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.”
“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.
The 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.”
Sharon 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?”
“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.
The teens were ready and eager to go, although Kira was still a little steamed that Rebecca had wanted to go to the airport instead of Kira.
“I mean, it doesn’t make sense,” Kira said again as they got onto the Metro car. “I mean, I get that Rebecca is excited about meeting them face to face. But she said she wanted Jodi to feel comfortable and not have a crowd there.”
“Which is what we’re doing,” said Matt.
“But I’m the only one here who has actually met her before. I mean, come on. Technically, you shouldn’t even be here.” Kira jabbed Matt in the chest as she rocked with the movement of the subway train.
“I think Jodi will be fine,” Sharon interjected. “And there’s Tiffany to consider, too. Rebecca had a good plan. We’ll say hi, then let the girls spend some time with their dad tonight.”
Which meant that Kira immediately started thinking up activities for the group to do over the next few weekends, since school was about to start for all of them, never mind that they were mostly going to different schools.
Sharon, Matt and Kira arrived at the airport just after the plane from Los Angeles was to have landed, but it had been delayed and wouldn’t land for another thirty minutes. On the other hand, Michael and Inez had been waiting around for over an hour. Which meant that Michael was pretty antsy by the time his daughters stepped out of the secured area into the baggage claim.
The squealing and hugging and general merriment were almost overwhelming. But Sharon noted that Jodi seemed to be handling it well. Sharon also noted the gleam of lust in Toby’s eyes as she met Matthew Jerguessen. Too bad Matt seemed to only have eyes for Tiffany and that Tiffany seemed to reciprocate. Sharon wondered about that.
Still, as the group waited for the bags to come off the plane, Sharon managed to pull Jodi aside.
“Did Rebecca talk to you about working for the President?” Sharon asked quickly.
“Oh. Yeah.” Jodi smiled. “I can’t wait.”
Sharon blew out a breath in relief. “Great. Rebecca forgot to talk to him about it, though.”
“Oh, no!” Jodi turned pale.
Sharon patted her arm. “It’s fine. I talked to him this afternoon. He’s looking forward to having you. And Tiffany, if she wants.”
“Whew!” Jodi laughed. “I want. And Tiffany does, too. Only I think it’s more about Matt for her. I think they really like each other.”
“Yeah, I was noticing that. What’s going on?”
“They just emailed a lot last spring, before Matt went to Washington. And they’re still emailing and texting and all that stuff. They don’t leave me out. They just have their own vibe is all.”
“Oh. That’s interesting.”
Jodi shrugged and hurried off to talk to Kira while Michael got cornered by a fan and had to sign an autograph and pose for a picture. Then Inez signaled and the teens closed ranks around him so that they could get to the waiting limo.
In her Minnesota home, Rose Jerguessen glared at her iPhone. The blasted thing had its uses, she supposed, but it was completely lacking when it came to ending calls. Swiping your finger was not nearly as satisfying as slamming the headset into its cradle.
Behind her, in the breakfast room, her friends – such as they were – were probably talking about her behind her back. Rose would review the security tapes later. Given that she was just as likely to be saying something malicious about any of them, depending on who had stepped out to go to the ladies’ room, it only made sense to keep up with what they were saying about her.
More disturbing was the news from Los Angeles. It was supposed to have been a simple operation, but apparently, that Tanaka bitch knew how to make herself look like a perfect saint. It was frustrating, really. Rose paid for the best people there were and they still couldn’t get that grasping little witch where it hurt. The best that could be hoped for was that she was distracted from going after Mark.
Rose sighed. A couple of her aides had suggested that perhaps Tanaka was not interested in Mark. It was possible. Still, her son was president – someone had to be going after him. And his head was so easily turned. It was up to her to protect him. But first, there would be some culling among her network. Then, perhaps, she would visit the White House, herself. Rose smiled to herself. Not only would she see for herself what Mark was really up to, her friends would be impressed. They’d been asking about when she’d go. Rose mulled it over. Maybe not right away, but soon. Soon.
….We finally did figure out what had happened and I have to cop to the blame. Turns out when Tomas was asking us about Sharon, and I said, “No es muerto,” what it sounded like to Tomas was that Uncle Mark wasn’t dead. I’d made the classic mistake we English-speakers make when speaking Spanish. I’d forgotten that you have to change the endings of words based on whether you’re talking about a male or a female. So what I said was, “He isn’t dead.” And Tomas apparently thought I was trying to point out that at least my uncle wasn’t dead, which meant that Sharon was. Or something like that.
Anyway, Tomas is the one who told the rest of the media that Sharon was dead and they all jumped on it. Sharon was pretty cool about it. I mean, I know more Spanish than that, but Sharon said that it was probably the stress from the whole shooting thing that made it hard for me to think in Spanish. She says that language is one of those things that’s almost hard-wired into our brains and that the two things almost any human being will do in their native language is pray and count. So while I do have to cop the blame for the mix-up, it was also the situation.
It was getting on for six-thirty that evening when Mark made his way up to the private quarters, calling June as he went. The two met in his private study. It was a smallish room, dominated by the immense flat-screen television on the wall and a sleek modern desk with a glass top and brushed steel legs. The entire desktop could be used as a touch pad screen, and there was a single black lacquered drawer under the center which contained a keyboard and several remote controls. The desk chair was brown leather and reclined. Two more similar chairs were backed up against the side wall in between a bookcase overflowing with books and various tablets and ereaders.
“I’ve got to bring you up to date on Matt,” Mark told June as he pulled out one of the chairs on the wall. “You’ve seen him already, haven’t you?”
“I spent the afternoon with him.” June sat down then glanced anxiously up at her pacing brother. “Was that okay?”
“I, uh…” Mark frowned. “I didn’t really tell you, but I was keeping him in solitary confinement as punishment for running away. I mean, we can’t reward that.”
June sighed. “I guess not, but he didn’t have a lot of options.”
“I know, I know.” The irritation in Mark’s voice grew before he could catch it. “I’m sorry. I know I’m angry. And you didn’t do anything wrong because we haven’t had a chance to talk. But we’ve got to get together on this. Just be aware, Harold’s got me more pissed off than usual.” He sighed. “He wouldn’t even say hi to Matt.”
“Yeah, I know.” June tried to blink back her tears.
“Well, the good news is, Matt doesn’t have to go back.” Mark squeezed her arm gently. “Harold and Shawna will maintain nominal custody, but we’re pretty much free to do as we see fit. I’m inclined to work Matt’s butt off this summer, then let him board at St. Ignatius Prep in the fall. But what do you think?”
June wiped her eyes and thought. “Well, aren’t Tony and Rebecca Cooper going to do some interning this summer?”
“I was going to have them do the personal assistant thing to spell Gen Flowers. And it turns out, she’s got this summer fellowship she’d like to do. With Matt here, I can let her go and either work him full-time or split hours between him, Tony and Rebecca and maybe Kira Watanabe if she’s interested.”
“She should be, but she probably won’t be here for a good chunk of the summer. Once her dad gets back from Japan, she has to go stay with him, which is another mess.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard about it. Thanks for stepping up on that, by the way. Do you want me to contribute to the legal fund?” Mark went over to the desk and turned on the top.
“You’d better not,” June knotted her fingers together. “We don’t want any hints of conflict of interest.”
Mark winced and shut the top down. “You’re right.” He sank into the chair. “Anyway, back to Matt. I really feel like we need to impress on him that the running away was not a good idea, if not for him, then for Kira’s sake, if you know what I mean.”
June sighed. “Yeah, that makes sense. I just hope it doesn’t backfire on us with Kira. Karen’s really worried about her – apparently, she gets pretty stubborn.”
“Oh, I’m shocked,” Mark said dryly. “How do you feel about keeping Matt in solitary for the rest of this week, with the once nightly video conference?”
“That seems fair. Do you want him as personal assistant full-time or do you want to split hours?”
“I think they can split hours and we have to give them some time off on Sundays so they can all hang together. I want Matt to have his friends.”
“Given that’s what started this whole mess, that’s a good idea.” June smiled weakly. “I’m okay with St. Ignatius, too. Since Tony’s there, it should help Matt adjust.”
“Okay.” Mark got up. “Do you want to come with me to break it to him?”
June looked down at her mobile phone. “No. I’ve got some work to get done. I’ll go in and visit after dinner if that’s okay.”
“Sure. As much time as you want. Oh, there is a gadget restriction in effect.”
June chuckled. “Yeah, he went on about that.”
“Like I said…”
“I know. We can’t reward how he went about getting here. Does he get his stuff back at the end of the week?”
“Sure.” Mark went to the door and paused. “I hope you didn’t cut your business on the coast short.”
“No,” June said quickly. “It’s fine, Mark. Really. I needed to be here more.”
“Okay. Thanks, June. I’m sticking to not wanting your business to suffer because of being here for me. But I have to say, I really appreciate you being here.”
“I’m happy to do it.” June smiled.
Mark left, pulling his mobile phone from his pocket and texting Sharon. He checked the response just as he got to Matt’s room and smiled, then texted a quick response back.
Matt was just finishing his dinner when Mark walked in.
“Hey, Uncle Mark,” he said, scrambling to his feet.
“Sit down,” Mark said, sitting on the bed next to him. “We’ve got to talk.”
“This doesn’t sound good.”
“Well, your dad left around noon.”
“Oh.” Matt slumped and shook his head. “I suppose that’s a good thing.”
“Matt, I’m sorry about him and the way he acted. You certainly don’t deserve it,” Mark put his hand on his nephew’s back.
“Yeah, I know.”
Mark smiled softly. “I know you do, Matt. But it still hurts. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t.”
Matt swallowed, then slowly sank into quiet sobbing, leaning against his uncle. Mark held him gently and waited until the sobs eventually abated. Matt finally sniffed.
“I don’t get it,” he finally sighed. “I mean, I get that Dad’s pissed at me. I’d be pissed, too. But he didn’t even want to see me.”
“And I talked to Mom, but she’s really mad and I tried to apologize but she hung up on me.”
“It’s like you said, Matt. They’re pissed and that’s as much about me as it is about what you did. They’re feeling like you love me more than them.”
Matt’s face screwed up. “But they’re my parents.”
“Of course and of course you love them.” Mark shook his head and patted Matt’s shoulder. “And you love me, too. So what? It’s not a competition and I’m not out to steal your affections. But they’ve decided it is. And if you love them, then you can’t love me and if you love me, you can’t love them.”
“Not entirely. Has to do with our cultural paradigm, according to Karen Tanaka, and that’s hardly your parents’ fault.”
“So does this mean I’m staying here?”
“That’s the good news. Now, your parents do still have legal custody of you, but your aunt and I are pretty much in charge and I don’t think your folks are going to challenge that. Just before you start celebrating, keep in mind, you will be working this summer and then going to boarding school.”
“For your college fund and you’ll be working for me as my personal assistant.”
Matt brightened. “Can I get a car?”
“No. You won’t need one.”
“How about a dog?”
Mark grinned. “You’ve been talking to your grandfather, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, but it’s a good idea and I’d like a dog.”
“Well, at the moment, you’re hardly in a position to be asking for things. You will remain in solitary confinement through the weekend and you will exhibit exemplary behavior from here on in. Are we clear?”
Matt ducked his head, supposedly in shame, but Mark caught the grin underneath.
“That will be all, then,” Mark said, getting up. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Matt bounced up and gave his uncle a quick hug before Mark left the room.
Mark, for his part, was still feeling rather angry and unsettled. Even as he left the hallway for the stairs, he went through the mental monolog – Matt was going to be okay, that was the important thing. It didn’t matter how badly Harold had behaved, it was Harold who had the problem, not Mark.
Mark was still going through the mental monolog as Sharon let him in through the secret basement entrance to her townhouse.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“It’s been a rocky few days,” he replied. “Let’s concentrate on getting dinner together and then maybe we can talk.”
“It’s almost done,” Sharon said. “The potatoes are fried and in the oven. The salad is made, but needs dressing and I just have to nuke the broccoli while I sauté the fish.”
“That’s good,” Mark sighed. “I can dress the salad if you don’t mind.”
And, in fact, dinner, featuring tilapia fillets cooked a la Meuniere, with butter-fried new potatoes, steamed broccoli, and salad, was ready in a matter of minutes. Sharon opened a bottle of Chablis while Mark finished dishing up the food.
“So, I haven’t gotten the final word on Matt,” she asked as she placed two full wine glasses on the table next to the filled plates.
Mark sat down and slid his napkin onto his lap. “Matt’s staying. After the last two days, there’s no way I’d let him go back.” Mark paused and looked at his meal. “Fortunately, Harold didn’t push it.”
“Matt said that he hadn’t seen his dad.”
“That’s because Harold refused to see him.” Mark’s voice got very tight and low.
Sharon gaped. “He what? Oh, my God, what kind of—” She stopped suddenly. “I’m sorry. I know he’s your brother.”
Mark started eating quickly. “That’s fine. Bash him all you want.”
He tried to look casual but saw Sharon’s soft gaze. Slowly, he swallowed.
“Look, Harold is one of the very few people on this planet who can get under my skin and make me question everything I know is right,” he said finally. “It’s kind of nice to hear someone else say what I’m usually thinking about him.”
Sharon shook her head. “He is quite the prize specimen. I know some serious Neanderthals who have more social grace than he does.” She frowned. “But to not even say hello to your own son.”
“I know,” Mark replied with a resigned sigh. “He didn’t even bother coming back to the White House last night. According to his security detail, he and his buddy Congressmember Chuck Meyers spent the night at Meyer’s favorite brothel.” Mark snorted. “It’s not even one of the better ones in town.”
“Oh?” Sharon asked.
Mark shrugged. “It’s one of those unspoken realities of the Old Boys Club. If you’re a man and you’re a legislator, you get invited to parties at whorehouses. A lot of the old farts consider it part of their perqs, and sometimes if you need to get something pushed through, you have to play on their turf. It does make it hard on some of the women legislators, but that was kind of the point. One of the reasons I don’t care to go to those kinds of parties.”
“I see.” Sharon shuddered. “It does sound like something Harold would enjoy. Yick.”
“Yeah, well, one thing about Matt being in town, I’m not going to be able to come over here for a while, unless it’s an acknowledged PFZ party.” Mark picked up his wine glass and gazed at the light yellow wine. “I mean, I assume you’d prefer we were discreet about this.”
“I haven’t told anybody if that’s what you’re asking.” Sharon paused. “I don’t know that it has to be that top secret. We are just friends.”
Mark chuckled. “You want to try and convince Eddie and the rest of the gang of that?”
“Good point. Oh, well. We were trying to keep distance, anyway.”
“Yep.” Mark took a long sip of his wine. “Let’s hear it for distance.” He sighed. “Anyway, thanks again for helping out with Matt. I really appreciate it.”
Sharon smiled. “It’s no trouble. He’s a nice kid.”
“He is.” Mark drained his glass and stood up. “And I have to get back.”
“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
Sharon followed Mark down to the basement and the secret entrance. He looked at her fondly, then sighed.
“I suppose one good thing about Harold is that with a brother like him, why would you dare want me?” Mark said, forcing a smile.
“Well…” Sharon started, then saw the wary look in his eyes, and decided to say the opposite of what she was about to. “You’re right. He is one hell of a disincentive.”
Mark burst into laughter and left. Sharon chuckled as she shut the door behind him, then found herself sniffing. Distance was necessary, but there was part of her that longed to hold Mark and comfort him the way she had held Matthew two days before.
Mark’s laughter also faded quickly once he was in the Presidential limo. Harold was only part of the problem and he couldn’t unleash any of that on Sharon. But he deeply wished he could.
This is the end of Book One of White House Rhapsody. Book Two will start in a couple weeks, but next week, I’ve got an exciting announcement that will run in this space. Come check it out.
The loss of his laptop and phone were only the least of the losses for Matt. There was the loss of being able to get dressed in his own bedroom – he had checked out his bathroom and there weren’t any cameras there that he could find. Not that he had let his mother know that he knew about her spy cam. It was insulting enough that she’d put an extra book on his shelf, as if she’d assumed he didn’t read enough to notice.
But worse than even the spy cam was the loss of his special email account, where not only did he have all his back email, he also had all his contact information for his friends and his relatives – the ones he really wanted, as opposed to the people his mother expected him to like. Somehow, someway, he hadn’t covered his tracks well enough and his mother’s computer guru had not only found the account, he’d shut it down.
At least, thanks to Jody and Tiffany, he’d been able to warn everyone that he was likely to be on radio silence. And for some reason, he’d memorized Tiffany’s mobile phone number. But he didn’t dare call it, mostly because when Tiffany was able to answer, he was at home in his room being spied upon.
He knew what he had to do and while he was pretty worried about how his aunt and uncle would react, he couldn’t see any other options. The trick was how to pull together the necessary cash and pay-as-you-go phone and make the right reservations without alerting his mother. She had already had his locker searched at school, and he knew she’d been going through his room even more thoroughly than before. She’d even searched his car – he’d smelled the remnants of her perfume and stale vodka.
Then, on the first of June, luck fell into Matt’s lap – one of his classmates with whom he’d been friendly was leaving school two weeks early, as she did every year to spend the summer on her father’s archaeological dig.
“They always make me do this,” she groaned. “I think it’s their way of punishing me for getting out early. Anyway, they won’t let me turn in my books until the last day, so I have to find someone who will do it for me since I’ll be in the Northwest Territories. I just leave them in my locker, so you don’t even have to keep them. All you have to do is get them and turn them in during assembly period, like usual. Here’s my combination.”
Matt agreed and began working the plan. In just under two weeks, he’d pulled almost two thousand dollars in cash from his bank account. He’d researched bus, train and plane travel and decided that not only was the bus cheaper, it wasn’t that much slower than by train and it was less conspicuous than flying. Granted, he did have a very good fake ID that Tony Garza had gotten him before things had blown up, but there seemed to be no point in pushing the issue. Matt also bought a cheap smart phone with a pay-as-you-go plan, but sighed when he realized he didn’t really have anybody to call.
The next part was a little trickier, but he decided that if he timed it right, it would be worth the risk. Fortunately, it wasn’t that unusual for him to dribble a basketball or toss a baseball around in his room. He had never had an accident with the ball before, but late Thursday night, before the last day of school, the ball slipped from his hand and hit the book shelf where the camera was. Cursing loudly for his mother’s sake, he righted the shelf and put all the fallen books back up, willy nilly, with the camera book’s spine to the wall just in case the camera was still working.
He waited for a good hour, then crept out of his bedroom and checked his mother’s room. His father was staying in St. Paul, as usual, ostensibly to be close to the State Capitol. His mother, as usual, was sound asleep and likely to remain so until fairly late in the morning, especially given the empty vodka bottle on her nightstand.
Matt packed relatively lightly. Fortunately, the last day of school was a free dress day, so he wouldn’t have to wear his uniform and jeans were allowed. It wasn’t like he was going to stay the whole day, anyway, just long enough to drop off books and get his stuff. He finished packing, left his mother a note that implied he was staying the weekend with a friend, and at the normal time, got in his car and went to school.
The morning went smoothly, and as soon as Matt thought he could get away unnoticed, he slid out and got in his car. He did stop by his bank to pull another thousand dollars out of his account. He’d practiced a story about getting a new computer, but the teller never even noticed that he was under-age and gave him the cash.
He parked his car outside the home of one of the guys his mother had always wanted him to hang with, then got his duffel bag and walked quickly away to the local bus line, and once the bus finally showed, he headed out to the Minneapolis bus station, via the local commuter train.
The freedom was both exhilarating and frightening. But he’d traveled on his own before, usually just to visit one or the other of his grandmothers, so it wasn’t that big a deal. Or at least, that’s what he told himself.
He made the bus to Chicago just in time and it wasn’t until he’d made the transfer in Chicago to the New York bus that he began to relax, and in fact, fell sound asleep. It was still a very long ride and the bus didn’t arrive in New York City until late Saturday afternoon. Stiff and a little intimidated by the rush of people and the general skankiness of the bus terminal, Matt debated calling Tiffany to see if she could get him in contact with Jody’s father, who supposedly lived in the city. But just then he saw a concert poster and remembered that Michael Wheatly was on tour someplace on the West Coast that weekend.
So Matt went ahead and headed for Times Square and after walking around a bit, found a reasonably priced hotel with free wi-fi and a computer room. From there, he looked up his aunt’s company’s address and phone number and tried to see if he could get her office. All he got was a voice recording asking him to call back later.
He sighed. There were decent odds she wasn’t even in New York at that time. He had no idea where she lived when she was in town and given the cost of hotels, he doubted he could afford to stay more than a night or two to wait for her. He did some research, then decided to wait one more day, then head to Washington, DC. At least, he had several friends there and a good idea of how to find them.