Episode 182 – Problems in Germany

The next day brought another round of talks with the Italians and some of the Eastern European leaders, with another banquet that night. From there, the Presidential party flew to Berlin, making a long day even longer, since the Germans had to at least formally greet the U.S. President before letting him and his party settle in for the night.

The next morning, while she was eating breakfast with Yesmenia, Sharon got a frantic call from one of the German foreign ministry staff members.

“Nein, nein,” she said quickly. “Ja, zer gut.” She spoke for another minute, then hung up.

“What now?” asked Yesmenia with a sigh.

“You know that visit to the African children’s home we’ve got this morning?” Sharon said. “Somebody in the States is putting it about that the Boss doesn’t like children.”

“What?” Yesmenia’s jaw dropped. “He loves kids. Who would be saying something that stupid?”

“And here’s our answer,” Sharon said as she opened her laptop. “Ashley Whitcomb. You know that blonde idiot the Moral Americans tried to set the Boss up with last May? According to Karen, she went on one of the late night talk shows and said that the President doesn’t really like kids.”

“Oh, terrific,” Yesmenia groaned. “How on earth is he going to rebut that? The more he says he does, the less the idiots are going to believe it.”

Sharon sighed. “The German foreign ministry is freaking. It was their idea to do the visit to the children’s home.”

“At least we didn’t put it on the official schedule.” Yesmenia frowned as she booted up her tablet. “Think we should cancel it?

“No way. The Boss was looking forward to it, especially since it’s not a press event.” Sharon suddenly frowned. “Which makes the timing of Whitcomb’s statement just a little bit fishy. It’s been over six months since that mess last May. Why is she talking about it now?”

Yesmenia was contemplating something else. “Maybe we could leak it that he’s at the children’s home today. Pretend that we didn’t announce it, but…”

Sharon rolled her eyes. “I think the Boss would really rather you didn’t.”

“Here’s Jean’s email. She’s saying to let the comment go. She’ll get some rebuttals in the morning DC time. Unfortunately, it’s trending on social media, but it looks like the comments on the West Coast are making fun of Whitcomb.”

“Well, I’m more worried about the Germans having conniptions,” Sharon said, closing her laptop. “They’ve been stressed out enough about this going perfectly.”

She hurried off to meet with the German foreign ministry officials, collecting Julie Ivins, her secretary, who had arrived the day before. Sharon barely had time to soothe the Germans before the U.S. party left for the special home set aside for African refugee children, most of whom had been orphaned during some widespread unrest a couple years before. Sharon made a point of getting into the limo with the president and the German Chancellor, even though the Chancellor, an averaged-sized man with a dark brown and very thick moustache, spoke perfect English.

Sharon made a point of texting Mark, then nudged him surreptitiously. When the buzzer went off on Mark’s phone, he groaned and pulled it from his pocket.

“Looks like I have to deal with this,” he sighed, smiling at the Chancellor.

Sharon kept texting. Mark frowned and pretended to text something back, then put away his phone and smiled again at the Chancellor. The two chatted pleasantly and Mark mentioned how much he’d been looking forward to the visit.

A choir of children were waiting at the home, and there was a short performance. Then Mark met with some of the home’s teachers and staff, and afterward got to spend some time playing with the children. He was not thrilled when it was announced that the press was waiting in the home’s foyer for a brief question and answer session. Sharon looked over at Yesmenia, but Yesmenia shook her head. Sharon glanced over at the German Foreign Minister and suddenly realized what had happened.

Sure enough, a German staff member made sure Mark had two of the children with him when he made his statement to the press. Not surprisingly, someone asked about Ashley Whitcomb’s statement the night before.

Mark laughed gently. “You know, people are going to believe what they want, including Ms. Whitcomb. I love kids, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether I like them or not. It’s whether I’m willing to do the right thing for them, and I think my record in that regard stands on its own merit. Kids are our most important resource, no matter where we’re from, and it’s important that we protect and support them and make sure they all have access to the basics. Love, clean water, a good education, food and clothing. That’s why I’m here today. That I got to have some fun with some really wonderful young people, that’s just icing on the cake. Next question.”

Sharon laughed when she saw the text come up on her screen a couple hours later. It was from Press Secretary Jean Bouyer.

“Orphanage Press Conference, Booyah!” the text read. “Told you he’d handle it just right.”

Fortunately, at the moment, she was alone with Mark in a limo going to their next stop..

“What’s so funny?” he asked.

Sharon showed him the text. “I think this went to Yesmenia, too. She was the one who was sweating, by the way.”

“You both were,” Mark said, chuckling.

“I was sweating because of the Germans. But they seem to be happy with how things turned out.”

Mark frowned slightly. “Interesting timing, though, don’t you think?”

“Yep. Problem is, I’m not sure it was pure luck on Whitcomb’s part.”

“What do you mean?”

Sharon sighed. “I think something leaked that shouldn’t have. That trip to the orphanage was not on the media list or any of the official schedules. It could have been one of the Germans, but I can’t help wondering if this didn’t come out of my office or from someone close to it.”

“I would not be surprised if we have a mole or two,” Mark said as he looked out the window. “But I’d be surprised if it were out of your office. Unless you think Raul had something to do with it. You know, as payback for sending him home.”

Sharon shook her head. “I doubt it. The timing is off, for one thing. He couldn’t have set up that guest spot that quickly. Besides, he may be insufferable, but I don’t think he’d consider leaking something. If anything, he’d consider it beneath him to do it. Still, it’s possible, I suppose.”

“Well, we just have to get through today, and then, hopefully, Brussels won’t present any problems.”

“Don’t say that,” Sharon said with an amused groan,.

Her concern turned out to be well-founded. The next day, as the president and his party were presented to the Belgian king and queen, Sharon made a short bow before them. Fortunately, the presidential party knew ahead of time she was going to and why and why they shouldn’t do the same. But barely a half hour later, Sharon’s “gaffe” was all over social media in the U.S.

“I didn’t think anyone would notice,” Sharon complained late that afternoon to June and Yesmenia in between a meeting at NATO headquarters and a state dinner with the Belgian prime minister.

Yesmenia glared at her laptop. “Well, I’m with Jean on this one. They always notice. We should have put it out there about your dual-citizenship right up front.”

“Well, the Belgians certainly knew about it,” Sharon grumbled. “That’s why I had to bow. They would have been offended if one of their own didn’t recognize the monarch.”

“So we have to do a lot of education on dual-citizenship,” said June. “I mean, your mom did eventually become a naturalized citizen, didn’t she?”

Sharon made a face. “No, she didn’t. She never really had a chance until a few years ago, when she and Dad finally settled in the States. And they could have settled just as easily in Belgium. It was just easier, because of Dad’s pension being all tied up in the U.S. to settle there. In fact, I don’t think she’s been living in the States long enough to qualify. She just got her green card a year or so ago so that she could sell her art more easily.”

“Still, you’re a U.S. citizen because your dad was born there,” June pointed out.

“Plus, I was born there,” Sharon said. “My brother was born in Belgium, Susan and I were born in the States, because Dad’s job had moved us there, and then Sarah was born in Germany. But because Mom is Belgian, I carry both passports and have citizenship in both places.”

Unfortunately, as the news got out that Sharon was both Belgian and American, that caused almost as much of a furor, as certain groups back in the United States got upset that the president was being advised by a foreign national.

The next morning, an important conference had to be put on hold because Mark got a message over breakfast that had him steaming. Sharon, Julie Ivins, June, Yesmenia and Calvin Whitecross watched silently, as the president paced his way repeatedly around the suite’s main room.

“It’s got to be just grandstanding,” said Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Baker.

“Calling for a Senate investigation is not grandstanding,” Mark snarled. “It’s mud-slinging, is what it is. Not only have we got an innocent member of my staff hobbled because somebody doesn’t like where her mother was born, the Belgians are royally offended that one of their own is catching heat. And it’s Belgium, for pity’s sakes. It’s not like half of the last administration’s ties to the Chinese government. Nobody gives a crap about Belgium.”

“Some of us do,” said Sharon, folding her arms and glaring at him.

“That’s not what I meant,” Mark growled back. “And you know it. What I meant was those freaking idiots can’t even find Belgium on a map, let alone understand that we’ve been solid allies for almost two-hundred years. Pray forgive me if I can’t remember exactly when Belgium became a political entity unto itself.”

“In 1830,” said Calvin Whitecross. “That’s the Belgian Revolution, then on July 21, 1831, with the installation of King Leopold I.”

“Are you sure it was Leopold?” Sharon asked. Calvin handed her his tablet. “Oh. I thought it was Albert I. I always get those two mixed up.”

“See?” Mark shouted, waving his hand. “Sharon can’t even keep their history straight.”

“I’m not any better at American History,” Sharon said. “I barely know who George Washington was.”

“You know, that’s all irrelevant,” Terry said. “The point is, Sharon’s dual-nationality does not present a conflict of interest. Nor does her work for us constitute hypocrisy on our part because she is an American citizen.”

“The nerve of those guys!” Mark said. “Calling us hypocrites because we called them on their questionable connections. It’s apples to oranges, even if Sharon were completely Belgian. Belgium doesn’t have a bunch of freaking nukes aimed at us.”

Terry sighed deeply. “Sir, the Senate investigation is not going to go anywhere. There’s no place for it to go. Mud-slinging or grandstanding, it just doesn’t make much difference. And Johnnie said to remind you of what she emailed.”

“Rise above.” Mark shook himself, then took a deep breath. “Fine. I will.”

“Sir, if it’s any comfort,” Yesmenia began slowly, “pretty much everyone on social media is mocking the Moral Americans for their stand. Even some of the Moral Americans are saying an investigation would be stupid.” She suddenly laughed. “And there’s a map quiz popping up to see who can find Belgium on the map.”

“That’s not going to make things easier with the Belgians,” Sharon grumbled.

Mark suddenly grinned. “But I think I know how to play this. My education initiatives. If our people find it that hard to name a major ally and find it on a map, then we need to push education even harder.”

“That might make things work with the Belgians, too,” Sharon said. “It’s as though not they haven’t figured out that a lot of what you’re dealing with is crap left over from the previous administration.”

“True,” said Mark. “But we can’t blame them for any of our issues.”

“More’s the pity,” grumbled June.

There wasn’t much more to be said on the matter, and Mark went on to his conference.

Late that night, after another state dinner, this time with the Belgian king and queen, June dragged Sharon down to the hotel lounge and ordered a glass of wine for each of them. As a waiter brought the wine, Sharon took her glass and sank into the wing-back chair she was sitting in.

“Are you sure we’re alone?” Sharon asked June.

June stood and looked around the room filled with antique chairs in conversation groups. She even checked behind the chairs closest to them.

“All clear,” June said. “Even the waiter is gone and I’m keeping an eye on the door, just in case.”

Sharon let out a huge breath. “I so cannot wait for this trip to be over. This was supposed to be the easy one.”

“Maybe that was kind of the problem,” said June. “We were so sure there wouldn’t be any trouble, we weren’t careful enough.”

“Okay, I should have been on top of the dual-citizenship thing,” Sharon said. “But pretty much everything else was stuff we couldn’t have seen coming. Even the dual-citizenship. I mean, a Senate investigation because my mom is Belgian? Seriously?”

“You’ve got a point there,” said June. “Hopefully, all the disasters will help us with the French.”

“How?”

June shrugged. “We’ll be even more on our toes, because we’ll be expecting something to go wrong. So we’ll be in better shape to deal with it.”

Sharon sighed. “It is sad how much sense that makes. I just don’t understand why your brother got so torqued off about the Senate investigation threat. The Moral Americans have been threatening to investigate him since he won the election. He’s blown them off every time.”

“Really, Sharon?” June smirked. “You can’t figure this one out? Mark likes you. A lot.”

“Oh, for cripes sakes! Enough with the matchmaking.”

“It’s not about matchmaking,” June said. “It’s about reality. And everyone here can see that my brother has it bad for you.”

“Well, he’d better get over it.” Sharon put her wine glass down on the end table with a thump. “He can’t get his back up every time someone has an issue with me.”

“He can’t help it, Sharon. It’s his nature to be protective.”

“I get that, June. But he’s done this before and it gets him into trouble.”

June couldn’t help laughing. “Who’s being protective now?”

Sharon snorted and glared at her. “It makes my job harder. Not to mention, it’s really hard negotiating with someone who gets under your skin. It can’t be about me, June. When it gets to be about me or anyone else, for that matter, he can’t think straight. And, right now, he really needs to be thinking straight.”

“Wow,” said June. She smiled warmly at Sharon. “I’d heard you’d ripped him a new one in Mexico. Was this what that was about?”

“Yes.” Sharon groaned as she felt her face growing hot. “It was not fun, I’ll tell you that much. And I thought I’d gotten him past that kind of nonsense.”

“He’s not perfect, you know.”

“Yeah. I figured that one out.”

“You’re never going to get him past the protective thing, you know,” June said. “Not when that’s how we stayed alive as kids. And nothing makes him crazier than not being able to protect someone he cares about. Why do you think it was so hard for me to tell him about Harold abusing me?”

“I understand, June.” Sharon let out a deep sigh. “And it says a lot of good things about him that he does care so much for people. But things are tricky, now. He needs to be on his toes, and he can’t fly off the handle the second someone ogles me or attacks me. Or you or anyone else. Thanks to our last president, we cannot afford even the least hint that we’re going to behave like insensitive bullies. People really don’t get just how much damage that idiot did.”

“I know. Come on. Drink your wine and let’s get going. I seem to remember we have an early train to catch.”

Sharon nodded and picked up her glass.


Episode 181 – Disaster in Italy

The Europe trip was one of the longer trips the President had made. The goal was to develop a series of cooperative measures on the climate, trade and technology protocols. The five capital cities that had been selected were based on their friendliness to the U.S., so it looked like it was going to be a fairly relaxed trip.

However, the party’s first night in Rome proved otherwise, even though it shouldn’t have. One of June’s friends, an American model named Nina Collodi, whose uncle was the Italian Foreign Minister, had seemed the ideal date for that evening. Nina had served as Mark’s date fairly regularly back in the States, so she knew what to expect. In addition, her Italian was as flawless as any other native’s, since she’d learned it from her parents, who had emigrated to the U.S. before she was born.

Collodi met the Presidential party during their first morning in Rome. She was tall, olive-skinned, with stunning shiny black hair. Sharon made a point of briefing Collodi, but, as a result, missed what should have been a minor meeting between Italian Foreign Ministry and U.S. State Department staff members.

Which was why, many hours later, when Sharon, Yesmenia and June were enjoying a huge bowl of spaghetti, Sharon got a text and gasped.

“We’ve got a problem,” she announced.

“Why? What?” Yesmenia asked.

“If I’m reading this right, the Transportation Minister took offense that Nina is Signor Montefiori’s niece,” Sharon answered.

“Why would he?” asked Yesmenia. “Even their president seemed pretty proud of Nina.”

“Signor Roscano is about to be indicted,” Sharon replied.

“This is Italy,” June said, slurping a last strand of pasta. “Someone’s always about to be indicted.”

“Yeah, but apparently, it just came out today that the indictment is over some pretty egregious nepotism on Roscano’s part,” said Sharon, glaring at her Blackberry. “Why didn’t I know about this?”

Yesmenia sighed as she picked up her purse. “Possibly the same reason I didn’t. We were doing something else when the news broke.”

“If it broke,” grumbled Sharon, texting as fast as she could. “I’d better head back to the hotel.” Her phone buzzed. “Wait. Raul says he’d heard a hint of the issue during today’s meeting that I missed because I was briefing Nina.”

June frowned. “Is it my imagination, or does that sound he’s blaming you for missing the meeting?”

“Raul always sounds like he’s blaming someone for something,” Sharon said, still glaring at her phone. “Your brother is not going to be happy.”

June shrugged and looked at Yesmenia. “Why don’t we go soothe his feathers and leave Sharon to soothe the Italians’?”

“Best thing we can do,” said Yesmenia.

“I’ve got a staffer to rake over the coals first,” said Sharon.

But as she got up to go, her phone rang and she began speaking rapidly in Italian.

Back at the hotel, she glared at Raul.

“It was just a hint,” said the tall, balding man with the dour face. “This is Italy. Someone is always being indicted for something.”

“Raul, you know better than to take that attitude,” Sharon said.

“But none of the Italian population cares, not even the rest of the cabinet,” Raul said.

“Well, if you’re the one being indicted, you care. And you know damn well, the problem isn’t whether it’s a significant issue or not. It’s about how we appear to the rest of the world, and the last thing we can afford, especially after the last administration, is to appear as if we’re insensitive.” Sharon paced for a few minutes, then looked over the upcoming schedule on her laptop. “I’m going to have to send you home. Randy can take over for you here.”

“That’s my job,” Raul said, stopping just short of whining.

“And you didn’t do it,” Sharon said. “Furthermore, Raul, if you blow it one more time, I will have to fire you, I don’t care how good your contacts are. And, yes, this is a formal notification. I’ve already emailed Human Resources. Are we clear?”

Raul sniffed.

“Are we clear?” Sharon repeated.

“Yes, we are.” Raul turned and stalked off.

Sharon gathered herself together and made her way to the suite where Mark was staying.

“Well?” he asked as Sharon entered.

Sharon looked around the room. Yesmenia, June, the president’s official personal assistant Gen Flowers, the Deputy Chief of Staff Terry Barker, and speechwriter Calvin Whitecross were scattered about the sitting area, looking at her expectantly.


“Prime Minister Dellacandro laughed. She thinks the whole thing is hysterical,” Sharon said. “Signor Roscano has been mollified.”

“What did you tell him?” Mark asked.

Sharon looked a little guilty. “That is was Signor Montefiori’s idea that we have his niece accompany you, which it partly was. Montefiori is already angry with Roscano for making a fuss, and grossly offended that we would have passed over his niece just because Roscano’s about to be indicted. So, per Signora Dellacandro’s suggestion, I’m letting them fight it out.”

Mark suddenly laughed. “Seriously? Can we afford to do that?”

“I think so. Signor Montefiori was claiming credit for you having Nina with you, in the first place. So we can go with that. If it makes things difficult for him in the face of Roscano’s legal troubles, that’s essentially his problem. We can’t be responsible for their in-fighting, especially if one of them is claiming responsibility for Nina. And nothing has been officially announced. The rumor about the indictment only got out today, and this has been in the works for some time. We can claim some unfortunate timing, say we’re sorry that it hurt Signor Roscano’s feelings, and emphasize that we want to continue our good relations with the country of Italy.”

Yesmenia was typing furiously on her laptop. “The timing was way bad, but we don’t want to apologize if it’s not our fault. Why don’t we say that we regret that the timing of Ms. Collodi’s appearance turned out to be so awkward?”

Mark looked at Sharon. “Ms. Wheatly?”

“Perfect,” said Sharon.

Mark sank back in his chair and chuckled. “This was supposed to be the easy trip.”

“It may yet be,” Sharon said. “I, uh, had to send Raul home.”

“Good,” said Terry, a tall, blonde man. “He is such a pain in the butt.”

“But that does mean I’m a little short-staffed, since I’ll only have Randy,” Sharon said.

“Have your assistant fly out tonight,” Mark said. “I’ll call State and have them bring over a couple translators for her.”

“That shouldn’t be necessary,” Sharon said. “I’d rather have Randy interfacing with the Europeans. That way, Julie can stay focused on keeping me on task. Besides, her French is actually very good, and after Berlin, we have Brussels and Paris, so we’ll be good there.”

“All right,” said Mark standing up. “Then let’s get rolling so we can get some sleep. Tomorrow is another long day.”

Episode 178 – June Tells Mark

By the end of Monday, an announcement out of Minneapolis sent the White House staff scurrying. June first heard about it when Major Wills appeared in her East Wing office that afternoon.

“I want to confirm any special requests or orders regarding your mother’s visit this week,” said the Chief Usher.

He was a smallish man, with gray hair and the ramrod erect posture of the former Marine he was.

“My mother?’ June asked, her stomach clenching.

“Yes. She announced that she would be coming in on Wednesday” Major Wills said, with an injured sniff.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” June said. She clenched her teeth against the gagging feeling in her throat. “Does the president know?”

“I’d assumed you’d invited her,” Major Wills said.

“If we had, we would have told you about it,” June said, trying not to sound snippy. Clearly, the problematic relationship with their mother was something the Major could not grasp. “I’ll talk to the president. In the meantime, please prepare a guest room for her. She can have the Lincoln bedroom, if you feel that’s appropriate.”

“Very well, Miss Jerguessen.” The major nodded and left.

June picked up her mobile only to find that her brother had texted her. She hurried over to the West Wing. Kent Jeffries, the president’s secretary, announced her, then reminded the president that he had a briefing with Sharon Wheatly in a few minutes.

“Hey,” said Mark, looking up from a tablet as she entered.

“Major Wills just gave me the news,” June said.

“That’s why I called you in here. How do you want to spin it?”

June took a deep breath. “I don’t care. I’m not going to be here.”

“Okay, but…” Mark looked at her more carefully. “June, what’s going on?”

June swallowed. “I’m not going to be here. I’ve just decided I can’t be around her right now.”

Mark got up and came around the desk. “Why not? I mean, I get why not, but you’ve always managed before. What’s different now?”

“Oh, dear,” June’s voice wavered as she tried not to break down in sobs. “Mark, you are going to be so mad at me.” She took a deep breath. “I just can’t deal with what she let happen. When we were kids. I mean, I’m finally trying to deal with it and I just can’t deal with it and her.”

“Is there something else..?” Mark asked. “You know, besides…”

June nodded. “Harold. He molested me. Full on sex. Night after night. It started when I was five.” She slid onto a couch, the tears finally flowing. “I couldn’t tell you, I was so afraid of what he’d do to you. Then, after Dad got us out of there, I blocked it out. I couldn’t talk about it to anyone. It’s just that I’d relapsed during the campaign and then Doug and I were thinking about getting together. So I was trying to get up the nerve to tell you, then that other relapse. And I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell you what happened ever since. You have to believe me.”

Mark sat down next her and pulled her close. “I believe you.”

How he kept himself together, he had no idea. He only knew he had to for June’s sake. June cried only for a few minutes longer, then sat up and wiped her eyes.

“I really was trying to tell you,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“Are you mad?”

“Not at you,” Mark said. “Well, not much. I get it – you couldn’t. But I do wish you’d found a way.”

“I didn’t want to hurt you, Mark.”

“I know. We’ll get past this. It’s more important that you’re dealing with it and talking about it.”

“Mr. President,” Kent’s voice broke into the room. “Ms Wheatly is here.”

Mark swore softly. “Listen, before you head out to wherever, can we talk tonight?”

“Sure.”

“Good.” Mark raised his voice. “Please send her in, Kent.”

June stood as Sharon walked into the Oval Office. Sharon noticed immediately that something had happened.

“I told him,” June said to Sharon as she left.

The door shut behind her, Sharon looked over at Mark, still sitting on the couch, and realized what had happened.

Mark looked up at her. “You knew. About June.”

“Uh, yeah. It kind of slipped out about a month ago.”

“Am I the last to know?” Mark snarled.

“I doubt it. As far as I know, I’m the only person she’s talked to about it. And that was an accident. She was looking for a way to tell you.”

Mark turned on her. “You couldn’t have said something to me?”

Sharon stepped back, startled by his vehemence.

“Seriously,” Mark bounced up and began pacing furiously. “Why couldn’t she had said something to me? Why do I have to stay in the dark? Only the worst thing in the world happens to my baby sister and I get to be the last to find out. How could you have kept this from me? Huh? How?”

“She said she was going to tell you and I agreed that it would be better coming from her.” Sharon took a deep breath and tried not to get angry, as it was obvious that Mark was not actually angry with her. “I’m sure it hurts to find out this way and this late, but June has been having a very difficult time dealing with it.”

“I know,” said Mark, his knuckles white in his fists. “I know and I can’t be pissed at her because of that.”

“Then why not be pissed at the person who deserves it?” Sharon said softly.

“I am!” Mark roared, then stopped at looked at her guiltily. “And that’s not you. I’m sorry. I don’t know what got into me.”

“Your sister just told you that she’d been molested by your older brother for years.”

“It’s not like I didn’t suspect.” Mark went back to pacing. “How could I not? We even asked her about it, but she acted like it had never happened and I never talked to her about it again. I tried so hard to protect her, damn it.”

“The way June tells it, you did a darned good job, when you were being just as abused as she was.”

“Not that way. I didn’t get that. I took plenty of other shit, but not that.” Mark pressed his lips together as a tear rolled down his cheek. “That poor kid. She’s gotten the worst of everything and she still comes back fighting. She’s still kind and loving. Hell, she was more worried about me when she told me. How…?”

“She had you and you both had a loving father and grandmother and other kind people who reached out to you. At least, I’m guessing that’s what happened. That’s how kids in your position generally get past that kind of damage.”

Mark snorted. “You know, I’m really glad we’ve never had to fly the survivor flag. It’s nothing to be proud of, trust me. You survive because you have no other option. And you’re right. I did have my dad, who made it very clear to me that I had two ways to deal with things. I could let it turn me into a bitter, angry person, or I could find a way to forgive and rise above it. But there are times when I just want to be bitter and angry and nuke the piss out of my mother and brother. Oh, crap. That’s what started this. My mother’s coming to visit.”

“It was kind of you to invite her.”

“I didn’t.” Mark took a deep breath. “That’s why the announcement came out of Minnesota. She knows that I can’t say she isn’t without looking really bad.” He took a deep breath. “And there really isn’t much either of us can do about it. So. You have a briefing for me?”

“Yes. Just a quick update on Saturday’s party for Karsa Bruchner.”

“The German ambassador’s kid. And we’re doing this because..?”

“He did not want a reception for himself. He’s already had his meeting with you. But the German government was acting a little miffed, as if we were blowing them off.”

“So we offered him a birthday party for his daughter, who is having a little trouble adjusting and making friends.” Mark flopped onto the couch and waved. “I remember now.”

“All right. So we have our RSVPs. Kid Casey, the entertainment, has been passed by security. Dan Friedman loves the compromise and both his sources and mine agree that the Germans are pleased as punch with it, too. We’ve got some hints of terrorist activity in France and Russia, but nothing much to go on. You might want to ask Ed-Man about it, though.”

Mark leaned back and closed his eyes. Sharon paused, and then went on with her briefing.

Mark later found June in the private quarters dining room and was relieved to see that she was eating a salad.

“First course,” she said, pushing the bowl at him. “Hope you don’t mind that I started ahead of you. Didn’t know when you were coming up.”

“No, it’s fine.” He sat down, put his napkin on his lap and looked at the bowl. “I’m sorry I got upset.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” she said. “Of course, it’s only been a few months since I started admitting it to myself.”

“Like you haven’t been through enough.”

June shrugged. “Well, it’s like Dad always says, it’s not the hand you’re dealt, it’s how you choose to play it. Look, I can’t promise it’s all going to be happily ever after. But I really think I’m through the worst of it and I’m… all right.”

“You know, you are probably one of the strongest people I have ever met in my life. I mean, I don’t want this going public for the same reasons you don’t. At the same time, I would not mind being able to tell the world just how incredible you are.”

“At least, I get to tell everybody just how awesome you are,” June replied with a grin.

Episode 168 – Mark Deals With the Store

romance fiction, light romance, sweet romanceBut first Mark had to deal with Mervyn Belwish, the Dean of Students at St. Ignatius Prep, the boarding school where Matt and the others went. Belwish was balding, lisped slightly and was dressed in a dark wool suit with a red bow tie and matching pocket color. He met Mark as the presidential limo pulled up.

“We’re so glad you’re here, Mr. President,” Belwish said. “Obviously, we wish the circumstances were better. But I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding. We hold our boys here at St. Ignatius to a very high standard of behavior.”

“I understand,” said Mark.

He walked at a fast, but easy clip, which forced the smaller Belwish to scramble to keep up. Even so, Belwish didn’t let up with his sycophantic babbling.

“The security people from the mall are here,” Belwish said. “They’ve brought the video from the store and we’ll be able to see exactly what happened.”

“That would be a good thing,” said Mark.

“They’re right in here,” Belwish said, opening a door to a conference room.

Mark walked into the room and turned to the dean. “Will you excuse us, please?”

“Uh, certainly, sir. I’m sure we can get this all cleared up quickly.” Belwish reluctantly shut the door with himself still out in the hall.

Mark turned to the two women and one man in the room. “Good afternoon. I understand you’ve got some video to show me?”

“Yes, Mr. President,” said the one woman. She was older, in her mid-forties, wearing an elegant red suit. She was obviously somewhat nervous, but her innate elegance and the righteousness of her cause held firm.

“And you are..?” Mark asked.

“The store manager. Marlane Tortoricci,” she said. “And this is Earl Mixton and Tanisha Walsh.”

She indicated the rather beefy man in the ill-fitting suit of a security guard and a young Black woman in the same suit, but cut to better fit her generous body. Then Tortoricci turned the laptop on the conference table toward Mark.

“We always bring the video with us when we come to St. Ignatius,” she said.

Mark grinned. “Because Dean Belwish would let them get away with murder?”

Tortoricci quirked a smile in spite of herself. “Something like that, sir. In this case, there were four boys involved, including, I understand, your nephew. Ms. Walsh observed three boys taking the merchandise and hiding it on the fourth. We detained the three and immediately called the school. St. Ignatius being a boarding school, it’s usually easier for Dean Belwish to contact the parents.”

“And the fourth boy?”

“He removed the merchandise from his person and ran. Ms. Walsh believes that the boy was surprised to find it on him. But it’s possible he had merely spotted the cameras and decided to drop the goods and run. Here. You can see it on the video.”

The image was in black and white, but surprisingly clear. Matt, wearing a light-colored hoodie over loose jeans, was walking through the store next to Paul Marley. Marley was almost as tall as Matt, but fuller through the shoulders and sported light-colored hair. Two larger boys walked slightly behind Matt and Paul. Every so often, one of the larger boys would slide a small item off a display – a necklace from the jewelry department, cufflinks from another – and slip it to Paul. At one point, the three surrounded Matt. Paul’s hands were lightning fast, Mark caught him dropping a small tube into Matt’s hood. At that moment, Paul looked directly at the store camera, smiled softly and nodded. Mark guessed that Paul knew they had been caught.

A minute later, the three boys left. Matt wandered around the men’s jewelry counter, then frowned and batted at the hoodie. Seconds later, he was frantically piling socks, two necklaces and other items from his hoodie pockets and even from the back pocket of his jeans. Terrified, he glanced around, then ran.

“Mr. Mixton caught up with the other three nearby,” Tortoricci said. “He said they were watching the fourth boy and laughing.”

“I’m assuming you’ve guessed that the fourth boy was my nephew,” Mark said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you have any evidence that he knew what was going on until he found the merchandise in his pockets?”

“No, sir.” Tortoricci’s face said that she wished she had.

“I can understand why you’d be suspicious,” Mark said slowly. “Obviously, boys from this school have gotten into trouble before and you’ve had to back down, thanks to high-powered parents and their demands.”

“I am afraid that is the case, sir.”

“Well, if you feel you need to prosecute Matt, I understand. I don’t want to stand in the way of you doing what you think you need to do.” Mark frowned. “But I have good reason to believe he really was set up by the other three. After the school called me, one of our mutual friends called. Matt had called her in a complete panic and told her he’d been set up and was more worried about what getting caught would do to me than he was about getting arrested for stealing. And, truth be told, if he really had been shoplifting, he’d have a lot more to worry about from me than he would from you or any law enforcement. And he knows it.”

Tortoricci smiled. “Actually, sir, I’m impressed. Most parents and guardians get very defensive if I even hint their little darling has done something wrong. I’m not looking forward to dealing with the other three parents. Or the dean.”

“I’ve got an idea.” Mark smiled. “Nothing was actually stolen, was it?”

“Not that we can tell.”

“Well if anything got past Matt when he dumped everything, I’ll see to it that he brings it back to you. As for the others, I’m told I’m something of a power player, myself. And dear little Dean Belwish is such a sycophant that I’m sure he’ll find a way to let me lay down the law with the other three. The idea, of course, is to ensure that there are no repeat events, especially from this crew, correct?”

“That would be the ideal, sir.”

“Then Ms. Tortoricci, it was a pleasure meeting you and I’ll see to it that the others catch holy hell,”

“Thank you, sir.” Tortoricci shook Mark’s hand. “That will make my life easier.”

“Good day, then. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some backsides to rake over the coals.”

Episode 165 – Warmonger has a Problem

light romance fiction, romance fiction serial, sweet romanceThe following Monday brought the sad news that Caroline Eddington had passed away. The news made for a very long week for everyone in the White House. The funeral was held on Friday. Al Eddington was his usual stoic self, which bothered Mark a lot more than he realized.

“Something just seemed off about the whole thing,” he told Sharon as the two prepared a cole slaw in Sharon’s kitchen to go with the pulled pork that Chef Solly had made and Mark had brought over.

“That’s because his daughters were completely avoiding him,” Sharon said. “All three of them. They pretty much hung onto their husbands and barely said squat to Al.”

“You think that’s what got to Al?”

Sharon paused as she sliced some red cabbage with her second-best knife. “No. I think it was Caroline dying. But he’s not showing his grief and in the process, he’s pushing his daughters away from him when he most needs them. I hope he takes some time off, but I’ve got a bad feeling he’s going to be at the Advisory Board meeting on Tuesday.”

“I told him not to come in, but he’ll be there.” Mark frowned. He thought as he shredded a small carrot onto a cutting board. “He even pointed out that there were some rumbles of genocide in Nigeria.”

“More than a few rumbles,” Sharon said. “It’s looking pretty grim, according to Bantu. But I have to agree with Al. It’s not even close to time for us be get involved militarily. For one thing, no one is asking us to come in.”

“Al seems to think no one is going to ask,” said Mark. “What the hell is he doing, keeping an eye on that?”

Sharon shrugged. “I guess it’s a distraction. But if he’s holding his grief in like it looks like he is, I am seriously not looking forward to when it all comes crashing out.”

“That is not going to be pretty.” Mark sighed. “I think I’m going to have to make a point of getting my briefings from Wanda Dereske.”

“Wanda?” Sharon asked.

“Al’s second in command,” Mark said. “I would have hired her except that Al was willing to come on board. But her contacts are almost as good as Al’s, and she’s not dealing with his issues right now.”

“I don’t think I’ve met her.”

Mark chuckled. “You need to come up for air more often. Her office is just down the corridor from yours.”

“Huh. Maybe I’ll go introduce myself on Monday. Do you want to do sandwiches with these? We can use the barbecue sauce as a dipping sauce.”

“Let’s just eat the pork as is. If you want the barbecue sauce, we can have it on the side.”

Sharon sampled a bit of meat. “Oh, my god. This is wonderful. Hm. Sauce or no sauce. I’ll just put some in this ramekin and we can dip at will.”

“Sounds good,” said Mark.

Once again, he found himself caught up in watching Sharon as she quickly laid out place settings on the counter next to the dining area. Which is why he left to go back to the White House shortly after they finished eating and cleaning up.

Sharon, for her part, was happy to see him go. It had been an uncomfortable week. And while dinner together had made things a lot more relaxed, she was still closer to Mark than she wanted to be – and not close enough.

Episode 163 – June and Doug Turn a Corner

romance fiction serial, romantic fiction, fiction serial

Elsewhere in the city, June was hanging with her longtime friend Douglas Lee. Lee, best known as a stylist for the wealthiest women of New York City, had recently abandoned the Big Apple to live in Washington, DC. Both he and June were debating moving their friendship toward a more romantic one, but both had significant issues to overcome first.

The two had started their day together visiting a gallery in Georgetown, then having lunch together. Then Doug dropped his bomb.

“June, we need to talk,” he said as the waiter cleared their plates.

The restaurant was one that clearly catered to the movers and shakers in town and favored small, sheltered booths, which were great for private deals and conversations.

June held her breath.

“Wow,” said Doug. “This is going to be harder than I thought.”

June felt her stomach leap. He seemed to be proposing, but what?

Doug swallowed. “Look. I know we’ve talked about getting more of a relationship going. And I still would like to. But, here’s the thing, June. I have no idea who I am right now. I thought this move to DC would help me figure it out, but it hasn’t. I’m still confused and I don’t want you waiting for me to get my head together.”

“Oh.” June thought it over. “I wasn’t exactly waiting. It’s not like there’s anyone else in the wings.”

“But there could be,” Doug said. “The thing is, I’m leaving DC. I’m not going back to New York, but I’m going to start traveling. I have to. I need to move out of my comfort zones. I’ve never been anywhere except here and New York and I’ve gotta go check things out. You know what I mean?”

“I suppose,” said June, wondering how she should respond.

“Anyway, I’m going to be traveling – kind of all over the place. I don’t even know when I’m going to be back.” Doug began running his thumb over the handle of his fork, back and forth. “I don’t want to say this is the end for us. It’s just that I’d feel terrible if you were back here waiting for me. What if you gave up someone really good for you because I was off trying to find myself? That would be horrible.”

“Okay,” said June. “I won’t wait for you. It’s not like I don’t have issues of my own to work out.”

“Good.”

“So when are you leaving?”

“Tonight. I’m flying to Paris.” Doug suddenly slammed the fork onto the table. “Wow. I can’t believe how nervous I am. You gonna be okay?”

“I guess. Listen, let’s get the check. I probably should be getting back to work.”

“Yeah. That would probably be good.”

The two left the restaurant together but then went their separate ways with barely a kiss on the cheek. The discreet SUV pulled up next to June and the Secret Service agent watching her that day stepped up to open the back door of the car for her. June settled into the back seat feeling numb and wondering how she should be feeling.

Episode 162 – Mark Spots Sharon Up to Something

romantic fiction serial, romance fictionThe activity in the kitchen was rather frenetic, but come six o’clock, the hors-d’oeuvres were ready, the raw bar was set up, two bars for drinks were staffed by the contractor and ready, and the guests began arriving.

Mark stayed hidden in the kitchen. June found some cooks jackets and pants for Sharon and Lena to wear while setting out the buffet. Though Mark was focused on cooking, he did notice Sharon and Lena chatting as they prepped the ham, cheese, and olive plates. Sometime later, he saw Sharon talking to the home’s director and handing the woman something.

He was finishing cleaning up when he heard the director, a stately woman in her early fifties, turn on a microphone.

“Excuse me,” she announced. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for the speeches. I’ll do my best to keep it short. As most of you know, I am Lorraine Chavez, and I am director for the Laine Children’s Home. Our mission here is to find stable, loving homes for our neediest children and to shelter those who are waiting for such homes. It’s not an easy mission, and indeed, one of our toughest challenges is how to help those of our children who are aging out of the system. In most cases, children who turn eighteen are basically cut off and turned out, and it’s no surprise when many of them end up guests of our criminal justice system. Thanks to your generous donations and time, many of our children get mentors and scholarships for college educations and get a chance to become the successes they deserve to be.”

Chavez stopped for the smattering of applause and took a sip of water.

“You are here because you are have donated already, so I’m not going to ask for more money tonight. But I will be asking again soon. Our board of directors has decided that we need a new capital campaign, not to expand our facilities, although we could use quite a few more beds. Our goal is to increase our endowment so that we can hire more counselors to help our foster families create stable homes for our children. One of the biggest problems in our foster care system is finding long-term family situations. We’ve all heard about children being bounced from home to home to home. Our goal is to prevent that. We also want to provide more mentors for our children aging out of the system. In fact, I’ve got a perfect example of what your kindness and generosity have already done. Lena, will you come out here?”

Blushing furiously and ducking her head, Lena hurried out from the kitchen in her chef’s jacket and checked pants. Chavez put her arm around the girl.

“Lena Dutton is one of our success stories. She was raised by her grandmother and the two dreamed of opening a restaurant, serving good home cooking. Sadly, her grandmother passed away when Lena was ten and Lena came into the system. In five years, Lena was placed in seven different homes and was sexually assaulted in one of them. Somehow, she has hung on to her good nature and her passion for cooking. In fact, she volunteered to assist our substitute cooks today and was responsible for hand-slicing the ham you enjoyed on your cheese platters tonight. Lena, who will age out in two weeks, recently received a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America, in New York. The only problem was, it did not include her books and tools, nor did it include room and board. I am happy to announce that tonight, one of our volunteers has offered to pay for anything the scholarship doesn’t cover. We do need to find a mentor or two to help Lena make her transition from the system into normal life, but she is well on her way to success thanks to the generosity of people like you.”

In the kitchen, Mark’s head whipped up and his eyes fell on Sharon, whose attention was focused elsewhere. Chavez finished up and Lena came back to the kitchen, her eyes overflowing. As Mark gave the sink a final wipe-down, he saw Sharon out of the corner of his eyes, handing Lena a package wrapped in a towel he recognized from Sharon’s townhouse. Lena shook her head. Chavez wandered by and Sharon stopped her. The two talked and Chavez took custody of the towel-wrapped package while saying something to Lena.

Sharon also insisted that the after-party for the volunteers happen at her townhouse and the basement rec room known as the PFZ – Protocol Free Zone. Mark found an excuse to slide upstairs to Sharon’s kitchen and noticed that her special hand-forged knives were not in their spot in her butcher block.

He also managed to wrangle a dinner invite to her place the next night, a Sunday. The knives were still missing.

Monday, the city was buzzing with the rumors that it had been the President cooking for the children’s home dinner. Many scoffed simply because there were no YouTube videos posted, or even a fuzzy photo on Facebook or Twitter.

“I can’t believe no-one thought of it,” Karen told Sharon as they two ate lunch together in the White House mess.

“We were all pretty busy,” Sharon said. “Besides, everyone was probably thinking someone else was taking the pics. I hear Jean’s pretty mad.”

Jean was Jean Bouyer, the President’s press secretary.

“Fit to be tied.” said Karen, giggling. “The boss won’t let her confirm the rumors. Or deny them, either. And the eligible bachelor hashtag has been trending off the charts.”

“Yeah. I saw that. Rich, single, powerful and he cooks!” Sharon shook her head.

“Jean spent an hour in my office trying to talk me into getting the boss to confess,” Karen said, contemplating her sandwich.

Sharon speared a lettuce leaf with her fork. “I can see why he doesn’t want to own up to the children’s home. He did it because it needed doing and he does like to cook. But you know somebody will make it out to be some political maneuver.”

“That’s what I told Jean and she finally agreed. We just have to convince the boss that it’s okay to come clean on the cooking thing. Most folks know he does. And it does humanize him.”

“You sure it doesn’t make him too good to be true?”

Karen thought about it. “Nah. He’s not that good a cook.”

Episode 161 – Getting Beyond the Disaster

romantic fiction, romance serial, light romanceSharon was already packing a good-sized tote as she and everyone else hung up. Her mind was buzzing through the whole host of possibilities as she dropped evening shoes and a cocktail dress and her makeup bag into the tote. She quickly added a brush, then ran downstairs and looked at her kitchen. There wasn’t much she could bring, but she did finally wrap her good knives in a towel and added the package to the tote.

She did make one stop before heading to the Metro. On the corner near her townhouse was a small bodega and butcher shop. The butcher knew her and while he was somewhat surprised by her request, he did have an option. Sharon called Mark immediately.

“What?” asked Mark.

“Sir, I think we’ve scored some beef tenderloins. Whole ones. And a wheel of manchego cheese, plus a boatload of olives,” said Sharon. “I just need someone to pick them up.”

“Terrific. Let’s see… Gus said he’d be willing to do some running and so did Tanks. What’s the address and who’s the contact?”

Sharon gave him the information and told the butcher that he’d be getting a call. From there, she ran to the Metro stop.

Cordelia and Rebecca Cooper were waiting for her at the Vienna Metro station.

“We’re going out to the farms,” Cordelia said to Sharon as they hurried to Cordelia’s small sedan.

“Can’t I drive, Mom?” Rebecca asked.

“Are you out of your mind, girl?” Cordelia retorted. “We’ve got split second timing going on here.”

The drive into the Virginia countryside was somewhat tense, but the rewards were three country-style hams and several bushel baskets of vegetables. After checking in with Melody, the women stopped at a supermarket, then went directly to the children’s home.

Mark was already there. The kitchen proved to be quite large, with two industrial range and oven units, a full-sized commercial refrigerator that was at least half-empty and a full complement of utensils. In addition, Mark had pulled a tall warming oven from the White House kitchen.

Gus Guerrero had picked up the beef, cheese and olives from the bodega near Sharon’s townhouse and had even better news.

“A raw bar?” Sharon gasped.

“With crab, shrimp and lobster,” said Gus. “Turns out the governor’s catering company was getting desperate since it was going to be too small for the Smithsonian folks. But still, there was all this seafood already delivered. We scored it for our party, instead.” Gus let out a hearty laugh. “This whole town is going crazy. It’s only four events and a wedding. In August, no less.”

“Those three are pretty big events,” said Melody, frantically sifting through the sheets of paper on her clipboard. “But a raw bar will help. When will it be here?”

“By four,” said Gus.

It was already close to one in the afternoon when Mark and Sharon surveyed the collection of ingredients as Rebecca, Matt and an older teen from the home looked on.

“We’d better get those hams soaking,” Mark said. “But what do we do with them?”

“Do we have a slicer?” Sharon asked. “Maybe we could do paper-thin slices and serve them on plates with the cheese and olives, like tapas.”

“I don’t think we have a slicer,” Mark said, looking around the kitchen. “I suppose I could slice them by hand.”

“I can do that,” piped up the young girl from the home.

She was somewhat chunky, with dark, chocolatey skin, and about average height. Her dark eyes shone with excitement.

“Um, I’m Lena,” she said, suddenly backing off. “I really like cooking and I’m good at it. I think. I bet I could slice that ham pretty thin.”

Mark looked at Sharon, who shrugged and nodded.

“Okay,” said Mark. “We’ll give it a try. But those hams need soaking first.”

“Oh, I know,” Lena said. “My grandma used to cure her own. Had to soak them for a week before we could eat them.”

Lena set to soaking the hams in the huge two-part sink in the kitchen while Mark and Sharon debated the rest of the menu. In addition to the beef, they had six turkey breasts to consider. They finally decided to cook the beef on the stove top and bake the turkey breasts. As for sauces, Sharon talked Mark into doing a wine-based sauce for the turkey and a more traditional gravy for the beef.

“It’s not the usual sort of thing,” Sharon said.

June, for her part, had started making calls the moment her plane landed.

“The freaking Police Fund has already snagged every freaking table and chair in the city,” she complained to Karen Tanaka over the phone.

“It could be worse,” Karen said, sorting through bolts of fabric at a fabric store in the suburbs. “We could be in the middle of the social season.”

“But that’s also why we can’t get the tables and chairs,” sighed June. “I wonder if we could get away with borrowing from the White House stash.”

“Good question,” said Karen. “It is a charitable event and it is in a crisis situation. But there could be fall out from the opposition about using government resources for a private entity.”

“I wonder what the home has available.”

“I already checked. They have one long table and about twenty chairs. Wait. It’s going to be a buffet anyway, right?”

“Yes. So?”

“Why don’t we set up a few tall tables and use the home’s sofas and see if we can score some more over-stuffed furniture and make it a more relaxed, more party-like kind of thing.?”

“Great idea. We can do the hors d’oeuvres outside on the lawn, then serve dinner on the first floor, like usual, only there won’t be table settings, just furniture and a some tall tables. And let’s keep to a multi-color scheme, say rainbow pastels?”

Karen looked over the bolts of cloth and thought. “Rainbow pastels should be doable. There’s a warehouse store near here. I should be able to pick up the flatware and plates, as well.”

“And Mark says to save your receipts. We’ll get you reimbursed, okay?”

“We’ll see,” said Karen.

As it turned out, Melody had found a stock of tables and chairs from her husband, Roy’s, church. Karen was able to find enough fabric to make instant table clothes and ribbons for the chairs. She bought plates, silverware and glasses at an outlet in the Virginia suburbs. June pulled several vases and dishes from her personal collection and made centerpieces from those. Matt, Tony, Jodi, Tiffany, Rebecca and Kira were drafted to pass hors d’oeuvres, and Mark drafted his assistant Gen Flowers and a couple of her friends to serve drinks.

Episode 160 – A Social Disaster Strikes

romantic fiction, romance fiction, romantic serialThe rest of the week passed quietly. It was the end of August in Washington, and with most of the Congress still gone for the month’s break, that meant few meetings. Even Sharon had less to work on than usual and by Friday, found herself looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend and downloaded several books onto her tablet in anticipation of some extended reading time.

Which was why she was less than thrilled when her mobile phone rang around 10 that Saturday morning and the President’s number was flashing on the screen. She took a deep breath and answered.

“Sharon, we’re going to need some help here,” said Mark’s voice even before she could say hello. “Melody, are you there?”

“I’m right here, Mark.” Melody’s voice was a little faint and sounded considerably more agitated than usual.

“June?” Mark asked.

“You’ve got me for the next ten minutes,” June said on her end of the conversation. She’d spent the week in New York. “We’ll be landing soon and I’ll have to turn the phone off. Oh, my god. It’s on the news already.”

“What?” asked Sharon, searching for a TV remote. But she was in her kitchen, cleaning up after her breakfast and the nearest television was in the back study.

“It’s a complete disaster,” sniffed Melody.

“Hang on, Mel,” said Mark. “We can make this work. Sharon, the children’s home is having their big donor’s party tonight. It’s one of their most important events because they need to raise money.”

“I can’t believe it,” Melody said. “I spoke with the caterers just yesterday. They said everything was ready to go.”

“That’s what everybody’s saying,” said June. “And today, gone. Poof!”

“The catering company just went out of business overnight,” said Melody, sounding as if she was trying not to cry. “Overnight!”

“I doubt that,” said June. “But, Sharon, it’s one of the biggest companies in D.C. And they had at least three other major parties they were doing tonight and today. And a wedding. Oh, my god, that poor couple.”

“We need to focus on the donor’s dinner,” Mark said. “Solly took the weekend off and most of her crew with her to cater her niece’s wedding in New Orleans. Russell said he could do the couple’s wedding.”

“Russell?” Melody asked.

“The sous chef here at the White House,” Mark said. “Solly left him behind just in case I needed feeding. I told him to work the wedding before Melody called me about the dinner. So how many are we expecting, Mel?”

“About a hundred and fifty,” Melody said. “They delivered the wine and the liquor for the bar – I think that was a sub-contractor, which is why we have it. But there’s no food and folks are supposed to be here at 6 pm. What are we going to feed them?”

“Get a ham or two,” said Sharon. “The weather’s hot enough, you can serve it cold and a ham feeds a lot of people for minimum effort. I’ve got a double oven here, so I could bake a couple and bring them over.”

“This was supposed to be a fancy sit-down dinner,” Melody said.

“Well, it’s not going to be anymore,” said June. “Don’t stress on it, Mel. Are the decorations there?”

“Nothing. The caterer was going to do that and we don’t even have the tables and chairs.”

“June, can you handle the decorations?” Mark asked.

“Yes,” said June. “I’m texting Tanks now. Shavings. They’re telling us to turn off our phones. I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m on the ground.”

Sharon finally found her way into the study of the Georgetown townhouse where she lived and clicked on the TV.

“This looks major,” she said into her phone. “I just heard a fill-in chef say he’s going everywhere to find ingredients.”

“And Augie is texting me that that Maryland fundraiser their governor was doing tonight was canceled,” said Mark. “I wonder….”

“You think we could use their catering company?” Melody asked.

“Nope,” said Sharon. “The Smithsonian nabbed them already, according to CNN.”

“We’ll take care of it,” Mark said. “I’ve done parties before.”

“This was supposed to be a luxury sit-down dinner,” Melody whimpered.

“It’s not going to be now,” Mark said. “But if it’s making this big a splash in the news, your donors are going to be impressed if you can give them anything more than salted peanuts and a glass of wine. Sharon, how fast can you get out to Vienna?”

“What?” Sharon asked.

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” Mark continued, speaking very fast. “I’ll get Eddie to meet you at the Vienna station. You guys go grocery shopping out there. Even odds everyone else will be freaking out but staying in town. You pick up whatever you can and we’ll figure out the menu based on what you get. I’m thinking a basic buffet. Two hot meat dishes, a salad, some vegetables.”

“We’ll need at least one vegetarian hot dish,” said Sharon. “What about hors d’oeuvres?”

“We usually do passed hors d’oeuvres,” Melody said.

“We’ll add that to the mix,” Mark said. “Maybe the kids at the home can do the passing.”

“No,” said Melody. “This is their night, too. Believe me, it’s really important to have them as guests. That way, they interact with the donors and tell their stories. It’s really important.”

“Fine,” said Mark. “We’ll get Matt and his friends to do the serving.”

“For sure,” said Sharon. “Let’s see, that’s two, four, six. Do we want to rope in Deborah and Allie? They’re sort of part of the group even though they’re the younger sisters.”

“Why not?” Mark said.

Sharon turned off her TV and went into the guest bathroom off the kitchen. “I’m about as decent as I can be. Where are we going to cook everything?”

“We have the home’s kitchen,” said Melody. “It’s pretty big.”

“I’ll scope that out,” said Mark. “I think our biggest challenge is going to be getting the food in, then we’ll figure out how to handle it.”

“Okay,” said Sharon. “Let me get a couple things together just in case I can’t get back here. Sir, can you text Coop and tell him I’ll text him when I get to the Vienna station?”

“Already done and Eddie has texted back. Cordelia will meet you at the station, text her the second you get above ground.”

“I need the number.”

“Coming at you.” Mark chuckled. “This is going to be fun. Melody, we’ve got this one in the bag. Your job will be to keep track of who is doing what. Think you can handle it?”

“Of course,” Melody said in a voice that said she was not at all sure she could.

“Good,” said Mark. “I’ll text everyone your number and have them text you so that you’ll have all our numbers in your phone. Keep a charger and plug on you. We are going to rock this one.”

Episode 159 – Toby Falls Hard

Romantic fiction, Romantic fiction serial, romance serialThe next day, Michael and his family arrived early at the townhouse where Sharon lived. She was dressed, but just barely. The limo only had to wait a few minutes for Sharon to pull her hair into a ponytail and then grab the salad she’d promised to bring.

The party was at the Cooper home in Vienna, Virginia, a suburb at the end of the DC Metro line feeding into the city. It was a quiet area filled with split-level homes surrounded by lots of trees. The house shared by Eddie and Cordelia Cooper and their four children was actually a colonial with two stories and a basement that opened onto the lush green backyard.

Rebecca Cooper had arranged that everyone would meet there for a welcome/school’s starting party, the idea being that the more casual setting would make Mark less intimidating for Jodi. It was a kind thought. But Jodi found herself managing the crowd quite well. She knew most of the teens there, if not in person, then by video chat. The parents were pretty much non-entities, although Jodi was polite and thanked the Coopers for inviting her and her family.

Toby took over the social duties after that, introducing Jodi, Tiffany, Michael and Inez to Eddy and Cordelia, then Roy and Melody Hodgkiss, and Tony Garces, then Karen Tanaka and Hideo Matsumoto, and Kira and Allie, and finally to Matt and June.

Mark slipped into the party somewhat later, which turned out to be lucky for Toby. As soon as she saw him, her jaw dropped.

“He’s gorgeous,” she whispered to no one in particular.

Sharon, however, happened to overhear.

“Do you want me to introduce you?” Sharon asked Toby.

“No!” Toby yipped. “Yes! No. Let’s wait a few minutes. I mean, he just got here, right?”

Sharon laughed as Toby wandered to the other part of the backyard from where Mark was.

Mark, for his part, got a can of beer and wandered somewhat aimlessly until he saw Tony Garces talking rather animatedly with a slender blonde teen-age girl. Curious, Mark wandered closer.

“But I still use pen and paper,” Tony was saying.

“Of course,” the young girl said. “It’s totally a fixed medium. You can easily scan it. Still, you’ve got to admit that the new e-pens are working just as well as a pencil.”

“Not as well as a pencil.” Tony looked up and grinned at Mark. “Oh, hi. This is Jodi.”

Jody grinned and stuck out her hand. “How do you do, sir.”

“Quite well, thank you.” Mark smiled, feeling a little confused. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Drawing tablets,” Tony said. “Although I think we’re sliding into the whole digital versus analog debate.”

“Does it have to be one or the other?” Mark asked.

“Well, digital does have certain advantages and it can replicate some of the softer virtues of analog formats,” Jodi said.

“Not always,” said Tony.

“It also depends on what you’re talking about,” said Jodi. “Like self-driving cars. They have been proven to anticipate a problem and brake faster than a human.”

“What about making the decision regarding where you want to go?” Mark asked, enjoying the banter immensely.

Kira got into the conversation on the acoustical side of the issue and Mark finally slipped away to say hello to Eddie and Cordelia. He was also vaguely aware of a young brown-haired girl watching him from the edge of the yard. As he chatted briefly with Eddie, Sharon walked up.

“Hey,” said Sharon. “I saw you talking with Jodi.”

“Yeah.” Mark looked back over the group. Jodi and Rebecca were talking with Matt and Michael. “I thought you said she was the shy one. We had a great little debate going.”

Sharon laughed. “Well, she told me last night that Rebecca and Tiffany have been helping her fake it when she’s nervous. She figured she’d better get used to meeting people with the new school and all.”

“Rebecca’s coaching her? That’s my girl,” said Eddie with a slightly rueful chuckle. “Has to take care of everyone and everything. No idea where she got that from.”

Mark and Sharon snorted as Eddie laughed and took a pull on his bottle of beer.

“Anyway,” Sharon said. “It seems Jodi and her sister Toby have switched roles.”

Mark nodded at the young girl on the edge of the yard. “I’m guessing that’s Toby skirting the bushes back there.”

“That’s her,” said Eddie. “You should have seen her ten minutes ago. All Ms. Social Butterfly, introducing everybody to everybody else.”

Toby appeared to have gotten her nerve up and walked toward the adults.

“Hi,” she said softly to Mark. “I-I’m Toby.”

Mark shook her hand. “Nice to meet you, Toby. I hear you’re going to High School for the Performing Arts this fall.”

“Yeah. I’m taking an acting program,” said Toby. “It’s, uh, kinda what I do.”

“That’s interesting.”

“Yeah. Thanks. I-I’ll talk to you later.” Toby dashed away.

“I’d better go check on her,” said Sharon, working very hard not to laugh.

June had found Toby first.

“That’s your brother?” Toby was asking her. “He is so amazing. Oh, my god, he is so cute! And he’s really sweet. Oh, my god, how did you stand living with someone so gorgeous?”

“I managed,” said June, struggling to hold in her laughter. She saw Sharon approaching through the corner of her eye and didn’t dare catch her friend’s eye.

“Aunt Sharon, isn’t he the dreamiest?” Toby gasped. “You are so lucky you get to work with him. I can’t believe how gorgeous he is.”

Toby wandered off, first finding a soda from the bucket near the serving table, then sliding back to the bushes to admire Mark from afar.

June and Sharon turned their back to her and let the laughter roll.

“She is seriously crushing on your brother,” Sharon giggled.

“Ya think? I mean, I haven’t seen a girl react to Mark like that since I was in high school.”

“Hey, guys,” Mark walked up to the two woman. “What are you two laughing about?”

“My niece,” said Sharon. “Toby.”

“Someone’s got a serious baby crush on you, brother dearest,” June said with a giggle.

“Oh, come on. She’s just a kid,” Mark said. But he glanced back at Toby and saw the look on her face and sighed.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sharon said. “She’s sure to come out of it soon enough.”

“I hope so.” Mark said.

“It’s cute,” said June.

“You don’t have to deal with the fallout from the broken heart,” Mark said.

“Neither do you,” said Sharon. “The Tobester is made of sterner stuff than that. Besides, she’ll be in New York. You’ll be here.”

Mark wandered off to talk to Roy Hodgkiss.