Chapter One

At the sound of the mechanized gong, Sharon Wheatly looked up from her book and saw that the “fasten seat belt” sign was on.

“Ladies and gentleman,” announced the flight attendant’s voice. “The captain has turned on the fasten seat belt sign for our final descent into Ronald Reagan National Airport. At this time, will you please make sure your tray tables are locked and that your seat backs are in the upright position. Thank you for joining us on our flight and we hope you have a pleasant stay in our nation’s capitol.”

A pleasant stay, indeed. Sharon thumped the cover of the paperback in her hand and looked out the window at the frozen ground below. Washington, DC, was having a rather mild February and there were patches of dirty earth between the white patches of snow on the mall and around the Jefferson Memorial. The barren cherry trees along the Potomac looked black against the steel gray water.

The man next to her glanced at the Flemish title of her paperback again and smiled at her in that dumb way people did when they couldn’t speak a language. When he and Sharon had boarded, he was on his mobile phone, talking to Steve (whoever that was) in such a way as to make sure both Steve and Sharon knew that he was a terribly important person. For someone in his early 40s, it was more than a little pathetic. Sharon got out her book promptly. By the time the man had hung up, she was engrossed in the silly romance and he had decided she didn’t speak English. The book had done its job well.

Normally, when reading for relaxation, Sharon preferred reading English, French or Spanish – her first languages, as she often joked, since she couldn’t remember a time when she couldn’t speak all three. But Tante Berthilde had sent the Flemish title because of Sharon’s younger sister Susan, who had been going on for over a month now about the stars aligning in Sharon’s favor. And the romance was based on a bunch of stars aligning, which was why her aunt had sent the book, even though most French-speaking Belgians pretty much had no use for Flemish, Berthilde included.

And if Sharon actually believed in such things, she would have had to agree that if not the stars, then something was aligning itself right in her life. The recent election, her old company deciding to re-structure, her friend Carla’s new job, even Susan’s accident, as devastating as that had been, all had worked together to make it an auspicious time to make the move to D.C. and the public sector.

Sharon braced herself as the plane bounced down onto the runway and shuddered as the jet engines reversed themselves to slow down. The man next to her already had his mobile phone out, then suddenly bent over toward her.

“Look, we could meet,” he said suddenly, and slowly. “I could show you-“ he pointed at her – “Around Washington?” He twirled his finger.

Sharon smiled, trying to make up her mind whether to respond in English, which would make him feel appropriately stupid for making assumptions but would open up the possibility that he’d continue hitting on her, or to continue to play dumb. Apparently, playing dumb was the right move, because he smiled back weakly and started dialing his phone. A minute later, the plane had barely docked at the gate and he was out of his seat and grabbing his carry on from the overhead compartment.

Sharon sighed. Hers was the kind of problem it was impossible to complain about. Men saw her slender figure, naturally blonde full hair and her soft face and inevitably assumed she had no greater desire than to be hit on. Which is why the stupid ones inevitably did. The geeks usually stared openly, which was embarrassing enough. But the covert appraisals were the most annoying. And the jealous glares from the women.

She mostly ignored the looks while waiting for her luggage. She was used to ignoring them, but it still felt uncomfortable to be looked at.

Sharon heaved her two suitcases off the conveyor and then paused just long enough to get her coat on. She was wearing a fairly heavy sweater over her jeans and boots, but she already knew how chilly D.C. was in comparison to Los Angeles. Coat on and her carry-on slung over shoulder, Sharon Wheatly stepped out of the air terminal and into her new life.

Mark Jerguesson, on the other hand, was taking a moment to wish fervently for his old life. He gazed out over the frozen White House grounds – a view limited to the chosen few. And now he was one of them. In fact, at not quite 40, he was among the youngest and one of the few that were single when they got elected.

“Mr. President?”

Mark winced inwardly, wondering if he’d ever get used to being addressed that way.

“Yeah, Johnnie.” He turned to his chief of staff.

Johnetta Washington, slender with dark, dark skin, generally had the attitude of an established church mother about to give the young new pastor what for. Mark had chosen her as his chief of staff precisely because he could count on her to give him what for at any given time. But ever since he’d taken the oath of office, Johnnie had been treating him with the correct deference most of the time. He was trying not to mind.

“Did you hear what I said just now?” Johnnie asked.

Mark turned into the Oval Office from the window. “We were talking about replacing Andy Shepherd, and yeah, two weeks is enough time to show respect for his passing, especially since we really, really need a world affairs advisor. Go ahead and call the State Department and get the interviews started. Same process as we did last December.”

“Call State about interviews.” Johnnie paused and became a little more relaxed. “You doing okay?”

“Me? I’m fine.” Mark stopped and shrugged. “Mostly. You know, I expected the pressure. But I didn’t get the isolation, all the protocols.” He shook his head. “It’s just getting used to it, is all.”

Johnnie’s eyebrows raised mischievously. “Be careful what you wish for?”

Mark chuckled. “You’re the one who always told me to dream big. And now we’re both paying for it.”

Johnnie laughed. “And how. I’ve got a meeting with Jean and the rest of the media team in about…” She checked her watch. “Five minutes ago. Any extra thoughts on the education proposal?”

“Yeah. I was making some notes before the photo session earlier.” Mark looked at his desk and sighed. “They cleared it off for the session.”

In spite of Mark’s best efforts to be transparent, his staff had a whole list of deep, dark “secrets” that it would be better to keep from the American people, not the least his tendency to keep a host of electronic gadgets and other toys on his desk. Mark punched the intercom.

“Ms. Forrest, I need my desk stuff back, please,” he announced.

“Yes, Mr. President,” replied his personal assistant. Fresh out of college and almost annoyingly eager, Gen Forrest’s job was to hold his coat, open doors, pay for things, run errands and do all the things the leader of the free world used to do for himself, but could no longer do because he was the leader of the free world.

Another line buzzed on the intercom. “Mr. President, Senator Mendoza is here.”

“And I’m leaving,” said Johnnie, heading for the door that led to her office.

“Thank you, Kent,” Mark said to the intercom. “Would you have Mr. Arlen join us, please? And hold the Senator until Mr. Arlen arrives.”

“He’s here now, Mr. President,” replied Kent. “Please remember you have a meeting with the Farmer’s Union in half an hour.”

“Thank you, Kent.”

Mark sat down at the imposing desk that had served numerous other presidents since the mid-19th Century as Ms. Forrest brought in the laptop, e-mailer, e-reader, tablet computer and other such items that had been earlier removed for the photo session.