Episode 183 – The French President is Up To Something

It had been a notable break with precedent, but a welcome one to the Europeans, that the U.S. President’s party had been making its way around Europe by train, rather than in Air Force One. It was true that several cars on each train had to be taken over to accommodate the press, security and the presidential party, itself. The high speed trains made it almost faster than flying.

A crowd and the French President Madame Geneve de Cresy were waiting for the party in Paris President de Cresy was a tiny woman in her sixties, yet one whose presence could be felt from miles away. Mark had been looking forward to his meeting with her because the two had become friends when Mark was still in the Senate and she had been Foreign Minister. And by an odd coincidence, Sharon had also formed a friendship with the French president some years before when the company that Sharon worked for was trying to shepherd an infrastructure project through the notorious French bureaucracy. But the public welcome and speeches took precedence for the moment.

Back at the presidential palace, the private greetings began, causing a flurry of confusion, since June and Sharon were both speaking in French, Geneve was equally fluent in English, and Mark and the rest of the group didn’t know anything besides English.

Finally, things settled down enough for conversation and the group was served an early lunch.

“You know, I thought I’d finally had the big connection,” Mark told Geneve as they were sipping a perfectly smooth mushroom veloute soup. “I mean, Ms. Wheatly knows everybody, it seems like.”

“Not by a long shot,” Sharon said.

“It’s not surprising,” Geneve said. “Sharon has always been good at making friends. That’s why she was so good at her work. And still is.”

Sharon thought she caught a glint of mischief in Geneve’s eyes and sighed inwardly. So, after lunch, Sharon made a point of avoiding the French president. Not that it did much good. Geneve de Cresy was not the sort of person who had gotten to where she was because of mere charm and good luck. Indeed, it was almost universally acknowledged that if Madame de Cresy wanted something to happen, it probably would. She never bullied anyone outright, but that made her all the more powerful. Which is why Sharon, after the first afternoon conference, finally let Geneve find her alone in a conference room in the palace.

“You’ve been hiding from me since lunch,” Geneve said.

“Yes, and you know why,” Sharon replied.

“Eh, Sharon, he’s not so bad,” Geneve said. “He’s quite charming and I think you know just how charming he can be.”

“It doesn’t do me any good,” Sharon said with a snort. “He’s my boss. And back in the States, there are people who get very strange about such things, people who will hurt him.”

“So, don’t tell anyone. Knowing you, you’d like that better, anyway.”

“As if we could keep it quiet. The only gossip rags worse than ours are yours.”

Geneve laughed out right. “You could do it if you want. And why not want? I have known each of you for some time, now, and I have been trying to find a way to introduce the two of you for years.”

“Oh, come on.” It was Sharon’s turn to laugh.

“No. It’s true. I have always thought you and Mark would be a wonderful couple. But even I have to be subtle or it would all go wrong. And you two are made for each other. I can tell. And I can tell he likes you, too.”

“But, but, but…”

“Enough.” Geneve smiled softly. “Sharon, he is lonely. He has always been lonely, but it’s even worse now. And you, you make friends, but you are just as lonely as he is.”

“Why? Just because I don’t have a boyfriend?” Sharon folded her arms across her chest and tried to glare at Geneve. “It could be I’m happier that way.”

“Yes. It could be, if there were not someone special so close to you.” Geneve’s smile grew smug. “Good. You are thinking about it. My work is finished. I’ll see you later.”

The worst of it was, Geneve had gotten Sharon thinking about Mark in a way that was decidedly uncomfortable. And even while Sharon was reasonably confident that Mark felt the same way about her, there were problems. It was not a good time for either of them to be beginning that kind of relationship. Worse yet, if word got out that Sharon and Mark were dating, the blow back from the Moral Americans would be unbelievable. The group wanted to start a Senate investigation because she was simply working with him. What would they say about her dating him? It was impossible. Utterly impossible.

As for Mark, himself, it had not escaped his notice that Geneve was up to her hips in matchmaking. The only advantage he’d had is that he’d known Geneve had a friend she’d wanted him to meet, even if he hadn’t known whom. So, when Geneve whispered to him after lunch that fate had done what she couldn’t, Mark was, at first, surprised. Then, during their first conference, she glanced meaningfully at Sharon.

It was just enough to put Mark off his paces for a moment. He quickly gathered his wits together and re-focused on what was going on, fortunately, before he conceded to something he had no intention of conceding to. But that, as he later reflected, could have been part of the old bat’s plan, as Geneve was not above playing mind games when it suited her purpose, especially if she could achieve more than one of her ends at the same time.

“Low blow,” he told her as they sipped on an aperitif before the state dinner to celebrate his visit.

“Whatever do you mean?” she asked, chuckling.

“Not only are you playing matchmaker, you pointed her out at a really sensitive point in the discussion.”

Geneve shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I? You are the mighty United States of America. We are only poor little France. And you like her, as I knew you would. You are made for each other. It’s that simple.”

“Not by a long shot,” Mark grumbled. “This is not a good time for either of us. Not to mention, Sharon does not want to be famous, which she would be if she dated me.”

“So keep it quiet, like you always do.” She paused. “It’s interesting, though. That’s not the excuse she gave me earlier.”

“Oh, great. You were talking to her, too.”

“Of course, I was. You are both my friends and I want to see you both happy.” Geneve set down her drink and turned away. “Ah, Monsieur Dupont!”

She hurried over to greet her aide while Mark glared at his drink. It was a beautiful Champagne brandy. Sharon would love it, and as if Fate had been listening to his thoughts, Sharon arrived in the room with June and Yesmenia. Sharon was dressed in her favorite apricot strapless dress with the jeweled belt. Mark held his breath, trying not to think about how beautiful she looked and how she made him feel. He had thought he’d convinced himself that they were merely friends.

It was going to make the next night rather difficult, indeed. It was Sharon’s birthday the next day, and when Mark first heard about the small surprise party being planned for the evening, he had thought it a terrific idea. After all, Sharon had been working very hard. She deserved some recognition. June and Yesmenia had seen to it that the affair was going to be very low-key and intimate, given Sharon’s distaste for the spotlight. Mark had even brought a special birthday present for his “just a friend.”

Mark did not want to be thinking about a quiet relationship with Sharon. It was not in her best interests, and if the news ever broke, it would be a disaster. The only good part of Geneve’s meddling was that she’d also spoken to Sharon, which meant Sharon was as likely to be annoyed and avoiding Mark.

As Mark sipped his Champagne brandy, it was obvious that Sharon was, in fact, avoiding him. He sighed. It was the only thing worse than Geneve’s meddling.

The evening passed in a blur. Mark spent the night trying not to think about Sharon and woke up very tired and out of sorts. Sharon appeared for breakfast looking like her normal self, but something was off and Mark began to suspect that Sharon hadn’t slept much, either.

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 180 – Getting Ready for Europe

Romantic fiction serial,

Back in the Oval Office, Mark was taking a meeting with White House Head of Operations Marian Jefferson. She was not an imposing woman, about average size, with light coffee skin and dark gray hair cut even with her chin and parted on the side. Mark often wondered how she managed to work her magic, because she was a genius at quelling turf wars, goading reluctant department heads into trying something new, and re-organizing an office’s work-flow for greater productivity. Her one weakness, which she readily admitted, was dealing with the creative and intuitive personalities of the advisory group.

“They are the most productive group in the White House,” Mark pointed out. “If they weren’t, I’d have you raking them over the coals.”

“I wouldn’t do that, sir,” Marian replied. “But there are times when I cannot make exceptions, and the weekly group heads meeting is very important to keep everybody up to date.”

“And the advisory group would argue that they not only already know what everyone else is working on, they’re way ahead of them.”

Marian sighed. “And I know they are. However, it is getting harder and harder to get Mr. Llewellyn to the meeting and he most needs to be there.

Earl Llewellyn was the head of the Budget Office, and while an expert at budgeting and crunching numbers, he was also rather famously anti-social and prone to seeing everything from his own peculiar perspective, then acting shocked and insulted when someone didn’t.

“And not having the advisory group represented just makes it easier for him to skip,” Mark nodded. “All right. You’ve got a point. I’ll get a couple reps from the advisory group.”

Marian thanked him and was dismissed. Mark checked in with Riff Butler and found out that Rose had well and truly left the White House and was on her way to the airport. And there was another tidbit of news, as well.

Mark called Sharon in for a briefing later that afternoon.

“Some of the other group heads are complaining that the advisory group is not represented at the weekly group heads meeting,” Mark told her apologetically.

“Oh, no,” Sharon groaned. “Let me guess. You want me to start showing?”

“You and Johnny Whitesand are the most diplomatic. And Eddie just isn’t around often enough.”

“Plus he and Earl Llewellyn are a match made in Hell.” Sharon closed her eyes and grimaced. “All right. I’ll do it.”

“And one other fun thing before we get down to business.” Mark hesitated a moment. “I heard my mother dropped by your office for a visit this morning.”

Sharon chuckled grimly. “Yeah. No surprise, she was not thrilled by Saturday night, but seemed to have appreciated the brinkmanship. She still warned me off you. Said she was protecting her son.”

Mark nodded. “What did you say?”

“That it was pointless since I didn’t particularly want to hook up with you, but if she wanted to protect you from me, she could.”

“You what?” Mark laughed. “Good for you.”

“It did seem to throw her off-stride,” Sharon said, fidgeting with her laptop. “Of course, she also pointed out that I don’t want her as an enemy.”

“You don’t.” Mark sighed. “She can cause some pretty nasty trouble.” He paused, debating whether he should say more. “In any case, you said the right thing. I mean other women have denied being interested in me and she hasn’t believed it. But I don’t think anyone has given her permission to protect me anyway.”

“I just hope I haven’t made things worse for you,” Sharon said.

Mark again debated saying more, but decided to hold off. “I doubt you have. It’s a long story, but you’re fine. Don’t worry.”

Sharon took a deep breath. “Good. I also have a briefing for you. We leave on Wednesday for Rome and the Western European tour.”

“Already?” Mark sighed and looked at the laptop on the coffee table, with the buzzing iPhone next to it. “I was hoping to be further ahead than this before we left.”

Sharon nodded and opened her laptop.

Two hours later, she fretted as she sat in the huge conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. She sat toward the back, trying to unobtrusively check her email and answer text messages while Earl Llewellyn droned on about his latest budget discovery. He was a tall, scrawny man, whose head was balding, but whose remaining dark gray hair looked remarkably unkempt.

“Any questions?” he asked, glaring as if he dared anyone to comment.

Sharon frowned. “Mr. Llewellyn, do you have Dr. Cooper’s updated figures?”

He sniffed haughtily. “My figures are perfectly up to date.”

Sharon flashed a weak smile, debated challenging him since she was looking at the more up-to-date figures on her laptop, then decided to let it go and have Eddie email the updates to Llewellyn.

As they finally left the board room, Message Director Yesmenia Alvarez came up to her, giggling.

“Looks like you just made an enemy,” she said.

“Oh, crud,” sighed Sharon. “I seem to be doing a lot of that today.”

“Don’t worry about Screwy Llewy,” Yesmenia said with a wink.


“That’s what we call him behind his back. Trust me, even his team hates him. But he’s really good at what he does. When he has the right data.”

“I got that.”

Yesmenia grimaced. “Too bad you can’t fire someone for being a jerk.”

“Yeah. I’ve got a problem like that in my office, too.” Sharon looked down the hall, then at Yesmenia. “Are you ready for Wednesday?”

“The big Europe trip?” Yesmenia all but bounced up and down. “I can’t wait. And, hey, you and I have a night off in Rome.”

“That’s right. Nina Collodi pulled duty.” Sharon looked thoughtful.

“And I know an awesome little trattoria not far from the Coliseum.”

“I know plenty of awesome little trattorie all over Rome.” Sharon grinned. “I guess we’re just going to have to do the trattoria smack down that night.”

“Woo-hoo!” Yesmenia squeaked. “We are going to have so much fun.”

“Listen, I’ve got to get back to work. All that last minute stuff. Not to mention the rest of the world to keep track of.”

Yesmenia laughed and Sharon hurried back to her office in the West Wing.

Episode 179 – Rose’s Visist

That Wednesday, with great fanfare, Rose Clarke Jerguessen Miller arrived at the White House. Mark made a point of doing the photo op with her, but as soon as he’d shown her up to the Lincoln Bedroom, he quietly told her that he had a lot to do and probably would not have a lot of time for her. Rose sniffed at that, but inwardly, she was pleased. More room for her own agenda.

Her first stop was the East Wing offices, where she was quite pleased to meet Major Wills, the chief usher. The smallish Southern gentleman and former Marine was as malleable as clay.

Sharon had no idea of what was coming that Thursday afternoon. The first storm hit with an angry phone call from Solly, the White House Chef.

“That Major Goop, he is on my last nerve again,” Solly complained. “He comes in here, all in my face, telling me there’s a new menu for Saturday night. One the president’s mother came up with. He’s got pate de foie gras on here. You can’t serve that to teenagers.”

“You can’t serve that period,” Sharon said. “The animal rights people will be all over it. What’s on the rest of it?”

“I just emailed it to you. I don’t know where I’m going to get some of these ingredients.”

“It’s here.” Sharon glared at her laptop screen. “Veal marsala? Good lord, I’ve got three vegans coming.”

“He said it came directly from the president’s mother, and you know how he hates it that your office gets last word on things like this.”

“And things like this menu are precisely why my office does.” Sharon closed her eyes and thought. “Look, Solly, hang on. I’m going to check in with Holly and see what we can do about this.”

Holly Damiano was the East Wing Events Coordinator. Her job was to oversee any dinners, receptions, performances, whatever, that happened at the White House. She, too, had occasionally butted heads with Major Wills, but usually deferred to him. As Sharon hung up with the chef, Holly, an average-size brunette with some healthy padding, slid into Sharon’s office.

“What, in Heaven’s name, is going on?” Holly demanded as she flopped into the chair next to Sharon’s desk. “I thought we had Saturday all worked out.”

“We did,” said Sharon. “What’s going on at your end?”

“The president’s mother wants everything re-done. She couldn’t change the guest list, but she re-did the seating arrangements. We’re now having a sit-down dinner instead of a buffet. Major Wills has already signed the Marine orchestra to play.”

“What? We have a contract with Kid Casey for the entertainment.”

“Well, Mrs. Miller has decided that’s too raucous. An orchestra is more appropriate for an ambassador’s reception.”

“That’s exactly what Ambassador Bruchner didn’t want. And we have a signed contract with Kid Casey. You can’t bag on a signed contract.” Sharon put her head in her hands.

“Should we talk to the president?”

“No!” Sharon tried not to sound as desperate as she felt. She had talked with June right after June had left for New York. June had strongly suggested that her brother was probably not feeling any particular warmth for their mother at that time. “All right. Let’s think about this. There has to be a way we can let her think we’re doing things her way, then do an end run that will keep the teens happy. Best of both worlds, right?”

Holly looked a little skeptical, but nodded.

And Sharon and Holly did work out a plan. Sharon had to call her brother, Michael, and ask him to help, but since he was friends with Deshawn Colley’s parents, Leon (aka rapper Big Dog) and Shireen, and since they had arranged for Deshawn’s older brother Kid Casey to entertain, it made life easier. Somewhat.

Sharon and Holly did eventually brief the president, who gave them permission to do as they saw fit. Mark, for his part, was impressed by the effort to keep the party on track while keeping his mother happy. He was about to tell Sharon that it didn’t matter when he remembered that Holly was also present and not as intimately familiar with the problems in his family.

The night of the party, Matt got tasked with keeping his grandmother busy until the party started and she couldn’t change anything. She had made one sweep of the State Dining Room before Matt took over. That gave Holly just enough time to re-do the seating arrangements, even though it was still a sit-down dinner. Michael and Inez arrived early. They had dropped Toby off to spend the night with Susan, which Sharon had to assume had more to do with Toby’s recent crush on the president than keeping Susan company. Leon and Shireen Colley showed up with their son Douglas, better known as Kid Casey, shortly after.

“Are you sure this is going to work?” Sharon hissed at her brother.

“Got it wired, sis.” Michael said, as he squired Douglas to the backstage area of the East Room.

Shireen Colley, a generously-proportioned woman with a gap in her front teeth, patted Sharon’s arm.

“It is so wired,” Shireen said. “You don’t have a thing to worry about.”

Five minutes later, the president and his mother came down to the Blue Room, where the guests would be received and hors d’oeuvres passed.

Most of the hors d’oeuvres were based on Rose’s menu. But Solly had snuck in a couple more teen-friendly items, such as fried mac and cheese balls and miniature cheeseburgers. If the president’s mother noticed, Sharon couldn’t tell. Holly slid into the Blue Room and nodded at Sharon. The seating plan had been re-arranged.

Sharon held her breath as the party filtered into the State Dining Room. Karsa had originally been seated with the president and Ambassador Bruchner, a small but stout man with dark blond hair. She had hung close to her father during the hors d’oeuvres, even as Matt and Jodi had tried to engage the girl, who had a rounded figure, long blonde hair and horned-rim glasses. Jodi had some success because she did speak some German. In the dining room, Karsa found herself seated with Matt, Jodi, and the rest of their friends. The adults, including the president and his mother, Ambassador Bruchner, Sharon, Michael and Inez, and Leon and Shireen Colley, along with Karen Tanaka and Hideo Matsumoto, and the Coopers, were at another table altogether. What Sharon hoped Mrs. Jergeussen didn’t notice was that their table was getting mostly her menu, while the teens were offered the original menu.

The other teens, mostly kids from several local schools, didn’t really seem to notice Karsa or even Matt and his crew. They chatted in nervous knots as classical music, from the Marine Corps orchestra, was piped in. Sharon was gratified to notice that the table where Karsa, Matt, Jodi and Tiffany, and the others were was the most animated in the room. Better yet, Karsa seemed to be smiling and enjoying herself.

As dinner ended, the group was shuffled to the East Room, where chairs and a stage had been set up with the Marine Corps Orchestra sitting on it. Most of the teens saw it and groaned audibly. But as soon as they got settled, the conductor came on and the music he started was to a very modern, pulsing beat. Michael winked at Sharon. A second later, Kid Casey came on, rapping and even singing along with the orchestra. The teens were on their feet, especially Karsa. Matt, Tony Garces and Paul Marley were all nudging and otherwise teasing Deshawn Colley.

The concert lasted just long enough. Most of the teens filtered out, but Karsa and Matt and their friends lingered. Senator Marley, who had shown up just in time for the finale, was smiling as her son Paul hunkered down with the other youngsters.

“He’s having the time of his life,” Janet said, grinning.

“Ja,” said Ambassador Bruchner. “So is Karsa.”

Karsa and Jodi came running up, both babbling in German. Ambassador Bruchner responded and the two went running back to the others waiting.

“They want to go to the American History Museum tomorrow,” he announced, happily.

“They do?” asked Michael. “How do we make that happen?”

Sharon laughed. “Don’t stress, big brother. They probably have it all worked out. In fact, I think the expedition was already in the works before tonight.”

“They’re pretty independent,” Mark interjected. “I’ll double check later, but I’m pretty sure they’ve worked all the details out.”

Michael glared at his sister. “Sharon, were you aware this sort of thing was going on?”

“Yes,” said Sharon. “And I’m insanely proud of Jodi. She’s managing beautifully. They’re good, responsible kids. And come on, Michel. How many teens do you know want to hang out at the American History Museum?”

Michael glanced over at the group, which while tightly grouped together, still had fallen into smaller sub-groups which were all animatedly discussing something or other.

Rose wandered up, followed by Karen and Hideo.

“Ah, Mrs. Jerguessen!,” said Ambassador Bruchner, stepping forward and bowing. “This has been the most delightful evening. Having an orchestra with the young rapper. What a wonderful idea.”

Sharon smiled. “We couldn’t have done it without Mrs. Jerguessen’s help. She was quite an inspiration.”

Fortunately, Mark was standing behind his mother. Sharon could see the puzzled frown on his face.

“Miss Wheatly gives me far too much credit,” Rose said, smiling also. But Sharon was pretty sure she saw some significant frost in her eyes.

The next day, Mark extended an invitation to his mother to attend church services together, which she accepted. Matt had chosen to sleep in and then go straight to meet his friends at the American History Museum. Rose maintained a frosty silence when they were in the car.

However, on the way back to the White House after services, Rose shifted.

“If I were to report some insubordination on the part of your staff, I don’t suppose you’d do anything about it,” she sniffed suddenly.

Mark paused. “What happened?”

“I was humiliated,” Rose said. “Here I was, trying to help facilitate a proper ambassadorial reception, and your staff completely changed my menu behind my back, re-arranged the seats. And that ridiculous concert. What an affront to our German friends.”

Mark briefly debated telling her that his staff had bent over backwards not to humiliate her, not to mention that one of them even complimented her, never mind that the last minute changes had made life difficult for everyone. It would do no good and he was past fighting with her. Or so he liked to think.

“I’ll look into it,” he said. “And the appropriate staffers will be disciplined.”

“Hmph.” Rose was clearly not satisfied. “You might want to start with that little Wheatly bitch.”

Mark smiled, trying to cover the ice in his gut. He suddenly knew what his mother was really fishing for. He didn’t dare protest too much or too little.

“I said I’ll look into it,” he answered and glared out the window.

Fortunately, they pulled up to the White House. Rose went to her room. Mark went to his study, paced for a few moments, then made a phone call.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Sharon’s voice answered. “How can I help you?”

Mark took a deep breath. “I just thought I’d better warn you, my mother was not happy about last night.”

“Well, we didn’t think she’d be entirely,” Sharon said.

“Except that she just strongly hinted that I fire you. Not that I’m going to.”

“That’s good to know.”

“Perhaps. I did say that it wasn’t worth trying to work around her.”

“I know. But not trying wasn’t going to make things any better. And I feel better that we at least tried.”

“We’ll go with that, then.” Mark sighed. “And, uh, don’t stress if she happens to say anything to you about the event.”

“Thanks for reassuring me.” Sharon paused. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“No. Thanks.” He hung up.

Sharon looked at the phone, feeling vaguely disgusted with herself. Mark had sounded so down that she’d wanted to chat a little longer in the hopes of cheering him up. It was not to be.

The next day, Sharon was solidly concentrating on the next looming issue when Julie announced that Mrs. Jerguessen wanted to see her. Sharon stood as Rose entered her office.

“How can I help you today?” Sharon asked.

Rose looked around at the walls, then pursed her lips.

“Perhaps I can help you,” Rose said finally. “That was quite the coup you pulled the other night.”

“I’m sorry if it wasn’t quite what you’d requested,” Sharon replied. “We assumed you were not aware that the ambassador did not want a traditional reception.”

“Indeed.” Rose looked Sharon in the eye. “It would seem that you and I have a great deal in common. Both wanting to see the right thing done. Willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens. Which is why you should be careful, my dear. I will protect my son.”

Sharon smiled softly. “Please do.”

“Is that a challenge?” Rose smiled.

“Not really.” Sharon took a deep breath. “I don’t expect you to understand this, but as nice a person as your son is, I have absolutely no interest in being First Girlfriend. Or First Lady, for that matter.”

“You’re right. I don’t understand.”

“I don’t want to live my life in a fishbowl.” Sharon shrugged. “So any attempts on your part to protect your son from me will be pretty much pointless since I have no interest in him in the first place. However, do what you feel is necessary.”

Rose paused. “I will. And be warned. I am not someone you want as an enemy.”

“I understand, Mrs. Jerguessen.”

Rose left and Sharon took a deep breath. However, she did not see Rose talking to Dianne Bowen and Dianne escorted the president’s mother out to her waiting car.

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?”


“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 176 – Susan’s Big Night

By Friday, the rest of the Wheatly clan descended on the Nation’s Capitol. Sharon did go so far as to arrange a special tour of the White House for her parents and the rest of the family. However, she was happy to leave the actual tour guide duties to Jodi and Tiffany, especially since a flare up of potential hostilities in Dubai took most of her focus that day.

“I’m so sorry, Maman,” she told her mother. “But it is one of the more annoying realities of my job that if something is going to happen, it will be on the day I least want it to.”

“It is how things happen, ma choux,” Madeleine said. “As it is, I am glad to see Jodi coming out of her shell. We should be proud of her.”

Saturday was an easier day, but by that afternoon, Sharon found herself caught up in getting Susan ready for the gala at which her dance would appear. Susan was less than cooperative. But June stepped in and practically dragged Susan from the rehearsal hall.

“Your dancers need time to rest,” June insisted. “And you have to look good for tonight.”

“But what if–” Susan began.

“No buts,” said June. “There is nothing you can do now that will help. If anything, you’re probably making your dancers more nervous than not. You’ve done the hard work. Now let it happen. I’ve seen the piece. It’s wonderful. Let it go and get glammed up for your date with my brother.”

Susan wasn’t entirely convinced, but finally wheeled herself meekly behind June to the waiting limo that took them back to the hotel where Susan would have been staying if she hadn’t moved out. Her whole family was there, but there was little time. Soon the presidential limo arrived and Mark came to the door of the suite to be introduced and take Susan out to the car.

“Phoof!” Madeleine Wheatly hissed as soon as Susan was gone. “She is as bad as Michel before a big show. It’s no wonder I’ve never liked performing.”

“I’m not that bad,” Michael protested.

“No, you’re worse,” said Inez. “And the stakes aren’t as high anymore for you.”

“They sure are if I don’t want to end up on the casino circuit,” Michael grumbled.

Susan, for her part, was beyond nervous. However, Mark immediately realized her nervousness was not about him, for a change, and found it refreshing.

“June tells me it’s a really good dance,” he told Susan before they got to the theater.

“Really?” Susan groaned. “It feels like my entire life is up for grabs.”

Mark nodded. “I know what that feels like. And I remember when I lost that one campaign, it sure felt like my career was over. But a very wise friend of mine pointed out something that I think you’ll get more than most folks.”


“Everything is almost never up for grabs. Granted, life happens. You know that better than most. But it doesn’t mean game over. You find a new direction. You try again. You try to correct whatever mistakes you made. But this dance is not your last chance. Whatever happens tonight, you will go away from the experience with options. Maybe not the options you wanted. Maybe, and I happen to think this is more likely, with more options than you’ll know what to do with. And you’ll come out a better, stronger person no matter what.”

Susan suddenly sniffed and blinked back tears. “You’d think I’d be strong enough by now.”

“Are any of us?” He reached and patted her shoulder. “Look, I think the reason you’re so nervous now is that you’ve put it all out there on that stage. And that’s usually a good sign that you’ve done something special. I really believe that.”

“You’re not going to get me to calm down,” Susan said with a annoyed chuckle. “I don’t care how right you are. And you are right. But, damn it. I have a right to be nervous.”

“Yep.” Mark looked out the window as the limo pulled up in front of the Kennedy Center. “But we’ve got to go make nice now. Can you manage it?”

Susan looked out the window and took a deep breath. “Yep. Let’s go make nice.”

There was a buffet reception before the performance set up in the foyer of the theatre. Art from all the other festival participants lined the walls. Susan did her fair share of schmoozing, but it was almost unendurable. The night crawled. Then there were the other performances, all of them quite wonderful. But Susan couldn’t pay any attention. Her dance was the last on the program. All she wanted was to go first and get it over with, but she had to wait.

And then it was time. She was seated in the presidential box next to Mark. Her family surrounding her. As the light came up on the stage with the two dancers, she felt her mother’s hand on one shoulder and her father’s hand on the other. Her sister Sharon was on her other side from the president, and Sharon gently took her hand. June was on the president’s other side and smiling at her. Just beyond her, Michael gave her a big grin and a thumb’s up, and Inez waved. Sarah, on the other side of Sharon, put her hands together and signalled her support, with Jodi, Tiffany, and Toby all waving. Only one person was missing, Susan realized with a start. But that would come later. She hoped.

The sad, crashing notes of Sparrow Without Wings, by Michael Wheatly, started. There was anger, with the one dancer pinned to the ground through the whole dance and the other fighting her. The was despair and frustration and slowly but surely, there was growth, and as the music swelled to its finish, the two dancers were moving together, the one still pinned to the floor, but the other moving along, going where the pinned dancer couldn’t. The dance ended. There was a brief hush, then the auditorium exploded with applause and cheering. The dancers took their bows, then waved at Susan in the box. She was surrounded by family members and the president, all, like the rest of the audience, on their feet, applauding with abandon.

It was sometime before the audience quieted enough to let everyone go. Susan made her way through the closing reception, accepting congratulations and even a few business cards. But Madeleine noticed that her daughter was wilting and nudged Mark, who agreed and collected her.

Susan told Mark to stay in the car as they came up to the hotel. He did help her out and into her chair, and she rolled into the lobby alone. Apart from the crowd outside, no one really noticed her and she wheeled herself into the bar.

Max was there, waiting for her.

“Well?” she asked.

“You nailed it,” he said with a happy grin on his face. “That was just unbelievable. Not a dry eye in the house.”

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah, I did.”

“Good. I’m beat. Let’s go home before my family gets here.”

“Sure. Want me to push?”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”

Episode 175 – Sharon’s Quandary

Romance fiction, Romantic fiction serial, light romance, sweet romance

Two days later, Sharon asked for an afternoon briefing with Mark. After clearing it with Kent, his secretary, Sharon entered the Oval Office. Mark tossed a couple treats to Ginger and Kickie in their little pen as she entered.

“They’re not growling,” Sharon said, in slight amazement.

“It’s our new training protocol,” Mark said. He spooned coffee grounds into the French press. “You up for some Kenyan today?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“So what’s up?” Mark asked. He poured hot water over the grounds and watched it for a minute.

“I don’t know that it’s anything,” Sharon said. “And Dan Friedman may have already talked to you about it. He called me this afternoon and I just got a funny feeling.”

Mark poured out the coffee and settled on the Oval Office couch. “Okay. Should I be worried?”

“Probably not.” Sharon accepted her cup and sipped. “The CIA doesn’t think it’s anything. Last May, on Memorial Day, our Embassy in Berlin was vandalised. Just some red paint thrown on the windows, but clearly done on purpose. Then on July Fourth, it happened again, only in addition to Berlin, our embassies in Paris and Stockholm were hit the same way. Then on Labor Day, more red paint and more embassies, six of them, including Berlin and the others.”

“Sounds like something’s escalating.”

“Yeah, and it’s all over the place.” Sharon fidgeted with her cup. “Moscow, Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires. No clue as to who’s doing it or why.”

Mark shrugged. “I’ll have Johnnie check it out. It’s pretty odd, but doesn’t sound too bad. Maybe we can get some surveillance for the next big holiday.”

“Dan said he’s already on it,” Sharon said. “But I thought I’d better update you in case it escalates some more.”

“Thanks.” Mark shifted. “How are you doing with Al?”

“Except for that one blow-up, fine.” Sharon’s brow creased. “Did he say anything to you?”

“No. He’s not said much of anything, except for strictly work-related stuff.” Mark shifted. “Have you or anyone else on the Board been up to anything to help him?”

“There really isn’t much we can do,” Sharon sighed. “He has to work it out on his own. But to change the subject completely, you do know you’re taking my sister to the big gala performance for the Arts and the Disabled Festival Saturday night, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I’m looking forward to it. June said she’s choreographing a dance for the finale.”

“Yeah.” Sharon sighed. “She’s been too busy to even say hi to me this week. And she’s not staying at a hotel. Or she’s avoiding telling me where she’s staying. It’s weird. She’s not that secretive.”

Mark grinned. “Does this mean you’re hoping I’ll ferret out her secrets.”

“No.” Sharon chuckled. “Just one more thing to worry about, I guess. Or rather… How do I say this? She’s been trying to prove that she’s back to normal. No, that’s not it. Look, this is going to sound horribly crass, but she’s been hitting on anything male within reach. So you may get propositioned.”

“Okay. And you want me to..?”

“Oh, hell.” Sharon sank her head into her hands. “I can’t tell you what to do about it. It’s not like you don’t get propositioned regularly, I’m sure. You’re both adults. You make up your own mind.”

“But you’d rather I didn’t go along with it.”

Sharon put her coffee cup down on the table. “It’s not just me being jealous. At least, I don’t think it is. I’m just worried about her. If what Sarah, our other sister, says is true, Susan’s acting out and in not a very healthy way. But I don’t want you letting her down, either. That would hurt her, too.”

Mark nodded. “I get what you’re saying. But like you said, I get propositioned pretty regularly and I do know how to let a woman down gently. Even someone as vulnerable as you say your sister is. It should be interesting.”

“Frankly, I hope it isn’t,” Sharon sighed.

Mark laughed and Sharon left the Oval Office.

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 167 – Uncle Mark on the Way

light romance, sweet romance, romantic fiction serialSharon only stopped long enough to shut her laptop down and grab her purse. As she hurried to the Metro station near her house, she called Mark.

“Hi. Is this serious?” Mark asked when he picked up.

“It’s about Matt. He just called me.”

“Where is he? The school just called me and I can’t get a hold of him.”

“His battery was dying and I told him to turn the phone off for the time being. He’s at Union Station in a total panic. It seems some of the boys at school set him up at some mall by putting merchandise in his pockets without him knowing, then ditched him. He found the stuff before leaving the store, but he’s scared to death that the mall security is after him.”

“Not quite, but things are a pretty mess. I’m heading to the school now. Tell you what. I’ll have a car meet you at Union Station. You bring Matt back to school. I’m not sure what all is going on, but I’m pretty sure they’re not going to charge him.”

“Matt’s pretty worried about this hurting you.”

Mark chuckled. “He would. Tell him not to worry. We’ll get it all straightened out.”

“Okay. I’ve got to go underground. I’ll call when I catch up with Matt.”

“Good. And, uh, thanks.”

“No problem.”

As Mark swiped his phone to hang it up, he noticed Secret Service Agent Riff Butler, a tall, broad Black man with the blank demeanor most agents wore, already ordering the car. Butler paused.

“Sir?” he asked. “We’ve got a car on the way to Union, but is it for Ms. Wheatly?”

“Yeah,” said Mark. “Do you know if Matt ditched his detail?”

“No, sir. He didn’t. But they won’t interfere if he’s not in actual danger.”

“That’s right. But Matt was set up by some boys.”

“Yes, sir. We know. But it will be better for Matt if his detail doesn’t step in.”

Mark frowned. “I don’t see how that will help keep him safe.”

“It’s not personal safety, sir,” said Riff. “It’s socialization at school. No point in reminding everybody that he has government bodyguards. Makes him more of a target for resentment and harassment.”

“I see.” Mark glared out the window. “I know why you can’t tell me what’s going on, but Tony Garces was saying that Matt’s been getting a lot of grief from Duffy and Rob.”

“Yes, sir.” Riff shifted as he checked his tablet. “Duffy McIntyre and Rob Ayres. Duffy’s father is Andrew McIntyre and Rob’s father is Stephen Ayres.”

“No.” Mark groaned softly.

Andrew McIntyre had made his extreme fortune buying and selling software companies. His hardline approach to business and everything else meant that he was a frequent and very loud critic of Mark’s. Stephen Ayres was part of a real estate dynasty, and while he wasn’t the blowhard McIntyre was, he was no fan of Mark’s, either. Mark tried to remember if either were active parents. Mark knew Paul Marley’s mother, Senator Janet Marley. She was from the opposition, but the two were friends.

Episode 166 – Matt’s in Trouble

romance fiction, romantic fiction serial, light romanceSharon did not sleep well that night and woke up the next morning with her mind grasping at fuzzy images of Mark Jerguessen. As she ate breakfast, she debated going into the office that day, but decided the chance of running into Mark was not worth it.

Besides, there were fewer distractions at her townhouse. Determined to get the jump on the week ahead, Sharon fired up her laptop and began reading.

She was so absorbed that she barely noticed that her mobile phone was ringing and only just switched it on before the call went to voice mail.

“Wheatly,” she answered quickly, wondering who would be calling on a Saturday.

“Aunt Sharon, it’s Matt.” The boy’s voice sounded upset.

“Is everything okay?”

“No. I don’t know what to do. They set me up, Aunt Sharon. I didn’t do anything, and I think I got all the stuff out of my pockets. But what if they’re after me?”

“What? Who’s after you?”

“The mall police. They think I was shoplifting. Only I wasn’t.”

“Of course, you didn’t, Matt. Now, take a deep breath and let’s start at the beginning. What happened?”

“It was Paul and Rob and Duffy. They’re guys from school. They’re on the football team. I got to know them a little before Africa. They were really mad when I left the team. But they got some off-campus passes and invited me to come with them. I figured they were trying to make peace, you know?”

“Okay.” Sharon got up and began pacing. “So they weren’t?”

“No. Paul does this pickpocket thing. I mean, he’s really good and you can’t tell he’s pulling stuff from your pockets. Only this time, we were at a department store and Paul and the guys put a bunch of stuff in my pockets then ditched me. I found the stuff before I left the store. But you know how they have all these cameras all over the place. I’m sure someone saw me. I got everything out of my pockets I could and got out of there. I didn’t even stay at the mall. I took the Metro into DC, but then I thought what if this gets Uncle Mark into trouble? Aunt Sharon, what am I going to do?”

“Take another deep breath.” Sharon paused long enough for Matt to take his breath. “All right. Now where are you?”

“Union Station.”

“Okay.” Sharon thought it over. “Why don’t you stay put? I’ll come get you and we’ll work out what to tell your uncle and see how he wants to handle it. It shouldn’t take me that long to get there. So just stay put. Okay?”

“My battery is dying.”

“Where at the station are you? Can you get to the food court?”


“Okay. Hang there and I’ll be on my way in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”

“My battery is dying.”

“Turn the phone off, then turn it back on again in about 30 minutes. Okay?”

“Okay. Bye.”