn’t know you had company.”

“I was helping Sharon paint her office,” June explained. “We’re waiting for the paint to dry so I can paint a faux chair rail. What’s up with Matt?”

“Just haven’t heard from him,” Mark said softly. “We can talk about it later.”

Suddenly serious, June looked up at him. “What happened?”

Mark glanced at Sharon. “Got a bounce back. His web address mail box is full.” He smiled weakly at Sharon. “Probably not paying attention. We’ll talk later.”

“For sure,” June replied as she went back to pinning in earnest.

Sharon silently sighed her relief as Mark left the studio. June hadn’t seemed to notice Sharon’s fluttering heartbeat. In fact, June seemed distracted and sad.

“You okay?” Sharon asked, finally.

“Yeah.” June stopped and sat back on her heels. “No. I’m worried.” She looked up at Sharon and went back to pinning. “Matt is our nephew. Our oldest brother’s kid. We, uh, don’t get on that well with Harold and Shawna.”

“I’ve heard there’s some coolness.”

“That would about describe it. They have three kids. Mark and I, well, we’ve tried to be there for them. It’s hard because we don’t want to undermine their parents.”

“But you don’t like their parents.”

“Their parents are pretty obnoxious.” June shook her head. “They’re into appearances and as long as you look good, nothing else matters. The two older girls, Tracy and DeeDee. They bought into it. Matt. He’s sixteen. He’s a lot like Mark. Real thoughtful and everything. Only Matt’s a lot more introverted than Mark.”

“Doesn’t seem like the kind of kid who’d let his inbox get too full.”

June sighed. “He’s not. It’s Shawna. She’s… Controlling I guess is the way to put it. She wants Matt to hang with her idea of the right kind of kids. So she doesn’t let Matt connect with anybody she doesn’t approve of.”

“Including you and his uncle?”

“Especially us.” June jabbed a pin into the fabric with a particularly violent thrust. “It’s pretty amazing that she pulls it off, too. What with all the different ways kids have of communicating these days. But she’s got Matt totally under her thumb, not to mention control of his laptop and his cell phone. Has totally blocked all the addresses and numbers from folks she doesn’t like. And his school won’t let the kids use social networking sites or webmail. I suggested the public library, but apparently, they need a parent’s signature to let him on.”

“Can’t he borrow someone else’s laptop or phone?”

“There’s a little problem with that. Did you get an e-mail last summer with Mark’s private cell phone number and e-mail?”

“That was a hoax.”

“No, it wasn’t. One of Matt’s so-called friends figured out who he was e-mailing and calling.”

“Oh, no.”

“Matt’s gotten so paranoid, he’ll barely e-mail my dad or grandma. Which is probably the biggest problem.”

“Poor thing.” Sharon thought. “I wonder if there’s a way to set up a false personality, maybe with the right kind of avatar or something.”

“That you’d have to get past Mark and I don’t think you will. He’s dead set against undermining Matt’s parents.”

“But his mother is-”

“I know.” June picked up her scissors, gazing at Sharon thoughtfully, but as though she wasn’t seeing her. “I think Mark’s worried that if we give Shawna any real ammo, she’ll take it out on Matt.”

“That would make sense.” Sharon thought. “You know. I’ll have to think it through and do some checking, but I think I can arrange a work-around. Maybe if your brother gets worried enough, he won’t be as concerned about undermining.”

“I can only hope.”

June was done just before dinner time. Sharon declined to stay for the meal, not wanting to see Mark again.

The next morning, she was surprised to see the whole faux chair rail painted in. It was done in a complicated criss-cross pattern in orange and yellow with a dark gray background. Sharon wondered how long it took June to do it, and how much of June’s work had to do with her worry about her nephew. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much Sharon could do about it at that moment, so she moved her new furniture in and hung the art work.

Episode 28 – June and Sharon Connect

June swallowed. “Oh that. Yeah, I did. Listen, I don’t know if you’ve heard about it, but I’ve got this little project going, trying to maybe prevent some of the rumor-mongering regarding my brother and eligible females.”

“You mean the dating pool?”

“Exactly.”

Sharon tried to get up. “Oh, no. Not interested. No way, no how.”

June flopped down next to her. “Sharon. Seriously. We need you. Dan Friedman wants you to pull embassy duty. It’s perfect. You won’t need all the extra briefing and you’ll know how to handle yourself better than anybody. Plus, the whole point of the dating pool is that you’re just friends.”

“I’m not sure I want to be friends,” Sharon complained. “For crying out loud, I work for the guy. He’s my boss. How would that look?”

“Exactly. You’re there for a reason. It’s not about romance, it’s about work.” June sat back triumphantly.

Sharon groaned softly.

June touched her arm. “Seriously, Sharon. You’re safer out in the open this way.”

Sharon felt a cold chill. Mark had said the same thing once.

“I don’t get it,” she said finally.

June sighed. “Let’s just say that there’s less room for rumors to get started when you’re openly associating with my brother.”

“But don’t photographers and news people show up at embassy events?”

“They do, but nobody cares. Look what happened with Carrie Martindale. The whole reason that went crazy is that she denied she knew him. If it’s obvious you have a good reason for being with him, no one is going to give a damn.”

Sharon winced.

June held her arm. “Look, I get it about not wanting to be looked at and your privacy and all. It’s just one of those paradox things that being out in public with Mark is the best way to be ignored. Trust me, it’s the secret romance that they’re all looking for. And we do need you, Sharon. Mark’s whole thing is repairing our foreign relations. We need someone who can help him with that, not someone who might say something stupid out of ignorance.”

Sharon sighed. “There’s the trump card. Damn.”

“It’ll be public knowledge that I’m the one arranging Mark’s dates. That’ll make it even harder for any rumors to gain ground.”

“I suppose. I guess I’m in.”

June grinned. “Terrific. I’ll set you up for the Korean embassy bash on Wednesday.”

“So soon?” Sharon groaned.

“Hey, it’s repairing our foreign relations. Everyone’s been trying to get Mark to their embassy for the past three months. The South Koreans just came up in the rotation. Now, we’re talking cocktail length. From what Tanks says, all you’ve got is that blue number.”

Sharon flushed. “I’m afraid so. I do spend most of my time working, you know.”

June got up and sat down in front of the drafting table. “Blue is not a bad color for you, but I’m thinking mauve for some reason.”

“Why not?” Sharon said. “Something old-fashioned with puffed sleeves?”

June grimaced. “Yes and no. Tanks is about trends. That’s not a knock on her, by the way. That’s just who she is, and I love that about her. But you.” June looked her over again and Sharon could almost see the wheels turning in her head. “You are more about classic styling. But daring.” June clipped a sketch pad to the top of the drawing board and sharpened a pencil. “What do you love most about your body?”

“Me?” Sharon thought. “My eyes, I guess.”

“And hate?”

“Oh, lord, hips, thighs, you name it.”

June looked her over again. “Nah. Your hips aren’t bad at all. Not according to your measurements. Your shoulders are a tad narrow. I noticed you don’t tend to carry a shoulder bag.”

“Can’t keep anything up on my shoulders.”

“Thought so.” June started sketching. “That’s good. We can go with the off-shoulder look. Hm. Sash around the hips?”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes!”

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

June grinned and beckoned Sharon over. “Well, look at this. What do you think?”

The dress on the sketch pad was straight, but with a sash that encircled the shoulders and another that encircled the hips, and long straight sleeves.

“It’s beautiful,” Sharon gasped.

“I’ve got it!” June jumped up and rummaged through one of the armoires. “Mauve silk lace. I knew I had a sample in here. That must have been what got me thinking mauve.” She presented the roll of fabric to Sharon. “You like it?”

“It’s gorgeous.”

June held the fabric up to Sharon’s face. “It’s perfect for your coloring. I think I’ve got a fitting leotard in here. Would you mind if I draped this on you? The paint should be dry by the time we’re done.”

“Draped?”

“It’s a way of making a pattern. I basically just pin and cut it right on you. It’s fast and it will fit like nothing you’ve ever owned before.”

“June, what are you talking about?”

“Indulging myself.” June sighed. “Look, Sharon, I don’t know if this will make sense to you or not, but I really love making clothes for other people. It’s why I do what I do. And one of my absolute favorite things to do is to make specific designs for specific people. It’s like that suit for Tanks. No way would that work on anybody else. And the glory of it was, I was able to get to know Tanks and to take what I knew about her and make that part of the design. And this dress is part of what I know about you. It is the most fun thing on the planet for me.”

“Okay,” Sharon said slowly. “I get that. It’s like when Sarah or Susan or my brother get going. It’s who they are.”

“It’s part of who I am.” June smiled softly. “I started in high school. My BFF. She was a little on the chunky side and hated that she couldn’t find clothes that fit and were cute. So I made stuff for her and it was so much fun. That’s why I went into clothing design. The only problem is that designing in a vacuum kinda sucks. I have to have somebody in mind when I’m designing or the result bites.”

“So will this dress end up in production?” Sharon grinned slyly.

“No! No way. This is yours and yours only.” June paused. “Something similar might end up in production.” She looked Sharon over again. “I could do a whole line around you. But nothing personal. I think Tanks is a little more profitable an inspiration. Clothes are about trends and she does that thing so well.”

Sharon laughed. “She does. You know, Al Eddington calls her Advisor Lite.”

June giggled. “And she’s one of the smartest people I know. Did you hear her on the gender ramifications of using sex to sell hamburgers?”

“You know how people talk about me having my finger on the pulse of the world. Tanks could run circles around me. I swear, she can spot what’s coming faster than Coop can. And what Coop doesn’t know, ain’t worth knowing.”

June nodded. “And I’ve known Coop for years. Come on. Let’s get you into a leotard.”

Episode 27 – June Has a Plan

Later that afternoon, Sharon got a call from the security office. A large package had arrived for her. Sharon went down to confirm that she knew the sender and to give her permission for the package to be searched. The Secret Service man promised to have it put in her office by the next morning, even though it was Saturday.

June, for her part, had been debating how to talk to Sharon about her own little scheme. Saturday morning, she decided it was time and called Sharon’s cell phone.

“I hate to ask you to come in on the weekend,” June began.

“I’m already here,” Sharon said. “I’m redecorating my office this weekend.”

“Oh? Great. I’ll be down in just a bit.”

June could hear Sharon’s voice as she approached the office.

“No, I’m looking at them right now,” Sharon was saying. “They’re fabulous…. Seriously, Sarah, they’re perfect. The Outre-Meuse poster and the one from the Sparrow series…. No, darling, I know you’re not going to, but you should. It’s amazing. You could make some serious money on it….”

June peeked in the open door. Sharon turned and June spotted the headset parked on her ear. The floor in front of the desk was littered with cardboard and bubble wrap. Framed art leaned against any available vertical surface. Sharon was holding a framed oil painting. June could see a lot of pink and a long black slash through the middle, but none of the details.

“You’ve totally caught her. It’s perfect, Sarah. You’ve outdone yourself, sweetie,” Sharon continued. “I’m not overdoing it. You’re great, Sarah, and you know it. Now get over yourself, already…. I mean it. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it…. Thanks. I love you, too…. Bye.”

Chuckling, Sharon switched off the headset then smiled as she saw June.

“Hi!” Sharon said.

“Hi.” June looked at the different art works and smiled. “Wow. This is one hell of a collection.”

“That was my sister Sarah,” Sharon explained, the pride oozing from her. “She’s an artist. I asked her to pick some art for my office and this is what she sent.”

June looked at the oil in Sharon’s hand. “This is incredible. Where did she get it?”

“That’s her own work,” said Sharon. “It’s one of a series she did when our other sister, Susan, had her accident. Susan is – was a dancer. It’s hard to say now.” Sharon sniffed suddenly. “It’s still hard. It was only last summer.”

June reached out and held Sharon’s shoulder. “Oh, my god. I’m so sorry.”

Sharon shrugged. “Thanks. I… It’s… Hell. I’m the last person to say where Suse should be now. But anyway, Sarah, God bless her, found a way to help us all deal with it.” Sharon lifted the painting again. “She did a whole series – Sparrow Without Wings, one for each of us. We always called Susan the Sparrow because she was always flitting all over the place. She’s kind of like my brother that way. Can’t stay still.”

“There were four of you?”

Sharon laughed. “Yeah. My older brother, then me, Susan, and Sarah. And Michael has two girls, Toby and Jodi. They live with their mom.”

“Heavens!” June looked again at the painting. “So what are you going to do with this one?”

Sharon shrugged. “Good question. I know I want to paint. I was thinking green, but then this…” She looked at the oil again.

June looked around the narrow office. “Actually, I think you’re on the right track. If you go with greens on the wall, it will not only complement the pink, but I think it will make the painting really pop. Let’s see, do I have any paint chips?”

“I have some here.” Sharon handed June the collection of small cards hooked together by a metal ring.

The two debated colors for several minutes, although Sharon ultimately went with June’s suggestion to use two shades of green, with a faux chair rail in gold and orange to divide the darker green on the bottom of the wall from the lighter green on top.

“Tell you what,” June said. “Why don’t you go get the paint while I get changed and get the walls prepped?”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sharon said.

“I’m totally serious.” June grinned. “One of the worst parts of being the CEO, you never get to get your hands dirty. And I love painting. Seriously. I’ll call a car for you.”

“Uh…”

June had already grabbed Sharon’s desk phone and was dialing. “Don’t worry about it. Weekend stuff comes out of personal funds and we can prove it, if necessary. And I already helped Tanks put her office together.”

Thanks to the car, Sharon got back from the paint store in record time, happy to find that her furniture order had arrived and been inspected by the Secret Service. The new credenza, chair and shelving waited outside the office. June was inside, putting the last bits of masking tape over what would be the faux chair rail.

It was mid-afternoon by the time the two finished with the walls, but the chair rail would have to wait until the walls had dried.

“Let’s go on up to my studio and kick back for a while,” June said.

“Okay,” Sharon replied, not sure what June was suggesting.

June led her into an elevator and it was pretty clear as they got off that they were now in the private residence. Sharon gulped.

“Yeah, it’s still freaking me out,” June said, heading for a nearby stairway. “And I’m living here. The Lincoln bedroom is that way. Want to know where my brother’s room is?” “No!” Sharon yelped, then regretted it.

“He’s around here, someplace.” June shook her head. “You know how he keeps going on about not keeping people at work all hours? Total hypocrite. Even money, he’s in his private office right now, working away.”

“Couldn’t he be, like, watching a basketball game or something?” Sharon asked. “Probably, but he’s still working.” June chuckled. “He hasn’t got anything else to do. Come on.”

June’s studio was a large open room with lots of windows along the long wall. There were several antique armoires in between the various windows, a drafting table at one end, curtains along the far short wall and a still life set up in one corner with an easel containing the canvas in front of it. In front of the curtains was a square riser. Three different types of sewing machines were set up along another wall, along with a pressing station and several dressmaker’s dummies. Near the door was a desk with a laptop and next to that an overstuffed couch and a couple file cabinets.

“My sanctum sanctorum,” June said, with a wave of her hand. “You know how brothers are supposed to be despised?” She shook her head. “Kinda hard to despise a brother who can put something like this together.”

“He did this?”

“Not entirely. I had most of the input. But it was his idea to make sure I had it.”

Sharon shrugged, trying to stay cool. “He’s the right kind of brother, I guess.”

“Mostly.” June waved at the couch. “Have a seat.”

“You know, it suddenly dawns on me that you came down to my office this morning because you wanted to talk to me.” Sharon flopped down.

Episode 26 – Karen Makes a Plan

The next day, close to five p.m., Karen stopped by Sharon’s office on the way to her own.

“Wheaties, you want to-” She stopped. “Where are you going?”

Sharon finished putting on her coat. “Home. My brother and his girlfriend are coming over for dinner. In fact, I’ve got to hustle. He could already be there.”

“You have a brother in Washington?” Karen asked, following Sharon out of the office.

“He lives in New York, but he’s bringing my other guitar. I didn’t want to ship it or put it in checked baggage when I came out last January.”

“Okay. This is cool. You not only play a musical instrument, but you’re picky enough about it that you have more than one and you don’t want to check it.”

Sharon shook her head, smiling. “I’m not that good. This guitar is just special. My dad bought it for me for my tenth birthday. We were living in Italy, then, so he went to Spain and got it. I have another that travels with me.”

“Next time we’re in the PFZ, we’ll have to hear you play.”

“I’m not that good, Karen.” Sharon felt herself flushing. “I mostly play for myself. You know, stress reduction, like your crocheting.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Did you have to tell June that I do it? She loved the lace and is trying to talk me into doing a few yards for her. Says she’s got a great new design.”

“That was an awfully cute suit she made you. Can you believe she cranked it out in less than one week?”

“Her dressmaker did the sewing, but, boy, that’ll teach me to open my mouth in the dressing room when she’s around.” Karen rolled her eyes.

They were near the exit.

“Look, I gotta fly,” said Sharon. “I told him six, but with my brother you never know. He has no sense of time whatsoever. He shows up late. He shows up early. One of us would have shot him by now if it weren’t for his girlfriend.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow.” Karen went back to her office, smiling softly to herself. She hadn’t forgotten about Sharon’s guitar playing and was debating how to tell the others.

Augie had an electric piano in his office, which he played when he was thinking about something. Coop was always whistling something. Karen, herself, played the violin and piano. She wondered about the others. A little Advisory Panel band would make the dread Marian Jefferson happy. Stress reduction and team building. Better yet, the boss was out of the White House for a few days on a trip to Chicago. Karen barely pondered a moment more before sending Coop an e-mail.

Coop was a little too enthusiastic and Sharon groaned loudly when she saw his e-mail that night after Michael and Inez had left. It had been a pleasant visit, and just long enough. Sharon adored her older brother, but he had that antsy kind of energy that usually left her rather drained after a couple hours with him. Sharon, who also loved Inez like her other sisters, often asked her how she dealt with the antsiness. Inez usually just smiled and shrugged. That night had been no different.

As Sharon mulled over Coop’s e-mail, she decided that Coop and her brother had a lot in common. Nonetheless, the next morning, she brought her travel guitar with her to work and later to an unofficial lunch meeting in Augie’s office. Coop had come in just for the meeting and turned out to be a rather nice tenor. Ed-man did not come in, as he was not a singer, which surprised no one. Whitey did his singing as part of a Navajo group and he was also a drummer, which helped. Karen held a tune rather nicely, but it was hard to sing and play violin at the same time. Still, the lunch-time jam session had been fun. At least until Coop passed out the sheet music for a prank on the following Tuesday. Tanks loved the idea and convinced the others it was worth doing.

Episode 25 – Meet Rose Jerguessen

Rose Jerguessen was only moderately annoyed as she aimed her remote at the television and hit the off button. Mark had connected with someone early on in February – she could always tell. But it must have flamed out early and fast. Still, when Walker had found that photo of Mark and that Martindale bitch, it had seemed promising. Then when Martindale denied ever meeting Mark, that had been good. Rose thought she’d caught one, finally.

But, no. Mark looked indecently triumphant as he made that ridiculous fuss over having lunch with Martindale. Rose felt slapped in the face. It wasn’t as if she did not have his best interests at heart. She was his mother, for Heaven’s sakes. She deserved a little respect for that, if no other reason. But once again, Mark was not only snubbing her, but flaunting it, as well.

Rose sighed. If he wasn’t going to accept her protection and care, that was his choice. But she wasn’t going to let him ruin his life without her best effort, and if that meant making sure he kept his hands away from all but the right women, she’d do it.

IM Session –

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Episode 24 – June Puts Together a Plan

Not that the Martindale affair was that big a deal for Sharon directly. Outside of the U.S., the sexual antics of a sitting U.S. president, real or potential, were more a source of bemusement than anything, especially in those countries where it was well-known their leaders were not only cheating on their spouses but using government money to pay for their high-class call girls. That a young woman had lied about never meeting President Jerguessen barely caused any notice, which meant Sharon didn’t have to think about the issue much at all, beyond commiserating with Tanks and Augie and press secretary Jean Bouyer, who were dealing with all the fuss domestically.

For Martindale had already told reporters on Friday, before the President had made his statement about not commenting, that she had never met the man. She had always worked in the House of Representatives and had had limited contact with senators. Which she said again, Sunday morning, on one of the political talk shows, although Augie later said she should have known that something was up when she’d been asked on the show. Why have her there at all if she really didn’t know the president?

Because as soon as she affirmed she had never met President Jerguessen, she was asked to identify the people in the photo on the studio screen – a photo that clearly showed her and Mark Jerguessen shaking hands at a party of some sort. Flabbergasted, Martindale stammered that she had no clue where or when the photo had been taken and then made her second fatal error by suggesting that the show had somehow tampered with the shot to make it look as though she and the president had met.

So naturally, on Monday, everyone was talking about how if Martindale had lied about knowing the president and the two had obviously met, then how well did she really know him? Sharon found herself trying not to wonder the same thing, although there was a part of her that remembered that Mark had said that as far as he knew the two had never met. So unless someone had been doing some serious playing around with PhotoShop, the two obviously had.

It got around the White House very quickly that the boss was not happy. He kept his same schedule, sent around a memo reminding employees that they were not to comment either way on any rumored romances, but otherwise, kept to himself as much as possible. Jean said at the morning press briefing that they were working on the source of the photo, and it did not appear that anyone could identify when or where it had been taken. Which while Jean did not say so and flat out denied it when she was pressed, got many assuming she was implying that the photo was a fake.

What did help was that the next day, she was able to announce to the press that the photo had been identified.

“It was taken at an education lobby party about 15 months ago, just before the president announced his candidacy,” Jean said. “The president told me it was the usual for such affairs and he remembers talking with several people whose names he never got and would probably be surprised to find that he’d met them, as well. Nor is he surprised that Ms. Martindale did not remember the event, either. He was just a senator at that point and as she has pointed out, she worked with members of the House. The president would also like to point out that this sort of thing is exactly why he does not comment on potential relationships.”

Which fed the fire for another few days, although by the time Carrie Martindale showed up to the White House for a very public lunch with the President, the story was all but dead.

All but dead, June noted with some mild disgust as she perused a couple Washington society blogs. She was fairly sure her brother was not seeing anyone at the moment. Mark was beyond discreet, but June could usually tell. The funny thing was, it had looked like he was back in early February. June decided it had either fallen through or something else had triggered his “happy” look, as she called it. Either way, something had to be done about the gossip-mongering and she thought she knew what. The problem would be convincing Mark.

That Sunday, as Mark made their brunch, June laid out her idea. As she expected, Mark was less than enthused.

“What makes you think people won’t be placing bets on who wins my hand?” he grumbled as he chopped onions to go in what would become a corned-beef hash.

“Then the joke’s on them, isn’t it?” June replied. “I mean, honestly, Mark, half the reason the damn rumors get so much ground is that you don’t date anyone publicly. If you’ve got a whole group you’re dating, then it’s pretty obvious, these are just friendly relationships. What’s even better, is that I’ll be the one over-seeing who you go out with for what event, so there’ll be a lot less room for speculation.”

Mark grimaced. “Do you really want to take that on?”

“Honestly?”

“Oh, crud.” Mark shook his head with a rueful grin. “You’re just dying to, aren’t you?”

June giggled in spite of herself. “Damn skippy. I mean, I don’t want to mess with your love life. But it kinda would be fun to set you up. You could even set me up occasionally, if you want.”

“Hm.” Mark focused on finely dicing a potato. “That could even things up a little.”

“Could. And I don’t mind you floating the odd name or two, just between us. It’s not like I don’t know most of your friends.”

“True.” Mark thought as he turned the heat up on the cast iron skillet, then slid some white solid fat into it.

June grimaced. “Are you using lard again?”

“It’s the unadulterated stuff, without the poly-unsaturates and lard has less of the bad fat than butter. Besides, it’s the best thing to get this hash nice and crisp the way you like it. How about Mary Karpati?”

“She’s perfect.” June nodded. “If I can get her, Tish MacDonald?”

“Your BFF. So that’s what triggered this little idea.” Mark grinned shamelessly.

“What?”

“Hasn’t she been begging you to set me up with her for how long?”

June laughed. “More like how long ago. We were in high school when that happened. She’s gotten over you in a big way, although you’re okay as guys and politicians go. Think we can add Carrie Martindale to the list?”

Mark winced. “Conflict of interest.”

“You’re right. Karen Tanaka?”

“Has a boyfriend.”

“Sharon Wheatly?”

“Doubt you’ll get her to go for it.” Mark held his breath, hoping that June didn’t notice the flutter in his chest. “Besides, doesn’t look good dating a subordinate.”

June sighed. “Mark, the whole point is that you’re not really dating, so that shouldn’t be an issue. Let’s see. Who else?”

Mark left her to her musing.

Two days later, Daniel Friedman got June on the phone.

“I, uh, heard about your dating pool plan,” Daniel told her once the pleasantries were dispensed with.

“Yeah. You got someone for me?”

“I do. Only I’m thinking as a special interest date, for embassy soirees, etc. Sharon Wheatly.”

“Too perfect. But Mark said he’s concerned about what it would look like dating a subordinate.”

She’d be there almost as his assistant and personal translator.”

I suppose, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think she’ll go for it.”

“She’d be perfect and we won’t have to spend a lot of time briefing her. Plus, we won’t have to worry about her saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.”

“Well, I’ll talk to her, but don’t get too excited, Daniel. She really doesn’t like the spotlight.”

“Let me know how it goes. Maybe I’ll talk to her, too.”

“Just do me a favor and wait for me to give you the heads up.”

June hung up, not sure what to do. The problem was, Sharon would be the perfect date for embassy and other events involving foreign dignitaries. But what she’d said about not liking being looked at, June understood and was reluctant to push Sharon. Not entirely reluctant. Mark clearly liked her, although June was pretty sure he was more interested in her as a friend.

June suddenly smiled. Friendship was all well and good. But there was something about Mark and Sharon that just seemed to feel right. Maybe what the two of them needed was a nice gentle shove in the other’s direction.

Episode 23 – Mark and Sharon Get into a Tiff

The PFZ was crowded. In addition to the Advisory Panel members, several spouses were there, including Al’s and Coop’s. Daniel Friedman had been invited and Tanks had brought her daughters and her boyfriend. Al got soundly razzed when he produced his offering, chips and sour cream dip.

“He didn’t tell me it was a potluck,” Carolyn Eddington groaned. She was as tall and ramrod straight as her husband, but a lot more easy going, with steel gray hair and soft blue eyes.

The cheering rose in pitch as Mark scurried into the basement bearing a dark blue covered Dutch oven.

“What you got, Jugs?” the Coop demanded.

“Chili – my own personal recipe,” Mark announced opening the pot with a flourish. “I got up early this morning and threw it together. It has been cooking gently all day and is in full flower.”

“Full sear, you mean.” groaned John Whitesand. “Sheeze, Jugs, I can smell the chiles from here.”

June entered with the bag containing the sour cream, onions and cheese Mark had brought to accompany his dish. Sharon hurried upstairs, hoping there were enough bowls and spoons. There were, but just barely.

There wasn’t much room left around the television, but it didn’t really matter anyway, since at any given time at least half the group was talking with each other while the other half watched. Tanks and Coop sat through all the commercials, and debated the social and economic ramifications of the good ones.

Somewhere late in the third quarter, Sharon overheard Mark and Al discussing something, apparently unaware that she could hear them. Nonetheless, she felt her blood boiling and for the rest of the evening, she couldn’t wait until everyone – including the boss – went home.

Which was why she was even more annoyed to find that Mark was still there when she finally pushed the Coop and his wife out her front door.

“I can clean up myself,” she told him angrily.

Surprised, he stepped back. “I’m sorry?”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Okay, I can understand you being a little nettled earlier today, when I made that crack about you not notching my bedpost. But you didn’t have to tell Al that I was just another beautiful woman and it didn’t matter.”

“I didn’t-“ Mark frantically went over the evening in his head. “Oh, for crying out loud. You’re taking that completely the wrong way!”

“Then Al did, too.” Sharon did not like the shrill notes creeping into her voice, but she couldn’t help it.

“Did you hear me set him straight?”

Sharon snorted.

Mark groaned. “You did, didn’t you? And you’re still mad. What is wrong with you?”

“Because I’m sick and tired of being just another beautiful woman!”

“Then you didn’t hear all of what I said.”

“I don’t care.”

“I do. Al’s the one you should be mad at, not me. He’s the one who said I should sleep with you because of your looks. What I said was that if that was the only reason I was sleeping with you, then – and only then, I might add – you would be just another beautiful woman and it wouldn’t matter.”

“I don’t want to be mad at Al,” Sharon groaned, throwing a napkin on the bar.

“Well, what good is being mad at me going to do?”

Sharon sniffed. “I need the distance.” She looked over at him. “That was great chili, by the way.”

Mark sank onto a barstool. “What are you talking about?”

“Nothing. Everything.” Agitated, Sharon prowled around the room, trying to straighten it. “I was an idiot today, okay? I should never have asked you about Martindale or whether you’ve got somebody else you’re seeing. It’s none of my damned business. And I don’t want it to be my business. And I sure as hell don’t want to end up like Martindale.”

“What do you want?” Mark asked softly.

Sharon looked at him. “Probably the same thing you want.”

Mark winced. “I don’t know about that. It wouldn’t be about the looks, and it would certainly be against my better judgment, but what I want right now may or may not get us to your bedroom.”

“I’m not picky about where.” Sharon swallowed. “But that damned better judgment clause. That’s the only reason you still have your clothes on.”

“Are you going to run away on me?” Mark braced himself.

“No.” Sharon hung her head. “I’ll tell you right now, every freaking nerve ending in my body is screaming to put as much distance between you and me as possible. At this point, Africa is not far enough.” She looked at him again. “But somehow, it just seems like that would be the worst thing I could do. That if I left now, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”

“Sharon, if you need to back off, then we’ll back off.” Mark swallowed. “But, please, don’t go promising that you’ll regret leaving or anything like that until-“

“Oh, for heaven’s sakes, that’s not what I’m saying,” Sharon snapped. “I’m sorry. I’m not promising my life to you or any nonsense like that. What I meant is that I can’t run away now. I don’t know about tomorrow. But right now, I can’t.”

“Yeah, well, do me a favor and be careful with that not running away stuff,” Mark growled, then sighed. “I’ve heard it before. She swore she could handle it.”

“Well, I think I’ve seen what can happen,” Sharon said.

“No. You haven’t. You haven’t seen squat. And you won’t, if I have anything to say about it.” It was Mark’s turn to start pacing. “Look, I think we both know I can’t promise you won’t face some bad publicity at some point or other. None of us can and the best thing we can do is keep our noses squeaky clean just in case. And it’s not as if we’ve known each other all that long. What do we really know about each other? That we like to cook and eat and drink good coffee and wine? It’s not like we can’t be friends and take our time finding out who we are. Seriously, Sharon, you’d have to give up too much to be with me right now. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

“And I don’t want to put you in that position.” She sighed. “I’m just wondering how long better judgment can hold out.”

“So am I.”

Mark left a few minutes later, after another awkward good-bye at the basement door.

Sharon spent the rest of the night alternating between worrying that things would be forever awkward at work and wondering what it would be like to be in a relationship with Mark. So while she felt for poor Carrie Martindale when things blew up on Sunday, Sharon was glad she had something besides her boss to dwell on.

Episode 22 – Mark Catches Some Heat

Eddie Cooper still hadn’t worked out his mystery lunch plan by that Friday, but it didn’t make any difference, since Fridays were usually tight days for Mark. In addition to his regular meeting with the Advisory Panel, he usually ate lunch at his desk while finishing up and assessing his work for the week, then on to a regularly scheduled press conference at 2 p.m. It was all part of his plan to be more accessible and transparent. But it also gave him a chance to control what the weekend talking heads would be talking about, even before the usual Saturday radio address.

The Advisory Panel was slightly more rowdy than usual, since in celebration of the upcoming March Madness college basketball play-offs – starting that night – Coop had brought in a small plastic basketball hoop on a stand with a host of sponge balls to throw at it. Tanks scored a lucky shot by tossing one over her shoulder. Eli Weatherall was still there, but didn’t bother tossing any balls, although he did keep score. Gwen McKelvey was there and didn’t hit anything.

But things got serious quickly as Augie finished his report with a question for Mark.

“Boss, do you know a lobbyist named Carrie Martindale?”

Mark thought it over. “I don’t think so. Let me e-mail Kent and see if she’s in my people database. Why?”

“She’s been working with the House on some proposals that sound suspiciously like your education initiative. Word’s getting around that she got them from you.”

Mark froze, then nodded.

“It was bound to happen sooner or later,” Coop said quietly.

“At least you know the drill.” Mark rattled the keys on his laptop. “I’ll have Johnnie get the memo out.”

“I don’t get it,” said Mackie. “So what if you gave a lobbyist some proposals for an initiative?”

“I’m guessing it’s the implication,” Tanks said. “Less than appropriate means?”

“At the very least making out a romantic attachment, whether one exists or not,” Coop said. “That’s why the policy is not to comment in any way.”

“It’s not the first time it’s happened, nor will it be the last,” Mark said quietly.

Al Eddington sighed. “I don’t know what the issue is. It’s not like you’re married, sir. Why shouldn’t you have an active social life as long as you’re discreet about it?”

“If you could find a woman who’ll put up with the photogs and the tabloid coverage,” Tanks answered.

Augie laughed loudly. “Are you kidding? They’re lining up to sleep with our boss.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not exactly interested in notching marks in available bedposts,” Mark grumbled. “And frankly, given my current work load, I think a social life is going to be moot for the next four years, at least. So for the sake of Ms. – what was her name again?”

“Martindale,” said Augie.

“For the sake of Ms. Martindale, let’s remember that policy is no comment even to deny any social life I may or may not have,” Mark said, glancing at his laptop screen. “Kent’s sending me the wrap it up message. Is there anything else?”

“Game time’s at 8,” said Sharon. “Please remember it’s potluck.”

Mark left, hoping fervently that the matter of Carrie Martindale would not become an issue. But it was the second question asked at the press conference.

He stood behind the podium in the press room, blue curtains and White House emblem behind him. This time, the presidential seal was hung on the front of the podium, a dark wood one with an electronic notepad screen embedded in the surface. Kent and Johnnie stood at the side of the press room, which was, as usual, jammed full with the full range of reporters, print, broadcast and even a few bloggers who’d finally earned their press credentials. Mark had a stylus in his hand to work the screen when he needed an additional fact, unless Kent or Johnnie pulled it up for him faster.

“Mr. President, how well do you know lobbyist Carrie Martindale?” reporter Glenn Garrett asked, a short, graying man from a Miami paper, known for his searing commentary and beat-up wardrobe.

“May I ask why you want to know?” Mark asked.

“There is a rumor circulating that Ms. Martindale may have personal access to you that other lobbyists do not have,” Garrett said. “Like in your bedroom.”

Nervous laughter rippled through the room. Everyone knew Garrett had a gift for the crass, although he usually toned it down out of respect for the office.

“I have no comment on any relationship I may or may not have with Ms. Martindale, or any other woman, for that matter.”

Garrett pressed. “Mr. President, you have promised transparency. Why can’t you deny or substantiate the rumor or correct it?”

“Alright, here’s the drill on this and any other similar rumors,” Mark announced. “I will not deny a relationship because there are an awful lot of people who won’t believe me anyway and the woman still gets her name dragged through the mud. I will not substantiate a relationship because that would give rise to even more speculation and attention paid to the woman, who probably doesn’t want it in the first place. The bottom line is, unless you have hard evidence of something seriously improper falling outside the realm of consenting adults, such as money changing hands, then I’m not saying anything one way or the other and I advise any woman connected to me by rumor or by actual acquaintance to do the same.”

Which settled it for the remainder of the press conference. Mark was still feeling rather grumpy about the whole situation, but at least Johnnie had the stationery ready for him when he got back to the Oval Office. He barely had time to get the note written and in an envelope when Kent announced Ms. Wheatly had arrived for a briefing he’d requested earlier.

It was the sort of thing that was important to stay on top of, but not terribly interesting. Mark listened carefully, adding notes to the document Ms. Wheatly had posted to his personal server, but even so, he wasn’t sure whether he was more distracted by his feelings for her or his fear that those feelings would end up ruining her life.

Sharon wrapped up the briefing quickly. There really wasn’t that much to go over and she could tell the president was not entirely listening.

“Of course, if anything changes, I’ll let you know immediately,” she said, closing the lid to her laptop.

“Of course,” Mark replied. He spied the envelope on the desk and picked it up. “Ms. Wheatly, would you mind giving this to Ms. Bouyer, please? She knows what to do with it.”

“Okay.” Sharon took the simple white envelope and felt the heavy bond paper. “What is it?”

Mark sighed. “Something I fervently hope you will never get from me. It’s a note to Ms. Martindale with an apology for the situation and some tips on how to deal with the press.”

Sharon’s eyes rose. “Ah. Precisely the reason you won’t be carving a notch in my bedpost any too soon.”

“I have never met Ms. Martindale, as far as I know,” said Mark, testily. “I meet a lot of people, so it’s possible our paths have crossed, but we do not have a relationship.”

“Sorry.” Sharon backed up a little, surprised by his tone. “I wasn’t implying that you did. But if this is what happens to women you don’t even know…” She shrugged.

“Trust me, Ms. Wheatly, you’re much safer out in the open like this. The person who starts the rumors doesn’t go after people I obviously know since I almost never date women I obviously know.”

“The person who- You mean, you know who’s behind this?”

“Yes. The same person who’s been playing this game since I was first in the state legislature.”

“But it can’t be working. Even the Kelly Won rumors didn’t come close to panning out.”

Mark sighed even more deeply. “But it has ruined a few good relationships, including one I was pretty darned serious about, and that’s the point.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

Mark waited, hoping Sharon wouldn’t press further, but she seemed to understand that wasn’t someplace he wanted to go.

Sharon took a deep breath. “Um, this may not be appropriate, but if not Ms. Martindale, is there anyone else that you’re hiding a relationship with?”

Mark smiled softly. “No. I’m not seeing anyone.”

And found himself biting back that he’d like to be seeing her.

“Well, I probably shouldn’t have been asking,” Sharon said. “I’ll see you tonight.”

Episode 21 – IM Session and Meet Young Jodi

IM Session
ChknCoop: Well, you’re finally back online.

Gloryhg: I had some reading to do. What’re you bothering me for?

ChknCoop: Just checking in to see how things went tonight.

Gloryhg: You were there. They went great.

ChknCoop: And it was totally Wheaties’ idea. Of course, I’m working on the lunch thang – proving to be a bit more of a wrangle, but we’ll get there.

Gloryhg: Sounds good. I appreciate the efforts. Listen, I’ve still got a lot of the education initiative to go over before tomorrow’s meeting with the Senate committee. See you tomorrow.

Out on the West Coast, late in the afternoon at an exclusive all-girls high school in Pasadena, Jodi Wheatly sat on the edge of a planter next to the school’s pick up zone with her best friend Tiffany Sheppledorf.

Jodi, at age 14, was on the cusp of blossoming into as rare a beauty as her Aunt Sharon – a fact that numerous relatives remarked upon with appalling regularity. They both had the same blonde hair and brown eyes and basically the same retiring temperament and intense intellect, although while Sharon excelled in languages and diplomacy, Jodi much preferred math and science. Tiffany had Jodi’s slim build, but also had lots of dark curly hair that she wore long. Both wore braces. Both were identified gifted, with Tiffany shooting to become a Renaissance woman, equally well-versed in the humanities, arts and sciences.

Jodi’s older sister Toby stood nearby, surrounded by a gaggle of her girlfriends. The pitch and loudness were at full teenage high. Toby, at 16, had shed her braces, had shed glasses in favor of contact lenses, had brown hair and blue eyes and a tendency toward a more revealing wardrobe than modest. Athletic and outgoing, some were surprised to find that she and Jodi were related.

Toby and her friends were chattering about who was sleeping with whom, who liked whom, who should like whom and why it was all a gross injustice. Jodi just glared down the driveway.

At least Mr. Perkins said we could be lab partners for the project,” Tiffany said softly.

Yeah.” Jodi sighed.

You don’t want to do all the work again, do you?”

I’m glad about that, Tif, it’s just…” Jodi winced as one of the girls screeched about something. “I don’t know how Toby stands it.”

Stands what?”

Everybody looking at her, having to be the center of attention all the time.” Jodi shook her head. “Ms. Wallace had to ask me about Aunt Sharon. Thank God, she didn’t say anything in front of the class.”

Well, it is kinda cool having an aunt working in the White House.”

Totally not. It’s almost as bad as having a rock star for a dad. Dude, if anybody finds out, it’ll be so embarrassing. Everyone will be asking me for the president’s autograph. I’ll bet Aunt Sharon never even sees him.”

Oh, come on. Most of those kids are far too shallow to care about the president.”

Jodi glared at Tiffany. “Except this isn’t just any president. It’s super young, super cute, super single Mark Jerguessen. Even Toby knew who he was.”

Dude. You’ve got a point.” Tiffany sighed.

Jodi groaned and checked her cell phone for the time. “Toby, what time did you say Mom was coming?”

She’ll get here.” Toby rolled her eyes and turned back to her friends.

You didn’t even text her, did you?” Jodi’s jaw dropped in anger, although she knew she should have expected Toby to forget. “You were supposed to text her when cheerleading practice was over. Mom’s gonna be so pissed at you.”

She knows when practice is over. Get over it.”

Never mind. I’ll do it.” Jodi slumped as she thumbed the characters into her phone and nodded at Tiffany.. “You’d better text your mom. We are going to be so late.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Mom’s not going to be home. She pulled a night class for the next term.”

Tiffany lived alone with her mother, a history professor at the local university, in a house across the street from where Jodi, Toby and their mother, Cameron Dykstra, lived. Cameron owned a music store in the arts district near the university.

Mom’s on her way.” Jodi sighed. “She sounds pissed already. I swear, Toby’s torquing her off on purpose.”

You think?” Tiffany grinned. “Wanna eat at my place?”

Oh, like I want to eat at mine. Toby and Mom are going to be fighting all night.”

Maybe then your mom won’t remember my mom’s not home.”

Jodi’s phone chirped and she looked at the screen. “I’m guessing she already remembered. She says you’re having dinner with us.”

Tiffany shrugged. “Well, if your mom and Toby are fighting, we can surf the Congressional Quarterly site without her knowing.”

I can’t..” Jodi grimaced. “She’s got it blocked and the last time I hacked around it, she made me promise not to.”

We’ll use my laptop. That way, you’re not hacking around her block and I’ve got the emergency screen with the Jonas Brothers site on it. That way she’ll think we’re being nice and normal.”

Dude.” sighed Jodi, feeling only slightly less miserable.